Phenomenology vs. empiricism

In a recent Symbolic World conversation, Jonathan Pageau and JP Marceau explored certain practical considerations around two different approaches to symbolism, those aligned with the worldviews of Maximus the Confessor and of Thomas Aquinas. 1 The Maximian approach, as the two men explained, goes all in on phenomenology, centering around the notion of human consciousness as a sort of ontological anchor for the things of the world. The Thomist approach on the other hand is less overtly phenomenological and more willing to consider the independent existence of a world outside man. In other words, it’s fully amenable to empiricism. It allows us to live in a world built upon science without the constant nagging of metaphysical considerations which seem to subvert the foundations of the enterprise.

While Pageau and Marceau undertook to present certain dangers of jumping into the phenomenological approach without due caution and preparation, the question I’d like to explore in this article is more about the two worldviews themselves. More specifically, I’ll take a look at the possible synergies that might exist between phenomenology and empiricism and uncover a surprising way in which, when played off each other, they ultimately seem to point to the same underlying picture of reality. Similar moves have been attempted (more or less convincingly in my estimation) by several major figures including Owen Barfield and Rudolf Steiner. 2 I’ll briefly take a look specifically at Barfield, as his ideas will likely resonate more directly with the Symbolic World reader. Barfield not only helps make the case for phenomenology, but also builds a bridge to an explicitly Christian formulation of it. The picture we are left with, in the final analysis, is of a completely legitimate, yet tightly constrained empiricism which turns out to be a useful tool in the further development and ultimate winning-out of phenomenology.

History of the world as history of experience

Since the distinction between our two frameworks hinges on the degree to which the proposition “creation exists in man” can be taken as true, the best inroad into exploring a possible synergy is perhaps to tackle this issue head-on, toggling both perspectives. To start this we should ask: what does it even mean for creation to exist “in man?” We have an idea of how it has been treated in a religious context. In the Judeo-Christian cosmogony, man stands as the culmination of the creation process, the Anthropos into whom all of God’s creation is focused and through whom it is substantiated. The world exists in human consciousness, the reflection of God’s consciousness. ‘That which is’ is that which is brought into communion with man’s superlative level of experience. Such a deeply phenomenological view makes sense on a symbolic or spiritual level, but how does it relate to the empirical reality in which we currently live?

If we take our current level of understanding—all our facts, figures, and models—and extrapolate it backward in time to produce a history of the world in its biological, geological, and cosmological dimensions, we get the contemporary picture of the empirical universe. But an interesting thing happens when we attempt to flip this picture inside-out and observe its “phenomenal” interior. To do this requires the following thought experiment:

Assume that all life has some kind of inner experience.3 Imagine what these experiences might be like, and extend the experiential primacy of phenomenology to the hypothesized inner life of organisms at every epoch of the evolutionary timeline. Then ask, what does the history of the world look like through this lens?

When ‘that which is’ becomes that which is experienced, every stage in our model of the world’s unfolding is then defined by the experiences of the living beings at that point on the timeline. So if our model tells us there were only aquatic creatures at one point, then their experiences literally were the world. There was for them no land, no sky, no stars. There was nothing beyond what they, the most advanced creatures of the time, could perceive. If we go further back to when there was no life but single-celled organisms, that world too was literally what those organisms were experiencing. And what were they experiencing? Probably only a rudimentary sense of otherness from their surroundings. And what even are the surroundings of a single-celled organism, as “perceived” by that organism? Certainly not the waters, rocks, and gaseous swirls of the primordial soup we imagine them in. If we go back even further in our model to a time when there were no organisms and ostensibly no experiences, what can we really say about the universe? Pretty much nothing. Was there even a universe prior to experience? 4

So we’re left with the somewhat bizarre notion that our model of the history of the world produces a history of living beings whose experiences arguably bore very little resemblance to the world we describe and situate them in. We graft our current categories of perception onto their environment, as if these would apply equally in our absence. René Guénon makes a similar point in The Reign of Quantity, in a provocative critique of archaeology:

“[T]he archaeologists examine these vestiges [of bygone periods] with modern eyes, which only perceive the coarsest modality of manifestation, so that even if, in spite of all, something more subtle has remained attached to the vestiges, the archaeologists are certainly quite incapable of becoming aware of it. … It is said that when a treasure is sought for by a person for whom, for one reason or another, it is not destined, the gold and precious stones are changed for him into coal and common pebbles.” 5

And it seems the farther back empiricism attempts to extend its reach, the more pebbles its instruments turn up.

Shining the light of our thought experiment back into these remote and dark recesses, however, allows us to glimpse where there may indeed be gold and precious stones. In the earliest single-celled organisms we might notice something peculiar. If we really think to ourselves what it might be like to be such a being, to register a faint glint of otherness from the surrounding medium, we might come to the conclusion that this is quite similar to a kind of primordial duality: self and other. There is the ‘me’ and then there is the ‘not me.’6 This ‘not me’ merely serves to define the ‘me’ in relation to itself. This begins to sound a lot like a mystically-tinged cosmogonic event.

For the simplest, most basic and ancient single-celled organism, other organisms do not exist. So in some strange way, it makes no sense to say that there even were multiple such organisms. Unto itself, the archaic prokaryote—as a locus of experience—and its undivided environment are all there is. Anything exterior which happens to come in contact with it, simply serves to further register the cell’s own existence. The environment in which our model places it is, for the cell, merely unactualized potential.

At the other end of the experiential continuum, man is clearly the opposite of the primitive cell. Whereas the cell is a cordoned-off, inchoate reality unto itself, the human being is an integrator and substantiator of realities. In fact, only through human beings does the world receive its full level of scale, differentiation, solidity, and unity. The solipsistic islands of experience which dot the fragmentary landscape of the organismic world come together into a unified domain in the consciousness of man. Man’s consciousness fills in the gaps between these disconnected experiential ontologies, defining the contours and features of the common environment they all inhabit. It fully informs and collapses the potential that once swirled around these loci of experience into the concrete material matrix that we call “the world.”

Of course not all earthly creatures are as solipsistic as the archaic single cell. The world is smaller, less concrete, and more self-enclosed the farther back in evolution one goes but then begins to feature broader and more complex, concrete environments as we move toward the present where organisms are more complex. There are certain animals whose consciousness even seems to come close to man’s. Apes, elephants, dolphins, even some birds demonstrate remarkably human-like behavior. They have a larger, more expansive and solid world outside themselves than amoeba or worms. But not one of these creatures (as far as we know) has ever named another or established dominion over “all the living things that move on the earth.” 7

A familiar picture

So when we track the general character of perceptual states throughout the course of evolution, what we get looks oddly familiar. We have a primordial duality which emerges, a binary relationship of ‘me’ and ‘not me.’ Gradually more and more differentiated exterior environments emerge, still largely self-contained and fluid. These ‘watery’ experiences give way to more hardened environments (‘dry land’), differentiating and branching to the extent that “the lights come on” outside the organism. As experience continues to harden, condense, and integrate the exterior world, various fluid forms of other creatures begin to be recognized. Now not only is there a ‘not me,’ but other ‘me’s,’ still fluid and ephemeral, flitting in and out of experience. Finally experience begins to teem with other creatures, producing complex, dynamic environments of greater and greater solidity. And then the human being arrives who gathers all this up into his all-encompassing, sensory-noetic experience. He names the other beings below him, categorizes them, and comes into communion with them as the glue which holds the whole system together.

In case you didn’t recognize it, the above description of the experiential history of the world bears an uncanny resemblance to the Genesis creation story. From this perspective, the six days’ work comes across as something like the history of experience—the creation of the world as it appeared to consciousness (or awareness, or inner life, if you prefer. Consciousness is of course a slippery term often defined differently in different contexts). Flipping the picture back over, we again have the empirical history of the living world. Here the experiential core is tiled over with a hardened exterior reflecting the level of material hardness of our own perception.

But our empirical models extend the history of the universe back much farther into the past beyond the history of organisms and their experiential states. If the flipped empirical account stops there, what does it have to say about the several billion years of cosmic evolution that we know to have existed prior to the first life forms on Earth? Perhaps empiricism simply reaches outside the bounds of its purview when it attempts to map out a universe anterior to experience. Could it be that it is in a sense extending the glue our perception uses to connect the world together back beyond its reasonable limit, into a past that never existed as anything more than potential?

This non-experiential past, the hypothesized material vastness thought to have preceded the arrival of life on our planet, strikes another chord with the Genesis story. We can in fact draw a more or less direct connection to the Fall. How so? If the six days’ work is thought of as a progression of increasingly contracting and concrete unions of pattern and potential, then the creation of man as the final step represents the ultimate union of this dichotomy, the meeting of Heaven and Earth. This is echoed in the notion that man was created “male and female,” a kind of conjoined duality. 8 But then God separates Eve from Adam. The potential becomes dislodged from the pattern. Evidently the intention was for a re-union to occur, thus continuing the sequence of heaven-earth couplings in alignment with the divine Will. 9 But the potential remained disconnected and attempted to assert its own individuality apart from the pattern. Eve ate of the forbidden fruit and severed the connection between Heaven and Earth. The result: a free-floating mass of potential and a fragmented heavenly domain of confused and fallen principles. Thus, this free-floating potential became a kind of ‘abject materiality’ into which man could then project the shards of pattern in the erection of ever greater structures of misalignment. The larger these structures became and the more of the pattern man tried to reassemble on his own, the larger and more locked-in to our perception the domain of abject materiality became. Perhaps until the point where the lifeless mass of pure potential exploded outward into the staggering vastness of contemporary cosmological space and time.

Exploring empiricism from the inside-out is a suggestive thought experiment. It of course doesn’t prove anything about the nature of creaturely experience or its possible relationship to the Genesis story. But it does give us strong reason to suspect that the universe requires our consciousness in order to exist in the way we perceive it and at least some kind of interiority to exist at all beyond a latent state, as informed potential. It highlights the centrality of our position in the chain of Being—our participatory role in Creation—while at the same time placing limits on the claims we can make about a world without us in it, especially as seen through the filter of our fallen mode. And though probing nature’s exterior via this filter may give us pebbles (recalling Guénon’s words), these are pebbles that we didn’t have before, which we can then turn over to reveal the incompleteness of the very method we used to detect them.

Barfield’s three modes of participation

In reference to the abject materiality of contemporary human perception, Owen Barfield developed the notion of Onlooker Consciousness. This is the consciousness characteristic of “Modern post-scientific cultures” in which a hard line is drawn between the subjective and objective domains. 10 The Modern human perspective, perhaps crystallized in Descartes, looks upon the material world as something utterly separate from experience.

Against Onlooker Consciousness, Barfield contrasted Original Participation and Final Participation, hypothesized past and future modes of human consciousness lacking the stark subject-object division. 11 He developed these categories through studying the evolution of language, which to him seemed to point decreasingly to an extra-experiential world the farther back in history one looks. 12 This led him ultimately to adopt a phenomenological view identical in its general thrust to the one being explored in this essay, that the world is “inseparable from our experience of, and manner of perceiving it.” 13 And, according to Barfield, our manner of perceiving the world has evolved from a participatory to an onlooker mode.

While Barfield ascribes Original Participation to ancient and primordial cultures, it’s interesting to note that in the story of the Fall, which originated in a culture much closer to Original Participation than our own, we already get the notion of the disconnection of subjective and objective spheres as having happened in the remote past. In fact, according to St. Maximus, this disconnection occurred more or less immediately after man’s creation, 14 and so is essentially an element of historical man from the beginning of historical time, however we might choose to define this beginning. In this more biblical sense, Barfield’s Original Participation is really only a relative designation within historical humanity, having existed in its pure form only in Paradise, prior to the Fall. Onlooker Consciousness appeared the moment Eve sinned, the moment Heaven and Earth were disconnected. It is essentially a product of the Fall and the default mode of consciousness in postlapsarian humanity.

Final Participation

At the other end of his cosmology, Barfield places Final Participation. Described as nothing other than a coming into full participation with the Logos, the creative principle of reality, this mode of consciousness breaks the veil of Onlooker Consciousness, reconnecting the interior and exterior of the world through man. 15 Christ is the bridge between the two bookends of the participation continuum, “the cosmic wisdom on its way from Original to Final participation.” 16

In a wonderful essay on Barfield, Max Leyf Treinen suggests that if Christ’s connection to the evolution of consciousness comes as a surprise to some, it is “the result of precisely the veil of Onlooker Consciousness which we are attempting to lift.” 17 Our current level of perception is the blocker to fully appreciating the mystery of the Incarnation. In fact you could say it’s why the mystery was needed in the first place. So while we can certainly take from this that empiricism will inevitably be transcended, it will have served a purpose in pointing to its own insufficiency and providing a detailed exterior contour for the true heart of the world re-enlivened by Christ. Moreover, it remains a perfectly legitimate enterprise within the bounds of Onlooker Consciousness, our current mode of perception. Its overcoming simply relativizes it, stripping it of its epistemological hegemony without doing damage to its internal cohesion. But when the dust settles, it’s still phenomenology which seems to come out on top. If the mode of experience is indeed inextricably linked to the manner of what is experienced, and the transcendence of our current mode is at hand, then the phenomenological perspective might just extend beyond the empirical horizon into the domain of the reconnected Heaven and Earth, the new creation in man.

  1. Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “Jonathan & St Maximus vs JP & St Thomas: Is Symbolism Dangerous?The Symbolic World, April 2022.[]
  2. See especially chapters 4 & 5 of: Steiner, Rudolf. The Philosophy of Freedom: The Basis for a Modern World Conception. Rudolf Steiner Press, 1964, reproduced digitally at rsarchive.org.[]
  3. In the simplest/earliest cases, one might prefer to conceive of this as more of a proto-experience, or the initial stirrings of what at some point becomes experience in the way we normally use the term.[]
  4. Panpsychism seeks to address this same question, ascribing at least some glint of consciousness to every level of material organization. However, this one-to-one mapping of scale between perceptual and material domains need not be a component of a coherent extended phenomenological perspective.[]
  5. Guénon, Réné. The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times, at 131. Sophia Perennis, 2004.[]
  6. Here I don’t mean to confuse this ‘me’ with self-consciousness. Rather, I mean a locus of experience defined in terms of the content of said experience. This would be the absolute lower limit of the continuum on which personal self-consciousness is the opposite pole. Likewise, the distinction between interior and exterior here would be at an absolute minimum.[]
  7. Genesis 1:28[]
  8. See Maximus the Confessor. “Ambiguum 41,” in Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, trans. Nicholas (Maximos) Constas, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, at 28-29. Harvard University Press, 2014. For a helpful commentary on Ambiguum 41, see: Dominick, Jesse. “Man in Creation: The Cosmology of St. Maximus the Confessor,” Orthodox Christianity, August 2016.[]
  9. See Meyendorff, John. Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, at 139-140. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987, quoted in Dominick, “Man in Creation.”[]
  10. Treinen, Max Leyf. “Owen Barfield & The Evolution of Consciousness,” at 56. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 16, no. 1, 2020.[]
  11. Ibid., at 56-69.[]
  12. Ibid., at 52-53.[]
  13. Ibid., at 58. []
  14. Maximus the Confessor, “Ambiguum 61,” in On The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003.[]
  15. Treinen, “Owen Barfield,” at 63.[]
  16. Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, at 185. Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965.[]
  17. Treinen, “Owen Barfield,” at 67.[]