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Professor Henry Gurr

How I Was Brought to Discover Owen Barfield.

How I Was Brought to Discover Owen Barfield. by Henry Gurr, Professor of Physics, University of South Carolina Aiken.

  I became interested in author Owen Barfield because I was trying to learn more about the "flash of insight" discovery process, the so called "AHA". I wanted to help my students who became stuck in physics learning. I knew the students often suffered from perceptual blindness or other hang-ups and need help to make learning "break-throughs". Actually I found much more than I ever imagined!!!!! Here is my path of discovery of Mr. Barfield's far reaching ideas.

  My story begins in the 50's or 60's with Harold Kelley, an Experimental Chemist and Victor Thayer, a Theoretical Physical Chemist. Kelley and Thayer where scientific co-workers at the notorious Savannah River Plant. This in an Atomic Weapons Production Facility, near Aiken, SC, where I also happened to live. All his life Mr. Thayer was somewhat of a philosopher who, among many other books, had discovered Mr. Barfield's "Saving Appearances". He urged Mr. Kelley to read "Saving the Appearances", stating that was one of the most important books he knew of! Kelley thus became a solid supporter of Barfield. 

  Some time around 1980, in retirement, Mr. Kelley became a fellow teacher at USCA. We soon became good friends. He was an enthusiastic chemistry teacher and we shared ideas on teaching and learning. One day Harold handed me a copy of "Saving the Appearances" (STA), and urged me to read it. He said "Henry, what you are studying with the AHA "flash of insight" discovery process, is IN this book!! In a cycle of three successive attempts to read STA, I returned it to him saying "This book is too difficult to read and I can't get a thing out of it". Harold for his part would, several months later, bring STA back to me. Three times he presented STA, with additional coaching as to how to understand it's contents. Well I finally began to understand. Like my students, in following my own process of discovery, I finally achieved my own understanding. Mr. Barfield's ideas were indeed intriguing. But since most of the book was outside the range of my training, I needed to know how valid his ideas were. So I read such authors as C S Lewis, M H Abrahams, David Bohm, W H Alden, Shirley Sugarman, in process of tracking down evidence that Barfield was "for real" and not just a product of my happy imaginings. Eventually, I too became a solid supporter of Owen Barfield. By now I have read his "Saving the Appearances", "Poetic Diction", "History in English Words" and "The Rediscovery of Meaning" a multitude of times. Each time is a breath of fresh air! Such insight into our contemporary times. Such a command of the intellectual history of mankind, what he calls our Evolution of Consciousness. 

  For me, one of the many things I appreciate about Barfield, is the fact that he does understand science, especially physics, fairly well. I find this is remarkable because he is really a poet and a literary person. Barfield's understanding of science, along with a solid understanding of the history of language and words, no doubt helps him stay well grounded and hence valuable and contemporary. And I can say this from the stand point of a professional Physicist. And I am not alone. World famous Theoretical Quantum Physicist David Bohm, University of. London etc, was quite appreciative of Barfield. Dr. Bohm even presented a major paper re Barfield's work a Barfield 70th birthday symposium. (This was published as a book = "Evolution of Consciousness" Shirley Sugarman Ed. See also **). 

  Bohm studied Barfield because Barfield accurately (and to my mind correctly) points to where conventional physics is seriously in error in its grounding assumptions. And this was helping Bohm to a new plateau. This is also one of my reasons for attending to Barfield. Let me give an example.

  In the very beginning of "Saving the Appearances", Barfield asks "Is the rainbow really "there"? His answer is no! As he points out:, different simultaneous observers see different rainbows, because each is at a distinctly different location. As he clearly points out, the seeing of rainbow is the joint property of a widely dispersed volume of rain, the sun and the observer's eye plus the observer's perception system. These work together to create the perception of the beautiful!! 

  Then proceeding by way of analogy, Barfield says the same is likewise (and no less true) of seeing, for example, a tree. As he clearly points out, the solid, impenetrable tree is just as illusive as the rainbow! Something is there. The scientist says atoms and molecules, but they are mostly empty space. So the "solidity" is an illusion created by our tactile force sensitive nerves and our overall perception system, which has proceed to construct the solid impenetrateable tree. Thus percieving a tree is similar to how we perceive a rainbow, and because of how constructed in our minds it is just as illusive! 

  Barfield goes on to point out that what our scientists call the rock-bed of reality, namely atoms, electrons, protons, neutrons, etc, are no less illusive than a rainbow. He could have gone on to say: "Every one of the physicist's particles (of which ALL matter is constructed) are entirely and completely built-up from etherial quantum mechanical waves!! And what these waves are composed of, we have no idea whatsoever!! 

  He says "Something is THERE, but we do not know what it is, and probably never will. He agrees with author Robert Pirsig: The only thing we are ever in contact with is our own human constructs. We tend to call this reality, and it certainly seems that way. But there is nevertheless an illusive "rainbow-like-quality" to all of what we know. 

  But here is the big message: We never dare forget, that our science, however wonderful, seemingly permanent, and totally accurate to all the data, is still a human construct. And this construct is necessarily limited in ways we can never know. Moreover, these being human constructs, can not be "reality". 

  Barfield did me a great service in being the first to point this out to me! Most certainly none of my scientific training (or research colleagues) ever hinted at this fundamental problem. The feeling was always that a discovery of a complete and final reality is just around the corner!! And always the feeling was that what our instruments and data showed was "good old solid reality"!

  The constructive aspect of perception & science is also strongly featured in Robert Pirsig's book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance".) And as a matter of fact, the intellectual/philosophical problems (and answers) that Pirsig sees are fairly closely aligned with the objections/answers of Barfield.. And this is also what attracts my attention to Barfield where these parts of Barfield support and amplify Pirsig and conversely. I am um aware of where Pirsig and Barfield seriously disagree.

  Well, there it is, my story of how I discovered Owen Barfield and what I get out of his writing. 
 Henry Gurr

  You can't finish a book by Owen Barfield and just put it away. by David Lavery 
Professor, Professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University.
You can't finish a book by Owen Barfield and just put it away. You keep coming back to it, to make sure it said what you thought it said, to be convinced all over again or just to hear him say it one more time. No English-speaking writer in this century has written with greater clarity and served to awaken so many areas of thought: philosophy, science, literature, history and language. Few writers of any kind have brought to their readers what he has: the quiet, astonishing gift of changing the way they do their thinking.
 Detour in new browser frame for more information:

  On Owen Barfield. by Roger S. Jones 
       Professor of Physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota. 
For the full elaboration of the idea of science and the physical world as a construct of the mind or a collective representation, I owe a great debt to Owen Barfield and his writings, especially his book Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry.  It was Barfield who helped me most to fathom the deceptiveneness of science by seeing that when metaphors become crystallized and abstract, cut off from their roots in consciousness, and forgotten by their creators, they become idols. For an idolater is not so much one who creates idols, but one who worships them. This failure to recognize the central role of consciousness in reality and thus to treat the physical world as an independent, external, and alien object has been a chronic problem throughout the modern era of scientific discovery, since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and has reached a critical stage in the twentieth century with its unconscionable, and largely unconscious, ravaging of the environment. ....... Detour in new browser frame for complete article at: 

  Owen Barfield: Prophet of Postmodernism? by Curtis Gruenler 
Assistant Professor of English at Hope College, 
...... I would like to address the broader issue of Barfield's continuing relevance, indeed increasing relevance, to contemporary thought and culture. ...... I start by indicating some features of Postmodernism in its loosest, most common sense that Barfield clearly anticipated. In itself this would not be much, but what is prophetic in a deeper sense is his interpretation of what these cultural trends mean. ....... Barfield points to signs of what he calls "The Coming Trauma of Materialism." By materialism, of course, he does not mean placing excessive value on material possessions but rather the deeper idolatry of taking material objects of perception as what is really real rather than as [our own self created mental] products of the act of [human] perception. Such idolatry originates in the very use of language to designate objects, but only reaches its height in the attempt at rigorous objectivity, aided by mathematics and scientific instruments, that enabled the triumph of modern Western science and technology. ...... Detour in new browser frame for complete article at:


  Book Reviews of Owen Barfield's ”Poetic Diction".
 Second Edition, Wesleyan University Press, 1984 ISBN 0-8I95-6026-X.

      1) From 
”This book...along with a very few others ...deserves its reputation as an underground classic treasured by all those who take a serious interest in Language Studies. Barfield's insights into the deep structure of metaphors as the real engine of a given language's history are only now being studied in laboratories dedicated to mapping language functions in the human brain. It has been kept in print for 50 years (well beyond the lifespan of similar books on philosophy and linguistics of its time) for one has been passed on from teachers to students as a ritual gift that has the power to shatter a mind and transform its understanding of its own workings. It will still be read when the next millennium ends.'

   2) From G B Tennyson
"This extraordinary study stands virtually alone in focusing on the mysterious area in poetry between word and meaning. Only the foes sensitive and learned guide could lead us through this terra incognita. Barfield is such a guide ...... The book has already become a classic."

  3) From "Poetic Diction's" Forward by Howard Nemerov
" ...... Among the few poets and teachers of my acquaintance who know "Poetic Diction", it has been valued not only as a secret book, but nearly as a sacred one; with a certain sense that it's teaching was quite properly esoteric. ...... It is to the student willing to open this question of the imagination again, to a candid exploration, that Owen Barfield's book is directed.


**A footnote extending my above comments: 
This webpage  is especially interesting since it says Bohm saw the problems raised by the piece by piece analysis of science and the related divorce of "Mind from Matter". One of the reasons Bohm studied Barfield, was to help him (Bohm) construct his new theories. Especially notice the following:
"In an interview in 1989 at the Nils Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, where Bohm presented his views, Bohm spoke on his theory of wholeness and the implicate order. The conversation centered around a new worldview that is developing in part of the Western world, one that places more focus on wholeness and process than analysis of separate parts. Bohm explained the basics of the theory of relativity and its more revolutionary offspring, quantum theory. Either theory, if carried out to its extreme, violates every concept on which we base our understanding of reality. Both challenge our notions of our world and ourselves. 
He cited evidence from both theories that support a new paradigm of a more interrelated, fluid, and less absolute basis of existence, one in which mind is an active participant. "Information contributes fundamentally to the qualities of substance." He discussed forms, fields, superconductivity, wave function and electron behavior. "Wave function, which operates through form, is closer to life and mind...The electron has a mind-like quality." 
In his groundbreaking theory of "wholeness and the implicate order", Bohm proposed a new model of reality that was a revolutionary challenge to physics. In this model, as in a hologram, any element contains enfolded within itself the totality of its universe. Bohm's concept of totality included both matter and mind. 
Bohm also mentioned the dangers we face as a society and the changes we will have to make in our thinking in order to have a future. He said we need a more holistic approach to the ecological problem and must find something else in life besides economic growth; if it continues unchecked, it will destroy the planet. The emerging change in consciousness is the challenge and the key: "Our future depends on whether we feel like part of this one whole or whether we feel we're separate [from Nature and this Earthly Creation]."