Friday, September 4, 2015

Book Review: What Coleridge Thought by Owen Barfield

This may be the best of Barfield's books, or at least the most grounded and therefore far-reaching, but I really think that unless you're a Coleridge scholar, you're better off reading up to it with Barfield's previous works. In particular, Saving the Appearances seems to be a pre-requisite, and I've always thought it was hard to jump into that book without reading Poetic Diction first. The other works by Barfield are OK but I'd say these three are the most worthwhile, in this order.

The other examples of "late Barfield" I've read were too much influenced by Steiner and anthroposophy, but this one manages to avoid those topics (except for a few mentions). Also, Barfield is not focusing on Barfield's ideas so much as Coleridge's, filtered through Barfield, to be sure. I got the sense that the two are enough on the same wavelength that Barfield's filter is more a good teacher teaching than it is a partisan lobbying. I feel like I "get" Coleridge more after this book and that strengthens my estimation of both Coleridge and Barfield. This also fits with the picture of Coleridge from the wonderful history Age of Wonder.

To be sure, Barfield can't get through a whole book without making some annoying absolute and contrarian statements about modern science. I do think that my reading of Barfield can accommodate most of his intellectual puckishness by interpreting Barfield's "matter before mind didn't exist" to become "matter before mind didn't MATTER" (not in the same way as it matters now). It all comes down to what you mean by "exist," see?

But in this book that move of "translation" doesn't have to be made that often. It makes sense that Coleridge and Barfield are sympatico given the influence of German philosophy on Coleridge, which goes right along with Barfield's love for Goethe (which I'm OK with) and Steiner (which I'm not).

In the end, I think Coleridge's "polar logic" as described by Barfield may offer a way to interpret Barfield's philosophy in a way that throws light on modern experience without throwing out all of modern natural history. In fact, polar logic may be incorporated into a narrative interpretation of natural history. Barfield's own statements about the natural fit between evolution and Christianity imply that this should be possible, even when his sweeping dismissal of science of the past seems to get in the way.

Overall, a fascinating and helpful book that I'm working on integrating, but not for the faint of heart. I'm not sure how that interprets into a star rating, but Barfield's against quantitation anyway, so I'm sure he won't mind my avoiding the five stars on this one, even though I think it may be stronger on the whole than previous works I've given five stars to. This is definitely worth working your way up to.

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