Owen Barfield (2): Figuration, Alpha-Thinking, & Beta-Thinking

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. The former earned his M.A. in the same program in May of 2017, of which the culminating project was this presentation. 



Figuration, Alpha-Thinking, & Beta-Thinking


What might it mean to say Onlooker Consciousness perceives the world differently and also perceives a different world? Barfield offers several terms that will prove exceedingly useful in considering this question. The former delineates three types of cognition, which perception, in turn, may parse in different ways. “Figuration” Barfield describes as the ordinarily pre-conscious representational activity of rendering the sensory input into intelligible perceptions. For example, I perceive that a flower-pot has a reverse face and an interior, as well as a weight, despite that none of these things is a direct object of sense. Indeed, as we explored in chapter 9 on the theme on Goethe’s way of science, neither is the flower-pot itself an object of sense. “Substantiality” is itself a principle of figuration and not an immediate object of sense, as is “materiality,” and “externality.” Indeed, literally every organising idea by which we structure our perception of the world is a figuration and not a datum of sense. The senses perceive only sensations and not objects or concepts. My perception of the object, therefore, is always the result of the process of cognition that Barfield means to indicate with the term “figuration.” On other occasions, he employs the term “representation” to indicate roughly the same cognitive process. He notes that Colerdige referred to the same faculty as “primary imagination” in Biographia Literaria (Chapter 13). 

Following the process of figuration, it is possible to elaborate further conceptual relations, and critique implicit ones between these primitive products of perception. Barfield refers to this activity by the perhaps deliberately unfelicitous phrase “alpha-thinking.” As an example of alpha-thinking: I may discover that the cloudy sky assumes a certain opacity that portends a snowfall by establishing a conceptual relation between two perceptions. The relation between these two facts was not an object of perception, but rather of thinking about objects of perception, Alternatively, I may discover the Earth to be blanketed by a new snowfall on a temperate day at St. Johnstide. In this case, I will be disposed to critically reëvaluate the perception of snow, in the first place arrived at by figuration, and discover it to be the seeds of a cottonwood bloom. Clearly the boundary between figuration and alpha-thinking is one which is continually traversed. Barfield invites us to consider the case of a thrush singing. What do we hear, we might ask: a noise, a birdsong, the song of a thrush, or the mating call of an American Robin? What is heard today may be heard different tomorrow. In Barfield’s words:

When I see a stone fall to the ground, do I ‘believe’ that it is drawn by the force, or the law, of gravity? When I use the telephone, do I ‘believe’ that my correspondent’s voice is recorded and reproduced by an invisible called ‘electricity’? Or are both these thoughts immediately experienced in my representation? Or is one so and not the other? The exact point at which a piece of alpha-thinking has slipped into and become an integral part of the representation is hard to determine and may clearly differ somewhat between individuals of the same social group and for the same individual at different times. It is continually happening, while we are growing up, especially while we are learning to speak. I say I ‘hear a thrush singing outside my window’. But do I? He is invisible, and it might perhaps be a blackbird; I have begun the business of thinking and believing already! The same thing happens to a lifelong birdwatcher. He does no thinking at all. He recognizes. He hears a thrush singing. For him alpha-thinking has become figuration. (34)

In “The Grand Instauration of Science,” the third chapter in Part I, we considered the manner in which the perception of “gravity” has undergone a transformation along a definite trajectory, referring once to the simple quality of weight in an individual body (in Latin, gravitas means “weight” or “heaviness”) to an universal field of force directly proportional to the mass between the centers of two bodies and inversely proportional to the square of their distances, to an occult warpage in the fabric of spacetime. We will presently take up this development again in an attempt to determine the meaning of it. Suffice it at this point to establish that each of these notions of gravity represents a different degree to which knowledge arrived at through alpha-thinking has penetrated and become naturalised into our very act of figuration. Our conceptual knowledge is continually informing our perceptions. A recognition of this fact is, of course, a fundamental tenet of Goethe’s way of science. 

Together with figuration and alpha-thinking, Barfield also distinguishes a third type of cognition, differentiated more by its object than by its quality. “Beta-thinking” is the term that Barfield employs to denote the very process which we are presently undertaking: “thinking about thinking.” Thus, while the object of alpha-thinking is figuration, the object of beta-thinking is alpha-thinking. In the same manner by which alpha-thinking may elaborate or critique figuration, so may beta-thinking critically evaluate propositions set forth by alpha-thinking. Indeed, this entire dissertation is largely just this sort of undertaking. Barfield notes, however, that beta-thinking can reveal inconsistencies in our alpha-thinking without the same revelations leading to any enduring transformation in our perception.

Beta-thinking, then, can convince itself of the fact of final participation. It can convince itself that we participate the phenomena with the unconscious part of ourselves. But that has no epistemological significance. It can only have that to the extent that final participation is consciously experienced…we may say that final participation must itself be raised from potentiality to act. (137)

It is and has been the purpose of this dissertation to avoid the risk that the conclusions of the pertinent beta-thinking are forgotten directly they are set aside. It is to be hoped, rather, that just as similar repetition in the context of figuration may transform an anonymous noise into the call of a robin, so a similar reiteration of these conclusions may gradually allow them to permeate the very habits by which we conceptualise (i) ourselves, (ii) the world, and (iii) our own conceptualisation which relates them. Still, as Barfield noted above, only the concrete experience of the conclusions, which beta-thinking can rationally deduce, is likely to possess the potency to invoke a lasting change. Put another way, it is unlikely that any abstract philosophical inference will strike the bell of our gnoseology with sufficient force to rouse us from our “dogmatic slumber.” We have, in an inferential manner, established that the ability to assume an active role in our own conceptualisation is the hallmark of Final Participation. An explication of the same will be the subject of the next chapter. An indication of this manner may be the most that a dissertation can promise. The inspired reader is kindly referred to the Appendix, where she may find translations of Rudolf Steiner’s 52 weekly verses, whose purpose is to invite a Final Participation in the subtle metamorphoses of the course of the year. If she is able, through intentional query, to discover the selfsame spirit in the letters as in the seasons—if she manages to participate the same Lógos that they both share—she will have tasted the Eucharistic wafer of Final Participation.





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