Owen Barfield and the Evolution of Consciousness

The inestimable Owen Barfield differentiates three epochs in the evolution of consciousness. The first he refers to as “original participation.” The anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl meant to indicate a similar condition under the rubric “participation mystique.” Other thinkers refer to the same as “tribal” or “primal” consciousness. Original participation denotes a condition of consciousness in which the self has not yet precipitated out of the semantic solution of the world. For this reason, neither spirit and matter exist as concepts because their meaning depends on just the manner of antithesis that the originally-participating mind does not experience. An originally-participating human being does not say “I” to himself, and does not juxtapose himself to the world altogether. One the contrary, he feels the same wind that rustles the trees and draws the sap up their caplilaries to be what inpsires his lungs and animates his limbs. Obviously “wind” does not strike one of today as the proper term to include these four process, except in a very figurative sense. Indeed, this very fact that is does not is an hallmark of our lack of original participation.

Consider, however, the following verse from the Gospel of John, King James Version:

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit…The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (John 3:5-8)

The seventeenth century Jacobin scribes, in order to convey a meaningful passage, were compelled to translate the same Greek word in three different ways in as many verses. What appears variously as the English words “Spirit,” “spirit,” and “wind” above, and elsewhere in the King James Version, and in Genesis 2, as “breath,” are all derived from the same Greek word “πνεύμα” (“pneuma”). If the mind of today wishes to understand its ancient forbear, it must not suppose this can be accomplished without attempting to enter into the latter’s mode of experience. It is necessary to grasp that pneuma, in the days in which the Gospels were written, meant neither “spirit,” nor “wind,” nor “breath,” nor “inspiration,” etc…. “Pneuma” was pregnant with all of these terms, but rather meant something of which our language customs of today offer no adequate comprehension. Gradually, original participation gives way to “onlooker consciousness.” The sunset of original participation begins with the Greek thinkers and especially the Hebrew prophets, but “the owl really flies,” as it were, with the Scientific Revolution. Thinkers like Ockham, Copernicus, Bacon, and Galileo were cardinal exponents of onlooker consciousness, though Cartesius sounded the clarion call for this mode of experience. The hallmark of the latter is the division of subject and object, the I juxtaposed against the world as not-I.

There are important nuances to consider. For instance, if we wish to situate the historical onset of onlooker consciousness, I think the answer will vary widely according to the particular people’s that are in question. While a descent into “onlooker consciousness” began with Greek philosophy and the stringent monotheism of Israel in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., a similar shift took until the end of the Middle Ages for Europe, especially in its Northern regions. In other words, the latter remained in original participation for the better part of two thousand years after the former had begun to leave it. Aboriginal tribes arguably have not lost their condition of original participation even today. In history of Europe, it is as though waves of original participating peoples come lapping against the shore of a civilisation of onlooker consciousness, and the former are slowly dried out on the strands of the latter. I’m thinking of the Visigoths sacking Rome, for instance, and the Viking invasions of Europe. In both instances, a youthful and vigorous folk confronts a civilised one, and both are fundamentally transformed in the process.

Another important aspect that makes the transition from original participation to onlooker consciousness so interesting is that each of us recapitulates an analogous desiccation in our own biographies, as we descend from the dreamy participation of childhood into the dry, prosaic, and utilitarian operations of adulthood. We could say each biography recapitulates the phylogeny of the race. It is interesting to consider how, as individuals manage to achieve the marriage of the Sun and the Moon here—bringing the self-consciousness of onlooking into the poetic generativity of participation—that they can carry the civilisation forward into the next stage as well. Barfield calls this next phase in the evolution of consciousness “final participation.” We have written about the same under another name in the series on Goethe’s way of knowledge. Goethe was indeed unconsciously pioneering the final participation that is the birthright of us all but the realisation of which depends on the individual efforts of each of us. Rudolf Steiner brought to fruition the capacity that germinated in Goethe’s work.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Hesiod says:

    I should probably give Barfield a read sometime. He was influential on Lewis and friends with Tolkien. I’m sure there’s a lot of good wisdom and insights in him. Plus, 20th century was the highwatermark of Anglican writers.

    But as a reader of the Germans, I can’t help but say, everything really does come in “three” movements! xD

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      I think I have already made my opinion clear on prior occasions. “Three movements”…I wonder where they got the idea.

      I share Barfield’s perspective of my work in relation to that of Rudolf Steiner. Here is Barfield on the subject:

      “I have been shocked and puzzled to have it borne in on me over and over again that even those who are prepared to lend a very sympathetic ear indeed to my own observations, whether on language and poetry or on the wider issue of the whole evolution of human consciousness, are not in the least interested in the news about Steiner which it has been one of my main objects in life to set before the educated public with all the earnestness and sobriety at my disposal.

      That future historians of Western thought will interpret the appearances of Romantic philosophy towards the close of the eighteenth century as foreshadowing the advent of Rudolf Steiner towards the close of the nineteenth I have no sort of doubt.” (Romanticism Comes of Age)


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