Barfield began to work out why his newfound spiritual perception was not fanciful and located the reason in language.
Words have meaning, he said, stating the obvious. No-one can deny that. And they have meaning because they are not like the algebraic signs of abstract logic: x, y, α, β. Rather, they share in what they describe via metaphor. They channel.
Even scientific words make direct links to the richness of reality, and draw on that vitality. If they didn’t, scientific theories would become uncoupled from the world and self-empty of meaning. Barfield was on the side of those who resist the kind of science that becomes “life-blind”, as the philosopher of science, Mary Midgley, calls it.
Think of a few scientific words. “Force”, “machine”, “energy”, “gravity”, “work”, “law”, “evolution”, “adaptation”, “fitness”.
They’re all metaphors at root, which becomes clear when they are used in other contexts. “The force of his will.” “The machinations of the princess.” “She has gravitas.” “It’s fit for the gods.”
Just because they are used as scientific terms, doesn’t mean that “force”, “machine”, “gravity”, “fitness” suddenly become colourless ciphers. They retain the potency that is instrumental in detecting the phenomena they describe.
For example, some objected to Newton’s revolutionary theory of forces and gravity when it first appeared because they didn’t like the assertion that there are such things as forces and gravity in nature. Newton’s great rival, Leibnitz, thought that gravity makes sense when referring to human qualities – “She has gravitas” – but becomes pure superstition when used to describe an occult attraction between celestial bodies separated from one another over great distance.
But Newton’s new use of the word “gravity” stuck and it did so because the word has real meaning in its new context. It connects with one aspect of the liveliness of the world, in this case a quality of attraction, and communicates that quality to us. So, too, with other words. Further, it must also be the case that the minds that use such words participate in the liveliness too, directly or indirectly.
This is the secret life of words. They can turn a vague feeling into a clear thought. They are as much like a conjuror’s spell as a logician’s label. They are full of “bottled sunshine,” Barfield said. They have soul. He was to spend the rest of his life unpacking the implications of this point for humanity, the meaning of religion, and the significance of consciousness.