Owen Barfield: Prophet Against Positivism

By R. J. Reilly

Originally printed in the Spring 2010 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Reilly, R. J. “Owen Barfield: Prophet Against Positivism.” Quest  98. 2(Spring 2010): 60-65, 69.

RJReillyOwen Barfield (1898-1997) first became known to American readers as a friend of C. S. Lewis and a member of the “Oxford Christians,” a group that included Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and a few others. A plaque on the wall of a room in the Oxford pub The Eagle and Child attests to the group’s weekly meetings and their discussions of and arguments over the great issues of religion, philosophy, and literature. Two of Barfield’s books, Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearances, achieved a kind of underground reputation among philosophers and teachers of literature even before his other works became more widely known. That reputation has now grown from what was at first a narrow but intense acceptance; he served as visiting professor at a number of American universities, and recently some of his devoted readers have formed the Owen Barfield Society with the stated purpose of making his work better known and more accessible to general readers. His work in theology, epistemology, and linguistics, and the intellectual brilliance of his work in general, have suggested to many readers that he is, as was said of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the finest mind of his generation.


In this essay, I want to describe my own debt to Owen Barfield, but I also want to suggest that I belong to a certain class or category, and that therefore what I learned from Barfield was learned, or could have been learned, by my fellow class members. These comprise the large number of young men and the smaller number of young women who came home from World War II and went into graduate schools of literature in the 1950s. Most of us, no doubt, are still extant and still teaching, though now we are approaching the graybeard stage (a sexist phrase I use only for convenience), and retirement is looming closer each year. In short, I want to assume that my experiences and training in graduate school were generic, not simply personal, and that therefore, like Whitman, I am large, I contain multitudes. It is for this reason that I use the first person plural pronoun here and there in this essay. I do not mean it as the regal or the papal “we.”

Second, I want to suggest that the training that we received, though in many ways first-rate, encouraged in us certain attitudes and biases that were unfortunate and disabling, and that a reading of Barfield’s work corrected many of these.

Third, I want to say that we took in Barfield’s work according to our capacities as receivers—not that we agreed with his work as a whole, or even understood it as a whole, but that the parts we did take in and understand were enough to change our way of looking at literature, and enough to restore a vision of literature that we had lost.

The class of people I speak for was and is a class of literary people, not philosophical people. Our primary love and object of study was and is literature, “poetry” in the old sense, imaginative literature. We were not philosophical illiterates in graduate school, but we had little sense of an organic relationship between literature and philosophy. Barfield changed that. Barfield taught us that the relationship is organic. In that sense Barfield taught us philosophy and even became for us, or for some of us at least, a symbol of philosophy and literature as a whole. Dante’s Beatrice, we are told, was for Dante both Beatrice and theology; and the nameless much-praised ladies of the dolce stil nuovo were similarly both human women and philosophy. Barfield was such a symbol for us, a symbol of literature and philosophy not as separate entities but as powers united in the human imagination. He was that rarity—a mind working so effortlessly in both fields that everything he wrote seemed to imply that there was no real division between them.

What were young scholars encouraged to read in the graduate schools of the 1950s? What were they encouraged to believe and what notions were they encouraged to discard? A few names and titles may bring back some of the atmosphere of those years: Freud and the Freudian critics—William Empson, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, and I. A. Richards; J. G. Frazer and the Cambridge anthropologists; Kenneth Burke, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and the New Critics in general; Stanley Edgar Hyman’s criticism of the critics and his anthology of critical pieces; Christopher Caudwell; E. E. Stoll and textual criticism; T. S. Eliot’s early essays: “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” with its strange argument for impersonal poetry; “Hamlet and His Problems”, and “The Metaphysical Poets.” If we had come into graduate school with some vague notion of poetry as somehow magical and divinely mysterious (and I think we had some such notion), we were certainly encouraged by this kind of reading to rid our minds of such an idea. For if there was one thing that all of these names and titles suggest, it is that poetry and imaginative literature in general are or should be explainable by some kind of rational and scientific analysis. In a word, the attitude toward literature that we were encouraged to adopt was reductive. We were being trained as positivists, though that term was not in such general use as it is now and was mainly connected with the British philosopher A. J. Ayer and the school of logical positivism—both of which we were taught to respect. We were led to believe that there was no magical or mysterious “inside” to even the greatest poetry. The making of poetry was simply a process involving what Coleridge called the Fancy: it was the selection of a proper “objective correlative”; it was choosing what T. E. Hulme called just the right curve or bend of the feeling, not much more than careful and accurate selection. Thus we were not encouraged to take seriously such writers as Shelley, Emerson, Whitman, and even Milton, who claimed to be somehow in touch with the divine mind.

And so of course we lost something of inestimable value: the belief—assumed in some form or other by Plato, Sidney, Shakespeare, and the Romantic writers like Shelley and Emerson—that there is something magical and mysterious and irrational or superrational about the highest poetry, and that this high and mysterious quality is in some way associated with divinity, that it is in fact evidence of the relationship between the human mind and the mind of God. But in the view we were encouraged to adopt, literature became for us something on the same plane as everything else. It was a purely human construct and therefore explainable in purely human terms. As H. L. Mencken said, a poet makes poetry as a chicken makes eggs—an interesting process perhaps, but hardly an ineffable one. Such a conclusion seemed exhilarating to us in those debunking years, but as we grew older it began to seem a counsel of despair, the closing of a door that for centuries had been, if not wide open, at least ajar.

Barfield opened that door again for us with his work on the human imagination. I have said that we took in Barfield’s work according to our condition as receivers. Irwin Edman said long ago that when literary people turn their efforts to philosophy, they are likely to abstract bits and pieces of a system but not apprehend the system as a whole. I believe this is true of the group I represent. I want to mention some of these bits and pieces, saving for the end of the list the single overriding bit or piece: Barfield’s work on the imagination. The subjects that follow overlap in all sorts of ways—I see that better now than when I first met them—but even in isolation they modified the way we looked at literature. I have listed them under the following headings: monism; etymology; the occult and the esoteric; evolution and the growth of self-consciousness; imagination.

Probably the most basic premise of any philosophical system is its view of the very composition of reality—whether the system holds for monism or dualism. C. S. Lewis debated this point with Barfield over a period of many years, arguing as long as he could for some form of dualism (mind versus matter, soul versus body, and so on), but finally conceded that reality had to be “in the last resort mental.” Most of us, I believe, can understand and sympathize with Lewis’s battle. Probably most literary people—perhaps most people in general—have toyed with the premise that reality is mental, but have either dismissed it or have finally decided to ignore it because it is such a difficult premise to maintain in the practical matters of life. It seems to contradict common sense, and so probably most of us metaphorically kick our stone, like Dr. Johnson, and say in effect, “Thus I refute Bishop Berkeley.” But a serious reader of Barfield, as Lewis’s case demonstrates, must come to regard monism (in this sense, the view that reality is mental) as what William James called “a live option.” And clearly once we are able to maintain this position with some consistency, we discover that we live in a much different kind of world than the one we generally assume to be the real one, and just as clearly our view of literature is radically altered as well. A notion such as Platonic love, for example, becomes much more than a literary convention. The passages in Wordsworth, Emerson, and Whitman that we routinely label moments of “transport” or “nature mysticism” or “ecstasy”—and then as routinely forget—become the highest and the truest passages in those writers’ works.

Once the veil of matter has been penetrated or shown to be illusory, the homogeneity of reality is revealed. The barrier between self and other disappears, and we see ourselves as involved in a seamless and continuous reality—“embosomed in nature,” as Emerson says, able to “see into the Life of things,” as Wordsworth says. Whitman’s wild words become simple truth: “I celebrate myself and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume.” Mind flows into mind as the waters of a river flow into a sea. We are not only at one with nature but at one with each other. In the sight of God, the mystics tell us, all men are one man. Many other radical consequences follow from adopting this monistic view, of course, but so far as literature is concerned, I think we find ourselves evaluating writers on the basis of whether or not they are aware of this great secret of homogeneity and whether or not they can convey it. We reassess writers whom our earlier training tended to downgrade: Blake, Shelley, Emerson, Whitman. Moreover, even other writers who are not obviously Romantics occasionally come into better focus—Henry James, for example, with his insistence on the continuousness of all human experience, both inner and outer, and his assumption that his characters, his “super-subtle fry,” are in spite of their subtlety on the same line as the rest of us. For James, all human experience is generic.

Tolkien remarked in his essay on fairy stories that “antiquity has an appeal in itself” and proceeded to illustrate the remark with his Middle Earth trilogy. According to his own account, he constructed his stories with their various beings in order to give a context for the languages that he had invented. Barfield disclosed the same kind of appeal in antiquity by means of more traditional etymological studies. Reading Barfield’s work on words is not at all like reading in the Oxford English Dictionary but very much like reading in the Tolkien trilogy. There is the same kind of excitement at looking into the minds and souls of beings that long preceded us, but the minds that Barfield looks into are our own minds—or the single human mind—as it existed at various stages of the past. One who has seriously read Barfield’s History in English Words, Poetic Diction, “Greek Thought in English Words,” and other works can never again read Chaucer or Shakespeare or Milton in the old uninstructed way. What we get from Barfield’s etymological work is not so much information as revelation. Barfield makes it clear that to read older writers properly is to look into minds that stood in a different relation to God than we presently recognize. Much of the appeal of Barfield’s etymological work is of course related to his larger argument regarding the evolution of self-consciousness, but even the reader unaware of that argument finds himself taking words and phrases seriously in older writers, puzzling over certain passages that are at once familiar and strange, like our own dreams remembered, as if we looked into what Shakespeare called “the prophetic soul of the wide world / Brooding on things to come.”

It was not till I had read Barfield that I began to understand some of the magic of Shakespeare’s language, the oddly moving effect of some lines: “Put rancors in the vessel of my peace”; “The dawn in russet mantle clad / Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill”; “Smite flat the thick rotundity of the world”; and so on. It was Barfield who suggested that concrete and abstract words were not as distinct for Shakespeare as they are for us, so that he often could use them almost interchangeably. Similarly with Milton: Adam and Eve “emparadised in one another’s arms”; the unfallen angels in the presence of God the Father—“About him all the sanctities of Heaven / Stood thick as stars, and from his sight received / Beatitude past utterance”—and the Son entering heaven in the presence of the Father, “Who into glory him received, / Where now he sits at the right hand of bliss.” And the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century: it may be true, as Dr. Johnson said, that they lay on the wait for novelty, but a good deal of their startling effect on the modern intelligence derives from the same casual conjunction of the concrete and the abstract that we find in Shakespeare and Milton. Their differences from the other writers of their time are more accidental than substantial.

The occult and the esoteric.
One cannot read far in Barfield without coming to terms with notions and attitudes that seem occult or esoteric. This is perhaps the most difficult problem for the group of people I am discussing. By definition, the occult, the esoteric, and the transcendental were excluded from our positivist point of view. This exclusion sometimes led to odd and inconsistent treatment of writers like Blake and Emerson and Yeats. They were clearly major writers, yet somehow they were also tainted and suspect. Often we evaded this paradox by dealing only with the portions of their work that are explainable by reference to the mainstream of thought in their time. Thus we had Blake and Emerson without Swedenborg and Yeats without Theosophy; Blake treated as painter and political radical; Emerson treated as a kind of American Carlyle; Yeats treated as the poet of Celtic national feeling and political activist.

But it soon becomes evident that the reader cannot have Barfield without Anthroposophy and Rudolf Steiner; it is not possible to ignore the repeated references to Steiner as source and even master. Ultimately, since it was not possible to dismiss Barfield, we turned reluctantly to Steiner, with much nervous anticipation of Rosicrucianism and gurus and perhaps spiritualism. We were compelled to look at Steiner, even though, like Melville’s Bartleby, we preferred not to. When we did turn to Steiner, we discovered, as C. S. Lewis did, that Steiner was far from being a Tibetan guru, that his work has in fact what Lewis called “a reassuring Germanic dullness” to it. I doubt that many of us have read very widely in Steiner’s enormous body of work—I certainly have not—but what we have read is not crankish or bizarre. It is a meticulously argued and rather ponderous assertion of the philosophical viewpoint that we find perfectly acceptable in Barfield: systematized and Christianized radical monism, an argument that is based on two premises: that the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is true, and that reality is solely mental.

This is a dreadful simplification, I know, and I will try to amplify it later on. For now I merely want to make the point that to read Steiner is not either demeaning or especially exciting—not at all the sort of experience that we might expect reading in the occult to be, much more like reading Kant than reading Madame Blavatsky. I am not endorsing the occult in general, but it does seem to me that we might regard fewer things as a priori occult (in the sense of outrageous or bizarre) if we were to remind ourselves that much of our bias against the occult stems from our unthinking allegiance to a dualistic viewpoint that perhaps half of the world’s thinkers have thought false. Such things as clairvoyance, second sight, and unexplainable recoveries from fatal diseases are by definition impossible only if we hold to a dualistic view of some kind. In a world that consists of thought and thinking, almost nothing is beyond thought; perhaps the notion of an infinite universe illustrates that as well as anything else.

Evolution and self-consciousness.
For the kind of literary mind I have described, Barfield’s views here are less a set of ideas than a way of thinking itself—one that challenged and finally upset our former way of thinking. We accepted the idea of Darwinian evolution as a matter of course, without much examination, rather as we accepted the law of gravity. Some form of matter emerged (we assumed), probably from the sea, and at some later indeterminate time became mind and thus became human. In short, since we were dualists, we believed that one kind of thing became another kind of thing that was entirely different. That did not strike us as strange, as long as we assumed that the change was gradual, though if early man had leaped full blown from the forehead of a dolphin we might have thought it marvelous and rather mythical. But Barfield showed us that this change, gradual or not, is not possible, or at least that this kind of change cannot be evolution. Evolution must mean not radical change but “sameness in difference.” There must be a constant something in the process, a persisting identity under various forms. But the only persisting thing in Darwinian evolution was matter, which could only become mind by ceasing to be matter. Gradually we saw that if we took logic seriously, we had to agree that it made much better sense to say that mind took on the appearance of matter while at the same time remaining mind—which was of course what the great monistic systems of the world had always said. It was enormously upsetting for us to have to conclude that the mind had existed before it became associated with the brain, as the hand exists before it puts on the glove.

So it became apparent that there is indeed evolution going on but that logically it must be, and must always have been, the evolution of the mind. Here Barfield’s work in etymology came into play. If evolution was a process of mind evolving—but always remaining mind—then it was possible to see that the real difference between ourselves and our ancient forebears was simply the quality of mind, and that this changing quality of mind would be evident in language. That was not only logical but even observable; all we had to do was to recall the way we thought and talked as children and contrast it with the way we think and talk as adults. Barfield’s term for this is the evolution of consciousness into self-consciousness, like the gradual growth of the child into the adult, the developing of a sense of personal identity. The key word here is of course “develop”: we do not change from child to adult but retain our childhood as a part of our adulthood—sameness in difference. We were conscious as children—sentient, able to feel hunger and pain—but became increasingly self-conscious as we grew up, progressively more aware of ourselves as distinct persons. Not this and then that, but this and that together; not separation but continuation with change.

Once we had adjusted our minds to this notion of a continuum—a very large adjustment—then of course we had to recall our basic premise that reality is monistic. If we were not really cut off from our childhood, we were not really cut off from anything else either. For to say that mind was evolving was to say that all reality was evolving along with ourselves. The apparently disparate elements of reality truly existed only in relation to each other, in what Barfield called a relation of polarity. As our adulthood exists only as something retaining and related to our childhood, so the present exists only in its relation to the past, and what we call the conscious mind only in relation to what we call the unconscious mind, and what we call ourselves only in relation to what we call nature, Emerson’s “Me” and “Not-Me,” Whitman’s “float forever held in solution.”

Those of us who had been exposed to Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s concepts of act and potency felt that for the first time we had some notion of what those terms really mean. The child was the adult in potency; an amorphous feeling was an idea in potency; what we called nature was mind in potency. I can still recall the excitement I felt when I read T. J. J. Altizer’s remark that Barfield believed “Steiner’s mystical thesis that nature is man’s unconscious being,” because it was suddenly clear to me that it was not a mystical thesis at all but a logical inference from a basic philosophical point of view, and it was what Barfield meant in Poetic Diction when he wrote that what man “let loose over Hiroshima . . . was the forces of his own unconscious mind.” In arriving at this way of thinking, we had come a long distance from our early positivist viewpoint to a wholly different way of viewing reality, and thus a wholly different way of viewing literature–and ourselves, and God.

Earlier in this essay I described Barfield’s philosophy as Christianized radical monism, a description vague and simplistic enough to make a true philosopher throw up his hands in despair. But I am speaking for a literary class, and for us the great issue of Barfield’s work is that in this world of evolving mind, which is a process of consciousness becoming self-conscious—this world-soul or mind becoming more and more conscious of itself—the evolutionary movement is not only a philosophical concept but a religious tenet as well. The ultimate end of an evolution of consciousness into self-consciousness is total self-consciousness: the movement is from potency to act, from passivity to power. The adult mind is more powerful than the child’s mind. As the process of evolution continues, the human mind, growing in power over its environment, growing more aware of its relation to reality, growing more aware of the nature of evolution, begins to develop power traditionally associated with divinity.

In our own time we see that the human mind has through its command of physics the power to annihilate the world, and we see it in its command of chemistry moving toward the power to create a new world. These are powers that were formerly allowed only to divinity. This growth process, this growing up to Godhead, is what Barfield equates with the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. From this point of view the evolutionary process is the progressive growth of Christ, or God, within the human mind. Said differently, this process is the growing awareness in the human mind that it is potentially divine, on the route to infinite power. This awareness must lead to a growing faith in the human mind, a growing respect for it and for its operations—in short, to a growing subjectivity.

Now literary people like me and the class I speak for were taught to disparage this kind of subjectivity as morbid sentimentality and to look only scientifically at the workings of the mind. Thus the downgrading of the writers who had faith in the human creative imagination, who were becoming aware of this cosmic process of the divinizing of the human mind. Goethe, Blake, and Coleridge were the ones who most associated the process with Christian doctrine, perhaps, but Shelley and Whitman were surely as intensely aware of the great secret. In this sense the Romantic writers of the nineteenth century were, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, the antennae of the race. In historical terms, the evolution of consciousness shows most clearly in these writers and in their successors like Yeats.

It follows, as I suggested earlier, that these writers are the ones whom people in my group now rate most highly—a complete reversal of the judgments we were encouraged to make in the 1950s. G. K. Chesterton once said, without paradox or qualification, that Whitman was the greatest poet of the nineteenth century because he asserted the divinity of the common man. It is that kind of judgment that people like me have been led to make through reading Barfield. No doubt there are other ways of arriving at this means of judging writers—Chesterton is an example—there are of course always many ways of arriving anywhere. But for the people I am trying to represent, Chesterton’s way was not a live option. Chesterton did not live to see the kind of education that my class was given, though he certainly saw its beginnings. Perhaps if he had been a contemporary and colleague of ours, he would not only have seen it but seen through it at once, rather than gradually, as we have done, but we are not Chestertons. Nor do we handle religious matters with the ease and nonchalance of Chesterton, the great Catholic convert and apologist. We are perhaps even less able to articulate the religious aspect of Barfield’s work than we are the philosophical, because if we are not philosophers as such, we are certainly not theologians either. But then we were never able to articulate very well our original belief in the relation between the poetic imagination and the divine mind, the ancient doctrine of inspiration which was at the very heart of hearts of our love of literature and which gave to our love and our labors dignity and importance. It was enough that the doctrine, or something like it, had to be true. That belief was always more a tenet of faith than of reason. And so it is with Barfield’s reaffirmation of that relationship. Exactly how this thing can be so we cannot say, but that it is true we always felt, and we are grateful to Barfield for restoring the great and mysterious “inside” to the highest poetry, the interior dimension that our earlier positivist training temporarily destroyed.

R. J. Reilly is emeritus professor of English at the University of Detroit. His published work includes Romantic Religion, a study of Owen Barfield, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien, and “Henry James and the Morality of Fiction,” which won the Norman Foerster Award for 1967.