I read this book with a Tolkien and the Inklings discussion group I’m part of here in Korea. Owen Barfield was one of the Inklings – the Oxford University literary group that included J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. Barfield’s thoughts on semantics and nature apparently influenced his more famous fellows; he also helped develop theosophy and translated Rudolf Steiner. He died relatively recently – 1997 – at the grand old age of 99.
Saving the Appearances starts off pretty innocuously, talking about how perception and reality are necessarily two different things. Barfield uses the example of a rainbow, arguing that the light and the raindrops are not directly perceptible to an observer – they are ‘particles’ or ‘the unrepresented’. He says further that the rainbow doesn’t meaningfully exist without an observer. The emergent phenomenon of the rainbow is a representation – something that can only exist because of the unconscious effect of particles on an observing consciousness.
Anyone who’s ever heard of subatomic particles will immediately understand the logic of this argument. The building blocks of reality are whizzing specks of mostly empty probability and yet we perceive things as solid objects. I couldn’t help thinking that photographic equipment easily proves the existence of rainbow absent a seeing, thinking being (although, of course, someone still needs to look at the resulting photograph).
He goes on to say some interesting things about how the pre-scientific mind may have interacted cognitively with the world. Namely, that, instead of recognising objects, nature itself, as being other entities, it was, to use the cliché, ‘at one with’ nature and things, it saw them as being no different from itself; it was pantheistic. This relationship to the world Barfield names original participation.
From here leads the crux of the book. The rise of Judaeo-Christianity and of science has led humanity to lose all sense of this original participation. Instead of perceiving self and world to be two sides of the same thing, humanity has categorised natural phenomena as other, independent, real, objective. In Barfield’s terms, the representations we perceive have become idols, and we, idolators. The book’s subtitle is A Study in Idolatry.
Original participation is a way of perceiving the world that can never be regained. It would be easy to brand Barfield anti-scientific (and in some senses, he is), but he takes pains to commend much of what science has achieved and he regards the scientific mentality as an inevitable and necessary part of the evolution of human consciousness. The next stage, he argues, is final participation.
I think final participation is not sufficiently explained or explored, but, putting it as best I can, seems to be an imaginitive, creative engagement with phenomena. You might call it a spiritual connection to representations; you might call it a kind of internalised pathetic fallacy.
Towards the end of the book, there’s lots of stuff about Christianity. He appears to regard Jesus as some kind of singularity in history, a fulcrum between original and final participation. Yet the friend who introduced this book to me via the discussion group I mentioned, swears that Barfield is not a Christian, rather a pantheist. Saving the Appearances belies that assertion; he clearly regards Jesus’s life as a divine intervention in history.
Barfield also appears not to believe in prehistory – he continually states that the evolution of consciousness and the evolution of nature have gone hand in hand. The implication being that, in some sense, nature – phenomena – did not exist before there was a consciousness to appreciate it. To put it in a way that I find easier to understand, pre-history is an ineffable wave function that is impossible to collapse without direct observation. Everything we believe about pre-human eras is a model. It’s a useful thing to bear in mind, but the idea that pre-historic plants, animals and geological processes didn’t exist – or can’t be said to have existed – is pretty ludicrous. You might as well say that no one can ever be convicted of a crime unless someone actually observed the perpetrator commit the act.
I think there are two main flaws in Barfield’s thinking. One is his anthropocentrism; the previous paragraph highlights this. Nature doesn’t meaningfully exist without people to, effectively, create it by perceiving it. There is some metaphorical truth to this, but accepting this as literally true seems to be far too great a leap of faith away from a mountain of evidence to the contrary.
The idea of final participation, that the best way to see phenomena is creatively, empathetically, is also very self-centred. The corollary of this is that how you feel about something is more important than the way something actually is. It’s quite a dangerous tendency, in fact. The sun, for instance, may be regarded as a god-like, life-giving, friendly, golden orb in the sky – but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a vast, continuous, cancer-causing thermonuclear explosion.
This leads on to the second main flaw, which is that the book basically urges a synthesis of scientific and creative views of the world – without apparently realising that they’re two different things that exist for two different reasons. Science is a careful attempt to explore and explain nature as objectively as possible. Creativity – spirituality, if you like – is a form of therapy – it’s a way of helping humans feel content in and connected to the world; it’s a way of explaining the world in a way that makes sense to limited human mentality. Science cares nothing for human feelings (except as a field of study); nature cares nothing for its own comprehensibility.
Clearly, both ways of understanding the world are very important for humans; life would be meaningless without art – but it would be intolerable without science. The Darwinian in me wants to point out that science is just an incredibly successful way of regarding the world; spirituality didn’t discover penicillin or put a man on the moon or create the internet.
Saving the Appearances, then, is certainly an interesting book, but ultimately not convincing and not more than a footnote in the debate to which it contributes. Finally, this particular edition – from the Wesleyan University Press – alternates between two (albeit very similar) fonts at random points in the text. Bizarre.
Read Full Post »