Tag Archives: Owen Barfield

Should You Perceive Meaning in Nature?

If humans can manipulate some aspect of nature—in other words, if humans find a way to perform godlike miracles with the building blocks of, say, biology—does that mean whatever’s manipulable has no meaning? And, implicitly, has no divine origin? Along those lines, I recently found a quotation from one of the Inklings, and I thought the idea was worth wrestling with.

In the 1970s, Owen Barfield—a close friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien— wrote: “Amid all the menacing signs that surround us in the middle of this twentieth century, perhaps the one which fills thoughtful people with the greatest sense of forboding is the growing sense of meaninglessness. It is this which underlies most of the other threats. How is it that the more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it?”

Isolate the assumption in that question and convert it into a statement: “The more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it.”

I’m inclined to agree, probably because I’ve read enough of Lewis to get an inevitable splash of Barfield, but how true is that statement, really? Is it true often enough, generally enough?

Probably, but then why?

Maybe the more “we” (some group within the human race) find nature manipulable, the more we assume its value is reducible. In other words, maybe humans once assumed nature was set by God in some inviolable way, and when we realized we could manipulate it, suddenly nature seemed violable, therefore less valuable, less absolute, less a reflection of divinity.

The more it can be manipulated, we assume (perhaps unconsciously), the less it must be a creation of a divine power, and if something has less value, it seems to mean less (the way value is applied and understood and designated is a lot to think about). If some divinity made nature, why would mere mortals be able to mess with it?

But along those lines, the ability to manipulate is not a simple either-or situation. It has matters of degree. Should our ability to manipulate nature (a big, abstract ability) be any more surprising than our ability to make a salad from wild vegetables? To make a shelter from trees and branches?

But then there’s that popular Internet meme: “The sciences can tell you how to clone a T-Rex. The humanities can tell you why that might not be a good idea.”

At any rate, I’m not sure Barfield was precisely correct in the above quotation. It could be that, on a popular level, certain assumptions about nature, science, and progress became “viral” before the Internet was part of our daily lives. (Late evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer, decades before the Internet, once suggested that Americans get their opinions like they catch cold viruses—they’re not sure where they got those opinions, but they certainly got them.) So certain assumptions—and maybe inclinations of attitude—made Western people less likely to perceive meaning, but maybe not less able. Not less able, just less inclined.

Furthermore, whether from a metaphysical point of view or a naturalistic point of view, wouldn’t nature have to be meaningful?

‘C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Myth of Progress’ — A Podcast Interview

Inklings fans, take note: A recent episode of The Art of Manliness podcast featured an interview with Joseph Loconte, author of A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, & Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18.

The interview with Loconte taught me new things about the way Tolkien and Lewis viewed life and literature. I also was challenged to think more about my deeply held, Western-world belief in the supposedly inevitable outcome called progress.

Speaking of Inklings, you might also be interested in reading Charles Williams’s take on dogmaand watching a short documentary on Owen Barfield.


More Barfield, This Time on Logos

This Owen Barfield quotation might strike some of you as interesting. I’m posting it just as food for thought:

“The extraordinarily intimate connection between language and thought (the Greek word λóγος combined, as we should say, both meanings) might lead one to expect that the philosophers at least would have turned their attention to the subject long ago. And so, indeed, they did, but with a curiously disproportionate amount of interest. The cause of this deficiency is, I think, to be found in the fact that Western philosophy, from Aristotle onwards, is itself a kind of offspring of Logic. To anyone attempting to construct a metaphysic in strict accordance with the canons and categories of formal Logic, the fact that the meanings of words change, not only from age to age, but from context to context, is certainly interesting; but it is interesting solely because it is a nuisance.”

— from Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, which at least one book publisher described as “The seminal text that inspired Tolkien and C.S. Lewis”

Poetic Diction


Owen Barfield on Disputing the Meaning of a Word

In his essay “The Development of Meaning,” Owen Barfield wrote, “When we are disputing about the proper meaning to be attached to a particular word in a sentence, etymology is of little use. Only children run to the dictionary to settle an argument.” (Found in “Notes on Frey” by Daniel Nester.)

Barfield’s quotation reminds me a little of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s guidance on language, which he summarized with, “don’t think, but look!”

Short documentary on a member of The Inklings: ‘Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning’

Of course, the best-known Inklings were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. But they weren’t the only Inklings.

During the past year or so, I’ve re-blogged a couple of things by Sorina Higgins, a scholar of the life and works of Charles Williams.

Like Williams, another lesser-known Inkling, Owen Barfield, was a powerful intellectual and imaginative force within the group. The literary output of Williams and Barfield suggest each core member of the Inklings was extraordinary, if only two members were blessed with incredible book sales and international name-recognition.

While Higgins has reasons to call Charles Williams “The Oddest Inkling,” Barfield also might seem a bit odd to Tolkien and Lewis fans.

A couple of days ago, I stumbled upon the following short documentary film about Barfield. It includes an interview with Barfield in his older age. “Owen Barfield: Mean and Meaning” is well-worth the time of any Inklings fan.