Barfield: Evolution of consciousness

Owen Barfield studied literature and law in Oxford in the 1920’s, where he was a member of a group of friends called the Inklings, which included also J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. It was while studying literature that he began working on his ideas about evolution of consciousness. It was his life’s project, although he could only work on it in his spare time, while making a living as a solicitor. Only late in life he gained a bit of a reputation as an author and lecturer, mostly in the United States.

In his first book, History in English Words, he studied the history of word meanings. In earlier times, there had been many words that carried fusions of meanings, often a material meaning and an immaterial meaning combined. Take for example the Latin word spiritus, which translates into either spirit or breath or wind. Spiritus means all those things.

That was in itself not a new discovery. What was a problem though, was that all linguistic theories up until Barfield assumed that language had evolved in a way similar to Darwinian evolution, starting out with some very elementary sounds or words, evolving through the ages into more and more complex words. The recorded history of language on the other hand, shows that there has been an evolution in the opposite direction. A word like spiritus which carried a complex of meanings, evolved into a number of much simpler words, spirit, breath and wind, which either have a wholly material or a wholly immaterial meaning.

The way linguists up until Barfield dealt with this problem, was to assume a Darwinian beginning, then postulate some sort of intermediate phase in the evolution of language, called the ‘metaphorical period’ by some, where these complex words were created, followed by the observed development of language into words with simpler meanings.

That couldn’t be right, according to Barfield. In his second book, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, he wrote:

According to Max Müller, it will be remembered, `spiritus’ – which is of course the Latin equivalent of πνευμα, acquired its apparently double meaning, because, at a certain early age, when it still meant simply breath or wind, it was deliberately employed as a metaphor to express `the principle of life within man or animal’. All that can be replied to this is, that such an hypothesis is contrary to every indication presented by the study of the history of meaning; which assures us definitely that such a purely material content as `wind’, on the one hand, and on the other, such a purely abstract content as `the principle of life within man or animal’ are both late arrivals in human consciousness. Their abstractness and their simplicity are alike evidence of long ages of intellectual evolution. So far from the psychic meaning of `spiritus’ having arisen because someone had the abstract idea, `principle of life…’ and wanted a word for it, the abstract idea `principle of life’ is itself a product of the old concrete meaning `spiritus’, which contained within itself the germs of both later significations. We must, therefore, imagine a time when `spiritus’ or πνευμα, or older words from which these had descended, meant neither breath, nor wind, nor spirit, nor yet all three of these things, but when they simply had their own old peculiar meaning, which has since, in the course of the evolution of consciousness, crystallised into the three meanings specified – and no doubt into others also, for which separate words had already been found by Greek and Roman times.

What does that mean? What he’s saying is, that we can’t just project backwards our concepts into the consciousness of ancient man. Unless we would like to assume that the Romans, and the ancient Greeks before them, were lazy or unable to make up different words for the different concepts of spirit, breath and wind, we have to assume that these concepts were in fact one and the same to them!

Their Lebenswelt would have looked something like this: the ‘thing’ that blows across the face of the earth and sets the leaves of trees in motion, the air we breathe in and the spirit that is our life force, are one and the same. Spirit is all around us as well as in us, and it only leaves us the moment we breathe out for the last time.

I can only describe it from a modern-day perspective, so no Roman or Greek would put it into words like that, but I hope you get the picture. Ancient man did not have the differentiated concepts that we have. Moreover, he differentiated himself much less from his surroundings than we do. His spirit and the spirit that is all around are one and the same.

That is a strange state of consciousness for most of us nowadays. But the remainders of this state of experienced connectedness to all of nature are identifiable until just before the scientific revolution. In the Middle Ages, man was thought of as a microcosm within a macrocosm. The four basic elements of the cosmos: air, fire, earth and water not only made up all the matter of the universe but manifested themselves also in the human psyche as the four temperaments. The twelve signs of the zodiac were divided in four groups according to the four elements. The zodiac influenced the course of a human life. Everything was connected to everything.

We don’t feel this connection to everything, so we look at those medieval ideas and think, how did they ever come up with that? How can someone seriously believe that the position of celestial bodies influences the course of a human life, as astrology has it?

But those ideas were simply the expression of connections between the macrocosm and the microcosm that were a matter of course. That the position of the moon determines an aspect of your life isn’t a surprising thought at all, when everything is connected to everything.

Then the scientific revolution came about, around the 17th century. And it was a revolution, precisely because this felt connectedness was broken down. Scientists took themselves out of the picture. In their consciousness subject and object became separated, which allowed them to gather so-called objective information about the world. The predominant picture of the world quickly became a mechanical one. According to man since the scientific revolution, nature consisted of lifeless objects that were governed, not by connectedness and essential oneness, but by mechanical cause and effect. This became our new state of consciousness for centuries to come. Not surprisingly so, because the scientific revolution led to some great successes.

Precisely in the field of mechanics, that is. But with the advance of science and philosophy, especially with the dawn of modern physics, the mechanical worldview had to be abandoned again. The belief, that we are essentially separate from the objects around us, proved to be untenable. It is said that objective observation as such isn’t possible, because there is no observation that is really uninfluenced by the observer. Many people, from different kinds of esoterics to scientists and philosophers argue that we are much more intricately connected to the world than we think. Perhaps we live now in the time where the mechanical worldview of the last four centuries gets balanced out?

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