Owen Barfield’s Critical Semantics: Diagnosing Modernity in History in English Words

History in English Words

Owen Barfield’s wonderful study of History in English Words (1926; revised 1953) is more than a compilation of vocabulary items from the English lexicon since 500 AD along with their etymologies: It is a study in changes of meaning across millennia although Barfield (1898 - 1997) confines the chronological compass of the last three chapters to the same number of centuries, more or less. In addition to being more than a mere compilation, History in English words is also a critical diagnosis of the peculiarly modern mentality, which the author sees as the outcome of a centuries-long process that he calls internalization. Barfield disdains to report neutrally on that outcome, but on the contrary he chastises it for its reliance on de-vitalized abstractions instead of living conceptions, for its cultural parochialism, and for its radical spiritual impoverishment climaxing in the callousness and brutality of the aggravatedly hellish Twentieth Century. Barfield even uses a modern coinage, alienation, generally associated with Karl Marx, to describe the defects, amounting possibly to an actual affliction, of the modern mentality. History in English Words is a book of criticism. The book takes as the object of its critique the debased language of modernity, which, to Barfield, indicates a debased outlook, a deficient grasp of the world on the one hand and of human nature on the other.

Owen Barfield in 1922
Owen Barfield in 1922

History in English Words begins with a discussion of the very basic and immensely old vocabulary that informs all of the Indo-European – which Barfield fifteen years before World War Two still called the “Aryan” – languages. The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European common vocabulary has a homely cast. The users of that vocabulary, living in a swatch of geography between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea five, six, or seven thousand years ago, kept plots of enclosed land under cultivation, and had a word for them which gives Modern English its yards and gardens. The women wove, the very word for a female person in Modern English stemming from an Anglo-Saxon prototype, wyfman, denoting a human being (man) who weaves. The female side of marriage is still called the distaff side although the original meaning of wife is long-forgotten. The speakers of Proto-Indo-European practiced animal husbandry, keeping as Barfield writes, “bees, geese, oxen, sows”; from that industry of the bees, honey, they made mead, the earliest intoxicating beverage. If the garden belonged to things familiar and known, the forest, from a root meaning “far away,” was terra incognita that inspired fear, especially when it became necessary to fare its twisting, shadowy paths. The near comforted; the foreign intimidated, being the stomping grounds of Satyrs and Goat-Pans.

When the original Proto-Indo-European speakers began to emigrate from their native geography, the proto-language split into ramifying dialects, giving rise to the ancient, historically attested languages of the Indo-European Family, like Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Celtic, and Gothic. New experiences in new territories forced the application of old worlds to novel objects and the coinage of new words, sometimes by borrowing from the established tongues of those already living in the places to which the migrants came. Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin were the languages of the earliest Indo-European civilizations; people left their isolated farmsteads and country villages to live together in unprecedented numbers in the poleis (from the singular polis) of Greece and the civitates or urbi of Italy. Industry and commerce made wealth; wealth made leisure; and leisure made for the arts and philosophy, with their characteristic vocabularies. Beliefs of the countryside began to seem quaint and amusing, but also highly improbable, to the new urbane consciousness of the city-dwellers, which dismissed them as superstitions. Skepticism arose along with the first steps in science.

English became the beneficiary of these developments rather late, the Romans having left England about the time that the Angles and Saxons arrived there in force. The vocabularies of the Old Mediterranean World only entered into English usage with the Norman conquest of the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 AD, and later through intellectual commerce with the continent during the Renaissance and its aftermaths. Belated or not, the development was epochal, with Middle English supplanting Anglo-Saxon and an enormous raft of words entering the language to influence the way English-speakers thought. Now in the outline of Barfield’s History given thus far, the developments are entirely positive: Old meanings change and divide, yielding a net gain of new meanings; new words enrich the lexicon, thereby expanding the intellectual horizon. In the Late Middle Ages, however, a shift of meanings begins to occur for which Barfield uses his recurrent term internalization, which he relates, as we have seen, to the concept of alienation. Just what does Barfield mean by internalization, and how does internalization result in alienation?

Some background must be filled in before a direct answer to the question can be given. Consider therefore Barfield’s discussion of Pagan lore in Chapter V of his History, called “Myth.” The old stories of the Greeks and Romans, not to mention of the Celts and Goths, represent the world as animated; that is, as being full of what in Latin are called animae, “spirits” or “souls.” Every tree, stream, pool, mountain, and valley is inhabited by its tutelary spirit or genius. Human beings share the world with these spirits and must interact with them, according to a rule of reciprocity. Nature, to the mythic imagination, is alive. Thus Night and Day are gods; the Earth and Sky are gods. The name Zeus originally meant “the sky.” The fixed stars and planets are also gods, who influence human beings directly. Human beings, because they too are alive, have something in common with the living things of the external world. Men, gods, animals, plants, and genii live in an implicit fellowship, distantly if ineffectually commemorated in the futile expostulation of Victorian sentiment, “Axe-man, spare this tree!” Christianity modifies these traits of mythic thinking, but it never abolishes the image of man-as-microcosm having an intimate, indeed an inseparable, relation to the world-as-macrocosm, which it grasps in turn as the benevolent creation of a living and generous deity. Astrological belief, after all, existed compatibly with Christianity until the Eighteenth Century.

By contrast, the modern worldview posits every phenomenon external to the ego, including the animal kingdom, as so many things; as automata whose behavior is non-intentionally determined; and it posits the universe as comprehensible mainly according to purely numeric formulas, or indeed as reducible to those formulas. The cause and effect of the new science implies no meaning, occurring as it does only in a great congeries of material, or nowadays quantal, activity, measurable by man. Men might manipulate the external world on the basis of the formulas, but to manipulate is not to participate. Thus the reciprocal relation with the natural world begins to come undone.

In his last three chapters, Barfield traces the itinerary of semantic debasement from then to now. At the beginning of Chapter IX, called “Personality and Reason,” Barfield writes of how challenging it is for modern people to imagine the worldview of their ancient and medieval precursors: “In order to enter sympathetically into the outlook of an educated medieval gentleman, we have to perform the difficult feat of undressing, as it were, our own outlook by divesting it of all those seemingly innate ideas of progress and evolution, of a movement of some sort going on everywhere around us, which make our cosmos what it is.” The challenge steepens, as Barfield sees it, “because so many of these thoughts and feelings have become subconscious.” Modern people think in terms of “progress and evolution,” but their counterparts of past ages “could speak only of regeneration and amendment.” Those words, regeneration and amendment, have hardly any meaning in modern discourse.

Another deeply seated prejudice of the modern mentality, as Barfield points out, is that uniquely modernity believes in the tale how “intellectually, humanity languished for countless generations in the most childish errors on all sorts of crucial subjects, until it was redeemed by some simple scientific dictum of the last century.” The view that ideas ascending to the present from the past are “antiquated… out-of-date [or] primitive” tellingly articulates itself in the same moment when language puts novel emphasis on the idea of a discrete and sovereign self-consciousness, which, in its own view, stands apart from the world, of which it becomes the non-participating spectator. Richard Dawkins and many others have made authorial careers by rehashing this antiquated, out-of-date, and primitive argument. On this topic Barfield remarks that “self-consciousness… seems to have first dawned faintly on Europe at about the time of the Reformation, [but] it was not until the seventeenth century that the new light really began to spread and lighten.”

It is likely that in the luminous metaphor Barfield indulges his talent for soft-spoken irony. He was an Englishman, after all, who did not like to let on when he troped. The new age, to continue the exposition, reveals its self-absorption in such hyphenated coinages as self-conceit, self-liking, self-confidence, self-command, self-contempt, self-esteem, self-knowledge, self-pity, ego, and egoism – to replicate Barfield’s word-list sans the quotation marks. It is useful to recall how strange the coinage self-pity is: In the medieval root-notion of pieta, it means solicitous devotion to something living, like the Christian Word; and in its extended later usage, as pity, it cannot be directed by the subject towards himself, but only by another towards the subject. (The subject can, of course, suffer, enduring the passio, which would qualify him for pity.) A subject who could pity himself could presumably also save himself, a feat of which many modern people believe themselves capable. Indeed, one might venture to say that the Seventeenth-Century coinages that Barfield lists forecast the Auto-Messianism of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.

The climax of the trend comes in the assertions of the French philosopher René Descartes (1596 - 1650), especially in the syllogistic conclusion of his Discourse on Method (1637), “I think, therefore I am.” In another book nearly fifty years later than the History, his What Coleridge Thought (1972), Barfield characterizes Cartesianism, as “the dualism of mind and matter, of the mental and phenomenal,” which has become “everyman’s everyday experience.” For Descartes, consciousness consisted of a purely immaterial center-of-reference looking out on material extension, which he in turn reduced to the three-dimensional calculus of coordinate geometry. In the History, Barfield defines internalization as “the shifting of the center of gravity of consciousness from the cosmos… into the personal human being himself.” Barfield remarks a twofold consequence of this shift: “On the one hand, the peculiar freedom of mankind, the spontaneous impulses which control human behavior and destiny, are felt to arise more and more from within the individual… on the other the spiritual life and activity felt to be immanent in the world outside – in star and planet, in herb and animal, in the juices and ‘humours’ of the body, and in the outward ritual of the Church – these grow feebler.” Freedom, for the emergent modern mentality of three centuries ago is already synonymous with liberation, the throwing-ff of influences and shackles. Pure autonomy is salvation. Thus in the degree that someone like Dawkins believes the wisdom in religion to be false, so too in the same degree that person believes that he has saved himself from the trammels of superstition. Eric Voegelin, whose thoughts about modernity run in parallel to those of Barfield, would recognize in Barfield’s internalization the marks of overweening Gnosticism.

After Descartes and after Sir Isaac Newton (1643 - 1727), as Barfield writes, “men’s minds seem to have been influenced above all by that conception of impersonal ‘laws’ governing the universe, which… was scarcely apprehended before the previous century.” Indeed, the notion arose that life might be made happier, that is to say, more reasonable, than in the ancien régime if men replicated the impersonal external order in the social and political realms so that these, made genuinely lawful at last, would function more efficiently than before. The first utopias appear around this time, signally Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627). The new locutions of the utopian attitude are represented in Barfield’s list by arrange, category, classify, method, organize, organization, regular, regulate, regularity, system, and systematic – once again omitting the quotation marks. Such words, in those well-known usages latterly so indispensable to bureaucracy, betoken a new phase of internalization, what Barfield calls “the dawn of a mechanical age,” hence his Chapter X, called “Mechanism.”

In that chapter, Barfield explores the moral effects of adopting a purely mechanical view of existence. Machines of the Hellenistic Period might well have had some influence in the conceptualization of Ptolemy’s System, but the dominance of mechanism over thought is really only a modern phenomenon. In an observation that must strike close to home for Barfield’s American readership, he remarks how the critical phrase “checks and balances” reflects the dominance of machine-imagery over the minds of the Founders. And indeed, Thomas Jefferson was an inventor of gadgets as was Benjamin Franklin before him. In Barfield’s history of internalization, Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882) plays a central role. Barfield sees in Darwin’s fundamental hypothesis, that of the temporal prolongation of species-dominance through random selection of the so-called fittest specimens, a transfer of machine-imagery to the realm of the biological. The organic is thus assimilated to the mechanical. In Darwin’s thinking, the very consciousness of the human being emerges only through “an abstract causality, brought about by means of abstract ‘laws,’” those of the so-called competition, which function without meaning in an autonomous but entirely dumb universe, which, being meaningless is also goalless.

Taking its cues from Darwin, as Barfield writes, “nineteenth-century science… deduced the inner from the outer”; but whereas that science “had mapped and charted the mechanical part of Nature to a tenth of a millimeter,” it was nevertheless “well-nigh bankrupt as far as the inner world was concerned.” We hear today from the cognitive scientists, for example, that consciousness is simply an algorithm, or that an individual’s personality might be reduced to a digital pattern and uploaded into solid-state circuitry, whereupon consciousness, freed from mortality, would acquire godlike attributes. One prophet of that “trans-human” condition, Mr. Kurzweil, invokes the quasi-religious term “singularity” to refer to this rapidly approaching (as he sees it) fusion of mind with machine. One suspects that if Kurzweil actually succeeded in uploading his personality to solid-state circuitry, he would be howling to get out after ten seconds, but would likely be stranded forever in the peculiar Hell that he made for himself. The image of mind-in-the-machine, liberated from the body, is nevertheless a perfect metaphor of Barfield’s concept of internalization.

Is Barfield’s observation of intellectual interest only? Does it have relevance exclusively in speculative discourse? Hardly. Barfield writes: “Whenever the biologico-mechanical meanings did creep into human relationships – as, for example, into the economic relationship through the word competition and otherwise – the result was, almost without exception, disastrous.” Of course Post-Reformation Europeans still had pre-modern needs and urges, which the new view could ignore but never abolish. To satisfy these needs and urges people relied on those vocabularies that the new scientific outlook regarded as obsolete or even superstitious, but whose persistence allowed people to think about things moral and spiritual. The language of meaning was still the language of Platonism and Christian theology, but these were coming under ever-fiercer attack. Words like religionism and religiose, which appeared in the Seventeenth Century, have entirely pejorative usages, which signal the increasing hostility of the ruling ideas to the old ideas that they sought to displace or even to abolish. The new exclusivist attitude naturally called itself by various nice-sounding names such as liberal-minded and enlightened. Although Barfield omits to say so, democracy was another word of that type, whose rhetorical benevolence served to conceal the aggrandizement of government-by-the-enlightened.

Now the medieval mentality, suffused thoroughly by Christian theology, took what Barfield names “the absolute value and infinite potentiality of each human soul” as integral to and inexpugnable from reality. But if humanity were simply another species, as Darwin argued, and if speciation were a random process with no meaning, and if consciousness were merely an evolutionary adaptation to changing, and by definition transient, conditions; then in what sense might the soul, even where discourse still grudgingly admitted the term, possess “absolute value and infinite potentiality”? Under the dominant mathematical-deterministic model of reality, it could not.

Barfield’s argument has by this point in the sequence of his chapters revealed its critical radicalism. From the reconstructed prehistoric beginnings of the Indo-European languages to the High Middle Ages, Barfield sees, in his case-language, English, a net increase of meaning beneficial to the speakers of the tongue; but with the Reformation, which brings the Medieval Period to its end, he sees the phase of meaning-change in the lamentable direction of contraction and diminution for which he employs his term internalization. The same internalization represents a flight from rich participation in reality, with a possibility of transcendence either religious or aesthetic, to cloistered abstraction in the grim Cartesian fortress of disembodied rationality. The resemblance to insanity is hard to miss. No doubt but Barfield intends it. Consciousness, by believing to have discovered its own origin in a random and meaningless process, necessarily renders itself otiose, for how could it be other than random and meaningless? What could it mean to think where consciousness has demoted itself in the world-picture to a neuro-chemical epiphenomenon? But schizophrenically, as it were, the thinking that has abolished itself by a clever theory uselessly goes on jabbering and claims its jabbering to be thinking.

Fortunately, Barfield’s story does not end on that psychopathological stasis although his conclusion is not entirely optimistic. Barfield covers the new, hopeful development in his Chapter XI, called “Imagination,” devoted largely to the artistic, cultural, and philosophical movement known as Romanticism. Barfield’s argument is this: That in and through Romanticism, the process of internalization manages to reverse itself; consciousness ceases to be confined like some ghost in a shut-up manse; it rediscovers the reality of the external world and begins to grasp that world as living rather than dead, as vital and spontaneous rather than as mechanistic and determinate. Romanticism posits again the possibility of transcendence and even of regeneration and amendment. The codicil to this thesis is that Romanticism constituted at its birth a dissenting, minority-view that has remained such ever since. The chief English Romantics such as William Blake (1757 – 1827, Samuel T. Coleridge (1772 – 1834), and William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850) were also not absolutely free from the effects of internalization, a fact put in evidence by their sometimes annoying egotism, but they were nevertheless early and indispensable critics of the same psychic deformities that Barfield calls to readerly attention. Barfield indeed is much their successor.

Significantly, the first sentence of the last chapter of History in English Words is: “Early Christianity, with its delighted recognition of the soul’s reality [and] its awful consciousness of inner depths unplumbed, had produced, as we saw, many words describing human emotions by their effects, and especially their effects on the soul’s relation to the Divine.” Earlier in the History, Barfield had devoted his Chapter VII, called “Devotion,” to Medieval Catholicism. Romanticism, in reaction against the self-lauding Enlightenment, revives a type of religious view, partly Christian but partly also Pagan, reinvesting as it does the external world and all of its phenomena with élan vital, metaphoric personification, and with the quality of pointing beyond itself to a transcendent realm. The Romantics see nature as creation. Firstly they see it as evidence of a supernal intelligence at work and secondly they see the human mind as participating in a continuous act of creation through perception and ideation; in their view, as in the view of the medieval mystics, the cosmos is replete with meaning. The word creative, as Barfield asserts, “is used far too often and far too lightly now to allow us easily to perceive its importance.” But the word’s full import should be recovered. When writers and thinkers began to apply it, however, to artistic and philosophical activities seen as cooperating with the genius in nature, this application implied the repudiation of the “dead-matter,” or mechanistic, view of the cosmos.

In addition to establishing a virile critique of Cartesianism, and beyond it of the Enlightenment generally, the Romantics also “resuscitated,” in Barfield’s diction, old ideas and values that the Enlightenment had declared useless or obnoxious. Voltaire, who embodied the Enlightenment, opined that Shakespeare was a barbarian who flouted the Aristotelian unities. Coleridge, by contrast, declared Shakespeare a true genius, and made a living for a while giving public lectures on the subject. Victor Hugo (1802 - 1885) also differed from Voltaire in admiring the English Bard. Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832), disdaining to see the Medieval Period as a “Dark Age,” praised its virtues in his historical novel Ivanhoe (1819). Writers like Scott and Robert Burns (1759 - 1796) and Coleridge, not to mention the Brothers Grimm in the German world, found new respect for the folk-beliefs of the countryside, and of past centuries, not taking them literally, but regarding them as intuitions that nature really is alive and not dead, as Descartes and Newton implied, and the humanity is in a reciprocal relation with nature.

Barfield credits Coleridge with articulating the Romantic Protest against the Enlightenment with the greatest rigor and clarity. (As we have seen, Barfield would later devote an entire book to Coleridge.) “It was the philosophy of the Lake School,” to which Coleridge belonged, as Barfield writes, “that the perception of Nature… depends on what is brought to it by the observer,” such that “deep must call unto deep.” And let us add, living unto living. Barfield quotes Coleridge to the effect that imagination, which in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1816), stands above reason in the hierarchy of faculties, is “essentially vital.” In his own words Barfield asserts that “Imagination [is], in fact, organic.” The Romantics, well before Darwin, had their own theories of evolution, but their view of it was teleological. In such propositions Romanticism found only a hostile reception from the dominant worldview. To this day ideas rooted in the Romantic Protest find only a hostile reception from the unchanged dominant worldview. Most importantly, as Barfield sees it, Romanticism at last makes conscious the diminution of consciousness brought about by internalization, and, so to speak, re-reveals “that vast new cosmos which had so long been blindly forming in the depths.” If this re-revelation belonged to a minority only, as today it does, that would be better than if it had never appeared at all. One mustard-seed and a spring rain can cover a barren hillside in glorious yellow.

Barfield’s history of internalization, that pathological fugue-state of modernity, implies a type of dialectic in two ways.  First, as in G. W. F. Hegel’s dialectic, it tells of a movement from a thesis, the original, religious participation of the individual in nature; through an antithesis, Enlightenment rationalism; to a potential synthesis, which would involve preserving what is useful in the Enlightenment and combining it with what is promising in the Romantic view.  It is important to note that this dialectic remains unresolved.  Second, there is the debate between the Romantic or Traditionalist view and the prevailing modern view.  This too is dialectic in the sense that it is a dialogue even though one partner does not wish to hear what the other says and cannot see the absurdity tautology, and therefore the non-explanation, in a phrase like “survival of the fittest.”  Modernism reigns even triumphantly (it controls all social institutions in all First-World societies) but it begins to show cracks in its edifice as its contradictions become more and more acute and ever less amenable to obfuscation.   Barfield shows intellectual kinship with other writers of the middle of the last century, such as René Guénon and Nicolas Berdyaev, who also authored incisive critiques of modernity; he was a friend of T. S. Eliot, another guardian of Tradition against so-called enlightened prejudices, and of the redoubtable J. R. R. Tolkien.  Barfield’s authorship is extensive.  He deserves to be read.