New Article

My latest at The Brussels Journal is “Owen Barfield’s Critical Semantics.”  The essay devotes itself to Barfield’s History in English Words (1926), a diagnosis based on etymological studies of the afflicted modern mentality.  It is accessible here:

http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5162

Barfield was friendly with T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others familiar to “Orthosphereans.”  As a follower of Rudolph Steiner’s “Anthroposophy,” he was something of a Gnostic, but that does not invalidate his observations.

I offer a sample paragraph:

Barfield’s argument has by this point in the sequence of his chapters revealed its critical radicalism. From the reconstructed prehistoric beginnings of the Indo-European languages to the High Middle Ages, Barfield sees, in his case-language, English, a net increase of meaning beneficial to the speakers of the tongue; but with the Reformation, which brings the Medieval Period to its end, he sees the phase of meaning-change in the lamentable direction of contraction and diminution for which he employs his term internalization. The same internalization represents a flight from rich participation in reality, with a possibility of transcendence either religious or aesthetic, to cloistered abstraction in the grim Cartesian fortress of disembodied rationality. The resemblance to insanity is hard to miss. No doubt but Barfield intends it. Consciousness, by believing to have discovered its own origin in a random and meaningless process, necessarily renders itself otiose, for how could it be other than random and meaningless? What could it mean to think where consciousness has demoted itself in the world-picture to a neuro-chemical epiphenomenon? But schizophrenically, as it were, the thinking that has abolished itself by a clever theory uselessly goes on jabbering and claims its jabbering to be thinking.

11 thoughts on “New Article

    • Dear Mark, Barfield is a very readable writer. I especially like the dialogue-novels that he produced in the 1960s, such as “Worlds Apart” and “Unancestral Voice.” I recommend these strongly.

  1. Pingback: New Article | Reaction Times

    • Thank you, Wurmbrand.

      From Dale Nelson’s article, I particularly like this passage: “More importantly for Lewis, Barfield taught him not to view earlier ages with disdain from the vantage point of our supposedly more knowing and more humane era. He learned from Barfield that our time is ‘a period’ with its own limitations and errors. It may be hard for some of us to conceive of this insight as something Lewis had to learn, rather than as something he was born knowing, so integral a part of his thought it is!”

  2. Dear Professor Bertonneau,
    Thank you for your latest thought-provoking essay. I have not yet read any of Owen Barfield’s work, but I’m entirely sold on your argument that he deserves to be read.

    If I may reference some other sources, several thoughts came to mind as I read your full piece in The Brussels Journal.

    1) Your own discussions about “post-literacy and the refusal to read”… this phenomenon has much in common with Barfield’s notion of alienation and internalization.

    2) Coincidental or perhaps providential that this entry comes so close to Kristor’s post on Nominalism. In fact, it was while reading his piece (before yours) that I wondered – is there some particular synthesis between Latin (fixed, extremely precise, geometric far beyond English), and the dynamism of the English language, combining as it does Latin/Romance languages with the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic… such that at its apex, the English language (even still) articulates or gives life to The Human – or the human experience –
    (Naturally, coming from an American English-speaker and reader, I am biased. It is certain that my memory and imagination are formed by Shakespeare and Tolkein and Wordsworth in ways that a highly educated Chilean’s are not formed at all).

    3) I was just reaching my own synthesis while reading your piece – when – midway through the 10th paragraph – I exclaimed to myself, “GNOSTICISM!”, re. the internal vs. external reference point for one’s assessment of reality. Sure enough, just then you confirmed my smell test in the final sentence of your 10th paragraph.

    On this note – the internalization that is ultimately synonymous with alienation… I cannot help but visualize these notions geometrically – as contrasted (perhaps) to Barfield’s appreciation of the English language at its peak – as what G.K. Chesterton describes in Orthodoxy in juxtaposing the ourabouros and the cross. One infinitely jabbering about but going nowhere, consuming itself, annihilating itself… the other, expanding infinitely if it will, but coming to a point.

    4) On that note, there would seem to be obvious implications here concerning Christianity, the Logos – meaning, truth, externality / incarnation, etc.

    5) Finally – to take it one tangent further – the idea of internalization vs. externalization brings to mind a certain rub inside the Catholic sphere over different forms of spirituality: For this, I reference the blog Vultus Christi of the Irish Silverstream Priory Monastery. There is a fascinating series there (for liturgy geeks in particular), explaining the so-called “Benedictine-Jesuit conundrum” at the blog of the Irish Benedictine Silverstream Monastery.

    To summarize it roughly: the Jesuit pride of place for St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises (interior – i.e. internalized) as contrasted with the liturgical form of Benedictine Rule of community prayer (Mass, Divine Office), which I think could be characterized as the externalized, fixed center or fixed meaning that I am reading in your reading of Barfield.

    • Dear “AC”:

      Thank you for taking the time to read my essay and then again to formulate such a generous and observant response. I have tried to reply to your points as systematically as possible.

      (1) “Your own discussions about ‘post-literacy and the refusal to read’ [have] much in common with Barfield’s notion of alienation and internalization…”

      The refusal to read is a refusal to grapple with external reality; it is also a rejection of authority, except for the ego, which is, of course, impoverished by its prideful self-isolation. Barfield’s thesis communicates not only with Kristor’s recent posts, but also with Alan Roebuck’s discussion of theological authority.

      (2) “[It is] coincidental or perhaps providential that this entry comes so close to Kristor’s post on Nominalism…”

      I have been busy this semester, among other tasks, with teaching my department’s course on the History and Development of the English Language. Anglo-Saxon is a magnificent language, but when we move past 1066 AD and emerge into the new language of Piers Ploughman and The Canterbury Tales, we are in a new and vastly expanded world. If, as Barfield argues, language and consciousness were inextricable, then it would be hard to avoid the proposition that the intellectual horizon of Middle English is larger than that of Anglo-Saxon. I wish to exercise caution, however, in making extraordinary claims for English. Humility might be the proper emotion to have before the phenomenon.

      One thing about Chaucer’s language: It is refreshingly concrete; his characters are resolutely and essentially what they are, with no doubt about it. The whole of Canterbury Tales is framed by the invocation of the season (“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote the droghte of March hath perced to the roote”). The behavior of men is consistent because men belong to the cosmos and the cosmos is consistent.

      (3) “I was just reaching my own synthesis while reading your piece – when – midway through the 10th paragraph – I exclaimed to myself, “GNOSTICISM!” – re. the internal vs. external reference point for one’s assessment of reality…”

      The “professional” dialect of English with which I am most familiar – the discourse of the university “humanists” – is well described by the image of the worm endlessly consuming itself. Kristor in a recent comment (or side-comment) characterized Kant as trapped in the self-imposed situation of thinking about nothing save his own thoughts. That, too, is your “ourobouros.”

      (4) “On that note, there would seem to be obvious implications here concerning Christianity, the Logos – meaning, truth, externality / incarnation, etc.”

      Christian theology assimilates the whole Greek philosophical tradition, going back to the “Logos Philosophy” of Heraclitus and, of course, Plato. The modern view of Heraclitus is stupidly mistaken: It embraces the idea that everything is in flux, but misses the idea of the Logos itself, which is not in flux. By isolating the “flux” thesis in Heraclitus, modern interpreters transform the philosopher into an ultra-nominalist just like themselves. They indulge in the fantasy that a universe in which nothing remains the same even beyond an infinitesimal moment could be the object of knowledge, whereas knowledge requires essences that can be named. The function of Heraclitus’ Logos was to preserve a fixed point, from which the pattern of change might be recognized, and therefore the possibility of knowledge preserved.

      (5) “Finally – to take it one tangent further – the idea of internalization vs. externalization brings to mind a certain rub inside the Catholic sphere over different forms of spirituality center or fixed meaning that I am reading in your reading of Barfield….”

      I suppose that a healthy spiritual order maintains the productive tension between the interior and the exterior.

      Sincerely,

      Tom Bertonneau

    • Dear Wurmbrand:

      It is the final week of classes at SUNY Oswego, to be followed by final-examinations week. Please be patient with me.

      Sincerely,

      TFB

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