Owen Barfield and Quentin Meillassoux

Meillassoux and Barfield may at first seem like strange bedfellows, but by unmasking the pervasiveness of correlationism in post-Kantian philosophy, the former steps right into an issue that works its way into nearly all of Barfield’s published works.

In perhaps the most complete and cogent explanation of his position, Saving the Appearances, Barfield writes:

“…the evolution of nature is correlative to the evolution of consciousness…[which] hitherto can best be understood as a more or less continuous progress from a vague but immediate awareness of the ‘meaning’ of phenomena towards an increasing preoccupation with the phenomena themselves. The earlier awareness involved experiencing phenomena as representations; the latter preoccupation involves experiencing them, non-representationally, as objects in their own right, existing independently of human consciousness. This latter experience, in its extreme form, I have called idolatry.”

Let’s unpack this a bit. For Barfield, the evolution of consciousness is not just a matter of recognizing the historical changes in our ideas about nature (an obvious and widely acknowledged process); rather, theories of the evolution of consciousness attempt to describe ontological changes in the underlying relationship between human awareness and the universe. For example, in Worlds Apart, writing about the significance of Galileo’s division of nature into qualitative (subjective) and quantitative (objective) aspects, Barfield says, “It wasn’t a new idea of the relation between man and nature; it was an idea of the new relation between them” (p. 178).

Barfield suggests that, prior to the Copernican and scientific revolutions, humanity directly experienced the surrounding world as symbolically meaningful: the whole moral structure of the geocentric cosmos was arrayed before consciousness in the appearance of the night sky, for example. Post-Copernican consciousness, however, could no longer take immediate sensory experience at face value. Our sensory perception of the heavens had been proven to be mistaken by the newly emerging mathematical methods of science. It now seemed that the planets were not gods concerned with our earthly destinies, but mere matter arrayed in empty space going about its business whether or not anyone was there to perceive it. Humanity’s sense of centrality had been humiliated. Barfield, a correlationist of the eternal variety discussed by Meillassoux in After Finitude (p. 22-23), goes to great lengths in many of his books to explain why the purported existence of objects independent of Mind (be it human or divine) is non-sensical.

As for Meillassoux, he has much to say about the effect of the scientific revolution, as well:

“…science’s promotion over philosophy as guarantor of knowledge has become the locus of a misunderstanding, not to say wrong-footing, that appears to be without precedent in the annals of thought – for it is at the very moment when philosophy attempted for the first time to think rigorously the primacy of scientific knowledge that it decided to abjure precisely that aspect of thought which constituted the revolutionary character of scientific knowledge: its speculative import. It is at the very moment when philosophy claimed to be acknowledging its own supersession by science in the realm of knowledge that it renounced as ‘moth-eaten dogmatism’ its own capacity to think the object ‘in-itself’ -precisely the mode of thinking that, for the first time, was concurrently being promoted to the status of potential knowledge in the context of this very science. Even as science, by virtue of its power of decentring, revealed to thought the latter’s own speculative power, philosophy, at the very moment when it was ratifying this takeover, did so by abjuring all speculation, which is to say, by renouncing any possibility of thinking the nature of this revolution. Something akin to a ‘catastrophe’ occurred in this changeover from metaphysics to science as guarantor of knowledge -Copernican science provided the impetus for philosophy’s abandonment of speculative metaphysics, but this abandonment was reflected back onto Copernican science as philosophy’s Ptolemaic interpretation of the latter. Thus, philosophy’s message to science was: ‘it is you (and not speculative metaphysics) that holds the reins of knowledge, but the underlying nature of this knowledge is the very opposite of what it seems to you.’ In other words, in providing the impetus for philosophy’s destruction of speculative metaphysics, science also destroyed any possibility of a philosophical understanding of its own essence.”

For Meillassoux, Kant’s counter-revolution, which philosophically re-centered the subject after its scientific displacement, was a wrong turn. I’m still not entirely clear on how his attempt to radicalize correlationism from the inside (by absolutizing the facticity of the correlation itself) plays out, but in his rejection of Kant’s compromise with science, he would find an ally in Barfield (who is certainly in favor of a speculative renewal!). On the other hand, Barfield was a lifelong critic of the sort of scientific materialism that posits a mind-independent universe filled with sense-less objects; but if Meillasoux’s radicalization leads in something of a panexperientialist or pansensualist direction (as Harman’s OOO does), then they may be fighting the same fight, after all.