When things are not always the same

Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning from David Lavery on Vimeo.

I spent much of my ‘blog sabbatical’ reading Owen Barfield, before finding this short film interviewing the man himself shortly before he died in 1997. It serves as a good introduction.

What interests me is his ideas about how consciousness has evolved. Via etymology and other means, he argues that premodern and prehistoric men and women did not just look at the cosmos in a different way to us; they knew a different cosmos to us because their perception of phenomena was so radically different.

Hence, gods and spirits were not the best explanations they could muster for otherwise inexplicable events and happenings, as if our forebears were wannabe scientists. Rather, they were a sophisticated expression of a cosmos that was alive – a world largely lost to us, as science has been built upon the assumption that the cosmos is matter and matter is mechanical and dead.

Alternatively, the images that prehistoric peoples painted on the walls of caves would not have been a means by which they could understand animals to increase the chances of a successful hunt. That is post-Baconian reasoning, incorporating his philosophy of science based upon discovering a means of controlling nature so as to put it to human ends. Rather, it may have been more like what Georges Bataille thought: cave art expresses our forebears realisation that they were animals and in that very moment feeling themselves to be distanced from other animals, for what other animal realises and expresses as much? There is, then, a corresponding sense alienation from the natural world, and the art perhaps seeks communion with the natural world, or to re-establish our belonging in it.

Barfield called this earlier consciousness ‘participatory’. He argued that we moderns are passing through a phase of alienation – one that objectifies the world and so brings the great goods of science too. But it is not sustainable, because we distantly recall our participation. What we seek, he thought, is ‘final participation’, a form of consciousness that by deploying the analytical mind in conjunction with a more expansive imagination might move us to a phase where we can know ourselves as subjects and objects. Such a sense is not here yet, on the whole, but various individuals capture glimpses of it, and it draws us to itself.

Whatever you make of that future story, Barfield’s ideas about the history of consciousness might change many current debates, not least those in science and religion. Our understanding of religions past would be very different. Our expectations of religions present might be so too.