Saving the Appearances

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

* Book: Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. By Owen Barfield. Wesleyan University Press (1957)

URL = pdf

"the book is an examination of how modern Westerners experience the world, and how that mode of experience differs from that prevalent in other cultures and earlier periods in our own culture." [1]


From the Wikipedia:

"Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, a book by British philosopher Owen Barfield, is concerned with physics, the evolution of consciousness, pre-history, ancient Greece, ancient Israel, the medieval period, the scientific revolution, Christianity, Romanticism, and much else. The book was Barfield's favorite of those he wrote, and the one that he most wanted to continue to be read.

It was first published in England in 1957, and it was first issued in paperback in the United States in 1965. According to Barfield, the book enjoyed a far greater reception by the public in the United States, where Barfield often accepted invitations to lecture, than it did in England.

The book explores approximately three thousand years of history — particularly the history of human consciousness in relation to that which precedes or underlies the world of perception or phenomena. Given the vast field considered by the book, it is concise and brief, about two hundred pages.

Barfield describes the growth of human consciousness as an interaction with nature, leading the reader to a fresh understanding of man's history, circumstances, and destiny. Saving the Appearances has in common with some thoughts of Teilhard de Chardin the understanding of idols as appearances having nothing within. "[A] representation, which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate – ought not to be called a representation. It is an idol. Thus the phenomena themselves are idols, when they are imagined as enjoying that independence of human perception which can in fact only pertain to the unrepresented.


An Evolution of Phenomena Correlative to an Evolution of Consciousness:

Barfield argues that if, as physics suggests, ordinary appearances—including for example colors, sounds, and smells—are a kind of subjective response of the human organism to an unknown underlying base of reality, and if what underlies our phenomena and is real independently of us is only what is suggested by science's experimental hypotheses of a subatomic world; if, that is, we must conclude that there is no such thing as unseen color, unheard sound, or unfelt solidity, because physics tells us the only thing existing independently of us is a subsensible or supersensible base symbolized in some detail by particle theory—then in that case other sciences besides physics, in particular those sciences that deal with the pre-human past, must be profoundly reconceived.

For example, the evolutionary biologist and the archaeologist talk about the pre-human, and even pre-life distant past as if color, sound, solidity, and a phenomenal world rather like that of modern Western humanity were all present even before the advent of life and consciousness, though physics tells us that all that is present in the absence of human beings or life is what can be described quantitatively by the particle theories of physics. Barfield emphasizes that contradiction between physics on the one hand, and on the other, sciences that offer an account of the earth before life and consciousness evolved. Barfield draws out the implications and argues we must learn to conceive of an evolution of phenomena that first begins at the point where life and consciousness manifest. The evolution of phenomena is correlative to the evolution of consciousness. Prior to the point where consciousness, and in particular human consciousness, comes into existence, we should not naively speak as if phenomena similar to our own existed.

It is critical to note that Barfield's thesis and intentions in the book, looked at in close enough detail, do not really commit him to accepting the view that all that is present independently of human awareness is what physics describes of a subatomic world. Rather, he is positioned to entertain his fundamental thesis when he merely allows that what "underlies" the phenomena is at least provisionally somewhat different from and other than the phenomena (this means, for example, that what "underlies" phenomena could include, in addition to the subatomic world, a non-physical, pre-physical, or spiritual world of "potentia"). Barfield's thesis also depends on recognizing, as virtually every form of cognitive science, psychology, and recent philosophy does recognize, that perception of a coherent phenomenal world of experience is to a great extent dependent on some kind of organizing activity working in or via the percipient. The activity in question is mostly unconscious, and is or resembles a kind of thinking.[original research?]

When assuming the absence of human percipients (for example in the pre-human past), Barfield says we should no longer naively speak of the world as if phenomena like those of human beings were present. Yet archaeologists and evolutionary biologists still do so all the time, forgetting what physics has been telling us."



C. Burrell:

"Barfield begins by defining a few terms on which he relies throughout, and I cannot see how to summarize his argument without first doing the same.

One basic idea is that of a “representation”, which he variously defines as “something I perceive”, or “something experienced”. It is not the thing itself (which he calls, by contrast, “the unrepresented”), but a mental construction which, generally below the level of consciousness, folds in sensory data, beliefs, memories, imagination, and feeling. We do not perceive with our senses alone, but with our whole being. As we mature we quite naturally compare our private representations with those of others, and adjust them accordingly. The result is a set of “collective representations”, which are cultural in scope, and which reflect those aspects of things which a particular culture thinks worthy of attention. Collective representations affect our most basic apprehension of the world; they are the phenomena we experience. For Barfield, the world as we experience it is a system of collective representations.

A second key idea is what he calls “participation”. It is more difficult to grasp, for reasons that will become clear shortly, but it means something like this: the activity of the mind whereby things are experienced as full of meaning, charged with a significance that is at once natural and also personal. A participating consciousness experiences an object not simply as an inert thing, but as a kind of window into another or deeper reality, a reality within which a being like us faces back toward us, as in a mirror. Again, participation is not, at this point, to be thought of as a self-conscious or reflective process, but as an immediate one. In participation, there is a general “entanglement of subject and object, of psychology and natural history, of divine and human, of word and thing.”

It might also seem a strange idea, but he, citing the work of anthropologists, argues that in fact it is the near-universal mode of consciousness for humanity. Consider, as a case in point, medieval Europe. Their sensory experiences were the same as ours, naturally, but their collective representations were different, and their consciousness was participatory. They thought it natural that literal and symbolic significance be conjoined in things. Barfield argues that they not only attributed symbolic meaning to things, but actually experienced things as having symbolic resonances. To them this was not, as it seems to us, a superfluous patina on top of raw experience; it was raw. For a medieval person, “the ordinary way of looking at, and of thinking about, phenomena, was to look at and to think about them as appearances — representations. For which, therefore, knowledge was defined, not as the devising of hypotheses, but as an act of union with the represented behind the representation.” Reading this, anyone with experience of medieval Scriptural exegesis or medieval epistemology is going to feel the hair on his arms standing up, because this is exactly right. And since participation involves one in a personal encounter with significance-laden phenomena, it naturally informed and influenced their religious experience. “For medieval man, then, the world was a sort of theophany, in which he participated at different levels, in being, in thinking, in speaking or naming, and in knowing.”

(It as at this point that Barfield makes the suggestion that the reader might walk out at night and make the imaginative effort to put oneself in the mindset of a medieval person looking at the starry sky, a suggestion followed up and realized so memorably by C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image.)"


Two Historical Movements That Have Undone the Psychology of Participation

C. Burrell:

"Barfield argues that there have been two historical movements that have undone the psychology of participation, and we have been influenced by both.

The first is the one that comes immediately to mind: the scientific revolution. The scientific revolution was a movement from an awareness of the meaning of phenomena to a preoccupation with the phenomena themselves. Its architects aimed to abstract those aspects of the natural world that could be treated mathematically, and were therefore “objective”. All else receded into the mind and the realm of the “subjective”. And, as Burtt argued so convincingly in his history of early modern science, what began as a methodological tactic soon became confused with an ontological judgement. To wit: only the mathematical structure of things is truly real. Since purposes (final causes) and essences (formal causes) could not be mathematized, they were judged not objective. On such a view, the objects we experience “out there” in the world must be independent of us; they are defined that way. Were we to attribute meaning of any kind to them, we would be making a blunder. In such a world a participating consciousness is throttled.

But there has also been a second cultural stream tending against participation: Judaism. Barfield explains:

- The children of Israel became a nation and began their history in the moment when Moses, in the very heart of the ancient Egyptian civilization, delivered to them those ten commandments, which include the unheard-of injunction: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” This is perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened. As far as we know, in every other nation at that time there prevailed unquestioned the participating consciousness which apprehends the phenomena as representations and naturally expresses itself in making images.

For Israel, the natural world is not God, nor are the names of things names of God. The “entanglement of subject and object” which is the mark of participation meets an obstacle. Rather, the natural world was created by God as something independent of and distinct from Him, and it lacks the quality of personal disclosure that is perceived by a participatory mind. The many injunctions against idol worship in the Hebrew Scriptures take on fresh significance in this light: for Israel’s neighbours, idols were not merely objects, but entities charged with meaning, for such they naturally appear to a participating consciousness. But the Psalmist insists, over and over again, that idols have no “within”; they are merely things, dead in themselves, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. Such phrases were not empty rhetoric; they were aptly phrased assaults on a prevailing temptation.

Now, there are certain advantages to idolatry (in Barfield’s sense). There is no doubt that the methods and abstractions characteristic of our scientific age have given us an unprecedented ability to manipulate nature for our own ends, and we have all benefited in many ways from that ability. The modern attitude to nature has also opened up a new way of relating to it emotionally, a way in which her difference from us is part of the attraction. Think of a naturalist’s selfless and attentive love for the natural world. But we have lost something as well, not least a sense of continuity with our ancestors. Take again the case of Scriptural interpretation, a practice which straddles the historical divide between the ancient world and ours. For a non-participating consciousness like ours, a text is either an historical record or a symbolic representation, but not both. For earlier readers in our tradition it could be both. In fact, the traditional account of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments assumed a participating consciousness, so much so that Barfield concludes that “in one most real sense, the Old Testament was lost with the Reformation”.

Barfield perceived a kind of revival of participation in the early twentieth-century. Not that it was entirely dead prior to that, of course. He points to Blake and Goethe as major figures who had very strong instincts toward participation, and such instincts set them very much at odds with their times. But he caught the scent of participation — an appreciation that things can bear intrinsic symbolic content — especially from Freud and Jung, and he thought this significant because their ideas caught on widely on a cultural level in very short order. Granted, even they made only partial steps: for Freud, symbolism was still always in the mind alone, without a real connection to the outside world; Jung, with his ideas about the collective unconscious, went further but not all the way. And, in any case, I think it is fair to say that the Freudian and Jungian moment has passed, leaving little more than a residue. Is participation deader than ever?

Well, maybe not. At the end of the book Barfield raises the prospect of something he calls “final participation”. The idea seems to be that here, on the far side of idolatry, a new kind of participation becomes possible based precisely on a conscious awareness that phenomena are representations. In final participation the percipient knows that he is involved in creating representations, and his imagination enters into the process directly. How this can elude the veto cast by the non-participating mind is hard to understand: isn’t this exactly the “gloss” that the parsimonious literalist objects to? But Barfield contends that either we will find a way to final participation or proceed further and further into idolatry and the elimination of participation, but elimination of participation is the elimination of meaning and coherence from the cosmos.

In his final pages he turns to consider the sacramental system of Christianity, one of the very few contexts in the modern world where things retain a sense of the “within”, of being more than just themselves, that is characteristic of participation. “The tender shoot of final participation,” he writes, “has from the first been acknowledged and protected by the Church in the institution of the Eucharist… In the physical act of communion as such, men can only take the Divine substance, the ‘Name apart’ directly into the unconscious part of themselves”. If true, the sacraments are thereby one of the keys to the recovery of meaning and the return of an enchanted world."


More information