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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.

One of the most important ways of distinguishing an appearance or representation that is not really there from an appearance that is really there is to get confirmation from our fellows:

if the particles, or the unrepresented, are in fact all that is independently there, then the world we all accept as real is in fact a system of collective representations.

This ‘unrepresented’ exists entirely independently of human consciousness, and existed before there were human beings. Now that the human race is here, we act together with this ‘unrepresented’ to produce the world of collective representations.

This takes more than the human senses, but includes ‘mental habits, memory, imagination, feeling and ... will’. Without these things, the world would be a general confusion.

Having established this, Barfield then claims that there are three different things we can do with representations:

i) Experience them. The ‘unrepresented’ affects our senses in some way and then our minds unconsciously organise these raw sensations into a relatively ordered world of phenomena.

ii) Think about them. Unconscious of the intimate relationship that these representations have with our own ‘figuring’, we regard the representations as distinct from us and from each other, so they become actual ‘things’. Barfield calls this alpha-thinking.

iii) Think about collective representations and their relationship to our own minds. This produces philosophy, psychology and so on. Barfield calls this beta-thinking.

Alpha-thinking and beta-thinking blend into one another and interact in important ways. His book Saving the Appearances is itself studying figuration and alpha-thinking, as well as how beta-thinking affects and is affected.

Barfield then goes on to strongly disagree with the idea that the primitive mind seeks to explain the world with a kind of immature ‘science’ of myths and spirits. Instead, Barfield says, prior to a certain point in history, and taking place in primitive tribes today, is what he calls ‘original participation’. What we have come to call ‘things’, separate from ourselves and from each other, are, for these people, still unified. There is, in other words, a non-sensory link between them and the representations, and of the representations together. Early man had not yet begun to perform ‘alpha thinking,’ a detached thinking about the representations; spirits were not causes of an external phenomena but part of a general participation between what we call ‘things’ and people.

Barfield isn’t interested in returning to this primitive ‘original participation’ but wonders about human consciousness evolving toward a new form of figuration which he calls ‘final participation.’ Historically speaking, in the 17th century the beginnings of what we call ‘scientific thinking’ were part of a shifting emphasis in human thinking: self-consciousness developed and the ‘original participation’, which had survived until the Middle Ages, began to decline. In C. S. Lewis’s book The Discarded Image, we see that earlier medieval theories about medicine or the stars were part of a totally different way of viewing the world. This participative relationship with the universe around us gradually became the province of poetry, art, music and fiction as it was no longer experienced as part of normal human perception.

In other words, the power of the ‘unrepresented’, once interpreted as lying externally, beyond anything we could perceive directly, in some kind of spiritual world, has shifted over the last few centuries to be an internal thing, the poetic imagination.

This has deeply important consequences for our understanding of what we are doing as creators of fiction.

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