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  • Owen Barfield: The Evolution of Consciousness

    This is Appendix A of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    Owen Barfield was born in London in 1898, produced his first scholarly book (History in English Words) in 1926, published the decisively important Poetic Diction in 1928, and, by his own testimony, has continued saying much the same thing ever since. It is certainly true that his work -- ranging all the way to and beyond History, Guilt, and Habit (1979) -- exhibits a remarkable unity. But it is a unity in ceaselessly stimulating diversity. Many will testify that they have never seen him explore a topic except by throwing an unexpectedly revealing light upon it.

    Barfield is identified, above all else, with his numerous characterizations of the evolution of consciousness. As a philologist, he pursued his quarry through the study of language -- and particularly the historical study of meaning. I have already quoted his remark that "the full meanings of words are flashing, iridescent shapes like flames -- ever-flickering vestiges of the slowly evolving consciousness beneath them." History in English Words is one of the relatively few attempts in our language to tell the history of peoples as revealed in these flickering word-shapes. Poetic Diction -- and, to one degree or another, almost every subsequent book Barfield wrote -- teases out of language the underlying nature of the evolution of consciousness.

    Following the publication of his early works, Barfield was forced by personal circumstances to spend several decades as a practicing lawyer. Never completely ceasing his scholarly pursuits, he resumed them with extraordinary fruitfulness after his retirement in the 1960s. In addition to writing such magisterial and liberating works as Saving the Appearances and Worlds Apart, he spent terms as visiting professor at various American institutions, including Drew University, Brandeis University, and Hamilton College. Two of his most accessible books (History, Guilt, and Habit and Speaker's Meaning) consist of lectures delivered during these appointments.

    Barfield was a member of the Inklings, an informal literary group that included C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. While he never achieved quite the same popular success as these friends, many regard his work as the more deeply seminal. His influence in scholarly circles has been all the more remarkable for its quiet, unobtrusive, yet profoundly transforming effect.

    It is Barfield's conviction that how we think is at least as important as what we think. This makes reading him more than a merely intellectual challenge. Nobel laureate Saul Bellow has written: