Bulverism

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.

C. S. Lewis, “Bulverism” from God in the Dock

If I were to choose the most influential thinker on my life, it would be C. S. Lewis. I loathed reading as a child until I picked up a copy of The Screwtape Letters in high school. After that, I tried to read everything Lewis wrote (whether I understood a word of it or not). That being said, this quote from Lewis has always left me unsettled. I love it for what it says, but hate it because I find myself committing the very fallacy which Lewis critiques. Maybe it’s my personality or maybe it’s my generation, but my desire to understand why people believe certain things overrides my ability to say whether they are right or wrong.

Yet I don’t think I’m the only one with this problem. Indeed, this often happens when Protestants (liberal or conservative) speak of the Early Church. In one fell swoop, the theology of the Early Church is dismissed (more accurately, the theology with which one disagrees) as being influenced by Hellenistic thought. Be sure to thrown the adjective “biblical” in there for good measure which shows (without argument) that your position is the correct one! It’s quite easy and can be made into a game. Just answer “Hellenization” (Platonism or any other equivalent will also work) to any question about the Early Church.

Q: Was the Early Church right to baptism infants?
A: No, they did it because of Hellenization.

Q: Was the Early Church’s articulation of justification right (i.e., exactly that of the Reformation)?
A: No, they did it because of Hellenization.

Q: Was the Early Church right to accept the Apocrypha?
A: No, they did it because of Hellenization.

Q: Was the Early Church right to believe in baptismal regeneration?
A: No, they did it because of Hellenization.

Q: Was the Early Church right to practice allegorical interpretation?
A: No, they did it because of Hellenization.

Q: Was the Early Church right to create such rigid hierarchical ecclesiastical structures?
A: No, they did it because of Hellenization.

The list can go on. The point is this: Why the Early Church did or believed something is a different issue than whether or not what they did or believed was right. It also works the other way. Whether or not the Early Church–or even the Apostolic Church–did something is to some degree irrelevant to it’s correctness. Lewis provides a good example in the same essay:

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.

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2 thoughts on “Bulverism

  1. Pingback: N. T. Wright – Can We Get There from Here? | A Word About Words

  2. Pingback: The Not-So-Platonists Neoplatonists « A Word About Words

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