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.

7 Responses

  1. @Bonald

    I am glad you gave StA the good old college try – but (as you suspect) you have by no means got to the bottom of what Barfield is saying. Neither did I in your position – and as I have stated, it took me several years of effort – at least four – before Barfield ‘clicked’ with me, and became one of a small pantheon of guides that have made a major impact on my Christian thinking.

    What made the difference was reading about Barfield in a group biography of the Inklings by the Zaleskis that I reviewed:

    https://notionclubpapers.blogspot.com/2015/05/review-of-fellowship-literary-lives-of.html

    and, the source of the Zaleski’s understanding: Romantic Religion by RJ Reilly, who has a 100 page plus overview and analysis of Barfield (done in consultation with Barfield) before continuing to do something similar for Tolkien CS Lewis and Charles Williams. Romantic Religion is simply superb!

    If you don’t like secondary literature, then the companion piece to StA is Worlds Apart – a Platonic Dialogue from a few years later. And then the strange book Unancestral Voice, which is perhaps my favourite.

    On The Other Hand – I don’t know whether you would get much from Barfield, because he is operating from an extremely different set of metaphysical assumptions than your broadly Thomistic metaphysics.

    You would need to accept his assumptions provisionally in order to Get him, and that is something that I don’t think you would want to do (or would not feel impelled to do) – because you seem quite well satisfied with your assumptions. They seem to ‘work’ for you.

    Otherwise Barfield will just *seem* like a postmodernist/ relativist whose work is grounded in linguistic analysis – which is how Barfield’s non-Christian (mostly American) admirers seem to regard him; but almost the opposite of how Barfield regarded himself and what he was trying to express.

  2. Thank you very much for the recommendations. “Romantic Religion” looks particularly fascinating. I am very interested in trying to grasp other metaphysical systems, partly because there is none that I’m entirely satisfied with, and partly because I think it important knowledge in itself. I’m glad you appreciated that when I say that I don’t understand this or that point, it’s not a coy way of expressing disagreement; I suspect there is a profound sense to be made of these points, but I have not yet been able to make it.

  3. Respectfully, I would like to correct what I take to be a number of misunderstandings that have crept in to your summary of Barfield’s key ideas. I am happy to discuss these further and entirely open to the possibility that I am wrong, though I have been studying Barfield’s work for many years and wrote my doctoral thesis on it.

    “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.”

    I don’t think this is right and in fact, affirming it would countermand the argument of the entire book. Physics is striving to make sense of the world by elaborating a system of collective representations in the same way that every other culture has done. Physics is historically anomalous for a number of accidental reasons but the essence of the process of representation is no different.

    “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.”

    Barfield stipulates that the term “particles” will refer to “the unrepresented.” Hence, “particles” cannot refer to anything “revealed by physics” because revealing something means representing it. Barfield explicates this process under the rubric of “figuration.”

    “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.”

    Yes!

    ““Participation” is a crucial concept in the book, and I think I still don’t really understand all that Barfield means by it.”

    When I read your summary, it is not just “happening to me.” Instead, I am involved in the process of representing and making sense of your points. Many believe, following naïve empiricism, that sense perception and figuration etc. are processes that happen to us and the product of this arrangement is “objects.” Animist cultures, on the contrary, experience an involvement with the process of perception so its products are not objects but “phenomena,” in the technical sense. Participation is also a way of representing how we are able to communicate. I could not understand and let alone agree or disagree with anything you have written if we did not participate in common and objective ideas and meanings. We are conditioned to think in material terms and hence represent mental and ideal phenomena by analogy with spatial objects. Hence we imagine that an idea could not be distributed and equally present amongst, and participated by, virtually infinite minds. But again, it seems self-evident that this is in fact not only possible, but necessary.

    “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.”

    Yes! Thomas Kuhn also elaborated this argument. We think we are talking about the same thing as ancient people when we say “sun,” or “sky,” for instance, when in fact we are merely using the same word. It’s not unlike the incommensurability of paradigms between abortion proponents and opponents, for instance. Members of the former class think they could argue that abortion is morally permissible while to the latter class, that makes no sense because it is essentially arguing that it is morally permissible to murder innocent humans and any moral framework that condoned this could not be a moral framework.

    I will leave my commentary at this because I don’t wish to become tedious to you but I am happy to carry this further if you have interest.

    Blessings,
    Max

  4. Hello Mr. Leyf.

    This is quite fascinating. Thank you. I like how your explanation of participation connects it to the main argument of the book; that’s certainly a point in its favor.

  5. Bonald, what do you consider to be the questions or issues of metaphysics that are most strikingly not satisfactorily dealt with by any system you are familiar with?

  6. It’s not a single issue. Sometimes it is a sense of ad hoc-ness, of new principles seeming to come out of nowhere and unrelated to what went before. Sometimes it’s a sense of some subject not being truly accounted for at all, but explained away, dismissed as illusion, or forced into a predetermined scheme that it doesn’t fit. It would take some time to put my discontent, which is of course somewhat different for each rival system, into words, but this might be a useful thing, useful to me even if to no one else.

  7. I would think it would be the most useful philosophical piece you could write; I’d certainly want to read it. As an educated non-professional philosopher, I would suppose the odds would be much higher of you asking a unique question or making a unique critique than proposing a unique answer to an already debated question.

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