Posts Tagged ‘thinking’

One of the most interesting writers of the twentieth century is Owen Barfield.  CS Lewis, who was no mean intellect himself, described him as the best of his unofficial tutors.  Barfield was destined for a brilliant academic career at Oxford but the early death of his father required him to take over the family law firm at the age of about thirty.  But that did not prevent him writing the most penetrating books on subjects related to language and thought, and the evolution of the human mind.  As with so many British writers, he is not so much remembered in his own country now ; the dominant marxist flavour of academe here has eclipsed such people ; effectively they have been declared persona non grata.  It is to America we must look for a lively interest in the best of British ideas.

I have just bought one of Barfield’s later books, published in 1965 ; it is called Unancestral Voice and is about the evolution of consciousness and thinking.  Surprisingly, it opens with a discussion on the famous trial concerning Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Barfield is a difficult writer for modern minds.  This is partly because his style is terse and partly because his ideas are simple ; so simple that they provoke the deepest thinking in the reader.  They are necessarily simple because they deal with matters at the very foundations of our minds and bodies ; matters such as consciousness, feeling and thinking, which we take for granted as a matter of course.

So, I have begun this book by skimming through it just to capture the flavour of it, and resisting the temptation to delve into its detail.  The next step for me will be to study it just a little more deeply ; just deep enough to identify the difficult bits and clear up any words and phrases that I don’t understand.  That will be followed by a normal reading of it, from beginning to end.  With any luck, I should have grasp of what he is trying to teach me when all that reading is done.

Alas, on page 45 I have come across an arresting idea ; it is pointing to something that is not new at all, but it is put in a way that (to me) is quite startling.  It is this : The brain is related to thinking as the eye is to light.

So thinking, then, is not something private and individual ; it is everywhere, like light. And the brain is not an organ which originates thinking, it is like the eye.  As the eye detects light, so the brain detects thinking.

Is he going to use this model to explain how it is that people of a particular broad culture tend to think in similar ways – the collective conscious?  and how it is that there are fashions in thinking, which come and go and also contribute to the evolution of ideas?  Now this is real psychology, which the marxists wouldn’t even begin to understand.  I will read on, for Barfield never disappoints.


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Language is fun.  Do our words convey what we are really experiencing?  Are words connected to, or related to, reality?  For example, linguists say that there is probably no word we use now that did not begin its life as a metaphor ; as a colourful figure of speech ; not ‘literal’ or ‘concrete’ at all.

We’re all familiar with the word sunbeam ; also we all know, when we think about it, that a beam is a plank of wood.  But no-one believes that the sun has planks of wood radiating from it.  And then there’s one of my favourites – understand.  Who really believes that, to understand that 1 + 1 = 2, we must either stand it under us or we must stand under it?  It must have been a mind-boggling metaphor when it first appeared from the quill of a scribe.  It was a word that first needed to be explained to us, and then became a word that we had to think about when we used it ourselves.

But that’s the point.  A metaphor may be so arresting, so staggering, and also so unlikely that it becomes popular quite quickly.  Thereafter, its use becomes a habit ; and then we forget that it is a metaphor ; we take it as ‘literal’.  At this stage, the word is something that is no longer thought about consciously.  Meanwhile the original literal word is oft forgotten completely.

We do a lot of thinking automatically, without realising it.  We do a lot of thinking without consciously thinking about anything.

Imagine I hear a section of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata that just happens to be playing on the radio.  As soon as I become aware of the sound, I say, “Oh, yes, that’s the Moonlight.”  Almost instantly, I have formed in my mind a figuration of the sound.  And I do not stop to think what a curious thing this figuration is.

For what is really happening is something like this.  First the radio emits some vibrations in the air ; then the vibrations fall into my ears.  What I hear in my consciousness ought to be just a noise.  But it isn’t just a noise ; I recognise it as noise I have heard before, so it is has meaning ; it is really a sound.  And, not only that, but I recognise the sound as a particular piece of music – the Moonlight.  All this happens in an instant.

But, in order to recognise the noise, I must have referred it to my memory.  And when my memory has located it, it informs me what the sound means – or do I infer the meaning?  Whatever, there is a lot of thinking going on here.  We can guess how much thinking by imagining hearing a little-known sound ; we have to comb our memory to try to recognise it ; and sometimes it eludes us.  But, in the case of a familiar sound, our complex thinking has become automatic through practice.

So, merely to be able to use a word like sunbeam, we have to think about it ; and merely to recognise a piece of music, we have to think about it.  But that thinking is so sublime that we do not even know that we are doing it.

It can be interesting to reflect just once in a while, as we gaze upon a familiar object such as a teacup, that we have done a lot of thinking simply in order to see it – to make a picture of it in our minds.

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It’s always fun to analyse things.  We do analysis so readily because it is easy ; synthesis (imaginative thinking) is a lot harder.  Science makes such good progress because it involves mostly analysis.

But, easy though it is, the results of analysis are still a puzzle.  For example, we might do a hundred experiments in which an object is raised above the ground and then dropped.  In every experiment we observe that the object falls towards the earth.  We then reason through the event.  And our reasoning leads us to infer that something must be causing the object to fall as it does.  Then we give a name to  that something ; we call it gravity.

But note : nobody has ever seen gravity : nobody has ever heard it.  We know of it only by the effects it has on objects, including the effects it has on our own bodies.  Mystery.

And then we can try a different experiment ; not quite as simple, because we need the right conditions.  Let us shine a powerful, narrow-beamed searchlight into the night sky.  Let’s choose a clear night when there is no dust or moisture in the air.  If we stand behind the light and look along its length, we see nothing.  The light is quite invisible.  It becomes visible only when it shines directly in our eyes ; or when some of the light is reflected back into our eyes by dust or moisture.  So, the light is not a property of the beam.  So what is it that is coming out of the searchlight?

Then we might take a pair of billiard balls ; a white one and a red.  If we cue the white ball towards the red one, we see it roll across the green table ; then we see the white ball and the red move off in different directions.  We infer that the white ball caused the red one to move.  But we can look as hard as we like, and yet never see that cause.  The cause is ours, not the ball’s.  Did the white ball really cause the red one to move?  or is that just what our minds made of it?

In each of these experiments, we have inferred something ; we have reasoned about what we have seen.  And it is interesting to note that the results of our reasoning are not self-evident.  We can be sure of this because, when we investigate the findings of people who have quite different cultures to ourselves, they come up with different results ; and that is not due to their faulty thinking ; it is due to their having quite different ways of thinking.

We might wonder whether, as human consciousness evolves, what other ways of thinking there might be awaiting us.  Will we still be doing the same kind of science ten-thousand years from now?

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An old woman - a witch

The picture of the old woman, whose name is Cracklebones, with the huge hooked nose and cruel thin lips, and wearing a dirty-white headscarf, reminds us of a witch ; it also reminds us of our tendency to make judgements of people ; judgements that are often based on little evidence.  Is this prejudice?  Well, it might be and it might not ; it depends on what we conventionally regard as valid evidence.

The nature of evidence is itself interesting.  People often assume that it consists of objects.  For example, if young Matilda is found dead in the forest very near the witch’s haunted house, we are apt to think that she has been murdered.  And, since Matilda shows no sign of injury, we are inclined to think she has been either poisoned or killed by a dastardly spell.

And if we then find the wicked witch sitting nearby, stirring a pot that smells of hemlock, stroking her sinister black cat and cackling to herself, we are inclined to think that it was she who committed the murder.  The witch murdered the young lady, Matilda.  Was it jealousy that made her do it?

But, actually, all these physical signs – the body, the old woman, the hemlock, the cat, the cackles, and the gloomy cottage  in the woods – do not amount to anything at all.  They are just things.

It is only when we think about those things that they become evidence.  We have to think about the things and then link them, one to another, in a chain of reasoning.  Evidence is derived from reason and from consciousness, and not merely from things.


So much for the evidence, but what about young Matilda?  She is quite a beauty.  In the picture below, she is looking away from us, so that we see her rather delicate jaw-line and a narrow, elegant neckband ; she is wearing soft fur stole of the best quality. She wears a feather above her brow.  She appears to be rather a shy young lady of refined manners.

A young lady


In my experience, most people are able to make the switch in perception, so that they can see either the witch or the young lady.  But I know no-one who can see both at the same time.  We tend to see either one or the other.  On reflection, it is quite remarkable that the same identical picture can give rise to two contrary perceptions.

It reminds us that the picture ‘out there’, outside of our brains and bodies, is not what we actually perceive.  What we perceive is what our minds make of the picture.  From the same ink marks on the paper, we can make two very different cognitive models.

Also it reminds us that making a mental image of what we see is not just a question of processing sensory data ; it is a question of thinking about that data and about previously-learned data as well.  Though that thinking is normally done so rapidly that we are usually not aware of it.

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The life of Man is the life of the mind.  Not for us the unconscious or semi-conscious world that the lesser creatures inhabit.  We are not automatons that simply ‘behave’ ; we are much more than our instincts and biological drives.  It was one of those frightful eighteenth-century agricultural scientists who remarked, “What is a sheep?  It is but a machine for turning grass into meat.”  But that’s not us ; we are not mere machines, however much our half-educated scientists try to make it so.  In fact, I doubt if even a sheep is a mere machine.

So, we have Mind, we have Soul, and we have Psyche (which is perhaps the broad boundary between the other two, or maybe a synthesis of the two).  These somewhat mysterious qualities of ours are impossible to describe.

Now it’s a strange thing that if you ask people, “What is the mind for?” most will answer that it is to think with ; and, if you ask them what they mean by ‘think’, they’ll usually give an answer that involves solving problems or formulating arguments.  They tend to see thinking as an effortful, even laborious, business.  Oh yes – and “thinking is for clever people”.  But actually they are referring to only one kind of thinking. They are referring to only one of the things the mind can do.

What is the point of having a mind unless you are going to use it?  And why not use it to develop new talents?  Talents that are new to you, but that are not new to your mind.  Your mind knows how to do many things that you don’t know about yet ; and usually you don’t know about them because you’ve been busy doing other things ; you’ve been too busy to listen to what your mind has been telling you.

You might like to think of something like your emotions.  Some emotions, such as pain, are unpleasant.  But the pain, like all emotions, is merely the messenger ; it is impelling you to do something.  It comes with a message for you, so why  not just comply with the message and file the paperwork away?  Why not  read the message and then put the pain behind you?

There’s so much to be said about pains ; too much to say it here and now.  But – just to whet your appetite – you might remember that pain is an emotion ; and you might remember that you can either enjoy an emotion or you may contemplate it ; but you cannot do both at the same time.  There are ways of contemplating pain which require no effort and which take only a little of your time.

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An emotion is called such because it calls upon us to do something.  And the presence of an emotion is signified by more or less definite physiological movements which can be felt.  It can be a useful and revealing exercise to note where one feels a particular emotion.  Do you feel it in your legs?  In your shoulders?  In your abdomen?  Elsewhere?  And how exactly can you locate it?   Perhaps you notice that you feel it in several places, and that the feelings appear in a particular order and with distinct intensities.  Perhaps the feelings are unpleasant.

It is helpful to reflect that a pure emotion appears without any effort on your part ; it arises quite unconsciously.  Your body knows exactly what it is doing, but you do not.  You have no control over the appearance of a pure emotion ; as far as your conscious mind is concerned, it appears ‘from nowhere’ ; and that, of course, is what gives all pure emotions their mystical air.  And that is what renders them often unwelcome.  Even a pleasant emotion can be worrying because of it hidden causes – and maybe because of its hidden aims, too.

But there is something else that’s interesting about an emotion ; when we think about the emotion itself – really think about it – it disappears.  As one philosopher said, “You can do two things with an emotion, you can enjoy it or you can think about it.  But you can’t do both at the same time.”

Very well.  But how is it that poets can write so sublimely about an emotion ; how can they write while evidently experiencing it?  Bringing it to life upon the page or in their voices?  Surely the writing or speaking requires thinking about that emotion, if only to enable the right choice of words.  But why then doesn’t the poet’s emotion evaporate and drain the poem of its intensity and veracity?

The answer seems to be that the poet is not thinking about the emotion at all.  He simply writes.  The thinking is unconscious.  The words, the rhythm and the metre come automatically.  The poet at his best is taken over by his Muse, and it is she who does the intellectual work while he merely wields the pen.

Or, to be frightfully modern and boring, the poet enters into an altered state of consciousness in which the thinking becomes automatic, and makes no demands on his own emotions.  In a word, the poet is hypnotised.

Muse? Or hypnosis?  Surely it is his muse!  Surely human consciousness has a reference that is not merely personal to him.  For, if consciousness is merely personal to the individual, it can have no meaning beyond his own minute sphere of experience.  And, if that be true, then all speech and writing is drained of any universal significance.

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How often have I heard somebody say, “There’s wisdom in that book?”  We take it as a truth that a book by a learned author contains wisdom.  But is that true?

What is a book?  A physicist, speaking the language of physics, would have to say that it is but a collection of sheets of paper which have ink marks on them.  A chemist, speaking as a chemist, could analyse the paper and the ink, and tell us their compositions exactly.  But neither the physicist or the chemist would find the slightest trace of wisdom.  Wisdom is not a property of material things like books.  So, where is the wisdom?  Where, indeed, is the meaning?

We can only answer these questions by thinking.  As we survey a page of the book, we recognise the ink marks as symbols – but we can only do that if we already know of symbols.  Next, we might recognise the symbols as belonging to the Roman alphabet.  So far, we have detected little meaning and almost no wisdom.  But, if we recognise the symbols as being arranged in patterns we call words, and if we recognise the words, then we are nearer to where we want to be.  And recognition is a kind of thinking.

So meaning and wisdom are not strictly properties of the book or, indeed, of the material world.  They are properties of the mind ; of the human mind.  They are derived, not from the ink marks on the paper, but from our interpretation of them.  So a book, as a book, does not have an independent existence ; its life and light depend on its association with a human mind.

So, is it at all possible to say that a book contains meaning and wisdom?  Yes, I think it is, but only if we accept that it is we who invest the book with those qualities.  In effect, we introject the ink marks into our minds and then project their meanings back into the book.

Does all this matter?  Yes, it does.  For example, in some parts of the world, you might well be punished,  executed even, for defacing a holy book, a book of meaning and wisdom.  And that poses a nice philosophical problem.

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