Owen Barfield: evolution of human consciousness

IMAGE_barfield8 point mandalaOwen Barfield (1898 – 1997) was a British philosopher, author, poet, and critic.  His primary focus was on the “evolution of consciousness”. He is best known as the author of Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. He was a member of the Inklings together with his friends, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Barfield became an anthroposophist after attending a lecture by Rudolf Steiner.


Owen Barfield, in Saving the Appearances (1957), develops a philosophy of the evolution of human consciousness which provides context for my much of my work.  Barfield, taking a long view of history, theorizes three phases of human awareness of our place in/with nature:

  • ‘Unconscious participation’ phase describes the unconscious nondual relationship to nature in which there is “the sense that there stands behind phenomena, and on the other side of them from me, a represented, which is of the same nature as me” (p.40, his italics). Unconscious participation is not characterized by fear and withdrawal from the world, but rather by unity with the natural world, which is represented in a cultural imaginary where nature “was apprehended as female” (p.110, 112), most often as primordial mother.
  • ‘Separation from nature’ phase describes the current period when humans evolved to a dualistic consciousness and detached from nature in order to transcend nature and become its objective observer. Observer consciousness is not participatory; it clings to superiority by exercising power over those which/whom it observes and categorizes as ‘other’. Nature becomes progressively desacralized, valued only for its utility to humans. Alienation from nature is indicated by an individuated sense of self standing detached from the world and from community.
  • ‘Conscious participation’ phase describes an emerging relationship in which humans consciously merge with nature to experience “a new level of unity” through the “systematic use of imagination” to integrate conscious and unconscious aspects of nature (p.163). The “unity and coherence of nature depends on participation of one kind or another” (p.168). Humanity remembers to think symbolically ”by valuing the Imagination as a mode of perception that brings knowledge…a way of knowing won through a total relationship” (Baring & Cashford, 1991, p.678).

Barfield looks far into the past in order to see far into the future. Barfield describes the Separation phase as characterized by apathy, alienation, indifference and disconnectedness – words which echo the critiques of anthropocentrism.  Barfield critiques Westerners who attempt to revert back to unconscious nonduality through pantheism; he insists that the paradigm shift for the Western mind is forward, not backward, by systematically cultivating imagination to participate consciously with nature in ways that integrate diverse epistemologies: feeling, will, intention, freedom, intuition and agency as well as cognition (Barfield, p.163).

Barfield’s far vision was not perfect vision.  He uses the term ‘original participation’ to describe the first phase, but his far-seeing eye is time-limited to the Neolithic.  Assuming that other paradigm shifts occurred in the millions of years that Homo sapiens evolved before the Neolithic, I prefer to use the descriptor ‘unconscious participation’ to describe Barfield’s “original” phase.  Assuming that human continuity will succeed Barfield’s third phase, I prefer to use ‘conscious participation’ to describe his “final” phase.  As a white Canadian living in a country where First Nations still practice traditional ways of participating in a nondual relationship with nature, I cannot concur with Barfield’s implication that his “original” phase has ended, and it is my responsibility to bring a decolonizing (post-colonial) perspective to this study.  Barfieldian scholars are ambivalent about the human capacity to reclaim conscious nonduality, with Baring and Cashford arguing that the ‘conscious participation’ phase continues to be dual, but transformed by conscious acts that produce a new unit (Baring & Cashford, p.676). This argument is challenged by the emergence of nondual post-anthropocentric, post-humanist theories that support the possibility that conscious participation integrates conscious nonduality.  These critiques indicate that Barfield’s far-vision was limited by his location and time; nevertheless, his evolutionary theory is relevant to understanding the paradigm shift.

imaginationThe exercise of imagination leads to knowledge because it contributes to meaning and opens the mind to insight (Barfield, p.171).  It is involved in abstraction and symbol-making.  For Barfield, language is related to nature; it is metaphorical and mythical because it reflects the true character of the universe (Myers, 1998, p.7-8).  Jung’s psychological interpretation of mythology as archetypes or metaphors experienced through the collective unconscious makes a significant contribution to Barfield’s notion of participation through imagination (Barfield, p.154). Love, compassion and empathy are feelings in which experience and imaginal knowing merge, so it may be that ecological intelligence and imaginational intelligence are interlinked and that the paradigm of conscious participation is simply about “falling in love with the world” again (Potts, 2012).

paradigm-shiftOwen Barfield seems to anticipate Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm shift”, coined in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). A paradigm is a comprehensive framework derived from a belief system about the nature of knowledge (epistemology) and existence (ontology). A paradigm shift is a revolutionary process whereby the world transitions from one framework to a replacement framework – creating the sense of different worlds or different civilizations.  In the crisis phase, anomalies arise which the present paradigm cannot explain.  In the transitional phase, the breakdown of the paradigm becomes universally accepted.  The shift occurs not as a revision or transformation, but as a fundamental change that requires new language, new questions and new onto-epistemologies (Dietze, 2001, p.39). Barfield’s notion of “evolution” carries the sense of paradigm shift.  Barfield contributes to climate change adaptation, which requires a paradigm shift that deconstructs the systems that separate humans from nature and that reconstructs a conscious participation with nature in order to address the anthropogenic causes of the climate crisis.

Barfield’s trajectory of the paradigm shift to conscious participation not linear:

“It is much more like a U. The left hand of the U traces the path from “original participation” to our current estrangement from nature. …Now we are just beginning to make our ascent back up, this time on the right hand of the U. This is the essential difference. Because now we can begin to “participate” in “the world” not passively, …but actively, by becoming conscious of the power of our imagination in creating “the world” (Lachman, 2013, np).

U-Letter-U-1For emerging ecocentrics, climate change adaptation starts near the bottom of the U and move upwards on the right side of the U as we make the paradigm shift from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism.  In order to understand the possible trajectory of relationality with nature, we need to understand the nuanced locations within anthropocentrism and ecocentrism.  Anthropocentrism holds to the dualistic notion that humans are separate from nature and superior to nature.  Homocentric dualisms justify the domination over and subordination of the ‘other’, including nature (Warren, 1990, p.125f; Plumwood, 1993, p.42f).

  • Utilitarianism holds that nature has value only as a resource that can be developed into a commodity. It is informed by Cartesian dualism and reductionism which view nature as a machine, made up of inert objects without intelligence.
  • Conservationism moderates this view by holding that humans must manage and harvest natural resources sustainably in consideration of both current and future generations. Conservationist ethics are concerned about degradation and species loss and are informed by the neoliberal pillars of sustainable development: economic growth and environmental responsibility.

In these hierarchal worldviews, humans are regarded as stewards and managers, responsible to manage natural resources.

Moving right up the U involves many locations as emerging ecocentrics move gradually toward conscious participation.  The locations are distinguished by increasing depth of relationality with nature.  Acknowledging that there may be additional locations which I have not yet experienced or perceived, I tentatively offer the following ecocentric continuum of relationality with nature:

  • At the first location, emerging ecocentrics accept that nature has intrinsic value irrespective of its usefulness to humans. Rejecting a human/nature hierarchy, they recognize that humans are nature and participate interdependently and equally with all beings in the web of life. They may explore deep ecology, living systems theory and permaculture, and adopt an ethic of care that draws on the four pillars of the Earth Charter: environmental responsibility, economic health, social equality and cultural vitality.
  • At the second location, ecocentrics accept that nature is intelligent, autonomous and communicative. As nature is re-sacralized, many ecocentrics learn to participate consciously with nature in an empathic and mutual relationship through unitive/ transpersonal experiences (Spretnak, 1997, p.431).  Political actions resist the hegemony of systems of dominance and reconstruct ecocentric alternatives. Voluntary simplicity, ecofeminism and biodynamics may be explored as praxes.
  • At the third location, ecocentrics accept that the world is agentic and powerful; they invest in a tender reciprocal relationality that re-animates community. Participating with nature and being present to nature acknowledge its inner life, a communicative animated presence in its own right, capable of dialogue with us, if only we can learn to listen (Mathews, 2004, np; Barrett, 2011, p.128; Plumwood, 2010, p.45).  Equality is expanded to acknowledge the rights of nature, as seen in the post-anthropocentric onto-epistemology of buen vivir, as well as the maternal as first principle (Cavarero, 1990, p.61, 83; Simpson, 2006, p.29).  Cosmology contributes groundedness by evoking imagination and a shared symbology to express the sacredness of the whole.

The U begins to morph into a spiral as the two ends draw closer together when the Western ecocentric movement toward conscious participation with nature begins to learn from indigenous communities through Eighth Fire gatherings (Simpson, 2011, p.18) and other cultural exchanges.   The praxes of buen vivir (Andean), ubuntu (southern Africa) and mino bimaadiziwin (Anishinaabeg) are not appropriations of aboriginal culture or nativism, but rather decolonized post-anthropocentric reconstructions  that participate, consciously and unconsciously,  in the world that we jointly inhabit  (Martinez-Alier, 2014, p.43; Mathew, 2005, p.57).  The next section explores theories that contribute new ways of thinking and becoming ecocentric.

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Khakassia1_Valley of Kings

Irene in an excavated kurgan in Valley of Kings, a sacred place near Abakan, Khakassia, Siberia