Saturday, July 21, 2012

Book Review: Worlds Apart

The Owen Barfield reading tour continues with Worlds Apart, written by Barfield as a "dialogue" between several academics with different philosophies. Two are clearly anthroposophists like Barfield, and the rest represent different disciplines ranging from physics to psychology. I'm trying to decide if this book is a good entry point to Barfield or not. It does focus on science and the back-and-forth of the many objections to Barfield's ideas. The dialogue format of Worlds Apart plays to Barfield's experience as a lawyer, and about 1/3 of the way through there's an extended Socratic dialogue that may be the best entry to his philosophy that I've seen. The problems include a section of extended Steiner-worship at the end and a definite feeling that the other characters are straw men.

What I'd really like to see is an extended dialogue between Barfield and C.S. Lewis, which I know actually happened because Lewis alluded to it in his famous description of Barfield as his "second friend." There's a book of Barfield commenting on Lewis, and that may be the next stop on the tour.

One of my constant questions would be what Barfield would make of the analysis of DNA words that I'm thinking about right now to reconstruct the ancient words. On the one hand, that's exactly what he did with English words, and he argues at the end of Saving the Appearances that evolution and Christianity naturally cohere. On the other hand, English words are a way of looking at the human mind, while DNA words are not, because these words were never formed by the human mind, and there's also that little bit about Barfield saying the past "never happened." But this passage near the end of Worlds Apart finally resolves it for me:

"Brain, heart, liver, spleen have been built into your body by the world, by the whole history of the world, and if you 'study' one of them in that intensive way, you have access to the relevant period of world-history. Access, first of all, to the building that was going on before your birth and, through that, back into their remoter phylogenesis."

"You see -- or at any rate I have argued -- that if evolution has indeed been fundamentally the evolution of self-consciousness, there cannot be that sharp break between ontogenetic and phylogenetic development, which the positivist picture of evolution assumes. The one must merge gradually back into the other." (p. 195-196)

Of course, right after this high point is when the book really goes off the deep end, with too much Steiner and too little anyone else. (Maybe even too little Barfield!) However, that part is written as a collection of unconnected observations, almost like appendices, and so I think even Barfield saw some of that as outside the necessary argument he was making. I'm starting to separate the wheat from the chaff here and I think there's a way to adapt some of the ideas of Barfield in a way that takes the good and leaves the bad. In particular, I think Tolkien ultimately did that and such an adaptation accounts for some of the strength of The Lord of the Rings. Is there a way to do that with the data collected by current biology rather than the ancient Norse sagas? I'm not sure. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

J.A.A. Purves said...

I'm reading this now, and a third of the way into it, I'm convinced that "Burgeon" (obviously) is Barfield and that "Hunter" is C.S. Lewis. I can't decide if he put Tolkien in here yet. I was tempted to think he might be "Dunn" but I'm not really seeing it. Each character doesn't have to be the equivalent of one of his friends anyhow. It was just fun to see some of Lewis's arguments in Hunter's dialogue.