Barfield undertakes to survey, compare, and assess i) various conceptions of what he regards as poetry's founding influence on philosophy, centered in poetry's expressions of wonder and of experiences of the divine, and ii) philosophy's various self-definitions against that influence, via resistance, counterargumentation, and appropriation. The project is carried out in 12 chapters, each on one or two major figures from the history of philosophy: Socrates-Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus-Augustine, Boethius, Dionysius, Thomas, Vico, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Dilthey, Nietzsche-Heidegger, and Bakhtin. In each chapter, the focus is on how the various philosophers discussed specifically comment on, resist, accept but refigure, or argue about poetry's putative insights.
One way to get a feel for the project is to note what it is not. It is not philology. The individual chapters make little use of the massive secondary literatures on the philosophers discussed, and they are not intended to advance our understanding of details of individual arguments and positions by unpacking ambiguities, comparing and reconciling difficult passages, tracing detailed lineages of arguments, motifs, and images, and so forth. It is not philosophy of literature. There is no mention of or engagement with the works of philosophers such as Stanley Cavell, Martha Nussbaum, Cora Diamond, Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen, Frank Farrell, or myself, no Derrida or Gadamer or Adorno or Benjamin from the European tradition, and no Abrams, Bloom, de Man, Hartman, or Hillis Miller among critics. In various ways these philosophers and critics, and others, have thought about literature in relation to epistemology and moral philosophy, focusing on how literary works might be forms of knowing or might contribute to moral understanding. It is not philosophical reading of literature. Only one paragraph from one literary work, Steinbeck's Sea of Cortes, is discussed specifically, very briefly.
The unvoiced primary reason why Barfield does not engage with these traditions of philological scholarship and philosophy of/and literature is that he does not share their initiating assumption that the existence of God or the divine cannot just be taken for granted, but must at the very least be argued about. While some of the figures mentioned above are not strict secularists, they nonetheless all take pains to engage with secular audiences by beginning from general questions about the nature and importance of literature as a potential form of knowledge, without taking for granted that literary production is motivated by the divine or that it registers something about a divine object.
Barfield's stance is different. His governing assumption is that we are, all of us, as long as we are not too busy or cowardly or dull or distracted, always already engaged in "the human search for the truth about the world, about ourselves, and about the divine" (2); "human consciousness . . . lives most fully among the poetical limits of life -- portents, history, stories, the gods" (2). Poets are then, at least initially, the ones most in touch with and able to give expression to this human search and to the situation of consciousness. Poets, or at least poets as Heidegger receives them, "utter the holy in the middle of darkness, sensing and singing clues about that which eludes a benighted age" (251), and Barfield largely works within this Heideggerian framework, though without at all privileging Heidegger's vocabulary. Poetry is primal, formal, finished, and seductive in being in touch with the initiating conditions of human existence, including the divine; philosophy in contrast is belated, open, skeptical, unfinished, and difficult (25). . . .