Owen Barfield (1): Participation and its Evolution

The following is a draft-excerpt from a dissertation that the editor of Theoria-press is presently engaged in writing for a doctoral degree in Philosophy, Cosmology, & Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Comments welcome. The former earned his M.A. in the same program in May of 2017, of which the culminating project was this presentation. 





Having set forth the hard problem of consciousness in Part I as a representative philosophical and scientific problem of our age, and having also attempted to reveal the manner in which the hard problem of consciousness is an ineluctable consequence of the favoured Vorstellungsart of contemporary society, we then explored Goethe’s way of knowledge in Part II as a method of actively participating in the elaboration of the very Vorstellungsarten that inform all of our knowledge. In a manner, we attempted to make explicit in Part II the method that we were already implicitly enlisting throughout our entire study in Part I. With Goethe’s way of science, we attempted to win through to a method of inquiry that does not, under the pretense of objectivity, ignore the very means by which that same objectivity is perceived and ratified. If the reader has followed our study hitherto, this intensification of the knower’s role in knowledge likely strikes her as a natural direction in the evolution of the sciences. “Our general instinct to seek and learn will, in all reason,” writes Plotinus, “set us inquiring into the nature of the instrument with which we search.” (Enneads 4.3.1) Barfield’s insights into the evolution of consciousness can help us to perceive our own mode of perceiving and thereby help us along the path towards the twin-fruition of philosophy in self-knowledge and world-knowledge.






A preliminary distinction must be established before we commence our exploration of Barfield’s insights. This is the distinction between and evolution of ideas and an evolution of consciousness. Very pithily stated, the distinction above means to highlight the difference between what is perceived and thought, and how it is perceived and thought. In another context, an extensive explanation would likely be necessary in order to establish distinction of this sort. Given that it has already constituted an implicit theme of this entire dissertation, however, the reader will likely find the distinction to be very natural. The relation of ideas and consciousness is analogous to that between fact and theory, which relation we belabored in Part II. Similarly, the constellation of ideas that constitutes the hard problem of consciousness are related to, but to be distinguished from, the Vorstellungsart and paradigm which is the firmament from which they emerge. If we then attempt to conceive of an order behind the very procession and transformation of these Vorstellungsarten and paradigmata through history, then we will have grasped the notion of the evolution of consciousness. It is to be hoped that by the end of this study, this subject may stand in clear relief. An exploration of Barfield’s work provides the best opportunity to accomplish this, and therefore it is to him that we will now turn.

Perhaps the most critical concept to understand if we are to grasp the kernel of Barfield’s insights in the evolution of consciousness is that of participation. The manner by which participation transforms through history is the same as that by which consciousness evolves. Put another way, a state of consciousness may be evaluated according to its mode of participation. In order to understand the implications of the proposition that participation undergoes a diachronic transformation, it will be necessary first to apprehend the notion synchronically. Participation was a technical term for the Schoolmen of the Middle Ages. The latter, in turn, inherited it along with the rich philosophical lineage that flowed like a river of wisdom through Plato, Aristotle, and the New Testament and Neo-Platonist writers like Paul, Proclus, Boethius, and Dionysius the Areopagite. These philosophers wrote in Greek so they expressed the notion of participation by terms like “metalepsis” (μετάληψις), “methexis” (μέθεξις), or sometimes “koinonia” (κοινωνία). To understand the notion of participation, we can turn to Aquinas, who defines the term in the preface to his commentary on Boethius’ De hebdomadibus. Aquinas identifies three genera of participation:

(i) A particular takes part of an universal. He offers the following examples of this genus of participation: man participates animal, and Socrates participates man.

(ii) Similarly, a subject participates its accident and matter participates form. Aquinas does not feel it necessary to offer any examples of this second genus, but we could borrow an idiosyncratic example from Aristotle and say that Socrates participates “snub-nosedness” because he, as a subject, had a snub-nose, as an accident (Metaphysics, Book VII). Similarly, blood and bones participate Socrates because Socrates is the form of blood and bones and the matter of the respective form. These are examples of subject-accident and matter-form relations, respectively.

(iii) Also, an effect participates its cause. Barfield specifically cites the example that Aquinas offers in this case, who writes: “Suppose we say that air participates the light of the sun, because it does not receive it in that clarity in which it is in the sun.” (90) The sun being the cause of the light, the air participates that cause.

Every particular participates its universal, every effect participates its cause, all matter participates its form. In the same manner, all beings participate Being (plura entia, sed non plus entis). Similarly, all things that were made participate the Lógos (Λóγος), which is to say, the comprehensibility of Being, or its word-like nature. This connection provides the rainbow-bridge to Barfield’s notion of “Final Participation,” which Barfield sets forth as a condition of future attainment in contradistinction to “Original Participation” of Ancient peoples and non-participation or “Onlooker Consciousness” of Modern and contemporary human beings. We will briefly examine each of these two conditions as well as the passage between them, before returning to the notion of Final Participation.

Barfield presents this development in the most cogent and lucid style in his 1957 book Saving the Appearances, which can only be called a masterpiece and recommended with earnestness and enthusiasm to anyone with the slightest interest in the origin and destiny of the world. One could hardly hope to offer a more convincing argument for the thesis than Barfield did in that book. Instead we will be content to recapitulate certain points that are essential to the project of this dissertation. Drawing on philological and anthropological evidence, Barfield argues that the manner in which a Primitive human being perceived the world is not the same as that by which a Modern one perceives it today. Barfield suggests the manner in which the philologist may, which the proper intentionality, discern the way that the transformation of language mirrors the transformation of the minds that use that language: “the full meanings of words are flashing, iridescent shapes like flames⁠—ever-flickering vestiges of the slowly evolving consciousness beneath them.” (Poetic Diction 75) In fact, words are one form of language, but not its only form: as Hans-Georg Gadamer most incisively observed, “Being that can be understood is language.” (“Sein, das verstanden werden kann, ist SpracheTruth and Method, 1960, 470.) We have meant to illuminate this connection by employing the term Lógos (Λóγος). Words are symbols of meanings and so are things. Saving the Appearances begins, indeed, not with the question of verbal language, but with an inquiry into the intelligibility of the world. Just as the legibility of a text is integral to the text itself, so the intelligibility of the world through perception is not something added on after the fact. Quite on the contrary, the (objective) world is correlative to (subjective) consciousness. Put another way, an unrepresented, unperceived, or “unfigurated” phenomenon is not a phenomenon. We will take up this theme again later in this dissertation. Next, however, we will pursue our study of Barfield’s work.

“Look at a rainbow,” Barfield writes in the first sentence of Saving the Appearances. (15) The rainbow, Barfield observes, is a phenomenon of which necessary conditions are light, raindrops, a seeing eye, and a specific relationship between the three. “Is it really there?” he invites us to wonder. The basic way in which the rainbow is there is obvious as the condition that allows us to pose such a question in the first place. In other words, we must have some phenomenon about whose existence we can dispute. In very specific terms: the rainbow must appear to us. It must (i) appear because otherwise we would not inquire about it. It is must appear to (ii) us because otherwise we might call it not “a rainbow” but “the private hallucination of a rainbow.” In Barfield’s terms, the rainbow is a representation that is at least potentially shared, or a “collective representation.” The rainbow must appear (iii) to us because, to reiterate the proposition from above, it is senseless to speak of an unperceived phenomenon and the rainbow is a phenomenon. Indeed it is in many ways the quintessential phenomenon, which likely accounts for its appearance in the first sentence of Barfield’s magnum opus as well as its countless appearances in mythology from around the world, from the Old Testament in which it continually reappears as a signature of God’s covenant with Noah and his descendants (“I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.” Genesis 9:13), to Bifröst, “the Rainbow Bridge” between Asgard and Middle-Earth of which Heimdallr is the marchwarden, to Iris, of whom Socrates say that “this feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy, and he who said that Iris was the child of Thaumas made a good genealogy,” (Theaetetus) and Homer says (The Iliad, Book II) “And now Iris, fleet as the wind, was sent by Jove to tell the bad news among the Trojans.” The rainbow, as the quintessential phenomenon, is Nature’s symbol of the sacred connuinctio between Heaven and Earth, the Above and the Below, Light and Darkness (as we explored in greater depth in Part II in our study of Goethe’s way of science), the Inner and the Outer, subject and object. The attentive reader will recall these three facets of phenomenality from page iii of the Introduction, in which they appeared under the rubric of (i) the objective, (ii) the subjective, (iii) and the correlative as the three stations of the theory of truth. In this manner, we have delineated the ways in which the rainbow is “really there.” We will revisit these stations presently. The manner in which it is not there, however, remains to be considered.

One way in which the rainbow is not there is that its appearance is contingent on specific objective conditions like rain, light, and angle of incidence of the latter, etc…. To seriously assert that anything that is contingent on objective conditions, however, is not really there is likely quite a bit more than the majority of people will be likely to do. Certainly the contrary of that assumption constitutes an axiomatic postulate of science as we know it. Barfield points out that a tree is no different than the rainbow in this respect, since despite assuming that we could anatomise the tree into its elemental constituents, still we call it by what it is and not what it is made of. To recall Aristotle’s terminology from Parts I and II, we call a thing by its form and not its matter, since the first is what the thing is. Similarly, we do not refer to our present subject as obliquely transluminated water-droplets, but as “a rainbow.”  Another manner in which the rainbow might not be there is that it might be dreamed or hallucinated. The same method by which we ratify any other perception, however, like that of a cottonwood-tree, for instance, is sufficient to adjudicate the strength of this objection. If our hypothetical rainbow is perceptible to any hypothetical being endowed with the requisite faculties to function as a percipient of it, then the concern is moot. If the representation of the rainbow is (at least potentially) collective, then it is “really there.” Already, however, the reader may sense the direction of Barfield’s reasoning, which we will presently flesh out. First, however, we will consider a third way in which the rainbow might not really be there: it is contingent on a subject to perceive it. This will likely strike the one who has not read the first two parts of this dissertation as the weightiest objection, since some genus of naïve realism appears to be the implicit Vorstellungsart of the age, science and critical philosophy notwithstanding. By the same token, it is my hope that the reader who has compassed the explorations of the hard problem of consciousness and Goethe’s way of science that we have undertaken hitherto will have arrived at a similar conclusion to that of the present writer: that subjectivity is an element and not an epiphenomenon of the world. That the rainbow is contingent on my mind does not make it subjective in the solipsistic meaning of that word: after all I did not create my mind. Rather my mind and the rainbow share their common origin in the metaphysical heart of the world. Furthermore, as we attempted to demonstrate in chapter 10 of the study on Goethe’s way of knowledge, “The Yonder Side of the Kantian Threshold,” it is a mistake to suppose that a concept is subjective. One the contrary, the sensations and physiological processes that provide for the recognition of a concept are subjective. The concept, however, is not, and indeed there is not limit to the number of minds that may participate a single concept any more than there is, in principle(!), any restriction on how many people may read this dissertation. Again, therefore, to object that the contingency of the rainbow’s existence on a subject to perceive it nullifies that very existence simply proves too much. Once it is conceded that the collective representation of the rainbow is no less real because it depends on an eye to see it and a mind to conceive it, Barfield underscores what should by now be the obvious fact that the same acknowledgement must include all phenomena. (The Buddhist doctrine of “dependent origination” or  प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद pratītyasamutpāda does not differ from what Barfield is setting forth in any essential points as far as its synchronic presentation is concerned.) After all, the phenomenality of the cottonwood-tree is different only in particularity and not in principle




The Evolution of Participation 


Having established that the world consists in collective representations, Barfield goes on to demonstrate the manner in which the mode of collective representation has undergone an historical metamorphosis. He establishes three general epochs in the evolution of consciousness, beginning with (i) the “Original Participation” of Ancient and Primordial peoples, to (ii) the “Onlooker Consciousness” of Modern post-scientific cultures, to (iii) the “Final Participation” of the future. The latter is perhaps the crucial theme of this entire dissertation and therefore the former will be investigated insofar as they can shed light on the latter as the future condition that is latent in each of us today. Let us begin by attempting to understand what Barfield intends by “Original Participation.” We will do this by considering several examples in which this ancient mode of consciousness is made manifest with especial clarity. Barfield himself arrived at his fundamental thesis on the evolution of consciousness through his work in philology, which culminated with the publication of Poetic Diction in 1928. After winning through to the conclusion that “the full meanings of words are flashing, iridescent shapes like flames⁠—ever-flickering vestiges of the slowly evolving consciousness beneath them” (75) independently, Barfield was later to discover the same thesis corroborated and expanded to an immense degree, though not contradicted in any essential points, by none other than Rudolf Steiner whom Barfield, together with the present writer, regard as the preëminent prophet and exemplar of Final Participation in our age. In Saving the Appearances, Barfield articulated the same difficulty with which I am confronted in writing this dissertation:

Although the object with which this book was originally conceived was none other than to try and remove one of the principal obstacles to contemporary appreciation of precisely this man’s teaching—the study and use of which I believe to be crucial for the future of man- kind—I shall here say no more of it. This is a study in idolatry, not a study of Rudolf Steiner. 141

Thus, we will attempt to hold to the course of our study with the confidence that success in the same will prepare the reader to understand the teachings of Steiner and with the hope that we may, here and there, offer some small contributions. Returning to the question of the history of participation, Barfield observed in his early studies that figurative language, or “poetic diction” was capable of producing “a felt change in consciousness” (48) in the reader and he began to inquire into the nature of this shift. He soon discovered strange phylogenetic anomalies in relation to the effect of figurative language. Specifically, it appeared that every word with an immaterial denotation once had a material one. “Wrong,” for instance, once meant “crooked,” while “right” meant “straight.” Barfield notes that this change is conventionally accounted for by ascribing it to the deliberate use of metaphor by human beings as they became more sophisticated. S. T. Coleridge’s use of “perspective,” for instance, a term from optics, to refer to “point of view” in the psychological sense, is an example of such a deliberate evocation of “the before unapprehended relations of things.” (Shelley, Percey. “A Defence of Poetry.” Poetry and Prose of the Romantic Period. Russell Noyes editor. 1098)  Obviously, one has been forced to describe one metaphor with another, since “point of view” is also an optical term and therefore, a metaphor for what we mean by it. In fact, there is no such thing as literal language in this sense, because the latter is always a sign or symbol of meaning. If this were not the case, we would not be able to read or communicate, since we would see only glyphs and hear only noise. Any successful communication must depend on the reader’s intuitive ability to apprehend the meaning of what the vehicle of express language is enlisted to convey. Furthermore, as we affirmed above, language is the archetype of reality itself, and perception is a species of communication. Indeed, as we indicated in the end of our study of Goethe’s way of science, “Communion” is by no means a misleading word in this context, since perception is the intuition of a meaning from its sensory sacrament. 

Returning to the question of figurative language, we can conclude that it represents an intensification of the same process that is constitutive of all communication. The word “metaphor” itself captures this fact in a particularly expressive manner, since it means something like “over-bearer” (meta- “above,” “over,” “after,” or “about” + phorein “to bear” or “to fare”). All communication is accomplished through the inner apprehension of an outer sign, the latter which ferries the former between minds. After a thorough investigation into the subject, Barfield concludes that the hypothesis that Ancient people employed the same use of metaphor to denote immaterial objects with words whose referent was a material one simply falls from lack of philological evidence. On the contrary, Barfield convincingly argues that the perception of Ancient man simply did not provide for the polarisation of the world into a material and an immaterial aspect. He offers the exquisitely illustrative example of the word “heart” as an entry-point for Modern people into the Ancient experience of the world, since the polarisation of the word “heart” into an anatomical and a spiritual designation is not complete. When a person exclaims “O! how my heart is rent in twain by knife of your unkindess” this is not exactly a medical diagnosis, though the surgeon might perform some such operation on a physical organ that is also an heart. These meanings, though separate, are not entirely so. For Barfield, the word “heart,” or more precisely, the meaning of the word “heart,” is simply in the process of undergoing a polarisation in human experience that the majority of objects have long since accomplished. 


The implication of this fact, however, is that Ancient man perceived a world in which this separation had not taken place. If we assume this hypothesis, a line from the John Gospel shines forth like a nova in our understanding; a nova which will illuminate the entirety of the text from which it was drawn if the present study is successful. The King James Version translates the Greek text of  John 3:8

τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις, ἀλλ’ οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει· οὕτως ἐστὶν πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος.

 in the following manner: 

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. 

The poetry of the King James Version notwithstanding, an English translation of that line is impossible because, as the careful reader may have noticed, the words “wind,” “breath,” and “Spirit,” are the same word in the Greek original: πνεῦμα (“pneuma”). The line might, therefore, have read “The spirit breathes (or respires) where it will, its sound you hear, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; such is everyone born of the wind.” This is but a single permutation of what is evidently a multivalent perplexity for the translator. The significance of this quandary lies in whether it can help us to conceive of a world in which “wind,” “breath” and “Spirit” meant the same thing. Put another way, the selfsame perception could be called by any one of these words. Imagination often provides the most accurate understanding: we may picture a solution of meaning out of which these three words gradually precipitated. 

Psychologist Julian Jaynes offers another insight into the world of Original Participation in his seminal 1967 work The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes, like Barfield, interprets ancient texts not as stories but as histories. In other words, the gods and goddesses of the Homeric epics are not poetic inventions, but rather factual, historical descriptions of the manner in which Ancient Greeks perceived the world. Jaynes writes of the Iliad that:

It is one god who makes Achilles promise not to go into battle, another who urges him to go, and another who then clothes him in a golden fire reaching up to heaven and screams through his throat across the bloodied trench at the Trojans, rousing in them ungovernable panic. In fact, the gods take the place of [personal] consciousness. (63) 

We need not evaluate all of Jaynes’ arguments to appreciate that the Ancient Greeks perceived a different world and in a different manner than the ordinary man of today. Jaynes describes it as a lack of inner deliberation on the part of the characters. What we today experience inwardly as thought, emotion, and volition, Achilles experienced objectively as the deeds of gods. Again, we ought to imagine the condensation of discrete aspects out of a common solution if we wish to grasp the nature of this evolution in a comprehensive and intuitive way. Barfield affirms Jaynes’ conclusion when the former concludes in Saving the Appearances:

For the nineteenth-century fantasy of early man first gazing, with his mind tabula rasa, at natural phenomena like ours, then seeking to explain them with thoughts like ours, and then by a process of inference ‘peopling’ them with the ‘aery phantoms’ of mythology, there just is not any single shred of evidence whatever. (42)

This is to say that, against the conventional belief, Ancient peoples did not see more-or-less the same phenomenal world that the Modern man sees and then proceed to invent all manner of fantastical explanations for it. Quite on the contrary, the phenomenal world itself was not the same in ancient times as it is today. Put another way, the “Onlooker Consciousness,” which is the name Barfield gives to the condition of the ordinary man of today, not only perceives and interprets the world differently than the Original Participating consciousness of the past, but the very world itself is different. It is to be hoped that by this point in the present work, the correlation of the subjective and the objective has been thoroughly established and that a proposition like the above strikes the reader as perfectly natural. Let us, however, explore the meaning of such a difference in slightly more depth before turning our sights towards “Final Participation.”

To be continued…img_0062


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