A first reading: Main points of Barfield’s “Saving the Appearances”, as I understand them

  • Barfield takes the true nature of things as they are in themselves (as opposed to things as sensed and conceptualized by us) to be what is revealed by physics. The precise nature of this revelation of “the particles”/”the unrepresented” does not matter much for the argument, only that the world thus revealed is quite alien to our ordinary way of thinking and speaking about the world.
  • Therefore, phenomenal objects like rainbows and trees are actually a combination of sense data stimulated by the objects themselves and a layer of ordering and interpretation imposed unconsciously by the mind.
  • The distinction between this unconscious “figuration” and conscious thought about the resulting phenomena (“alpha thinking”) is crucial. E.g. the experience hearing a dog barking seems to be unitary. I don’t (consciously) first experience sound from acoustic waves stimulating my ear, then think to myself “What is that noise?”, then compare with all the sounds I remember, and conclude that the sound is a dog. All that must be going on in the background, but I don’t consciously think through each step. Therefore, the raw material of all my alpha thinking has already gone through a level of mental processing.
  • Unlike Kant, but like Spengler, Barfield thinks these “figurations”/”representations” are not fixed structures of the human mind, but are at least partly social constructs, which have varied among peoples and among times. As will be seen below, he differs from Spengler in that he thinks it possible for people to creatively alter their representations.
  • We can also think about how we think. This he calls “beta thinking”. The entire investigation of figuration, alpha thinking, and beta thinking is itself an exercise in beta thinking.
  • Primitive peoples don’t do beta thinking, but they are aware of being involved in their figurations in the following indirect sense. They imagine that the phenomena are manifestations of things like themselves, e.g. animist spirits. This identification is said to be at the level of figuration rather than as a conscious (alpha thinking) inference. This outlook is called “original participation”, presumably because we can share the same states/actions as these beings behind the phenomena. “Participation” is a crucial concept in the book, and I think I still don’t really understand all that Barfield means by it.
  • We are apt to deeply misunderstand Greek and medieval thought because we impose our own representational world onto them, so that even individual words take on rather different meanings from what they originally had.
  • At the current level of spiritual evolution, we can only recognize our role in creating our phenomenal worlds by beta thinking. We also tend to forget our role in this process and think of the representations as being entirely objective. Thus, the “representations” become “idols”. The accusation seems unfair, since people of the scientific revolution and after, when original participation is supposed to have totally died, were obsessed with beta thinking.
  • An example of “idolatry” is using our representations to talk about the Earth before the arrival of humans, and other inaccessible regions like the bottom of the sea, the interior of the Earth, and outer space. At most, we should say that if beings with senses like ours and representations like those of 20th-century Europeans were in such places, this is what they would observe. Barfield objects even to this, saying that for such talk about the pre-human past to be meaningful, a “collective unconscious” must have existed even then. I don’t understand this objection at all.
  • Today, participation has died more or less completely. Our idols are completely unlike us, and we mistake them for the objective world. This is spiritually unhealthy and dangerous for reasons I didn’t really follow.
  • The solution is a new state called “final participation”. I’m not quite sure what this means, but I think it involves people becoming more consciously aware of our representation-forming (and not only when we turn aside from the phenomena to do beta thinking) and even achieving some freedom to alter the process. Some experimentation toward this happened in English and German Romanticism.
  • Why is final participation a desirable state? Not being sure what it is, I can’t really say. By and large, the realization that the human senses and mind contribute to phenomenal experience was met by Europeans as bad news, as constituting a sort of barrier between the knower and things as they are “in themselves”, an argument for skepticism and alienation from the world. Wouldn’t final participation be an intensification of this? I suppose one might use one’s freedom over the representations of one’s imagination to make them better resemble objective reality, “the unrepresented”, e.g. quantum fields. However, the reason we don’t do this already is that objective reality as revealed by high-energy physics is not very serviceable for practical life. Alternatively, one might choose to accept the collective representations of one’s people, as past generations have done, but as a free and deliberate act of solidarity. Barfield himself thinks it will give us a better sense of God’s immanence in the world and in particular His likeness to us (since we too would be consciously taking on a sort of co-creator role of our phenomenal worlds).

I’m not sure that the main ideas are the main point of the book, which contains many wonderful digressions on the history of Western thought. The proposal that I (and many others) have been systematically misreading ancient and medieval thinkers is intriguing and quite plausible.

No one really believes that slavery is intrinsically immoral

The arguments that slavery per se is immoral are very weak, something one doesn’t notice only because no one is allowed to challenge them. They usually either prove too much and would condemn any authority or social organization (e.g. complaints about one person’s will being allowed to override another’s) or they object only to potential abuses of a slaveholder’s power, which were in fact illegal in many slave societies, and in any case are insufficient to demonstrate the immorality of the institution itself. Some arguments confuse the morality of holding slaves with that of enslaving free persons without cause (as if there is no moral distinction between stealing someone’s property and that person being poor). The most popular one simply asserts that slaveowners don’t “recognize the full humanity” of their slaves, whatever that means. It might be more convincing if the abolitionists could show us where slaveowning societies (Roman, Arab, South American, whatever) explicitly claimed that their slaves were not human, but some other nonsentient species.

Of all these arguments, the argument from abuse carries the most weight with me, even though logically it cannot be used to condemn slavery per se. It does put together a good case that slavery is morally hazardous and so other arrangements of social organization are usually to be preferred.

You could say that my skepticism makes me a moral monster, but in fact no one really believes slavery is always immoral. Consider that it has been practiced in most times in most places. Africans have held Africans as slaves. Arabs have held Africans and Whites as slaves. Whites have held Whites and Africans as slaves. (Jared Taylor has a nice post on the permutations.) And yet no one–not one of our most fervid abolitionists–ever, ever, ever objects in the slightest way to any of these except the White-African one. Thus, people’s objection is clearly not to slavery per se, but to Whites holding Blacks as slaves in particular. (Even Blacks selling Blacks to Whites is only immoral at the buyer’s end.) Whites are not held to be morally inferior to Blacks because of American slavery; rather, American slavery is objected to because of the logically prior moral inferiority of Whites to Blacks! Consider a comparison. When Pope Gregory the Great forbid Jews from owning Christian slaves, was that an anti-slavery measure, or an anti-Jewish measure?

So, really, when I say that the arguments that slavery is intrinsically immoral are weak, I’m not challenging a position everybody else believes; I’m attacking a position nobody else believes.