A Fly-by Summary of “Speaker’s Meaning” by Owen Barfield


When I began graduate school, I had planned to write a thesis on Owen Barfield. Barfield is primarily known as one of C.S. Lewis’ best and most influential friends. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis recounts his epistolary “great war” with Barfield, which he considered an intellectual turning point in his own life. Lewis claims that it was because of Barfield that he overcame his own “chronological snobbery” and was forced to revise his “realist” epistemology which “accepted as rock-bottom reality the universe revealed by the senses” (114). Unlike Lewis, Barfield was not a Christian per se, though he was later baptized in the English church. He was primarily an anthroposophist committed to elucidating the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner. As such, he maintained theories about consciousness and human evolution that sometimes coincided with Christian theology and sometimes widely diverged from it.

Unfortunately, the sudden passing of my thesis advisor forced me to reevaluate and redirect my research efforts. But I’m still thinking about Barfield because I find his linguistic theories fascinating, even if I also find his anthroposophy troubling. What follows is my attempt to summarize (not critique) his book Speaker’s Meaning, which is a collection of four lectures he gave at Brandeis University in 1965.

In Speaker’s Meaning, Owen Barfield considers the process by which meaning occurs, as well as how current trends in research methods fail to account for meaning in almost every field of inquiry. Barfield begins with the observation that the methods of research and inquiry have been co-opted by the scientific method. Every field of research (e.g. literature, history, philosophy, etc.) abides by the method of observe, hypothesize, test, and theorize. The scientific method itself, Barfield reminds his readers, emerged in the 17th century when scientists realized that the natural sciences could no longer be classified as a sub-class of philosophy because, “it had acquired an entirely new method of cognition—a new way of approach to experience as a whole” (18). The scientific method stemmed from a new understanding of the human experience, which argued that the external world has no spiritual link with man. Physical nature was no longer a living, spiritual entity, but a machine-like structure, the function of which could be predicted, tested, and even manipulated with enough careful research. The mechanistic conception of the natural world marked a significant divergence from the classical and medieval models of the universe, which viewed individual persons as microcosms of the divinely ordered macrocosm. Instead, man isolated himself from the universe as only another part of the mechanized whole.

The consequences of the machine metaphor are various and sundry, but Barfield focuses on two important ones in Speaker’s Meaning. The first problem is the misapplication of the machine metaphor to research within the humanities. Quoting from R.G. Collingwood, Barfield first observes that the scientific method is only useful for studying impassive biological objects. In other words, as long as the object of research is an unconscious physical substance, then testing function and patterns is fine. The object of study in history, however, is the exact opposite of an impassive biological substance—history is the study of human intention and thought. Historians are not satisfied by the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon; they want to know why he crossed it. A historian is interested in the thoughts and motivations behind a particular event—what Collingwood calls the “inside” of history. Without an inside, historical events have no significance aside from being interesting bits of trivia. For this reason, Barfield frequently employs Collingwood’s famous definition that “all real history is the history of thought” (20). The same is true for literary and philosophical research because both literature and philosophy are the products of human intention, not the impersonal shaping forces of time and nature.

The second problem of the machine metaphor is the philosophical assumptions it imposes on studies in the humanities. Specifically, Barfield argues against the belief that life evolved from simplicity to complexity; such a view of history assumes that matter preceded consciousness, which suggests that human consciousness arose out of non-consciousness. Darwinian evolution might be a fine explanation for the development of biological phenomena, but it does not and cannot accurately explain the development of human consciousness. The reason for the inadequacy is the fact that the scientific method denies an “inside” to its objects of research. When the scientific method is applied to a subject like history, it will naturally exclude important information and therefore come to incomplete conclusions because the subjects of history have an “inside.” In response to this dilemma, Barfield suggests that historians take a semantic approach to history.

For Barfield, the study of language on its own terms, as opposed to the methods of the natural sciences, gives a more complete picture of the inner workings and evolutionary pattern of man’s consciousness. Language is tied to consciousness because it is a verbal expression of an inner, immaterial experience. Changes and developments in language would indicate changes and development in consciousness. Earlier in Speaker’s Meaning, Barfield argues that the meaning of any word or phrase necessarily begins with speaker’s meaning—the idea/experience one person intends to communicate or express. Meaning itself stems from a person’s inner world of experience. Over time, a speaker’s meaning contracts into a more stable lexical meaning—a fixed definition for a particular word or phrase which resulted from habitual use by a majority of people. Speaker’s meaning and lexical meaning, however, continue to interact—sometimes in conflict with one another—so that words not only contract in meaning but expand as well. For instance, words, when used figuratively, often acquire new meanings and revive older meanings.

The meanings of words, however, not only have an inner immaterial meaning but, like the study of historical events, also have an outer meaning. The process of contraction can help reveal the tension between these inner and outer meanings. On the one hand, a word like “heart” can signify passion, or the seat of human passions; and on the other hand, “heart” signifies a physical organ. As Barfield continues to trace the history of words, he argues that there was once a time when language consisted of a majority of words like “heart” in which inner and outer meanings were more difficult to divide. He uses, for example, the Greek word pneuma which can mean either spirit, breath, or wind. The Greeks used this word without making a distinction between these three concepts. In the third chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, John uses the word three times in the same passage (John 3:6-8). And in each case, the English translators must use a different word to translate pneuma. For Saint John and his audience, the word itself is not metaphorical. John is not creating an image for his readers; he is speaking literally. Spirit, breath, and wind were one thing.

The semantic unity indicated by the word pneuma leads Barfield to argue that since language is intimately connected to the consciousness of man, our predecessors must have had a very different experience of the world. To support his claim, Barfield analyzes the evolution of aesthetic theory. Before the time of Plato, the ancient Greeks believed that the artist was at the mercy of the muses, and that inspiration for creative works of art only occurred when an artist was possessed by a spirit. Over the course of history, however, that view of passive inspiration evolved into the belief that an artist was in full control of his creative faculties. Barfield writes, “It is a transition from the being taken hold of by something, some force or being…to an active taking hold of something by the poet—a producing, an animating or reanimating of something within himself…” [Barfield’s emphasis] (84-85). The pattern of contraction illustrated in the development of language and in the evolving theories of art do not support the traditionally held view that man’s consciousness arose out of non-consciousness; instead, it suggests that man’s evolution is defined by a kind of contraction from a greater pan-consciousness. In Barfield’s view, language, art, history, and philosophy support the idea that mind precedes matter, not the other way around.

By the end of Speaker’s Meaning, Barfield reiterates two important conclusions for more serious consideration. The first is that by using the scientific method to inquire into the speakersnature of history, researchers inevitably impose an inappropriate set of assumptions on to their subject. It assumes that the raw data of history is akin to the raw data of science—impassive physical organisms—when in fact the subject of history concerns itself primarily with the inner world of the human experience, the thoughts and intentions that precipitate and guide actions. As Barfield describes it, the scientific method can only look onto history; it cannot look into history. And secondly, a more thorough study of language can allow researchers to take a semantic approach to history without the trappings of scientific methodology. Barfield, however, is aware of the dangers of what he is suggesting. His theories infringe on the “taboos” of the current cultural and intellectual climate of the 20th century which has digested the philosophy and methodology of the natural sciences beginning with Auguste Comte’s Positivism up through Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection (97). By taboos, he does not mean “impolite conversation/topics,” but the basic assumptions about the whole of the human experience that have worked their way into the subconscious unexamined. If for no other reason, a study of language and a semantic approach to history are important simply because, “the most fundamental assumptions of any age are those that are implicit in the meanings of its common words. In our time, these happen to be largely the assumptions of nineteenth-century positivism” (44). Speaker’s Meaning is an attempt not only to identify those assumptions but to examine them again for the first time.


Works Cited

Barfield, Owen. Speaker’s Meaning. Wesleyan UP, 1984. Print.

Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy. Inspirational Press, 1994.