Owen Barfield’s Model of Cognition

This essay may prove to be of little interest to those unfamiliar with the philosophical writings of Coleridge, Schopenhauer, Kant or objective realists such as Owen Barfield.  The post is already huge, and space constraints do not allow me to explain essential background concepts in any detail, but there are some links to descriptive articles on some of the obscure items.
The following list of essential ideas of Barfield emphasizes the unusual and less agreed on topics, and some deliberately provocative or worded with a severity that is absent in Mr. Barfield’s writings.   Commonly understood Barfield positions such as the evolution of consciousness are central to his thought but will receive little attention here  since they are well described elsewhere. This post assumes some familiarity with Barfield’s thoughts- at minimum the topics discussed in the first chapters of Saving the Appearances. Without this context, the reader may miss the intention of terse descriptions because they are either opaque, or can be easily misinterpreted as some other unintended meaning. To provide some assistance, I have made links to explanatory encyclopedia articles on some of the meanings of specialized terms. On a personal note, though I consider Barfield correct on a great number of points, the following list’s descriptions of his arguments do not imply anything about the arguments I would make on the same topics.  A partial list of points where I part company with my friend Barfield may be found in the endnotes.

Ideas about Consciousness

1. Barfield believes that everything we know is as a result of participation. A metaphor he uses is that of a rainbow. The eye, water droplets and light are co-dependent participants in the representation in the phenomenal world of the rainbow. Everything everything everything is a rainbow, including all our discussion of the world that exists independent of our senses.
2. The representations- the stuff of our participation- must not be equated with truth. Barfield compares representations to legal fictions and must not be taken literally. They may be used to signify meaning but not be equated with meaning. This formulation has the same sense that of the Jewish prohibition of idolatry- everything signifies God but ought not to be taken as possessing any essence of God. In this sense, all representations are fictions, untruths.
3. In any given encounter we do not have direct access to truth. Either: A) the truth is unrepresented and we cannot think about it or B) the truth is represented but we are barred from equating the representations with the truth. Barfield believes that the truth as we conceive it is a “mere” fictions (although he and post literalists would undoubtedly omit the modifier “mere”). This includes Steiner’s many occult assertions such as reincarnation, involvement of archangels in human affairs, etheric planes of reality and so on.
4. Barfield uses the term “the unrepresented” to refer to that which exists independent of our awareness. It ontologically precedes everything we know about existence. So there is the unrepresented about which we can only make self negating statements, and there is everything else- all of which makes up the bubble of our collective representations. Barfield calls this bubble the phenomenal world, but most often drops the qualifier “phenomenal” because to speak of anything else has no meaning.
5. The everyday figuration of sense data into representations (rainbow making) is central to consciousness. The source of activity placing us in relationship to meaning lies deep within us. It is accessed with what we call the imagination but currently its exercise is typically unconscious and we behave as passive participants in its workings. The rainbows simply appear before us with no mental effort we are aware of. When we see something in a new way, or “as if for the first time”, we say, “it just came to me” an we refer to the event as a moment of inspiration. Barfield believes we must progress from this unconscious, passive process of inspiration to an active, conscious process of imagination. This active, conscious involvement in the activity of Imagination during Participation with the unrepresented is what Barfield calls “Final participation”.
6. When Barfield makes odd Monism claims like “Mind and Nature” are the same, readers could assume that this is merely pointing that if the “Nature” we know is a set of mental representations, then Mind and “stuff of mind” are unified. It might be objected that if this is was his meaning, then he could have been more clear in his choice of terms. But time and again he reminds us how we quickly forget that the “world” really is not the genuine article but the phenomenal world. If he uses precise philosophical language, his proposition is accepted and immediately forgotten. Barfield chooses the opposite course of speaking about the world as we do in our everyday worlds. By not requiring us to depart our everyday frame of mind, he confronts his real target- our everyday beliefs inherent in reality as we experience it. The ones we sink back into as soon as we put the books down for a few hours. What Barfield is doing is assuming that what we say we intellectually believe is true about epistemology, let’s speak in everyday terms as if we really mean what we think. A neurologist like Antonio Damasio can say that what we really experience about a phenomena like a Tiger is really a neural map, so the everyday language version is, my mind and the Tiger are the same thing.[1] Barfield projects a totalizing portrayal and achieves a stark, if surreal contrast with the world we thought we understood.
7. Barfield believes subjective idealism is mistaken[2]: Although we are one with the phenomenological Tiger and it is all that we can meaningfully speak about, the representation signifies the mass of “particles” outside of our awareness that we call the Tiger. The representation performs as a metaphor does in signifying a “something else”. Considered independently, the representation is a fiction. In the dynamic process of participation, our minds respond to the resistance presented by the unrepresented, and the configuration of representations shifts to better model the unfolding phenomena. Subjective idealism ignores the participatory nature of each of the elements that together make up the rainbow. Its model is one of projection[3] where the particles essentially behave passively as a motion picture screen upon which we shine our representations. Barfield’s metaphor for the subjective idealist’s perspective is a man with a box for a head and with holes from which light illuminates the world. Barfield thinks subjective idealists err in believing that representations are in some way as real or more real than the unrepresented objective world that exists independent of our awareness. The term “Objective realism” has been offered to describe Barfield’s type of position.[4]
8. The dualisms of cognition are epistemological illusions[5]. Examples: Mind ↔ Nature; Subjective ↔ Objective; Mind ↔Body. A more accurate way is to view such dualisms is as Coleridge did: two poles between which lies a continuous spectrum of intermediate states that violate the law of the excluded middle. Barfield denies any dualism in the phenomenal world, and so nearly everything he has to say in his system takes an unabashed monist stance. Barfield believes there is an existence independent of man’s awareness, and so his ontology might appear to be dualist in the sense that Tillich’s concept of God above God may technically be viewed as presenting a dualistic view.
9. Barfield is not even technically dualist. He believes that Mind and Nature are of the same stuff. There is no outside, and when he acknowleges there is an “unrepresented” outside our awareness, it is only that we are unaware of it, not that there is any kind of unbridgeable gulf or lack of unity with it. In Tillichean Christian terms, the substance that is both Mind and Nature is the Ground of Being. Both our Mind and Nature are all within God. There is no gulf between Man and existence because there is a source of the infinite within man. (indwelling Jesus and Holy Spirit). Barfield does use Christian language to describe the source of access to the infinite, but does not use existential language such as “Ground of Being” to describe the unity of the classic dualisms.
10. We have many terms to associate with the “really real” reality- matter, nature, or the term “objective” of the subject/ object dichotomy. When Barfield uses these terms, he is not referring to the unrepresented world independent of our awareness, but instead is speaking about our bubble world[6].
Illustrative examples of what the unrepresented is not:
  •  the object side when gives his response to the subject object problem.
  • “Matter” as in what some assume to be his argument that mind precedes matter. Yes, he does believe mind does precedes representations of matter. Nowhere does Barfield even vaguely hint that Mind ontologically precedes the unrepresented.
  •  Not the Objects in themselves (‘Ding an sich’ of the Noumenal world). The unrepresented content of the Noumenal world cannot be refered to as objects. Any such term implies figuration into an object thereby making it a representation. Such representations are not an approximate of some “real” object behind the appearances. There is an underdetermination problem with the unrepresented matter that occupies the space where the table sits. For example, alternative representations are not just alternative properties of the same set of referred to particles, but representations that only partially overlap the same particles. For example, a termite’s phenomenal view, where the wood portion of the table abutting the wood wainscoting on the wall is viewed as part of the same edible object, while the inedible formica top and metal legs of the table are not.
11. Anthropocentrism. Barfield believes that without careful attention, our representations fall into anthropocentrism. Barfield has a general critique of any approach that suggests it is possible to escape the epistemological problem of the viewer of the rainbow. If our consciousness is only capable of participation, then in terms of the rainbow metaphor, if we take the eye out of the inter relationship between light, water droplets and the eye, then there is no rainbow- that is, no phenomenal world to speak about. The only thing we know is the phenomenal world, and so Barfield considers discussions of the world minus the perceiver as having as much meaning as a discussion of an unseen rainbow.
12. Barfield believes scientific realism is guilty of anthropocentrism. Representations are necessarily products of human thought, but when a representation saves the appearances so well that we regard it as identical to truth, we are guilty of anthropomorphizing truth. This is what Barfield decries as idolatry. Instead of signifying the grandeur of Being, those living amongst the silenced representations are persistently reminded of the emptiness that attends human hubris.
13. Barfield makes a statement that as we represent more of unrepresented truth, then members of the set of the unrepresented are subtracted[7]. (SA153) This does not mean the unrepresented is in any way finite or theoretically representable in any ultimate sense. One argument for this inferred meaning is the following: Barfield makes it clear he believes God is beyond the representations. If the infinity of his nature is unrepresented, then Barfield believes the set of the represented may be have its members reduced without limit. The dimensions of the unrepresented is staggering.
14. The source of meaning which lies deep within us is accessed with what we call the imagination but currently its exercise is typically unconscious and passive participant in its workings. We must progress from the unconscious, passive process of inspiration to an active, conscious process of imagination.

15. Science is not optional. Barfield does not believe that Scientific revolution ought to be undone, that science or scientific method should be made the villain of culture, or that it should be jettisoned in place of something judged more pleasant by romantic extremists. Barfield believes that alternative approaches to the exercise of Imagination will serve to augment rather than compete with science’s irreplaceable role. [HB211]

Theological ideas

16. Christianity optional: Barfield believes that the neither the evolution of consciousness nor final participation requires acceptance of Christianity or any of its doctrines. Nonetheless, his exploration of the evolution of consciousness led him to become a devout Christian and he fully expects the relation between the evolution and Christianity would be self evident to those who study it. There is no formal or necessary linkage though, stating that it is compatible with humanist positions and that it is possible to come to the conclusion that the evolution or the nature and destiny of participation is real without reference to any religious events. (RM5)
17. Barfield believes that the source of revelation about truth is internal though not human. The sources of inspiration/ Imagination are variously described as the light of the Logos, or the Holy spirit. It can be conscious or unconscious and we can interact with it either passively or actively. Barfield believes we are evolving towards final participation where the interaction in meaning making is both conscious and active.
18. Barfield’s conversion from secular agnosticism to Christianity was not based on a of leap of faith, but on direct experience. For him, active participation is a hierophany like experience. (OBB 181)
19. Barfield believes that humanity has a “directionally creator relationship to nature” but that a person’s role is as intermediary. When he quotes Novalis‘ gloss, “Man is the messiah of Nature.”, what he means is that Saving the appearances of the unrepresented of Nature employs a deeply theological meaning in the term “saving”. This suggests impeity and deification of man but this is not what he means. To illustrate, in SA, he quotes the Eccliasticus passage about the Rainbow and the asks, “Do I echo these words less warmly, when I recollect that הוה is creating the rainbow through my eyes? When I know that to think otherwise is an illusion or a pretense?” (SA159) Barfield does not arrogate to human consciousness the source of this creative power, and so the charges concerning the vanity of anthropocentricism reflect a misunderstanding of his position.
20. Similar to Paul Tillich‘s position, Barfield believes all religious representations are fictions, but these symbols can be sacred in the sense that they function within our final participation to point to the Ground of Being. We have not yet evolved the poetic sensibilities sufficient for sustaining this style of consciousness for prolonged periods. This development of our capabilities of consciousness may take several centuries to evolve, and at this point we are barely scratching the surface.
21. In the meantime, RUP (Residue of Unresolved Positivism) will be prevalent, masquerading as a solution to the “anthropocentrism problem” with participation. Barfield would regard object oriented ontologies as in fact idol oriented ontologies.
22. Barfield believes as Tillich does that God transcends all categories, but in order to have any meaningful relationship, consciousness requires representations of God. Like Tillich, Barfield firmly believes with religious conviction that the pernicious forces of literalism convert these representations into idols. Barfield believes this principle applies to representations of any truth.

23. Barfield has no sympathy forany form of panpsychism, and holds it in low regard. Panpsychism offers little to distinguish it from the hoped for return to the world of Lévy-Brühl’s participation mystique. Barfield is clear about what he thinks about such nostalgia for the romanticised “good old days” of original participation, and his responses have a deliberately theological and severe tone. Return to any form of original participation would be a grave step backwards for consciousness into the darkness of paganism. (tbd cite- OBB I think)


24. “Anthroposophy” optional: Barfield does not consider it essential we believe any of Rudolf  Steiner‘s assertions of fact such as how the heart works, the much younger age of fossils or the existence of previous versions of earth during hitherto unknown periods of prehistory when the forces of nature behaved differently.. Barfield also does not think it essential to that the world adhere to any of Steiner’s theological doctrines.(OBB 42) Examples of these doctrine: reincarnation, the existence of an etheric plane, the pantheon of demi-gods (archangels) and not previously known activities of theirs in the affairs of the world..
25. Barfield does believe in Steinerian “spoon bending” / “occult” phenomena in the following sense: As each generation bends the representations, the phenomenal world based on those representations also bends. Culture does this sort of bending whether we are conscious of it or not. Barfield believes we must adopt from anthropsophy the mission of becoming conscious of and expanding our involvement with our participation with the representations. The particular formulation of how this process is executed by the system of anthroposophy with its attendant set of peculiar representations was viewed as so essential to Barfield that he risked his marriage over it. However there is nothing to indicate that if there was an alternate system that filled the same mission that Barfield would have anything but praise for it.
26. Occult direct contact. Barfield believes in the anthroposophical position that it is possible to make a direct connection with the noemenal world, and that it is possible to speak accurately and discursively of knowlege so gained from the supersensible realm. He declines to defend philosophically how this sort of thing is possible and instead points to the writings of Steiner. (OBB120)[8]
27. Steiner as an authority.[9] Barfield sincerely and steadfastly believed Steiner was a spiritual master who genuinely possesses occult skills such as clairvoyance . Barfield makes some remarks about signs of Steiner’s authority. For example, although Steiner was untrained in the field of philology, Barfield is so impressed with his knowledge that he remarks that Steiner appears to have forgotten much more than Barfield ever knew.
28. Doesn’t believe Anthroposophy Barfield asks, “What is anthroposophy? Believing (some would answer) without a shred of evidence, everything that Steiner had to say.” On the contrary, Barfield states this knowledge is intended only to signify, not to be taken literally. He quotes Steiner as urging his listeners to: “Think these thoughts without believing them”. Barfield states, “I cannot think it is unduly paradoxical to say, that it is really a kind of betrayal of the founder of anthroposophy to believe what he said. He poured out his assertions because he trusted his hearers not to believe.” To be an anthroposophist “is to refrain from uniting oneself with words, in the humble endeavor to unite oneself with the Word”. (Logos as in the beginning of the fourth Gospel).[10] (quotes from RCA 60-1)

Commentary from “Swarmers” working group

notations:  (JM=John J. Messerly, MT= Mak Thorpe, GB=Gene Blackstock, RH=Robert Hester, PC=Paul Climacus)

JMesserly positions:
JM generally agrees with Barfield’s positions but parts company with respect to doctrines of anthroposophy (such as reincarnation, the pantheon of demi-gods “archangels”) or Steiner’s so called “scientific” facts acquired through occult practices. JM doesn’t have any problem with particular mental exercises that have the goal of increasing the awareness of one’s participation in the phenomenal world. JM also does not have any problem with anthroposophy’s so called scientific facts so long as participants are in everyday experience understanding that they are “not to be believed” as Barfield states. (RCA 60)
Barfield is not a theologican though he does offer powerful ideas useful for the purposes of Christian reply (apologetics). Barfield fleshes particular theological ideas in great detail, but the overall system is unstated. Paul Tillich offers an ontological framework that Barfield might have found harmonious, however JM has little direct evidence that Barfield would find such an existential formulation consonant with his thought. To JM’s knowledge, Barfield never made any statements regarding Tillich or any of the neo orthodox christian theologians (Barth, Bultmann, Niebuhr). He would probably be wary of the pantheistic feeling of Tillich’s concept of the unmanifest /can’t make any concepts about it/ can only make self negating statements about / “God above god”. If so, this sort of problem would be due to the way the abstract expression must be formed. Although a pluralist, Tillich does think pantheism has crucial weaknesses, and so a less pantheistic self negating statement would probably be mutually agreeable.
For the theology that Barfield is explicit on, JM follows Barfield on trinitarianism, especially the significance of the Holy Spirit to romantic notions of the imagination, and the historical significance of the Incarnation in the evolution of consciousness.
“12” Christianity optional. RH strongly disagrees. RH is concerned about the possibility of much higher incidence of bold acts of evil made possible due to the absence of some sort of moral and spiritual structure (whether this structure is secular or religious is not the issue). If the force of Imagination is arrogated to the personality, rather than to an entity the individual is humble before, then there is significant danger of self inflation and temptation by the powers made available.
“26,27” Occult direct contact/ Steiner as authority JM and MT disagree w/ B. Barfield does not provide support for this position, and both MT and JM maintains extremely skeptical viewpoint. JM does not doubt the experience of clairvoyance and other occult states of mind, but does believe that even in this case, intermediate representations of consciousness are employed and so are also fictions. Such experiences must not be taken as revealing literal truth, though they may contain insights that can be corroborated.. Theologically, the Holy spirit might inspire very accurate insights, but could miss entirely, such as in Steiner’s case his elaborate account of prehistory, asserting events such as the emergence of mammals occurred much more recently. This is a clear test case for anthroposophy’s claim of a an ability for trained consciousness to make occult contact with objective truth. His account of prehistory is central to anthroposophical thought, but if shown to be false casts doubt not just on a particular doctrine, but the very validity of Steiner’s occult method of cognition. Anyway, his “scientific findings” are at odds with a mass of fossil evidence so overwhelming that Steiner’s extraordinary claims requires extraordinary proof. Somehow, fossils must either be shown to be a lot younger than they appear to be, or God is foisting an incredibly meticulous hoax on humanity. Anthroposophists make embarrassingly dishonest attacks- for example attempting to call into question whether radio carbon dating works. (One online example here).
28. Doesn’t believe Anthroposophy. JM, MT, RH find this welcome. A question remains about whether what is meant is “It should not be believed but it should be accepted [in some non belief way].” If that is what is intended, then some major questions are raised. It is unclear at this point is narrowly a statement about belief as a way of knowing versus some esotieric Anthroposophical way that is other than the “faith” (wordless knowing) described in RCA61.


Abbreviations for book refereneces:
OBB OwenBarfield, a Biography, by Simon Blaxland de Lange
RM= Rediscovery of Meaning, by Owen Barfield
RCA= Romanticism comes of Age by Owen Barfield
SA=Saving the Appearances, by Owen Barfield

[1]One might claim this point is refuted by the Tiger when he crushes the skull and eats the brain of a Sadhu (Indian ascetic). On the other hand, as to be accurate, the neural map for the Tiger is indeed modeling the consumption of what another neural map models as the Sadhu’body.. Barfield does not make this point that I know of, but we have substantial survival mechanisms against thinking of the Mind and the Lion as the same thing. Our representations are usually not in the habit of eating us (though this might be an apt metaphor for what they do to our minds).
[2]“I think the general position of subjective idealism is that there are two kinds of idealism, one being a Platonic idealism where the ideas are conceived as having a kind of independent, separate existence of their own, whereas subjective idealism treats ideas as a subjective process in individual human minds but nevertheless, in the development of this philosophy, it presents them as being more real than the objective world… You can say, then, that the subjective idealists see the two disjunctively: either you believe in Platonic Ideas or you believe in ideas more in the modern sense, but nevertheless also conceive of those ideas as being in some way as real, or more real, than the objective world.” (SP 18) The representations are not more real than that which they represent.
[3]tbd- cite RM, maybe the projection stuff is in self and reality or the science essay following.
[5]This is separate from John Searle’s important point that most dualisms are so sloppy they present false dilemnas.
[6]Barfield used a metaphor similar to the contemporary one of the bubble (eg. “inside the beltway bubble”). In the “Great War” with C. S. Lewis, Barfield used the term “Hoti sphere. (Greek senses “as concerning that” or “as though” may be what was intended.)
[7]Actual quote: “For sensation and figuration are the- at present unconscious- moment in which we actually meet the unrepresented (or at least, encounter its resistance) in experience… In this way we should gradually eliminate the unrepresented by rendering it phenomenal.”
[8]The description in OBB implies perception without representation, an idea that appears to be disallowed by everything Barfield has written about perception. Further, for someone who highly prized logic and that philosophy was a way of living, the phrases “brain-free thinking” or “brain-free cognition” seem uncharacteristically undeveloped. My conjecture is that Barfield adheres to the position because the practices seem to deliver insights as Steiner promises, and that he did not have arguments (or possibly experience) he felt he required to directly challenge (or support) his spiritual Master . There are some hints of the challenges facing him. In the context of discussing Capra, Barfield states, “Language that purports to transcend logic will ipso facto sometimes lack logical substance.” As in the discussion of ontological category “the unrepresented” Barfield is evasive when he does not have certainty of his logic and his command of the language required to provide discursively descriptions of the concepts.
[9]Speculation: It might be that Barfield felt that a spiritual leader was needed, as forseen by Coleridge in order to sort out private hallucination from genuine contact with truth. One commentator on Coleridge notes:
Like Carlyle, Newman, and Arnold, Coleridge later devises a program to supply a variety of external evidence: public authority testifying to the validity of spiritual truths and values. In each of these programs, the spiritual leader is one who has greatest insight into both spiritual values and “things as they are.” Such public authority establishes the difference between genuine inner evidence and mere self-delusion, and thus bridges the destructive gap between private, emotional belief, and public, intellectual fact. In tracing Coleridge’s crisis of belief, as presented in Biographia Literaria, we will see how his reconciliation of the competing ontologies of science and religion paradoxically enforces both the value of contemplation as the individual’s best guide to moral truth, and the authority of organized religion as a crucial support for the unity of the self. (source)
[10]This engagement with a symbol while not taking it literally (believing it) heavily echos what Tillich says about the symbols of God (the father, the son, the Holy spirit).

About John JMesserly

Mostly harmless

Posted on 2011-11-05, in collective consciousness, ontology, Owen Barfield, philosophy, reality bending. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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