Owen Barfield and the Nature of Reality


Owen Barfield, British philosopher and close friend of C. S. Lewis, said once that Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, his famous work about the evolution of consciousness was his own personal favourite. First published in England in 1957, and in the United States in 1965, the book explores in two hundred pages approximately three thousand years of history. Barfield argues that there must be an unknown underlying base of reality from which our senses draw conclusions which we call ‘phenomena’. This is supported by physics, he says, where experimental hypotheses of a subatomic world have shown that there is no such thing as an independently existing ‘particle’ or, therefore, an unseen colour, or an unheard sound, or unfelt solidity. Modern particle theory says, basically, that there are no ‘particles’, just suppositions.

There is therefore a contradiction between physics on the one hand, and on the other, sciences that offer an account of things before life and consciousness evolved, like geology or as in the theory of evolution. Instead of pretending that there was and is an independently existing world, Barfield argues, we should be looking at the evolution of phenomena that first begins at the point where life and consciousness appear. Before human consciousness appeared, therefore, we should not necessarily assume that things existed the same way at all.

Barfield proposes that what lies ‘beneath’ the phenomena that we see and hear and touch is probably somewhat different from and other than those phenomena. The perception of a coherent world of experience depends upon some kind of mostly unconscious activity working in or via the individual - a ‘thinking’ sort of process of which we are largely unaware.

An actual phenomenon is not merely a ‘shared thought’, however. A real tree, for example, is made up of a) an ‘unrepresented’ something, independent of human consciousness b) an individual’s vision of that something, and c) other sense-perceptions. By ‘unrepresented,’ Barfield means a provisionally unknown ‘subsensible’ or ‘supersensible’ level of reality which is more than just the ‘quantum reality’ described by physics:

the familiar world which we see and know around us – the blue sky with white clouds in it, the noise of a waterfall or a motor-bus, the shapes of flowers and their scent, the gesture and utterance of animals and the faces of our friends – the world too, which (apart from the special inquiry of physics) experts of all kinds methodically investigate – is a system of collective representations. The time comes when one must either accept this as the truth about the world or reject the theories of physics as an elaborate delusion.