The Rediscovery of Meaning

The Rediscovery of Meaning is a volume of a collection of essays by Owen Barfield listed here.

Here is a video on Owen Barfield and the meaning crisis. It includes many video clips discussing the history of knowledge from our modern Western perspective. Barfield notes the feeling of meaninglessness that was coming to prominence in the twentieth century and continues on. He asks:

How is it that the more man becomes able to manipulate the world to his advantage the less he can perceive any meaning in it?

The scientific revolution brought with it a time of regarding the universe as mechanical and mindless. We as subjects observe a lifeless objective universe whereas previously through Aristotle there was an understanding of a cosmos filled with intensions. Now any sign of will or purpose has been excluded from most of the history of the universe. The universe is understood using the language of mathematics.

We live in a mathematical universe in which secondary properties like love and beauty are an afterthought. We have become disconnected from the world. We now look out at a mechanical reality as far as our instruments can probe, we have come to regard our own selves as machines. Now even our thoughts are nothing more than wired circuits making and breaking in a few pounds of fleshy microchips and logic gates, All this energetic activity encased in the bony box which nods on the atlas in agreement with this conclusion, just like the nodding dog on the parcel shelf of your grannie’s car.

Blind mechanical laws rule.

Malcom Guite quotes Barfield,

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information, where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

We have, of necessity, become detached and alienated from nature. Guite and Barfield are asking us to learn from the previous participatory relationship, leave behind our exclusive onlooker consciousness, and to gain a  participatory understanding with our new found individual self conscious awareness.

Our modern scientific knowledge gives us the letters of nature. Through participation we can form the words and begin to read the script of nature. And that is what Goethe was doing with his “gentle empiricism”. With our mind’s eye we become free from living in the moment and we can make connections that allow us to see the contexts which overcome the idolatry of a restrictive physicalism.

Grasp the knowledge gained by the modern scientific understanding and continue on. Learn to read the script and take the words seriously, “Tat Tvam Asi”, “Thou Art That”.

156 thoughts on “The Rediscovery of Meaning

  1. CharlieM: The plants use the power of sunlight as a means of growth. And so they exhaust their ability to make further use of this power. But because they build up living substance in this way it becomes available for animal life to use. The light of the sun freed from the necessity of producing growth can then be used to light up consciousness, and ultimately a consciousness of self. If we can be said to stand on the shoulders of giants, the plants are those giants that have borne us aloft.

    … and they lived happily ever after in the land of everlasting peach-blossom fields.

  2. DNA_Jock:
    CharlieM: So black is not a colour unless I am referring to the colour black. Yes I’m referring to impressions I get which I think of as “black”. For instance when I look at coal or charcoal or newsprint or a person’s hair colour.

    DNA_Jock: Conveniently, you forgot to list the inky darkness of the black starry sky. Heh.

    If you were to compare day and night with the pixels I am manipulating on my screen how would you compare them? Would you compare the light, white background with the night sky and the dark, black text with the sunlight, or would it be vice versa? To me it’s as plain as day that black and white can stand for night and day. It’s clear that both the inky night sky and the midday sun give us visual experiences comparable to black and white. (And of course, as I think you mentioned, we should not look directly at the sun)

    CharlieM: What assumptions are you making about your Betelgeusian? I take it you have provided him with eyes which are the same as earthly human eyes?

    DNA_Jock: Of course not! What a weird assumption to make. He’d have to be at least a dichromat capable of detecting what we call blue, but that’s all. Could have insect eye, squid-eye, etc, etc,

    Whichever eyes Betelgeusians may possess, their eyes, as Goethe said, would owe their existence to light. (I notice that you have assumed there would be division of the sexes in Betelgeusians).

    Do you think that all earthly creatures with eyes see white as we do?

    If Betelgeusians did the experiment with the light shining through the box surrounded by smoke, what do you think they would see that would be different to our observation?

    CharlieM: Do you think he would be able to even see our sun in his night sky?

    DNA_Jock: Huh? Why does that matter? He could travel…

    CharlieM: I don’t regard sunlight as being white.

    DNA_Jock: Given your awesome anthropocentrism, color me unsurprised by your geocentrism.

    My visual perception comes from a geocentric, anthropocentric perspective. But through the inner vision of my conscious mind I am able to transcend this position.

  3. DNA_Jock:
    CharlieM: And didn’t Richard Feynman say words to the effect that nobody understands quantum mechanics well enough to explain it.

    DNA_Jock: Quaint that you would try to analogize from your ability to explain optics and color perception to Feynman’s ability to explain QM, but no: you have the quote wrong. As Alan riffed on earlier, that’s an Einstein quote, and Einstein was probably riffing on Rutherford’s infamous crack that “it should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid.”
    The Feynman line about QM has nothing to do with explaining QM, and is absolutely hilarious, but the context is that he is pointing out that relativity is not as difficult as it’s cracked up to be:

    There was a time when the newspapers said that only 12 people understood the theory of relativity. I don’t believe there was ever such a time. I believe there might have been a time when only one man did because he was the only guy who caught on…before he wrote his paper – but after people read the paper, a lot of people kind of understood the theory of relativity in some way or other, but more than 12. On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. [pause for laughter]

    So let’s not mangle that.

    Feynman said that quantum theory “doesn’t explain anything it just gives you the right numbers, the right probabilities”.

    On discussing photons being reflected of a thin film he said, “I’m not going to explain it, I don’t understand it, that’s the way it works”.

  4. Kantian Naturalist:
    CharlieM: What this place needs is there to be a more active production of threads from the members.

    Kantian Naturalist: Agreed. I’ve been reading and writing a lot about teleology in biology, and I might start a new thread on it if there’s interest from other people. But it would have to wait until the semester is over.

    Hopefully that will happen and I look forward to reading it. 🙂

  5. Neil Rickert:
    CharlieM: But the eye does not sense light, it senses images.

    Neil Rickert: That’s absurd.

    It is, isn’t it? I shouldn’t even have said it senses images. Of course it all depends on what is meant by sensing. If by sensing, awareness is meant then the eye does not seem to be aware of anything. But if by sensing, we mean reacts to or is impacted by in the same way that a mechanical sensor would be affected then it is true that the eye is sensitive to light energy. And as in the case of the eye it is the same for the brain. The brain reacts to the nerve impulses but it cannot be said to be aware of anything. Awareness is an attribute of the person and not any part thereof.

    Considering the scene of the person in a gorilla suit moving through the middle of a baseball match. Two people can have equivalent images impinging on their retinas and equivalent nerve stimulations in their brains but it might be only one of them who sees the gorilla.

    Awareness is not mechanical it is psychological.

    And I’d say that quantum mechanics is absurd from the point of view of classical mechanics.

  6. Kantian Naturalist:
    CharlieM: Neither Goethe nor Hegel considered the significance of the individual. For Goethe the individual is at the mercy of nature and for Hegel the individual is subservient to the community.

    Kantian Naturalist: That might be true of Goethe but it surely is not true of Hegel. Hegel’s entire philosophy is oriented by the question of how to theorize the interdependence of individual and community (“The I that is a We and the We that is an I”, as he puts it in Phenomenology of Spirit).

    Hegel is quite explicitly responding to other critics of Enlightenment individualism, esp Rousseau. Hegel thinks that Rousseau went too far, threw away the baby (individuality) with the bathwater (individualism). He thinks that we need to understand both individuality (“subjective spirit”) and society (“objective spirit”) as interdependent.

    You’re right. How Goethe and Hegel thought about the relationship between the individual and society is complicated.

    It seems that Hegel saw an evolution of individual consciousness in which individuals, from being under family control, progressed to breaking away from family ties to being controlled by the civil society and ultimately by the state. This is the opposition which had to be reconciled, individual freedom and state control.

    Didn’t he think that both the individual and the state are products of the absolute?

    CharlieM: And of course Marxism is a prime example of Hegelian thought turned upside down. Hegel’s geist becomes the materialism of Marx and Engels.

    Kantian Naturalist: One person’s “turned upside down” is another person’s “right side up,” I suppose. What was in Hegel the activity of Spirit (Geist) becomes in Marx and Engels the activity of human being living in society.

    Marx and Engels completely agree with Hegel that we need a social organization based on the interdependence of individuals and society, with neither emphasized at the expense of the other. Hegel, Marx, and Engels all agree that the error of antiquity was to make the community everything and the individual nothing, and that the error of modernity was to make the individual everything and the community nothing.

    Marx’s complaint against Hegel is that Hegel has failed to be genuinely dialectical at precisely the point where he most needed to be: in his political philosophy. (Put otherwise, Marx thinks that Hegel should have been as dialectical in his practical philosophy as he was in his theoretical philosophy.)

    The failure of dialectics in Hegel’s political philosophy (Marx argues) is that Hegel resolves the tension between the individual and society in an undialectical way: by making the individual everything in one dimension of society — the economy — and making the community everything in another dimension of society — the state. But this simply dichotomizes the relation between them.

    In contrast, Marx thinks that recognizing the interdependence of individuals and community will require a new form of social organization in which both the market (with its one-sided emphasis on the individual) and the state (with its one-sided emphasis on the community) have been transcended.

    And Steiner’s threefold social order, if put into practice goes a long way in resolving this dichotomy.

    CharlieM: Surely epistemology begins with thinking. Not a brain that thinks, nor a thinking mind, but just “thinking”.

    Kantian Naturalist: Why assume that epistemology must begin with anything? For one thing, a great deal depends on what one means by “begin with”!

    In some disciplines, such as logic and elementary mathematics, it is helpful to reconstruct our knowledge in terms of a few primitives and rules operating on those primitives. The axiomatization of geometry (by Euclid), set theory (by Zermelo) and arithmetic (by Peano) certainly were important advances in our understanding of the formal languages.

    Hence, given some successful axiomatization, it is plausible to think that we are “beginning with” defined primitives and permissible operations on those primitives.

    But, of course, the axiomatization comes very late in the game. Egyptian land-measurement (geo-metry) was a few thousand years old by the time Euclid wrote down in one book all the proofs known to ancient Greek mathematicians, and Peano’s axiomatization of arithmetic was one of the huge successes of 19th century mathematics. So in one sense, understanding what it is that we are really beginning with is something that comes about after we understand what we have been doing all along.

    In any event, it seems hugely questionable to think that epistemology, which is very obviously not a formal language (since it necessarily contains terms whose senses are not constituted by syntactic operations and whose referents involve actual occurrences, and not merely necessity and possibility), could be axiomatized in the way that geometry, set theory, and arithmetic have been.

    On the other hand, one might “begin” epistemology simply by starting to ask epistemological questions, and those can arise at at any time, whenever one becomes aware of the possibility of asking for a reason for an assertion. Children are competent at this by the time they are four or five, much to the exasperation of their parents (unless their parents are philosophers).

    Maybe I used the wrong wording. Any person who wants to engage in epistemology, in which they wish to develop a theory of knowledge, must begin by thinking. Asking questions results from curiosity, and curiosity is a result of thinking.

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