Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Course the Nations Run

There’s a fine irony in the fact that most of the modern thinkers who’ve tried to grapple with the history of human consciousness have fallen into exactly the sort of uncritical embrace of industrial civilization’s worldview I critiqued in last month’s post. I could cite any number of examples, some of whom will probably be familiar names to my readers. The one I want to discuss just now, though, is a little less widely known; his name was Owen Barfield, and he was a peripheral member of the Inklings, the Oxford literary club that orbited the twin stars of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in the years before and during the Second World War.

Those of my readers who are familiar with Barfield’s short but fascinating 1957 book Saving the Appearances will have recognized that something like half the points I made in this blog’s first two posts are restatements or reworkings of the arguments from that book’s first chapters. The crucial difference, of course, is that Barfield deployed those arguments in the service of exactly the claim I rejected in last month’s post:  the notion that our habitual ways of constructing the world in modern industrial civilization have some kind of privileged place in human history.

To give him credit, Barfield didn’t fall into the sort of simplistic thinking you so often get from today’s scientific pseudoskeptics, the boneheaded literalism that treats the highly idiosyncratic modern way of constructing the world as though it were objective reality as such.  He started, as I’ve done, from the fact—proven repeatedly by modern science—that the world we experience is constructed by our minds out of the raw material of sensation, which itself is a bundle of electrochemical reactions set off by a literally unimaginable reality of probability waves in four-dimensional space-time. He then argued that a sort of half-conscious awareness of the participation of the mind in the world that it experiences is the normal condition of human consciousness, and was universal in prehistoric times.

Now it deserves to be pointed out right here that we have precisely no idea how people’s minds worked in the prehistoric past, for much the same reason that nobody’s yet managed the cognitive testing of allosaurs I joked about in last month’s post. It’s been fashionable for a couple of centuries now for people in the industrial world to think of cultures with less sophisticated technologies than ours as living fossils of our own past—to say, for example, that hunter-gatherer tribes in today’s world are “still in the Stone Age,” or what have you.  That’s very popular nonsense these days, but it’s still nonsense; the hunter-gatherer peoples still clinging to existence in isolated corners of the planet are just as much a part of the world of 2014 as you and I, and just as many millennia have reshaped their cultures and consciousness since the end of the last Ice Age as have reshaped ours.

So we don’t actually know whether human beings in prehistoric times shared a common condition of consciousness.  Nor is it reasonable to assume that this same condition is also to be found in today’s less technologically complex societies—or, more exactly, in the distinctly biased interpretations made by early twentieth century European ethnologists of the thinking of what were then still labeled “inferior” or “savage” peoples, on which Barfield based his argument. Nor, for that matter, is it justifiable to take those same speculations and apply them to every civilization in human history before ancient Greece and the ancient Hebrews, and skip over a great deal of documentary evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, and so on, in order to make this claim stick. I’m sorry to say that this is what Barfield did, though it’s only fair to admit that it was a common enough mistake among European intellectuals in his time.

There’s an additional wrinkle in Barfield’s argument, though. This hypothetical common condition of consciousness in prehistoric times, which he called “original participation,” isn’t simply a vague sense of the participation of the human mind in constructing the world of experience. It also includes the sense that when human beings look out at the world of experience, the world of experience is looking back at them. To Barfield, original participation is a state of consciousness in which the world is full of living, conscious presences who aren’t us. He toys with a variety of terms for this view, but his last word—literally the last word in the book—is this:  “the other name for original participation, in all its long-hidden, in all its diluted forms, in science, in art and in religion, is, after all—paganism.”

Oh, the horror! And of course that’s exactly the point. Barfield was a Christian philosopher, and like a certain class of Christian philosophers, he was concerned to discourage people from checking out the competition. He also shared a belief, common to many Protestant thinkers, that the presence of life, mind, and meaning anywhere in the cosmos outside of human brains somehow risks distracting people from God. Thus, as Barfield explains in the last chapter of Saving the Appearances, what makes the scientific revolution important in human evolution was that it finished the job of freeing us all from slavery to original participation, so that we could finally realize that the cosmos is actually dead, mindless and meaningless, and any life, mind and meaning we find in it are all put there by us.

Or, rather, they’re put there by man. Barfield makes a point of insisting that the collective noun “man” isn’t simply an abstraction, but that this being called man has his own history, which is distinct from that of individual men (and presumably individual women as well, though he doesn’t get around to mentioning them in his argument). Man’s journey up from his early bondage to original participation, in Barfield’s view,  is destined to pass through our unparticipated scientific state of consciousness until, taken up by Christ into God, man consciously and freely puts meaning into a wholly inert and passive cosmos under some sort of divine guidance  This state of affairs Barfield calls “final participation,” and it’s his abstract but explicitly labeled version of the New Jerusalem, just as original participation is his Eden, complete with pagan snake.

I’ll have something to say about this being called “man” a little later on in this post, and I’ll have quite a bit to say in future posts about the biophobia and noophobia, the stark shivering terror of life and mind, which industrial civilization inherited from certain trends within historic Christianity and has deployed in a variety of more or less secular forms ever since. Here, though, I want to focus on a different point, which is that the odd historical gaps and evasions that run all through Saving the Appearances probably aren’t there by accident. Behind Barfield’s book looms the shadow of a considerably more significant thinker, whose ideas are the foundations on which the argument of Saving the Appearances is built, whose conclusions that argument is pretty clearly meant to refute, and whose name, curiously enough, Barfield never mentions in that context at all.

Giambattista Vico was a professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Though it’s generally conceded by scholars these days, to borrow a phrase of Anthony Grafton’s, that “Vico bestrides the modern social sciences and humanities like a colossus,” he spent his life in comparative obscurity, and his most important book—Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, which is usually and understandably abbreviated to The New Science—is far more often mentioned than read. Those of my readers who might consider turning its pages should probably be warned in advance that it has nothing explicit to say about magic at all, and it takes close study and reflection to catch the revolutionary insights it offers into the nature of magic and the history of human consciousness.

Those insights came from a simple but crucial recognition. In his studies of poetry, rhetoric, and law, Vico noticed again and again that the cultural products of the oldest strata of Greek and Roman culture had many features in common with equivalents from the post-Roman dark ages, and that the trajectory from those beginnings followed the same patterns. He noted, for example, that the oldest Roman and Greek law codes, like the oldest law codes from dark age Europe, were simple lists of crimes and their punishments—“if a man steals a loaf of bread, let him be beaten twelve times with a birch stick”—and that each legal tradition proceeded from these utterly concrete beginnings into greater and greater levels of  abstraction, finally culminating in an elaborate theory of law. He noted similarly that the Greek epic poetry traditionally attributed to Homer has an enormous amount in common with such early medieval works as The Song of Roland and the Nibelungenlied, and that classical and European literature both went through similar transformations on the way to the abstract, reflective, mannered prose that his age shared with, say, the prose authors of the early Roman Empire.

The crucial point, to Vico, was that the passage away from what Barfield called original participation and he called the heroic mind was not a journey that all of humanity makes together. It was a journey that each human society traces out in its own arc through time.  The modern world, far from filling the role of grand turning point of the ages that its cheerleaders so often assign it, is simply one more example of what Vico calls “the course the nations run,” going through the usual stages in the usual order on its way toward the usual end.

That end, as my readers will probably have guessed already, is not Barfield’s final participation, though the two concepts have certain wry parallels. Vico was as devout a Christian as Barfield, but he rejected Barfield’s notion—which is of course far from unique to Barfield—that the workings of salvation somehow have to be shoehorned into the course of ordinary history. To him, theology was one thing and history was something else entirely. In words that had a certain degree of fame a few generations back, Vico refused to immanentize the eschaton: to confuse, that is, the supernatural entities studied by Christian theology with the material and historical realities of life in this world. The idea that historical changes in consciousness would bring about the arrival of the New Jerusalem was as absurd, to his way of thinking, as the claim that somebody could draw the abstract idea of a circle on paper with a pen.

Thus the endpoint of the historical process as Vico understood it was not the transcendence of history but a return to the common starting point. To see how this works, and begin the process of applying it to the work of the operative mage, it’s helpful to extract Vico’s thought from its original eighteenth-century metaphors and follow his cycle in twenty-first-century terms.

Imagine, then, the survivors of the collapse of a civilization—not a fast collapse, since this would leave them with all the mental furniture of their former society, but the long and ragged arc of decline and fall that’s the standard mode of collapse in actual history.  Our survivors, as they huddle together in whatever makeshift shelters they’ve been able to contrive, haven’t simply lost the material trappings of the fallen civilization. They’ve also shed the philosophies, sciences, and ways of understanding the world that the dead civilization developed, partly because educational and cultural institutions are usually among the first things to go when a civilization begins to implode, partly because watching a civilization wreck itself doesn’t exactly inspire trust in its habitual ways of thought. As the survivors have children, and the children grow to adulthood in a harsh and mostly empty landscape, the last scraps of the old civilization’s way of understanding the world give way to something new.

The realities that define the postcollapse world, Vico points out, are not conceptual abstractions but concrete sensory experiences. Those are the things that matter. Abstract theories of law that presuppose vanished social institutions and conditions don’t matter; what matters is setting up clear and specific rules that anyone can learn and follow: “if a man steals a loaf of bread, let him be beaten twelve times with a birch stick.”  Abstract rational theories about how the world works don’t matter; what matter are clear, lively, memorable narratives in which colorful figures act out the things that people need to know—and since it’s much easier to memorize speech if it’s full of rhythms and repeated sounds, the myths and legends that emerge from this process are always transmitted in the form of poetry. Three themes—religion, marriage, and the burial or other disposal of the dead—become the anchors around which communities coalesce, because these define, in concrete, sensory terms, the relationships that matter: religion, the relationship with the nonhuman environment; marriage, the relationship with mating and children, and thus with the future; burial, the relationship with ancestors and thus with the past.

Over time, as communities begin to prosper and interact with one another, the concrete and sensory becomes the foundation on which the first reappearance of abstract reasoning begins to build. Vico devotes many of his pages to showing how that process works out in the political development of societies, and we can let those examples pass for the present. The point that matters here is that abstract conceptual thinking starts out as a way of expanding and embroidering the original stock of concrete sensory experiences that define the new culture’s world; as social conditions change and education becomes more general, it shifts focus to that of explaining traditional images that no longer quite make sense; finally, the rising conflict between image and abstraction is settled in favor of abstract rationality, and the society has its Enlightenment, enters on its Age of Reason, and begins to suffer from the liability discussed in last month’s post, the confusion between culturally acceptable representations and the reality they represent that eventually brings the society down in flames.

Thus, in Vico’s scheme, each civilization passes through three broad and loosely defined ages in the course of its history. He borrowed a scheme from classical literature, and called these the Age of Gods, the Age of Heroes, and the Age of Men: gods, because religion is the dominant social force in the first age; heroes, because aristocracies that claim descent from heroic forebears are the dominant social force in the second age; men, because humanity in the mass becomes the dominant social force in the third age. The first age begins in what Vico calls “the barbarism of sense,” a state of cultural and mental chaos in which the concrete sensory images that fill consciousness haven’t yet been brought into a meaningful relationship to one another; the third age ends in what he calls “the barbarism of reflection,” a state of cultural and mental chaos in which the abstract intellectual concepts that fill consciousness are no longer brought into a meaningful relationship with one another. Put another way, the cycle of history as Vico understands it begins in brutality and ends in madness.

As noted above, though, the barbarism of reflection, the madness at the cycle’s end, has an ironic similarity to Barfield’s final participation. In the twilight of what Vico calls the Age of Men, the rising flood of abstraction makes it harder and harder for people to recognize that the world and its contents might have any meaning or value other than what certain human beings, on the basis of one abstract consideration or another, happen to want to assign them. This has certain predictably horrific results. When the barbarism of sense reigns, a band of warriors can slaughter the inhabitants of a village out of sheer raw bloodlust; when the cycle swings around to the barbarism of reflection, a village, an ethnic group, or the population of an entire country can be exterminated because a midlevel bureaucrat somewhere, without the least trace of passion or any sense that moral issues might be involved in the process, signs a directive that renders their continued existence null and void.

That’s not the outcome Barfield seems to be imagining when he discusses final participation, to be sure. Still, it’s far from uncommon for the fantasies of intellectuals to work out in a sense much less pleasant than they anticipated, once they’re applied to the world of everyday experience, and now and again it’s possible to use Vico’s kind of logic and recognize when a common mistake is about to be made for the umpteenth time. When Barfield talks about man as a being distinct from people, and claims that man puts meaning into the world, that sounds like a harmless abstraction, but this particular abstraction is one of the classic places where the lie wriggles in and rots the apple from skin to core.

If those who don’t believe in the existence of a god are atheists, I must be an ananthropist; I don’t believe in the existence of man. I have no doubt whatsoever about the existence of people, of the whole motley assortment of our species, but I don’t believe that there’s a being called “man” who is distinct from people, and can engage in such actions as putting meaning into the world all by himself. One of the reasons I don’t believe in this alleged being is that whenever some ideology talks about man doing this or that, what that means in practice is that some specific person or group of people get to take on that role, and a great many other people get excluded from it, usually to their serious disadvantage.  

I hope I don’t have to list examples from the history of the last century or two to show how often the claim that man and man alone puts meaning into the world turns out to involve horrific consequences to whomever man’s self-appointed spokesmen don’t happen to like. Of course that same habit of assigning meaning to the world on the basis of abstract considerations rather than close observation of what actually seems to be happening also tends to impose serious consequences of its own: when those who claim man’s right to decide what matters don’t happen to notice that infinite material growth on a finite planet is a recipe for disaster, for example, it’s a safe bet that an Age of Men is going to give way to a new Age of Gods in fairly short order.

All this may help to explain why it is that the magical traditions of the world, especially those that emerge or revive in the latter phases of Vico’s cycle in each civilization, tend to insist so forcefully on exactly that sense of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos Barfield insisted that humanity had to jettison. Is this sense of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos something that we put into the mix in the process of constructing our worlds? Of course—but so is the opposite sense of the cosmos as dead, mindless, and meaningless. Neither the presence nor the absence of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos is given to us in the raw materials of experience; both are essentially arbitrary, culturally determined ways of assembling the raw material of sensation into the representation or mental construct that each of us calls “the world.”

It’s one of the more common modern form of doublethink, as I commented in a previous post, to allow that of course the universe we experience is a mental construct rather than an objective reality, and then to turn right around and insist that some currently popular features of that mental construct—the deadness, mindlessness, and meaninglessness of the cosmos, for example—are objectively real truths, while features of mental constructs that our culture doesn’t encourage—the presence of life, mind, and meaning in the nonhuman cosmos, for instance—are just plain wrong. We’ll be contending with that sort of doublethink over and over again as this discussion continues.

For now, I’ll simply point out that experiencing the world as a community of living and thinking beings leads to one set of behaviors and attitudes toward the rest of the universe, while quite a different set of behaviors and attitudes follows from experiencing the world as a dead and mindless mass of raw material that has only whatever meaning and value certain human beings choose to give it. Which of those behaviors is more useful in the present predicament of industrial society is another point worth considering, and we’ll be discussing it, too, as these posts proceed.


Logan said...

Hmm. Semiotics is probably the trickiest of all subjects, but I'll try to say this anyway.

"Neither the presence nor the absence of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos is given to us in the raw materials of experience; both are essentially arbitrary, culturally determined ..." -- No doubt. But is it not the realization of this very fact which has caused, in our post-Enlightenment centuries, the characteristic despair of the pessimistic variety of atheist?

Those intellectuals who hunger after 'meaning', but cannot honestly believe in religion (Christian or otherwise), are after universal, immutable meaning. The grief is precisely that meaning -- and hence morality -- is arbitrary and culturally determined.

The optimistic existentialist, or the neo-pagan, or whoever, says "You are free to put whatever meaning you want into the Cosmos! Isn't that great?"

The pessimistic atheist replies, "That does not impress me. That is not the kind of 'meaning of life' I am searching for."

In other words I, who belong to the pessimistic camp, wish dearly that I could believe Aragorn's words: "Good and evil have not changed since yesteryear, nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men."

John Graham said...

'Final participation' seems to imply that there is something outside of our minds to participate with - not that the cold, dead world is the 'objective truth'. My reading of the three phases you say Barfield mentions is that now, post-scientific revolution, we get to choose whether to see only humans having mind-ish properties.

Of Barfield, other than some poetry/meditations, I've read only 'Worlds Apart'. A lot of it's very good, but the latter part seems to be almost a reportage of Steiner's view of world history, an apology for Anthroposphy more than Christianity. Steiner's name a noticeable omission from your post!

I'm currently avoiding Steiner's later 'anthroposophy', and following Henri Bortoft ('Taking Appearance Seriously') in focussing on Goethean Science and other phenomenological-type stuff - Steiner's early Goethean work being mentioned as exceptionally good.

Barfield apparently said once that 'The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception' was Steiner's most important, least read book. It does seem that a good grounding - initiation, I suppose you might say - in this kind of careful, participatory work is necessary is one is not to, as you say, shoehorn everything (including Steiner's words? Or Barfield's?) into what we already know.
It's still an open question for me whether Steiner's whole evolution-of-consciousness, Mystery-of-Golgotha-as-the-turning-point-of-time means something worthwhile, once one is grounded in this different way of thinking. It certainly means something different when participating in, say, the rituals of The Christian Community as opposed to just reading it as a grand narrative.

Tracy Glomski said...

"Reflection is a solvent; skillfully handled, it dissolves abstractions and figurations that obscure more than they reveal, so that less counterproductive ways of assembling raw sensation into meaningful patterns can be pursued..." TAR, 11/13/13

I think you might've just used reflection in a skillful way, to dissolve the abstraction of man. ;-)

The following two paragraphs were once part of a rough (very, very rough) draft of an essay that I'm now reworking. They won't make the final cut, since they're not fully developed and they're also overly personal. I thought I'd leave them here anyhow, as a humble offering, so you can see how I was grappling with certain ideas that you discussed last year. Thank you for continuing to think about these ideas yourself, and for exploring them further here. I learn from you every time you write.

In the Druid Revival tradition of which AODA is a part, the Mabinogion is considered to have three layers of meaning: the bardic, the ovate, and the Druid. The first relates to actual storytelling of the characters’ conduct, the second concerns itself with the cycles of the seasons and the natural sciences as they were historically understood, and the third provides teachings concerning the spiritual journey of the soul. Perhaps one way to think about these three meanings, and the manner in which they come about, is that they unfold in the transitions between three levels of thought: figuration, abstraction, reflection. Bardic meaning is what happens when figuration—the simple process of recognizing the shapes which are accessible to the senses—begins to run free and to tell stories. Ovate meaning is what happens when abstraction—the process of comparing one figuration to another—begins to run free and to make theories. Druid meaning is what happens when reflection—thinking about thinking—begins to run…well, not entirely free, but rather along a path defined by values, and not infrequently in a direction plunging toward, into, and through initiation.

This sequence of meanings, like so much that occurs in inner and outer nature, is arguably more circular than linear. For me, at least, the starting point and the ending point feel much the same. I begin, and end, in wonder—a state both miraculous and unremarkable, from which the work at hand can then be undertaken with renewed feelings of reverence and thanksgiving.

Dylan said...

In my late teens I moved from the ancestral religion of my family into a phase of atheism. This is a word I have never been entirely comfortable with because as a negative term, it has no content apart from what it denies. As Karen Armstrong points out near the beginning of "A History of God", the word 'atheist' has meant different things to different people at different times, depending on what 'theism' it's being contrasted with.

Now I'm feeling more and more that I'm an anatheist (thanks for that prefix)- I don't believe it's possible to deny the existence of God or gods without invoking the shape and weight of their absence in our inner life (and isn't absence, in one sense, another manifestation of presence?) I'm still struggling to articulate this, but the short version is that I've found myself unable to believe in atheists...!

SR said...

Some very important misunderstandings in your critique.
- Barfield does not "embrace" industrial civilization's worldview -- quite the opposite. He sees it as a necessary, but painful, stage we are going through. After all, the subtitle of his book is "A Study in Idolatry", Idolatry being how he regards the modern worldview.

- He does not "[argue] that a sort of half-conscious awareness of the participation of the mind in the world that it experiences is the normal condition of human consciousness, and was universal in prehistoric times." He is arguing (as you indicate later) that in original participation, they felt consciousness in the things they were aware of. The "participation" was between observer and observed. Now we have lost that sense of participation (though it still exists, but is subconscious). That is, we have no awareness of participation. They did. We can only infer it from what science tells us about the difference between what appears to us, and what is, supposedly, "really out there". As to which is "normal", neither is. They are both stages.

- Your objection to his calling it paganism missed his point, which is that paganism was true, but now is not. This, of course, is anathema to the modern mind. On the other hand, he is saying there is a reason paganism had to go (see below).

- He also shared a belief, common to many Protestant thinkers, that the presence of life, mind, and meaning anywhere in the cosmos outside of human brains somehow risks distracting people from God.

That is the opposite of his belief. He believes that when you see a tree, you are participating with another mind, the one that the tree's appearance represents. In original participation, there was some consciousness of that other mind. Now it is all subconscious, so we are not aware that we are in the presence of mind and meaning. Final participation is the recovery of that experience of the cosmos' mind and meaning, but now experienced as free individuals. In original participation one was aware of non-human minds, but one was under their sway. The importance of going through this modern stage is that we have freed ourselves from them, but at the cost of losing the sense of mind and meaning in the cosmos. Final participation recovers that meaning.

John Michael Greer said...

Logan, exactly, because the pessimistic style of atheist thinks that he's gotten outside the mental framework of the theist religion he's left behind, and hasn't actually done so. Having absorbed from his culture the notion that meaning has to be the kind of meaning Christianity postulates -- that is, universal and immutable -- he can't be comfortable with any other kind. Mind you, the optimistic kind is very often -- though not always -- simply being shallow; the real challenge of coming to terms with meaning and morality as flowing from the intersection of the individual consciousness and the universe of its experience requires neither optimism nor pessimism, but wisdom. More on this as we proceed.

John, good. I didn't bring Steiner in at this point, though that's partly because I don't yet feel I have an adequate grasp of his thought; his early Goethean works are of great interest to me, but it intrigues me that he considered his later Anthroposophical writings to be another route to the same place The Philosophy of Freedom goes. As for the distinction between participating in a ritual and reading a narrative, excellent -- that's going to be crucial to the discussion as we proceed.

Tracy, that's a remarkable suggestion, and one I hadn't considered before -- relating the three modes of thought to the three modes of Druidry. It does seem to work, too; and I note that you've caught the essential detail about reflection -- that it needs to run along a path defined by values if it's to avoid the plunge into nihilism and the barbarism of reflection.

Dylan, do you mean that you don't believe that atheists exist? I admit that it would make me think better of science and scientists to believe that Richard Dawkins, for example, was an imaginary being, but I don't know how easy it would be to convince myself of that!

John Michael Greer said...

SR, it's always possible that I've misunderstood Barfield, but I think you've missed most of the points I raised in my critique. The aspect of the modern worldview Barfield embraced, as I indicated, is precisely the notion of a linear history leading to some ultimate payoff, in his case, final participation -- which is precisely what Vico's theory and mine deny. The thesis of linear history, as Spengler pointed out, is central to the modern worldview, and so I don't think it's unreasonable to point out that Barfield is following a common belief of his and our time in accepting it.

My summary of his original participation is of course brief and oversimplified -- given the limits of space in a brief essay, that's impossible to avoid. Still, I don't see a conflict between my first description, which you've quoted, and the later comment of which you apparently approve. One is an outline, the other focuses on a specific detail; that's not a contradiction.

As for the word "paganism," here again, it's exactly the notion that this has stopped being true due to the progress of linear history that I'm challenging, of course. Finally, it's quite possible that I've completely misunderstood Barfield's concept of final participation; despite a dozen readings of the book over the last five years or so, I'm still far from clear exactly what he thought he was saying. Perhaps you're bringing in details from one of his other writings -- if so, perhaps you can cite something -- or from your own personal interpretation of his theory. In either case, it seems to me that the straightforward sense of his discussion of final, "man-centered" participation is at least as coherent with the sense I've given it as it is with the sense you've claimed to find in it.

Karim said...


JMG wrote: "Neither the presence nor the absence of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos is given to us in the raw materials of experience; both are essentially arbitrary, culturally determined ways of assembling the raw material of sensation into the representation or mental construct that each of us calls “the world.” "

If both mental constructs are essentially arbitrary, culturally determined ways of assembling the raw material of sensation, does it not follow that both constructs are equally valid and hence that there is no method or manner by which each one of us can determine which construct one ought to adopt?

Would it not follow that each of us would and could decide arbitrarily which mental construct to make ours?

Isn't that terrible? Isn't that the end of philosophy and any quest to seek a better understanding of the universe in which we are and are part of?

Isn't that an advanced form of nihilism?

I must admit that I am not very enthusiastic with what JMG wrote in the above quote for it would signal that everything is contingent, relative and contextual to everything else.

Surely one ought to be able to transcend this infernal arbitrariness?

Karim said...

JMG wrote: "He borrowed a scheme from classical literature, and called these the Age of Gods, the Age of Heroes, and the Age of Men" and "Put another way, the cycle of history as Vico understands it begins in brutality and ends in madness. "

A naive question: can human societies transcend this cycle or are we condemned to repeat it over and over again until mankind fades away in the distant future?

This post is making me depressed all of a sudden!

Unknown said...

JMG, this is a wonderful blog. I've been reading the Archdruid Report since it started, and I've been hoping for more on magic. (Specifically, a Geek's Guide to Thaumaturgy, which explains the principles without arbitrary and contingent personifications and details, which tend to derail me. It looks like that's your approach here.)

I expect this is going to call me Unknown again. I'm Aldabra; I sat on a table in a pub at you after the Energy conference in London, and I almost asked you for more magic in the Archdruid Report, but it seemed somehow disrespectful to suggest derailing that, which is always fascinating on its own terms.

I don't know how you have the time, or the headspace, for this. I was at first dismayed that this was only going to be monthly, but on reflection I've never been able to keep up with the comments on ADR, and I'm hoping to be able to focus on this in more depth partly because it's less frequent. It's further from my comfort zone, and so I think will repay more time spent on it.

Thank you.

SR said...

I didn't miss your points. I would argue that a correct understanding of Barfield, and following his arguments from language change, and so on, shows that you and Vico are wrong, that there is a direction in history. But Barfield's idea of what that direction is is antithetical to the usual modern understanding, which is why I say he has not "embraced" it . The usual understanding is that humanity has gone from superstition to rational Enlightenment. Barfield is saying that this modern understanding is in some ways further from the truth than the older one. As his analogy has it, it is great on dashboard knowledge, but clueless about the engine. (By the way, I recommend Donald D Hoffman's essay "Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem" -- it's online -- for a more elaborate but similar analogy.)

As for the word "paganism," here again, it's exactly the notion that this has stopped being true due to the progress of linear history that I'm challenging, of course.

It has stopped being true because we have stopped experiencing the divine in nature. That doesn't mean nature is not divine. Only that our phenomena are not.

[I]t's quite possible that I've completely misunderstood Barfield's concept of final participation; despite a dozen readings of the book over the last five years or so, I'm still far from clear exactly what he thought he was saying.

He says that if the way that the ancients experienced nature is called original participation, then the way we do now can be called final participation -- though I would add that we can't really call it that because as long as we aren't aware of it, we don't know it as participation. (It was somewhat misleading when I said "Final participation recovers that meaning." It would be more accurate to say that final participation sets the stage for our being able to recover that meaning.) As he says, without making it conscious, it is epistemologically valueless. That is, we can infer that we are creating what we directly sense, but as long as we are not conscious of it, we are able to (falsely) think of the cosmos as being without mind or meaning. It is our task to bring that participation to our conscious awareness (through the exercise of Imagination -- as distinct from Fancy). Doing so, we reconnect with the minds with which we are participating, but as free individuals, not as subservient to them, as it was in original participation. Since I've mentioned Imagination twice, I will say that my understanding of Barfield was helped in reading his book What Coleridge Thought

In either case, it seems to me that the straightforward sense of his discussion of final, "man-centered" participation is at least as coherent with the sense I've given it as it is with the sense you've claimed to find in it.

Here is your sense: 'man consciously and freely puts meaning into a wholly inert and passive cosmos under some sort of divine guidance This state of affairs Barfield calls “final participation,”' Barfield would be the last person to call the cosmos wholly inert and passive. He also says that, while up to modern times evolution of consciousness was divinely guided, it is now up to us.

Phil Knight said...

The irony about the insertion of Christian eschatology into history is that, as Jacques Ellul points out at length in "The Meaning Of The City", if the Bible is about anything, it is about the perilous fragility of vainglorious human civilisations.

(And not just the Old Testament, either.)

YJV said...

Regarding your mention of the need for the inhabitants of collapsed societies to remove all the abstractional baggage from a few hundred years or so of civilization, that set me thinking. What is it after all that let some traditions and scriptures survive but not others?

It's 'research' (if you will) that I've barely started, but a cursory glance at the sorts of literature I'm familiar with reveals a bit. Complex information is stored in the realms of sensory-based participation through coding. For example, for hundreds of years in the interim of various peaks of Indian civilization, the following Vedic verse was just something that you spoke and understood because it was a metaphysical explanation of and oblation to that all powerful deity, the sun:

"[O Sun,] bow to you, you who traverse 2,202 yojanas in half a nimesha."

It was only a short while ago that someone de-constructed it a possible measurement of the speed of light.

Could it be that there is a wealth of knowledge in the remains of collapsed societies of yore, some that could help us, that we are blindly ignoring in our sheer hubris and false pursuit of a valiant, glorious and lifeless future as Nietzsche's ubermensch, suspended above a lifeless planet as pictured in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey?

And if we want to preserve what is valuable for future generations to come, would it not be useful to use magic (as badly as I understand it so far) to transfer our abstractional baggage into a more useful form of knowledge for future generations to transmit? Perhaps a way to code the tenets of the scientific process, in a poetic and rhythmic form?


Kutamun said...

Is Barfields Consciousness a Form of Mental Masturbation ?? , and by extension , are the vast bulk of western industrial society a pack of rampant astral onanists??

Individuation Versus Participation Mystique

""Participation mystique “denotes a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity.” (Jung 1921: para 781).

“People with a narrow conscious life exteriorize their unconscious, they are continually in participation mystique with other people… if more unconscious things have become conscious to you, then you live less in participation mystique.” (Visions, para 1184).

“Most connections in the world are not relationships, they are participation mystique. One is then apparently connected, but of course it is never a real connection, it is never a relationship; but it gives the feeling of being one sheep in the flock at least.” (Visions, p 625)"""

matthew said...

I am really enjoying this new blog JMG. I always enjoy your writing and have been reading for years, although this is the first time I've commented.

I feel compelled to point out the irony that this post is only possible with the high level, abstract thought common to the modern mind. The same can be said for much of your work, which involves looking at historical and systemic process through a lens of abstraction and finding common patterns.

I suppose that in a way, the fact that your thinking exhibits the style of the culture in which you have lived only strengthens your case. I do wonder, however, if it leaves you with a tinge of regret to notice that the way of thought you clearly enjoy is likely to fade if your projections of decline and collapse come to pass and a more concrete mode of thought and experience returns.

Eric S. said...

Following what you’ve written here, and what you wrote in your “Towards a Green Future” series last year, it sounds like one of the things that pushes an age of abstraction to the brink and gives way to reflection is the rejection of one or more important figurations in the reality abstraction was working to sort out in the first place. This happened in our society when the last wave of scientific and cultural revolutions opened the door to postmodernism. Does the process of abstraction always sort out material from non-material aspects of the world and then reject the non-material? Or can the reverse also happen? Can the civilization sort the raw materials of its experience into a dualism and reject neither while missing some other aspect of its reality? What would civilizations whose age of abstraction didn’t pass from “faith to reason” look like? Or is that trajectory always a one way process?

RPC said...

Interesting. If Barfield's view was as you've described, it must have made for some interesting conversations with Lewis, who in works like "The Pilgrim's Regress" as well as much of his fiction was pretty explicit about the ability to sense non-human meaning in the world as a gateway to the apprehension of the Christian God. In the latter, those whose unwillingness to see the fauns/dryads/eldil allows them to place themselves as the sole creators of meaning are portrayed as evil. One thinks of Chesterton's line, "Perhaps we are in Paradise still; it is only our eyes that have changed."

redoak said...

The cyclical form of historical change you describe from Vico seems distinct in essence from a linear form of historical change often described in your writing as appearing in the guise of “infinite progress” or “sudden collapse,” and in this essay assigned to Barfield. Do you think these linear forms of thinking are more subject to influences from historical circumstance? If so, how do you articulate this difference in status between these distinct forms of thinking? Also, what, if any, special responsibilities attend to those who arrive at a cyclical worldview?

Just curious, have you ever read Leo Strauss’ Persecution and the Art of Writing?

Dylan said...

JMG, I've no objective proof of Dawkins' existence or nonexistence, so I'll have to beg innocence of that issue. No, I have atheist friends who are very much alive and real, so I didn't mean that.

Another way of approaching what I'm trying to say is that you can't deny something that's by nature unprovable without contributing mightily to its articulation and continued being (objective reality be damned!) It's similar to the way that peak oil denialists obligingly prop up your arguments, the difference being that the peak oil narrative is accumulating evidence toward a firm scientific verdict, while religious narratives, when handled well, are by their nature not interested in accumulating evidence for or against.

This mid-level bureaucrat you mention, who has NO notion of passion, morality, or the gods, might be a true atheist. But my point is that anyone who bears the traces of theism on their inner shoreline, either directly through participation in a religion or indirectly through participation in a religious or even post-religious culture, can renounce the gods but never truly 'unbelieve'. The waves of time can alter but not erase that mental topography. That's where I'm at now.

SR and JMG, you're giving me lots of incentive to crack the cover of "Saving the Appearances" and discover where you diverge. Cheers for courteous sparring.

Dammerung said...

I am excite to see where this is going. These posts don't come fast enough for me!

I am inclined to an attitude that there is concrete magicalness to the universe, and I think it is made of magic, or consciousness, in exactly the same way our dear scientists tell us it's made of dead matter behaving in accordance with God's immutable Law (but without any God, naturally.) But that leaves me in a certain conundrum when it comes to your theory that our civilization is on the downslope.

The thing is, human inventions and constructions develop first in the imagination, and then the stuff of the world is employed to turn those imagined things into reality. This is undeniable. But seeing the world as a magical place leaves me with a certain dilemma - what determines which objects of human imagination can be hypostatized into "physical reality," and which cannot? Why can we shape toasters into reality but not faster than light drives or perpetual motion machines? Maybe I'm still subconsciously looking for a law in a universe that simply doesn't have any.

Joseph Hutchison said...

As a poet I am in deep sympathy with your point of view, but I'm no spring chicken and am wondering if you would publish a list of ... oh, let's say 20 "must read" texts. Do you know Graham Robb's "The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts"? Little in it about magic but a bracing recovery of some aspects of Celtic genius.

Odin's Raven said...

Does this notion of unconscious participation in Nature relate to the Neoplatonic concept of striving to rise to participate in the consciousness of divinities?

Could the notion in Genesis of Adam in Eden giving names to creatures, mean that this facility was meant to be used deliberately, defining their essence rather than applying arbitrary labels?

Artorias said...

Formulation, abstraction, reflection. I would have no idea of these concepts had I not read JMG's blogs. I think I speak for all readers when I say you are the greatest thinker of modern times John. Long may you continue.

thrig said...

On the abstraction front, one need only glance to certain aspects of modern music theory, the ones that recommend Abstract Algebra texts as prerequisites, versus ethnographic studies that show cultures where everyone sings and dances, or where the groom starts "singing a drone to support the priests's recitation" ("Who asked the first question?", Joesph Jordania, Logos, 2006) because there is no such thing as solo singing under a polyphonic tradition. The audience participation, or lack thereof, is also interesting to note. In a less charitable mood, one might be tempted to make parallels between the string theory of physics and the modern generalized intervals of music. Alas, music theory is otherwise probably not the best of grounds for those with a strong need for cognitive closure. What does this chord mean? Well, it depends, see...

John Michael Greer said...

Karim, of course you can get past the arbitrariness -- as I hinted in the post, and have discussed at some length on the other blog, when you can't decide on the basis of knowledge, you decide on the basis of values. The two options I've sketched out have very different consequences when acted out in the world of experience, and that's a valid basis on which to decide between them -- something that religions have been saying for a long time.

As for transcending the cycle, well, tell me this. When spring comes around, do you say, "Oh, how horrible! It's spring again! Can't we somehow get off this dreadful cycle of the seasons?" Or do you recognize that each season has its gifts and requirements, and accept the turning of the wheel with gratitude?

Unknown Aldabra, thank you and welcome to the blog!

SR, okay, now we're getting somewhere. Barfield's arguments from language look convincing only if you don't pay attention to how ruthlessly he cherrypicks the data. Notice, for example, how he jumps straight from the Romans to the Renaissance, as though nothing happened in between; he has to do that, because in between were the Dark Ages, when languages went straight back to concrete imagery and the sense of conscious beings in nature -- elves and trolls and angels -- was just as intense as it had been in primitive times. Notice also how he excludes the abundant evidence from Egypt and Mesopotamia, both of which went through the whole cycle long before Homer's time.

The superstition-to-enlightenment narrative is only one version of modern linear history, though it's a common one. Barfield's using one of the other standard variants, the same one that Marx used: primitive communism to capitalism to true communism is the same shape of time as original participation to unparticipated reasoning to final participation, with an enantiodroma in the middle. In both cases, what we have now is bad but necessary -- you have to go through capitalism to get to communism, you have to go through disenchantment to get to final participation.

When you say "we have stopped experiencing the divine in nature," by the way, I'm tempted to ask who you mean by "we," but that's an issue that will be discussed in another post.

As for the nature of final participation, though, there Barfield's own words contradict what you're claiming. I'd direct your attention to chapter 19 of Saving the Appearances, in which Barfield says repeatedly that in a state of final participation, nature is experienced purely, and merely, as a representation of Man. The gods and spirits, he says in the same chapter, only exist within us, and any suggestion that they might exist in some other sense is "that nostalgic hankering after original participation, which is called pantheism."

What I'm suggesting is that Barfield was dead wrong when he proposed that what he called final participation -- experiencing nature as a projection of the human soul -- leads to some kind of restoration of what's lost in the transition from original participation to rationalism. I'll be expanding on that point in more detail in next month's post, though, and you might want to wait to see what I'm suggesting there before we get into that part of the discussion.

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, fascinating! That's not a piece of Ellul I've read.

YJV, yes, and we'll be getting to that discussion later on -- though it'll probably be as much on the other blog as this one. One thing, though -- that image of the overman is exactly what Nietzsche was not getting at. The overman practices constant self-overcoming, not constant nature-overcoming -- a point I probably need to develop at some length later on.

Kutamun, the whole concept of participation mystique and projection has to be deconstructed and explored here, and that's going to take a couple of posts down the road a bit. Still, you're right that it's central.

Matthew, of course! It's only in the latter part of the cycle -- to which I'll give a hopefully evocative name in next week's post -- that people philosophize about magic; in the earlier part, they simply do it. I don't feel regretful, no, any more than I do when I watch the autumn leaves fall and realize that winter and spring are coming round again.

Eric, civilizations don't always embrace the material to the exclusion of the spiritual. What defines the latter part of the cycle is that they embrace a particular set of mental representations of reality to the exclusion of reality. What role that representation assigns to words such as "matter," "spirit," or what have you varies from one civilization to another; it's the movement from figurated experience to greater and greater levels of abstraction that's the driving force. More on this next month.

RPC, exactly. Barfield and Lewis were friends but they disagreed fiercely on religious and philosophical issues, and I'm convinced that some of the jabs in The Screwtape Letters and That Hideous Strength were aimed squarely at Barfield's (and Steiner's) ideas.

Redoak, linear history is a specific fetish of our Western culture, and has certain parallels in the distinctive historical vision of the older Middle Eastern cultures; other cultures tend toward completely different historical visions.

Dylan, fascinating. That seems quite plausible. By all means read Barfield, btw -- whether or not you end up agreeing with him, it's good fodder for the brain.

Dammerung, laws are human attempts to model the universe. The universe itself isn't a passive recipient of our ideas -- whether it has laws or not, it certainly has things it will and won't do, and our senses and minds were produced by the cosmos and follow its patterns. Thus we can say that the universe willingly provides toasters but doesn't seem too interested in giving us perpetual motion machines -- and we embody that recognition either in an image or in a law (the German words gestalt and gesetz are better suited here, really). More on this as we proceed.

Joseph, no, I haven't read Robb's book. I'm not at all sure which 20 books to suggest -- it would depend very much on what you wanted to get out of the experience of reading them.

Raven, you'll want to read Charles Williams' The Place of the Lion, if you haven't done so already.

Artorias, thank you. Keep in mind, though, that very few of the ideas I'm discussing here are original to me: I'm a compiler and a teacher, not a particularly innovative thinker.

YJV said...

Thanks for the clarification! I haven't read Nietzche's work in it's original form, so it shows how badly modern society has contorted this thoughts into fitting a narrative of progress. I had always thought that Kubrick missed the point.

Regarding 'Man' though, I can't help but think that this phase is simply an act of rebellion against a cosmos that fails to fit human abstract perceptions. It feels to me that the 'Age of Man' is simply when Man casts down 'god' or any law of the cosmos that has to be followed and decides that 'he' is the dictator of this cosmos, and 'he' is the maker of 'his' own destiny. Of course, this fails to stack up with a real universe that has no obligation to meet the irrational demands of a small and short-lived civilisational 'man'. In our time this has basically been 'to hell with gods, we'll create our own heaven and our own pseudo-universe, in the stars beyond and in the future'. As the gap between the real world and the abstract perceived world widens, the insistence that eternal order imposed by man is on the horizon also deepens, until it all comes crashing down.


John Michael Greer said...

Thrig, yes, that's a great example. It's exactly that sort of abstraction run riot that's turned art music in contemporary Western societies into a bizarre sort of intellectual hobby practiced mostly by employees of the academic industry who have time on their hands.

YJV, that's certainly the way it's expressed itself in the history of Western civilization. Other civilizations have taken their own paths toward the same self-defeating end.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

OK, I wasn't going to comment on this blog but...

and, I'm straining my thinking muscles here, so please bear with my attempts:

Some confusion: on the one hand, you say "Neither the presence nor the absence of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos is given to us in the raw materials of experience; both are essentially arbitrary, culturally determined ..."

At the end you say: experiencing the world as a community of living and thinking beings leads to one set of behaviors and attitudes toward the rest of the universe, while quite a different set of behaviors and attitudes follows from experiencing the world as a dead and mindless mass of raw material that has only whatever meaning and value certain human beings choose to give it.

I'm not sure one can arbitrarily choose one view (alive) or another (dead). Perhaps it's not just culture, but temperament and some kind of susceptibility. I was taught both views as a child during different encounters with different people and cultural life-ways. But I never believed the dead universe story because the universe, or at least my own world, seemed full of "life, mind and meaning." This came not through reflection but through encounters with other presences. I suppose by the terms of this argument I constructed these presences as well as the interpretation for these encounters, or experiences. But the encounters themselves did not feel constructed.

I know I did formulate an interpretation, having spent much time meditating and trying to make sense of these experiences. They finally only made sense if I interpreted them in the light of a living world or universe. "The divine in nature," if you will. Not only that, but trees, plants, animals--I never could deny these other living entities their own forms of consciousness and livingness: human persons and non-human persons. And then there's the sense one gets, if one knows a particular ecosystem well enough, of how the whole thing in all its living and non-living parts (which after all flow between each state in all the cycles) is as full of life as you can get and, to me, in its functioning expresses a kind of meaning--rather overwhelmingly at times.

This does not seem to me to be a version of what you describe as Barfield's idea that humans assign meaning to the universe--which is just another version of the pathetic fallacy, I guess. But I'm not sure I quite understand how Barfield's idea is that different from your description of constructing meaning or its lack from the raw materials of experience. Isn't that a form of assigning meaning?

To me the universe seems to exist and mean independently of our views; it seems we are part of the universe's meaning rather than the other way round.

Also, there's a duality being presented. Would there be a ternary?

Karim said...


JMG wrote:"when you can't decide on the basis of knowledge, you decide on the basis of values."

I am fine with that approach and rather pleased actually for it rejoins what I have been thinking about for some time now. Reason and thus knowledge can only get you so far. A point is reached whereby you have to decide whether you want to go any further. If so then one needs to grapple with issues of love, beauty and morals which transcend reason. That brings us to the pesky issue of consciousness and its ultimate source.

I presume this is what you meant by the encompassing term of values for we value love, beauty and morals thanks to the fact that we are self aware and conscious entities.

Karim said...

JMG wrote:"As for transcending the cycle, well, tell me this. When spring comes around, do you say, "Oh, how horrible! It's spring again! Can't we somehow get off this dreadful cycle of the seasons?" Or do you recognize that each season has its gifts and requirements, and accept the turning of the wheel with gratitude?"

I understand the analogy but with cycles of civilisations whereby we go from sheer brutality to madness and over again, I don't think this cycle is as welcoming and pleasant as the passing away of seasons. Hence the desire to do something about it!

However it seems from your blogs that you argue that this cycle of civilisations is a law of human ecology and cannot be stopped but its impacts only mitigated and thus we need to accept its turning and make the best out of it!

So be it then!

Karim said...

JMG wrote:"As for transcending the cycle, well, tell me this. When spring comes around, do you say, "Oh, how horrible! It's spring again! Can't we somehow get off this dreadful cycle of the seasons?" Or do you recognize that each season has its gifts and requirements, and accept the turning of the wheel with gratitude?"

I understand the analogy but with cycles of civilisations whereby we go from sheer brutality to madness and over again, I don't think this cycle is as welcoming and pleasant as the passing away of seasons. Hence the desire to do something about it!

However it seems from your blogs that you argue that this cycle of civilisations is a law of human ecology and cannot be stopped but its impacts only mitigated and thus we need to accept its turning and make the best out of it!

So be it then!

Dwig said...

First, I want to express how much I'm enjoying both the posts and the conversations in the comments. What a varied and thought-provoking company to be in!

In response to JMG's use of the cycle of the seasons as an analogy to recommend acceptance of the cycle of history. This triggered the following thoughts:

A tree looks different in the spring of each succeeding year, from its birth to its death, and of course the trees around it are in different phases of their life cycles. Then there's ecological succession...
So, is there something about human societies that changes across civilizations' cycles, perhaps in a larger cycle of its own? Might there be something roughly like evolution at work?

I keep thinking about Howard Odum's energy-based take on civilization cycles, using his "pulsing paradigm". There are many insights mentioned in passing in "A Prosperous Way Down" and "Environment, Power, and Society for the 21st Century". Unfortunately, my grasp of it is still at a basic learner's level, so I wouldn't be the best person to introduce it.

Karim, our mental constructs (at least the ones we use in our daily lives) don't arise in a vacuum -- they're constantly being tested against the reality that we move in. Some work well in any given situation, some less so. Of course, there are cases where more than one construct will work well in a given situation; this can lead to useful insights or fruitless arguments about which is "better". Also, as JMG points out, there are values that can be used to "test" a construct in a larger context. (I suppose that well-established values themselves arise from a process of testing.)

Perhaps the most useful "thinking tool" that science has brought to society, is the explicit, intentional treatment of constructs. Once one gives up imagination and the wonder of the unknown, for the false security of believing in the "one true construct", I'd say one is no longer engaged in science, or religion for that matter.

So, to JMG's advice to accept the cycles of life, I'd add to accept the status of being a perpetual learner. (I wonder if there's a religion based on this principle?)

SR said...

Language in the Dark Ages did not go straight back to concrete imagery. True (in Europe), the use of the language of abstraction was used very little, but that was because there were few who had the opportunity to use it. But when things got a little better in the 11th and 12th century, thinkers like Anselm and Abelard were able to pick up from where things had left off with Augustine and Boethius.

As for Egypt and Mesopotamia, I see no evidence there of a decline of original participation due to alpha-thinking, as there was in Greece and Rome. Though there might have been a similar Barfieldian pattern in India, which might account for the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism at roughly the same time as the emergence of Christianity from Judaism.

When you say "we have stopped experiencing the divine in nature," by the way, I'm tempted to ask who you mean by "we," but that's an issue that will be discussed in another post.

I mean all those for whom atheism can be considered as a possibility, in that it is not immediately rejected as not agreeing with experienced reality.

As for the nature of final participation, though, there Barfield's own words contradict what you're claiming. I'd direct your attention to chapter 19 of Saving the Appearances, in which Barfield says repeatedly that in a state of final participation, nature is experienced purely, and merely, as a representation of Man.

He does not say that. What he says is that nature (for the "we" defined above) is not experienced as a representation at all. It is only through inference that we can say it is a representation.

The gods and spirits, he says in the same chapter, only exist within us, and any suggestion that they might exist in some other sense is "that nostalgic hankering after original participation, which is called pantheism."

There are many exceptions to the "we" -- Barfield says millions -- like Wordsworth, for whom spiritless nature was NOT his experience. And it is Wordsworth and those like him who have "that nostalgic hankering after original participation, which is called pantheism.". So I don't see any contradiction here. Wordsworth and the like are those who are beginning to make final participation conscious. But there was no modern intellectual framework available in which that fit, so he found one in the past. One must look to Coleridge, and more so, Steiner, for a modern intellectual framework that serves. However that framework is not well-known. And I suspect that our different readings of Barfield stem from my accepting that framework, and you, I presume, not.

EnergyLens said...

I really enjoyed how you addressed these themes in "Star's Reach."

I've been reading around the edges of Object Oriented Ontology lately, about dissolving the boundaries between subject and object, about maps always being part of the territory they represent, and wonder if from the ferment of the OOO conversation we may encounter our Iamblichus of Chalcis.

Cherokee Organics said...


I share the farm here with Stumpy the wallaby, Fatso and Baby wombat, as well a Big daddy roo with his dodgy harem. Plus a host of other memorable characters. I read the post and the thought/challenge kept coming back to me: "Prove to me that they are not all family".

Having lived here for years, it is becoming quite obvious to me that the human perspective is not the only perspective with which to consider the world that we live in.

For how else do we seriously balance the inherent conflicts of interest with the twin roles of harvest and nurture? Dunno, the problem is under serious consideration here.

PS: I believe that I am enjoying your essays more here than at the ADR as they are inherently more challenging.



Borgazul said...

Very interesting. Maybe we're seeing barbarians of reflection vs. barbarians of sense in places like Iraq right now? What I'm seeing are increasingly ineffectual, indecisive bureaucrats crippled by their own abstractions, vs. decisive, ruthless, bloodthirsty men of action and religion. I suppose as the latter start winning these battles, that will mean the cycle is turning, and a new dark age is falling. Anyway, that's how it's starting to look to me. It's similar to Khaldun's theory of cycles of revitalizing barbarism and decadent civilization, yes?

Saturnboy777 said...

JMG,you say you don't believe in "Man" as a being separate from individual people, and yes, I get that. But as an occult philosopher, surely you must believe in man (the individual) as microcosm of the universe. And what about the Kabbalistic concept of Adam Kadmon, the archetypal Man? Are we splitting hairs here? Or am I misunderstanding you?

Also, although it's pretty clear that there is no linear historical narrative leading towards infinite progress and that history is more circular in the way that civilizations rise and fall, might we consider something resembling more of a "spiral" of history? What the Rosicrucians and theosophists used to call rounds or something like what Eastern occultism calls the yugas. Steiner had a great deal to say about what he called "recapitulation", and it shouldn't be any big secret to anyone familiar with astrology that there are time cycles in nature that have an effect on historical events. However, if we take a step back and look at evolution as a whole, is there not some greater pattern of development at work that each little cycle of civilization contributes to in a sense? Is there any such thing as an evolution of consciousness?

SeaMari said...

Here is a link to an interesting article by Barfield, in which he discusses Steiner's significance:

K & C said...

*Neither the presence nor the absence of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos is given to us in the raw materials of experience; both are essentially arbitrary, culturally determined ways of assembling the raw material of sensation into the representation or mental construct that each of us calls “the world.”*

Permit me the honor of being only the latest in a series of commenters who are stuck on this quote. (I wonder how many other readers are similarly stuck but aren't the type to comment on blogs - I'm usually not myself).

Anyways, the quote above precisely nails something that I noticed in my later adolescence (I'm heading into middle age now) that most people don’t seem aware of. Or to be more generous, if they are aware of it, most people don't talk about it. And those who do talk about it usually don’t do so compellingly or coherently. And those who do address it with coherence (and are published or otherwise taken seriously by larger society) normally come to the exact opposite conclusion that you have.

That is to say, they are apologists/cheerleaders/proponents for scientific materialism. The best of them will politely acknowledge (off camera, over an informal beer after the conference) something along the lines of the following: “Yes, the scientific preference for “objective” data amounts to little more than collecting lots of anecdotes (which are themselves shaped by culture), but it’s the best we have and, to paraphrase Stalin, doesn’t “quantity have a quality of it’s own?”

I was completely unaware that there was an intellectual history of the other side going back centuries and was furthermore unaware that there were contemporary proponents who explored that worldview in a coherent and compelling manner until I discovered your writings, JMG.

I am looking forward to seeing the quantity/quality of the anecdotes in favor of this worldview of which I have so long been ignorant.

Roger said...

JMG you say that when institutions vanish and legalistic abstractions become irrelevant what people need are a list of clear and specific rules that anyone can learn and follow.

I can't remember where I read it but somebody referred to the Ten Commandments as a list of two-word rules that any illiterate shepherd could put to memory. Maybe the Commandments had their origins in post civilizational collapse.

I have read that this was the origin of the Jewish people, that is, an ethnic amalgalm of folk that retreated to defensible hill-tops after civilization collapsed in the eastern Mediterranean, for example, townspeople fleeing coastal communities, refugees from Egypt etc.

So maybe the Biblical account of the origin of the Ten Commandments has a kernel of truth to it, that being, the product of people on the run.

And, additionally, people with no need of anything more complicated. And, given their difficult circumstances, people with zero patience for lawyerly hair-splitting.

So, the question ocurred to me how do you summarize each Commandment into a two word rule? This, for what it's worth, is my two-word version:

1) only yhvh
2) no idols
3) observe Sabbath
4) no swear
5) honour parents
6) no kill
7) no adultery
8) no steal
9) no lie
10) no covet

John Michael Greer said...

Adrian, excellent. You're already going the direction this blog is going to be headed, though I'll be taking us there by a slightly different route. The point I'd make here is that a civilization toward the end of its life devalues encounters of the sort you've described in favor of logically worked-out systems of models; what I've tried to show here is that the presence or absence of life, mind and meaning in the cosmos is not hardwired into logical models by definition. It so happens that our culture excludes them, but that's not a logical necessity; it's simply a historically determined habit. More on this as we proceed.

Karim, exactly. The existence of a value requires the existence of someone who does the valuing, from his or her own irreducibly personal perspective. We'll be going further in due time. As for the cycle of history, well, spring here in the Appalachians generally brings bursts of bad weather, and hay fever for people with pollen allergies; in the same way, the cycle of history has its pleasant and unpleasant dimensions.

Dwig, that's two of us -- I'm delighted by the level of conversation that's taking shape here.

SR, and of course that last issue is the crucial one. You accept Steiner's framework; I find Steiner an always-intriguing source of ideas and insights but relate those to a framework that differs from his in important respects. We're both within our rights to do so, but conversation can get very thoroughly jumbled when the presence of the underlying frameworks isn't recognized. Thus we could go round and round, for example, about just how thorougly Old English, for example, went back to concrete imagery, and see different things when looking at the same data, because the data gain their meaning from the framework that gives it context.

EnergyLens, I haven't followed OOO at all -- for all I know, you could be quite right.

Cherokee, my wife occasionally gets funny animal photos by email from her friends, and a few days ago got a photo of a baby wombat. The wombat had a big smile and a slightly dazed look about the eyes -- an expression I've seen tolerably often on photos of human beings from Australia, and never from anywhere else. That is to say, yes, they're family; give the current inhabitants of Australia a few million years of isolation and convergent evolution, and I bet you all sprout pouches. ;-)

Borgazul, excellent! Yes, that's exactly what we're seeing, and there's going to be a great deal more of it in the years ahead.

John Michael Greer said...

Saturnboy, the concept of Adam Qadmon was one of the things I dropped when I moved away from the "orthodox" Hermetic Qabalah some years back. I'm aware that the concept exists; I don't find it relevant in any but a purely symbolic sense. As for an evolution of consciousness, well, first of all, I think you're using the word "evolution" here to mean something like "progress;" evolution is actually the adaptation of complex systems to changing conditions, and that's all.

I don't believe in a collective progress of consciousness; I do think that consciousness diversifies and ramifies into a galaxy of forms, just as life does, but that happens -- as it does with life -- on the level of the individual, not en masse. That is to say, you can evolve, and you might even be able to progress, but the idea that all of consciousness marches up some predetermined route to bigger and better things? No, to my mind that's simply a hangover from the modern myth of progress.

SeaMari, thanks for the link.

K&C, excellent. Yes, it's absolutely standard for believers in materialism to say, in effect, "there's no logical reason to choose A over B, so that proves B. Why? Because, well, because B is more logical." It's really rather funny when you can stand outside it and watch. Still, every civilization in its latter years falls into the same sort of garbled thinking.

Maria said...

I grew up in a family that practiced one flavor of religion because it's "the right one" -- although it was inherited and accepted without much reflection. When I was 11, my parents started the process of changing from that flavor to another, slightly different flavor (and the former kind was dismissed as entirely wrong). This was presented to me as perfectly logical and objectively true, and by the time I was 15, the process was complete. It never occurred to either of my parents that I might have an opinion on the subject because what they were doing was so obviously true and right, such an obviously correct way of explaining the world and our place in it. In fact, I'm quite sure that although I'm now 51 years old they don't believe that any opinion I might have on the topic is worth discussing because their view is so clearly the right one.

I hasten to point out that this is not about any particular religion; it's about my parents' belief that their point of view is self-evident and therefore beyond debate.

I see what you're talking about here as a difference of scale but not of kind. My parents are sure that their religion is self-evidently true; the society I live in is sure its view of the Universe is self-evidently true.

My friends laugh at me when I say I don't like people. I like individuals well enough (indeed, there are some I love very much). In person I'm funny and I guess fairly pleasant company. I'm courteous, clean, kind, and reverent, so how could I not like people? I think my problem is that I don't like Man. I don't like his values, I don't like how his values are presented as self-evidently as my parents' religious views, and I don't like how Man behaves as a result of those values.

Your essay could not have come at a better time because this week I've felt (and I'm sure I'm not the only one) that I'm living in a world gone mad. I have described my feelings as disgust with man's inhumanity to man -- but it isn't, is it? It's Man's inhumanity to people.

The idea of not believing in Man at all had never occurred to me. At the moment, I'm greeting it with a sense of wary hope. It sounds pretty good but I'm wondering what it entails. And I'm not sure what that means to someone who has to keep operating in a society where Man is held up as nature's final word. I'm hoping future essays will help me to figure that out.

Kutamun said...

Yeah , filling the world " full of yourself" "he's full of it !" ; or allowing oneself to be filled by it has come at the expense of the other in our civilisation though neither of them are able to be destroyed , rather , must be held in constant tension and check , not check mate ...
Unfortunately , suppressing one results in the darkening of its contents , and this must be faced in the path back to wholeness and balance . Many great artists have tried to pave and point the way,( sometimes tragically) Shakespeare , Poe, Byron , Stoker , Debussy , Lovecraft, Nietzsche , Hitchcock, Kenneth Anger , Marilyn Manson , Rob Zombie , Ridley Scott ...Tarantino ; as Jung said " the way to the light is through the darkness " ..
Cardinal John Henry Newman gives a good account of the end result of a life lived objectively in his "Dream of Gerontius ", forced to turn away from the angel and beg for purgatory (though you could argue running around in a funny hat wearing a dress and never having a shag could be consciousness' little joke on him while still living .) . Edwin Elgars musical rendition of this work is superb .

onething said...

OK, hold it right there. I have just finished paragraph 7, and I just have to say that I had long noted that certain things which are supposed to be opposite, like materialism and, say, Christianity, are actually only a shade or two apart from each other.
I'm not sure I agree with this though:
"Neither the presence nor the absence of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos is given to us in the raw materials of experience; both are essentially arbitrary, culturally determined ways of assembling the raw material of sensation into the representation or mental construct that each of us calls “the world.” "

I'm not sure what the raw materials of sensation might include, but I think that there is an inner faculty of intuition that I wouldn't quite call sensation, and that faculty is probably the reason that there is such a commonality in human beliefs about the cosmos, such as animism, or the original participation.

John Michael Greer said...

Maria, glad to hear it! I'll be talking at some length later on about what it means not to believe in Man -- especially in that vast and blustering phantasm, Man the Conqueror of Nature, but not only in him.

Kutamun, good. You've got some sense of where this is headed, I see.

Onething, as I noted to Adrian above, right now we're talking about logic, and the construction of rational models of the cosmos -- a point I'll be clarifying in more detail as we proceed. Are there other ways to put together a world, a man-old? You bet -- and what you've called intuition, and I'll be describing in somewhat different terms, is a central factor to keep in mind.

Alexander Marcus said...

Hello. I tried to post this yesterday, but apparently it didn't work.

After having read this post, and having reread the "Toward a Green Future" series of posts on The Archdruid Report, I was struck by the idea of applying the concept of the three phases of a civilization to the self. I'm a fairly reflective person, and have experienced my share of the more "barbaric" aspects of reflection, so I found the possibility enticing. I recall that in your book The Celtic Golden Dawn you discuss three levels of the microcosm and how they develop in a person. I find they correspond well to figuration, abstraction, and reflection. Now that I think about it, parts of self and parts of civilization seem likely to correspond in other ways as well. Which in one sense makes the part (the individual) correspond to the whole (the civilization). It seems very fertile ground.

On a different note, I have found reflection guided by value ("How well does it work?") a fulfilling and rewarding source of meaning. It also occurs to me that this kind of practical reflection leads well into the next phase of figuration - from sensibility to the senses.

Thanks for your writing.

onething said...


I hear your lament. Good and evil is a topic I think about quite a bit, as well as how it relates to nonduality. Shortly, I believe evil is quite real, and yet lacks fundamental existence, i.e., is not really real.

If someone is an atheist or materialist, then it is difficult to find a standard for the good, although there is a partial one, it conflicts with morality. As an atheist, that standard is "That which promotes life." The conflict is that it can mean murder to promote the life of your DNA clan.

However, I basically agree with Aragorn, and I am not sure exactly what the problem is. Perhaps it is that people confuse societal mores with morality in a deeper sense.

In my opinion you've got to have spirituality and souls to have an immutable morality, because true morality consists in essentially recognizing the true existence of the other.

Compassion, justice, sharing and even service and self-sacrifice follow from that.

Then too, this lack of meaning problem completely clears up if consciousness is a fundament - probably THE fundament - of existence.

onething said...

Raven said,

"Could the notion in Genesis of Adam in Eden giving names to creatures, mean that this facility was meant to be used deliberately, defining their essence rather than applying arbitrary labels?"

I have always thought so! If it were just making up sounds, it would not be important enough to mention. Also, if you parse out meanings of words, you will find that most of the time, that which is modernly just sounds, was once an actual meaning, and many such meanings are still existent in the various names of animals. In fact, the same was true of personal names of people.

Violet Cabra said...

JMG, Vico's categorization of the cycle of history as beginning in brutality and ending in madness is quite compelling to me. I noticed it has some interesting correlations with ecological studies of population. One thing that happens concurrently with the rise and fall of civilizations is the rise and fall of human populations, more often than not above the carrying capacity of the land.

From page 194-195 Fundementals of Ecology, Third Edition:

"There is mounting evidence that physiological and genetic changes within the individual accompany the violent oscillations in population density. Whether these changes cause, or are merely adaptations to, the oscillations is a matter of controversy at the present time, but most investigators are agreed that such changes cat at least greatly modify the periodicity or amplitude of fluctuations...Christian and coworkers...have amassed considerable evidence both from the field and the laboratory that crowding in higher vertebrates results in enlarged adrenal glands, which are symptomatic of shifts in the neural-endocrine balance that, in turn, bring about changes in behavior, reproductive potential, and resistance to disease and other stress. Such changes often combine to cause a precipitous 'crash' in population density. For example, showshoe hares at peak density often die from 'shock disease' that has been shown to be associated from enlarged adrenals and other evidence of endocrine imbalance."

There are four people in my nuclear family. I am a transsexual, and the other 3 members of my family have anxiety disorders, 2 of which require medication. For context, about 20% of American adults are prescribed psyche meds. Of course this level of anxiety/depression/mania could be historically normal, and is only understood or dealt with now. Renaissance intellectuals were affected by "melancholia" and Victorian women were known for their "hysteria" Likewise, many traditional cultures have places and professions for gender deviant people.

Still, I wonder how much of the madness of our times, at least on the individual level, is only correlated with the "barbarism of reflection" but perhaps caused by endocrinological responses to overpopulation.

Johan Alvbring said...


Intriguing. You've read Barfield, I've read Barfield, and yet you've managed to get nearly the exact opposite out of his work that I have. Rather clearly demonstrates the subjective component of meaning.

I don't disagree entirely with you — I agree fully on one point, but disagree on another. First, though, I should point that I'm no Anthroposophist; I've read very little of Steiner, and am not all that interested. I came to Barfield out of a dissatisfaction with the scientific worldview during studies for an M.Sc. in Physics, and have spent more than a decade trying to work my way into his world.

I'll try to limit myself to "Saving the Appearances" (StA). To me, there are two arguments running through that book. One is cosmological and one is epistemological/ontological.

On the cosmological one, I agree with you. That's where Barfield describes a linear development of consciousness, going from original participation via the disenchanted world of the ancient Hebrews (and of the scientific revolution) and leading on, possibly but not necessarily, along the road of final participation. (Incidentally, in my 1988 Wesleyan edition, Barfield writes in an introduction that final participation shouldn't be seen as a state, but as a direction in which we ought to be moving; that's not easy to grasp from the main text, though.) I remember wondering, on my first readings, if there really was nothing worth saying about, say, the development of Chinese consciousness. I think Barfield would have protested that StA is about Western consciousness, with "Western" being that purported line of development from the ancient Greeks through to us. It takes considerable effort to keep that in mind while reading. I might note that Barfield had read Spengler, Toynbee and Vico, and didn't just dismiss them. (In "Unancestral Voice" he mentions Spengler, and discusses Toynbee over the course of a few pages; Vico is mentioned in the essay "Poetic Diction and Legal Fiction" in "The Rediscovery of Meaning".) Still, your criticism is valid: as cosmology, StA really doesn't take anything outside "the West" into account. I suspect this is also due to Steiner — read something on Steiner's "Consciousness Soul" and "Intellectual Soul" (which Barfield discusses in essays in "Romanticism Comes of Age"), and you'll find as linear a view of history as anything.

(continued in next comment)

Johan Alvbring said...

(continuing from previous comment)

On the epistemological argument, I disagree with you. You say that "final participation" means that "man consciously and freely puts meaning into a wholly inert and passive cosmos under some sort of divine guidance". That's not how I read it, at all. Barfield in no way believed in an inert and passive cosmos (p. 154, ch. 22, "man surrounded by a cosmos or sphere of wisdom"). He considered meaning as existing independent of consciousness, and consciousness itself being the result of this meaning polarizing itself into consciousness and phenomena. (He alludes to this in the beginning of ch. 19, p. 126, and also in ch. 22, p.155). Meaning and polarity are the twin fundamental concepts of Barfield's thinking. Polarity here is, I think, rather close to the sense you discussed in "Paths of Wisdom" — if you've jettisoned polarity along with Adam Qadmon, Barfield will be very hard to understand.

I also disagree that Barfield says that gods and spirits only exist within us. He talks about them moving into our unconscious, but the whole argument of StA is that we are today unconscious of a whole lot of things that we earlier were not. It says nothing about their existence, or relation to us. (Let's leave the "we" above for later; I know it's crucial.)

Unfortunately, in StA the cosmological argument takes precedence, with the epistemological one very underdeveloped. I fully endorse SR's recommendation of "What Coleridge Thought" — that, along with "Poetic Diction", sets out Barfield's epistemology more than any other work.

And I'll end with this Barfield quote: "To be logical is to make one little part of your meaning precise by excluding all the other parts." From the essay "Speech, Reason and Imagination", in "Romanticism Comes of Age". I detect a certain affinity there with your own claim towards the end of last month's post!

(I hope I'm not coming across as arrogant. I'm not trying to tell you you're wrong, but to deepen my understanding of your thinking, and, perhaps, both of ours of Barfield's.)

John Michael Greer said...

Alexander, excellent! Yes, that's in there, too -- and we'll get to it in due time.

Violet, the two aren't necessarily distinct. Changes in the endocrine system are how the body responds to conditions toward the end of the cycle; the self-feeding downward spiral of madness triggered by reflection run riot is how the mind responds to the same conditions, and it's likely that the two relate to one another in complex biochemical-neurological ways.

Johan, thanks for your comment. I've read quite a bit of Steiner, so don't need convincing that his view of history is wholly linear! As for the epistemological issue, though, perhaps you can help me here. I've got my copy of Saving the Appearances open in front of me right now, to Chapter 19, "Symptoms of Iconoclasm," and here's what I find there:

"For we are told by the Romantic theory that we must no longer look for the nature-spirits -- for the Goddess Natura -- on the farther side of experiences; we must look for them within ourselves."

"Henceforth, if nature is to be experienced as representation, she will be experienced as representation of -- Man."

"And all because we have not learnt -- though our very physics shouts it at us -- that nature herself is the representation of Man."

And more of same. It seems to me that the plain sense of these and a great deal more in the same chapter is that "nature is indeed 'dis-godded'," that "there is no 'represented' on the far side of experience" -- both of those statements are from the same chapter -- and that what we have here is an extremely subtle, philosophically sophisticated version of the same old weary narrative of Man the Conqueror of Nature, who has turned nature into nothing more than a representation of himself. Am I misunderstanding this? If so, perhaps you can explain.

dadaharm said...


I quite enjoyed the way you attacked Barfield,
especially his christianity and his linear perception of history centered on humans.
(I will have to read Vico to see if he really stole ideas from him.)
But I think you do him injustice,
his book still remains amazing.
I wil try to explain why I think his idea of final participation still is important.

My understanding of final participation is based on Barfield's ideas about the collective unconscious
and about evolution.

Barfield's ideas about evolution are in itself quite funny. (They can be found in his book History, Guilt and Habit.)
What ordinary people call evolution is for him just different individual creatures walking on the planet. That is not evolution, but just a succession of different forms. For there to be true evolution, there has to be a single entity that changes through time. This entity that evolves can only be one thing: the collective unconscious (expanded so as to apply to all living beings) or, if one simplifies his ideas somewhat, it is the planetary ecology seen as a single individual.

In original participation the creatures perceive meaning in the outside reality. Acting on meaning perceived in outside reality is very much like acting on instinct. Barfield claims that our culture has achieved something that has never happened before. It has removed not just most, but absolutely all meaning from the reality that is perceived. This is what makes our culture (and materialism) unique in history.

The usual way the collective unconscious has evolved until now, was by changing the constructions the creatures perceived (through natural selection). This is a method of evolution where the living creatures are not aware of evolution happening. Moreover, they have no conscious control over it. Because now, we experience a construction of reality in which we perceive no meaning in the outside world,
evolution of the collective unconscious has to happen in a different way. It can now only evolve through conscious actions.

For humans to act consciously in a meaningful way, they preferably should have an idea how the collective unconscious wants them to act. That is they have to find the meaning within themselves somehow. This is what final participation is supposed to solve. What it exactly is, is unclear. Barfield's ideas about it are based on the romantic notions of imagination and intuition.
(This is possibly dangerous, because there are of course correct and incorrect intuitions.)

To get rid of the linear perception of history in these ideas, one only has to observe that even though the collective unconscious might know where it wants to go, it clearly does not know how to get there. Then evolutionary mass extinction events and civilisational collapses are just moments in time where the collective unconscious comes to the conclusion that what it was doing is going nowhere and that it is time to try something completely different. So history is neither linear nor cyclical.

John Michael Greer said...

Dadaharm, yes, I get that. I'm arguing, first, that Barfield's notion of evolution is simply one more attempt to smuggle in the myth of progress under another name; second, that when he claims that modern industrial society has reached some kind of unprecedented turning point, he's mistaken; and third, that what follows from the attempt to find meaning solely within human consciousness is not some kind of higher state of being but the barbarism of reflection, and out of the ashes of that, a return to experiencing meaning in nature. That's where the linear sense of history he's using betrays him; he's convinced that history has to go somewhere, that there has to be a shining goal, and that modern industrial society has to be the one and only door that leads there. I'm suggesting that he's wrong, and what lies through that door is madness, chaos, and a return to the origin of the cycle. More on this in next month's post!

dadaharm said...


Interesting, I do not see final participation as a form of reflection. In my opinion it should be more something like what is called enlightment or satori in the east.
Do you see enlightment as a form of reflection?

Also I think history and evolution are neither cyclic nor linear, but something in between.
So I remain open to the admittedly small possibility that the collapse of our civilisation will be different.

Eric S. said...

Reflecting on the passage through the three stages of civilization this morning, my mind turned to the "Age of Gods" in this particular cycle of civilization and hit upon something really interesting that I don't think you've touched on yet. During the Post-Roman Dark Ages in Western Europe, Christianity existed largely in scattered, literate monastic pockets. It only existed as a religious and political force in the Eastern Empire where Roman law still mattered.

The myths that come out of the post-Roman Dark Ages aren't Christian myths, and those elements that draw on Christian imagery are little more than a thin veneer laid over by literate monastic scholars. The emerging belief systems that were coming out of those people's raw sensory relationships weren't the same as the religion that came to dominate latter medieval society, instead what you usually saw was either a Germanic religion, or a syncretic blend of indigenous, classical, Christian, and Germanic elements as happened in Ireland, Wales, and a few other places. You didn't see a unified Christian West until Charlemagne. Does that mean a natural process of succession was interrupted be a system that was already well into the abstraction stage before the spiritual ecologies that were coming out of Post-Roman Europe had a chance to mature on their own? And what impacts could that disconnect between the myths and heroic sagas of the early middle ages and the theology that came to dominate the latter middle ages have had on the mindsets that came to dominate the modern West? Is there something there worth exploring? Or is that disconnect a fairly common feature in history?

John Michael Greer said...

Dadaharm, no, I don't see satori as reflection, though reflection is certainly one of the ways to it -- see jnana yoga as an example. I'm curious, though -- where do you get a connection between Barfield's final participation and satori? I see no basis in his writing for that, and I'd be interested to know where you're getting it.

Eric, excellent! Spengler calls that phenomenon pseudomorphosis -- the result of a young culture adopting forms borrowed from an older culture, with predictably weird effects.

Eric S. said...

Ok, which chapter does he do that in? I just started Spengler, but I’m still dipping into him, reading passages here and there, I haven’t taken the plunge quite yet. So, over the course of the lifetime of a civilization, what difference will a civilization that keeps a direct line of continuity through its process of spiritual succession (where the mythic texts from the first stage become the scriptures of the second stage as happened with the Torah, or the Homeric texts) have from one that undergoes pseudomorphosis? There seem to be a lot of parallels between the ecology of invasive species there, just as there seem to be a lot of parallels between the historical stages Vico’s talking about and the stages of ecological succession but I’m not sure where I’d go if I followed that train of thought. It looks at first glance like it could be a dead end. Then again, knowing you and the way you write, that could be exactly where you’re going.

dadaharm said...


Barfield has a purely european perspective, so there is nothing in his work about buddhism as far as I know. Relating final participation and zen satori is based purely on how I see satori:

I use Gregory Bateson's ideas about double binds to understand what zen satori is supposed to achieve.
I see practises like meditating on a zen koan as methods to artificially create something like a double bind. Reading stories about ancient zen masters
who actually physically beat up their pupils for incomprehensible reasons, convinced me that this is to some extend valid.

A double bind is something that cannot be solved using your standard worldview. So to get out of this double bind, you have to step outside your usual construction of reality. So part of the zen satori experience,
will include the experience and knowledge that reality as perceived is a construction of one's own mind.
Seen this way zen satori and final participation must be almost the same.

This is of course only my interpretation of satori, but I think that it is true to some extend.

Phil Knight said...

One thinker who posited that consciousness evolves in the Darwinian sense was Jean Gebser, who explicitly rejected the idea of "progress" and talked of consciousness in terms of "mutations".

He did rather spoil the effect by inventing the idea of "aperspectival" consciousness as a final unifying of all the previous mutations, thereby sneaking in progress by the back door, but "The Ever-Present Origin" is still worth a read.

Violet Cabra said...

It is interesting to me, having studied New Age philosophies, how far they run with the whole “making the world transparent to the human intellect” theme. The one I studied most intently had a focus on sub-personalities, rites of passage of the Soul, reincarnation, parallel realities etc etc. It is like science without the scientific method!! Almost every aspect of existence is claimed to be made completely, utterly, transparent and understandable.

Recently, as I mentioned in the ADR, I've stopped believing so much in the New Age. I don't take it as the Truth anymore, I take it skeptically and at arm's-length. This is terrifying and uncomfortable as it was the belief system that under-grid my basic assumptions of life for the past few years.

I was raised in a Unitarian/Jewish household. Recently, in a moment of existential terror, I called out to G-d of the Torah and felt immediate relief and an intense inner religious feeling that is impossible to describe. What was awe-some was the opacity of the experience. In the Torah G-d is understood to move in completely inscrutable ways that defy reason, expectation, logic etc.

As much as I've tried to repeat “all is choice,” until it becomes true my experience is that only a very narrow aspect of my life is actually controlled by my own individual choices. It seems highly doubtful to me that the Universe is merely a mirror. The Universe has its own patterns, tendencies, and whatnot that cannot be made, no matter what mental extensions are made, to simply comply with human desires.

A crucial part of the Barbarism of Reflection is, I think, the confusing of The Understood and Reality. The Understood is a culturally conditioned set of transparent knowns. Reality is deeply opaque to the human mind. We can understand certain aspects, every Culture does, but sometimes what is Understood isn't what is actually needed. Science and reason alone can't answer questions of ultimate concern and trying to do so makes it obvious that those keys aren't under the big street-lamp, they are scattered around in the dark. Or maybe not so obvious, but what is it they say about doing the same thing and expecting different results...

Johan Alvbring said...


Thanks for being open to discuss this. It is of course quite possible that *I* have misunderstood Barfield. I'll do my best to explain.

You wrote:

"the same old weary narrative of Man the Conqueror of Nature, who has turned nature into nothing more than a representation of himself. Am I misunderstanding this?"

Not entirely. There are aspects of Man the Conqueror in Barfield's thinking — the linearity, the sense of inevitability (despite Barfield's protestations to the contrary), the privileged place for Western humanity in history — and of course, energy. I don't know if Barfield ever dealt anywhere with the realities of limited fossil fuels. Count the number of mentions of the scientific revolution in Saving the Appearances and compare with mentions of the industrial revolution. Could the scientific revolution have "scoured the appearances clean of the last traces of spirit" without the material transformations? I don't think so.

However, I think you're missing something about final participation. I don't interpret final participation as either you or the commenter SR does. We do not experience nature in final participation today, and it is not a state of projecting meaning into a dead cosmos.

In chapter 22, "Space, Time and Wisdom," Barfield writes:

"When man himself was 'uttered', that is, created, the cosmic wisdom became polarized, in and through him, into the duality of appearance and intelligence, representation and consciousness."

Here's how I read it: in original participation, the polarity was still weak, and there was not much distinction between representations and consciousness. The cosmic wisdom (the "Divine Word") spoke through the appearances. As the polarity strengthened, and shifted to the other pole, the cosmic wisdom began to speak more through the intelligence, which also gained greater freedom with respects to the appearances. We are at a point where the polarity has become nearly a binary, with consciousness contracting into itself and the appearances becoming mere idols, and us losing contact with that cosmic wisdom. As final participation emerges, the polarity will re-emerge, from the other pole, the cosmic wisdom now speaking through the intelligence rather than the appearances. But it's still the same cosmic wisdom speaking.

That's my reading of Barfield. It's not my own view, although my view is compatible with it. (And again, that "we" conceals a whole can of worms.)

You also wrote:

"For we are told by the Romantic theory that we must no longer look for the nature-spirits -- for the Goddess Natura -- on the farther side of experiences; we must look for them within ourselves."

If I read this, in the plain sense, it says the nature-spirits are inside us, not outside. It says nothing about whether they're made up, or are ours to command, or use. Neither do I see Barfield saying that anywhere else. In fact, on the next page:

"Pan has shut up shop. But he has not retired from business; he has merely gone indoors."

Barfield does not say Great Pan is dead, he specifically says Pan has not retired from business. He's still there, still working, but now from inside.

Thus, if nature is a "projection of the human soul," it is not "Man" doing the projection, it's that same "cosmic wisdom" that spoke through the Greek mythology.

Am I making any sense to you, or do you feel I'm just missing your point?

John Michael Greer said...

Eric, pseudomorphosis is in Volume II, chapter VII; Spengler discusses it mostly in the context of the Magian culture, but it applies to ours as well.

Dadaharm, hmm. I suppose that by that logic, you could call just about any change in worldview driven by a doublebind a mode of satori. Still, it seems to me that Barfield's talking about something far more specific, and with equally specific implications about the nature of the universe and human beings.

Phil, I'll check him out. It'll be interesting, and perhaps amusing, to watch him try to justify "aperspectival consciousness" -- to my way of thinking, that's right up there with "vegetarian meat-eating" or "celibate copulation," as consciousness per se requires and defines a perspective!

Violet, excellent. Yes, the confusion between the real and our mental models and understandings of the real is a central theme of these posts. As for the opacity of the divine, there's a great line from C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces:

"I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood."

Johan, thanks for being willing to continue this discussion. No, you're not simply missing my point, and I appreciate your willingness to address it directly. If you're right, though, he's hypothesizing that on the far side of our current idolatry is a state in which the gods of nature, etc., become experienced as parts of the human self. If other societies have passed through similar conditions of idolatry, and proceeded from there not to final participation but to a collapse back to original participation, that would seem to raise major problems for his hypothesis, would it not? Or am I misunderstanding him further?

dadaharm said...


I will try to clarify my thinking about final participation and satori a little bit.

Having reread some Barfield, I think you are correct that Barfield thinks final participation can be achieved through a form of reflection, which he calls imagination. I am convinced Barfield is wrong about this. I will try to make my point clear.

Final participation means being consciously aware that the reality you perceive is largely constructed by your own mind. By being consciously aware I mean not just abstract theoretical knowledge, but some really deep felt awareness. The only way to get such a deep felt awareness, is by having actually experienced at least two different constructions of perceived reality.

But having experienced different constructions of perceived reality is not enough! You need a metaphysics that tells you how to deal with different constructions of reality. If your metaphysics tells you there is only one correct way to see reality, you have a problem. Then you must choose which one is real and which one is an illusion. So the metaphysics should at least tell you that the different experienced realities are just constructions of your mind. It should probably also tell you a lot more about how to deal with this knowledge and what it means.

I think zen satori comes close to this. The students spent a lot of time studying buddhist teachings, i.e. the metaphysics. Moreover, zen has found a practical way using meditation and zen koans to provoke the students into a different experience of reality. Whether zen satori actually counts as final participation depends on the precise nature of their metaphysics.

A mystical experience also counts as experiencing a different construction of the perceived reality. However, people having mystical experiences usually have some metaphysics that tells them that the mystical reality is true and that the ordinary reality is just an illusion. So it does not count as final participation.

Of course experiencing an ordinary double bind also can propel you into experiencing another construction of reality. But usually this does not end well. If you jump in the river, it is wise to know how to swim.

Dwig said...

JMG, referring to Phil's recommendation of Jean Gebser's work:
"Phil, I'll check him out. It'll be interesting, and perhaps amusing, to watch him try to justify "aperspectival consciousness" -- to my way of thinking, that's right up there with "vegetarian meat-eating" or "celibate copulation," as consciousness per se requires and defines a perspective!"

Definitely check him out, but be careful -- I suspect that his terms, while using common words, are not what you might expect. For example, he writes not of "consciousness" in the ordinary sense (and certainly not as understood by materialists like Dennett) but of "consciousness structures", which are not individual, but characteristic of cultures (he does use the word "consciousness" as a shorthand). He also distinguishes between the initial "efficient" manifestation of a consciousness structure, and the later "deficient" manifestation, which leads to decline and decay. He sees the current Western structure to be the deficient manifestation of the "mental-rational" structure.

As a relatively short introduction, look at this page. For the full story, you'll need to read "The Ever-Present Origin" (or the German original, "Ursprung und Gegenwart"), which is over 600 pages of small type. (I'm just starting to explore it -- not that I'm looking for it to provide the answer to life, the universe, and everything, but to stimulate my learning about my own "Umwelt".)

A teaser: "Our conception of what we call reality depends upon our mode of consciousness. For example, reality, as it is understood by many Asiatics, Africans, American Indians and other non-European peoples, is not the same as it is for Westerners, because they do not see the world as the correlate of their own ego. We, on the other hand, regard everything from the point of view of our ego-consciousness. For us, the world is a tangible reality which confronts us: Here am I, there is the world."

(If you have more time, there's a couple of youtube lectures on Ever-Present Origin by John David Ebert. (That page also has links to a more extended 10-part series on Gebser, as well as lectures on Spengler.)

D.M. said...

All of this talk about reflection reminds me of Indra's Net. More barbarism for you?

Bill Pulliam said...

Dead White Christians...

Not a bad name for a punk band.

Phil Knight said...


Gebser used "aperspectival consciousness" to explain the non-perspectival avant-garde art movements of the early 20th Century e.g. Cubism, Surrealism etc. I think it was an attempt on his part to avoid Spengler's conclusion that these forms represented a degenerative stage in Western art. I think Gebser was dead wrong here.

That said, Gebser's book is a bit like Mumford's "Technics and Civilization" - brilliant at delineating the past, a bit sketchy at describing the present, and fluffily over-optimistic when predicting the future.

John Michael Greer said...

Dadaharm, hmm. I think I understand what you're suggesting, but I'm far from sure you're right about the nature of the Zen experience. Still, how does the saying go? "One man asked about enlightenment; another answered him. Neither of them, therefore, knew anything about it."

Dwig, thanks for the details! 600 pages of small print sounds like my kind of reading, for that matter. ;-)

DM, no, just a common metaphor -- though what I mean by reflection may not be what you mean.

Bill, true enough!

Phil, okay, got it. There were quite a few attempts in the 20th century to insist that the evident signs of decay and collapse were actually the harbingers of a shiny new future, so that's no surprise.

dadaharm said...


I agree. It is probably best to leave such discussions to the experts.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re; JMG to dadaharm re: enlightenment, my response:



thrig said...

Abbé Lacuria apparently held that modern rationalism was like "a man trying to jump from one leg" (Joscelyn Godwin. "Music and the Occult: French Musical Philosophies, 1750-1950". University of Rochester Press. 1995. p.130). Otherwise, there appears to be much argument over whether things are best represented by a line, or by a circle, in at least the realm of music theory.

D.M. said...

Reading over my previous comment I realize that is not quite what I had meant. I was just thinking how the metaphor of Indra's Net was used to convey the the Buddhist concepts and how another culture, more specifically Western ones can interpret things differently, such as plunging into nihilism. Hopefully that makes a little more sense, now that I am not posting comments while tired.

John Roth said...

@Violet Cabra

Sooner or later anyone on a serious spiritual quest has to come to grips with the idea that God, gods, the Tao or whatever you want to call it or them are not human, that their concerns are not human concerns, and that they’re pretty well incomprehensible in any manner a human can handle, and that anything anyone says about it or them is a purely personal memoir, interesting but hardly definitive.

After that the question is how to live an enthusiastic and joyful life, all of the alternatives being less satisfying.

onething said...


I've spent a little time with google, but gotten very little, so far as understanding radical constructivism. I still don't see it as different from materialism. Can you tell me why you think reality is inaccessible? It must be the limitations of our senses?

You also said that it seems wrong for us to have not just limited perceptions, but distorted ones. I Think that the distortions come directly from the limitations. If we experience directly that we are part of the supermind, we become one with, or at least more at one with, the supermind. The distortions dissipate. You gave the example of a materialist worldview being a serious distortion. How is it not a limitation, though? If one experiences reality not fully, the strongest senses will win out, which for us while embodied, are the physical senses. Suppose you were an amoeba in a pond, floating inside a ring. The pond is kept filled by an incoming stream, but you cannot see this and you propose that water "just is" and requires no source.

Distortion? Limitation?

Also, if I am building all my perceptions as my own construction, why must my constructions be perfect?

" materialists are basically claiming that their own mind is just an illusion caused by the brain."

Hey, that's funny! Did you make it up?

onething said...


"A mystical experience also counts as experiencing a different construction of the perceived reality. However, people having mystical experiences usually have some metaphysics that tells them that the mystical reality is true and that the ordinary reality is just an illusion. So it does not count as final participation."

Well, I'd say I'm someone who has had a mystical experience, and it did take a bit of work to integrate it into my worldview, but to me reality sooooo big, I don't know if I ever could have really believed that there is just one perspective. If we get more than one perspective, then we have just been someone who has moved seats in the theatre or moved outside but this doesn't negate differing or even smaller perspectives. It doesn't make them untrue, just smaller and less true.

I know there are many different types of mystical experience,but for me the new overlapped and ultimately deepened the old.

Violet Cabra said...

@ JMG, I've been meditating on the CS Lewis quote you shared, and it keeps revealing nuance and beauty. A most hearty thank you!

@ John Roth, It is telling to me that, as the CS Lewis quote says, the gods flow in and out of one another through out human history the presence of an awe-some Other remains a constant experience to almost all that seek it and to many that don't. Not any of these Others seem any more valid than the next, and most perplexing of all, they aren't necessarily the same thing. Certainly I've experienced quite a few distinct and discrete Numina and my experience of each has been almost equally profound, transcendent and opaque.

Living a joyous and enthusiastic life is very important to me! So is staying sane and kind. My Pantheon helps greatly with that, methinks.

Violet Cabra said...

The endpoint of the Barbarism of Reflection was brilliantly defined by Greek philosopher Gorgias with his three precepts of nihilism:

1) Nothing exists.

2) Even if existence exists it is incomprehensible to humans

3) Even if existence does exist it can't be communicated.

I was introduced to these precepts at the age of 16 in a high school Classical literature course. They were immediately burned into my memory by their sheer terror and irrefutability; they mark the exact point where playing with abstractions on top of abstractions spirals into an event horizen towards "the abyss," or madness.

Interesting to note to how Nihilism is the perfect inverse of the Divine. The latter is incomprehensible because it is so much and the former because it is so little.

dadaharm said...


The difference between materialism and radical constructivism might at first seem small. But they have consequences. Both radical constructivism and materialism say that what you experience is all inside your mind. They differ about what can be said about what is not in your mind.

Materialism says that outside your mind ia a uniquely determined material world to which your experiences have somehow to correspond. Radical constructivism says that you cannot know what is outside your mind. What is outside your mind limits your freedom, but it does not uniquely determine the constructions you make in your mind.

For materialism there is a unique truth about reality. Scientist try to determine this truth. For radical constructivism there is no unique truth about the reality outside your mind. You are free to construct your own reality. Of course you have to respect the boundaries that are imposed by what is outside your mind. So you have some freedom to create your own truths, whereas materialism leads to a dependency on experts for knowing the truth about what is outside your mind.

That you cannot say something about what is outside your mind is a logical fact. It has nothing to do with the limitations of the senses. You can only compare two things when both things are inside your mind. It is impossible to compare something that is inside your mind with something that is outside your mind. (This is the problem that idealism solves by saying that everything is in mind.) Therefore you cannot know anything about what is outside your mind.

Radical constructivism is not a very popular branch of philosophy.
Only Germans are somewhat interested in it. But there are a few good English introductions to be found on the internet.

First there is a very clear introduction by Ernst von Glasersfeld to be found in a somewhat obscure journal. Strangely, this journal called anti-matters is mostly about mysticism (Sri Aurobindo). The site can be found at: . In issue 2(3) you can find the article called: An introduction to radical constructivism. It is a pdf of 15 pages. Basically, it contains all you need to know about radical constructivism.

Another site that contains an introduction is the site: . This is somewhat of a fan site (????), that has a lot of interesting things. There you can find an article called: An Exposition of Constructivism: Why Some Like it Radical. Its url is : . The article treats also the history of constructivism, but it is sometimes a little bit intellectual.

Your other remarks and questions I will try to answer some other time.

zach bender said...

first, JMG, thanks for turning me on to owen barfield and in particular this book.

i am inclined to agree with johan's reading -- or, johan's reading as i understand it. and dadaharm's.

when barfield talks about the romantics moving pan indoors, of course he is describing an event in his linear history, but i do not see him saying the cosmic intelligence or wisdom is not still "on the other side" of perceived phenomena. instead my take was, we ourselves are participants in the cosmic intelligence, but we are immersed at present in such an extreme form of materialist "idolatry" that we have come to perceive even ourselves as objects. so for the moment there actually is no "other side."

why the path should be "forward" into "final" participation rather than "backward" into "original" participation is, i think, an artifact of his linear view. but there is a certain logic to it as well. a return to "original" participation would require a forgetting of the pragmatic advantages of materialist idolatry. if we can hear the cosmic intelligence speaking from the "other side" of quantum physics, that would be something other than "original" participation.

of course, to some extent barfield is a rorschach. the reader brings her own analogies to bear.

dadaharm said...


I used mystical experiences as an example of a different way of experiencing reality. What I called metaphysics in the discussion with JMG is exactly what you describe. It is the way you integrate different ways of experiencing perceived reality.
That it is possible to discount one of the perspectives as a complete illusion, was an exaggeration to make clear that there are different ways of integrating different perspectives on reality. That your experience deepened the old experience of reality, sounds to me like a successful integration of both perspectives on reality.

The distortion/limitation difference is maybe not so clear as I thought. It could well be that distortions are a consequence of limitations. For me it is still a problem I have with idealism. In an idealist reality, I just have problems with people experiencing things that are not there or experiencing things differently in some fundamental way.
Basically, I see idealism as a way to get around the need to accept that your perceptions are your own constructions. Because everything is already in a larger mind, your own mind can just filter out the part that it needs. So there is nothing to construct. That is why I have problems with distortions of reality.

I have looked on the web, wether there were some decent arguments to be found against idealism. But they do not seem to exist. I did however find an interesting proof of idealism. It is quite convincing. There certainly are no obvious errors in it.
You can find it at: the introspective argument.
The proof consists of only 5 sentences! Luckily, he explains it in some more detail using some videos on the page.

That materialists claim that their mind is an illusion caused by the brain, is indeed a sentence I made up. But I claim no originality. It is the theory of Daniel Dennett. It is what his book "Consciousness Explained" is about. In the wikipedia page about the book, you can find the following sentences:

"... in his book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett denies the existence of consciousness."

"For Dennett there is no difference between us humans and complex zombies who lack any inner feelings,
because we are all just complex zombies..."

So we are all zombies, we just don't know it.

Eric S. said...

Reading through the discussion here now that the conversation is dying down I'm noticing one really crucial detail that never once got addressed in the comments. Allosaurs were archosaurs like birds and crocodiles so their babies are called chicks.

Johan Alvbring said...


Sorry for disappearing from the discussion, but life made other plans for me, and refused to budge...

You said:

"If you're right, though, he's hypothesizing that on the far side of our current idolatry is a state in which the gods of nature, etc., become experienced as parts of the human self."

I agree with that, with two caveats. First, your "etc" also includes plants, animals, rocks — it's not just the gods that go inside, it's the whole of nature. In ch. 21, "Saving the Appearances:"

"If the appearances are, as I have sought to establish, correlative to human consciousness and if human consciousness does not remain unchanged but evolves, then the future of the appearances, that is, of nature herself, must indeed depend on the direction which that evolution takes." (My emphasis.)

I also remember Barfield saying, but can't find the quote right now, that we are also appearances to each other, which must be taken into account when considering what Barfield thought about "the human self".

Second, I very much doubt Barfield would have agreed that what happened after the collapse of the Roman Empire was a collapse back into original participation. Original participation as I understand it does not accord much with Vico's barbarism of sense, as you describe it. The kind of participation has much more to do with where things are experienced as existing than with any particular coherence or relation between those things, or whether they are "concrete" or "abstract". (I, personally, think Vico's scheme fits much better with another aspect of Barfield's thought — but I won't add that to the mix right now.) Barfield doesn't really discuss this in Saving the Appearances though, so I can't really say much more about this.

However, if we do grant that other societies have passed through similar conditions, it certainly challenges his hypothesis. I think Barfield does open the door slightly to allow for such a failure to attain final participation. Again in ch. 21, "Saving the Appearances":

"If therefore man succeeds in eliminating all original participation, without substituting any other, he will have done nothing less than to eliminate all meaning and all coherence from the cosmos."

followed by

"... a state of affairs, in which fewer and fewer representations will be collective, and more and more will be private, with the result that there will in the end be no means of communication between one intelligence and another." (And just after that, he discusses one of the paths to madness that opens when Man the Conqueror does project meaning into a meaningless cosmos. It's not a random choice of his to mention Goethe, whose method didn't exactly assume a meaningless nature.)

Barfield's descriptions in those quotes sound to me very much like Vico's "barbarism of reflection." I think Barfield saw that state, and a subsequent collapse back to original participation (or an attempt to revert, at any rate), as a very real risk. Final participation was the only way, in his view, to avoid that. He does say, in a few places, first, that industrial Western society is not the first to have eliminated original participation — ancient Israel did something similar (but different) — and second, that this was not, in his view, inevitable. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I think I see what he means, but I still get a feeling of inevitability from the argument as a whole.

To end, I want to thank the other commenters who've discussed Barfield here. It's rare to see Barfield actually discussed, and I'll be thinking about your arguments in relation to my own understanding.

Johan Alvbring said...

And to those thinking about Daniel Dennett's ideas, I rather like Jaron Lanier's comment in his book You Are Not A Gadget. He remarks that "it's strange that such intelligent people don't understand that consciousness is the only thing that absolutely cannot be an illusion."

Stacey Armstrong said...

You do seem to have a knack for digging around in the compost heap of modernity and finding interesting specimens. Irreverently, is Barfield a green, a brown or a critter?

The discussion made me want to reread some of the existential Christian philosophers I read in my early twenties. I kept thinking I had run across Barfield before but I think his influence on Gabriel Marcel might explain it? I have been curious about the writings of people who have a religious conversion during their lifetimes and the way they describe them. Under what conditions can a person rearrange their furniture on such a profound level? And what metaphors are at hand to explain them? Often times the nebulous idea of the imagination seems to do a lot of the heavy lifting.

As to a progressionist model of history and spiritual development, now that I recognize their watermarks I see them everywhere. Richard Rorty's work comes very much to mind, his sense of what the best possible world would tend towards is not my own (limitless middles class) but his work continues to influence me. One of the philosophical resting spots that I return to when I am keening towards something final/essential is to adopt the position of the ironist "who fulfills three conditions:

1) she has radical and continuing doubts about the vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered;
2) she realizes that arguments phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve those doubts;
3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal vocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one's way past appearances to the real, but simple playing the new off against the old." (From 'Contingency, Irony, Solidarity')

Rorty arrives at a similar place to where you ended this weeks blog. He thinks there are ways to describe the world that are more helpful than others. There are ways to interact with others that are more helpful than others.

I continue to appreciate how you talk about the work of others.

Phil Harris said...

I am very late to this August blog. Forgive me if my interest has already been covered in comments.

I am happy that humans will attempt to see 'meaning' in just about anything. (And we share this facility apparently with large swathes of sentient beings who respond to similar electrochemical reactions "... set off by a literally unimaginable reality of probability waves in four-dimensional space-time."

"Consciousness" is an elastic experience, and I am not at all sure it is not widely shared with our non-human corporeal companions along with the sentience. How far away in the animal or even plant kingdom should we explore? I once 'asked the question'; what the wasp I was watching could see, and got the most unexpected reply - a quick snapshot. It was ... well ... different!

With all this corporeal sentience (or sub-sentience?) around, and a lot of it 'non-human', I still wonder whether there are any 'non-corporeal - non-human' mind-like entities, with their own meanings? Perhaps to put it another way, I wonder if some of our own consciousness and rattle-bags of meaning are at least partly non-corporeal. A bit like my experience with the wasp, I have on occasion apparently shared some mind-snapshots from other humans and a few times from animals well-know to me, directly and even at a distance. And I do not mean 'ghosts'.

Apologies for such afterthoughts.

Phil H

Cherokee Organics said...


No need to reply, I just wanted to let you know that your previous comment stopped me dead in my tracks only to spend some quality time thinking about both the reality and the why of it all.

I truly have no idea why, but is most often the observers from outside the system that see things the most clearly.

Perhaps it is the vast infertile space here which breeds a certain level of fatalism in all life here? Certainly surviving the summer dearth and catastrophes (flood, drought and fire) tends to give an interesting perspective on life. A person, animal or plant never has to wait very long for one of those events to display just how insignificant your own life and plans are. Perhaps the constant threat breeds that previously mentioned fatalism? However, it does certainly express itself the way you describe! hehe!

PS: Pouches would be both very handy and cool.

I trust that your autumn is going well and that your garden is putting on a good show - and also hopefully you may have grown one or two quinces?



nwlorax said...

Wonderful discussion, as usual. I haven't tried Barfield yet (He is required reading in magic for at least one Coven I know of for what it is worth). I should note that Logical Positivism declared The End of Philosophy (but not ethics) with the issuance of Principia Mathematica by Russell and Whitehead. Everything not reduced to number, measurement and Russelian crotchety but spry logic was of mind--utterly epiphenomenal. When asked about people cured at holy wells, Russell said that belief in anything would produce the same healing effects in anyone. If you like that ad hoc reasoning, Russell is worth a careful read for similar dismissals of consciousness. This is almost a diktat at MIT, where Minsky almost seems to argue at points that human Organismic Life is reducible to soft binary trees equivalent to digital modeling. While I grasp that we aren't aware in real time, similar apes with similar neurology seem capable of at least pretending they effectively have built boats, gotten animal companions and shared out food together. I have a deep suspicion that many physisists are just waiting for shoes to drop in cosmology and deep particle physics--that beyond a point, math will fail or become gibberish (magic), which will demand an unacceptable set of choices that will have Lord Russell roiling in his urn/burial plot.

Don said...

Well, I'm not sure this will connect to the post I'm responding to, but I'll try. Some several dozen comments back, SR gave a definition of final participation that is far closer to what Barfield intended than what JMG wrote.

But I agree with JMG that Barfield filters everything through such a limited Protestant/Christian mindset that he misses more than he gets.

Sorry to be so cryptic but don't have time to elaborate. For a very different view of the unfolding of consciousness - try Merlin Donald's "A Mind So Rare" - very materialist, rationalist, but shows we actually do have a way of understanding animal consciousness (to save time, just read the short chapter "The Consciousness Club" - or better, read our summary of this in our book, "Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness: Seeing Through the Eyes of Infinity" - yes folks, I should apologize - shameless self promotion:>)) But I'll admit, if you want something far better than Merlin Donald or our book, try Sri Aurobindo's "The Human Cycle." It's available for free on the Sri Aurobindo Ashram website.

Thee Lazycat said...

I'm working my way through the long thread of deeply intriguing commentary this piece has elicited. May I add the psychedelic perspective, pointing out that the most renown modern disciple of Whitehead/Russel has posited that smoking some DMT will reveal the utter vacuity and uselessness of the Judeo Christian worldview when it comes to describing how reality is really put together. Having similarly experimented, I can only agree that any attempt to argue for an ontology based on malarkey like the Cosmic Meaning of Gologotha is just wasting valuable time. Reality is weirder than you can suppose. Hence magick.

elemdaoid said...

I noticed that a couple commentator's mentioned Indra's net, but didn't expand on its relevance. Indra's net is a vast net of jewels, each of which reflect all the others. It's a metaphor for human consciousness: each jewel represents an individual, and the reflections in a given jewel represent an individual's subjectivity.

It's a beautiful and infinite image, but it's purpose is not to describe a basis for nihilism. Buddhists meditate on this image rigorously to integrate their own experience of the objective (Absolute) and the subjective (Relative). The basic assumptions of this approach are (1) that there is an Absolute reality that the mind is capable of experiencing, and (2) our Relative experience matters in the whole design. Our subjectivity is not simply to be transcended in favor of objective reality; they are to be integrated -- the work of doing so is the work of being fully human.

For more Buddhist thought on this subject, see a work of the Ts'ao Tung (Soto) school of Zen titled "Focusing the Precious Mirror", especially it's description of the Five Ranks: The Relative Absolute, The Absolute Relative, Coming from within the Absolute, Arriving in Both, and Attainment in Both.

I especially found the commentary of an 18th Century Japanese Zen Master (Hakuin) on the Five Ranks to be very insightful. If it sounds interesting to anyone, see Thomas Cleary's translation of Hakuin's commentary in "Kensho: The Heart of Zen".

Space Seeder said...

Hello, Mr. Greer. I am curious to know what, if anything, you might have to say about the following statement: Consciousness is an inherent quality of the universe, a limited subset of which forms the basis of minds, in the same way that the electromagnetic spectrum is an inherent quality of the universe, a limited subset of which forms the basis of eyesight.