Some Barfieldian themes in Bruno Latour?

***Written weeks ago but left still born because well, every time I write I have the urge to write a book and explain, explain – if anyone is reading and think this is not specific enough, glib, or just garbage, ask and I’ll try to answer. ***

Over at Agent Swarm I made this comment on a post about Latour Pluralism. There has been a recent surge of discussion about Pluralism across a few blogs. My intent with the comment was to argue within the mode of a person like Bryant, so to speak, but at the same time gesture through that effort to some of my own concerns. The result was that I become another one of Bryant’s ilk as in the post here by Terence. If the irritation and line about ‘some objectors’ were toward me or my comments, I hope to rectify and clarify some things in this blog post ( looking over it, it seems Terrence’s comments were directed to someone else but alas, as I’m talking to myself anyway, I will use it as an opportunity to produce some content). Explicitly, I’m using the recent debate about Latour to touch on some themes of Owen Barfield, a philosopher I think it is of some worth. As such, I’m not arguing directly with Terence about his specific example of a Realist Pluralism in Latour but using his example to ask some questions interesting to me. I’m making this response on my blog only so as to not contaminate the debate – this is me cherry picking some themes to explore.

I think the most important claim in my response and the best way to enter back into all this is:

I think the real question that is being asked here is “How is a Materialist Ontological Pluralism possible?” This is to be distinguished from the meta-question “What is Ontological Pluralism?” Since Ontological Pluralism, for example, can legislate a dualist position: matter and mind really exists as different ‘things.’ Because this more general question opens up the waters to positions other than Materialism, the more precise question is ” How does a Materialist Ontological Pluralism not grant full existence to immaterial entities”? ( and thereby contradict itself) In other words, how does it remain coherent since as a materialism it cannot grant actual existence to the immaterial?

I stick by the above. Simply put, if allegiance to Materialism has to be declared then one question of Ontology has already been settled: what exists, answer matter. So what work is the term ‘Ontological’ doing when predicated of ‘Pluralism’ since Materialism is the meta-position? The answer, it seems, is that ‘Ontological’ is meant to denote the different, embedded, psychogenic or otherwise material networks that actually obtain ( productive of and produced by ) what exists. Pluralism then is the recognition of these actually obtaining networks, as picking out different modes of existence that exist in the world. Here, I take it is what Terence mans when he says Pluralism is not an abstract category.

Now, to understand these notions and to get away from the idea of ‘belief’ in describing what is suggested here I compare this to a fish in water – the fish has no ‘belief’ that it lives and breathes in water and that there is nothing else. This is its world – it does not form a predicate relationship to water believing in its ‘existence’ and then ‘swimming’ in it because of said belief ( i.e discursively deciding that because it is water, therefore swimming would be the best option)- it swims because that is how it is embedded in its world. But the fish can still be wrong. They can be wrong about what they see in the water ( predator or prey, food or poison [ read: particular beliefs about things in the water ] ) and they can also be wrong globally – about what constitutes reality with a big R. Everything is not water… But neither are the fish, because of the fact they live and breathe water are under this as hegemonic reality and can only be that. If evolution history is correct, then we have seen that – we are living evidence that existence as a ‘fish’ is but one of the man ways of being a creature on this earth and fish indeed can and have evolved into something else. Similarly, neither are the different modes of existence when reference is being made specifically to how humans relate to the world closed of to each other, impossible of correction or change, impossible of modification in reaction to Reality.

I think this is a good approximation of what is being suggested. Since my aim is to compare Barfield and Latour, let’s apply it to our thinking of ancient, pre-historical man [which Barfield has a lot to say about] and his supernatural world. With the prior considerations, it becomes difficult to conceive of the relationship passively as if they encountered the world tabula rasa and then constructed Gods, Spirits and demons to inhabit it. Rather, this is how they relate to the world instinctively. Just as it would be ridiculous to claim a discursive relationship between the fish and what they’re embodied in so it would be to, for example, claim a discursive relationship between the ancient man and his “Spirits.” Since we are talking specifically about human beings this claim should be tightened to say exclusively discursive since discursive relationships will obtain – they simply don’t constitute the whole nor are they the best way to understand societies or cultures. We must be able to acknowledge this without immediately falling into an irrational fear that this recognition by itself entails the ancient picture and experience of the world, as one among many, is just a ‘different’ but equally valid way of looking at things. It may certainly argued that it is but if disproving these views are all you’re attempting to do you are welcome to do so – just don’t behave as if the ancient man constructed his world in the same way you go about disproving it, by some discursive analysis from which Gods and Spirits were the end products of some scientific investigation, like gravity or genes. This disenchanted ‘looking’ at the world, this perspective of the objects of nature as mere ‘objects’ is a specifically different relation to the world than what has obtained in history ( of course, arguments have to be made and can be made to vouch for this idea). Here, Latour’s notion of “modes of existence” is handy but how far will it take us?

Where Latour and other use this understanding to give a non-reductive materialist account, Latour seems be saying nothing anymore different than what Owen Barfield says in many different places but with an opposed point: the immaterial is affirmed as existing, not merely as embedded in material networks, but literally though it functions in much the same sense – it is Pre-individual, productive of and produced by man. Barfield has little time for suggestions that ancient man, for example, spent most of his time projecting Gods and Spirits into nature, constructing theories of Gods as causes for everything and then living these “myths” by pure force of reason and forgetfulness.
Two quotes: both concerning the logic with which think ancient man came up with his world.

The remoter ancestors of Homer, we are given to understand, observing that it was darker in winter than in summer, immediately decided that there must be some “cause” for this “phenomenon,” and had no difficulty in tossing off the “theory” of, Demeter and Persephone, to account for it. . . Imagination, history, bare common sense–these it seems, are as nothing beside the paramount necessity that the great Mumbo Jumbo, the patent double-million magnifying Inductive Method, should be allowed to continue contemplating its own ideal reflection–a golden age in which every man was his own Newton, in a world dripping with apples.

Particular attention should be paid to the terms Barfield chooses to put in quotes; “Cause” “Phenomenon” and “Theory” for each of these terms he is questioning. Firstly, that Myths were invented after passively observing nature, and producing them as “cause.” (2) That this “darker in winter and summer” was a ‘phenomenon’ in the detached sense we mean it, in other words, that it was a phenomenon experienced separately from the Myths they were embedded in and (3) that they were “theories” in the sense we mean, an inference to the best explanation, “Demeter must have done it.” That this is nonsensical is cause for the caustic ending to that passage, where apparently, every individual man was given license to just – out of nothing – invent countless myths to account for phenomena in the way we do. Barfield arguments for these points are various but can all be traced to his exploration of language, a proper of history of which [to Barfield] demonstrates that the notion of passively ‘observing‘ nature then ‘peopling‘ it is false – for no where is it recorded that these were propounded as some scientific tract, an explanation after the fact, but were reported as their everyday experience. Barfield’s arguments can be supplemented by various ends Anthropology, Science, History but I won’t go into all that.

The important point is Barfield’s unique criticism of the focus on “belief” – both as a defining characteristic of experience and the logic implied by it.

Second quote:

Now, in order that nature may be peopled with spirits, nature must first be devoid of spirits; but this caused scholars no difficulty, because they never supposed the possibility of any other kind of nature. The development of human consciousness was thus presented as a history of alpha-thinking beginning from zero and applied always to the same phenomena, at first in the form of erroneous beliefs about them, and as time went on, in the form of more and more correct and scientific beliefs. In short, the evolution of human consciousness was reduced to a bare history of ideas.

Alpha-thinking here refers to an exclusively discursive relationship to phenomena and constitutes a forgetting by the knower of his participation in what is known. It is this exclusively discursive relationship that is lampooned in the first passage. The point that is fully brought out by the second passage is that (1) Nature could have (and Barfield will go onto argue) was different (2) we have merely substituted ourselves in place of ancient man “that luckless dustbin of pseudo-scientific fantasies” and attributed to him erroneous beliefs. (2) is a crucial point. Here, Barfield is asking us to pay attention to the fact that all that is happening is that we assume right away that ancient man was living and experiencing the world in exactly the same way as we are, except for having incorrect ‘beliefs’ about it. No room for “modes of existence” here just the assumption that as we now look out and see the Sun, the ancient man would look out, cognize the sun as we now do but infer that it is a God or whatever other supernatural entity. This constitutes a “bare history of ideas” – a reduction of the in Barfieldian language – because it has taken man’s qualitatively changing relation with the world – the evolution of consciousness- as man merely having different ideas about it. This would be akin to speaking about Aquatic existence as a “belief” of fish when trying to discern the difference between present land based creatures and our aquatic ancestors.

Here, of course, things get prickly. Latour or a Latorian might be screaming “Wait! Wait just a minute!.” And a Bakker or Bryant might say: “ Yep, I knew this would happen. Nothing to see here folks.“ But here I’m only trying to get at the necessary work of imagination needed in order to really get away from a focus on ‘belief’ for in order to talk about “modes of existence” or some such we must be able to do exactly as Barfield is asking, to suspend our notion that people experienced everything in exactly the same way as we do – that they merely had different ideas about the same things rather than qualitatively different experience of the world. A qualitatively different experience of the world is distinct from a mere history of ideas or ‘beliefs’ in that it constitutes a way of being in the world. One did not experience a dead nature of which then peopled with spirits but lived in a world peopled with them – they may still be wrong as earlier pointed out but it must be acknowledged that this was there being-in-the-world. How then must we understand this being-in-the-world? And a broader question, and to my particular interests, what is the ontology of a world that can be experienced so qualitatively different? What is the Ontology adequate to Being?

In my next post ( have two next posts now in the que now )I’ll try to give a sketch of what Barfield says about this in contrast to Terrence’s Latour, and in keeping with the general theme here explore the question of whether or not a tendency to Idealism cannot be just as nuanced as a sophisticated Materialism. In other words, whether the Idealist must commit to the existence of every non-material thing in much the same way the Pluralist is reduced to a base relativism. My answer, of course, is no but that’s for next time.

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