Book Review: Saving the Appearances

I hadn’t heard of Owen Barfield before last month. Based on an interesting quote and a recommendation that he has a “unique epistemology”, I picked up a copy of “Saving the Appearances“, and just finished reading it.

It turns out the book isn’t really an epistomology, but rather a treatise on the author’s opinions about the evolution of consciousness, and his thesis that the scientific revolution has left modern man with some largely unrecognized gaps in consciousness with relation to his environment.

This ended up being one of the best books I’ve read in a really long time. It deeply intertwines three of my favorite themes: Korzybski’s map/territory distinction, Ghazali’s reason versus faith debate, and Knowledge Representation. Barfield is incredibly erudite; pulling material from scores of sources and building some surprising and wickedly sharp arguments. Even when you find cracks in his arguments, you find that the intellectual ride is enjoyable.

The book starts with Barfield exploring the consciousness of totemic cultures. This is something I’ve been very interested in, from old Mongol and Native American culture to the writings of Castenada, I’ve always felt that the idea of anthropomorphism (or animism) was too naive. Barfield explains totemism completely differently. Rather than projecting a self-image onto nature, he posits that totemic cultures do not have a clear distinction between self and external and that totemism results from that. This was like a lightbulb to me; it rings true for many reasons. He draws this thesis from some linguists and anthropologists, but explains it persuasively.

He then goes on to make the case that the evolution of language and especially symbolic languages led to a greater distinction between self and nature, leading to increasing degrees of separateness between map and territory. One surprising assertion that he makes, and defends, is that Galileo was not excommunicated for the reasons we’re taught. He argues that Copernicus’s theories were no more endorsed by the Catholic church than Galileo’s. The difference was that Copernicus presented his theories as “one theory which matches the known observations of reality”, while Galileo presented his theory as “this is how reality is”. Up until Galileo, since Aristotle, all inquiry was meant to find theories which matched the observations. “It was not simply a new theory of the nature of celestial movements that was feared, but a new theory of the nature of theory; namely, that if a hypothesis saves all the appearances, it is identical with truth”.

Another surprising (and convincing) thesis is that Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas were not so stupid as we might think. We’re taught to think of human philosophy as a progressive evolution where each age corrects the errors of the previous and builds upon, so that the minds at the beginning of the chain are practically infantile. Barfield argues that the ancient philosophers were viewing the world through different lenses, before our age of reason had succeeded in completely isolating our thought-life from experience (the map/territory distinction), and that their philosophy was quite developed and remarkably consistent given their frame of reference. Viewed in this light, existentialism isn’t necessarily an advance, but rather a symptom of our changed frame of reference.

The next theme of interest is that of idols. He talks about what happens when people take a symbol that was meant to stand in for a real thing, and start to confuse that with the real thing. It’s clear enough that language should be a tool used by man, not a system in which man finds himself enslaved. But Barfield makes some interesting associations between the Abrahamite “make no images” and “word is God”. Anyone who has thought about the potential pitfalls of widespread KR knows that extra layers of semantic ambiguity can be dangerous, but Barfield takes it further — he practically argues that symbolic language (and the failure to realize that it’s *only* symbolic) is leading to an armaggedon, and furthermore, that Abraham (like a Hari Seldon) predicted and laid in place the antidote 3000 years ago. This is perhaps the most dramatic part of the book, and although I find the argument almost wholly unsubstantiated, it’s exhilarating in a Dan Brown sort of sense.

There are many clever quotes in the book. One made me think of large UML class diagrams, and the debates about ontological hell: “Only children run to the dictionary to settle an argument. But if we would consider the nature of meaning, and the nature between thought and things, we cannot profitably dispense with etymology. It is long since men gave up the notion that the variety of natural species and the secrets of their relation to each other can be understood apart from their history; but many speakers still seek to confine the science of language, as the Linnaeans once confined botany, within a sort of network of timeless abstractions. Method, for them, is another name for classification; but that is a blind alley.

Here is a choice quote that summarizes several arguments from various parts of the book; arguing that memory (aka semantic web) is a post-totemic idea that depends on lossy symbols. “As soon as unconscious or subconscious organic processes have been sufficiently polarized to give rise to phenomena on one side and consciousness on the other, memory is made possible. As consciousness develops into self-consciousness, the remembered phenomena become detatched or liberated from their originals and so, as images, are in some measure at man’s disposal. The more thoroughly participation has been eliminated, the more they are at the disposal of his imagination to employ as it chooses.

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