Barfield and Rorty

I’ve been reading Owen Barfield, his book Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, and finding the book to be really fecund and rich with imaginative thinking and insight.  It is not an easy book, though; and while I keep telling myself there are important concordances between Barfield’s vision and Rorty’s, I haven’t been able to flesh them out yet to my satisfaction.  Now’s the time to do that, if I can!

To begin with, Barfield’s title, Saving the Appearances, refers to his notion that theories and hypotheses of ours do not correspond to some ultimate reality, some ultimate truth or ultimate knowledge, but instead are used to “save the appearances,” to help explain the way things hang together.  Here is Barfield, talking about ancient and medieval astronomy:

The spheres and orbits by which the appearances were to be saved were normally “hypotheses” in the strict sense of the word, that is, assumptions made for the purpose of a particular argument and by the same token not posited as true […] The geometrical paths and movements devised for the planets were, in the minds of those who invented them, hypotheses […] They were arrangements – devices – for saving the appearances; and the Greek and medieval astronomers were not at all disturbed by the fact that the same appearances could be saved by two or more quite different hypotheses […] All that mattered was, which was the simplest and the most convenient for practical purposes; for neither of them had any essential part in truth or knowledge.       

“Neither of them had any essential part in truth or knowledge” – what was important was saving the appearances, finding hypotheses and theories to explain the nature of phenomena, without those theories being taken for an ultimate truth.  Rorty has written as much, when he says, “great scientists invent descriptions of the world which are useful for purposes of prediction and controlling what happens, just as poets and political thinkers invent other descriptions of it for other purposes.  But there is no sense in which any of these descriptions is an accurate representation of the way the world is in itself.”  None of these descriptions, according to Rorty and Barfield, correspond with the “way the world is in itself” – instead, they are hypotheses, theories, that help us to save the appearances.  

Yet I’m sort of side-stepping around Barfield’s main argument, first because I find it to be unsettling, and also because I”m having a hard time articulating it without devolving into bad New Age psychobabble about how we create our own reality, etc.  Perhaps I can start here: why does Barfield title the second half of his book “A Study in Idolatry”?  How does he even define “idolatry”?  For Barfield, idolatry is “the effective tendency to abstract the sense-content from the whole representation and seek that for its own sake, transmuting the admired image into a desired object.”  This kind of makes sense to me and is kind of confusing.  It seems like Barfield is saying that idolatry is like focusing on one part of the picture at the expense of the other parts, and claiming that one part as the whole picture.  Barfield also says, “I have consistently applied the term idol to the collective representations characteristic of today”.  So we might summarize Barfield’s views here as saying that the “collective representations characteristic of today” (our worldviews) are somehow “idolatrous,” because we are not appreciating as much as we can the scene around us, but are focusing on parts of it and claiming those parts as the whole.

What I don’t understand here is essentially what Barfield expects from us.  We are not omniscient creatures.  Why does he seem to expect us to be able to see the total scene?  And if there is no ultimate truth or knowledge, how could there be a total scene, anyways?  Maybe we can say that Barfield doesn’t want us to see the total scene, but more of the scene than we were seeing before. That’s fair.  And I think this is what I was trying to articulate yesterday, by arguing that, for me, certain poets make me aware of more when I read them, and that this awareness can translate off the page and to the world.  It’s as though certain poets (and let’s use “poets” here in the widest sense of the word, a la Rorty, as “one who makes things new,” so anyone, to use Rorty’s example, from Galileo to Yeats and beyond) make us aware of, in Barfield’s words, our “idolatries,” our worshiping of our collective representations, at the expense of fissures in the collective representations, gaps, holes, leaks, etc.  In a way, because poets make things new, we can say that they trouble the curtain of common-sense, and we can use the term common-sense as analagous to “collective representations.”  So I like reading Ashbery and looking at Porter’s Founds because they make things new, they make me more aware of our typical ways of looking and thinking by serving both as mirrors and alternatives.


Okay, great.  But I still haven’t started talking about Barfield’s main argument – I think because it is so strange that it makes me uncomfortable.  But I want to try and articulate it, because it seems important.  Barfield argues that our collective representations, our worldviews, our common sense, changes.  In other words, to use his words, that our “consciousness evolves,” and as it does, our worldviews change, our thinking changes, our seeing the world changes.  But that’s not the radical part.  Here it is: according to Barfield, there is a correlation between change in consciousness and change in the phenomena that that consciousness perceives.  In other words, people who lived in a pre-scientific world were not like living in our world, only with different worldviews; the actual world was different, because the consciousness was different.  The phenomena was different.  So the sky they saw was different, the rocks they saw was different, even the meanings of their words was different.  And this is harder to wrap my head around.

And then, one more thing: Barfield argues that in pre-scientific times, people were somehow more aware of the fact that there is a correlation between consciousness and the phenomena that consciousness perceives.  This is what he calls “original participation.”  Barfield believes that people back then played a larger role in their own experience, because they were more aware of the way in which their consciousness shaped their experience, or something like that.  In other words, they weren’t as “idolatrous” – they didn’t see only a part of the picture and claim that is was the whole – they realized they were in part creating the picture, and so they entered into their own experience with a different sort of worldview.  (And now you can see why I’m feeling a bit of angst about sounding kooky, “we create our own reality” kind of thing.)

 How is this related to Rorty?  Because Rorty, too, was obsessed with change, with the new and the old, and with a rich participatory democracy.  He was a utopian, like Barfield, in that he believed that changes in language practices would produce new human beings (perhaps because they would lead to, a la Barfield, changes in consciousness”).  And I guess, to end this blog post, while I find these thoughts somehow weird and disconcerting and wildly science-fiction sounding, they also imbue me with hope.  



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