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?

Music and consciousness

After Roger Scruton, in his book The Aesthetics of Music.


There is a difference between music and mere noise, although you can’t tell by looking at a sound wave, if that one is going to be perceived as music or as merely noise. In order to turn sounds into music, a few things have to happen in the consciousness of the listener.

1. We need to have the acousmatic experience. Pythagoras spoke to his disciples from behind a screen. He wanted their attention to go entirely to his words, not to him as a mere individual. His followers were then called akousmatikoi, meaning: those who are willing to listen.

The acousmatic experience means that we mentally detach a sound from its source. We don’t perceive it as some quality of an object in the way that motor sounds are a quality of cars and barking is a quality of dogs. The sound itself becomes an independent object to us.

That’s already a special way of perceiving sound. When we perceive sounds as objects instead of qualities, these objects can have qualities of their own, such as pitch and timbre. This is not yet perception of music, but it is the first step.

2. In order to perceive those sound-objects as music, we have to perceive them as being interrelated. Since we perceive them acousmatically, we have detached the sounds from their real causality, but we perceive between them a virtual causality. For example, an F-sharp is perceived as ‘leading to’ the G. The virtual causality in music leads to an experience of movement in sound. We perceive a change in pitch as going ‘up’ or ‘down’, a melodic line as ‘climbing’ or ‘falling’.

Movement, by definition, takes place within a space. But musical space isn’t an actual space somewhere. It’s a virtual space. Musical movement is a metaphor.

Here’s a fact I find really fascinating: musical movement is a metaphor we can’t do without. It is intrinsic to our musical experience that we hear the melody go up and down, the rhythm going forward or holding back. Apparently not all metaphors are mere embellishments of language, as in, you can say something simply as it is, or you can be a poet about it and say something metaphorically. Whoever hears this sequence of sound-objects: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, cannot help but to perceive this as an upward movement.

The spatial metaphor is enclosed in our experience of music.

The causality in music is not a mechanical one, but a living causality. Think of how we perceive another person. When we watch the behavior of another person, all we literally see is how he moves his body. But often, somehow, we understand the reason for his behavior, the why behind it. Not because we are thinking of the literal causes of his gestures, which are muscle contractions. We find for ourselves an explanation for his gesture. Something in his emotional state, or some purpose he might have. We perceive the order and meaning of the behavior of the other.

That’s amazing, because what we literally see is just a motion or gesture. The meaning is what we see in the movement.

Of course, in our daily experience, we don’t stand still at the fact that only bare perceptions are coming from outside to us through our senses, and their meaning comes to us from within. In our normal experience, they are already connected. The phenomena (the objects as we experience them) already carry the meaning, the moment they appear within in our consciousness.

How much of the way we perceive our world comes from within, and how much comes from outside?


Have you ever repeated a word, any word, over and over again, until you forget what its meaning is and all that is left in your consciousness is this completely arbitrary sound? It could be a word you use every day. And then suddenly you stand still and realize how wonderfully strange it is that a weird sound like ‘horse’ or ‘chair’ got to carry a very useful and specific meaning.

What is listening to music? It is such an everyday phenomenon, that one would forget to ask what is actually going on while we listen. Turns out, not all listening is created equal.

Let’s begin with the bare physical facts. There are sound waves, floating around in the air. Our ears catch those, and then we hear music.

Or noise. Here is a little problem: the physical facts of hearing are the same for any sound, be it music or noise. If we were able to see the physical matter of sound, then just from seeing those waves we wouldn’t be able to determine if those particular waves will be perceived as music or as noise. Sound waves don’t have those labels attached to them. The difference is determined within our consciousness.

Music equals physical sound waves plus something in the consciousness of the listener.

What’s the ‘something’ in the equation?

Imagine a concert situation. A string quartet plays Mozart. Some people in the audience will be listening closely, be moved by the music, breathe with the music, see images appearing in their imagination, have emotions welling up.

Other people might be just sitting it out, waiting for the intermission.

There is listening and listening: ‘engaged’ listening as well as merely hearing, and an entire spectrum of different qualities of listening in between. What’s important though, is that probably, in this concert, all concertgoers will agree that it is music they’re hearing, not just noise.

Imagine now a concert with a modernist program, a composition consisting entirely of sirens and motor sounds.

This time, will the listeners unanimously agree that, yes, this is music? Quite possibly, they won’t. The composer thinks he wrote music. Probably the performers think they’re playing music. A couple of seasoned followers of contemporary music will agree that it’s music. But lots of other people, even if they normally are what we called engaged listeners, might have to admit that all they hear are sirens and motor sounds. They don’t hear the music in the noise.

So back to the equation of what music is. All listeners are presented with the exact same physical sound waves. But apparently, some listeners do the ‘something’ that comes from the consciousness of the listener, and others don’t. Some listeners have a musical experience, others don’t.

Yet, some of those latter listeners might persist. They keep listening to the works of this particular composer and his contemporaries over and over again. They could read a book or ask someone to tell them what to listen for. And one year later they might agree: that concert they went to last year, it was a piece of music after all. Back then they just weren’t yet able to perceive it as such.

What’s important here is: some sound waves get the something from our consciousness attached to it, and others don’t, but we can learn to do the something with sounds that didn’t trigger that process before. Then we say we have learned to listen to a certain kind of music.

Music can carry an infinite variety of meanings for us. That meaning wasn’t there in the physical sound. The sound is carrying meaning because our consciousness gave those sounds meaning to carry.

That’s why I think the question ‘what is listening to music?’ is an interesting one. And if we can answer it, what will that mean for our understanding of perception in general?

And when we know how we give meaning to sound waves, can we give it to other things too? Can we cultivate it?

Can we learn to have more meaning?

The God that matters

To speak of God in a way that makes sense, is actually pretty straightforward. Point of departure is an experience that is common across the board, from orthodox theists to religion-bashing materialists: wonder.

From time to time we’re all struck with this: how come are we here, why is there something rather than nothing? And how come, all being, at some point, returns to being nothing? All of this, our world, is utterly amazing and baffling and overwhelming.

And what is this anyway? The world we experience, the green of the park in front of my building, the yellowish evening light I’m seeing as I write this, is the result of the way we’ve been built, the way our senses work and the way our brain works, triggered by what is actually out there, which is what? -a whirlwind of energies in a spectrum of frequencies of which we are able to perceive only a small part. The solid table that my computer is sitting on isn’t very solid at all; it’s mostly empty space. The molecules in my body exist much longer than I myself am around. They have been part of other human bodies, animal bodies, plants, rocks, IKEA furniture and originally stars which have exploded. Right now these molecules are working together to constitute this body I call ‘me’, and sooner or later they will move on again to other projects, and what I call ‘me’ will have disappeared.

This was just a random little fact-salad. These are things that most of us know, but that blow your mind whenever you take the time to remember them.

The bottom line, for me here at least, is this: there is a mystery underlying all of it. There is a mystery underlying all of existence. And that mystery, ladies and gentlemen, one could call God. It’s the God whose existence doesn’t need to be proven, because the mystery is clearly there. It’s also the only appropriate ‘thing’ to give the name God to, since it underlies not just something, but everything. The mystery is what Paul Tillich called the Ground of Being, which was his description of God. You could also call it the Silence out of which the Big Bang came. It is the God we all try to relate to, be it through religion, music, poetry, meditation, or science.

If you say God, you personify the mystery, which is good mythological/religious practice. If you want to speak about the Mystery that is ultimately indescribable, you need to enter the realm of metaphor, symbol and mythology. Which is good, I repeat. All you need to remember is that there isn’t really a kind of giant Person out there (and he didn’t write a book, though people who tried to relate to him did).

That is a God I could care about, and it makes no sense whatsoever to say that you do or don’t believe in him.