Friday, April 29, 2011

Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry by Owen Barfield

Owen Barfield's classic text Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (1957) figures centrally in Charlie Citrine's quest for meaning in life in Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift. Bellow's masterpiece makes several references to idolatry and appearances as well as many references to the anthroposophist Rudolph Steiner. These words are well defined in Barfield's text and it pays to familiarize oneself with it.

Barfield graduated from Oxford in 1921 and becdame an attorney, but was best known as a philosopher, but studied philosophy as a non-academic. He died in 1997 at the age of 99. Barield became an anthroposophist after attending a lecture by Rudolf Steiner in 1924. He studied the work and philosophy of Steiner throughout his life and translated some of his works, and had some early essays published in anthroposophical publications. A study of Steiner's basic texts provides information on some of the ideas that influenced Barfield's work, but Barfield's work ought not be considered derivative of Steiner's. Barfield is to Steiner as Steiner was to Goethe.

. Anthroposophy, a philosophy founded by Rudolf Steiner, postulates the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world accessible to direct experience through inner development. More specifically, it aims to develop faculties of perceptive imagination, inspiration and intuition through cultivating a form of thinking independent of sensory experience, and to present the results thus derived in a manner subject to rational verification. In its investigations of the spiritual world, anthroposophy aims to attain the precision and clarity of natural science's investigations of the physical world. Anthroposophical ideas have been applied practically in many areas including Steiner/Waldorf education, special education (most prominently the Camphill Movement), biodynamic agriculture, anthroposophical medicine, ethical banking and the arts. The Anthroposophical Society has its international center at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland (see photo), designed by Steiner himself.

Steiner built upon Goethe's conception of an imaginative power capable of synthesizing the sense-perceptible form of a thing (an image of its outer appearance) and the concept we have of that thing (an image of its inner structure or nature). In Steiner's view, we can overcome the subject-object divide through inner activity, even though all human experience begins by being conditioned by it. In this connection, Steiner examines the step from thinking determined by outer impressions to what he calls sense-free thinking. He characterizes thoughts he considers without sensory content, such as mathematical or logical thoughts, as free deeds. Steiner believed he had thus located the origin of free will in our thinking, and in particular in sense-free thinking. Though not well-known among philosophers, his philosophical work was taken up by Owen Barfield (and through him influenced the Inklings, an Oxford group of Christian writers that included J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis) and Richard Tarnas.

Saving the Appearances. Saving the appearances is an expression that appears in the 8th book of Milton’s Paradise Lost:
Or if they list to try
Conjecture, he his fabric of the heavens
Hath left to their disputes, perhaps to move
His laughter at their quaint opinions wide
Hereafter, when they come to model heaven,
And calculate the stars; how they will wield
The mighty frame; how build, unbuild, contrive,
To save appearances; how gird, the sphere
With centric and eccentric scribbled o’er,
Cycle and epicycle, orb in orb.

The phenomena or appearances, that is, the apparent movement of the heavenly bodies, could be watched by observation. The true knowledge, since it was acquainted with the divine spirits who ensouled or guided the heavenly bodies, had already laid down certain fundamental principles, not derived from observation. It was for the science of astronomy to ‘save’ the ‘appearances’ , that is, the apparent movements of the heavenly bodies, by devising hypothetical patterns of movement, which would account for the appearances without infringing the fundamental principles. The real turning point in astronomy came when Copernicus began to affirm that the heliocentric hypothesis not only saved the appearances but was physically true.

The Rainbow. Barfield argues that the difference between a dream or a hallucination of, say, a rainbow and the sight of an actual rainbow is that—while they are both appearances -- the former is a private appearance, whereas the second is a shared representation. Barfield argues that three components make up an appearance, say, of a real tree: (1) the particles, or what he calls the unrepresented (atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, or quarks) (2) a person's vision, and (3) other sense-perceptions. In the first chapter, he wants to establish that

“the familiar world which we see and know around us -- the blue sky with white clouds in it, the noise of a waterfall or a motor-bus, the shapes of flowers and their scent, the gesture and utterance of animals and the faces of our friends -- the world too, which (apart from the special inquiry of physics) experts of all kinds methodically investigate -- is a system of collective representations. The time comes when one must either accept this as the truth about the world or reject the theories of physics as an elaborate delusion” (p. 18).

Everything in the "world" -- everything that we mean by the "world" -- is a system of collective representations.

Collective Representations. Barfield argues that one of the most important tests in distinguishing between an appearance that is an illusion and a representation of what is real is to resort to judgments by fellow human beings. Our representations must be collective for them to be in any meaningful sense real. Barfield wishes to stress the difference between the collective representations on the one hand and the particles, or the unrepresented, on the other. He wants to establish that

“if the particles, or the unrepresented, are in fact all that is independently there, then the world we all accept as real is in fact a system of collective representation” (p. 20).

In chapter one, Barfield had argued that the particles, or the unrepresented, are the only things that exist independently of human consciousness. Before human beings came into existence, the unrepresented particles existed. But now that human beings exist, when our perceptual systems and our consciousness interact with the particles, a world is produced, which is the world of collective representations.

Figuration. The mind’s conversion of sense contact with the unrepresented into conscious perception requires another process which Barfield terms “figuration.” One does not hear undulating molecules of air, one hears sound; one hears, for example, a thrush singing. To experience that perception it is necessary to hear not with the ears alone but with “all sorts of other things like mental habits, memory, imagination, feeling and (to the extent at least that the act of attention involves it) will.” Without figuration, the familiar world of collective representations would be closed to the mind. Figuration makes thinking possible. Barfield distinguishes two ways of thinking: “alpha-thinking,” that is, thinking about the phenomena that figuration produces as if they were wholly objective and independent of one’s perception—the sort of thinking science generally attempts—and “beta-thinking,” that is, thinking reflexively about the processes of thinking. Through “beta-thinking” one discovers, for example, that the phenomena are not totally outside and independent of oneself. The book’s subsequent investigation into the relation between mind and matter proceeds from this epistemological base.

Participation. Barfield’s term for the interaction of the two is “participation,” a rather difficult concept to grasp in his thought since he uses it to refer to a changing, indeed evolutionary, process that must be grasped analogically. Original participation, the sort experienced by the primitive mentality, is very different from that which is common in the modern West. Citing the findings of anthropology as evidence, Barfield argues that primitive alpha-thinking was substantially different because figuration at that time was different. The primitive mind does not dissociate itself from phenomena—does not, that is, perceive itself as distinct from them, as modern people habitually do. Such a mind, in its act of original participation, perceives representations as synthetic wholes from which the percipient is not distinct, wholes that include an awareness which we no longer have, of an extra-sensory link between the percipient and the representations. This involves, not only that we think differently, but that the phenomena (collective representations) themselves are different.

Idolatry. Idolatry is the effective tendency to abstract the sense-content from the whole representation. Or stated differently (p. 143) idolatry is experiencing objects in their own right existing independently of human consciousness. Barfield refers (p. 176) to the Old Testament discourse on idolatry (from the 135th Psalm):

The idols of the heathen are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. they have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not; They have ears, but they hear not: neither is there any breath in their mouths. They that make them are like unto them: so is every one that trusteth in them.

And Barfield offers (p. 161) his own commentary on it:

What the Psalmist wrote of the old idols is true no less of the idols 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 imagine that we shall.

Barfield makes the point that (p. 112) Moses was angry with his people making idols when he returned with a system of laws from the mountain. He was angry with them for creating idols of gold because he was creating idols of words. The reason the name of God was so rarely spoken by the Jewish people was because the word itself was an idol. Kept in their secret heart of hearts, they took it out and spoke it only on the holiest of occasions.

Humboldt’s Gift. In Bellow’s novel, the protagonist, Charlie Citrine, tires of the splendid ‘veil’ of “appearances” distracting his vision. Refusing to look at the charming view of the French countryside outside his train window, he explains, “I rejected the plastered idols of the Appearances. These idols I had been trained, along with everybody else, to see, and I was tired of their tyranny. I even thought, The painted veil isn’t what it used to be. The damn thing is wearing out…..I was thinking of the power of collective abstractions, and so forth. We crave more than ever the radiant vividness of boundless love, and more and more the barren idols thwart this. A world of categories devoid of spirit waits for life to return” (HG pp. 16-17). These collective abstractions are, of course, Barfield’s collective representations.

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