Owen Barfield on Inspiration and Revelation

by Jason Peters on June 17, 2009 · 14 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Philosophers & Saints




This is the second of a two-part post on Owen Barfield. See part one here.

[Note: In an appendix I respond briefly to comments from last week’s essay.]

For you biblical scholars and theologians, a brief word in these grossly attenuated notes on Owen Barfield about the implications he saw for inspiration and revelation. [7]

A willing suspension of disbelief for the moment might help us to imagine in the gaps here an argument that takes us from the world of St. John the Evangelist, for whom no chasm yawned between “wind” and “spirit,” to our own, in which there yawns what seems an unbridgeable chasm; such an argument (we may imagine) concludes that, historically, two types of revelation are possible, one that necessarily comes from without (when there was no felt alienation between mind and matter) and another that necessarily comes from within (when there is nothing but this felt alienation). Those who will countenance no talk of revelation—for they themselves of course have no metaphysics—will tell you that ‘revelation,’ if we must use this word, obviously comes from within and has always come from within, and they posit something like the ‘animistic projection theory’ that has proven so mischievous for unsuspecting and vulnerable anthropologists. Our forbears, thinking themselves to have been visited by a transpersonal agent, so the theory goes, were really projecting onto the sun, or the moon, or the wind, their own mistaken notions of a deity, which they invented to explain the phenomena to themselves. But if we can put aside for the moment this untutored and unreflective appropriation of the past, recognizing it for what it is—the old Cartesian arrogance and ignorance of calling what is earlier false and what is later true—and if we can keep in mind that the world is not, that it cannot be, structurally different from what we think about it, then we can save for ourselves a concept of revelation that takes into account both earlier and later modes of consciousness, and the evolution thereof, and (having imagined a sound argument actually inhabiting the gaps here) we can begin to affirm that “there was a time when mere perception itself”—the perception not of things but of images—“contained an element of disclosure” (“CR” 235), and that such a time starkly contrasts our own, when there is no disclosure in perception, only idolatry. All this follows, I think, if “human consciousness itself has been evolving in a direction that entailed transformation of the old kind of revelation (from without) into the new (from within)” (“CR” 229).

Coleridge, who taught this to Barfield, put it thus: inspiration means, in one sense, “Information miraculously communicated by voice or vision,” and in another sense, the use a writer makes, “without any sensible addition or infusion,” of “his existing gifts of power and knowledge under the predisposing, aiding, and directing of God’s Holy Spirit” (“CR” 233; and Coleridge, by the way, considered most of the Bible to be of the latter sort). Put another way, “two different kinds of disclosure are possible, one by communication and the other by inspiration” (“CR” 233)—one from without and one from within. Inspiration, formerly (and etymologically) ‘a blowing into,’ necessarily came from without, even as now, for us who are alienated, inspiration wells up from within. Long ago a great poet was said to have a genius; today he is said to be one. The trick is to bear in mind that within and without “do not stand for a spatial antithesis, but contrast the immaterial and the material, the perceptible and the imperceptible.” Barfield held that “all the evidence proclaims that the older modes of revelation did in fact occur from without, through a phenomenal medium. For what is revelation,” he asked, “if it is not a macrocosm imparting knowledge of itself to the microcosm? Either it is theophany, or there never is nor ever was any such thing as revelation” (“CR” 229).

Back of this—and I have space to mention it only in passing—is Barfield’s contention that meaning, ultimately, is “given.” The burden of Poetic Diction, or much of it anyway, was to show that as Bacon (of all people) said, such putatively metaphorical relations as “wind” and “spirit” are not “only similitudes, as men of narrow observation may conceive them to be, but the same footsteps of nature, treading or printing upon several subjects or matters” (PD 86). Such similitudes are not what Shelley called them—the before-unapprehended relations that poets invent; rather, they are the prior relations that poets restore. “Primary meanings,” as Barfield called these similitudes, are not, or were not originally, a human creation but “were given, as it were, by Nature, but the very condition of their being given was that they could not at the same time be apprehended in full consciousness; they could not be known, but only experienced, or lived. At this time, therefore”—Barfield is referring here to what he called the “myth-thinking” stage of human history—“individuals cannot be said to have been responsible for the production of poetic values. Not man was creating, but the gods—or, in psychological jargon, his ‘unconscious.’” Metaphor, Barfield said, is “a real creation of the individual—though, insofar as it is true, it is only re-creating, registering as thought, one of those eternal facts which may already have been experienced in perception” (PD 102-03). Elsewhere he said that such ‘eternal facts’ are meanings that come down to us as words at first comprised of both a tenor and a vehicle; the tenor and vehicle, in the course of the evolution of consciousness, divide into separate constituent parts, one semantic and the other lexical or grammatical. [8]

This is a grossly attenuated account of Barfield’s claims, I know. But, again (constraints of space being what they are), this is only a reminder from Owen Barfield—and perhaps an attempt to resuscitate an interest in his work.

For it is Barfield’s contention that revelation, if it is to mean anything at all, must indeed accord with the facts of evolution—with the facts of the evolution of consciousness, that is. To know them, we must study evolution from within, not from without, and to do that we must be able to read the ‘fossil record’ left to us not in the earth but in language. What we will discover is that consciousness, far from being a little piece stuck on to the rest of the world, is in fact the inside of the whole world. And this inside is precisely what the metaphysics of the current cosmology bracket off from all inquiry and so ignore.


I should mention one way Barfield anticipated some of the objections that naturally arise when our common sense has been challenged in this manner: the planes fly. The bombs explode. Our extraordinary ability to control, to manipulate, and to predict nature tells us that Thomas Paine was right and that Dante was wrong.

Forgive me for moving so quickly here, but we have only to look at what the control of nature has done to nature to see that our knowledge is seriously flawed. Barfield, for his part, called such knowledge “dash-board” knowledge. By pulling levers and pushing buttons and pedals, we have learned how to make the ‘automobile’ of nature slow down and speed up. But dash-board knowledge is knowledge for the sake of manipulation only and is no guarantee against a crash.

In fact Barfield feared a crash inevitable: “No doubt the experience of the outside world as something ‘which goes on by itself,’ and appears to have lost all connection with human imagination,” Barfield wrote in his preface to Poetic Diction, “was burnt into many modern poets by the combined violence and passivity of trench warfare; and today the objectized nothing, which scientism supposes at the base of the phenomenal world, is taking shape as the spectre of nuclear fission and scientific warfare on a world-wide scale. . . . [I]t is no part of my case that push-and-pull empiricism is weak or ineffectual,” Barfield said, “only that it is, like other giants, ignorant.” Then, in one of his most poignant sentences—and bear in mind his claim that the world is not structurally different from what we think about it—Barfield said this: “The possibility of man’s avoiding self-destruction depends on his realizing before it is too late that what he let loose over Hiroshima, after fiddling with its exterior for three centuries like a mechanical toy, was the forces of his own unconscious mind” (PD 36)—not, or not only, the bits and pieces that putatively comprise the “outer” world.

There was often some such warning vibrating beneath the surface of Barfield’s books. Because of course there has been much done in all the fields Barfield criticized, especially in the field of cognition and the study of brain states, I will add this warning. It is the last sentence of “The Coming Trauma of Materialism,” the essay to which I referred in the previous post: “we should do well to reflect that the presence among us of a powerful impulse no longer to deny the spirit but to impound it, or rather no longer to doubt it but to deny it—to materialize as it were the immaterial itself, or in other words to turn from theoretical to practical reductionism, may be pregnant with the gravest possible consequences for humanity as a whole” (RM 200). He was anticipating, of course, the reduction of consciousness to chemical reactions in the brain.


What exactly have I done in these two essays besides break the sound barrier? I have sketched the main features of Owen Barfield’s dissent from science and highlighted especially his attempts to point out the hidden metaphysics of all enterprises predicated on the Cartesian assumption. I have also sketched something of what he put in its place, namely, an account of things that (1) implicates the perceiver, (2) saves older modes of consciousness, and (3) considers the implications of the foregoing for inspiration and revelation. I hope I have also enlarged a readership for Barfield. I believe (obviously) that he is worth knowing. And, of course, I have implied something that bears significantly, I think, upon The Porch. We all have some stake in what the university in the twenty-first century ought to be doing: I have implied that universities have secured, and continue zealously to secure, freedom for science to proceed on the basis of its own faith claims.

Why, therefore, should universities cease zealously to secure freedom for other disciplines to proceed on the basis of theirs—especially those disciplines that don’t lie, or that try not to lie, about their metaphysics?


7 I cite one essay in particular, “The Concept of Revelation” (Anglican Theological Review 63:3 [July 1981], 229-239; hereafter, “CR”) and refer readers to another, “Philology and the Incarnation” (in RM).

8 See “The Meaning of ‘Literal’” in RM. This essay clarifies, in terms different from those used in the early work, Poetic Diction, the “given” (as opposed to what we would now call conventional) nature of meaning.


I think it needs saying for the sake of Barfield’s honor that Barfield (whom I knew and on whom I wrote a Ph.D. thesis) is unlikely to have supped with those who hold that all things are socially constructed—all things except, of course, the immutable and unassailable doctrine that all things are socially constructed, which alone came down from the mountain with Moses. The people engaged in that horseshit are not in any meaningful way attempting to solve one of the most important problems in the post-epistemological era—namely, the problem of getting the subject and the object back together, which you have to do if, for example, you want to do physics or philosophy or anything else credibly.

If you are uninterested in the relationship between the knower and the known, then you are also, ultimately, uninterested in knowing. If your description of that relationship is nothing more than the publicly permitted clap-trap about an unalterable objective reality that exists independent of thought, then you’re simply not addressing the problem.

Thomas Paine, whom I mentioned in the first essay, is a good case in point. A kind of proto-STEM advocate, he announced that there was no reason to study ancient languages and in doing so cut himself off from all that such a study could have taught him about the evolution of consciousness, which in turn could have tutored him (as it did Emerson to some degree, though imperfectly) on the relation of subject to object. The result was the usual blather: Paine said that the vast machinery of the universe goes on independent of thought and that we have no other choice but to conform our thoughts to it. This is a metaphysical assumption that–as Barfield spent a lifetime attempting to show–doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

(I agree with Caryl Johnston, who notes the importance of “original” and “final” participation to understanding Barfield’s efforts in this vein. It simply wasn’t my point in the previous essay to explain what it means on Barfield’s account to “participate the phenomena” in very different ways at different moments in human history.)

I would therefore suggest this to anyone who wants to pronounce upon the nature of things: learn what Coleridge meant by “primary” and “secondary” imagination. In speaking of that “esemplastic power” or “shaping spirit of imagination,” Coleridge provided what might be the most important response to the Lockean notion of mind (inside which almost everyone is locked up unawares); Barfield was working right out of Coleridge in his attempt to trick out the implications of active–not merely passive–human perception, one implication of which I stated in the first essay: that the world we perceive “is not something unshakably and unalterably given, but is largely the product of the way we collectively and subconsciously think. It is correlative to our mental habit” (History, Guilt, and Habit 71). In this regard “shaping spirit of imagination” is no ornament of discourse. The imagination for Barfield, as for Coleridge, is the “prime agent of human perception”; it takes a world that is without form, and void, and presents it to us as the “familiar face of nature.” How this happens is sometimes possible for us to grasp; keeping it present to our minds is more difficult, for, said Barfield, we are all smeared with what he called the Residue of Unresolved Positivism (or RUP for short).

You will note that on this account no one is denying an “outer world,” only an outer world in the ordering and making of which we are not implicated. The name for this account is “objective idealism,” which Barfield shared with the Austrian philosopher and anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner.

I think those who can’t understand what Wordsworth meant by a world that we “half perceive and half create” are doomed to view Romanticism not for what it was (and is), namely, the last great stand against the tyranny of modern science, but as so much “spilt religion” that produced a lot of incomprehensible and irrelevant nature poetry. And they probably need a few nocturnal visitations from William Blake, who saw through, not with, his eye.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Empedocles June 17, 2009 at 8:16 am

“The imagination for Barfield, as for Coleridge, is the “prime agent of human perception”; it takes a world that is without form, and void, and presents it to us as the “familiar face of nature.””

How is this different from Kant?

avatar Dale Nelson June 17, 2009 at 5:20 pm

Robert Lanza’s new book Biocentrism (excerpted in Discover magazine in May) could be read as a stretching exercise to help one prepare for the greater demands and rewards of Barfield’s Saving the Appearances; also Discover’s profile of physicist John Wheeler in their June 2002 issue. This is a high school library-type magazine. Anyone, such as pastors, who teach people about how we know ourselves and the world had better be ready to deal with concepts that, however disconcerting now, are likely shortly to be mainstream in SOME form. What we may well get is a dumbed-down and hyped-up New Ageism thanks to Hollywood and the other usual suspects. How much better if people with sound values and level heads (and, I would say, Christian faith) tackled them.

For Jason’s article focuses, and it’s plenty to think about, on immediate perception. But not only space but time are, it appears, not “idol” qualities independent of consciousness. As Jason’s piece argues, this is not to say that nature (space and time) is unreal, but that nature is not something going on all by itself without our consciousness.

One aspect of this that I personally find interesting relates to the age of the universe. I accept that the universe is about 14 billion years old and the earth about 4.5 by. But clearly, on a Barfieldian reading, we cannot think of stars, planets, the “emergence of life,” and so on as we HABITUALLY imagine them, going on about their business till the advent of human consciousness, but behaving and looking just as we suppose they would if we’d happened to be there to see them.

The Altamira cave paintings are, I suppose, among the best evidence we have for prehistoric human consciousness. I gather that at the oldest they are about 16,000 years old. What we are to infer from chipped flints and so on is harder to say, but these works of art surely denote human consciousness. But they are very recent indeed compared to a 4.5 billion-years earth. How old is Nature? Rather younger than the universe or the earth, it would seem…

avatar Dale Nelson June 17, 2009 at 5:24 pm

… I mentioned the matter of time, as well as space, as belonging to consciousness rather than existing wholly independently of it. We may come to see some quite surprising consequences if we take this seriously, rather than forgetting all about it as soon as we take our noses out of the physics books.

One suspects that the people who argue for creationism or intelligent design on the one hand, and for the standard-issue naturalistic narrative on the other, are both standing on very unsound foundations, since neither takes such things into account.

avatar Jason Peters June 18, 2009 at 12:21 am

“Empedocles” (if that’s who you really are): There isn’t a quick answer to your question. All sorts of distinctions between “reason” and “understanding” and “poetic” (as opposed to “philosophical”) imagination have to be made. And Hume, Locke, and Descartes must be brought to bear.

It is useful to recall that, having acknowledged Kant’s placing the forms between us and the things in themselves, Barfield said: Science “insists on dealing with ‘data,’ but there shall no date be given, save the bare percept. The rest is imagination. Only by imagination therefore can the world be known. And what is needed is, not only that larger and larger telescopes and more and more sensitive calipers should be constructed, but that the human mind should become increasingly aware of its own creative activity.”

Both Coleridge and Barfield (Coleridge in a typically less systematic way—that is, in his marginalia) were at some pains to register their dissent from—if also to acknowledge their indebtedness to–Kant. (Coleridge moved to Germany—and remained there notwithstanding the death during his absence of his son—to learn German so that he could read Kant.) In the main, Barfield followed Coleridge in suspecting Kant of regarding as merely regulative what is actually constitutive.

A whole appendix to Poetic Diction is devoted to Kant, as is a large portion of the apparatus in What Coleridge Thought. There’s no substitute for reading these books, and I won’t attempt a substitute. The latter especially is a piece of astonishing erudition. The former is too, though Barfield was only in his twenties when it was published.

A propos of what sort of mischief might devolve from Kant, Barfield wrote: “How many children, I wonder, are nowadays informed at an early age by some elder brother or some guide, philosopher, and friend, that what they see and hear and smell is not ‘nature’ but the activity of their own nerves? And though this is not Kant’s doctrine, it is a crude physiological reflection of it. Thus, it does not require a very active fancy to see the Koenigsberg ghost hovering above, and intertwining itself with the ideas of minds that never knew Kant’s name.”

Which is to say that Barfield wants neither Kant nor especially Coleridge associated with the usual horseshit coming out of the humanities and the cuddly “sciences.” That is, he shares your suspicion.

avatar Empedocles June 18, 2009 at 8:09 am

It still seems to me no matter how poetic, imaginative, or creative I am, the world is going to be what it is. In fact, the psych ward is full of creative, imaginative people who are busy constructing their own imaginative reality.

avatar Caryl Johnston June 18, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Hi Jason,
Thanks for citing my comment. With all due respect, I don’t think it’s
quite “getting the subject and object back together again” as it is
reconciling participation and objectivity. From my essay,”Thoughts and Things: Reviving Liber Naturalis” –
“Liberals err when they downgrade standards in favor of participation, and conservatives likewise err when they exalt objectivity in order to deride participation. In such a situation one is apt to echo the biblical saying – the very stones cry out! What can reconcile objectivity and participation? Has anyone tried? If so, who? And how is it to be done? And why is it important?”
Essay posted at Lila Rajiva’s site: http://mindbodypolitic.com/?p=562

The importance of Barfield in my view is that the deep understanding of participation restores a sense of dynamic purpose and meaning to human history. In my essay I discuss Owen Barfield as an “Overshadowed Man” – overshadowed first by his great friend, C.S. Lewis, far better known; overshadowed by Thomas Kuhn, author of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which argues some of the things that Barfield argues but in a much less nuanced and subtle way; and finally – and this I did not mention in my essay – by the work of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy or Spiritual Science. Barfield had the modesty to say that “Rudolf Steiner has forgotten more than I ever could possibly have learned” about evolution, language, participation, consciousness, science, etc. etc. And yet for the English-speaking world Barfield is more accessible than Steiner.

Still – speaking as one who began with Barfield, graduated to Steiner, and now straddle the two different, sometimes incompatible, other times mutually supportive worlds of Anthroposophy and Catholicism – I have to say: when will the spark catch? Anthroposophy has its faults (I know them well) – but in view of the social, political, spiritual and moral decadence of our Western society today it’s going to take something like Anthroposophy – huge, vast, outrageous, poetic, challenging, deepening and essentially (if somewhat heretically) Christian – it’s going to take nothing less for us to climb out of the abyss.

So, bravo for publishing these articles about Barfield – I hope they lead your readers to embark on a sober and demanding journey!

avatar Aaron Schroeder June 18, 2009 at 5:16 pm

Empedocles’ question put differently, perhaps: What is it that regulates our imaginative faculties such that certain beliefs about the world can be said to be true and others false? So, when I say, “There’s a white mug on my desk,” and my friend says, “There’s not a white mug on your desk,” does Barfield suggest how it is that one of us can be said to be correct and the other incorrect?

If not, I’m sensing a resurrection of Rorty’s invisible demons, dancing above the beds of the physically (and mentally) infirm….

avatar kc June 18, 2009 at 9:34 pm

Excuse my ignorance, but I am ashamed to admit I’ve never read Barfield. It seems like the notion of ‘participation’ is strong in Barfield, although I can’t tell from your articles if that is the direction he is going. Or is Barfield more concerned with knowing than being? (epistemology vs. ontology) Or, are these so deeply connected that only a nominalist could pretend to care about one and ignore the other?

avatar Caryl Johnston June 19, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Hello Jason -
Thanks for citing my comment. I put through a comment yesterday but
it did not show up.
Once again may I refer to my article, “Thoughts and things: reviving liber naturalis,” about Owen Barfield — posted here:
I think the issue is not so much reuniting subject and object as
reconciling objectivity and participation:

“Liberals err when they downgrade standards in favor of participation, and conservatives likewise err when they exalt objectivity in order to deride participation. In such a situation one is apt to echo the biblical saying – the very stones cry out! What can reconcile objectivity and participation? Has anyone tried? If so, who? And how is it to be done? And why is it important?”

avatar D.W. Sabin June 23, 2009 at 1:19 pm

One has to hand it to the Dilemma of the Two Cities for being so imperturbably sturdy as to continue to crop up as the centuries shamble by. I am reminded of the old anarch Ed Abbey’s pithy comments about metaphysics and how they tended to create in him a strong urge to reach for a gun. This always struck me as a bit funny coming from someone who romantically called turkey buzzards “philosopher birds”. But then, his disdain for the metaphysicians was likely most stoked by the “Have a Nice Day” version of them….those who sought a better temporal life of consumer paradise via short courses in Metaphysics at the tony desert spa.

I do not know whether we identify a province as separate and apart because we fear and revile it or if we might revere it , feel it sacred as a result of its separateness and purity from personal taint. It reminds me of two Yiddish proverbs:

“Mit ein hintn zitst men nit oif tsvei ferd”…or; You can’t sit on two horses with one behind


“Dorten iz gut vu mir seinen nito”…or; That place seems good where we are not

Then, the spell is broken by :

“Oif drei zachen shtait di velt: oif gelt, oif gelt , un oif gelt”…or; The World Stands on Three Things, on money, on money and on money.

Two outa three aint bad.

avatar flatlander May 4, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Thanks for this article. Having just done some research on CS Lewis’ Berkeleyan idealism and his admiration for Barfield, I feel like I have a little more confidence about where I need to look next. You can count at least one more reader of Barfield…

avatar Extollager May 4, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Flatlander, Lionel Adey’s study of the Lewis-Barfield “war” might be worthy of your attention.

avatar Adriaanluijk November 26, 2010 at 5:18 pm

First I would like to thank you for your wonderful articles in relation to Owen Barfield.

I am writing because we used introduction chapter to ‘Saving the Apearances’ entitled ‘Rainbow’ in our landscape perception workshop and in the discussion that followed the idea soon arose that our way of viewing the world was our construction, but then it went so far that even our pure sense-impressions were also our- or better said our bodily constitution’s construction.
However some of us felt that this was going too far. The world how we perceive it (colours, smells, resistance etc.) are also there independent of us (and not only atoms, or whatever they are=the unpresentable)
After reading the chapter again and again and then with the help of the excellent article by Stephen Talbott, called Evolution of Consciousness http://netfuture.org/fdnc/appa.html and then the two by you http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2009/06/owen-barfield-on-the-metaphysics-of-modern-science-1/

and http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2009/06/owen-barfield-on-inspiration-and-revelation/ and the one by Caryl Johnston http://from-the-catacombs.blogspot.com/search?q=owen+barfield and I came to the following;
Owen Barfield states that the book was not written for discussing metaphysics.
So he does want not point (as I thought too!) for example to the problem of the primary and secondary qualities of sense-perceptions that is touch (matter) and resp. sight (colour) or specialise in what form atoms, energy exists.

He only wants to point out that what we see (and only see and not think) is a vast area of colours (in the case of sight) without any connection or patterns between them.
But in our daily life we automatically think rainbow or chair etc.
However to come to that, we have to think ‘chair’; that is;
1) it is physical ( we, with our body can sit on it)
2) it has a reasonable flat surface, which is not to low neither to high.
3) it has a support for our back or at least for a part of it.

In case of the rainbow; it is an arc , in the form of half a circle, it has rained and the sun shines and it has a variety of colours in a specific order etc. etc.

So a lot of thinking has gone on before we use the concepts chair, rainbow etc.

This is what Owen Barfield calls figuration and we are not often aware of it .
However if we can’t figure(!) it out, then we need to do some alfa thinking.

The intention to use the article for my workshop was to stress or bring over

1) That the sense-perceptible (pure sense-perception) is a reality, (but not the full reality!)

2) And that the way we interpret it (figuration) depends on our way of thinking about it (and mostly how we have thought about it (habit) or worse; what we were told about it )

During the session we also talked about that the way we see the world (as pure -sense-impression) indeed depends on our constitution (our eye for example) and e.a some animals perceive the world only in black and white or some primitive animals only by the lower senses (touch, movement, balance).

But this does not mean that we (or perhaps better said; our constitution) fabricates or creates the colours etc.

Later during the week when we started to realise that the landscape contains the interplay between natural and cultural factors and when we viewed the landscape in all its glory, we realised it is only given to us , as human beings to see the world in its full glory. Even the Gods can not see it like that!

Is this helpful or am I still not understanding it?
I hope you understand what I meant to say, that is get my speaker’s meaning.

Adriaan http://regarding-landcapes.blogspot.com/

avatar Adriaanluijk December 2, 2010 at 10:25 am

I made a mistake in the link to my own website!
It should be http://regarding-landscapes.com/

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: