Owen Barfield: some thoughts

Hmm. Hello world! Indeed. The major impetus behind this blog was to respond to a post about Owen Barfield  at  http://speculumcriticum.blogspot.com/. The post can be found here: http://speculumcriticum.blogspot.com/2010/07/owen-barfield-part-1.html

I was just searching the internet (again) for anything contemporary on Barfield and found what appears to be an excellent blog with frighteningly similar interests.  I will repost the comment here and then see where this all takes me.  Great job Speculum if you’re reading this:

This is an absolutely crazy coincidence. I’m a Barfieldian in some respects and read After Finitude in just the same way as you did. I thought I was the only one on the internet that knew of Barfield but had interest in contemporary philosophers. Most “friends of Barfield” are talking about Michealic beings  and whatever else and not coming down to earth with folks that just find his ideas intriguing, interesting enough to meditate on and develop. One can be dispassionate about these subjects as well despite their “weirdness.”

Anyway, I thought the first few chapters of Meillassoux’s book could be read as a direct response to Barfield whether Meillassoux knew of him or not. And vice versa, I think Barfield’s arguments are a direct challenge to what Meillassoux argues. If I ever get the chance, I plan to write an essay pitting the two against each other. Barfield will win though!

Why? Well, the fundamental problem with Meillassoux starting point is his unquestioned acceptance of the “arce-fossil” as exclusively material.  Meillassoux’s arguments are very strong against correlationists that share his assumption and predilection for materialism – and the history of the world it entails – but not for others who reject it. His  argument is similar to the argument that there cannot be a non-reductive physicalism. Many physicalists don’t want to be associated with the seemingly absurd theories of hardcore reductionists and eliminativists so they try to tightrope a materialism that does “justice” to the mental. However, Jaegwon Kim has convincingly argued that this cannot be done. If you’re a physicalist, you must be reductionist – no way to sugar code it.  This forces intended non-reductionists physicalists to find a way out, to either accept and defend physicalism upfront or find some other way to be physicalists without accepting the seemingly obvious conclusions ( mental reality is fictional, mind is an illusion, etc.)  Similarly, many correlationists do not want to contradict or want to seem in conflict with the standard scientific accounts of the history of our universe and thus attempt a “two-step” philosophy in order to square the implications of what they’re saying with standard accounts. Quentin Meillassoux deftly shows that this cannot be done, forcing the correlationists who share his assumptions and understanding of realism to either abandon their correlationism or state plain and accept the consequences of what they’re saying.

For Barfield’s part, the correlationists that feel the sting of  Meillassoux arguments   are
suffering from what he calls the “Residue of Unresolved Positivism.” http://davidlavery.net/barfield/encyclopedia_barfieldiana/lexicon/rup.html
That is, they have logically abandoned positivism and even materialism but they have not gone far enough – they still harbor beliefs that prevent them from truly moving beyond it.

If they were to truly be free of RUP they would reject  the idea that the arche-fossil existed in only a material sense and argue forcefully, as Barfield does, that mind preceded matter.  Or, at the very least, correlative to its development. It’s here that we can note a certain lack of imagination in Meillassoux arguments when we pit him against  Barfield. Barfield, after all, is convinced of the evolution of consciousness and has no problem arguing that selfconsciousness, for example, is a [i]late[/i] development for humanity as a whole. So if self-consciousness is a late development, what was before? How could one still remain a correlationist when ceding  the emergence of consciuosnes or mind? But is the concept of consciousness or mind regulated only to self-consciousness? Obviously not, otherwise the concept of the unconscious, subconscious, or even self-consciousnes would not make much sense. That is, there are degrees of consciousness. The mistake of Meillassoux is to think that a correlationist must argue in such a way as to suggest that the world is correlated to a self-conscious perceiver and not to consciousness as such.The arche-fossil itself may exist without self-conscious perceivers but by that fact alone is not thereby independent of mind altogether.

If the correlationist were to take this tact, Meillassoux’s argument does not have much of an effect. It would, however, force the correlationist into some rather deep and radical waters which many simply are not prepared to traverse – it would involve no less than a new interpretation of the “facts” of  the physical sciences. Meillassoux’s argument works precisely because he aligns himself with science and most people today assume that to align themselves with the scientific spirit is to accept scientific materialism. Thus, he can readily and accurately charge correlationists with talking out of both sides of their mouths so long as they want to accept as uncritically as he does the arche-fossil in a purely material sense – in so far as it is assumed by all parties that matter preceded mind, Meillassoux will have the upper hand on most of his targets. Barfield, however, does not accept this and takes the debate to a much higher level. Albeit, as his custom, he can be dismissed out of hand so OOO can go on like they are currently ( taking for granted many things Barfield calls into question). But it need not be the case.

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