Friday, February 19, 2010

Consciousness and...

I'm curious: how do we place Barfield's definition of consciousness over and against that of the current conversation in "Consciousness Studies"?


Don said...

Hi, can you elaborate a bit on your sense of Barfield's definition (can we call it a "definition"?) of consciousness? And perhaps you might put it in the context of his understanding of the evolution of consciousness? thanks much, Don.

Don said...

Hi, is this forum still active? I also didn't see a way to start a new post, so I thought I would add a comment in case anybody is out there.

I thought I’d give you all a quick overview of where my interest in Owen Barfield is focused. I just yesterday got out my copy of “Saving the Appearances” and reread the first few chapters. Blown away once again, I see this work – particularly just focusing in on that initial example of the rainbow and the tree – as an unusually powerful way of cutting through the myth of science as being inseparable from the philosophy (?) of materialism/physicalism. In our (my wife, Jan, and I) book on yoga psychology (“Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness: Seeing Through the Eyes of Infinity”) in chapters 4 and 5 (this was before I read Barfields book, and was drawing primarily from the yoga and Buddhist traditions) we presented a very similar analysis of the nature of experience and knowledge.

I’m hoping, some time in the late fall or early next year, to work with Jan on a number of slide shows and/or videos, with this topic as the theme, using both video and music, and incorporating prose and poetry, to upload some videos, probably initially on our website and later for youtube and other internet venues.

I think there are a few crucial areas that potentially can be very powerful in undoing the spell of (mind independent) matter.

1. Understanding (seeing/intuiting) the distinction between what Barfield calls the represented and the unrepresented (or qualia and the theoretical, non-mental entities that science assumes underlies the phenomena)
2. Understanding, strictly from within current, accepted scientific knowledge, the evolution of consciousness in parallel with the “evolution” of appearances (as we outline in a chart in our book on p 126)
3. Understanding, again strictly from within currently accepted neuroscience, how much of our experience of ourselves and the world is “constructed” by parts of the mind of which we are not aware (leaving aside the question of whether those parts are “sub” or “super” conscious – we address this at the end of chapter 4. We also mention it briefly at the end of chapter 2, where we talk about the parallel between (a) the way that consciousness has unfolded over billions of years of evolution; and (b) the way that consciousness unfolds (again according to the latest neuroscience) over the course of hundreds of milliseconds, in every moment. (along with this is William James very important observation, seconded by contemporary neuroscientists llike Donald Hoffman at Cal Tech, that all of neuroscientific findings are compatible with the following ideas: (a) all of mind is nothing but an activity of the brain; (b) the mind transmits thought/experience through the brain; and (c) the brain acts as a kind of filter (this idea was made popular by Aldous Huxley in his book, “The Doors of Perception” as “Mind at Large”) which “allows” in only a tiny, infinitesimal ‘fragment’ of an infinite store of conscious experience)
4. Taking a thoroughly agnostic attitude toward the findings of parapsychology, primarily looking at the conclusions of the most ardent, passionate and dogmatic skeptics and debunkers – namely, that there do indeed exist experiments in remote viewing, or clairvoyance (as admitted by arch skeptic Richard Wiseman), psychokinesis (as almost admitted by archskeptics Susan Blakemore and James Alcock), and telepathy (as admitted by arch skeptic Carl Sagan). Parapsychology of course can only be mentioned after the first three are thoroughly explored and it’s made absolutely clear that there isn’t a single finding, a single experiment, in the last 4 centuries of scientific exploration, that in any way *requires* a purely materialistic (or physicalist) explanation.
So that’s what I’m primarily interested in drawing on from Barfield’s work. This is what we explore in depth in the first 5 chapters of the yoga psych book.

dimwoo said...

Just to quickly respond to Don's post to say that these are areas I'm very interested too, and I hope there's much more along these lines. I'm not sure I'm qualified to address the issues he has raised, and time is short currently as I'm babysitting for two 7 year olds (!), but I'll try to chip in a little more substantially soon.

Don said...

Hi Dimwoo (what do the 7 year olds think of calling you "dimwoo"? - or do they?)

I just got a note in my email that you posted. I thought I might mention that I'm planning to work on presenting these things in an audio visual format - toward the end of this year, or maybe some time early next year. Jan (my wife) and I are working right now on a Keynote (Mac version of PowerPoint) presentation of an online meditation course we're developing. Jan's doing a really good job of learning Keynote and getting some lovely, artistic visual qualities from it. I'm just starting to get into Logic Pro 9, a VERY complex music software program, which will provide the soundtrack for the course.

After we get that done, we're very much looking forward to illustrate some of the ideas from Barfield and others.


Don said...

hi again - i thought some might be interested in this. Sri Krishna Prem was a British man (Ronald Nixon - 1895 - 1965) who became a renowed spiritual teacher in India. A child prodigy in science, his experience as a fighter pilot in WWI left him with a bad taste in his mouth for materialistic science. He became first a Theosophist, then a Buddhist, and finally a "universalist" of a kind. This is from the close of his essay, "Religion and Philosophy" (it will take 3 postings, I think)

"‘Whoever desires to be a practical philosopher', said the great Paracelsus, ‘ought to be able to indicate heaven and hell in the microcosm and to find everything in Man that exists in heaven or on earth. He must be able to turn the exterior into the interior. But this is an art which he can only acquire by experience and by the Light of nature which is shining before the eyes of every man, but which is seen by few mortals.'
This universal teaching of the seers was well known to the writers of the Upanishads, as also to the tantrik schools who placed the seven worlds and all their denizens within this six foot human frame. It is a teaching, however, which modern man tends to turn away from. If he is a philosopher, he looks at it askance as a relic of God knows =what ancient superstition, and he prefers to busy himself with formal enquiries into the nature of sense data or the structure of logical propositions. Ask him what is within man, and, after quibbling for an hour or so on the meaning of ‘within', he will say that in all probability and according to the views of Professor Tweedledum there is something abstract termed a mind, but that it is just possible that Professor Tweedledum may be right in holding that the so called mind is only a complex of conditioned reflexes. As for anything else that may be within us, he will politely refer us to the doctor.

Nor will the religious man be found much more helpful. The age old hostility between the priest and the magician still makes itself felt, if only subconsciously, and he feels that religion should be a matter of simple faith in a benevolent providence, nourished, perhaps, by some thin gruel of intellectual theism. Heaven and hell? Oh yes, after death, no doubt, heaven for me and hell for you! All very proper, but don't let us talk of such depressing subjects. What is within man? His immortal soul, Atma, or what not. What is that soul? Well, we don't really know, but it is something very spiritual, too spiritual in fact to be described. The interview concludes with
the offer of a loan of his particular sacred scriptures for us to study.

Don said...

(Sri Krishna Prem, part 2)

As for the practical man, he looks for truth in telescopes and microscopes, in millions and millionths, and in laboratory wonders in general. He will, of course, refer us at once to the doctor who is himself writ large and who, with knife in one hand and stethoscope in the other, will give us an answer which amounts in the end to what the nursery rhyme called ‘slugs and snails and puppy dog's tails'. Paracelsus? Yes, he was a member of our profession and a great man in his day discovered the circulation of the blood or the stagnation of the bile, I can't quite remember which and no doubt by heaven and hell he simply meant health and disease.

It seems there is no one willing to take Paracelsus seriously; yet the latter was giving utterance to a truth which is of the utmost practical importance and which at one time was understood by the wise of all nations. It is ignorance of this truth that is responsible for the mist of unreality which has spread over all modern learning. What Paracelsus termed the light of nature has, since his time, been hidden even more zealously behind a rampart of books in front of which the scientist, as high priest of this age, peers through telescope or microscope at meaningless stars above him or meaningless atoms beneath, while religion and philosophy perch on his shoulders, nodding wisely at each other, like two owls.
But Paracelsus was entirely right. There is a sun above us in the heavens, and there is also a sun within these mortal frames. Sun, moon, and planets weave their intricate patterns in the sky above us, and no less do they weave them in the tissues of our bodies and in the subtler tissues of our psyches... Within us are all the Gods, and without their power not the slightest movement of our little finger, not the most conditioned of conditioned reflexes could take place. The Gods, we repeat, shine above us in the sky, and the same Gods shine within us in the ether of the heart. As Thales said, ‘all things are full of Gods', and on a knowledge of their hierarchies must be based all true sciences and all true arts, all philosophy and all religion. From the Gods comes healing for the body, from the same Gods healing for the soul. From them comes knowledge of past and
future, from them the power to mold the living present.

Don said...

Long ago this great truth was known to all men, consciously to the wise few and instinctively to the many. We have forgotten it, and this forgetfulness is the deep rooted cause of all our modern unrest. Only when we re discover the Gods in ourselves shall we be able once again to see them in the outer world as well. Only then shall we become what Paracelsus terms practical philosophers, and only then shall we attain once more to that inner and outer harmony of being that we have lost. Only then, too, will theology cease to be the tissue of empty words which it is at present become again the Queen of the sciences, the knowledge of those shining powers whose life is manifested as this universe. Above them and below them there is nothing; above the nothing of the divine darkness, below, the reflected nothing of matter. Between these two nothings extends the whole living web of the divine tapestry, the fabric of the universe, the gleaming garment of the divine play, the golden patterns of the ever moving planets, circling against the background of eternal stars.

dimwoo said...

Hi Don,

My name's Steve. "Dimwoo" is an insult invented for my benefit by my daughter some years ago. I ended up using it as an email address because when I signed up with yahoo some years ago all the cool names I wanted to use had been taken and I finally typed in "dimwoo" out of frustration, and it worked. So I'm kind of stuck with it.

dimwoo said...

Here’s a swipe at answering the question: what was Barfield’s definition of consciousness and how did it relate to his understanding of the evolution of consciousness?

David Lavery’s Encyclopedia Barfieldiana ( has a ‘consciousness’ entry. I’m not sure if Mom N is referring to anything specific by “consciousness studies” in her original post, but the general scientific view is the very antithesis of Barfield’s:

“If civilization is to be saved, people must come more and more to realize that our consciousness is not something spatially enclosed in the skin or in the skull or in the brain; that it is not only our inside, but the inside of the world as a whole. That people should not merely be able to propound as a theory . . . but that it should become more and more their actual experience. . . . That, and also the overcoming of the total obsession there is today, with the Darwinian view of evolution--of consciousness or mind having emerged from a material, but entirely unconscious universe. Putting it very shortly, to realize, not simply as a theory but as a conviction of common sense, that in the history of the world, matter has emerged from mind and not mind from matter. (TI 10)”

This is a view of consciousness as being something inherent to and all-pervasive within the universe, a kind of pan-psychism. Barfield also writes, in a metaphor I find a little hard to grasp, that "Consciousness resembles a spark located within the brain much less than it resembles a diffused light focused into the whole body from without". I guess that the living being either itself focuses this diffuse consciousness, or is created by the focusing of the light by some other cause.

These are of course descriptions of the qualities or properties of consciousness rather than assertions as to what consciousness really is. I don’t think anyone in any field has a clue what it actually is. It’s a major philosophical conundrum: “the most familiar and yet most mysterious aspect of our lives” (

Kate Farrel’s essay “Owen Barfield’s Poetic Magic” ( interprets Barfield’s notion of the evolution of consciousness as “the ongoing, epochs-long transformation of the way human beings experience the world”. As I recall from Saving The Appearances, these changes in consciousness amounted to changes in ‘figuration’, the pre-conscious pre-rational process in which the world in all it’s ‘buzzing blooming confusion’ is assembled into a coherent whole. I cannot recall if Barfield describes what causes these changes - he may have done but it went over my head. Is it a feedback process from our conscious understanding of the world or more akin to a genuine evolution of something much more innate and abstract: consciousness itself rather than the contents of that consciousness?

Hmm, I'm confused myself now...

Kasper said...

While some very interesting things were posted above on various subjects, I think the question of defining 'consciousness' is a crucial one. I think you are right in associating it with the concept of 'figuration' as used in Saving the Appearances, but perhaps a more concrete definition is given in Poetic Diction, were "'consciousness' embraces "all my awareness of my surroundings at any given moment, and 'surroundings' includes my own feelings" (pp.40). It is thus the whole reality we may be aware of, encompassing both our inner world of feelings and thoughts and the outer world we perceive with our senses. The evolution of consciousness, then, refers to the gradual transformation of humanity's inner experience as well as its changing perception of outer reality.

Ken McClure said...

Good work.

Don's contribution gives us (those of us who wish to try) a large context within which to reconceive Barfield. And his (and Jan's) book, in that spirit, is most fertile.

The effort to define consciousness is helpful too. Do we see that Kasper's effort to perhaps more concretely define it complements rather than contradicts the original definition? That is, we are called upon to draw from the entire embrace of consciousness in order to achieve figuration "not by its captive but by its utmost meaning."

Don said...

hi folks, wonderful comments all, and though I'm tempted to jump right in and respond to all, I wanted to ask a question first - does anybody know how to post a new thread? Should I contact the forum moderator (Jim?)


Don said...

Hi, regarding a definition of consciousness: I like the quote from Poetic Diction that Kaspar offered, followed by his elaboration: 'consciousness' embraces "all my awareness of my surroundings at any given moment, and 'surroundings' includes my own feelings" (pp.40). It is thus the whole reality we may be aware of, encompassing both our inner world of feelings and thoughts and the outer world we perceive with our senses.
There is one thing in Kaspar’s elaboration that calls for further reflection: “the whole reality we may be aware OF” – that “of” is tricky. I’ll say more on that in a moment.
Steve (“Dimwoo” – love that name) offered another potent Barfield quote, which concluded that for the very salvation of civilization, we need to understand – as a conviction, not just a theory – that matter emerged from mind and not vice versa.
In another passage, Barfield expresses an understanding of consciousness which is both common in the yoga tradition and reflects the most current understanding in neuroscience (but was no doubt extremely unusual at the time Barfield was writing) – that consciousness is less like a spark in the brain than a light “focused into the body from without”. With our current understanding of the relationship of the (head) brain with the “heart brain” (see “cardioneurology” and for rather amazing research on the heart brain), and the enteric brain in the stomach, as well as the relations between the activity of the (head) brain and the endocrine system, the immune system, the neuropeptide system, and all of them connected by “messenger molecules” which interact with virtually all of the 10 or so trillion cells of the body – taking all this into account, Barfield’s comment is surprisingly prescient (well, of course it was the common understanding of the tantric traditions in India too – both Hindu and Buddhist).
Tantra also understood “consciousness” (Chit) to be not only the “inside” of the world but the “All” of the world. Sri Aurobindo (early 20th century poet/yogi) expressed it this way: “Consciousness is the fundamental thing in the universe. It is the energy, the motion, the movement of consciousness that creates the universe and all that is in it.”

Regarding that word “of” – the reality “OF” the world. I don’t think that Kaspar meant it this way, but it could set up the notion of a “world” – even if that “world” is seen as a manifestation or reflection of mind” – which is an object. Sri Krishna Prem, in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, makes an extremely interesting point about the limitation in the way we usually use the word “consciousness”. He writes, “There are many drawbacks to the use of the word ‘consciousness’. In the first place it is used I half a dozen different senses by philosophers and psychologists, and in the second place it suffers from the great drawback that it has no active verbal form. One can say “to be conscious of” but not “to conscious” such-and-such an object. There is the word “awareness” and the dubious coined derivative “awaring,” which I have also occasionally pressed into service, but it is ugly and not very current [this was written in the mid 1930s]. The best term is one that was coined by E.D.Fawcett in his “The World as Imagination”, “Zermatt Dialogues”, etc. The term in question is “consciring” – i.e. “knowing together” and has as its correlative, for the content-form, the word “conscitum (plural, conscita).

Kasper said...

To start with, I also tried to post a new thread, but it didn't work for me either, so it might be a good idea to contact the moderator.

Then to the comments: while I must say I'm rather at a loss with the neurological/biological side of things, your (i.e. Don's) remark on my use of the preposition 'of' in 'to be aware of' is very illuminating, and I see now how difficult it is to define a concept such as consciousness in a language built upon a strict divide of subject and object. The quotations from Sri Krishna Prem and E.D. Fawcett also give much food for thought. I especially like the neologism 'to conscire', which could more accurately express our relation to the world.

Don said...

Hi Kaspar:

Yes, Krishna Prem is wonderful, isn't he? I'm curious about your comment about the neurological/biological side of things. Did you mean you didn't follow what I wrote, or simply that you don't know enough about it do contribute? I'm very interested to know if you or others feel it's helpful in conveying an understanding of the evolution of consciousness. I find that generally, even when people have considered these matters for years or even decades, there is such a strong "residue of unresolved positivism" that the physical side of things (brain stuff, particularly) is almost a necessity in order to give them a truly visceral sense of the pervasiveness of mind (or Consciousness, I'm not sure what term you folks prefer - in Indian philosophy it's "Chit" which is not what scientists today mean by "consciousness").

Jan and I just taught a meditation class last night, and talked about mind-body/brain-body stuff. It seems that, even for people who've heard very little of this, it seems to make "meditation" and "mind" more "real" when the details are spelled out. One person talked about using coffee to wake up, pills for headaches and pills for going to sleep. In talking about how in the past I've helped people get off medications for these things (and use less coffee:>) and in tracing the physiological pathways involved, it seems - at least from what little direct verbal feedback we got, and from their expressions - that it sinks in more when the physical correlates are added. But I'm not sure. I'd be very interested in hearing what others think about the usefulness of this approach.

Kasper said...

I simply meant that I didn't quite understand. On the other hand, I am also a bit reluctant to approach the subject from the physiological angle, since so much we read nowadays is focused on 'explaining away' mental/psychic processes by ´discovering´ their neurological origin in the brain. I'm inklined to think that Steiner's (and I guess also Barfield's) view of the brain as an instrument of the mind, is a much more truthful and fruitful picture of the way things really are.

In any case, I don't really know a lot about these thing, but I'd be glad to learn.

Don said...

Hi Kasper:

I hope you don't mind, I'm going to reply briefly here but add an extended comment on the "Evolution of consciousness" thread. I like that you are "inklined" toward seeing brain as instrument of mind; that is my perspective too (as long as we stay inklined to see "brain" not as an inherently existing "thing" but also as what the Buddhists call "an appearance to mind").

But just quickly - what I am going to do is bring in something I assume everyone here is familiar with - the opening 35 pages of "Saving the Appearances." I think I can bring all the points I raised at the opening of the EVO/CON thread into relationship with Barfield's opening chapters. So I'm going to start (on the other thread) with the rainbow and the tree.

Extollager said...

Here is a piece at the excellent Front Porch Republic that has Barfieldian resonance (as one of the commenters noticed).

Don said...

Hi Extollager:

It's been awhile with no comments. how did you find this forum and what's your interest in Barfield and consciousness? thanks, Don (

dimwoo said...

I'm sorry to sound a critical note, but I'm a little frustrated with the current forum format!

I may be missing something but there seems to be no way for anyone other than the official contributors to start a new thread; and as the contributors aren't posting regularly the forum is showing very little signs of life e.g. the last post on any thread bar the two recent ones on the "Consciousness and..." thread was on July 3rd.

Surely there's a way to allow forum followers to have more active involvment and thus stimulate things a bit? There are a number of (often free or very cheap) online forum formats that allow more user interaction along with the usual moderator powers to ensure that order and a reasonably high level of debate is maintained.

Steve Law

Kasper said...

I agree with the previous comment. The forum was really worthwhile for the short time it was alive, so I'd welcome any way to get it going again. Giving all members permission to begin topics would be a good start.

Don said...

bravo bravo!! I had to go through a cumbersome process to get permission to start a thread. By the way kasper and steve, I did have an off-forum discussion many months back about changing the format of this forum, but nothing came of it. I don't know what forums you guys have found workable, but the Barbara Ehrenreich forum (just google "Ehrenreich forum" and ignore my comments:>))) is very user friendly. Unfortunately, I'm not a web-creator person so i don't know how you would start up such a forum, but I imagine someone here (or at the forum - it's a friendly enough place - if you don't mention my name:>) that if you go to the "Bait and Switch" forum, and ask for "Bruce Coulson", he might be able to help.

Here's the link:

John JMesserly said...

The Nagel piece on "What it is like to be a bat" is thought provoking. Barfield mentioned the challenge of describing animal phenomenology in SA I believe, but it is consonant with the study of the evolution of the phenomenological world because of the analysis of alternate systems of representations.

It is a great difficulty to get into the phenomenological skin of another, be that another period of time as Barfield did, or another species in Nagel's case. It is fundamental to communication in this ever diverse world of balkanized collective representations.

We could as well ask "What is it like to be an Anthroposophist?" Many, including Barfield's own wife had great difficulting bridging the chasm between their phenomenal worlds. This difficulty in thinking the thoughts of another without necessairly believing them in order to percieve the meaning there is indeed a difficult art. Many of those interested in Barfield quickly lose interest when they come to grips with the central importance he assigned to Steiner. Many cannot imagine the anthroposophist's world except in pejorative (eg. "delusional") terms.

That's the great mystery of the signifiance of Love as another sort of path of connection to a meaning outside of one's awareness. Wordless, conceptless connection. Coleridge made this connection (perhaps Steiner as well) sometimes even in theological terms. Loving the mate as a means of traversing the chasm without the limitations of thought or word, becomes the model of the same sort of means of traversing the chasm between man and God.

Kasper Nijsen said...

These are thought-provoking ideas. I don't know the piece by Nagel you mention, but it seems worth looking up. Interestingly, I was just reading Steiner's essay on 'Love and its meaning in the world', where he writes that "the all-embracing attribute of the Godhead is not omnipotence, not omniscience, but love. God is supreme love, not supreme might, not supreme wisdom. .... Therefore anyone who knows the mystery of love can be a Christian. Spiritual Science must include this love — otherwise it leads to egoism."

Dale said...

One reason that the doctrine of the Trinity is so vitally important is that it alone shows how God can, indeed, be love and also be eternal God. If relationship does not exist in God, He cannot manifest or realize love until He creates, and so He would be lacking in something, which compromises His God-nature. But from eternity there is love between Father and Son and Holy Spirit and when time, space, and other creatures are created, they may (and must) reflect such love.