Owen Barfield on the Metaphysics of Modern Science




[Biographical Note: Owen Barfield was a solicitor by trade. He was a close friend of C.S. Lewis’s, the legal executor of Lewis’s estate, and a sometime member of the Inklings. But Barfield also had a distinguished intellectual career independent of the Lewis circle—a parallel vocation as a literary critic, poet, novelist, philosopher, and philologist. After retiring from the bar, he held a few visiting academic posts in the United States. He published about a dozen books in his life (and a few more posthumously), one of which, Poetic Diction, was much admired by the disparate likes of Saul Bellow, W.H. Auden, and Howard Nemerov. Barfield is perhaps best known for a very provocative book titled Saving the Appearances, which was in large part an attempt to systematize a romantic doctrine of imagination in the service of saving the perceiver (or the subject) for what he saw as a dangerously objectified world. He also wrote one of the very best books ever written on Coleridge, What Coleridge Thought. He died in December of 1997 at the age of 99.]

This is the first of a two-part post on Owen Barfield


In a little book titled History, Guilt and Habit Owen Barfield wrote, “You will sometimes hear people say that they have no metaphysics. Well, they are lying. Their metaphysics are implicit in what they take for granted about the world. Only they prefer to call it ‘common sense.’” [1] Much of the burden of that little book, and indeed of most of what Barfield wrote, was to point out, and then call into question, what he considered the assumptions of the scientific view—to point out and then call into question, that is to say, its metaphysics, which for him formed the “subliminal boundaries of the contemporary mindscape.” [2]

He pointed to Descartes—who put asunder what God had joined—as the villainous architect of this mindscape, this cosmology of science, not because Descartes invented it “but because he was the thinker, fairly near its beginning, who most competently formulated the felt alienation of matter from mind, and thus of nature from humanity” (RM 189). The two main features of Barfield’s dissent from the scientific view, or what he sometimes simply called ‘Cartesianism,’ were these:

(1) Science assumes as a matter of first business a fundamental alienation of mind from matter.

Just as Aristotelianism assumed—“assumed, not merely ‘believed in’”—“an intercommunion between man (the microcosm) and nature (the macrocosm),” so Cartesianism assumes, not merely believes in, “the felt alienation of matter from mind” (RM 189). “Whether we sleep or wake,” wrote Thomas Paine in 1794, “the vast machinery of the universe goes on.” More than two hundred years later, dissenters from this view are as scarce as virgins and equally maligned. Paine’s view is regarded in the West as a correct statement on the relation of man to nature. It is an assumption that has become a “mental habit.”

In his opposition to this assumption and the mental habit that follows from it, Barfield was at some pains to point out that the world we inhabit is not, that it cannot be, structurally different from what we think about it—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” (HGH 71—and not, by the way, “incompatible with deep religious conviction” [RM 190]).

This essay is not an epistemological treatise; nor do I have the space fully to trace what Barfield believed about the relationship of subject to object. This essay is a reminder from Barfield of the extent to which faith is implicit in our current view of the world. But it is necessary, I think, in the service of explaining the first feature of Barfield’s dissent from the scientific view, briefly to sketch part of Barfield’s strategy for showing how the world we perceive coheres structurally with what we think about it.

He began his book Saving the Appearances [3] with a favorite romantic image—a favorite because signal feature of the romantic dissent from the Enlightenment—viz., the image of the rainbow. A rainbow ‘exists’ because light, water, and eyesight combine to create it. Your eyes are every bit as important to the construction of the rainbow as water and light are, and you can test the extent to which you are implicated in the rainbow’s ‘existence’ by trying to find the pot of gold at the end of it. As you move, so does the rainbow. It comes to rest beyond that hill there, until you yourself climb that hill, whereupon the rainbow, together with its coveted pot of gold, has moved and now comes to rest beyond the next hill. Chase it however you may, the only thing you will have in the end is the certainty that eyesight is as important to the rainbow’s being wherever it is as light and water are.

Likewise a tree, though this part of the argument is more difficult: “Recall all you have been told about matter and its ultimate structure and ask yourself if the tree is ‘really there’. I am far from affirming dogmatically,” Barfield said,

that the atoms, electrons, nuclei, etc., [and now we might add ‘strings’] of which wood, and all matter, is said to be composed, are particular and identifiable objects like drops of rain. But if the ‘particles’ (as I will here call them for convenience) are there, and are all that is there, then, since the ‘particles’ are no more like the thing I call a tree than the raindrops are like the things I call a rainbow, it follows, I think, that—just as a rainbow is the outcome of the raindrops and my vision—so, a tree is the outcome of the particles and my vision and my other sense-perceptions. Whatever the particles themselves may be thought to be, the tree, as such, is a representation. . . . This background of particles is of course presumed in the case of raindrops themselves, no less than in that of trees. The relation raindrops: rainbow, is a picture or analogy, not an instance of, the relation, particles: representation. (SA 16-17)

Barfield confessed that a “better term than ‘particles’ would possibly be ‘the unrepresented,’ since anything particular which amounts to a representation will always attract further physical analysis” and because the small stuff of modern physics can be regarded as “notional models or symbols of an unknown supersensible or subsensible base” (SA 17). But he wished to make plain that “whatever may be thought about the ‘unrepresented’ background of our perceptions, the familiar world which we see and know around us . . . is a system of collective representations” in which we as perceivers are implicated. “The time comes,” said Barfield, “when one must either accept this as the truth about the world or reject the theories of physics as an elaborate delusion. We cannot have it both ways” (SA 18).

That, in half a nutshell, is Barfield’s opening move in Saving the Appearances, and what it means, of course, if indeed it’s true, is that the felt alienation of mind from matter in accordance with the Cartesian formula is an illusion and that Thomas Paine, as was so often the case, was wrong—if nevertheless interesting.

But it also means that our world is not, that it cannot be, structurally different from what we think about it. To some extent—and I am not concerned here with what precisely that is—what we perceive depends upon a mental habit. I do not know whether any FPR readers have strong feelings one way or the other about organ donation and heart transplants; I do know that for the purposes of such procedures it is useful first to think of the body as a machine and then, just as you would swap out engines in cars, to swap out the hearts or livers from the bodies of heavy smokers and hard drinkers.

This is an example, I think, of how the so-called outer world is structurally linked to thought. In this respect Hamlet was not entirely wrong to say that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II.ii.249-50).

From the foregoing, it follows, Barfield argued, that we use the terms ‘false’ and ‘true’ far too promiscuously. We say Aristotelianism is false and Cartesianism true, animism false and Darwinism true, when we would more accurately speak of what is earlier and later. But we are a long way from saying, and working with far too little data to say, anything about what is false and what is true.


The initial false move—the Cartesian divorce—emboldened others to lie about their metaphysics, which lying has bedeviled evolutionary theory, and now I come to the second main feature of Barfield’s dissent from the scientific view:

(2) In an essay titled “The Coming Trauma of Materialism,” Barfield pointed out that the edifice of science hangs upon an “obviously unprovable but very convenient postulate”: “that no causes whatever have, from the earliest time to which we can look back to the present, ever acted, but those now acting, and that they never acted with different degrees of energy from which they now act.”

This, of course, is the doctrine of “uniformitarianism.” “So it was formulated by the geologist Lyell,” Barfield continued, “at about the time Western man was first becoming deeply interested in his own and nature’s ‘evolution.’ Adopted as a habit, and eventually by force of that habit accepted as a fact, it has determined the whole development of evolutionary theory” (RM 190-91). Barfield then pointed out—and the theorists themselves confess this [4] —that

uniformitarianism depends on Cartesianism and Darwinism depends upon uniformitarianism. This is of course not realized by more than a tiny minority, and Darwinism, inculcated from childhood as a fact, intertwines with, deepens, and spreads the subliminal roots of Cartesianism. It is the combination of the two which has been decisive for the Western mindscape and is now almost synonymous with it. (RM 191)

Which is too bad, because there’s another problem. “The one thing, above all, that we know about nature,” Barfield said (somewhat gleefully perhaps),

is that it has been, from the beginning of time or as far back as we can peer, in a constant process of evolution, of change. How is it then that this particular bit of it that we call the laws of nature has never changed? Or so we are told. How is it that we are as certain of that (for the whole current idea of evolution is based on just that assumption) as we are that the rest of nature has gone on changing all the time? One would have expected those—and their number is legion—who are convinced that everything is accounted for by biology, to perceive that difficulty. (HGH 85)

In short, he thought it foolish to build a cosmology on such shifting sands.

Barfield understood that to doubt Darwinian theory is to be called a “flat-Earther” (RM 196). Yet he doubted it. (I would say he doubted the narrative form it has taken, not the observable evidence itself, and that he thought it woefully thin on the sum of all available evidence, but that is material for another essay.) He disbelieved the “concentration of attention always on smaller and smaller units . . . [to be] the only direction in which advancing knowledge can proceed”: “however impressive may be the practical justification for [our] atomic obsession, there is no evidential justification whatever for the conclusion, or rather the assumption, to which it so often leads, namely, that the parts preceded the wholes, and that the world was actually built by putting together the units into which our minds divide it, as a house is built by putting bricks together” (HGH 13). And he found especially annoying those attempts to study the evolution of the outer world and then “on the basis of that study [to make] all sorts of unwarranted assumptions about the evolution of consciousness” (HGH 25).

For, inevitably, Barfield came round to talking about the one kind of evolution that really interested him, the evolution of consciousness, which he rightly believed to have left a kind of fossil record in language itself. Again, I have no space fully to trace his argument, and this essay is not an etymological treatise. But a favorite example of Barfield’s will suffice for now. As late as the writing of the fourth gospel, the Greek word ‘pneuma’ meant ‘spirit,’ ‘breath,’ and ‘wind,’ and indeed we rightly divide that one word in which three meanings cohere into three different words, spirit, breath, and wind. But what the history of this and any number of other words in any number of other languages tells us about consciousness is this: that at one time, not that long ago, there was no felt alienation from the outer world that is now characteristic of the Cartesian view. Anyone for whom ‘spirit,’ ‘breath’ and ‘wind’ can be expressed by a single word must surely feel not alienated but intimately linked to what we call the outer world. His spirit and to an extent his breath, both inner realities, have real, not merely metaphorical, ties to the wind, which is an outer reality. [5] Meditate such words as inspiration or atmosphere or influence or genius and you come to the same conclusion. The history of language is the history of words that at one time had both an inner and an outer meaning, cohering undivided, in them. The eventual division of those cohabitant meanings—as in ‘pneuma’—marks the moment in history when an outer world as a separate thing begins to emerge—to become at first felt and later ‘known’—and then to await Descartes’ decisive articulation that, as I said earlier, put asunder what God had joined. Now if the world we inhabit is not and cannot be structurally different from the world we think, then we don’t have much business saying medieval man was wrong and we are right. And the canons of intellectual honesty would seem to require our admitting this: that we assume to be true what our own mental habits tell us about the world only at the price of a costly intellectual compromise. Are we alienated from nature? Yes. Why? Not because we are in fact alienated but because we are in thought alienated. But we can by thought (and, Barfield argued, by careful training in the imagination) be re-united. [6]

Barfield’s philological reflections led him to conclude that whereas we, after Descartes, perceive a world filled with things, our forbears—perhaps to include St. John the Evangelist—must certainly, at some point, have “perceived images.” Now “[t]he difference between an image and a thing lies in the fact that an image presents itself as an exterior expressing or implying an interior”—wind would be an example of this—“whereas a thing does not. When what begins by being an image becomes in course of time a mere thing, we are justified in describing it as an idol. And a collective state of mind, which perceives all things and no images, may thus fairly be characterized as idolatry” (HGH 70).

On Barfield’s account it is we, the enlightened ones, the heirs of the scientific revolution, who are the idolaters.

Next Week: Some thoughts on the implications of this for Barfield’s conception of “inspiration” and “revelation.”

1 History, Guilt and Habit (Middletown: Wesleyan University, 1979), 15; hereafter, HGH.

2 The phrase is Theodore Roszak’s (from Where the Wasteland Ends), quoted in The Rediscovery of Meaning (Middletown: Wesleyan University, 1977), 189; hereafter, RM.

3 Middletown: Wesleyan University, 1965; hereafter, SA.

4 Barfield cited—as a means of showing the reach of the assumption—an article on “Evolution” from the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

5 The point is contestable; it has certainly been a matter of contention. I will point out only this: that Barfield attempted at length in Poetic Diction (1928; Middletown: Wesleyan University, 1973) and, later, in “The Meaning of ‘Literal’” (in RM) to show that the ‘metaphorical’ postulate—the notion that language is more metaphorical the further back in time we trace it until, at a certain point, it is suddenly no longer metaphorical at all but merely literal—cannot be correct. Rather, he said (after pains-taking argument), we must admit the co-presence of inner and outer meanings as representing a prior affinity, as part of meaning as it was ‘given.’ A literal meaning is the end, not the beginning, of a long historical process. This will bear upon my remarks on revelation toward the end.

6 “The reason the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps,” said Emerson, almost getting it right, “is [that] man is disunited with himself” (Nature 1836).

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