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Organisms and Their Evolution
A book by
Stephen L. Talbott

Chapter 23

The Evolution of Consciousness

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This is a preliminary draft of one chapter of a book-in-progress entitled, “Organisms and Their Evolution — Agency and Meaning in the Drama of Life”. This material is part of the Biology Worthy of Life project of The Nature Institute. Copyright 2022 by Stephen L. Talbott. All rights reserved. You may freely download this chapter for noncommercial, personal use, including classroom use.

Tags: epistemology; evolution/of consciousness; inwardness (intention, idea, meaning)

“The economic and social structure of Switzerland”, wrote Owen Barfield in his major work on the evolution of consciousness, is owing in part to the tourist industry, which in turn depends upon the fact that “the mountains which twentieth-century man sees are not the mountains which eighteenth-century man saw” (Barfield 1965, pp. 145-46).

Barfield is gesturing toward an evolution of consciousness that, as he saw it, implied an evolution of phenomena. Taken literally (as indeed he intended it), his claim easily baffles even serious attempts to fathom it. Most observers will conclude that the claim is either outrageous or else trivially expresses the idea that, while our experience of the mountains has changed, the mountains themselves have certainly not. But the question of the relation between reality on one hand and our experience of reality on the other is subtle and potentially disorienting for us today. It is also inseparable from the troubled, several-hundred-year quest for an empirical (experience-based) science of the objective world. Does “experience-based” mean science is inescapably subjective, or instead that our experience bears the marks of an objective reality?

In this chapter we will use Barfield’s remark as little more than a stimulus to begin looking at the evolution of consciousness. By the time we are done, however, the question about the relation between human experience and the world we so naturally think of as wholly objective and mind-independent may have gained a more intriguing aspect. But we will forego until the next chapter any effort to throw light on the underlying issues. These have to do with the way we are situated in the world through our cognitive experience.

We now begin by looking at a few aspects of the evolution of language.1

There was a primordial unity
of inner and outer meaning

According to the evolutionary story that most of us have forcibly absorbed through our education, humankind somehow raised itself above the beastly, mindless, material substrate of its origin so as to achieve, step by step, the mystifying wonders of language and poetry, music and art, politics and science, and all the other sublimations contributing to high culture. The sea of meaning within which we now swim — without which we would have nothing we could recognize as human life — somehow bubbled up from somewhere, if only as an illusion of the human mind, and cast a kind of spell over the bedrock meaninglessness of brute matter.

“Somehow”, I say, since the meaning at issue and the question how it could have emerged from an eternal silence of Unmeaning is so great an enigma for conventional thinking that it has received no fundamental elucidation.

What is not enigmatic — and is clearly available to investigation — is the fact that when we look further and further back through history, we see an ever richer language, not an increasingly material and “de-meaned” language reflecting our supposedly brutish origins. As the nineteenth-century English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley observed, “In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry” (Shelley 1840).

We do not, that is, discover ancient literature to be impoverished relative to modern literature. It is more like the reverse of this: we still debate today whether, for example, the Homeric epics — composed orally before the development of writing in ancient Greece — have ever been surpassed for psychological depth, dramatic power, poetic subtlety, and human interest.

We will take the philologist and historian, Owen Barfield, as our primary guide, first, to the evolution of language, and then to the evolution of consciousness more generally. Barfield devoted a long life spanning the entire twentieth century to the study of these two topics, and about the former he wrote:

“The farther back language as a whole is traced, the more poetical and animated do its sources appear, until it seems at last to dissolve into a kind of mist of myth. The beneficence or malignance — what may be called the soul-qualities — of natural phenomena, such as clouds or plants or animals, make a more vivid impression at this time than their outer shapes and appearances. Words themselves are felt to be alive and to exert a magical influence” (Barfield 1967, pp. 87-88).

The “enchanted” landscape of ancient consciousness, as Barfield sketches it for example in Poetic Diction, could not have been one of conscious invention, unrestrained metaphor, or causal speculation. The earliest historical evidence shows us that humans were not yet possessed of the sort of selves, or the resources of language, conducing to such invention and hypothesis. They simply observed nature as it was given to them. Their meanings did not arise from anything like modern reflection or theorizing, but were encountered directly, as if spoken by the earth itself.

This truth has been disguised from us by what Barfield referred to as “logomorphism” — the projection of modern thought processes onto “that luckless dustbin” of the primitive mind. “The remoter ancestors of Homer, we are given to understand, observing that it was darker in winter than in summer, immediately decided that there must be some ‘cause’ for this ‘phenomenon’, and had no difficulty in tossing off the ‘theory’ of, say, Demeter and Persephone, to account for it” (Barfield 1973, pp. 74, 90).

But we are given no evidence that the mythic mind had any concern with such explanations, if only because the conditions for them did not yet exist. Our modern ideas of cause and effect lay far in the future. The ancient fact of the matter was more like this: “In the myth of Demeter the ideas of waking and sleeping, of summer and winter, of life and death, of mortality and immortality are all lost in one pervasive meaning” (Barfield 1973, pp. 90-91).

Think for a moment about what we mean today by “explaining the world”. Such explanation requires two distinct awarenesses: that of something “out there” posing a puzzle for us, and an understanding “in here” that clarifies the puzzle. But our ancestors did not possess these separate awarenesses. Unlike us, they were not in a position to dualize the world into outer material fact and interior explanatory idea. They lacked the requisite psychological distance from the world, and therefore did not experience the otherness of “things” as we do. The mythically enchanted landscape was, for them, an unanalyzed interfusion of outer and inner, of sense perceptions and soul content.

For example, the story of the Greek sun-god “Helios” could hardly have originated as an animistic effort to account for a material sun, given that neither the history of language nor what we can surmise of mythic consciousness affords any evidence that a purely material sun had yet been conceived. The sun’s glory, its light and warmth, were directly and non-reflectively experienced as ensouled realities.

We still find remnants of such indivisible meaning in later eras, as when we read in the New Testament,

Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God … The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the spirit. (John 3:5-8)2

Translators into English have been forced to use two different words, “spirit” and “wind” (in other texts “breath” is required) where the original Greek has a single word, pneuma. “We must, therefore, imagine a time”, Barfield noted, “when [Latin] ‘spiritus’ or [Greek] ‘pneuma’, or older words from which these had descended, meant neither breath, nor wind, nor spirit, nor yet all three of these things, but when they simply had their own old peculiar meaning, which has since, in the course of the evolution of consciousness, crystallized into the three meanings specified”3 (Barfield 1973, pp. 79-81).

“Nor yet all three of these things” — not the addition of one distinct meaning to another, but a single unity encompassing wind, breath, and spirit. The distinct meanings had not yet arisen, and so were not available to be added together. Our current dualism of “inner” and “outer” was not yet part of human experience. It is hard for us to appreciate this at a time when our language forces a dichotomous choice between the terms of outward, sensible reference and those drawn from our interior life.

We will take one further example, this one drawn from Barfield’s History in English Words:

As far back as we can trace them, the Sanskrit word “dyaus”, the Greek “zeus” (accusative “dia”), and the Teutonic “tiu” were all used in contexts where we should use the word sky; but the same words were also used to mean God, the Supreme Being, the Father of all the other gods … If we are to judge from language, we must assume that when our earliest ancestors looked up to the blue vault they felt that they saw not merely a place, whether heavenly or earthly, but the bodily vesture, as it were, of a living Being (Barfield 1967, pp. 88-89).
Egyptian picture of the gods of earth and sky

Figure 23.1. Egyptian sky goddess, Nut, and earth god, Geb, held apart by Shu, a god associated with air and wind.

Summing up the historical picture, the nineteenth-century American transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote in his 1836 book, Nature: “As we go back in history, language becomes more picturesque, until its infancy, when it is all poetry; or all spiritual facts are represented by natural symbols”. And again: “It is not words only that are emblematic; it is things which are emblematic”4 (Emerson 1836, pp. 33, 37).

So the direction of the evolution of language and meaning is, so far as we can discern from the historical record, the opposite of an “ascent from brute materiality”. Before humans could speak in their individuated voices, or could even conceive of devising theories about nature, the natural world spoke to and through them — meaningfully and poetically. The rhythm and meter we find, for example, in the epic Homeric hexameters with their “thundering epithets” were, Barfield wrote, relics of a time “when men were conscious, not merely in their heads, but in the beating of their hearts and the pulsing of their blood — when thinking was not merely of Nature, but was Nature herself” (Barfield 1973, pp. 146-47).

Looking back upon myths such as that of Demeter and Persephone (where you and I are likely to see metaphor or simile) Francis Bacon pointed out the error of this view: “Neither are these only similitudes, as men of narrow observation may conceive them to be, but the same foot-steps of nature, treading or printing upon several subjects or matters”.5 And regarding these “footsteps of nature”, Barfield adds:

Men do not invent those mysterious relations between separate external objects, and between objects and feelings or ideas ... The language of primitive men reports [these footsteps] as direct perceptual experience. The speaker has observed a unity, and is not therefore himself conscious of relation. But we, in the development of consciousness, have lost the power to see this [unity] as one (Barfield 1973, pp. 86-87).

What words can
teach us about
the evolution of

There is one province of reality, one domain of the material world, where we humans have gained a knowledge unexcelled in its sophistication, its fine detail, and its almost infinite nuance of meaning. It is a domain that, perhaps more than any other, shapes our lives and influences our happiness day in and day out. And knowledge of events within this domain comes naturally: nearly all humans achieve a level of expertise dwarfing the scientific researcher’s mastery of material phenomena in all other disciplines.

The phenomena I am referring to are those coming to expression in the human face. I have specifically in mind, not the power of producing those expressions, but rather of objectively reading them. For, of course, we do read them objectively. Our lives and society would be impossible if we could not navigate the universe of facial gestures with a largely shared understanding. This means that. The face illustrates how, in physical features, we are dealing with meaning borne upon a material dynamic of force and substance, but not explicable as if the meaning arose from, or were caused by, that dynamic. We naturally think of the cause as operating in some sense interior to its outer manifestation.

And what we have seen in the preceding section is that the face of nature herself presented our ancestors with a countenance whose inner significances were inseparable from what we today would consider its outer manifestation. Natural phenomena constituted a living language, rather as, still for us today, the sense-perceptible human face can at times scarcely be distinguished from its expressive eloquence — from the meaning it communicates.

The history of language gives us ample evidence pointing back to the kind of inner/outer unity we are presented with in the Greek pneuma. Barfield shows how we can see this in two broad classes of words:

Nearly all those words now bearing immaterial meaning in the form of high abstraction, or else referring to our interior life, were once inseparable from sensible experience.

Emerson was not the first to recognize this truth when he wrote in 1836:

Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from material appearance. Right means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious the raising of the eyebrowsthought and emotion are words borrowed from sensible things, and now appropriated to spiritual nature (Emerson 1836, chapter 4).

The idea is not that the interior or psychic aspect was lacking in the perception of ancient folk, but rather that it was bound together inseparably with the outer, material meaning. And, as Barfield reminded us, this truth extends far beyond words like spirit, thought, and emotion:

To what, precisely, does each one of them refer — the tens of thousands of abstract nouns which daily fill the columns of our newspapers, the debating chambers of our legislatures, the consulting rooms of our psychiatrists? Progress, tendency, culture, democracy, liberality, inhibition, motivation, responsibility — there was a time when each of them, either itself or its progenitor in another tongue, was a vehicle referring to the concrete world of sensuous experience with a tenor [immaterial meaning] of some sort peeping, or breathing, or bursting through (Barfield 1977, p. 38).

Moreover, as Barfield stresses, high-sounding scientific terms “are not miraculously exempt” from the general rule. A great part of the explanatory apparatus of science consists of largely abstract and dematerialized words such as stimulus, cause, effect, reference, control, repress, information, code, and program, all of which can be shown to have been once inseparable from an “outer clothing”. Only with time did the abstract or inner meanings become detached from sense perception. By abstracting away from that clothing we gained the powers of thought necessary for our current science6 (Barfield 1973, p. 134).

The other group of words, now referring to material, sense-perceptible phenomena, once also connoted sentience or inwardness.

We have already seen how ancient words for “sky” also meant “divine being”. The very words by which we today designate the materiality of the world are sufficient to make the point. “Matter” likely traces back to Latin mater, “mother”. And “physical” derives from Greek phyein, “grow”. So the Greek ta physika — “natural things” or “things of external nature” — was rooted in living activity. Of course, as we also noted earlier, words by which we now refer to purely physical bodies such as “sun”, “Venus”, “Mars”, “Jupiter”, and “Saturn” can be traced back to the names of various deities.

So words now having a purely immaterial significance once also referred to sensible phenomena, and words now purely sensible or material in reference once also referred to interior experience. Taken together, these two groups of words testify to the primeval experience of nature as a material/immaterial, outer/inner unity before the dualization of this unity in the modern sense was even conceivable.

But none of this is to say we should look to etymology for current meanings. Will anyone claim today that when we say someone is “wrong”, we really mean he is bent like a stick, or that to “conceive” something is to grasp it physically? The dualization of the world has occurred, and one result is that we now enjoy a vast panoply of meanings and a diverse range of distinctions formerly unavailable. Nevertheless, the history of meaning raises its own questions.

How could the unitary meanings of our ancestors have possessed their primordial, immaterial aspects if the associated, sense-based images (a bent stick, the hand’s grasp) were not inherently expressive of an immaterial reality?7 If the indissoluble unity of sensible image and immaterial meaning were arbitrarily invented by early speakers and were not inherent in the phenomena themselves — if things were not, as we heard from Emerson, essentially emblematic, but were instead subject to any speaker’s arbitrary, metaphoric invention — how would others have picked up on the speaker’s invented, immaterial meanings? Indeed, how could the very possibility of immaterial meanings ever have come about, if the original reality out of which humans emerged was (what we think of today as) solely physical?

The cognitive experience of the ancients was given by nature. Its inner, expressive content was not added by a reflective or theorizing perceiver, but was already experienced in perception. Things meant something on their face. Our ancestors were, you might say, participant-observers entranced by an ensouled drama staged within their own consciousness by the world’s phenomena.8

What the historical record shows is that those ancestors recognized, in whatever was expressed through natural phenomena, a speaking agency akin to themselves. “Whether it is called ‘mana’”, wrote Barfield, “or by the names of many gods and demons, or God the Father, or the spirit world, it is of the same nature as the perceiving self, inasmuch as it is not mechanical or accidental, but psychic and voluntary” (Barfield 1965, p. 42).

Today our evolutionary trajectory has brought us to a vastly different place — a place where we are routinely taught to think disparagingly of the ancients as astonishingly naïve. But whatever our thoughts and meanings may be, we ought to acknowledge with some humility that they are available to us only because the world first mimed them, so to speak, thereby enabling them to light up in human minds “naïve” enough to read the face of nature in a way that few of us today can.

At the same time, we will need to acknowledge that, so far as the historical record testifies, our evolutionary trajectory has not accorded with the usual assumptions. There is no evidence that we slowly ascended from a crude life of material unmeaning to a humanly and artificially contrived realm of meaning, value, culture, and spirituality. Our life today, with its materialistic convictions and experience of a meaningless world, has required a long descent from the living, ensouled landscape upon which our ancestors were nurtured.

Our evolutionary heritage, culminating in Cartesian dualism, has taught us to insist upon a radical separation of the inner and outer dimensions of our experience, which once formed so compelling a unity. And then, under the further influence of materialist thought, we have learned to regard the inner dimension as “merely subjective” or somehow less than fully real.

But perhaps, instead of projecting our current mental processes upon the “woefully subjective and ignorant” ancients, we might want to consider how our own history may have cut us off from an ancient wisdom, finally concreting in our deepest, most unyielding, and largely unconscious habits of thought and experience. Through such reflection, perhaps we would gain the freedom within ourselves to inquire in all seriousness whether we today are the ones who lack ready access to much of the world’s reality.

All this suggests how advisable it might be for us to take a closer look at the evolution of consciousness through which our own thinking has gained (and become limited by) its current character.

Europeans and their
changing landscape

In his book on The Changing Nature of Man, the Dutch historical psychologist Jan Hendrik van den Berg described the dawning among Europeans of something like our modern “sense of nature”. This emerging sense, he claimed, can be recognized in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, where he describes a trip through the Alps in 1728. It came to full expression in his novel, Julie, or the New Heloise (1761). With surprising rapidity for such a fundamental historical change, the new appreciation of nature took Europe by storm:

Like an epidemic the new sensation spread through Europe. Every one wished to see what Rousseau had seen, to experience the same ecstasy. Everybody visited Switzerland and climbed the Alps. This had not happened before Rousseau. It was then that the Alps became a tourist attraction. Previously they had been an obstacle .... Even in 1750, Henault, a poet and a friend of Voltaire’s, crossed the Jura and the Alps without the least enthusiasm, merely observing, “There is always a creek at my side and rocks above my head, which seem about to fall in the creek or upon me.” These words would nowadays disqualify him as a poet (van den Berg 1961, p. 233).
A photo of the Alps taken from above the town of Flims in the Imboden
Region in the Swiss canton of Graubünden

Figure 23.2. A photo of the Alps taken from above the town of Flims in the Imboden Region in the Swiss canton of Graubünden.9

If there was an “epidemic” of sightseeing, it was not caused by Rousseau’s published descriptions. Rather, his descriptions were themselves an early symptom of the epidemic.

Before commenting on Rousseau, van den Berg had mentioned Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. People came from far and wide to see this painting because it was, as van den Berg put it, “the face of later generations”, the revelation of a new way to live. Mona Lisa was smiling over the delicious and unexpected discovery of an interior secret, a hidden subjectivity, powerful enough to remake the world. The sudden flowering of the Renaissance, the childlike fervor of the Scientific Revolution, the compelling urge that sent Magellan and the other great voyagers steadfastly beyond the edges of the world, where sea monsters once dwelt — all testified to a humanity waking up from its medieval enchantment. We stretched, blinked, rubbed our eyes, looked out upon a fresh world we were seeing for the first time. And, in that moment, we became aware of the one who was inside, looking.

A subject becomes a subject by virtue of its ability to stand apart — to stand within itself — and make whatever is now “out there” an object for itself. A new subjectivity is necessarily married to a new objectivity. So it was not only Mona Lisa’s smile that became famous, but also the landscape behind her. We must see her smile and its interior significance against that external backdrop. Van den Berg saw it as

the first landscape painted as a landscape, just because it was a landscape. A pure landscape, not just a backdrop for human actions: nature, nature as the middle ages did not know it, an exterior nature closed within itself and self-sufficient, an exterior from which the human element has, in principle, been removed entirely (van den Berg 1961, pp. 231-2).

Figure 23.3. Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”.10

Van den Berg proceeds to quote Rilke: “This landscape is not … the judgment of a man on things at rest; it is nature coming into being, the world coming into existence, unknown to man as the jungle of an unknown island. It had been necessary to see the landscape in this way, far and strange, remote … It had to be almost hostile in its exalted indifference, if, with its objects, it was to give a new meaning to our existence”11 (van den Berg, pp. 230-31).

So, what was going on with the changing relation between Europeans and their landscape? Were people just “talked into” seeing the Alps differently, or was a deeper, underlying change at work? Were our forebears several centuries ago becoming situated in their environment in a fundamentally different way? Did Da Vinci, foresighted as he was in so many ways, catch a first, premonitory glimpse of nature detaching herself from the human being — a strange sight at first? And did Rousseau testify to the historical transition toward a comfortable, aesthetic appreciation of this new reality?

History of ideas — or an
evolution of consciousness

A familiar task for any philosopher or historian would be to trace the impact, say, of Aristotle’s or Descartes’ or Darwin’s thought upon subsequent thinkers. We think of it as a history of ideas. But what if there are changes of consciousness that run mostly along subterranean channels of which we have no immediate awareness? After all, we might well wonder how we got from the undivided, inner/outer (neither subjective nor objective) consciousness inherited from the age of myth to our own detached-observer subjectivity today, where we find ourselves confronted by “mindless natural objects”.

A fundamental premise of Barfield’s work was that there is a crucial distinction to be made between the history of ideas and the evolution of consciousness: “A history of thought, as such, amounts to a dialectical or syllogistic process, the thoughts of one age arising discursively out of, challenging, and modifying the thoughts and discoveries of the previous one” (Barfield 1965, p. 67). This is, for example, the way the history of philosophy is normally taught.

On the other hand, any method for approaching the evolution of consciousness must be quite different. What matters is not so much what people are thinking as how they are thinking, and how they are connected, in the greatest depths of their being, to what is happening in the world, both material and immaterial. Intellectual thoughts or theories about this or that are less relevant to the evolution of consciousness than the unconsidered habits of thought and the qualities of experience determining what they can think.

We need to notice, in particular, qualities of meaning. To focus on “propositional content”, as we think of it today, is to make the ancients into objects of ridicule by assuming that they were engaged in something like our own detached, self-aware habits of intellectual debate. We mistake their immediate perceptions for our own philosophically loaded thoughts, and so we discover in the ancients only confusion.

It was to evolutionary studies that Barfield continually returned as he illustrated, in a series of works spanning several decades, how the meanings of words “are flashing, iridescent shapes like flames — ever-flickering vestiges of the slowly evolving consciousness beneath them” (Barfield 1973, p. 75). He tried to show that the processes of evolution, while not determining the particular ideas of a given era, do circumscribe the kinds of things one can conceive and mean.12

As an example, the historian Herbert Butterfield describes how the Aristotelian worldview gave way during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries:

Through changes in the habitual use of words, certain things in the natural philosophy of Aristotle had now acquired a coarsened meaning or were actually misunderstood. It may not be easy to say why such a thing should have happened, but men unconsciously betray the fact that a certain Aristotelian thesis simply has no meaning for them any longer — they just cannot think of the stars and heavenly bodies as things without weight even when the book tells them to do so. Francis Bacon seems unable to say anything except that it is obvious that these heavenly bodies have weight, like any other kind of matter which we meet in our experience.

Butterfield adds that there was, during this period, “an intellectual transition which involves somewhere or other a change in men’s feeling for matter” (Butterfield 1957, pp. 130-31). Sometimes, as other historians have noticed, certain thoughts just seem to be “in the air”. For whatever reason, their time has come.

Barfield suggests that even the history of ideas, when looked at closely, can reveal “forces at work beneath the threshold of argument”. Using the linguist’s term “Aryan” in something like the modern sense of “Indo-European”, he notes that “the comparatively sudden appearance, after millennia of static civilizations of the oriental type, of the people or the impulse which eventually flowered in the cultures of the Aryan nations can hardly have been due to the impact of notion on notion. And the same is true of the abrupt emergence at a certain point in history of vociferously speculative thought among the Greeks”.

And still more remarkable, he says, is the “historically unfathered impulse of the Jewish nation to set about eliminating participation”. By “participation” (see following section) he refers to the ancient sense of a numinous presence in nature that was akin to the human interior. And so,

Suddenly, and as it were without warning, we are confronted by a fierce and warlike nation, for whom it is a paramount moral obligation to refrain from the participatory heathen cults by which they were surrounded on all sides; for whom moreover precisely that moral obligation is conceived as the very foundation of the race, the very marrow of its being. We owe to the Jews the pejorative significance in the word idol. The representative images, the totemic eidola, which ritually focused the participation of the surrounding Gentile nations, are either condemned by their prophets as evil or denied as unrealities …” (Barfield 1965, pp. 67-68).

It is good to realize how, even in studying relatively recent history (or the cultural realities of our own day), we are always looking at more than a discursive play of ideas. We may indeed be focused on the history of ideas, but there is always a deeper current to be aware of. In a moment we will glance at earlier stages in the evolution of consciousness. But, first, we will draw from Barfield one further example illustrating how even the usual historical narratives can suggest something about an underlying evolution of consciousness.

Speaking of the introspective psychology that yielded the theories of Freud and Jung, Barfield refers to the “startling phenomenon” whereby “a literal-minded generation developed a sympathetic response to the psycho-analytical gnosis of dream-imagery, and accepted the (one would have thought) fantastic idea of an immaterial realm of ‘the unconscious’”. Who, he wonders, could possibly have foreseen this, say, in the year of the Great Exhibition (1851)?

The question is meant to voice our inevitable puzzlement if we look merely at an intellectual history, tracing the impact of idea upon idea. For, in intellectual terms, the second half of the nineteenth century represented the zenith of that literal-mindedness exemplified by a science recognizing, at bottom, only the mindless and deterministic interaction of atom with atom. Whatever sort of change yielded the possibility of psychoanalysis was not the mere product of the discursive play of extant ideas, but rather of the changing (evolving) structure of human experience.

And so, leaving aside the question of the long-term significance of psychoanalysis, Barfield remarks that “for the historian of consciousness the most significant thing will always be the way it ‘caught on’; the number of its technical terms — and still more the characters out of Greek mythology — which had become household words even before the death of its founder. Pan, it seems, has not only not retired from business; he has not only gone indoors; he has hardly shut the door, before we begin to hear him moving about inside”13 (Barfield 1965, pp. 133-34).

The long historical arc of the
evolution of consciousness

Barfield devoted much of his life to tracing the evolution of consciousness, so far as the historical record — and especially the record of language use in western civilization — can reveal it. He schematized this evolution in the form of a ‘U’, where the left leg marks a long descent from mythic “original participation” to detachment, following which we might hope for a (still to be achieved) re-ascent toward what he called “final participation”.

The detachment, which western civilization has been experiencing with particular intensity for the past several hundred years, involves disconnection from a material world that now seems wholly “out there” and independent of the human interior. But the important flip side of this independence is the birth of the self-possessed and more or less free human individual. It is this individual who, without giving up her independence, can enter into “final participation” by reconnecting with the world’s interior through love and consciously directed cognition and activity.

Original participation was a kind of unfree or instinctive inner union with the world — a union we saw reflected in the words of ancient languages. Our ancestors were relatively unself-aware, yet conscious of an intimate, interior connection to what lives in the world. Or perhaps we should say: they themselves simply lived in and through this interior connection. Their experience was collective rather than highly individualized or private.

Crucially (as I already noted above in the discussion of the history of language), theirs was a time when the meaning of things was directly given to the human being from the world — when, as Barfield observed, “thinking [was] at the same time perceiving”. Without a detached and individuated self-consciousness to question it, experience just was what it was. There could have been no philosophers or scientific researchers.

To have our thoughts given to us directly along with our perceptions (rather than our having the responsibility to enliven perceived contents at least in part with thinking we experience as “our own”) would have been a condition we can scarcely imagine today. There was, in the most remote era we can glimpse through the literate, historical record, “a picture-thinking, a figurative, or imaginative consciousness, which we can only grasp today by true analogy with the imagery of our poets, and, to some extent, with our own dreams” (Barfield 1973, pp. 206-7).

We have come a long way from that original participation. (Only a very late stage of the journey was indicated in the changing relation to the landscape briefly discussed above.) But the freedom we have thereby gained is not unproblematic. Disconnection from the world in which we live is a kind of death. It amounts to being severed from the sources of our own life, as reflected in the widespread feeling that we live in a meaningless world. The freedom of detachment easily loses all content — we can find no more reason to do this than to do that — and therefore freedom can become mere emptiness. The question is whether we can employ our freedom and independence in order to reconnect with the spiritual sources of our lives.

It is important to realize the change in directionality here. In the unfree state of original participation we were gaining from the world a language that could eventually serve for our selves — we were, you might way, being spoken into being, thereby gaining the potential to become the modern selves that we are. To move forward now, however, requires us freely to participate in the creative processes by which the world itself first served us: we must play our own part in speaking the world into the coming phases of its existence. This is the reversal of direction — the movement from the left leg of the evolutionary ‘U’ upward into the right leg.

We are not lacking stimulus for pursuing this movement. Our current era of detachment presents us with a picture of centrifugal forces threatening society with disintegration. Former institutions, traditional values, and blood ties become ever weaker factors in holding societies together, leaving many with a kind of vertigo suggesting that everything is falling apart. This in turn may produce a backlash in the form of various defenses of an “old order” that no longer holds promise of helping us along our way to the future.

Perhaps we see signs of that future in the way our present situation has called forth not only burgeoning volunteer activities from free individuals, but also flourishing non-governmental organizations across the political spectrum and a growing sense of individual and social responsibility — responsibility for local and global environments (including social and political environments), for the protection of all forms of life, and for the fruitful direction of evolution itself. The change I spoke of a moment ago — between being spoken on one hand and speaking on the other — marks nothing less than a critical transformation of the very agency of evolution, which is inevitably falling more and more to our own conscious choices.

An ideal degree
of detachment —
before and after

If Mona Lisa hinted at a new, more private and individuated sense of the human interior, and if, correlative to this detachment of the human being, there was a dawning sense of a landscape that was “pulling away”, gaining its own independent existence so that it could begin to be noticed as such, then we might wonder where this change was coming from, and where it might be going — or where we, in our current state, might help to direct it.

Here is one way to contextualize these particular changes. If, along the way from original participation toward near-total disconnection from the world, there is a certain ideal aesthetic distance, a point of maximum fascination, a mutual interplay of subject and object wherein humans and their world resonate in the most exquisite tension, then, Barfield maintained, it was the Romantics (1770-1870) who lived closest to that condition. It was the point where humans had become sufficiently detached from the world to notice and appreciate the independent life of “things”, but not so detached that they lost all consciousness of their inner connection to them. Their separation from the world only allowed them to savor all the more their resonance with it.

This was the state being entered by those who, as we heard above, first rushed out to see the mountain vistas and to revel in what became known as “picturesque”14 scenes of nature. The distancing process, however, was not arrested or reversed by the Romantics, so that van den Berg is correct in observing how “the estrangement of things, which brought Romanticism to ecstasy, belongs, for the most part, to the past.” We are no longer close enough to the world even to feel the conscious fascination of our estrangement. Today,

Many of the people who, on their traditional trip to the Alps, ecstatically gaze at the snow on the mountain tops and at the azure of the transparent distance, do so out of a sense of duty. They are only imitating Rousseau; they are simulating an emotion which they do not actually feel. It is simply not permissible to sigh at the vision of the great views and to wonder, for everyone to hear, whether it was really worth the trouble. And yet the question would be fully justified; all one has to do is see the sweating and sunburned crowd, after it has streamed out of the train or the bus, plunge with resignation into the recommended beauty of the landscape to know that for a great many the trouble is greater than the enjoyment (van den Berg 1961, p. 233).

Which one of us doesn’t feel at least some symptoms of this detachment from nature? But perhaps, in order to contextualize a little more fully the changes running from the Renaissance of Da Vinci through the Romanticism of Coleridge and Goethe to the alienation of our own day, it will be useful to add a picture from the period immediately preceding the Renaissance. Here is Barfield trying, in just a few words, to give an impression of the qualities of medieval consciousness — a consciousness still possessing more than a few echoes of original participation:

If it is daytime, we see the air filled with light proceeding from a living sun, rather as our own flesh is filled with blood proceeding from a living heart. If it is night-time, we do not merely see a plain, homogeneous vault pricked with separate points of light, but a regional, qualitative sky, from which first of all the different sections of the great zodiacal belt, and secondly the planets and the moon (each of which is embedded in its own revolving crystal sphere) are raying down their complex influences upon the earth, its metals, its plants, its animals and its men and women, including ourselves … Our own health and temperament are joined by invisible threads to these heavenly bodies we are looking at …

We turn our eyes on the sea — and at once we are aware that we are looking at one of the four elements, of which all things on earth are composed, including our own bodies. We take it for granted that these elements have invisible constituents, for, as to that part of them which is incorporated in our own bodies, we experience them inwardly as the “four humors” which go to make up our temperament. (Today we still catch the lingering echo of this participation, when Shakespeare makes Mark Antony say of Brutus:

… The elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, This was a man.)

… A stone falls to the ground — we see it seeking the center of the earth, moved by something much more like desire than what we today call gravity … (Barfield 1965, pp. 76-77).

From myth to literacy:
the coming into focus
of the human individual

The earliest “histories” of which we can catch a glimpse were not centered on human events. Indeed, the idea of distinctively human events can hardly have been available. The accounts were more like spiritual and cosmic histories. Humans — their gaze riveted by fascinating goings-on in what we today might denigrate as “supernatural” realms, but which they experienced (pre-reflectively) simply as nature — did not narrate their own histories. Rather, as is still echoed in Hesiod’s Theogony long after the primary age of myth, they told stories of the genesis of gods and nature spirits. Only with time would history become more human-centered and prosaic.

We saw earlier in this chapter how the most ancient historical evidences and the linguistic shards that remain of mythical experience suggest a language, a manner of consciousness, and an experienced world, very different from our own. There existed a unity of the “inner” and “outer” dimensions of experience that has almost wholly disappeared from our modern engagement with the world, strongly polarized as the latter is between self and other, subject and object. What we know today as the “material world” was then alive or “enchanted”, and humans were aware that in the world they met powers akin to, even if other than, their own power of directed activity. So, too, what we know today as the “inner world” was then embodied, inseparable from sense-perceptible expression.

The trajectory from the age of original participation to the present has been a long one, and — apart from some hints (derived from language) about the mythic consciousness — we have looked only at a few relatively recent “snapshots”. It is time to get some sense for the larger picture.

At the edge of literacy and beyond

Between the age of myth and the medieval era, there lay the long period beginning (at different times in different places) with the earliest forms of literacy. In Greece, the Homeric epics, first in oral form and then in writing, straddled the beginnings of literacy. In those epics we find “meaning still suffused with myth, and nature all alive in the thinking of man”:

The gods are never far below the surface of Homer’s language — hence its unearthly sublimity. They are the springs of action and stand in place of what we think of as personal qualities. Agamemnon is warned of Zeus in a dream, Telemachus, instead of “plucking up courage”, meets the goddess Athene and walks with her into the midst of the hostile suitors, and the whole earth buds into blossom, as Zeus is mingled with Hera on the nuptial couch … And these august beings, speaking now from the mouths of the characters, and again passing and repassing invisible among them, dissolve into a sort of largior aether [greater, or transcendent, sky], which the Homeric heroes breathe all day; so that we, too, breathe it in the language they speak — in their ῥοδοδάκτυλοσ ἠώσ [“rosy-fingered dawn”], their ἱερὸν ’η̂μαρ [“sacred day”], in the sinewy strength of those thundering epithets which, for all their conventionality, never fail to impart life and warmth to the lines (Barfield 1973, pp. 93-94).

Following Homer something like a miracle occurred within Greek culture. In his widely used textbook, The Story of Art, the eminent art historian, E. H. Gombrich, refers to the “Great Awakening” that took place in Greece from the seventh through the fifth centuries B.C.E. (Gombrich 1989, chapter 3). Painters and sculptors began to do more than follow the rather schematic rules of representation handed down through the centuries, but also observed for themselves, and tried to be faithful to their observations.

Greek vase

Figure 23.4. Top portion of a large Greek funerary vase ("krater") with a prothesis scene — presentation of the deceased’s body on a table. The vase originated around 750–735 BCE. Note the geometric decorative patterns on the vase, and the “geometrically” repeated human figures.15

The older style is shown in Figure 23.4. It is hard for us to appreciate the strange forms given to the human figures on this vase — forms in what has become known as the “geometric style”. Surely, we might well think, Greek eyes were as capable of physically registering the actual form of the human body as ours are. But apparently — and so various authorities have argued — Greeks before and during the Homeric era experienced their bodies rather differently from us. The classicist Bruno Snell described how the art gives the impression that “the physical body of man was comprehended, not as a unit but as an aggregate” (Snell 1960, p. 6). Or, as Mark Vernon puts it, the Greeks of this period must have experienced their bodies “rather as baggy gatherings of spirited factions”, not as well-integrated entities.

Vernon is a theological scholar and psychotherapist who has traced the evolution of consciousness down through both Greek and Jewish cultures. Describing the geometrically styled human figures as having “bull-like thighs, wasp-like waists, barrel-like chests, pin-like heads”, he goes on to say that the “locus of aliveness wasn’t set within a person’s frame and physique … Instead, their identity came from the outside in, with different limbs and organs attuned to external divine influences. The inner life of the cosmos was their inner life”. Further, he says,

They had little or no notion of the isolated individual … and little sense of a unified self who was or could hope to be in charge. To be alive, to be functioning, was implicitly tied up with being porous to society, spirits, gods. [On the vases] the people appear to move as one, as if swaying in a field of consciousness like as many wheat ears blown by the wind” (Vernon 2019, pp. 47-49).
Greek vase

Figure 23.5. Greek (Attic) Panathenaic prize amphora. The painter employed the black-figure technique to depict runners in a race. From about 530 BCE.16

greek sculpture

Figure 23.6. Ancient Greek bronze statue of a youth, from the Antikythera shipwreck. The statue dates to circa 340-330 BCE.17

But by degrees with the beginning of the Great Awakening, the figures begin to gain individual and personal traits (Figures 23.5 and 23.6), while at the same time the artist takes up a personal point of view, and perspectival foreshortening starts to come into play. Correlative with this, Athenian democracy took form, refecting an individualizing mindset. In the case of the fifth-century sculptor, Pheidias,

His figures weren’t generic presences with blank eyes. They looked at you. They conveyed a sense of alertness and interiority ... His works were immediately recognized as spell-binding, displaying a dignity and beauty that called forth an interiority from within the viewer … His work was instrumental in showing a clear image of the integrated person, thereby spreading a sense of it in others … The best sculptures could now show the interactions of individuals. They left behind the collective swaying of the masses (Vernon 2019, pp. 50-51).

In 1953 Snell published an influential book called The Discovery of the Mind. It contained discussion not only of the intimate relation between the Homeric heroes and the speaking of the gods, but also traced in the tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides) a movement from the centrality of fate to that of the individual conscience. And he described how “the early Greek lyrists had awoken to the fact that man has a soul; they were the first to discover certain features in the feelings of men which distinguished those feelings sharply from the functions of the physical organs”. Further,

For the first time it was noticed that these feelings do not represent the intercession of a deity or some other similar reaction, but that they are a very personal matter, something that each individual experiences in his own peculiar fashion, and that originates from no other source but his own person. Further they had found out that different men may be united with one another through their feelings, that a number of separate people may harbour the same emotions, memories, or opinions. And finally they discovered that a feeling may be divided against itself, distraught with an internal tension; and this led to the notion that the soul has intensity, and a dimension of its own, viz. depth (Snell 1960, p. 301).

The Great Awakening was a time when the individual human thinking activity was vigorously detaching itself from perception and gaining a sense of its own free powers. Barfield, referring to the work of the Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle, wrote:

Struggling to fit herself as into a glove, to the processes of cause and effect observed in physical phenomena, the mind became suddenly conscious of her own shape. She was astonished and delighted. She had discovered logic (Barfield 1967, p. 109).

Turning toward the Jewish scriptures and culture, to which Vernon brought his theological training: he recalls, for example, how the Jewish prophets urged the people toward monotheism — toward acknowledgment of a God whose name was I AM. This was inseparable from an awakening of the individual worshipper. Only someone who was becoming an individual in his own right could “perceive the singularity of the divine nature”. “A felt sense of ‘I am’, even if transient, is a prerequisite for feeling the inner power of the divine I AM”. As Barfield summarized it, the locus of participation was narrowed down to the divine name, which Jews could hardly speak without invoking their own inwardness (Barfield 1965, p. 155). Thereafter,

Nature can be experienced as [the] speaking of God rather than itself being divine, enchanted and haunted, and God can speak through creation but not be held within creation … Henceforth, monotheistic knowledge of God would be inextricably tied up with self-knowledge, and introspection would become a key spiritual task (Vernon 2019, pp. 36-41).

Under Hezekiah (the king of Judah who reigned from the later eighth into the early seventh centuries BCE), a general literacy was encouraged for the first time. The individual worshipper could now read the sacred texts for herself and ruminate over them internally. Old idols and sacred groves were banished, and clan tombs were replaced with burial sites for single families or individuals. All these developments, Vernon points out, were associated with a transition from collective religious ritual and experience to the importance of the emerging life of the ethically responsible and self-aware individual.

But the path from original participation through detachment and then toward reconnection of our now-independent consciousness with the spirit in the world that gave birth to us is not easy. The vigorous philosophical speculations and disciplines of the Greeks would eventually be frozen into the mathematical, rule-bound, one-sidedly cause-and-effect mindset of modern science — a kind of wooden materialism from which we have yet to find any decisive exit.

So, too, the growing Jewish awareness of individual moral responsibility would eventually (during the centuries leading up to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE) be paralyzed under the weight of external laws and a prescriptive literalism that left little room for creative individual insight into the moral potentials inhering in every situation. Still today, in various religious fundamentalisms, we find the same tendency.

The evolution of consciousness, like all evolution, is not a straight line

As the preceding two paragraphs indicate, the evolution of consciousness has been far from a smooth, linear progression. As civilizations have risen and fallen, so too there have been periods of rapid advance toward new forms of consciousness, attempted returns to a more “paradisal” consciousness, and various sideways movements.

Consider, for example, the development of the art of visual perspective in the Renaissance. This reflected and powerfully contributed further to the development of individual points of view, while also supporting an individual and quantitative experience of space where previously there had been something more like a collective space of meaning:

Before the scientific revolution the world was more like a garment men wore about them than a stage on which they moved. In such a world the convention of perspective was unnecessary. To such a world other conventions of visual reproduction, such as the nimbus and the halo, were as appropriate as to ours they are not. It was as if the observers were themselves in the picture (Barfield 1965, pp. 94-95).

And yet, dramatic and important as the late-medieval and Renaissance discovery and embrace of perspective proved to be, it was not altogether new. This is why it has been referred to as a “rediscovery” (White 1972). There was in antiquity — in Greek and Roman culture — a genuine anticipation, in theory and practice, of linear perspective. It was lost in subsequent centuries, but when the time was right, was rediscovered and flourished during the Renaissance in a way that took permanent hold and changed everything.18

Similarly, we find during the Hellenistic era that managing one’s own subjectivity, or soul life, became a central problem addressed by Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. But here again the movement into this particular sort of self-awareness and concern for “care of the soul”, did not lead directly to the dramatic emergence of the modern individual that we have witnessed since the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution.


We began this chapter with Barfield’s comments about how the mountains of Switzerland we see today are not the same mountains our ancestors saw. Of course, in today’s environment the nearly universal assumption will be that Barfield was not really talking about the mountains themselves, but “only” about how people see and experience the mountains. And we did learn above how different this experience became during the transition from medieval to modern culture.

Actually, however, Barfield really was talking about the mountains themselves, whose reality he did not believe could be radically or dualistically distinguished from our experience of them. His refusal to treat the distinction between reality and experience as fundamental reflects a long-running conviction within science that our knowledge of the world must be empirically based — rooted in experience. Our knowledge of the world is always a thoughtful clarification within our own minds of the thought and sense inherent in the world we experience, and we need not pretend that this clarification takes us beyond the experienced world or is anything other than a thoughtful elucidation of experience.

I did say at the outset that I was not about to attempt an explanation of Barfield’s deeper meaning in this chapter. And I will hold to that. But I do hope that the preceding notes on the evolution of consciousness may at least make his mysterious suggestion about the Swiss mountains more intriguing — and may also fortify the reader for the perhaps unexpected challenges to contemporary thinking in Chapter 24. That chapter offers, among other things, a possible approach to Barfield’s meaning.

Where are we now?

We’ve come a long way

Here is some of the ground we have covered in this chapter:

*   The ancients, who were incapable of anything like our own theoretical and causal speculation, directly perceived a world that seemed to possess a powerful interior aspect. They recognized what lived in the world as akin to what lived in their own interiors.

*   Our ancestors’ thoughts were at first perceived more than actively thought. Their meanings and language were given in their immediate perceptions of the world around them. Eventually, an independent inner being and independent powers of speech arose as a further, inward development of what had initially been the world’s “speaking”.

*   Historically, there has been a change in directionality. We humans who were, in a sense, first spoken into being by the world, now find ourselves bearing a responsibility to speak this world’s future into being — if only, to begin with, by accepting a responsibility to avoid destroying it.

*   Our lately achieved independence from the world as self-aware individuals has given us the freedom to think and imagine the world with our own thoughts, even if in a highly distorted way. We are free to err. We are free to “forget” humanity’s origin and past, if only by ignoring the study of it. We can, if we wish, retreat into a comfortable materialism requiring no burden of responsibility on our part.

The chapter as a whole concerns human consciousness, but the picture certainly suggests that all organisms make their way through a larger, meaning-soaked surround that comprises the givenness of their lives and the givenness of the world. And it is this same meaning that, by contracting into a bright focus in human minds, has engendered our consciousness and self-awareness. In this common, if diverse, interior aspect lies the unity of life on earth.

Our discussion of the evolution of consciousness does not suggest that it makes any sense to imagine an origin of consciousness. More particularly, it is not clear how the idea of a “first” meaning arising from bedrock meaninglessness can make sense. We cannot grasp any meaning except against a contextual background full of already existing meaning. Make an experiment: take any single word (or invent one) and try to understand or define it other than in the terms of many other words. You will find that any specific meaning can shine forth only in the light of a meaning-soaked universe.

The background of meaning is simply a given of our lives as children of what we might call a logos-world. We cannot even legitimately imagine an origin for meaning, because the only contents available to our thought-world are meaningful contents. An imagined leap from unmeaning to meaning can occur only via circular reasoning, whereby elements of meaning are brought in through the back door.

In short, there can be no meaninglessness in the known universe — in a universe that submits itself to human perception and understanding. For a more explicit treatment of these matters, see Chapter 24.

We have learned to view just about everything through an evolutionary lens. The benefits to understanding have been many. The oddity is that these benefits have scarcely been extended to a knowledge of the evolution of consciousness — an evolution that includes the changing cognitive relation between the perceiver and what he perceives. There is a penalty to be paid for this: we lose the ability to understand the very different qualities of consciousness characteristic of earlier eras, and therefore we become trapped in modernity — in our own “moment” of evolution. And this at a time when we need to begin learning to carry responsibility, not just for one moment, but for the entire future course of evolution.


1. The next two sections are adapted from Talbott 2018.

2. The translation is from the New American Standard Bible.

3. Barfield also tells us that “such a purely material content as ‘wind’, on the one hand, and on the other, such a purely abstract content as ‘the principle of life within man or animal’ are both late arrivals in human consciousness. Their abstractness and their simplicity are alike evidence of long ages of intellectual evolution. So far from the psychic meaning of [latin] ‘spiritus’ having arisen because someone had the abstract idea, ‘principle of life …’ and wanted a word for it, the abstract idea, ‘principle of life’ is itself a product of the old concrete meaning ‘spiritus’, which contained within itself the germs of both later significations” (Barfield 1973, pp. 80-81).

4. Actually, words were inseparable from things. For the ancients, a word and its reference were not distinct things. This begins to make sense when one realizes (as we will see more clearly below) that the human being did not yet have a private or subjective interior where he could become aware of words as his own property set over against an objective world wholly other than himself.

5. From Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, II.v.3., quoted (and translated) in Barfield 1973, p. 86.

6. Might it be that the necessity for this “dematerialized” language of science tells us something about the power of science to deliver a strictly material understanding of the world?

7. For a treatment of this and related questions, see Barfield’s essay, “The Meaning of ‘Literal’” in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays, pp. 32-43. Perhaps equally valuable is his essay on “The Nature of Meaning”.

8. Barfield would say we must also come to terms with the reverse truth: the phenomena are themselves an evolving, ensouled drama staged in the “outer” world by conscious beings. That is, consciousness and the phenomena (whose objective nature is to occur within consciousness) are correlative. But this radical notion would take us far beyond the current exposition. For some related discussion, see Chapter 24.

9. Figure 23.2 credit: Zacharie Grossen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

10. Figure 23.3 credit: public domain photograph of the painting in the Louvre, available here. The image has been digitally lightened to counter darkening that has resulted from aging.

11. The foregoing paragraphs are drawn directly from my chapter, “Mona Lisa’s Smile” (Chapter 21) in Talbott 1995.

12. Barfield, a philologist whose approach to the evolution of consciousness was primarily through the study of words, wrote that the evolution of consciousness requires us “to penetrate into the very texture and activity of thought, rather than to collate conclusions. It is concerned, semantically, with the way in which words are used rather than with the product of discourse. Expressed in terms of logic, its business is more with the proposition than with the syllogism and more with the term than with the proposition” (Barfield 1965, pp. 67, 90).

13. Somewhat tangential to, yet resonant with, Barfield’s point, van den Berg describes one aspect of the process of human individuation over the past few centuries: “James Joyce used as much space to describe the internal adventures of less than a day than Rousseau used to relate the story of half a life. The inner self, which in Rousseau’s time was a simple, soberly filled, airy space, has become ever more crowded. Permanent residents have even been admitted; at first, only the parents, who could not stand being outside any longer, required shelter, finally it was the entire ancestry. As a result the space was divided, partitions were raised, and curtains appeared where in earlier days a free view was possible. The inner self grew into a complicated apartment building. The psychologists of our century, scouts of these inner rooms, could not finish describing all the things their astonished eyes saw. It did not take them long to surpass Joyce, and their work became endless in principle. The exploration of one apartment appeared to disturb another; and if the exploration moved to the next place, the first one required attention. Something fell down or a threat was uttered; there was always something. The inner life was like a haunted house. But what else could it be? It contained everything. Everything extraneous had been put into it. The entire history of mankind had to be the history of the individual. Everything that had previously belonged to everybody, everything that had been collective property and had existed in the world in which everyone lived, had to be contained by the individual. it could not be expected that things would be quiet in the inner self” (van den Berg 1961, p. 232).

14. The word “picturesque”, which is recorded as first appearing in 1703 and became widely used in the Romantic era, testifies to the ideal aesthetic distance Barfield refers to. On one hand, it suggests detachment, inasmuch as the world can now be looked at as an independent object by the observer, like a picture hanging on the wall. But, on the other hand, a picture or painting was itself appreciated as a production of the human spirit.

15. Figure 23.4 credit: Mary and Jon Hirschfeld Workshop (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

16. Figure 23.5 credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art (CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication).

17. Figure 23.6 credit: From the National Archaeological Museum of Greece in Athens (CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication).

18. This nonlinear character of the evolution of consciousness may remind the reader of our discussion of “mosaic evolution” in Chapter 19 (“Development Writ Large”), where we heard this (drawing on the work of Craig Holdrege): When something dramatically new arises in the fossil record, it is typically foreshadowed by fragmentary “premonitions” in various taxonomic groups, some of which may then go extinct. There is no smooth, continuous, single line of development leading to the new form, which may arise not only rather suddenly, but also as a novel synthesis and transformation of the earlier, scattered, premonitory gestures.

Tags: epistemology; evolution/of consciousness; inwardness (intention, idea, meaning)


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Steve Talbott :: The Evolution of Consciousness