Owen Barfield

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Steve Talbott:

"Eighty years ago the philologist and semantic historian, Owen Barfield, warned us that a science straining toward what it imagines to be strictly material concepts will end up with abstract and general ones. That is, our pursuit of materialism will paradoxically estrange us from concrete, material reality (Barfield 1973, pp. 79, 83). The reason for this is that the world we know is a world of specific character, of particular, insistent presences, of expressive qualities — a world of smiling faces, fluttering leaves, resting cats, billowing clouds. In turning away from these presences, from these qualities — in seeking the denatured, inert, non-experienceable stuff of the scientist’s abstract imagination — we turn away from the one reality we are given.

It is only natural, then, that direct and careful observation of the world’s vivid, many-faceted character should yield more and more to one-dimensional measurement:

It must be admitted that the matter dealt with by the established sciences is coming to be composed less and less of actual observations, more and more of such things as pointer-readings on dials, the same pointer-readings arranged by electronic computers, inferences from inferences, higher mathematical formulae and other recondite abstractions. Yet modern science began with a turning away from abstract cerebration to objective observation! (Barfield 1963, pp. 10–11)

It is hardly disputable that science has in fact listed heavily toward the imperceptible, immaterial, and abstract. The essence of science, many declare, lies in the mathematization of reality, an opinion vastly more common than its necessary counterpart, which is the effort to characterize what sort of reality the mathematics refers to."

Owen Barfield on Participation

Defining Participation

"Participation is the extra-sensory relation between man and the phenomena."

The world as immediately given to us is a mixture of sense perception and thought. While the two may not be separable in our experience, we can nevertheless distinguish the two. When we do, we find that the perceptual alone gives us no coherence, no unities, no "things" at all. We could not even note a patch of red, or distinguish it from a neighboring patch of green, without aid of the concepts given by thinking. In the absence of the conceptual, we would experience (in William James' words) only "a blooming, buzzing confusion." (Poetic Diction; Saving the Appearances)

"The familiar world -- as opposed to the largely notional world of "particles" which the physicist aspires to describe -- is the product of a perceptual given (which is meaningless by itself) and an activity of our own, which we might call "figuration." Figuration is a largely subconscious, imaginative activity through which we participate in producing ("figuring") the phenomena of the familiar world. (A simple analogy -- but only an analogy -- is found in the way a rainbow is produced by the cooperation of sun, raindrops, and observer.) How we choose to regard the particles is one thing, but when we refer to the workaday world -- the world of "things" -- we must accept that our thinking is as much out there in the world as in our heads. In actual fact, we find it nearly impossible to hold onto this truth. In our critical thinking as physicists or philosophers, we imagine ourselves set over against an objective world consisting of particles, in which we do not participate at all. In contrast, the phenomenal, or familiar, world is said to be riddled with our subjectivity. In our daily, uncritical thinking, on the other hand, we take for granted the solid, objective reality of the familiar world, assume an objective, lawful manifestation of its qualities such as color, sound, and solidity, and even write natural scientific treatises about the history of its phenomena -- all while ignoring the human consciousness that (by our own, critical account) determines these phenomena from the inside in a continually changing way". (Worlds Apart; Saving the Appearances)

"Our language and meanings today put the idea of participation almost out of reach, whereas the reality of participation (if not the idea) was simply given in earlier eras. For example, we cannot conceive of thoughts except as things in our heads, "rather like cigarettes inside a cigarette box called the brain." By contrast, during the medieval era it would have been impossible to think of mental activity, or intelligence, as the product of a physical organ. Then, as now, the prevailing view was supported by the unexamined meanings of the only words with which one could talk about the matter." (Excerpts collated at http://www.praxagora.com/~stevet/fdnc/appa.html; More about Barfield at http://owenbarfield.com/)

Evolution of Participation

Summarized by Gil Agnew at http://newinnergy.com/blog/?p=11

“Owen Barfield. British barrister and philosopher, said we’ve had two great stages of consciousness in human history, and of course it’s always generalizations, but … it rang true for me. First stage of human consciousness, hunter-gatherer … consciousness. We had intimate participation with the natural order. We were a part of it. But we had no sense of self. We revered the generativity of nature.

Second stage of history, we reduced nature from a generative force, including our own nature, to a … productive force. And that’s the great break in consciousness, from generativity … to productivity. And in the process, we learned, from Neolithic agriculture until today, the end of the pyrotechnical era, the nuclear era, we learned how to detach ourselves from nature, control it from a distance, and in the process we developed a sense of “I‿ and “it.‿ The self emerged in history. We became … the captains of our fate. But in the process, we lost intimacy. We lost the sense of participation. We lost the early bonds of generativity.

What’s the third stage of consciousness? A transformation to a species understanding, which is … a self-aware choice. By volition, not by fear as the early Paleolithic tribes, but a self-aware choice by volition, for a generation to reclaim a sense of participation with the community of life. We maintain our individuality, we don’t go back to the pre-modern moment. We maintain our sense of self because that provides us with the opportunity, the challenge, the responsibility, to make decisions. And the decision we make is to reclaim our relationship to the generativeness of the creation. Self. Community. Future generations. Our children’s world.‿ (http://newinnergy.com/blog/?p=11)