Monday, 26 September 2016

Owen Barfield - Saving the Appearances

The Inklings were a small group of Oxford writers and friends who would meet weekly to read aloud and discuss their works in progress. The two most famous members were JRR Tolkien who wrote the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings (these were the first novels I read with pleasure) and C S Lewis who wrote the Narnia books and was influential with his books of Christian apologetics. Tolkien and Lewis' output extend beyond the popular works in very interesting ways.  But there were also two other significant Inklings, Charles Williams who wrote fascinating contemporary novels where the spiritual world would break through into this world and strange books of theology. Lastly there was Owen Barfield.

Barfield isn't as well known as Tolkien and Lewis and this is partly because he can be hard to read, but he influenced them both. He is hard to read largely because his ideas are contrary to so much modern thought and assumptions. Barfield engaged with Lewis in what they termed the Great war. This was a dialogue between them that would lead to Lewis moving from Atheism to Theism and  curing him of his "chronological snobbery", more on that later. Barfield's early fairytale the Silver Trumpet was a success in Tolkien's house and his writing on Language in A History of English Words and Poetic Diction were influential, within the Inklings. Amongst the Inklings he is probably the most significant thinker.

I did find "Saving the Appearances" difficult and I can't describe it as Barfield would, but this could be a very significant book. It is a major reassessment of the way we see ourselves and history, it questions the very nature of the way modern people think. We are used to thinking of the evolution of the external world but we are not used to thinking of the evolution of consciousness, this is an oversight that could have profound repercussions. History is generally written with a contemporary mind or consciousness reinterpreting the past through our sensibility, but if we read works from an earlier time period and we allow ourselves to listen for the meanings and impressions of that time we then start to see a different world view to our own. We see that the issues and significance of ideas and events were different and they had different suppositions.  If we turn from literature and it's relatively small time scales to the sciences that talk confidently about millions of years of geological time, then the possibility of a disconnect and re-interpretation from modern consciousness becomes massive. Barfield makes the observation that when Scientists talk about the distant past, they are inferring how it would appear to a contemporary human being had they been there. But obviously, no contemporary human consciousness was there.

Barfield posits three types of thought. Figuration, Alpha and Beta thinking. The external world only makes sense to us through our original figuration, figuration as I think is mostly our language and underlying thought forms. The basic blocks of our thinking that we participate in when we experience the world. Alpha and beta thinking is abstract thinking not different in kind but in subject. Alpha thinking is thinking about the contents of figuration.  Alpha thinking is about concepts relating to the external world, scientific concepts like gravity, laws of motion are all alpha thinking.  Beta thinking is thinking about thinking i.e. philosophy.

We sort of know that all inquiry begins with consciousness, but then we forget this as we analyse our world, we abstract ourselves and our consciousness from our thoughts of the world. If we look back at the middle ages and before, we see thinking where the nature of the macrocosm cycles through the microcosm. It seems that this abstraction came about not through logical exposition but through the successes of alpha thinking in shaping our world and as the books title says "saving the appearances" that is having concepts that can accommodate that which we see e.g. theories of motion, gravity etc.

That in short are the bare bones of this book, but Barfield thinks about thinking with an intensity that is startling, maybe you won't agree with where he goes with this, but I think he is well worth engaging with.