Owen Barfield (3): Final Participation

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. 



Final Participation


The Onlooker Consciousness that characterises the Modern human being has its center of gravity, so to speak, in the activity of alpha-thinking. Figuration, for Onlooker Consciousness is largely an unconscious process: we do not ordinarily experience the manner by which our cognition weaves the tapestry of collective representation out of the senses’ threads. Instead, we wake up to a world of objects and then begin to think about them, often with the purpose of manipulating them to the satisfaction of our desires. Put another way, Onlooker Consciousness is defined by the basic subject-object structure of perception which has appeared repeatedly in this dissertation and which we have treated thoroughly throughout this dissertation, as for instance in Part I in the third chapter, titled “The Grand Instauration of Science.” Barfield describes Onlooker Consciousness as idolatrous for the reason that it discounts its own activity of representation that is inherent as the condition of any perception. It had, Barfield writes:

clothed [the representations] with the independence and extrinsicality of the unrepresented itself. But 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. 62

Again, the meaning of such a statement might need a great deal more explanation if the latter had not already been given in earlier chapters of this dissertation. Briefly, it is only in virtue of our conceptualisation and representation of things as “external objects” that they are perceptible to us as such. Put another way, it is the intentionality of externality that discloses a world of external objects to consciousness. If the former were done away with, the latter would follow as a consequence. Steiner is alluding to precisely this correlation between subjective activity and objective perceptibility in the excerpt we quoted in the end of the last part of this dissertation:

we behold, as outer reality only the mirror-image of our inner understanding, and that the true nature of the outer (i.e. percepts) is an empty shell to be filled with content (i.e. concepts) by our active intellects. Of course, we must possess the quickness of mind to catch our own spiritual activity as it produces our experience lest we passively recognise only the outer products of this spiritual activity—lest we recognise only the reflection of our spirits (Geister) and never cognise the spirit that is being mirrored. Even one who confronts a physical mirror will only recognise her own image provided that she bears a concept of herself to begin with. (An Outline of a Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s Worldview, with Particular Reference to Schiller, 1886.)

If we understand that, by “spiritual activity,” Steiner meant to indicate just what later schools of phenomenology would come to call “intentionality” and Barfield would call Final Participation, then the connection will be plain as day. (Steiner and Husserl shared a teacher in Franz Brentano.)  Final participation implies the recognition of our own participation of the Lógos. To participate the creative and organising principle of the cosmos—that “by which all things were made”—however, is simultaneously to be participated by all things that were made. Procession and reversion are united: “the way up is the way down,” in Heraclitus’ pithy and choleric formulation. Barfield alludes to the implications of this realisation:

To renounce the heterogeneity of observed from observer involves, if it is taken seriously, abandoning the whole “onlooker” stance, upon which both the pursuit of science and modern language-use in general are based; it means advancing to awareness of another relation altogether between mind and matter. If we had actually made the advance, we should have become naturally, unforcedly, and unremittingly aware that the mind cannot refer to a natural object without at the same time referring to its own activity…scientific discovery is always a discovery about language, but also that it is always a discovery about the self which uses language. (“Language and Discovery,” in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays)

Obviously, to acknowledge a correlation of mind and world of such a degree would entirely overturn the Vorstellungsarten and paradigmata of the majority of conventional scientific disciplines. Nevertheless, as we attempted to demonstrate in Part I of this dissertation, a great deal of evidence from those same disciplines might seem to indicate that just such a revolution is in order. Barfield, Goethe, and Steiner each offer immense stimulus to the new leaves of science that might take the place of the old ones when the latter finally concede to relinquish their grip on the boughs of knowledge.

It is likely that few people would contest the above, few think through its implications, and fewer still will not set about forgetting them the moment the object of their attention shifts from the beta-thinking which revealed this connection. Barfield, however, was an exceptional thinker, both for his perspicacity and his integrity. The notion of Final Participation is an inevitable inference from the discovery of this correlation. Given that the mind is already operative in even the most rudimentary perceptual acts, the mind can awaken to this activity, and intensify it. This changes the world. “This changes the world” is not a cliché or a figure of speech, but a literal statement of fact. Awakening to our own creative activity in perception changes the world because the world is phenomenal. Barfield, with a certain gravity, attempts to underscore the responsibility concomitant with such a realisation:

We should remember this, when appraising the aberrations of the formally representational arts. Of course, in so far as these are due to affectation, they are of no importance. But in so far as they are genuine, they are genuine because the artist has in some way or other experienced the world he represents. And in so far as they are appreciated, they are appreciated by those who are themselves willing to make a move towards seeing the world in that way, and, ultimately therefore, seeing that kind of world. We should remember this, when we see pictures of a dog with six legs emerging from a vegetable marrow or a woman with a motor-bicycle substituted for her left breast. 146

We don’t see “the world” with our eyes any more than we see art or anything else. In fact, aesthetic perception is only an intensification of the same faculty by which all perception is accomplished, which connection will be familiar following our study of Goethean science. Indeed, we perceive the world according to how we conceive of it. And if we assume this mantle of responsibility, once born by the gods of old, then we participate finally the same Lógos which our ancestors participated originally.  “Is it not written in your law, I have said, Ye are gods?” This is quite a lofty conclusion so let us come at it by a different to ensure we have not attained this height by some trickery or deception.


Let the reader again consider that there is no such thing as an imperceptible phenomenon. Again, phenomenon literally means “what shows itself,” or “what appears” (φαινόμενον). It is hard for us to think this way today because we are bewitched by Kant and Einstein into thinking that real reality must be mathematised and imperceptible, hidden behind a veil of philosophical quiddities or differential equations. But let us imagine Einstein recapitulating Newton’s notorious experiment with falling fruit. If Einstein, after developing his theory of General Relativity in 1916, were to watch an apple fall, he did not see, in the mode of Aristotle and the natural philosopher of old, the Earth element striving to rejoin its Mother. Nor did he see the operation of universal gravitation, in the manner of Newton. Instead, Einstein would have perceived a demonstration of warped spacetime around a massive body. Obviously he didn’t see this with his eyes. Still this is hardly an objection, since we really don’t see any thing with our eyes. Maybe we see colours with the eyes alone, but it is already questionable whether the sight of colour does not imply a conceptual or representational element as a necessary condition for its perception. Thus, the fact that Einstein perceived the phenomenon with his mind does not imply that he did not perceive it. On the contrary, mental activity is a condition of all perception, as we have ceaselessly attempted to demonstrate through this whole dissertation. To elucidate the manner in which we participate in the figuation of the world through our own cognition, we can attempt to retrace the development of our present condition. If we consider gravity as weight, it will be evident that the idea of gravity is immanent to the object in question, and active in it. As Barfield writes:

The essence of original participation is that there stands behind the phenomena, and on the other side of them from me, a represented which is of the same nature as me. Whether it is called “mana,” or by the names of many gods and demons, or God the Father, or the spirit world, it is of the same nature as the perceiving self, inasmuch as it is not mechanical or accidental, but psychic and voluntary. (42)

On first sight, the example that we selected above would seem to contradict Barfield’s more mystical characterisation of Original Participation. Closer scrutiny, however, will reveal that Barfield’s remark offers insight into a difference in the perception of gravity that would otherwise all too-easily be glossed over: namely, that before the Scientific Revolution, weight was indeed something “psychic and voluntary.” Indeed, Nature, or physis (φύσις) itself was psychic and voluntary, as we explored in Chapter 2 of the first part of this dissertation. A massive object fell not because of an abstract, universe field of force, but because of its inherent nature to strive towards the center of the universe. Put another way, gravity was perceived as a trait intrinsic to a given body. The development of Onlooker Consciousness from the Participatory Consciousness of the Ancients is another facet of the same evolution that led to the hard problem of consciousness. Specifically, the bifurcation of perception into Primary and Secondary Qualities of object and the gradual whittling away of the former into nothing such that, today, we are to understand on the testimony of our most eminent physicists that the basis of matter is measurable by laboratory equipment and particle accelerators, but imperceptible to human senses. This difference is manifest in a comparison of Aristotle’s notion of weight to that of Einstein, since in the first case it is a quality clearly-perceptible, while in the second the perceptible quality is a trick of human apprehension, calculable with complex mathematical formulae but imperceptible to the senses. In the course of this dissertation, we have attempted to demonstrate how Aristotle’s notion that the mind participates the object of thought reappears in Goethe’s way of science, metamorphosed according to the season in the great course of the evolution of consciousness. Put another way and in connection to our study in Part II of this dissertation, while for Kant, thinking was a spontaneous faculty, for Aristotle it was an intuitive one: “mind (nous) must be related to what is thinkable, as sense is to what is sensible.” (De Anima, Book III) We have attempted to argue that the course of conventional science and Kantian philosophy has exhausted its evolutionary potential, and that Goethe’s way of science, as elaborated by Steiner, is the true vine that is productive and fertile.

Barfield characterises this trajectory in the most expressive manner:

I think it also follows that there is only one inwardness and that what has been changing over is not the inwardness itself, but what I may perhaps call the centre of gravity of the inwardness. So that, for us, now, it would be truer to say, if we want to say something of the sort, that the soul of nature is part of our souls; or that nature is a system of collective representations of our own inwardness. You will perhaps say that this is a pretty tall observation. I agree that it is tall; but I am not flinging it out casually. On the contrary I find it so tall that it fills the earth and the sky and is for me the whole meaning of history and, if you like, of time itself. (“The Nature of Meaning” 1981 https://owenbarfield.org/the-nature-of-meaning/)

Barfield alludes to this evolution when he describes the manner in which Aristotle’s nous (νοῦς) was more cosmic than Aquinas’ intellectus, despite that the latter was intended as a direct translation of the former. (100) The manner by which it subsequently became Descartes’ res cogitans further articulates this process, as does that by which Aristotle’s notion of hylomorphism, of matter-form composition became the Cartesian conception of res extensa. Another sign of this transformation is the process by which the gods which inspired Homer to sing of the wrath of Achilleswhich also “grabbed [the hero’s] golden hair,” and “screamed in his throat”became the neuroses of the Freudian unconscious and the archetypes of the Jungian one. The Horse of Troy became the horseplay of repressed drives. Barfield again expresses this metamorphosis with exemplary clarity:

Original participation fires the heart from a source outside itself; the images enliven the heart. But in Final Participation—since the death and resurrection—the heart is fired from within by the Christ; and it is for the heart to enliven the images. (172)

The reader may be confused by the reference to Christ. Given its connection to the Lógos, however, it can hardly come as a surprise. And indeed we ought at least to consider the possibility that our eventual inability to understand the connection of the Christ to the evolution of consciousness might be a result of precisely the Onlooker Consciousness that we are attempting to overcome. Barfield leaves no room for equivocation of what he means: “Christ is the cosmic wisdom on its way from Original to Final Participation.” (185) The present writer is convinced that, were one to entertain the above as an hypothesis, that it would disclose innumerable thitherto unperceived connections and relationships that one would be unlikely to discard it. And this is precisely the manner by which a theory is proven; ex fructibus eorum cognoscetis eos— “by its fruits shall ye know the tree,” and by its facts ye shall know the theory. As we argued in our exploration of Goethean science in Part II, a theory is the manner by which the meaning of facts is experienced—the theory is what the facts mean. Thus, when Barfield writes “I am not flinging [this] out casually. On the contrary I find it so tall that it fills the earth and the sky and is for me the whole meaning of history and, if you like, of time itself,” he intends this in a very precise sense. Barfield goes even further, arguing that a theory like the above—that Christ is the bridge between the past and future of Participation—is, in fact, the only way to make sense of the facts on hand. 

When we look back on past periods of history, we are often confronted with inconsistencies and blind spots in human thinking, which to us are so palpable that we are almost astonished out of belief. We find it hard to credit the inescapable fact that they remained, for decades or for centuries, completely invisible not only to the generality of men but also to the choicest and wisest spirits of the age. Such are the Athenian emphasis on liberty—with the system of slavery accepted as a matter of course; the notion that the truth could be ascertained and justice done with the help of trial by battle; the Calvinist doctrine of pre-election to eternal damnation; the co-existence of a Christian ethic with an economic doctrine of ruthless laissez-faire; and no doubt there are other and better examples.

I believe that the blind-spot which posterity will find most startling in the last hundred years or so of Western civilization, is, that it had, on the one hand, a religion which differed from all others in its acceptance of time, and of a particular point in time, as a cardinal element in its faith; that it had, on the other hand, a picture in its mind of the history of the earth and man as an evolutionary process; and that it neither saw nor supposed any connection whatever between the two. (167)

In other words, were it possible to approach the issues of science, religion, and human existence in a disinterested and non-sectarian manner—which is at least nominally the standard of bona fide inquiry—an inherent connection between the sacred and the secular would be immediately and incontrovertibly apparent. Barfield offers a personal testimony that is consistent with the present writer’s experience: 

It is possible—I know because it happened in my case—for a man to have been brought up in the belief, and to have taken it for granted, that the account given in the Gospels of the birth and the resurrection of Christ is a noble fairy story with no more claim to historical accuracy than any other myth; and it is possible for such a man, after studying in depth the history of the literature and tradition that has grown up around it and to accept (if you like, to be obliged to accept) the record as a historical fact, not because of the authority of the Church, nor by any process of ratiocination…but rather because it fitted so inevitably with the other facts as he had already found them. Rather because he felt, in the utmost humility, that if he had never heard of it through the Scriptures, he would have been obliged to try his best to invent something like it as a hypothesis to save the appearances (The Rediscovery of Meaning, and Other Essays. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1977) 370.)

Let the reader arrive at her own conclusion in the matter, but let her do it having weighed the evidence in the balance of her unprejudiced judgement. To approach the subject of religion in the spirit of science without allowing foregone allegiances to institutionalised forms of either to corrupt our objectivity is an accomplishment as difficult as it is rare. If we manage it, however, we will discover the conjunction of science and religion. In a shower of sparks, we will close a circuit that has remained in disjunction for generations, and which has given birth to all manner of villainies, from the hard problem of consciousness, to disenchantment of the world, to the  “post-truth” phenomenon. In short, it may begin to heal the fractures and fragmentation of the present age. Our philosophy has diversified into myriad strands and cast itself like a net into the waters of knowledge, into all manner of disciplines and subdisciplines. The harvest of our enterprise has been an all but incomprehensible proliferation of specialised knowledge, but it has been won at the cost of overfishing our understanding, and as a consequence we have relinquished our insight into the meaning of this very knowledge. Neither can the reproductive habits of parameciums nor the chemical composition of dust on Jupiter’s moons tell us how to live. One shudders when one considers what Plato, Plotinus, or Aquinas would have to say about the discipline called “Philosophy” today. Certainly they would fail to recognise it unless it was explicitly pointed out to them, so estranged from the basic spiritual questions it has strayed. But if we share Barfield’s vision—if, with him, we participate this common meaning—then the disintegration of philosophy will rather appear as a giant out-breath, an expiration of science into the periphery, or a grand systolic pulse issued outwards into innumerable capillaries of knowledge. We stand on the yonder side of the inflection point of this great beat of time, and the post-truth era is a sign for our eccentric spirits to repair to the heart of wisdom from which they originally proceeded, each bearing back to the center the individuated consciousness that it won through its estrangement in the periphery. 










2 Comments Add yours

  1. Wayne Fair says:

    As best I understand it – this is a fascinating foray into the heart of Barfield’s (may I say) Christology. While it is not exactly “enemy territory” (as “foray” implies) – it is none the less still foreboding if not forbidden – for the historic particularity of Christ (in tension with the Cosmic) is a place few still dare to tread. I really hope I can come to understand better what Barfield intended by his astounding words regarding awakening to the centrality of this Truth – and what possible influence of Coleridge’s Trinitarian musings might have had on him… Thank you for helping me move further up and further in!

    Liked by 1 person

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