Archives for posts with tag: C.S. Lewis

An idea that presumably references reality should be judged on the merits of its accuracy . . . in mapping that relevant, pointed-to reality.

If the idea refers to existents, to things of a physical nature, then the idea should not be contradicted by evidence, by the facts. Empirical investigation would be the primary way to test the idea, to judge its worthiness for continued use. Belief should be based on this, if at all possible.

img_0363Trouble arises, of course, when empirical tests become difficult or impossible. Then we have to engage in more roundabout and elaborate testing. This is especially the case in the social science, since complexity necessarily complicates analysis as well as testing. And, perhaps more fundamentally, all human interaction (the realm of the social) depends upon human action, which rests upon choice — and choice (in its most deliberate forms, anyway) is the result of speculation about alternate courses of actions and the expected value of the effects of those actions. Any action must at least in part be judged in terms of what was not chosen — what did not, in effect, take place — as well as in terms of what was chosen — what was demonstrated in the act(s) themselves. This is necessarily metaphysical, in the “not-obviously empirical” sense.*

And then there is this issue: some ideas are so constructed that they derail critical thought, scuttle reasoning, and prevent the search for faults. Self-defensive theories, you might say.

Polylogism is a great example of this. Polylogism is “many logics,” and is the fairly widespread belief that there is one logic for one person or group and a different [and “equally valid”] logic for another. “You cannot understand this because you are a woman [or man]”; “you cannot understand this because you are of the wrong race”; “you only believe that because you are a capitalist”; “you only say that because you are an x [or y].”

Now, it may be true that some of these expressions pertain to some thoughts. Men may be so constituted to be more likely than women to believe that some things are true and others false — and vice versa. But the likelihood of a belief does not mean that the belief cannot be tested without reference to the believers’ sex. Truth-value is irrelevant to belief likelihood. Polylogists deny this. They say (sometimes witlessly, without thinking the idea through) that one’s perspective prohibits epistemic transcendence. We are confined to our categories. Rationality cannot be universal.

It is all very self-defeating. And, in reality, a mere formalization of variant of the ad hominem fallacy.

C. S. Lewis wrote a charming essay on this problem, “Bulverism,” and I heartily recommend that you look it up. Ludwig von Mises wrote incisively on polylogism in a technical way, and this I also highly recommend — though his manner of presentation is fairly difficult for novice readers.† Unfortunately, I’ve never actually come across a technical discussion of polylogism that is as clear Lewis’s informal presentation. Part of this is no doubt the result of the inherently metaphysical nature of human choice. And this is all the more difficult for us, today, because metaphysics itself is strongly resisted by today’s dominant modernist and post-modernist philosophical traditions.‡

I should probably go downstairs and pull out Man and People (Norton, 1963), by Ortega y Gasset. He may very well have dealt with this in the book. In memory, it seems relevant. I do know that this book made a more convincing-to-me case for a generally praxeological approach than did Mises’. Alas, I’ve not read Ortega’s final masterwork in nearly 40 years.

Nowadays, memetics deals with “mind viruses” such as polylogism. (There are others.) I am not aware, however, of a formal memetic analysis that takes a look at such self-defensive meme-plexes (I call them “memetic traps”) and relates them to the traditional lists of logical fallacies. That would be extremely useful.

I have a lot of studying to do on this issue. Hints from my friends and readers would be most appreciated.

* This should provide a clue as to why metaphysics keeps on cropping up in human science and philosophy, despite attempts by logical positivists (and others) to beat it down: we are beings where non-physicality is an essential aspect of our reality.

† C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1970), and Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, Third Edition: Revised (Regnery, 1966), pp. 75-89.

‡ Trends in philosophy are looking up, however, now that logical positivism has waned in influence, and some of its main contentions against metaphysics have been found wanting.


Over at io9, Charlie Jane Anders asks a fun question: “What’s your favorite novel that defies genre classification?” In the discussion that follows, a number of books were trotted out, including thick novels by Mark Helprin and John Crowley. But I didn’t notice my favorites. So I’ll list them here.

First, there are two ultra-early classics of the meta-novel, Tristram Shandy and Jacques the Fatalist and His Master. These are joys to read, but certainly don’t fall within the usual formulae of novel-writing. Similarly, Finnegans Wake takes off with the prize; it certainly isn’t easy to categorize, unless, like me, you designate it as the world’s longest nonsense prose poem.

But, more in keeping with later genre writing are four classics of “fantasy.” The word deserves the scare quotes because, well, they aren’t just, or quite, fantasy as we usually think of

G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is a true original. It is a satire. It is something of a mystery. It is a spy novel. It is a contemplation of anarchism and statism, both. And it goes off the rails into totally weird territory with its bizarre ending, one of the most outrageous in literature.

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, on the other hand, is world-building, fantasy of a different order, but it doesn’t go all mystical towards the end. It is, in a sense, a satire on the conservative temper, and a paean to non-compliant individualism. Though called a fantasy novel, Titus Groan contains no magic — other than its very effective literary technique, grotesquerie and ultra-Dickensian one-upmanship. Gormenghast, its sequel, carries on this amazing concoction flawlessly, to a rousing conclusion. Titus Alone brings us into a bizarre world later explored by the likes of Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, and Gene Wolfe. It is science fiction, not fantasy. But its focus is always at the individual level. It is also, alas, not flawless. I sometimes think of the Gormenghast trilogy as a duet, with forgettable coda. But perhaps I merely need to re-read the three books in order.

Next, I come around to my favorite meta-novel, James Branch Cabell’s Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasion. This work is a dream novel; a languorous high fantasy; a clever anti-romance set in the world of the genteel-tradition South. It contains a chapter on the conversion of the main character to Christianity, very much like C.S. Lewis’s later actual conversion, related in the memoir Surprised by Joy. But it’s not exactly a wholly serious theological event, and most readers cannot help but infer some caustic irony in this droll take on religion. And yet, in his own non-fiction accounts of his Episcopalianism, Cabell advanced the logic of hesitant acceptance as his own. Cabell, who in more outrageous fantastical modes (say, as in Jurgen and The Silver Stallion) regaled us with the vast bureaucracy of the afterlife and the heavens, offered a Christianity that it would be difficult to get very excited about. No wonder Lewis hated Cabell. And yet they are such similar fellows: Anglican Christians who loved romance, loved the ancient myths and fairy tales. But they parted company, for Cabell understood what really made the world go round, and developed a jaded philosophy to incorporate lust and the unobtainable ideal. Lewis made certain to make sure that ideals were utterly obtainable.CreamoftheJest

While Cream of the Jest seems to me a great masterwork, woefully unappreciated by academics who (rightly) drool over Nabokov’s even more outrageous jests, Cabell’s other masterpieces are mostly easier to confine within a genre — with a few receiving the requisite drool from die-hard fantasy readers. The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck is a comedy of romance, entirely realistic. The High Place, “The Music from Behind the Moon: An Epitome,” and the tales in The Silver Stallion are all high fantasy, if with deep comedy and a pointed philosophy at base. Smirt, Smith and Smire are three dream novels, “extending the realism of Lewis Carroll.” Hamlet Had an Uncle is a grim retelling of the stories that Shakespeare transformed into his greatest play. The only other true genre-buster is Beyond Life, a bizarre excursion into the territory of the literary manifesto, written in the form of a fantastic dialogue and containing a discussion of the world’s greatest book collection.

Mention of literary criticism reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s best non-fiction book, An Experiment in Criticism, a curious work that defends fantasy from the rather puritanical snubs of the critical snobs. In it you will find much to exercise your mind, but no defense of Cabell. But this meandering into the oeuvre of Tolkien’s erstwhile friend is not without purpose. Not only his his experiment worth consideration for fantasy and genre-bending literature, Lewis also produced one of the great masterworks of genre-busting fantasy, Till We Have Faces. As a novel that basically serves as the author’s answer to Job, there is nothing like it. And since it is also an extraordinarily moving and intelligent retelling of the Psyche myth, it, too, defies easy categorization, and thus deserves mention in the same breath as the greatest work by Chesterton, Peake, and Cabell.