Barfield: Saving the Appearances

March 3, 2016

Saving the Appearances
A Study in Idolatry
Owen Barfield
(Harcourt Brace, 1957)
190 p.

I forget exactly how it came about that I added Saving the Appearances to my reading list some years ago. I expect that it may have been under the influence of C.S. Lewis, who knew Barfield well and once called him “the best and wisest of my unofficial teachers”. One of the more memorable sections of Lewis’ wonderful book The Discarded Image appears to have been inspired directly by the present book, so perhaps that was the connection that brought me here.

Saving the Appearances is a book that digs down to bedrock, and then keeps digging. Things you may think of as basic and uncontroversial are interrogated and made doubtful. As he says, “a great deal of the complexity of my argument is due to the deep-seated error, with its consequently innumerable ramifications, which that argument has sought to unravel”. It’s a rather difficult book in that respect, full of unfamiliar ideas — unfamiliar to me, at least. One of the many questions I have about the book is whether the ideas he presents, and the language in which he presents them, are original with him or are part of a larger conversation that I’ve not been aware of until now. Sprinkled through the text are references to anthropologists like Durkheim and Levy-Bruhl, so perhaps his jargon and his approach is borrowed, at least in part, from them.

Roughly speaking, the book is an examination of how modern Westerners experience the world, and how that mode of experience differs from that prevalent in other cultures and earlier periods in our own culture. And by “experience” I mean something very basic: the very way in which we perceive things, prior to any conscious or reflective engagement with them. It is a book about philosophy of perception, philosophy of nature, epistemology, culture, history, and religion. It covers a lot of ground in a short space, and raises more questions than it answers.

Barfield begins by defining a few terms on which he relies throughout, and I cannot see how to summarize his argument without first doing the same.

One basic idea is that of a “representation”, which he variously defines as “something I perceive”, or “something experienced”. It is not the thing itself (which he calls, by contrast, “the unrepresented”), but a mental construction which, generally below the level of consciousness, folds in sensory data, beliefs, memories, imagination, and feeling. We do not perceive with our senses alone, but with our whole being. As we mature we quite naturally compare our private representations with those of others, and adjust them accordingly. The result is a set of “collective representations”, which are cultural in scope, and which reflect those aspects of things which a particular culture thinks worthy of attention. Collective representations affect our most basic apprehension of the world; they are the phenomena we experience. For Barfield, the world as we experience it is a system of collective representations.

A second key idea is what he calls “participation”. It is more difficult to grasp, for reasons that will become clear shortly, but it means something like this: the activity of the mind whereby things are experienced as full of meaning, charged with a significance that is at once natural and also personal. A participating consciousness experiences an object not simply as an inert thing, but as a kind of window into another or deeper reality, a reality within which a being like us faces back toward us, as in a mirror. Again, participation is not, at this point, to be thought of as a self-conscious or reflective process, but as an immediate one. In participation, there is a general “entanglement of subject and object, of psychology and natural history, of divine and human, of word and thing.”

It might also seem a strange idea, but he, citing the work of anthropologists, argues that in fact it is the near-universal mode of consciousness for humanity. Consider, as a case in point, medieval Europe. Their sensory experiences were the same as ours, naturally, but their collective representations were different, and their consciousness was participatory. They thought it natural that literal and symbolic significance be conjoined in things. Barfield argues that they not only attributed symbolic meaning to things, but actually experienced things as having symbolic resonances. To them this was not, as it seems to us, a superfluous patina on top of raw experience; it was raw. For a medieval person, “the ordinary way of looking at, and of thinking about, phenomena, was to look at and to think about them as appearances — representations. For which, therefore, knowledge was defined, not as the devising of hypotheses, but as an act of union with the represented behind the representation.” Reading this, anyone with experience of medieval Scriptural exegesis or medieval epistemology is going to feel the hair on his arms standing up, because this is exactly right. And since participation involves one in a personal encounter with significance-laden phenomena, it naturally informed and influenced their religious experience. “For medieval man, then, the world was a sort of theophany, in which he participated at different levels, in being, in thinking, in speaking or naming, and in knowing.”

(It as at this point that Barfield makes the suggestion that the reader might walk out at night and make the imaginative effort to put oneself in the mindset of a medieval person looking at the starry sky, a suggestion followed up and realized so memorably by C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image.)

On the other hand, our culture — and by this I mean Western modernity — is distinctive, and perhaps unique, in this respect: we are generally not aware that our representations are representations. We do not think that we participate in phenomena; to us the things we encounter in the world are independent of us, and intrinsically meaningless. They are “facts”. Such representations, which are not experienced as such, Barfield calls idols. The term is potentially misleading, as we’ll see in a moment, but what is gained by its use is the resonance with “false idol”, because for him the most important feature of our presumed-to-be-just-there representations is that they are false.

I think Barfield is right that we do take the phenomena of our experience in this way, at least most of the time. But if that is so, why is it so? If we are different from other cultures in this respect, how did we come to be different?

Barfield argues that there have been two historical movements that have undone the psychology of participation, and we have been influenced by both. The first is the one that comes immediately to mind: the scientific revolution. The scientific revolution was a movement from an awareness of the meaning of phenomena to a preoccupation with the phenomena themselves. Its architects aimed to abstract those aspects of the natural world that could be treated mathematically, and were therefore “objective”. All else receded into the mind and the realm of the “subjective”. And, as Burtt argued so convincingly in his history of early modern science, what began as a methodological tactic soon became confused with an ontological judgement. To wit: only the mathematical structure of things is truly real. Since purposes (final causes) and essences (formal causes) could not be mathematized, they were judged not objective. On such a view, the objects we experience “out there” in the world must be independent of us; they are defined that way. Were we to attribute meaning of any kind to them, we would be making a blunder. In such a world a participating consciousness is throttled.

But there has also been a second cultural stream tending against participation: Judaism. Barfield explains:

The children of Israel became a nation and began their history in the moment when Moses, in the very heart of the ancient Egyptian civilization, delivered to them those ten commandments, which include the unheard-of injunction: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” This is perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened. As far as we know, in every other nation at that time there prevailed unquestioned the participating consciousness which apprehends the phenomena as representations and naturally expresses itself in making images.

For Israel, the natural world is not God, nor are the names of things names of God. The “entanglement of subject and object” which is the mark of participation meets an obstacle. Rather, the natural world was created by God as something independent of and distinct from Him, and it lacks the quality of personal disclosure that is perceived by a participatory mind. The many injunctions against idol worship in the Hebrew Scriptures take on fresh significance in this light: for Israel’s neighbours, idols were not merely objects, but entities charged with meaning, for such they naturally appear to a participating consciousness. But the Psalmist insists, over and over again, that idols have no “within”; they are merely things, dead in themselves, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. Such phrases were not empty rhetoric; they were aptly phrased assaults on a prevailing temptation.

Now, there are certain advantages to idolatry (in Barfield’s sense). There is no doubt that the methods and abstractions characteristic of our scientific age have given us an unprecedented ability to manipulate nature for our own ends, and we have all benefited in many ways from that ability. The modern attitude to nature has also opened up a new way of relating to it emotionally, a way in which her difference from us is part of the attraction. Think of a naturalist’s selfless and attentive love for the natural world. But we have lost something as well, not least a sense of continuity with our ancestors. Take again the case of Scriptural interpretation, a practice which straddles the historical divide between the ancient world and ours. For a non-participating consciousness like ours, a text is either an historical record or a symbolic representation, but not both. For earlier readers in our tradition it could be both. In fact, the traditional account of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments assumed a participating consciousness, so much so that Barfield concludes that “in one most real sense, the Old Testament was lost with the Reformation”.

Barfield perceived a kind of revival of participation in the early twentieth-century. Not that it was entirely dead prior to that, of course. He points to Blake and Goethe as major figures who had very strong instincts toward participation, and such instincts set them very much at odds with their times. But he caught the scent of participation — an appreciation that things can bear intrinsic symbolic content — especially from Freud and Jung, and he thought this significant because their ideas caught on widely on a cultural level in very short order. Granted, even they made only partial steps: for Freud, symbolism was still always in the mind alone, without a real connection to the outside world; Jung, with his ideas about the collective unconscious, went further but not all the way. And, in any case, I think it is fair to say that the Freudian and Jungian moment has passed, leaving little more than a residue. Is participation deader than ever?

Well, maybe not. At the end of the book Barfield raises the prospect of something he calls “final participation”. The idea seems to be that here, on the far side of idolatry, a new kind of participation becomes possible based precisely on a conscious awareness that phenomena are representations. In final participation the percipient knows that he is involved in creating representations, and his imagination enters into the process directly. How this can elude the veto cast by the non-participating mind is hard to understand: isn’t this exactly the “gloss” that the parsimonious literalist objects to? But Barfield contends that either we will find a way to final participation or proceed further and further into idolatry and the elimination of participation, but elimination of participation is the elimination of meaning and coherence from the cosmos.

In his final pages he turns to consider the sacramental system of Christianity, one of the very few contexts in the modern world where things retain a sense of the “within”, of being more than just themselves, that is characteristic of participation. “The tender shoot of final participation,” he writes, “has from the first been acknowledged and protected by the Church in the institution of the Eucharist… In the physical act of communion as such, men can only take the Divine substance, the ‘Name apart’ directly into the unconscious part of themselves”. If true, the sacraments are thereby one of the keys to the recovery of meaning and the return of an enchanted world.

***

As I said at the outset, the book raises more questions than it answers. Foremost among them in my mind is a doubt about the meaning of “participation”, which is obviously central to the whole book. I suppose he would say that it is natural for one raised in a non-participatory culture to have trouble with the concept, especially since it is, properly speaking, not a concept at all. Still, I’d have benefited more from the book if it had spelled things out more clearly on this critical point.

Lying beneath this complaint is another set of questions about the metaphysics of “representations”. The usual philosophical bifurcation is between realism and nominalism; in the former, things have real, particular natures independent of human minds and knowledge consists in knowing those natures, and in the latter our categories of thought are mere conventions without any real corresponding structure in the nature of things. The notion of representations seems most consistent with nominalism: on the one side is “the unrepresented”, atoms and the void, which we can never know in itself, and in which there is nothing to know, and on the other side is phenomena, consisting of mental constructions folding together sensory inputs and a variety of mental resources and ingrained habits. Yet at the same time Barfield seems to be taking the position that it is through participation that we know the world most fully and truly, and that idolatry, our besetting sin, alienates us from truth. I worry that he concedes too much to the metaphysics of the materialists when he characterizes “the unrepresented” as merely atoms and the void.

Another question arises from his account of how idolatry triumphed over a participating consciousness in the West. He attributed the victory to the combined efforts of two forces: Judaism and the scientific revolution. Yet we know, from his own arguments, that medieval Europe had a participating consciousness, so it would seem that the scientific revolution was the decisive factor, and that Judaism, despite its influence on Christianity, had little to do with it. And this makes a certain amount of sense, because insofar as participation is naturally expressed through the making of images and the death of participation is accomplished by a prohibition on the making of images, the very fact that in Christianity the prohibition on images was relaxed points to a relaxation of the assault on participation. The same comment can be made about sacramental theology, which seems positively to encourage a participatory consciousness. The possibility remains that Judaism condemned a certain kind of participation (as expressed through the making of idols) but that Christianity permitted another kind. Indeed, Barfield’s closing remarks about the Eucharist, cited above, connect the sacraments to “final participation”, which one only arrives at after having gone through the long dark.

But why does he see in the sacraments a “tender shoot” of final participation, and not a hangover from original participation? After all, the sacraments pre-date the scientific revolution.

I’ve gone on long enough. There is an odd, but interesting and stimulating book.

 

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