The Lineage and Legacy of Owen Barfield’s Philosophy

“Barfield is to Steiner as Steiner was to Goethe.”

-G.B. Tennyson

Mankind’s search for truth has taken on many forms throughout the ages, at every turn influenced by our conception of our own consciousness and its relation to the larger cosmos. At the first stages of our existence we were a part of the world and wisdom came from nature, or a little later, from the gods. As we progressed we began to conceive of ourselves as separate from nature and its processes, which helped us to gain mastery over many aspects of our surroundings and in scientific fields. Many philosophers and scientists over the years have studied this phenomena of consciousness and observation and reached the conclusion that without tempering our observations of the world with the furtive meanings that underlie those observations we lose sight of our rightful place in the universe, and invite our own destruction

Goethe’s Epistemology

Born near the end of August of 1749, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer, philosopher, and scientist. He wrote prolifically, gaining literary notoriety by the time he was twenty-five. He spent his thirties working in various political roles in the Weimar area, before turning his attention to his first major scientific work called The Metamorphosis of Plants. At the time he wrote it he had become bothered by the rise of Empiricism during the Enlightenment, and foresaw a growing divide between the human experience and the data that material science was collecting about the world. Goethe theorized that measurements and information about the natural world collected objectively were devoid of context and meaning.

The conflict he felt between scientific objectivism, and the quest for meaning was the central theme of his most enduring literary work, Faust I & II. Based on the medieval legend of Doctor Faustus it is the story of a scientist and professor who learns about everything in the world, but finds himself on the verge of suicide because in spite of all the knowledge he processes none of it gives his existence any meaning. In Goethe’s version of the Faust legend, a devil named Mephistopheles visits Doctor Faust and takes him on a journey through space and time in search of the deeper meaning he seeks at the cost of Faust’s soul. Preferring to skip the middle man, Goethe himself instead opted for a more holistic approach to scientific study guided by the idea that objects in nature were physical manifestations of an archetype existing on another plane. Through meticulous observation and experimentation Goethe believed that the archetypal forms underlying reality and the logic they functioned on could be ascertained. The Metamorphosis of Plants was Goethe’s first serious writing utilizing this method of study. Containing his own observations of plants, he made them over the entire lifecycle of the plant, charting each change it underwent over its lifespan. In the process of observing the plant over its whole life, he was able to intuit previously unknown features about the nature of the plant’s forms reaching the conclusion that the structures within plant leaves are of a homologous nature – that is, as they change over the life-cycle of the plant they retain structures of their ancestry.

Years after he published The Metamorphosis of Plants he wrote an essay titled “The Experiment as Mediator between subject and object” in which he outlined his dynamic approach to natural science. He envisioned scientific experimentation as only a mediator, and what the experiment reveals about the inner workings of nature is only half of the whole picture. Preempting the revolution of Quantum Mechanics in the early twentieth century, Goethe sensed a deep connection between the observer and the observed, and posited that each experiment didn’t just say something to the observer about the natural world, but it also indicated something about the observer performing the experiment. In this way Goethe saw an expansion of knowledge that retained objectivist standards of scientific inquiry, while also integrating the human psyche and the implications of meaning yielded by the experiment. For many years Goethe’s approach was mostly disregarded by mainstream scientists, particularly as other Enlightenment thinkers and scientists like Isaac Newton adopted methodologies which yielded more immediate, accurate, and cognitively more accessible descriptions of the mechanisms apparently operating in our reality. Goethe’s work was certainly not ignored by everyone.

The Life of Rudolf Steiner

Rudolf Steiner was born in Austria, near Vienna in late February of 1861. Early in his life he had several mystical experiences that convinced him that a spiritual world exists just beyond the reach of our senses. When he was nine years old, he was out wandering in the woods and came upon the specter of his aunt. He said she was asking for his help. It was much later that he found out along with the rest of his family that she had in fact passed away. Several years later, at age fifteen he had another paranormal experience that he claimed gave him a complete understanding of the concept of time, and was able to tap into what is referred to by theosophists and later anthroposophists as the Akashic Records, a complete record of human history and thought believed to exist on another plane of existence. He later said that such an understanding was a first step toward the perception of the spiritual world. These experiences affected him for the rest of his life, and helped dictate the direction he would take.

In his later teenage years, and early twenties he went to technical school and studied the natural sciences like mathematics, physics, chemistry, botany, as well as studying more esoteric subjects like philosophy, though he never ended up graduating from his school, The Vienna Institute of Technology, because one of his teachers recommended him to an editor of a new edition of Goethe’s works. In 1883 he became the editor of new editions being printed of Goethe’s papers on the natural sciences.

Steiner became a student of Goethe’s work during this time, and it helped Steiner formulate many of his ideas and philosophies. Goethe’s phenomological approach to the natural sciences was of particular interest to Steiner, who also believed that the quest of understanding universal truths must include both objective observations as well as address the question of what meanings are contained in those observations.

Steiner approached his work editing the new edition of Goethe’s works with such care and attention that he was later offered the job of editing the Goethe Archives in Weimar, Goethe’s home. During this time, between 1888 and 1891 Steiner wrote or contributed to several books about Goethe’s work and philosophy. In 1891 he was awarded a doctorate at the University of Rostock, and within the next two years he published his book The Philosophy of Freedom which is a discussion of knowledge and ethics directed toward empowering people to become “spiritually free beings.” The book contains the basic premises that he would later develop into anthroposophic belief system.

By this point in his career he had drawn enough attention to himself and his ideas of scientific spiritualism, to warrant an invitation to speak to the Theosophical Society after publishing article about Goethe’s esoteric fairy tales in 1899. By 1902 he became the head of its German section. The Theosophical Society was formed in 1875 with the intention of fostering brotherhood between all peoples, the comparative study of religion, philosophy and science, and “to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.” Under Steiner’s leadership the group gained esteem and membership like never before, and it allowed him to lecture throughout Europe about philosophy and a new concept he was developing called spiritual science.

The core of spiritual science, Steiner proposed, was to impose the clarity of thought and reasoning in the scientific method to the otherworldly realms and phenomena of the supernatural. He concluded that this would require a spiritual scientist to develop the abilities to perceive the spiritual world, a feat he believed to be attainable, and outlined the steps of inner development as “imagination, inspiration, and intuition.” Once properly developed, Steiner believed that one could tap into the extra-sensory world and relay the information contained there back to our plane of reality in ways that could be understood by modern science. In The Philosophy of Freedom he wrote that, “through freely chosen ethical disciplines and meditative training, anyone could develop the ability to perceive the spiritual world.”

As he continued to develop and lecture on his ideas he eventually came into conflict with the Theosophical Society’s matriarch Annie Besant, who had begun making the claim that a boy within the group was the reincarnation of Christ, a claim that was a little difficult to swallow for many people, even Steiner who had his own ideas about Christ, his spiritual composition and the form he would return in. So, in 1912 Steiner split off from the Theosophical Society and along with many of its members he formed the Anthroposophical Society, where he was able to crystalize his ideas of spiritualism, personal freedom, the evolution of human consciousness, and his prescribed path to “inner development”.

During the early years of the twentieth century, he turned his attention squarely to spiritualism and the evolution of consciousness, writing in 1901 of the medieval mystics in the Middle Ages, attempting to illustrate that “the experience of thinking, rightly understood, is in fact an experience of spirit.”

Filling the Anthroposphical Society’s need for a conference center, Steiner designed the Goetheanum entirely out of wood in accordance with his belief that people should be surrounded by natural materials. The first incarnation of the building was eventually destroyed by arsonists on New Year’s Eve of 1922, which lead him to design the second version of the building, this time in concrete. The Goetheanum exists to this day as a center for art, science, and spiritualism in Germany.

By the year 1913, Steiner had become an influential spiritual teacher and had laid out what his conception of anthroposophy was both through lectures and books. Anthroposophy is concerned not only with the process of allowing human beings to gain insight into the spiritual world, but also with the evolution of human consciousness as a whole. Steiner, inspired by Goethe’s work with phenomological scientific study, became one of the first European thinkers to identify and popularize the split in consciousness between objectivism and a more intuitive experience of the world. Goethe saw that when we take the sense-perceptible form of an object, and combine it with the cognitive concept we hold of that object, we have undergone a process of imaginative synthesis.

Steiner added to the concept, turning the observations onto the self. He wrote, “The organ of observation and the observed thought process are then identical, so that the condition thus arrived at is simultaneously one of perception through thinking and one of thought through perception.” By turning our observations onto ourselves, and beginning the process of “inner development” through meditation, Steiner believed that humanity could overcome the “subject-object divide” that had begun pervade human consciousness since the Renaissance. Steiner viewed the “subject-object divide” as a natural part of the evolution of human consciousness. The initial phase of the evolution of consciousness was characterized by a deeply intuitive experience of the world that allowed humanity “clairvoyant perception of spiritual realities.”

As our species developed, we became more reliant on our intellectual capacities and sense organs, which are immediately useful to us, but can only relay information about the material world to. This, he believed, caused the sharp rise in materialism, and our objectification of the cosmos. Steiner saw the last phase of the evolution of human consciousness being brought about when we, “Combine clarity of intellectual thought with consciously achieved inspiration and intuitive insights.”


The History and Philosophy of Waldorf Education

While he was lecturing in Berlin during the early years of the twentieth century he also worked as a tutor to blue-collar adults, which led him to begin fusing anthroposophy with education. He understood that children grow into adults and that a healthy society was composed of adults who had a board and well-rounded education as children. He viewed childhood education as a holistic endeavor that must nurture not only the intellect and a sense of individualism, but also the emotional and imaginative worlds of the child, with the goal of creating fully integrated people, with a sense of freedom, and moral responsibility.

He placed particular importance on imagination in learning and prescribed artistic activities in school curriculum alongside intellectual and practical activities. In 1919 the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company opened a school for its worker’s children that employed Steiner’s ideas. The Waldorf name became synonymous with Steiner’s education method, a connection that persists to this day. The method itself envisions child development in three stages, each requiring a different approach to meet the child’s swiftly changing needs. The first phase occurs during the first seven years of life, and Steiner believed that this was the time to teach practical skills through hands-on activities, and creative play to let the child learn through experimentation and interaction with the world around it. Classrooms are designed to feel like a home, and are filled with simple items made of natural materials like wood. This is done both to connect the child with the natural world, but also to allow the child’s imagination to augment the things they play with. The goal of the educators at this stage is to give the child a sense that the world is basically a good place.

The second phase occurs between seven and fourteen years old, and during this time Waldorf educators teach their students to develop their artistic skills of expression as well as cultivate their social capacities. Lessons at this stage take on more structure, but creativity and imagination remain at the heart of the learning process. Students are taught many subjects during this phase, including mythology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and algebra, and each subject is presented in creative ways, through storytelling, music, and visual arts to continue encouraging the children to engage their imaginations. The overall goal of Waldorf education at the second phase is to “imbue children with a sense that the world is beautiful” (Ullrich).

Many unique features of Waldorf education present themselves at the second stage, most prominently in the form of the class teacher. Steiner saw the role of the teacher as almost a surrogate parent to each child. To foster that relationship core classroom teachers, or “main lesson” teachers are assigned a particular group of children to mentor during elementary education. This “main lesson” teacher moves through the grades along with their class, and as the children in the class grow up together they also forge familial relationships. Another item of note in Waldorf education is the question of how students’ progress is evaluated. Throughout the elementary years students are not given tests and letter grades, rather as students learn the material they create “main lesson books” themselves which contain their own drawings and writings relaying their understanding of the material. Parents and teachers meet annually or bi-annually to discuss the students’ progress.

From age fourteen through twenty-one , the next of the seven year cycles, it becomes time for students to develop their critical reasoning skills along with what Steiner termed, “empathic understanding”. As the students reach their rebellious teen years, the student-mentor relationship can become damaged as students push their boundaries. To preserve that relationship the main lesson teacher that has accompanied them through elementary education is eliminated in the secondary education years, replaced by many different subject teachers that meet with the class throughout the day. The goal at this stage is to give students, “a sense that the world is true” (Ullrich), while challenging the students with more abstract and esoteric material, and pushing them to use their base of knowledge to draw their own conclusions about the material they’ve encountered.

Also taught throughout the students time in the Waldorf education system, are music and language. Music begins in first grade with the students learning to sing songs and to play simple recorders and lyres. Around age nine or ten, students are compelled to learn another instrument, usually a stringed instrument, but brass and woodwinds are also popular options. Languages are taught from first grade through the secondary education years. Elementary students are generally taught two additional languages, often times the languages will be related, but combinations like German and Russian are not unheard of. The goal in teaching music is to give the student another way of engaging their creativity. The reason for teaching foreign languages connects to the anthroposophical views on language acquisition in children and how it shapes their perception of the world. As a student becomes comfortable with a language and learns how to use it at an intuitive level before learning about its technical aspects, the student is given a framework to hang their emotions and experience on. Including other languages beyond the “mother language” framework serves to enhance the child’s relation to the world around them by broadening the emotional contexts they operate within (Steiner, 27).

Owen Barfield

Four years after Steiner published The Philosophy of Freedom, a young man named Owen Barfield was born in London. His home life gave him a love of music and literature, and his prep school education in North London gave him a background in Latin and Ancient Greek. The First World War saw him serve in the Signal Service for two years until 1919. When he was released from military service, he began his studies Wadham College in Oxford, focusing his studies on English Literature. During his first term there he met fellow literary enthusiast and fellow war veteran, C.S. Lewis. As the years went by Barfield studies led him to begin work on his Bachelor of Letters Thesis, which he would eventually publish as the linguistic study, Poetic Diction.

During this time he also crossed paths with Rudolf Steiner who toured Europe in the 1920’s giving lectures at various universities. At Oxford University in 1924, when Barfield was 26 years old, he attended one of Steiner’s lectures and immediately became transfixed by the direction Steiner had taken the idea of evolutionary consciousness, and soon after began identifying himself as an anthroposophist, to the horror of his friend C.S. Lewis, who as a staunch atheist at the time found the whole concept of art and imagination as a path to truth problematic. Undiscouraged, Barfield continued following Steiner’s movement, developing his own interpretation of evolutionary consciousness along the way. He also contributed to the anthroposophical movement, helping to translate many of Steiner’s writings into English to help pass the ideas of anthroposophy into the western world beyond Germany.

While Barfield viewed Steiner’s methodology in anthroposophy as a path to knowledge, his interest in linguistics and the evolution of human consciousness led him to more closely examine and explain the stages of human development, finding supporting evidence in the evolution of language itself. He saw the history of consciousness and language consisting of several phases, much as Steiner did. The initial phase was characterized by a deep connection to nature that allowed humanity an intuitive understanding of reality and our place in it. When we approached the late medieval era and early Renaissance our consciousness began shifting. As Steiner said, we began relying on our intellect more than our intuition thus creating the beginning of the “subject-object divide”. Barfield pinpoints this era as the beginning of the shift by referring to the change in the use of language. Writing as only he could in his book Poetic Diction:

“The historical passage from figure to metaphor marks the dissolution of the given, inner/outer, immaterial/material unity. This unity was not a unity of language only, but of man’s participation in the world (or, equally, the world’s participation in man). With its dissolution, various antitheses arose for the first time: inner and outer; man and nature; words of immaterial meaning and words of material meaning; subject and object; what a word meant and what it referred to; and even sound and meaning. The rational, or analytic, principle operates to sharpen these antitheses; imaginative synthesis overcomes them.”


This passage nicely introduces an important piece of terminology to Barfieldian philosophy – participation. The concept stems from the idea that our brains, as organs, are in charge of taking in information and assembling it into a picture for our internal ‘observer’ to witness. Barfield referred to this process as ‘figuration’, and since the 1930’s and the discovery of Quantum Mechanics it has been objectively determined that this is exactly how our brains work.

Barfield also pointed out that our use of language externalizes the pictures we perceive and allow us to create a common meaning between individuals. Language becomes a context that allows our brains to organize all of the data brought to us by our senses, and relate that information to other people. This common meaning is then passed down to the next generation creating an inherited meaning.

In Poetic Diction he stated,

“The world as immediately given to us is a mixture of sense perception and thought. While the two may not be separable in our experience, we can nevertheless distinguish the two. When we do, we find that the perceptual alone gives us no coherence, no unities, no “things” at all. We could not even note a patch of red, or distinguish it from a neighboring patch of green, without aid of the concepts given by thinking. In the absence of the conceptual, we would experience (in William James’ words) only “a blooming, buzzing confusion.””

When considering the evolution of consciousness he wrote in 1957 in his book Saving The Appearances,

“The balance in figuration between what is given to us from without and what we contribute from within has changed radically over the course of history. For earliest man, nearly all the activity of figuration came from without — which is another way of saying that the “inside” of things was experienced more “out there” than “in here.” (Which also implies that “out there” was not quite so out there as it has become for us.) The perceiver was directly aware of the beings constituting this inside — an awareness we badly misinterpret if we take it as an erroneous theorizing about things. Today, on the other hand, we contribute to the inside of things — we participate in them — from within ourselves, and we are largely unaware of the contribution. Our primary, conscious mode of thinking is a thinking about things….Whether or no archaic man saw nature awry, what he saw was not primarily determined by beliefs. On the other hand … what we see is so determined.” This is the reverse of what is generally supposed… The participation of primitive man (what we might call “original” participation) was not theoretical at all, nor was it derived from theoretical thought. It was given in immediate experience. That is, the conceptual links by which the participated phenomena were constituted were given to man already “embedded” in what he perceived. As noted above, his perceiving was at the same time a kind of thinking; thinking occurred more in the world than in man. Perceiving and thinking had not yet split apart, as they have for us. Moreover, what was represented in the collective representations also differed for primitive man: The essence of original participation is that there stands behind the phenomena, and on the other side of them from me, a represented which is of the same nature as me. Whether it is called “mana,” 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. “

Sensing, much as Goethe and Steiner had before him, that the “subject-object divide” was not only a problem for human consciousness, but that it had robbed us of any sense of meaning we had in relation to our world. In a world without meaning, he envisioned humanity treading down not only a depressing path, but even a dangerous one. If everything in the universe can be reduced to nothing more than physical processes, then everyone in the universe can be reduced to physical processes in the same way, allowing even the most vile and abhorrent behavior to be justified.

The way out of this, he supposed, was through what he termed Final Participation. Much like Steiner theorized a viable next step for humanity as a unification of arts and sciences to arrive at truth, Barfield described the next step for humanity in Saving The Appearances as,

The possibility of a new kind of participation — what we might call final participation — was glimpsed by the Romantics when they concluded that “we must no longer look for the nature-spirits — for the Goddess Natura — on the farther side of the appearances; we must look for them within ourselves.” In Coleridge’s words: We receive but what we give / And in our life alone does Nature live. Original participation “fires the heart from a source outside itself; the images enliven the heart.” In final participation, “it is for the heart to enliven the images.”

Or as he put it in his essay, Matter, Imagination, and Spirit,

“Mere perception — perception without imagination — is the sword thrust between spirit and matter.” It was what enabled Descartes to divide the world into thinking substance and extended substance. But something more than mere perception occurs when we look at or listen to a fellow being: whatever our philosophical predispositions, we in fact read his body and voice as expressing something immaterial. We can, moreover, attend to nature in the same way, although such a reading of nature has been progressively eliminated from our habits during the past few hundred years. Strengthening the activity of imagination is the only way to heal the Cartesian sword-thrust.”


Barfield is perhaps one of the most noteworthy of twentieth-century philosophers to study the problem of the “subject-object divide”, its causes, and its effects on human consciousness. He follows a line of extraordinary predecessors in his thinking process who have each built upon the ideas of the former, from Goethe to Rudolf Steiner, and arrived at similar conclusions to them; that our humanity, our understanding of the universe, and our place in it are put into precarious positions if we continue to conceive of the world as something that is happening outside of us, instead of something we are consciously, or unconsciously directly responsible for creating.

Each of the three philosophers presented above believed that the solution to the increasing problem of the “subject-object divide” was through the unification of the sciences and the imagination. In today’s society there is a slow but growing movement in just such a direction. There are Waldorf Schools in over 100 different countries, gaining more widespread acceptance every year, and all teaching students the subtleties of imagination and science while absorbing the ideas of Goethe. The ideas that Barfield wrestled with have filtered through the work of the other Inklings and are still being read widely to this day. Barfield’s own writing is finally being published on a larger scale than it ever was during his lifetime, and modern science has illustrated that even some of the harder to believe aspects of his philosophy have a grounding in the physical processes underlying everything we experience in every moment of our lives. The case could be made that however slowly the process is occurring, humanities consciousness is in fact making the shift toward Barfield’s Final Participation.



Works Cited

Steiner, Rudolf. The Teaching of Language Arts In The Waldorf School: A Compendium of Excerpts from The Foundation of Waldorf Education Series. 2012.

The Rudolf Steiner Archive. <; Web. May 17. 2013. Date Accessed. 05/02/15.

Barfield, Owen. The Rediscovery of Meaning. 1977.

Lavery, David. How Barfield Thought: The Creative Life of Owen Barfield. Middle Tennessee State University.

Johnson, Wendell G. When Anthroposophy Meets Romanticism: The Theology of Owen Barfield. Web Accessed. 04/27/15.

“Owen Barfield.” Owen Barfield. Wheaton College, n.d. Web. 08 May 2015. <;.

Mead, Marjorie L. Owen Barfield: A Biographical Note. Boulder, CO: Bookmakers Guild, Apr. 1985. PDF.

Owen Barfield: The Evolution of Consciousness. Owen Barfield: The Evolution of Consciousness. The Nature Institute, n.d. Web. 02 May 2015. <;.

Hooper, Walter. Obituary: Owen Barfield. <;. Web. Dec 19. 1997. Date Accessed. 05/02/15.

Wikipedia pages:

Owen Barfield. Accessed 05/02/15. <;

Phenomenology. Accessed 05/02/15. <;

Anthroposophy. Accessed 05/02/15. <;

Rudolf Steiner and the Theosophical Society. Accessed. 05/02/15. <;

Rudolf Steiner. Accessed 05/01/15. <;

Waldorf Education. Accessed 05/01/15. <;

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Accessed 05/03/15. <;

Goetheanum. Accessed 05/01/15. <;

Goethean Science. Accessed 05/02/15. <;



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