Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Who Is Owen Barfield? (And Connections with Collingwood & Lukacs)

Owen Barfield (1898-1997)

My reading has taken a recent turn into the philosophy of history, an unfortunate phrase in some ways, but suffice it to say it involves thinking about how we understand history. I turned from a short book on the history of rhetoric to some writings of Quentin Skinner about how to understand the history of political thinking. Skinner reports that R. G. Collingwood influenced him. Collingwood again! Last year, after having known for some time that I should tackle Collingwood, I bought one of those magnificently inexpensive South Asian editions of The Idea of History (1946/revised ed. 1994), Collingwood’s posthumously published masterwork on the topic. I shipped it back to America, not knowing that in China my reading and thinking would turn in this direction. (Alas, it’s not on Kindle.) 

Of course, readers of this blog will expect that I would turn to John Lukacs in this topic as well, although, since it’s confession time, I’ve never done a complete read through of Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past (1968/1985), Lukac’s masterwork (but far from only work) about history as a subject. When reading Lukacs now, the name of Owen Barfield (b. 1898) comes up, a name I know but a body of thought that I’ve never completely gotten a handle upon. Lukacs mentions Barfield as a source of thinking about “participatory knowing”. A number of years ago I read  two of Barfield’s most prominent works, Saving the Appearances (1957) and History, Guilt, and Habit (1957). (His Coleridge book sat on my shelf of a long time, and it lies in wait for me like buried treasure.) How do you pigeonhole Barfield? You don’t. Philosopher, anthropologist, literary scholar, or a bit of a kook? Like most intriguing thinkers, he trashes boundaries and goes off seeking answers where he may. I could not get him on one pass. 

Owen Barfield was born in 1898 and lived—remaining active and lucid—to 1997. He graduated from Oxford just after the War. Collingwood graduated just before the War and accepted a faculty position at Oxford shortly after the War, beginning his tenure as a professor of philosophy. (I’ve found no record that the two of them ever had any direct contact.) Barfield was a literary man, and took his degree in literature. 

Friend, fellow Inkling, & godfather to Barfield's daughter Lucy, to whom he dedicated a book
Also, while at Oxford, he met C.S. “Jack” Lewis, with whom his name is inevitably linked. They developed a friendship and became intellectual sparring partners: Barfield in the early 1920s found an intellectual beacon in the writings of Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian mystic (for lack of a more precise term) and founder of Anthroposophy. Lewis, of course, later became a Christian. Lewis and Barfield, together with J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, formed The Inklings, an informal literary group. But while Lewis and Tolkien took up academic positions at Oxford, Barfield was called to his family business in London and began work full time as a solicitor (transaction lawyer). He remained in this position until 1959, when he retired and turned his full attention to writing and speaking. 

Barfield published his first book, History in English Words (1926) about how meanings of words change over time reflecting changes in the way people think about the world. While Barfield’s output was limited during his time working as a solicitor, he did publish Poetic Diction: The Recovery of Meaning (1928) (based on his thesis at Oxford), and he drafted Saving the Appearances, which is perhaps his most well known work. He moved from a fascination with words and Romantic poetry to the study about how consciousness has evolved and how human self-knowledge has changed over history. Put in the broadest terms, Barfield argues that human consciousness once enjoyed a participatory knowledge of nature and world around it, but that has been lost and now seeks a new source. Barfield’s project is a wide-scale inquiry into how we know and how that way of knowing has changed during history. Barfield doesn’t believe we can go back, but he ponders how we might move forward. 

R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943), fellow Oxfordian
It appears that Barfield addresses Collingwood’s work directly in later works. Barfield, after retiring as a solicitor in the late 1950’s, enjoyed a second career as an academic lecturer and teacher in the U.S., lecturing and teaching at Brandeis University, Drew University, and the University of Missouri, among others. In Speaker’s Meaning (1967), Barfield addresses Collingwood’s work. Collingwood argues that we imaginatively re-enact history when we consider a historical topic. In fact, all history is the history of human thought according to Collingwood. While I don’t have access to these Barfield books, interplay between Barfield’s work and Collingwood’s intrigues me. 

John Lukacs, active Hungarian-American historian
John Lukacs has cited Barfield in his books, such as Historical Consciousness (available via Google Books) and The Future of History. Lukacs participated in a Barfield Centenary Celebration put on jointly by Columbia University and Drew University (New Jersey). (Alas. I have no record of his remarks.) I can’t now detail all of Lukac’s references to Barfield, nor can I now explore the ties and influences, but as I note below, I hope to do so later. 

T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Howard Nemerov, Saul Bellow, Walker Percy, Harold Bloom, James Hillman, and William Irwin Thompson (not to mention Lukacs) are among those who have praised Barfield's work. (See David Lavery’s “Friends of Owen Barfield” site for a more detailed list.) Yet, like Lukacs, he seems relatively unknown and underappreciated. I hope to bring together something showing how in time, space, and thought Collingwood, Barfield, and Lukacs connect in their thinking about history and human understanding (or knowing) in general. I believe that there are some intriguing possibilities to explore.