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Poetry Over Positivism: Owen Barfield on the Rational and the Representative in the World

Poetry Over Positivism: Owen Barfield On The Rational And The Representative In The World

Owen Barfield (1898-1997) was a British philosopher, poet, and solicitor who had a tremendous influence on the likes of C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Saul Bellow. He published numerous essays, articles, and books, with the most well-known being Saving the Appearances and Poetic Diction. The first book was a rejection of Cartesianism and Darwinism in its exploration of the evolution of human consciousness; the second was the embracement of imagination over empiricism as to how meaning was created and experienced in poetry. In these and other works, Barfield was preoccupied with an alternative way of perceiving and relating to the world in contrast to the predominant philosophical thought of his time, which was logical positivism.

Logical positivism started as radical empiricism in the eighteenth century with David Hume and ended in the twentieth century with the Vienna Circle. For Hume, knowledge of the world was impossible (except for mathematical knowledge) because our senses were fallible and therefore were unreliable guides for our way around the world. Hume’s ideas ultimately would be modified by the time of the Vienna Circle, whose thinkers argued that sense experience was the only basis of knowledge of the world and that no other sort of knowledge could be knowledge (but again, save for mathematics). The logical positivists were reacting against the idealist philosophers who contended that truth claims were adjudicated on the basis of abstract, transcendent principles. According to the logical positivists, the problem for the idealists were that these principles were not universally, accessible, or consistent; thus, logical positivists sought to ground philosophy from ideals to empirical objects which could be pointed out so there could be no argument about their existence.

For the logical positivists, philosophy was reduced to two tasks: empirical verification and linguistic analysis. The philosopher would focus on the psychology of observation and distinguish those statements that were meaningful from those that were tautologies, e.g., metaphoric language. Those statements – logical propositions as they were called – that were grounded in empirical verification would remain unchanged and therefore become the basis of genuine knowledge. The logical positivists hoped that over time their logical propositions eventually would match mathematical knowledge in its breadth, depth, and stature.

Barfield argued that the logical positivists made two assumptions that deserved further scrutiny: 1) language originally was rooted in empirical verification and therefore voided of metaphors; and 2) the world was only material and non-representational in nature. The first assumption was problematic for Barfield because the only meaningful texts that could exist for the logical positivist would be very limited and recent. Contrary to the positivist’s claim, the earliest texts we have are filled with metaphors, such as Plato’s dialogues or the Bible, and consequently resist empirical verification. Thus, the logical positivist’s assumption that language was originally grounded in empirical verification was refuted by the historical development of language itself, where the earliest texts were more metaphorical than the latter ones.

The second assumption of the logical positivist was also questionable for Barfield. In Saving the Appearances, Barfield argued that the world was material, as the logical positivists claim, but it was also representational and thus possessed a non-material component. By removing the representational from the material object, the logical positivist left no meaning in the object which it could meditate to humans. Such an object was an “idol” because it was no longer representational and, as a result, fashioned itself as independent of human consciousness (“the unrepresented,” as Barfield called it). This claim, like the first one, was rejected by Barfield as verified by reflecting on our own encounters with reality. For example, when we see a rainbow, we see it as a representational figure, i.e., a rainbow, instead of drops of water mingled with light. Both assumptions of the logical positivists run contrary to our experiences with reality.

What Barfield sought to demonstrate was that our primary contact with the world was representational and not material in nature. Unfortunately, what has happened over time was that we have lost our representational relationship to the world and now conceived of it only in material terms. Barfield wanted to smash these “unrepresented idols” of the logical positivist’s in order to restore our relationship to the world as one that “saves its appearances.” He began this restoration of our representational relationship with reality with his distinction between Alpha-thinking and Beta-thinking.

Alpha-thinking was to conceive of the world as external objects that were independent of us, while Beta-thinking was to conceptualize reality as representative and as related to our mind. Although people who engaged in Alpha-thinking excluded a participatory approach to reality and therefore resembled the scientific or mathematical modes towards reality, they still possessed an unconscious component that recognized the representative nature inherent in reality. Unlike the logical positivist, Barfield did not abolish the representative feature of reality from his metaphysical kingdom. In fact, left to its own devices, Alpha-thinking eventually would lead us into a state of idolatry, where we would see reality strictly as external and empirical objects. For Barfield, this was one of the great errors of the logical positivists.

In contrast to the more scientific and less self-conscious Alpha-thinking was Beta-thinking. In Beta-thinking we approach reality in a participatory as opposed to a subject-object mode and conceptualized reality as representative rather than external in nature. This conversion of the unrepresented into the representative was a difficult, yet necessary, process in order to save the appearances of reality. That is, we have to reconstruct the world around us into a representative reality that was not symbolic in a scientific or mathematical sense. If Alpha-thinking was to think about the world as independent of us, then Beta-thinking was thinking about thinking itself.

However, Beta-thinking, too, can fall into a type of idolatry where we believe that representative reality was to be located only within our minds. Whereas Alpha-thinking could err in the denial of representative nature of reality and its independence from us, e.g., logical positivism, Beta-thinking could go astray in shutting ourselves off from the external and material world and locking ourselves only within our minds, e.g., absolute idealism. Barfield’s account of thinking avoided both of these extremes: both Alpha and Beta-thinking were required. We need both a participatory and a subject-object approach to a reality that was at once material and at the same representational in nature.

Before proceeding any further, it should be noted that for Barfield there was a third approach to reality which he called figuration. Figuration resembled Beta-thinking except it was non-reflective and perhaps even non-thinking in nature: it converted external and material reality into a representative one instantaneously. The sense-content object was perceived as a representation which was not a sensation. Figuration occurred in our initial and immediate encounter with the world, such that in Barfield’s examples when I first hear or smell something, I don’t identify it as a sound wave or odor to me but as classical music or a cup of coffee.

The underlying basis of our multiple encounters with reality – Alpha-thinking, Beta-thinking, and figuration – was what Barfield termed “collective representations”: a shared phenomenon that was created by and through our thought. Taken together, collective representatives constituted the world which we accept as real. Unfortunately for Barfield, because of idolatry we rarely conceived of reality as either collective or representative but instead as a matter of “common sense,” i.e., reality would exist unchanged even without us. What was not being recognized was the role we have in creating the collective representations. It was because of us that we perceive the world as ordered and coherent and not as chaotic and random. The world was neither ordered nor random by itself: we have a direct role in shaping the reality in which we lived.

Of course, Barfield was not a social constructionist in the sense that we can create any reality that we wished or desired. There are limits to our contribution to the collective representations, whether they were material, societal, or historical. We cannot simply will these aspects of reality out of existence, as some contemporary thinkers claim. Our role in the creation of the world in which we live was crucial and critical for Barfield but not omnipotent.

The site where we encounter the world and thereby contribute to collective representations was the realm of our consciousness. According to Barfield, consciousness was a form of thinking that arose both within nature and humans. It was our interaction with the world as shaped by us and we shaped by it. Consciousness thus contained a material (the world) as well as non-material component (our thought) that underpinned collective representations. The world in which we live was determined by this relational dynamic between ourselves and it.

This relational dynamic Barfield called participation: an “extra-sensory” relationship between us and nature, where the mind still was a part of the collective representations and not yet detached from it. To become self-conscious of participation, we must become aware of the connection in our consciousness between ourselves and the world (“to feel the centre of energy in himself identified with the energy of which external nature is the image” as Barfield wrote in chapter 16 of Saving the Appearances). Participation, in other words, was the identification of our self and our non-self (the world) in the same moment of experience. It was the realm of “semi-subjectivity” where action was acknowledged retrospectively but at the time experienced as immediate and instantenously.

We therefore encounter the world in a variety of ways, from figuration and participation to Alpha and Beta-thinking, in our consciousness. For Barfield, consciousness was not reserved only to humans but included the world: it was the ontology of reality that was a non-material us and material world in a relational dynamic. This reality Barfield called collective representations, i.e., the world we think of as real. The errors in misrepresenting reality, whether referred to as “idolatry” or “common sense,” were to ignore this relational dynamic. Logical positivists excluded human non-materiality in their analyses, while philosophical idealists ignored the materiality of the world around them. Both were required, according to Barfield: the material and non-material, the human and the world, in our understanding of reality as collective, conscious, and representative.

In Barfield’s time, Alpha-thinking had pushed aside all other types of thinking off the map and justified its sole legitimacy in the name of progress (or “evolution” in the biological sciences). I think most people would say this condition remains the same today. According to Barfield, the predominance of Alpha-thinking can be traced to the seventeenth century with the success of the natural sciences in Copernicus and Kepler, which in turn would be the model for the social sciences and humanities. Descartes was the first, with his Cogito, ergo sum, that directed our attention solely to the external and material. The world was no longer seen as shared by us but apart from us, after Descartes had split mind from matter, with each realm explored separately. Although Barfield admitted that this separation exploration of the material has brought unheard gains in accuracy and success, it had the negative result of disparaging the realm of the mind as occult and ultimately treated as nonexistent. The end result was an idolatry existence where the representation of the world was entirely ignored.

How we return to a way of thinking of the world as representative, while not entirely abandoning the gains of science and mathematics, was the task of Beta-thinking. Perhaps the most potent example of Beta-thinking for Barfield was poetry that made us see the world anew with imagination and metaphors. For himself, Barfield found metaphor especially important as a way out of stepping out of a culture that was intellectually-defined as materialist: he called this a “felt change in consciousness.” This experience was when the ordinary encounter with the world was replaced with a new and different one, often prompted by poetry, where once-familiar objects now appeared to us as strange and original. A felt change in consciousness was a reorientation of ourselves towards reality where objects were now perceived with enhanced and representational meaning rather than objects of scientific and mathematical inquiry. One of the best historical examples of this reorientation towards reality was the Romantic Movement where nature became reconceived imaginatively rather than rationally. Romanticism, particularly its poetry, was a type of Beta-thinking that sought to reclaim the world in a representative mode.

Of course, Romanticism had run its course and Alpha-thinking in the guise of logical positivism has resumed its predominance in our civilization. Our condition today is one where reality is mechanized so people can be manipulated for consumerism over culture – the direct result of logical positivist’s outlook on reality. Barfield recognized this malady and recommended a solution of poetry over positivism as a way to change our encounter with the world. By returning to Beta-thinking, we will see that we are part of a world that we shape and not just its masters and overlords. The task that Barfield would call for us today is to return to a type of thinking that incorporates both the rational and the representational in our approach to reality. Only then will the appearances of the world be saved.


This essay was originally published with the same title on August 4, 2009 in First Principles.

Lee TrepanierLee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).

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