Wednesday, January 7, 2009


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.
-C.S. Lewis in "Bulverism"

I'm not even going to pretend that I know much at all about logical fallacies, philosophy, and the like. Nevertheless, I knew exactly what Lewis was articulating in this essay. Based on reading "Meditation in a Toolshed" and "Bulverism," I have this keen sense that Lewis discerns these nuances or assumptions of discussion and is able to verbalize them in a way people can understand. I was honestly astounded by "Bulverism" and its truth. Lewis' main points convey poignant insight true for 1941 and also our world today.

Lewis pointed out that discussion has taken on an alarming "vice" in recent times. With the ideological conceptions of Marx and Freud, Lewis asks whether all ideas are ideologically tainted. He concludes that no, that is not true: some ideas are tainted and others aren't. Yet, the question begs, "Which ideas are tainted and which aren't?" Here is where Bulverism comes in. Lewis writes that discussion has become about why the other person is wrong rather than using reason to show what conclusion is most sensible. He writes the following, "It is no earthly use saying that those are tainted which agree with the secret wishes of the thinker... 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."

Lewis describes it again in this way: "In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method [Note: This essay was written in 1941.] 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."

Personally, these words were very convicting to me. As a psychology major who spends a great deal of time thinking about why people are the way that they are, I fall into Bulverism often. For people with whom I don't agree on certain issues, I am quick to say, "Oh, well, it's because they're like this psychologically that they believe this, so it must not be true." For example, I have a friend who thinks of God as a strict authoritarian figure and I rationalize that because his father was strict and authoritarian, thus my friend conceives of God in this way also. Thus, I discount this idea as wrong, but am I discounting the idea for valid reason, or am I succumbing to Bulverism? On the other hand, I have been discounted myself by others using Bulverism. An example is that my brother thinks that the only reason I am committed to God is because I have gone through some hard times in my life and my faith is a "comfort" to me and I need that comfort (or God) more than most people. Yet, this claim goes past reason into Bulverism. It's not just religion, however. Even in partisan politics, I often get exasperated at the hatred between the Democrats and Republicans. It seems as though some conservatives just don't even listen to liberals and instead just start saying why the "left" is wrong, and vice versa. How is it possible for a discussion like that to amount to anything?

I believe that Bulverism is at work as well on a global scale: as Lewis said himself, "Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs." That is obviously at work in politics today, but I don't think it's fair to just blame the easily targeted politicians. Bulverism is a problem for everyone, not just presidential candidates. I think everyday people should be exposed to this fallacy. I had never heard of Bulverism before, but it is such a huge problem all over the place. Why is this concept not more popularized? Why are people not aware of it? Even people who aren't philosophy majors, this idea is important to understand because it's everywhere. I really enjoyed this essay, and even though I am not that learned concerning the subject of philosophy, I still benefited greatly from reading about Bulverism.

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