Posted on: July 13th, 2023 Barfield’s 4 Stages of Representation (Saving Appearances #1)

In his book Saving the Appearances that “last Inkling” Owen Barfield lays out four stages in the process of that human activity of the mind which he calls “representation.”

First, you have “perception.” This is, very simply, the activity of our sense organs (eyes, ears, etc.) by which they receive or take in external stimuli: in the case of touch, matter, and in the case of hearing, sound. The upshot here, as Barfield explains in Chapter II, is that we hear and touch neither “particles” or “the unrepresented” nor actual things like dogs, chairs, or ambulance sirens. A corollary here is that when we take ourselves to hear a ambulance siren or a thrush singing, we are employing not just our ears, but many other dimensions of who we are in addition, such as memory, imagination, etc.

Second, there is “figuration.” Figuration is the mental activity by which we identify or recognize a thing in the world—a dog, a chair, a thrush singing. Figuration, Barfield says, “is all that is in the representation which is not sensation.” (25) Again, while we hear not a thrush singing, but rather mere sound, we perceive or recognize or “figurate” an actual thrush. In the process we are using faculties in addition to mere sense perception strictly speaking: again, psychical powers such as memory and imagination.

Third, Barfield coins a novel term, “alpha-thinking,” to describe a certain process involving thinking about the objects or things we “figurated” above. We are not now recognizing a dog or a chair; we are now thinking about it “objectively,” assuming it to be outside of ourselves. We are studying it. We are investigating its relations to other things in the world, including causes and effects. Barfield calls this “theoretical thinking,” but he also notes that it need not be systematic. Modern natural science, then, would be a kind of alpha-thinking, but the latter is not limited to the former. Thomas Aquinas calls this componendo et dividendo, and another label would be “discursive thinking.” (On the third segment of “Plato’s Line” at the end of Book VI of the Republic, Plato calls this dianoia.)

Finally, we have Barfield’s final stage of representation, and his second neologism, “beta-thinking,” involving self-conscious reflection upon ourselves (our own minds), and our (and our minds’) relationship to other things and activities. Barfields says that disciplines such as physiology, psychology, and philosophy are the ones that engage in beta-thinking.

Is it not tantalizing that Barfield includes physiology in this list? I think Barfield is a bit sloppy here, for I seriously doubt that there are any significant number of physiologists, working, say, in university departments, who are engaged in self-reflective thought about the relationship of, say, knee joints to the mind. Rather, virtually all physiologists, it seems to me, engage in the same kind of thinking, alpha-thinking, that chemists engage in.

At the same time, however, I think that there is a good and crucial instinct—a non-Kantian instinct—here in Barfield’s thought. What is going on, I imagine, is that Barfield is assuming, following traditional Christian theological anthropology, that we are our bodies. On this traditional view, which is also Aristotelian, we human beings are our bodies, and we are our souls. Hence, when the physiologist examines a knee joint, she is, in fact, engaging in self-reflection, because she is engaging in an examination of what and who we are: our bodies.

I think that Foucault would like this, for he suggests that we humans are “empirico-transcendental doublets,” that is, that we are both able and unable to think about ourselves. We can treat ourselves just like any other object, that is, empirically. This is what the physiologist is doing per Barfield (even if no actual physiologists know they are doing this). This remains true even if, or even in light of the fact that, we are, also, in some sense, unable to view our minds as an empirical object since it is with our very minds that we are engaging in this activity of examination at all.

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