C.S. Lewis on Bulverism

C.S. Lewis begins his essay on Bulverism:

It is a disastrous discovery, as Emerson says somewhere, that we exist. I mean, it is disastrous when instead of merely attending to a rose we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose, with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because, if you are not very careful, the color of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and its scent to our noses, and in the end there is no rose left. The professional philosophers have been bothered about this universal black-out for over two hundred years, and the world has not much listened to them. But the same disaster is now occurring on a level we can all understand.

We have recently “discovered that we exist” in two new senses. The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class. In the old days it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth [I] a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are “ideologically tainted” at the source.

The person probably most known for making the first point, about sensation, is John Locke. He says in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

9. Primary qualities of bodies. Qualities thus considered in bodies are,

First, such as are utterly inseparable from the body, in what state soever it be; and such as in all the alterations and changes it suffers, all the force can be used upon it, it constantly keeps; and such as sense constantly finds in every particle of matter which has bulk enough to be perceived; and the mind finds inseparable from every particle of matter, though less than to make itself singly be perceived by our senses: v.g. Take a grain of wheat, divide it into two parts; each part has still solidity, extension, figure, and mobility: divide it again, and it retains still the same qualities; and so divide it on, till the parts become insensible; they must retain still each of them all those qualities. For division (which is all that a mill, or pestle, or any other body, does upon another, in reducing it to insensible parts) can never take away either solidity, extension, figure, or mobility from any body, but only makes two or more distinct separate masses of matter, of that which was but one before; all which distinct masses, reckoned as so many distinct bodies, after division, make a certain number. These I call original or primary qualities of body, which I think we may observe to produce simple ideas in us, viz. solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number.

10. Secondary qualities of bodies. Secondly, such qualities which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities, i.e. by the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of their insensible parts, as colours, sounds, tastes, &c. These I call secondary qualities. To these might be added a third sort, which are allowed to be barely powers; though they are as much real qualities in the subject as those which I, to comply with the common way of speaking, call qualities, but for distinction, secondary qualities. For the power in fire to produce a new colour, or consistency, in wax or clay — by its primary qualities, is as much a quality in fire, as the power it has to produce in me a new idea or sensation of warmth or burning, which I felt not before — by the same primary qualities, viz. the bulk, texture, and motion of its insensible parts.

It is possible that this is actually mostly true, and mostly consistent with the philosophy of Aristotle, even though Locke would likely wish that the latter were not the case. Aristotle says in On the Soul:

If it is true that the movement, both the acting and the being acted upon, is to be found in that which is acted upon, both the sound and the hearing so far as it is actual must be found in that which has the faculty of hearing; for it is in the passive factor that the actuality of the active or motive factor is realized; that is why that which causes movement may be at rest. Now the actuality of that which can sound is just sound or sounding, and the actuality of that which can hear is hearing or hearkening; ‘sound’ and ‘hearing’ are both ambiguous. The same account applies to the other senses and their objects. For as the-acting-and-being-acted-upon is to be found in the passive, not in the active factor, so also the actuality of the sensible object and that of the sensitive subject are both realized in the latter. But while in some cases each aspect of the total actuality has a distinct name, e.g. sounding and hearkening, in some one or other is nameless, e.g. the actuality of sight is called seeing, but the actuality of colour has no name: the actuality of the faculty of taste is called tasting, but the actuality of flavour has no name. Since the actualities of the sensible object and of the sensitive faculty are one actuality in spite of the difference between their modes of being, actual hearing and actual sounding appear and disappear from existence at one and the same moment, and so actual savour and actual tasting, &c., while as potentialities one of them may exist without the other. The earlier students of nature were mistaken in their view that without sight there was no white or black, without taste no savour. This statement of theirs is partly true, partly false: ‘sense’ and ‘the sensible object’ are ambiguous terms, i.e. may denote either potentialities or actualities: the statement is true of the latter, false of the former. This ambiguity they wholly failed to notice.

Saying the sound and color are a “potentiality” when they are not being sensed, and actualized when they are being sensed, suggests very much the same thing as Locke when he says that sensible qualities are “such qualities which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us.”

However, by using the terms of “primary” and “secondary,” and saying that sensible qualities are “nothing in the objects themselves but…”, Locke suggests that there is something especially unreal about qualities such as color and odor, as Lewis mentions in his opening paragraph. This at least is a mistake on Locke’s part, since he failed to notice that there is no huge distinction between the aspects of a body that he calls “primary” and the ones that he calls “secondary.” Just as the color of an object appears differently in different lighting and so on, so a body looks larger or smaller depending on where it is situated relative to me. Likewise an elliptical object appears to have a different shape depending on my point of view. In other words, if there is reason to think that color is “nothing but the ability to look colored,” then there is an equal reason to think that shape is “nothing but the power to appear shaped.”

And I would say that both of these are true in a certain way, and false in a certain way, just as Aristotle did about the existence of white and black. They are false, if they are taken to mean that “grass is green,” is a false statement, or that is a subjective one. It is a true statement, and an objective fact about grass. They are true, if they mean that what we know about greenness is basically what we know from sensing it, and that being green means having the possibility of being sensed in this way. And the like is equally true of shape, size, quantity, hardness, and the other aspects that Locke calls primary.

C.S. Lewis is using this as a comparison with a critical analysis of people’s thought processes. Just as analyzing the causality involved in sensation can lead someone to say that sensible things don’t have an objective existence, so analyzing people’s thought processes could lead someone to believe that nothing is true. Thus he continues:

Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it. There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or not?

If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology or philosophical idealism. The Freudian and Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it.

The only line they can really take is to say that some thoughts are tainted and others are not – which has the advantage (if Freudians and Marxians regard it as an advantage) of being what every sane man has always believed. But if that is so, we must then ask how you find out which are tainted and which are not. It is no earthly use saying that those are tainted which agree with the secret wishes of the thinker. Some of the things I should like to believe must in fact be true; it is impossible to arrange a universe which contradicts everyone’s wishes, in every respect, at every moment. Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant – but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.

If being “tainted” means having causes that are not completely correlated with truth, then the true answers to Lewis’s questions are that either all, or nearly all, thoughts are tainted, and no, this does not necessarily mean that they are false. Virtually all thoughts are tainted in this sense because human beings do not usually have only a single motive for things that they choose to do, and this includes the choice to believe certain things. This need not “invalidate” the thoughts because obviously it does not guarantee that the thoughts are false.

Lewis is correct that pointing out that someone’s opinions match his desires does not prove that his opinions are false. However, we saw earlier that a person’s claim is evidence for what is claimed. This will be affected, however, by a person’s motives. If a person is motivated mostly by reasons which make his claim more likely to be true, then his claim is stronger evidence. And likewise, if he is motivated mostly by things which do not make his claim more likely to be true, then his claim is weaker evidence. Consequently, if I point out that such motives are a strong factor in a person’s belief, this is not a waste of time, nor is it irrelevant. It is quite relevant, because it weakens the evidence present in his claim, and consequently it becomes more likely that the thing is actually false.

Lewis continues:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see clearly enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it. I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.” For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it give no unfair advantage to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds – a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. And why should reason not be discredited? It would be easy, in answer, to point to the present state of the world, but the real answer is even more immediate. The forces discrediting reason, themselves depend of reasoning. You must reason even to Bulverize. You are trying to prove that all proofs are invalid. If you fail, you fail. If you succeed, then you fail even more – for the proof that all proofs are invalid must be invalid itself.

Lewis is himself engaging in something very like Bulverism here, or at least he is attempting to get others to do so. In the first place, the very invention of the name “Bulverism” is such an attempt. It has a ridiculous sound, and the only contribution it makes to the discussion is to make it appear that someone is doing something ridiculous. This is part of Lewis’s plan to “crush” Bulverism, namely by making people dismiss it out of hand, just as he says that they dismiss his positions out of hand.

Of course, as I already stated, Bulverism as defined by Lewis is indeed a bad thing. But this is not because a person’s motives are irrelevant, but because a person may be right despite his motives. And even if a person’s motives may weaken the evidence present in his claim, it would indeed be silly to think that the full response to an argument could be that the person does not have good motives relative to truth. If you are going to refute an argument, you should do that by discussing the matter of the argument. Lewis is quite right on this point.

Regarding Lewis’s last point in this paragraph, it is unlikely that many people actually had the intention to “prove that all proofs are invalid.” People really do have various motives for their beliefs, but this does not prove that their beliefs are false, nor does it show that their arguments do not work.

Lewis concludes the essay:

The alternative then is either sheer self-contradicting idiocy or else some tenacious belief in our power of reasoning, held in the teeth of all the evidence that Bulverists can bring for a “taint” in this or that human reasoner. I am ready to admit, if you like, that this tenacious belief has something transcendental or mystical about it. What then? Would you rather be a lunatic than a mystic?

So we see there is justification for holding on to our belief in Reason. But can this be done without theism? Does “I know” involve that God exists? Everything I know is an inference from sensation (except the present moment). All our knowledge of the universe beyond our immediate experiences depends on inferences from these experiences. If our inferences do not give a genuine insight into reality, then we can know nothing. A theory cannot be accepted if it does not allow our thinking to be a genuine insight, nor if the fact of our knowledge is not explicable in terms of that theory.

But our thoughts can only be accepted as a genuine insight under certain conditions. All beliefs have causes but a distinction must be drawn between (1) ordinary causes and (2) a special kind of cause called “a reason.” Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than belief. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs. Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes. A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless. This principle must not be abandoned when we consider the beliefs which are the basis of others. Our knowledge depends on our certainty about axioms and inferences. If these are the results of causes, then there is no possibility of knowledge. Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.

“Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes,” indicates that Lewis is confused.

Thoughts surely do have causes, and the efficient cause is generally the human will. Reasons and motives are both “why” people choose to believe things, and consequently are the formal aspect of that efficient cause, or in other words are final causes. It might seem a little strange to say that the fact that two and two make four is the final cause of my belief that if I have two shoes and acquire two more, I will have four shoes. But it only seems strange because we do not notice that final causes themselves come in varieties. And in any case, this is partly a question of framing. If I say, “I think I would have four shoes because to think otherwise would call into question that two and two make four,” then it is clear enough that my belief is for the sake of the truth that two and two make four.

Lewis fails to note the distinction between various types of causes, and so supposes that if thoughts have causes in an ordinary sense, they cannot have reasons, but this does not follow. Reasons are simply one of the causes that thoughts have, but they can have other causes at the same time.

Someone might say that this blog engages in a good deal of what C.S. Lewis calls Bulverism, and this concern is one of the “tainted thoughts” which led me to compose this post. Thus I summarize my response to this concern:

More or less all claims are affected by motives other than truth. But this is not irrelevant, because some claims are more affected by such motives than others, and to the extent that this is the case, this weakens the evidence contained in those claims. Thus I would not consider it irrelevant even if I point out someone’s motives without proving directly that he is mistaken.

Nonetheless, in practice I do not usually do this. Generally if I think that someone is wrong, I will argue this directly, and only reveal someone’s motives in addition, which even Lewis concedes can be relevant in that situation.

There is one possible additional objection, which Lewis does not formulate explicitly, but which he indicates when he says, “The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.” The objection would be that whether he is right or wrong is “the only real issue.” So even if you first argue that someone is wrong, proceeding to discuss his motives is inappropriate, since it is no part of the issue, and it seems merely insulting.

I disagree that whether someone is right or wrong is the only real issue. As I have stated before, I do not think I really understand someone until I understand why he says what he does. And real people do not only have reasons for their beliefs, but motives as well. So in order to understand someone as well as possible, it is necessary to know not only his reasons, but also any other motives that he has.

But since people rarely notice their own motives, this suggests that I am saying that frequently people do not even understand themselves. And this is quite true, and in this way St. Paul says that some have “turned to meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.”


8 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis on Bulverism

  1. […] people, and just as beliefs have motives, so the act of speaking or writing has a motive. And whether or not people approve of doing this, the listener or the reader tends to think of these mot…. As Alexander Pruss discusses in a blog post here, sometimes such considerations are necessary. […]


  2. […] C.S. Lewis argues, “Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.” As I argued in the linked post, reasons in fact are a kind of final cause relative to their consequences, and they do not exclude efficient causes. This case might be somewhat less evident than the two previous cases, but I would argue that the cause of Lewis’s error here is the fact that, as St. Thomas says, the human mind can understand many things at once only by understanding them as one. Consequently, we can understand that an efficient cause can be for the sake of an end, but if the efficient cause and the final cause are presented as simply two causes, without the order that they actually have, they are not intelligible in this way. […]


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