Perhaps the designation which categorizes Owen Barfield most precisely (ignoring, despite their partial appropriateness and strong claim to legitimacy, "philosopher," "literary critic," etc.) is one that is, to all intents and purposes, extinct: "philologist."1 Whatever the foregrounded subject of Barfield's writing may be, the background is always language.

For Barfield, language is transpersonal; it is "not a tool invented by individual minds but an echo reverberating from the source of all individual minds, of all individual selves" (HGH 63). It is, in fact, "the storehouse of imagination . . . its function is to mediate transition from the unindividualized dreaming spirit that carried the infancy of the world to the individualized human spirit, which has the future in its charge" (PD xx). Language, he had explained as early as History in English Words, "has preserved for us the inner, living history of man's soul. It reveals the evolution of consciousness" (HEW 14).

As the Meggid explains to Burgeon in Unancestral Voice, serious contemplation of the evolution of consciousness can lead to only one conclusion about the role of language in the development of the human mind:

"You had to see the origin of language as the self-gathering of mind within an already mind-soaked world. It was the product of 'nature' in the sense that the meaning of words, if you approached them historically, could all--or as nearly all as made no difference--be shown to be involved with natural phenomena. Moreover, interfusion of the sensuous (sound) with the immaterial (meaning) was still, even today, its whole point. Yet it was certainly not, in its earlier stages, the product of individual minds; for it was obviously already there at a stage of evolution when individual minds were not yet. He had no doubt of its pointing back to a state of affairs when men and nature were one in a way that had long since ceased. Even now, even in our own time, there was the mysterious "genius of language" which many philologists had detected as something that worked independently of any conscious choices." (UV 69)

Despite the Meggid's insistence on the intuitive correctness of such a philosophy of language, our current common sense view of language, the legacy of Victorian positivism, is decidedly counter-intuitive, as Barfield sarcastically observes in History, Guilt, and Habit:

[The 19th century] was imbued even more indelibly than our own age with a mental image of primitive man as a being with a system of perception exactly like our own and with a mind very much like our own, except that it was not nearly so well stocked. Therefore--so they reasoned, or so they instinctively assumed--language must have begun as a series of cries or grunts or howls that somehow very gradually turned into signs indicating the material objects by which Darwinian man perceived himself to be surrounded; and then, still of course very gradually, that system turned itself into the languages of Homer and Shakespeare and the Bible. (45)

Our unwillingness in this "logophobic" age (the term is James Hillman's 2) to acknowledge the foundational and mysterious nature of language in the creation of the human leads to logical absurdities. It leads us to contemplate (always unsuccessfully) the origin of language when "strictly speaking only idolators [that is, those who refuse to acknowledge the constitutive role the human imagination plays in shaping the so-called natural world] can raise the question of the 'origin of language.' For anyone else to do so is like asking for the origin of origin" (SA 123).

It leads us to talk about language (with language) as if it were external to and objective for us--as if it were our possession,3 forgetting that

you cannot study anything without speaking and reading and writing about it. And you cannot speak or read or write without using language, without using the language of today, as your medium. But the language of today is itself the product, the manifestation, of the very thing you are trying to undermine, so to speak, with your historical depiction of the way in which it came into being. You can dig into the earth with a spade in order to get beneath the surface. The spade is itself a product of the earth, but that does not bother you. But if, by some mysterious dispensation, the spade were part of the very path of earth you were splitting up, you would be rather nonplused, because you would destroy the instrument by using it. And that is the sort of difficulty you are up against when it is not the earth you are digging into, but consciousness; and when it is not a spade you are digging with, but language. . . . However quickly you turn around, you can never see the back of your own head. (HGH 21)

See in particular "Language and Discovery" (RM 143-54) "Language and Poetry" (PD 93-101), History in English Words, passim, Speaker's Meaning, passim.
1The Linguistics Encyclopedia defines philology as "the forerunner of historical linguistics, . . . the study of literary monuments or inscriptions to ascertain the cultural features of an ancient civilization" (196). It is helpful to remember that Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, was by training a philologist and not a philosopher.
2In Re-Visioning Psychology, Hillman notes, "We are in a peculiar double bind with words; they fascinate and at the same time the repel. . . . because of nominalism words have become both bloated in importance and dried in content" (8-9).
3"Speech did not arise," Barfield insists in Saving the Appearances [123] "as the attempt of man to imitate, to master or to explain 'nature'; for speech and nature came into being along with one another."