Owen Barfield and the Imagination

What was the imagination for Grandfather? To Grandfather, Imagination had a spiritual quality. It was almost a spiritual exercise – part of a set which consists of: Intuition, Inspiration, and Imagination. This set of three focuses the mind on a bigger reality, a spiritual reality.

As Grandfather indicates: if we observe something and apply our imagination to that observation, we are bringing not only ourselves to the process, but also connecting to that which is being observed. In doing so, we bring meaning and a greater truth to it. However, without the application of imagination, we are merely ‘perceiving;’ and as he says, “Mere perception – perception without imagination – is the sword thrust between spirit and matter”. It’s this very sword-thrust that was the fatal cut in the corpus of meaning dealt by Descartes. The great challenge of our times is to pull that sword out, just as Arthur pulled Excalibur from the stone!

Grandfather is often associated with C.S. Lewis, his firm friend, companion and long-term interlocutor, with whom he exchanged many ideas. Both men credit each other as teachers and influencers. Some of their ongoing debate may be found in a series of exchanges that they called The Great War – much of which was about the meaning of imagination. Grandfather took imagination to be something real, as an accessway into the spiritual world. He thought of the Imagination as something that was not intrinsically good, but could be either good or evil. Given the potential for unlimited evil – as well as good – in the working of imagination in the modern world, it is timely to consider what the Imagination means to each of us.


Owen A. Barfield is the Grandson of Owen Barfield (1898–1997), British philosopher of the evolution of consciousness, author, poet, critic, and member of the Inklings. He is also Trustee of The Owen Barfield Literary Estate.