Mind-Forged Manacles

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

— From “London” by William Blake

“The world itself lives upon the stage of one's consciousness,” writes Stephen L. Talbott in an essay on the English philosopher Owen Barfield. This is not how we normally think about the world. Normally we think a representation of the world out there exists in our consciousness in here. But Talbott, in discussing Barfield’s work, erases any distinction between subject and object. What occupies the stage of our consciousness is the world itself, not some perception of the world that exists apart from the thing itself.

Barfield’s contention is that the mind is playing tricks on us by creating an inside and and outside to our experience, with “me” on the inside and everything else on the outside. He wrote, “But this world of outsides with no insides to them, which we perceive around us and in which we dwell, is not something unshakably and unalterably given, but is the product of the way we collectively and subconsciously think.” The result in a deep sense of “cut-offness” that amounts to a de facto imprisonment within one’s own mind.

I am struck by the congruence between Barfield’s ideas and the world-view of quantum physicists, who have demonstrated that subatomic particles do not exist independently of an observer. Listen, for example, to physicist Erwin Schrödinger: “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one.” Barfield himself was aware of the similarities between his ideas and quantum theory. However, he objected to the notion that a quantum view of the world could only be expressed mathematically and required that ordinary language be abandoned.

It may seem like something of a chicken-and-egg problem to determine whether we see the world the way we do because of the language we use to think about it, or we use the language we do because that’s how we see the world. In Barfield’s view, human language and consciousness evolve together. To my mind, we see the world the way we do because we can’t think about it any other way. I’m not speaking here merely of attaching names to things, although that, all by itself, makes objects of our perceptions. I’m speaking also of fundamental concepts of time and space that are deeply embedded in the grammar and syntax of our language. A subject-verb-object sentence structure predisposes us to think in dualistic terms, not the least when we make “I” the subject and everything else the object. Verb tenses give rise to linear time, and so forth.

Since we can’t stop thinking, there is no way to reclaim the world of pristine sensation that greeted us as newborns. As Barfield expressed it, “The perceptual world comes over its horizon already organized.” So we can’t just think our way out of the box we have put ourselves in. Perhaps the best option – certainly the most succinct – comes from one of the greatest thinkers of the last century, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He advised, “Don’t think, look!” We must come to our senses in the most literal sense: to see the world as it unfolds from moment to moment, to hear it, taste it, smell it and feel it. I am tempted to say we must learn to experience the world from the inside, but in truth there is no longer an inside or an outside. Everything just is. Thoughts will inevitably arise in this space. The trick is not to follow them down some rabbit hole. And if perchance you should find yourself lost in thought, so be it. Your senses are no farther away than right where you find yourself, right where you have always been, right here.

Stephen L. Talbott, “Owen Barfield: The Evolution of Consciousness”
Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry


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