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.

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