Friday, 12 April 2019

Response to Steiner Studies video on Owen Barfield Saving the Appearances

I have been invited by the Steiner studies channel to do a response video to his video on Owen Barfield’s book “Saving the Appearances” and it’s relationship to Steiner’s thought. I have previously done one video on Barfield which was cut off due to environmental noise, I intended to do a follow up, but I am thinking that it would be good to do a number of videos. Originally I had thought I would need to get a full understanding of Barfield’s work, but I think instead I’ll treat it as a work in progress, where the act of making the video is the means by which I grapple with his thought..

So lets start Steiner Studies rolling the original video, I’ll put a link to the original video in the description:

I have been thinking about Owen Barfield and his book “Saving the appearances” Barfield is a very interesting writer thinker and one of the great interpreters of Rudolf Steiner’s work. And his book saving the appearances is his seminal philosophical work. Originally he intended it to be a book to make the case for Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy and spiritual science, but the book became it’s own thing it became self contained.
Now I haven’t done any videos on Rudolf Steiner and he is certainly a hard person to explain, I am not an expert of Steiner and I think it is very difficult thing to be. I also think he is a very difficult thinker to grapple with for quite a few reasons. 

So a few words about Steiner. he was born in Austria in 1861 and lived till 1925. He was a gifted student and his first major claim to fame was editing Goethe’s scientific papers, this lead to his first book “A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception” which was followed by his original work “The Philosophy of Freedom”   which Steiner continued to think of throughout his life as his seminal work. I feel a sense of jeopardy in trying to characterise this book, I’d say it was a theory that posited that  in true thinking we could both grapple with reality and find individual Freedom. 
Neither of these books made much of a splash at the time and I feel few have really tried to grapple with them and their influence may be yet to come. However Steiner has been an influential figure,  here in New Zealand for instance,  half way around the world from where Steiner was born we have Waldorf kindergartens and schools based on Steiner’s education theories. Biodynamic farming also came about by farmers seeking advice from Steiner. Such influences have not endeared him to the academic Intelligencia. 
Then there is Anthroposophy which Steiner foundered, this came about by being asked to give a talk to the Theosophical Society and from this he started to acquire a genuine following, he became the leader of the Austian/German branch of the Theosophical society. Many people have assumed from this that Steiner’s thought has its genesis in Helena Blavatsky’s work. Steiner has always denied this saying he always spoke from his own spiritual sight and Steiner parted from the Theosophical society to found the Anthroposophical society. He wrote a good number of books on Anthroposophy and delivered a huge number of lecture series that were recorded and have been issued in book form.  This large body of Anthroposophical work has effected the way people look at Steiner for the intensely spiritually inclined it has been a source of attraction but for many Atheists and Christians it has served as an easy excuse to ignore him. Owen Barfield certainly did not do so.

However there is a very close relationship between Saving the Appearances and Steiner’s philosophy and I wanted to talk about that relationship a little bit because there does seem to be an apparent tension between Saving the Appearances and Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom or Steiner’s Epistomology  and I want to go into that tension a little bit because I think that tension reveals something about both Barfield and Steiner. 

Now Barfield was a member of the writers circle known as the Inkling, he was a friend of CS Lewis and Tolkien. He was an influence upon Lewis becoming a Theist, but he did not have the religious upbringing that Lewis had. Barfield’s early books the fairytale The Silver Trumpet was the first mythic publication i think by an Inkling. Further his two books a history in English Words and poetic Diction were quite influential on Tolkien’s thinking on language and the nature of mind. I am pretty sure these were developed prior to his discovery of Steiner, so Barfield’s discovery of Steiner was one of convergence rather than conversion. There is never a sense that Barfield is being constrained by Steiner’s thought but that of joyful sharing. But as Steiner’s early books were pretty much ignored so  Barfield also has been on the outside of intellectual fashion and there has been little engagement with his work. Even his good friend Lewis on becoming a Christian refused to continue their intellectual fight.

First of all where is the tension coming from? Barfield goes to great lengths in the first part of his book. to demonstrate and prove that the world of appearances and everything around us that we touch smell see hear feel is just a system of collective representation. That is to say a system of mental representation. Representation within our mind that just happens to have a mind happens to have the same collective representation. 

My feeling on this is that there is always a caveat with Barfield and what he is doing here is leading us from what is the common currently accepted world view. The subtitle to Saving the Appearances is “A study in Idolatry” what he is trying to show us is that there is an idolatry in this modern world view that is shared by almost everyone. 

Now you might say this sounds an awful lot like someone like Kant or Schopenhauer would say. That is that the world is a mental representation so Barfield sounds like he is on the side of the Kantians. Who both of these thinkers Steiner goes at great length to argue against.So why is Barfield in the side of the idea that the world is a mental representation.

I just want to say a little about Steiner and Kant that comes from Steiner’s Autobiography which I   think is one of his key works. As a young man Steiner was compelled to get and understand Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Steiner says “In my boyish way I was striving to understand what human reason might be able to achieve towards real insight into the being of things” And Steiner tells of the intensity of his reading of Kant, he writes  “Many a page I read more than 20 times in succession. I wanted to reach a decision as to the relation sustained by human thought to the creative work of nature.” Steiner goes on to say “It seemed to me that thinking could be developed to a faculty  which would actually lay hold upon the things and events of the world. A “stuff which remains outside of the thinking which we can merely “think towards” seemed to me to be an unendurable conception.” Steiner then makes a remark that is key to his work as a whole and where he diverges from Kant “ Whatever is in things, this must also be inside of human thought.”

My favourite contemporary Christian thinker is David Bentley Hart and i want to quote him to show that these concerns aren’t unique to Barfield and Steiner. I have stressed that “thinking” for Steiner and Barfield is an incredibly important process, in my previous Barfield video I talked about the different kinds of thinking that Barfield delineated. Hart has spoken a lot about Modernity, the last 400 years, and the rise of science and the predominance of a certain kind of thought, which Barfield designates as alpha thinking. Hart writes:

The question is not quite as facetious as it might sound; it is really rather metaphysical; and it is a question that will ever more inevitably pose itself the more the sciences find themselves constrained rather than liberated by the mechanistic paradigm to which they have been committed for four centuries now. I should note, however, that it is also a question that makes sense only if one is using the word “think” with the perversely distinctive connotation given it by Martin Heidegger when he advanced the somewhat Orphic claim that “”science does not think.” For there is, he insisted, an enormous and inviolable distinction to be drawn between the calculative and quantitative concerns of the scientist on the one hand and, on the other, the properly philosophical or contemplative act of reflection that is the exclusive province of the genuine thinker.

I’ll link to the entire article in the description. 
This is not a negative value judgement on the intelligence of scientists, but a comment on the nature of their thinking, and they share suppositions that are now common to the general population that developed in modernity and which are unquestionably accepted but which is not common to human thinking throughout history. Barfield sees an Idolatry in these unquestioned suppositions.

And yet at the same time Barfield is trying to express and justify Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy. In the course of the book and towards the end of the book Barfield writes an interesting passage he says we cannot save souls unless we first save the appearances and of course hence the title of the book so this is an important passage in the book. He says we cannot save souls unless we first save the appearances. I think it’s in this sentence where Barfield and Steiner meet and where the tension is resolved. But what does this mean Saving Souls?

This is a fascinating quote from Barfield and very important and I agree that it is in harmony with Steiner, I’ll quote the full paragraph shortly but I’d say that the tension is not so much between Barfield and Steiner’s thought as between Steiner’s thought and  our common cultural inheritance which Barfield is addressing. The resolution between Steiner and Barfield is in thinking, which Barfield spends so much time examining, breaking it down into figuration, alpha and beta thinking. The nature of language it’s origins and development. In humanities earlier state of Participation and our coming state of final participation. All this strikes me as a reformation of ideas  essential to Steiner’s thought.

To repeat Steiner’s statement earlier:

“ Whatever is in things, this must also be inside of human thought.”

Now I’ll read the paragraph from Barfield on Saving Souls and saving the appearances:

it may be objected that all this talk of the relation of man to the phenomenal world is cold stuff having little or nothing to do with religion, whose field is the soul and its salvation, But this “watertight” attitude is itself a product of idolatry. What the psalmist wrote of the old idols is true of the twentieth century. “They that make them are like unto them” The soul is in a manner all things, and the idols we create are built into the souls of our children; who learn more and more to think of themselves as objects among objects; who grow hollower and hollower. In the long run we shall not be able to save souls without saving the appearances, and it is an error fraught with the most terrible consequences to think that  we shall. 

Woe, this gets at the heart of the issue for me. Our modern thinking and perception has problems in it that effect both the secular and the religious. I have felt for a long time that the fundamentalist that see authority “out there” in the good book, are not that far from the scientist who seeks the answers “out there” in matter. Meaning and participation are not found there. Barfield is saying this is the reason that religion and culture is in crisis in the west.

Another way we could express saving the Appearances would be to say if we believe   that the world is a mere representation within our subjective mind then if we can demonstrate that the world of appearance has an actual life in it and has its own reality then simultaneously we can see that within our own minds there is something real and living so by coming to a new relationship towards the appearances we are simultaneously able to elevate our own conception of our own minds from the mere projection of the unrepresented particles into something living and real and I’d imagine that this is where Barfield’s Saving the Appearances comes into harmony with Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom.

I think you’ve touched on the heart of it here when you say “within our own minds there is something real and living” which is another way of expressing Steiner’s statement

“Whatever is in things, this must also be inside of human thought.”

When two people look at the same chair their perceptions are different in and of themselves, but the perceptions in and of themselves never make up the chair, the chair exists when those perceptions are integrated into the conception of the chair and strangely it is that conception that is shared between the two people and it is in this shared conception that they experience the same chair.

So thanks again Steiner Studies for inviting a response. I think there is plenty more scope for further exploration.

Original Steiner Studies Video:

Should Science Think? David Bentley Hart:

My previous Owen Barfield video: