Books and Code · A Miscellany

Saving the Appearances, by Owen Barfield (A Review)


If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If you answer with a resounding “No!” then Barfield is your man. In fact, his first chapter is a restatement of this very cliche: he asserts that a rainbow only “exists” if it is being perceived by a conscious being.

He goes on to develop his idea of the evolution of consciousness, which goes something like this:

  1. “reality” (whatever that is…) must be perceived in some way by a consciousness (when it is not, he calls it the “unrepresented” and, like Wittgenstein, passes over it in silence)

  2. therefore, reality depends (partly?) on our consciousness (we create “representations” and “appearances” in our mind)

  3. when we recognize this, we “participate”; when we don’t, the appearances become “idols”

  4. history is the story of man “originally participating,” but over time his appearances become idols as he strengthens the me/other divide of what he perceives (his evidence, such as it is, is covered more fully in his prior two books History in English Words and Poetic Diction)

  5. we need to recover this awareness of the connection of our consciousness to creating reality and participate again in full awareness (“final participation”)

  6. Christ’s incarnation is a special event which heralds this transition

If you think the above is a clever bit of psychologizing but seriously flawed as a metaphysical theory, well Barfield says that’s just because you are an idolator. You are in thrall to the idols of the scientific revolution, which has destroyed participation altogether and offered nothing in return.

Barfield claims at the outset that “this is not a book about metaphysics” and then goes on to base his entire thesis on a dodgy metaphysics, having disposed himself of the necessity to justify his metaphysical assumptions. Let us grant him his entire system without the underlying metaphysics. Now ask, “why is participation better? What if a falling tree rainbow does make a sound sight?” In that case, non-participation is entirely valid, possibly superior.

There is a lot more I could critique (especially his attacks on science), but I will leave that for another day. I’ve already made some relevant points in my reviews of Poetic Diction and CSL’s The Discarded Image (the latter cites this book).

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating, challenging and stimulating book. Highly recommended for Inklings fans, theology nerds, and Christians duped by Deepak Chopra.