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History, Guilt, and Habit by Owen Barfield
Foreword by G. B. Tennyson
Published by Wesleyan Univ. Press in 1979
Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


In his most cogent statement of principles Barfield describes in this 100 page volume how we idolize the outsides of reality, and, ignoring the insides, we fall down in worship of empty shells. He begins with a quote from R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History that "all history is history of thought." Thus Barfield argues, "You cannot study the history of thought without thinking the thought whose history you are studying." He leads us to understand that one can not ignore the evolution of thought being discussed by "treating philosophy as though it were a dialogue between contemporaries." To be contemporary the philosopher will have undergone certain transitions of understanding that the philosopher of hundreds or thousands of years ago had not undergone. Thus to think the thought of history one must use the imagination to unravel the knitting up of thoughts that occurred since the time being studied. Doing so one can begin to understand the Middle Age, the Greek philosophers; not doing so one has no choice but to heap confusion upon misunderstanding.

"You will sometimes hear people say they have no metaphysics. Well, they are lying. Their metaphysics are implicit in what they take for granted about the world. Only they prefer to call it 'common sense.'"

"The difficulty is this: you cannot study anything without speaking and reading and writing about it. And you cannot speak or read or write without using language, the language of today, as your medium." He goes on to point out that the language of today is a result of the process you are studying when you study history. Thus the instrument you are using is the very object you are studying. A normal dismantling of the object will destroy the very instrument you have to use for the studying of the dismantled object.

Only by use of the imagination, which transcends words, can the process of history be studied with clarity. One must indeed think the thoughts of the history one is attempting to study. Only in that way may one overcome the idolatry of words that so pervades modern thought and to break out of the habit of exploring only the empty shells of outer reality and wondering where the magic of life has gone.

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