Cosmos Café [2019/10/29] - Owen Barfield & Final Participation

One of the most insightful, yet overlooked, thinkers of the 20th century was Owen Barfield. Fortunately, he is being rediscovered.

A member of the illustrious literary circle, The Inklings, which included much more well-known names, such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Barfield developed a philosophy of and approach to the evolution – or unfolding – of consciousness that shows strong parallels to the approach developed by Jean Gebser, among others. His focus was almost exclusively on language and literature and his theory was foreshadowed in other works of his, such as History in English Words and Poetic Diction.

In this Café session, we’d like to take a closer look at what he has to offer through the close reading of one chapter of his seminal work, Saving the Appearances. We’re looking for connections between Gebser’s notion of “the Integral structure of consciousness”, or “being integral” generally, and Barfield’s “final participation”.

Reading / Watching / Listening

Seed Questions

  • Based solely on this chapter, what does Barfield appear to mean by the term “participation”? And following from that, what is his notion of “final participation”?
  • How does this notion compare to Gebser’s integral structure of consciousness?
  • Why do you think engaging Barfield may (or may not) be beneficial at this particular time in history?

Context, Backstory, and Related topics

Previous Cafés

Other on-site links


Now, before anyone gets the idea I want to go somewhere specific with all of this, I just wanted to add an indication of how we might approach this session. We’re all for openness, I know, but just as too much direction can be inhibiting, too much openness can be debilitating. I would like to propose:

  1. Welcoming everyone on board.
  2. A first go-around gathering everyone’s impressions and questions concerning the reading.
  3. Clarifying comprehension questions: a first-cut overcoming of possible obstacles to understanding what Barfield’s driving at.
  4. Collecting the impressions into potential directions of discussion, maybe even prioritizing them to a certain extent (in the sense of what seems to interest us most).
  5. Pursuing the discussion and possibly answering some of the unanswered questions along the way.
  6. Figuring out how far we got and thinking about where we may want to go from here.

This is, of course, nothing more than a suggestion. I’d hate to think we would get together and simply ask ourselves, “So what do we want to do now?”

Though I (@achronon) did the admin part of setting up the page, etc., I am anything but a Barfield expert. What is more, it is also clear that all of us who may be in attendance (based on feedback thus far) are coming at Barfield and his thinking from very different starting and vantage points. Capturing some of that diversity wouldn’t be the worse thing that could happen to the discussion.

Again: just a suggestion. Majority rules, should yinz want to go about this differently.


This looks really interesting, Ed. I will try to read at leastsome of the material and to attend.


It would be great having you there, Geoffrey.

The only “mandatory” text is Chapter 20 of Barfield’s text: it’s only 9 small pages and not exceedingly dense. (I’ve posted another couple of pages which clarify some key terms he uses and provides the in-book footnote reference in the chapter, too.) That’s what we’re going to focus on. Of course, if you had the time, the interview Jeremy Johnson conducted with Mark Vernon (see link above) is a nice overview of who Barfield was and what he was up to, but that’s purely optional.


A New Kind of Mind

I was traveling in a strange place and was aware that I was dreaming. I wanted to make good use of my lucidity and so I asked," What is the relationship between the subtle and the causal?" I then proceeded to close my dream eyes. And then what happened?

I am floating without a boundary with a white noise and pleasant vibrations and surprisingly I feel many pre-senses. There is a sense of ‘I’ and and a capacity for speaking complete sentences. I state a desired outcome," I want to merge with the Mind of Shakespeare"

Then I appear in a train that is moving and sitting to my left is a lovely young woman with long flowing hair. I sense that she is a refined character with an aristocratic background. She is clothed but not in an historical style. She wears a simple kind of cotton fabric, a floor length gown. I sense that she could be the young Elizabeth I. " Are you Elizabeth?" I ask.

" No," she replies," but I know her." I sense that she may have been close to the Queen, perhaps a lady-in-waiting. " She acted like a man."

Then the young woman started to morph into another person, an older woman, with short cropped hair in a contemporary dress. She and I stop talking but commune non-verbally as another woman appears behind me. She is a healer type, an intuitive, and she places her hand on my back and is working energetically with me.

Then I see a man I identify with my father ( who died a number of years ago) and he shows me his bare back and he has something along his spine that looks like gills. I am wondering if this is a sign of an amphibian past or future? Is this what we are evolving into or what we are evolving out of?

And then it is my body that is examined by a figure that is feminine and she touches my left wrist and there appears protruding from the skin what looks like a root…it has sap running through it. Then she extracts from the length of my arm the branch of a tree…I am not sure if this is from a past when we were a part of an ancient ecology or perhaps is something that we are becoming. It felt quite alien and that these episodes are highly experimental. Am I turning into a tree person? I feel that this is deeply hidden aspect of our nature.

I woke up feeling bewildered. And I asked myself does any of this have to do with the mind of Shakespeare. Then I recalled that play of dark enchantment The Tempest. Caliban, that half man, half animal creature, under the spell of the great Magician, Prospero,. speaks of this strange world he lives in.

“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”

And is there a relationship between the personal pronoun " I" and the capacity to bring forth what Barfied calls “final participation”?

I’m not sure…


Thanks, @achronon, for the timely/untimely write-up. I have heard Jeremy and others mention Barfield, but never looked into him myself. Here’s as good a chance as any, even a really good chance. :slight_smile:

Are we learning how to dream awake? Is that part of how Final Participation works? (Ultimately?) Perchance to dream? And whose mind do we enter when we are dreaming awake?

Curious minds want to know…


Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep? -John Keats

When we reach a cul de sack ( as in the bottom of the U) there is a strong feeling that we have no where to go except up. And we will, as Mr. Eliot says, return to where we started from and know the place for the first time.

Many of us already are dreaming awake and have been doing so underground for many centuries. We may, and I imagine Barfeild would agree, have descended into the cul de sac which may force us to evolve in unexpected ways and on a grander scale. The imagination will be what makes this happen, which is not the same thing as fantasy. Barfeild, after his studies of Coleridge, makes it very clear. Vision is not fantasy. Our age, as I mentioned in the last conversation, could become the Golden Age of Estotericism. Our capacity for exploring counter-factuals is clear evidence this is a ]Self-Aware Universe.

And the poets get there first…

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I want to offer my experience of 'Final Participation" it has to do “Standing In a Threshold” of one kind or another: with Openness on either side of the Edge/s of the Threshold,a Pause of which direction to Move,a Grounding of the Intensity of Decision & " Not Knowing" with Openness,Is the Final Participation a Threshold Now Moment we Live within?



Barfield draws upon a lot of ideas in this short chapter that need to be fleshed out. Steiner, who is Barfield’s mentor, was a student of Goethe. Matt, in this short video, provides a good diagram for holding all of this background knowledge that is presupposed in Final Participation.