Thursday, 23 November 2017

Coleridge's Polarity, as explicated by Barfield

Ingwaz: The metaphysics of '-ing'
Yesterday I made a conceptual breakthrough in understanding the concept which is at the heart of that alternative metaphysics which seems to have emerged in the Romantic era - in the life of Goethe and the philosophy of Coleridge, but to have been rejected by the Zeitgeist and to have since led an underground and marginal or unarticulated existence in the likes of Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield (from whom I mostly got it).

Barfield focuses on the term polarity, derived from Coleridge - but I have found that this term - with its inner picture of a solid, rectangular bar magnet - is making it harder for me to grasp and use. The essence of the concept is not its having poles but that it is a dynamic process, an active thing: an -ing, as in think-ing, reason-ing, understand-ing, and imagin-ing.For me this philosophy only makes sense if I regard reality as happen-ing.

So I have decided to replace polarity with '-ing' which is the name and sound of a rune - more often called Ingwaz (and of a Norse god, also called Freyr - not the same as Freya). So the rune Ingwaz can serve me as a symbol of 'polarity', in my notetaking.

Like most good metaphysics, Ingwaz comes from the solid, primary, necessary intuition that we are thinking. From this comes the inference that whatever we think, do, know or whatever - thinking is involved. There is no way of getting-at any objective reality that does not involve thinking - it is nonsense (makes no sense) to be thinking there is an objective realm of 'facts' that are autonomous from thinking.

However, this is NOT the 'idealism' of stating that there is only mind, and 'reality' is an illusion; what is being stated is that thinking is involved in everything - therefore, everything includes thinking. The thinking cannot be detached from anything, thinking is always involved in everything.

So the division of inner mind and outer reality/ nature is nonsense; we are always and inevitably involved in everything we ever consider by thinking.

However, this thinking can be (usually is) something of which we are unaware. We therefore tend (unthinkingly) to regard the 'outside' world as if it was independent of our thinking. We tend to suppose that the outside world is real and solid, while our thinking (which is reality is involved in everything we know or imagine about that outside world) is merely ephemeral and pointless.

This is because if we divide thinking from the outside world, thinking dies - it becomes static, inert, it stops '-ing' and is a mere dead specimen ('thought'). What is really happening is that we have started thinking about a situation where there is no thinking, and are unaware that in thinking this we have not actually imagined a situation where there is no thinking - we are merely unaware of the thinking that is engaged in imagining it!

This is the modern condition. Modern analysis is unaware of - and denies - the pervasiveness of thinking at all times and in all situations. This state of unthinking doubt about thinking can be called cynicism.

So, the first move is to become aware of our own thinking in any and every situation - to recognize that everything involves thinking - we are therefore always engaged with everything, involved with everything: there is no objective alienation.

But is thinking valid? That is the fear that haunts cynical, nihilistic modern man. The fear is that - even though it makes no sense and cannot be done to use thinking to doubt the validity of thinking; maybe thinking is not valid anyway - maybe we just live in an un-avoidable delusion? The idea accepts that it makes no sense to be thinking about thinking being 'unreliable' - but maybe that is true anyway!

This cynicism, I believe, is the modern condition; it is a fear rather than a philosophy, it is a cynical suspicion that there is really no purpose, meaning or reality - and this state was facilitated by Natural Selection which seems to have 'discovered' that that is how nature works. This is untrue, and makes no sense; but the effect is rather to implant a fear, a suspicion that it might all be a delusion than to make any kind of logical point.

That has been the point at which Western thought has been stuck for more than 200 years - the fear that everything we think we know about everything comes from thinking, and that thinking - the very basis of knowing itself - might be a circular system of unavoidable but nonetheless false assumptions.

This places Man into an existential state where he does not know where to start in escaping. Once he has come to doubt thinking, then he cannot get out. All he can do is try to manipulate his emotions so as to feel better, here and now.

Thought and Think-ing We create the world (more specifically, we participate in creating the world - in interaction-with the real phenomena of the world) through our thinking ; and the -ing of thinking is what requires special attention. Thinking it is not the abstract category of 'thought' but the active process of think-ing, by which we co-create the world.

The world is real, but its reality is inextricably bound up with our thinking - it is the active process of thinking that is primary (and we must not kill it in our attempt to comprehend it).

We change our thinking, and it is-changed by the experiences of our lives (and often for the worse - often in ways which sabotage our lives, and prevent their spiritual progression - induce spiritual corruption instead. Look around!). So, thinking can be changed and is changed - and we ourselves might want to take-over this process rather than being passive recipients of changes imposed by our environment... what do we do?

The answer is: Thinking-about-Thinking - that is, we need to think about, become aware of, our own Thinking and its assumptions and characteristic (habitual) processes. Another word for this activity is Metaphysics.

Why is Metaphysics so difficult? Why is it blocked by external distractions and internal incapacities and obstacles? These seem legion - and the worst is that, to some degree and sometimes very completely - our selves (who are trying to do the Thinking about Thinking) are actually false selves; mere personae that have developed to do automatically the business of interacting with the world in ways that are short-term expedient.

There is a tendency (at times almost irresistible - because habitual) to make the seeking of understanding into a static and deadly analysis - we distinguish, divide, organise and kill the concepts we need. Like subjective and objective - we distinguish them, divide them and separate them - and then they both die.

What is needed is to be able to analyse without killing - which means that instead of laying-out reality before us, inert, on a dissecting slab - reality must have at its heart and as its prime term, a thing which is dynamic, alive and existing through time (with a past and future - not seen as a timeless 'present').

Analysis must not be allowed to kill the livingness of the central phenomenon. Rather, analysis must go-on around the livingness of the central phenomenon. In other words, the central pheonomenon can be delineated - but cannot itself be analysed (or else it will be killed). If the central phenomenon is Consciousness, or Quality, or Reality - then it cannot be dissected without killing it and thereby making it no longer the central phenomenon.  


When think-ing changes, the world changes - and not just 'my' world: but the actual world. There is, indeed, no division between 'my'-world, and the-world (if there was, the world would not be my world). To change the world requires changing our think-ing (it is a fallacy to talk about the outer-realities as if they could be divided from our think-ing); and the difficulty of changing our think-ing is a measure of the difficulty in changing the world.

(As usual, it is far easier to change things for the worse: to destroy --- than it is to change things for the better: to create.)

On the other hand, if - by thinking about thinking - we can gain metaphysical understanding and can cure/ improve the mainstream metaphysical corruptions as they operate in our minds - can improve our habits-of-think-ing to make the process more Christian, loving, creative... then by this we have improved the world (not just for ourselves, but for everyone).

Metaphysics is therefore a prime task for everybody now, not just intelectuals (although they need it more than most). And since metaphysics is intrinsically difficult, and being made ever more difficult by modern culture, and deliberately so - we need to enable it in our lives by ceasing to crave distraction, intoxication, and passive absorption: by seeking to make our thinking active, awake, aware and concentrated on what needs to be done.


And what is it that does the thinking about thinking? And how is it able to do it?

Ah - there's the crux of the matter! It is our eternal and (embryonically) divine selves that are what does real metaphysics. And it is its eternal position and and divine nature which makes possible the detachment required for thinking about thinking.

Metaphysics is our eternal self contemplating our mortal self - but actively: that is eternal think-ing contemplating the mortal personae which have been built by experience and expediency, and which now do so much of our thinking and being, that we have often lost or encapsulated the eternal self...

In his masterful book What Coleridge Thought (1971), Owen Barfield identified Polarity - or Polar Logic - as ST Coleridge's core philosophical concept; and the key to understanding his completion of Romanticism.

I read this book twice, with deep attention, and was convinced by it; however, when I came to try and use the concept of polarity in my everyday life, with the aim of transforming my life for the better - I couldn't. Polarity was just too abstract.

This is probably unsurprising - after all a system of logic is not really the kind of thing which is fundamental; it is more of a tool than a basis for existence. The cognitive domain 'logic' is, indeed of interest to only a tiny minority of very specialised people who have had systematic training.

Furthermore, my experience has been that Christianity ought not to be based upon abstractions, but upon the core analogy of Loving Family Relationships - this is both the reality and the master metaphor (or symbolism) of the Christian religion.

Therefore I need to re-express, re-explain, Polarity in anthropomorphic terms - to make it a matter of human and divine relationships.

Polarity is a way of conceptualising necessary and inseparable opposites: the core physical example (cited by Coleridge) is of a force that coheres and a force that disperses; centripetal (centre-seeking) and centrifugal (centre-fleeing) - the varied combinations of such polar forces then accounts of the dynamic nature of the world, and life.

I then saw that Love - which is the heart of Christianity - is of precisely this nature; because love is a cohesion, a holding together, as with marriage and family relationships; and love is an open-ended creative force, as with children being born, developing, and forging new relationships.

Love is dynamic: it cannot be just cohesion or it will die, it cannot be just expansion or it will die - it must be the polarity of both, which is infinite in its capacity for self-renewal and strength.

Love comes from the dyadic relationship of man and woman, husband and wife, in cohesive relation for eternity and also open-endedly reproducing, having children who have children. The relationships cohere forever, but in a state of continual change and interaction forever.

Love depends on distinction: one person from another, man from woman, parent from child, each sibling from another, each friend unique; and Love also depends on the constancy of the fact of relationship. Many loving relationships changing by an organic, unfolding development. But each relationship sustained in its core nature - husband and wife, father and son, mother and son, brother and brother and so forth.

There are all, in Coleridge's or Barfield's abstract sense, polarities: the insight is true and it is deep. Yet when expressed in terms of relationships it is simple common sense and everyday observation... all we need to do is recognise the ideal for which our earthly family relationships are striving; and then we can know the actuality which will (if we choose it) be the reality in Heaven.

The phrase Opposition in all Things from the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 2:11) is generally taken to apply to moral development – and the necessity for opposition from Life if people are to experience, learn and progress spiritually. But I think it is linked also with the underlying metaphysical basis of Mormonism, which is ‘evolutionary’ in contrast with the world view of Classical Theology; and in particular with the unique doctrine that the highest form of spiritual progression – full deity – is only possible for the ‘dyad’ of a man and a woman joined (complementary but not fused – united but separate selves) in celestial marriage. (A single and separate man or woman can be saved, and may progress a long way towards divinity; but not all of the way to becoming the same in nature as our Heavenly Father and Mother.) In particular, the celestially-married dyad is the only level at which Man can participate in the ultimate divine attribute of giving birth to spirit children. At an ultimate level, opposition in all things can be taken as a phrase describing the fundamental metaphysical principle that creativity (taken here to be identical with progression in the harmony with God’s Plan of Salvation) must be a product of two distinct and in-a-sense ‘opposed’ principles. As the ultimate creative act of having a child comes from the interaction of two persons of the two sexes, so spiritual progression comes from the interaction of ‘opposites’; and what these and other creative situations have in common is that there is a ‘polarity’ (to use Coleridge’s term) in which the two sides are distinguishable but not divisible. There are many similarities between men and women; but there is also a complementarity of nature which goes beyond the specifics of parturition – the feminine has always been recognised as a ‘centripetal’, gathering, unifying principle; and the masculine as a ‘centrifugal’, exploratory and differentiating principle – both of which are required to make that ‘vortex’ of new life and potential that is a child. At its very deepest possible level of analysis; Mormonism thus regards life (and love, as its basis) as dynamic, active, creative – and this is because fundamental reality is always a polarity.


  1. I've read some Barfield (though not this work) but no Coleridge, and I'm wondering how 'polarity' is related to simple 'difference.' And also how these ideas relate to the classical understanding of the Trinity as perichoretic love between Father, Son and Spirit? Isn't that the prior, and possibly richer understanding?

  2. @Phil - I keep trying to re-explain Polarity in more comprehensible, less abstract terms. If you word search this blog with 'polarity' you can find some other attempts...