Owen Barfield

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Owen Barfield
Born 9 November 1898 (1898-11-09)
Died 14 December 1997 (1997-12-15) (aged 99)
Forest Row, England
Occupation Philosopher, author, poet
Nationality United Kingdom
Alma mater Wadham College, Oxford

Arthur Owen Barfield (9 November 1898 – 14 December 1997) was a British philosopher, author, poet, and critic.


Barfield was born in London. He was educated at Highgate School and Wadham College, Oxford and in 1920 received a first class degree in English language and literature. After finishing his B. Litt., which became his third book Poetic Diction, he was a dedicated poet and author for over ten years. After 1934 his profession was as a solicitor in London, from which he retired in 1959 aged 60. Thereafter he had many guest appointments as Visiting Professor in North America. Barfield published numerous essays, books, and articles. His primary focus was on what he called the "evolution of consciousness," which is an idea which occurs frequently in his writings. He is best known as the author of Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry and as a founding father of Anthroposophy in the English speaking world.


In 1923 he married the musician and choreographer Maud Douie. They had two children, Alexander and Lucy; and fostered Geoffrey. Their sole grandchild is Owen A. Barfield, son of Alexander.

The Inklings

Barfield has been known as "the first and last Inkling". He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, and through his books The Silver Trumpet and Poetic Diction (dedicated to C.S. Lewis), an appreciable effect on J. R. R. Tolkien.[1] Lewis was a good friend of Barfield since 1919, and termed Barfield "the best and wisest of my unofficial teachers". That Barfield did not consider philosophy merely intellectually is illustrated by a well-known interchange that took place between Lewis and Barfield. Lewis one day made the mistake of referring to philosophy as "a subject." "It wasn't a subject to Plato," said Barfield, "It was a way."[2] Lewis refers to Barfield as the "Second Friend" in Surprised by Joy:

But the Second Friend is the man who disagrees with you about everything. He is not so much the alter ego as the antiself. Of course he shares your interests; otherwise he would not become your friend at all. But he has approached them all at a different angle. He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one. It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it. How can he be so nearly right and yet, invariably, just not right?[3]

Barfield and C. S. Lewis met in 1919 and were close friends for 44 years. Barfield was instrumental in converting Lewis to theism during the early period of their friendship which they affectionately called 'The Great War'. Maud also guided Lewis. As well as being friend and teacher to Lewis, Barfield was his legal adviser and trustee. Lewis dedicated his 1936 book Allegory of Love to Barfield. Lewis wrote his 1949 book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for Lucy Barfield and he dedicated The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to Geoffrey in 1952.


Barfield became an anthroposophist after attending a lecture by Rudolf Steiner in 1924.[4] He studied the work and philosophy of Rudolf Steiner throughout his life and translated some of his works, and had some early essays published in anthroposophical publications. This part of Barfield's literary work includes the book The Case for Anthroposophy containing his Introduction to selected extracts from Steiner's Riddles of the Soul.[5] A study of Steiner's basic texts provides information on some of the ideas that influenced Barfield's work,[6] but Barfield's work ought not be considered derivative of Steiner's. Barfield expert G. B. Tennyson suggests the relation: "Barfield is to Steiner as Steiner was to Goethe".[7] But though Barfield's writing was profoundly original and not derivative, he would not have agreed with Tennyson's characterization. Barfield considered Steiner a much greater man and mind than Goethe. From that point of view, Tennyson's analogy implies that Barfield was much greater than Steiner. But Barfield considered himself very small beside Steiner, or Goethe. (Tennyson may have meant the analogy to suggest influence, rather than relative stature.)

Influence and opinions

Barfield might be characterised as both a Christian writer and a learned anti-reductionist writer. All of his books are in print[when?] again in new editions, and include Unancestral Voice; History, Guilt, and Habit; Romanticism Comes of Age; The Rediscovery of Meaning; Speaker's Meaning; and Worlds Apart. History in English Words seeks to retell the history of Western civilization by exploring the change in meanings of various words. Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry is on the 1999 100 Best Spiritual Books of the Century list by Philip Zaleski.[8]

Barfield was also an influence on T. S. Eliot who called Barfield's book Worlds Apart "a journey into seas of thought very far from ordinary routes of intellectual shipping."

In her book Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World, Verlyn Flieger analyzes the influence of Barfield's Poetic Diction on the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien.[9]

More recent discussions of Barfield's work are published in Stephen Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, Neil Evernden's The Social Creation of Nature, Daniel Smitherman's Philosophy and the Evolution of Consciousness, Morris Berman's The Reenchantment of the World, and Gary Lachman's A Secret History of Consciousness. In 1996 Lachman conducted perhaps the last interview with Barfield, versions of which appeared in Gnosis[10] magazine and the magazine Lapis.[11]

In his book Why the World Around You isn't as it Appears: A Study of Owen Barfield (SteinerBooks, 2012), Albert Linderman presents Barfield's work in light of recent societal examples and scholarship while writing for an audience less familiar with philosophical categories and history.

In a foreword to Poetic Diction, Howard Nemerov, US Poet Laureate, stated: Among the poets and teachers of my acquaintance who know POETIC DICTION it has been valued not only as a secret book, but nearly as a sacred one.[12]

Saul Bellow, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist, wrote: "We are well supplied with interesting writers, but Owen Barfield is not content to be merely interesting. His ambition is to set us free. Free from what? From the prison we have made for ourselves by our ways of knowing, our limited and false habits of thought, our 'common sense'." [13]

The culture critic and psychologist James Hillman called Barfield "one of the most neglected important thinkers of the 20th Century".[14]

Harold Bloom, describing Poetic Diction, referred to it as "a wonderful book, from which I keep learning a great deal".

The film Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning (1994), co-produced and written by G. B. Tennyson and David Lavery, directed and edited by Ben Levin, is a documentary portrait of Barfield.

Poetic Diction

Barfield's Poetic Diction opens with examples of "felt changes" arising in reading poetry, and discusses how these relate to general principles of poetic composition. But Barfield's greater agenda is "a study of meaning". Using poetic examples, he attempts to demonstrate how the imagination works with words and metaphors to create meaning. He shows how the imagination of the poet creates new meaning, and how this same process has been active, throughout human experience, to create and continuously expand language. For Barfield this is not just literary criticism: it is evidence for the evolution of human consciousness. This, for many readers, is his real accomplishment: his unique presentation of "not merely a theory of poetic diction, but a theory of poetry, and not merely a theory of poetry, but a theory of knowledge". This theory was developed directly from a close study of the evolution of words and meaning, starting with the relation between the primitive mind's myth making capacity, and the formation of words. Barfield uses numerous examples to demonstrate that words originally had a unified "concrete and undivided" meaning, which we now distinguish as several distinct concepts. For example, the single Greek word pneuma (which can be variously translated as "breath", "spirit", or "wind") reflects, Barfield argues, the primordial unity of these concepts of air, spirit, wind, and breath, all included in one "holophrase". This Barfield considers not the application of analogy to natural phenomena, but the discernment of its pre-existence. This is the perspective Barfield believes is original in the evolution of consciousness, which was "fighting for its life", as he phrases it, in the philosophy of Plato, and which, in a regenerate and more sophisticated form, benefiting from the development of rational thought, needs to be recovered if consciousness is to continue to evolve.[citation needed]

Worlds Apart

Barfield's Worlds Apart is one of his most important books. It is a fictional dialogue between a physicist, a biologist, a psychiatrist, a lawyer-philologist, a linguistic analyst, a theologian, a retired Waldorf School teacher, and a young man employed at a rocket research station. During a period of three days, the characters discuss and debate first principles.[15]

Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry

Saving the Appearances explores some three thousand years of history—particularly the history of human consciousness. Barfield argues that the evolution of nature is inseparable from the evolution of consciousness. What we call matter interacts with mind and wouldn't exist without it. In Barfield's lexicon, there is an "unrepresented" underlying base of reality that is extra-mental. This is comparable to Kant's notion of the "noumenal world".[16] However, unlike Kant, Barfield entertained the idea that the "unrepresented" could be directly experienced, under some conditions.

Similar conclusions have been made by others, and the book has influenced, for example, the physicist Stephen Edelglass (who wrote The Marriage of Sense and Thought), and the Christian existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel, who wanted the book to be translated into French.[17]

Barfield points out that the "real" world of physics and particles is completely different from the world we see and live in of things with properties.

In our critical thinking as physicists or philosophers, we imagine ourselves set over against an objective world consisting of particles, in which we do not participate at all. In contrast, the phenomenal, or familiar, world is said to be riddled with our subjectivity. In our daily, uncritical thinking, on the other hand, we take for granted the solid, objective reality of the familiar world, assume an objective, lawful manifestation of its qualities such as color, sound, and solidity, and even write natural scientific treatises about the history of its phenomena—all while ignoring the human consciousness that (by our own, critical account) determines these phenomena from the inside in a continually changing way.[18]

The particle world of physics is independent of human thought, and only indirectly accessible to humans. The world we see and perceive directly is dependent on and alterable by human thought (this is not to say there aren't or are limits.) Both are 'real' or 'unreal' depending on the meaning of real; that this changes over time in human thought is exactly Barfield's point.

Major works

For a full bibliography including all essays, see Hipolito, "Bibliography of the published Writings of Owen Barfield" in sources section below.

  • The Silver Trumpet novel. (1925)
  • History in English Words (1926) ISBN 978-0-940262-11-9
  • Poetic Diction: A Study In Meaning (1928) ISBN 978-0-9559582-4-3
  • Romanticism Comes of Age (1944) ISBN 978-0-9569423-1-9
  • Greek Thought in English Words (1950) essay in: G. Rostrevor Hamilton, ed. (1950), Essays and Studies 1950, 3, London: John Murray, pp. 69–81<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • This Ever Diverse Pair (1950) ISBN 978-0-9559582-5-0
  • Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry (1957) ISBN 978-0-9559582-8-1
    • Evolution – Der Weg des Bewusstseins: Zur Geschichte des Europaischen Denkens. (1957) in German, Markus Wulfing (trans.) ISBN 978-3-925177-11-8
    • Salvare le apparenze: Uno studio sull'idolatrie (2010) in Italian, Giovanni Maddalena, Stephania Scardicchio (editors) ISBN 978-88-211-6521-4
  • Worlds Apart: A Dialogue of the 1960s (1963) ISBN 978-0-9559582-6-7
  • Unancestral Voice (1965) ISBN 978-0-9559582-7-4
  • Speaker's Meaning (1967) ISBN 978-0-9569423-0-2
  • What Coleridge Thought (1971)
  • The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays (1977) ISBN 978-0-9569423-3-3
  • History, Guilt, and Habit (1979) ISBN 978-1-59731-108-3
  • Review of Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1979) essay in: Teachers College Record, 80, 1979–2002, pp. 602–604<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Language, Evolution of Consciousness, and the Recovery of Human Meaning (1981)essay reprinted in "Toward the Recovery of Wholeness: Knowledge, Education, and Human Values", ISBN 978-0-8077-2758-4, p 55–61.
  • The Evolution Complex (1982) essay in Towards 2.2, 6, Spring 1982, pp. 14–16<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Introducing Rudolf Steiner (1983)essay in Towards 2.4, 42, Fall–Winter 1983<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Orpheus verse drama. (1983) ISBN 978-0-940262-01-0
  • Listening to Steiner (1984) review in Parabola 9.4, 1985, pp. 94–100<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Reflections on C.S. Lewis, S.T. Coleridge and R. Steiner: An Interview with Barfield (1985) in: Towards 2.6, Spring–Summer 1985, pp. 6–13<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Owen Barfield on C. S. Lewis (1989) G. B. Tennyson (ed.) ISBN 978-1-59731-100-7
  • The Child and the Giant (1988) short story in: Child and Man: Education as an Art, 22, July 1988, pp. 5–7<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    • Das Kind und der Riese – Eine orphische Erzählung (1990) in German, Susanne Lin (trans.)
  • A Barfield Reader: Selections from the Writings of Owen Barfield (1990) G. B. Tennyson (ed.) ISBN 978-0-8195-6361-3
  • A Barfield Sampler: Poetry and Fiction by Owen Barfield (1993) edited by Jeanne Clayton Hunter and Thomas Kranidas ISBN 978-0-7914-1588-7

Notes and references

  1. Flieger, "Splintered Light".
  2. C.S. Lewis, "Surprised by Joy", p. 225.
  3. C.S. Lewis, "Surprised by Joy", pp. 199–200.
  4. Blaxland-De Lange, p. 27.
  5. The Case for Anthroposophy. Publishing information:[1] Online[2]
  6. Grant, pp. 113–125
  7. Tennyson, "Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning".
  8. Philip Zaleski, '100 Best Spiritual Books of the Century, Harper-Collins<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Flieger
  10. Lachman, "One Man's Century", Gnosis (Vol. 40, 1996) p. 8.
  11. Lachman, "Owen Barfield" Lapis (Issue 3, 1996).
  12. "Poetic Diction", p. 1.
  13. Bellow, "History, Guilt and Habit: Editorial review".
  14. Lavery, "Interview with James Hillman".
  15. http://www.amazon.com/Worlds-Apart-A-Dialogue-1960s/dp/0955958261/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1367048708&sr=8-1&keywords=worlds+apart%2C+owen+barfield
  16. "Encyclopedia Barfieldiana: The Unrepresented" (entry).
  17. Remark of Barfield, quoted in Sugerman, ed., Evolution of Consciousness, p. 20.
  18. Barfield, "Worlds Apart" as quoted here


David Lavery, "How Barfield Thought:The Creative Life of Owen Barfield", The Collected Works of David Lavery (pdf), retrieved 12 March 2011<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Hooper, Walter (19 December 1997). "Obituary: Owen Barfield". The Independent. London. Retrieved 20 May 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Walter Hooper (1998), C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide, HarperCollins, ISBN 978-0-06-063880-1<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Verlyn Flieger (2002), Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, ISBN 0-87338-744-9<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Barfield's influence is the main thesis of this book.
C.S. Lewis (1998), Surprised by Joy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN 978-0-15-100185-9<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Simon Blaxland-De Lange (2006), Owen Barfield, Romanticism Comes of Age: a Biography, London: Temple Lodge<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Patrick Grant (1982), "The Quality of Thinking: Owen Barfield as Literary Man and Anthroposophist", Seven, 3<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Gary Lachman, "One Man's Century: Visiting Owen Barfield", Gnosis, 40: 8<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Gary Lachman, "Owen Barfield and the Evolution of Consciousness", Lapis, 3<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Owen Barfield (1973), Poetic Diction: A Study In Meaning, Wesleyan<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Saul Bellow, History, Guilt and Habit: Editorial Review, Amazon<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
David Lavery, Interview with James Hillman<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
David Lavery, Encyclopedia Barfieldiana<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
G.B. Tennyson; David Lavery (1996), Ben Levin (ed.), Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning documentary (VHS), Encino, California: OwenArts Productions, pp. 40 min.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Shirley Sugerman (2008), "A Conversation with Owen Barfield", Evolution of Consciousness: Studies in Polarity, San Rafael, Calif.: Barfield Press, pp. 3–28, ISBN 978-1-59731-116-8<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>. The work is a festschrift honoring Barfield at age 75.
Owen Barfield (2010), Worlds Apart (A Dialogue of the 1960s), Middletown, Conn: Barfield Press UK, ISBN 978-0-9559582-6-7<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Tuck, Donald H. (1974). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Chicago: Advent. ISBN 0-911682-20-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Hipolito, Jane W. (2008), "Bibliography of the published Writings of Owen Barfield", in Shirley Sugerman (ed.), Evolution of Consciousness: Studies in Polarity (PDF), San Rafael, Calif.: Barfield Society, pp. 227–261, ISBN 978-1-59731-116-8, retrieved 27 March 2011<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Related works

  • Lionel Adey. C.S. Lewis's 'Great War' with Owen Barfield Victoria, BC: University of Victoria (English Literary Studies No. 14) 1978.
  • Humphrey Carpenter. The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends. London: Unwin Paperbacks. 1981.
  • Karlson, Henry (2010). Thinking with the Inklings. ISBN 1-4505-4130-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links