Sunday, January 21, 2007

"She obliterated me as an apologist": Lewis and the Anscombe Legend

Last week when I was laid up with a stomach virus, I had the opportunity to read a large part of C. S. Lewis's Collected Letters, Vol. 3, which has just been published. Letters do not contain all that is relevant for understanding a man's life, but they are datable, first-person documents and therefore are primary in a way that biographies (or even autobiographies) are not.

This particular volume sheds a bit of light on what has come to be called "the Anscombe legend." On Feb. 2, 1948, Lewis and the philosopher G. E. M. (Elizabeth) Anscombe engaged in a disputation at the Oxford Socratic Club, of which Lewis was president. The subject was Lewis's argument that naturalism (the view that the natural world is all that exists) is self-refuting, since "no thought is valid if it can be fully explained as the result of irrational causes" (Lewis, Miracles, ch. 3). Anscombe argued that he failed to distinguish two senses of the word "because," which can be used to denote not only a cause-effect relation, but also a ground-consequent relation. An argument could be valid, because (Ground-Consequent) its propositions entail each other, even if the propositions are generated (Cause-Effect) by irrational factors. Lewis eventually agreed that his argument was inadequate at this point and needed revision.

Those facts are not in dispute, but the consequences of them in Lewis's life have been debated. It was reported by some of Lewis's friends that he was greatly shaken by his defeat, as he saw it, and eventually turned away from formal apologetics altogether, devoting himself instead to other kinds of writing, such as the Chronicles of Narnia. This view was first put forth, I believe, by Humphrey Carpenter in his book The Inklings.
Certainly after it was all over Lewis himself was in very low spirits.... [Derek] Brewer write in his diary: "None of us was at first very cheerful. Lewis was obviously deeply disturbed by his encounter last Monday with Miss Anscombe ..." ... Brewer added that Lewis's imagery when talking about the debate "was all of the fog of war, the retreat of infantry thrown back under heavy attack."
Lewis had learnt his lesson... (Carpenter, Pt. 4, ch. 1)
However, a reaction has set in against this view of Lewis's response. The "Anscombe legend," as Victor Reppert calls it, is, according to some, purely mythical. Lewis was not in fact devastated by the Anscombe argument, although he agreed that his argument needed revision. (This is the view taken by Anscombe herself.) The fact that he wrote no further book-length works of apologetics can be explained by other factors besides a putative loss of nerve in the wake of a shattering defeat. This view is most notably championed by Victor Reppert and John Beversluis.

However, the evidence of the new letters, such as it is, is more supportive of the first view. Most important is the letter to Stella Aldwinckle, secretary of the Socratic Club, of June 12, 1950. Lewis was proposing speakers for the new term, and he suggested that "Miss Anscombe" speak on "Why I believe in God." His comment was this:
The lady is quite right to refute what she thinks bad theistic arguments, but does this not almost oblige her as a Christian to find good ones in their place: having obliterated me as an Apologist ought she not to succeed me? (Letters 3:35; emphasis mine.)
One may question whether there is more irony than bitterness in this comment; nevertheless, it shows that Lewis was felt, either by himself or others, to have sustained a crippling blow.

The same feeling is evident in a letter to Robert C. Walton of the BBC on July 10, 1951:
... like the old fangless snake in The Jungle Book, I've largely lost my dialectical power. (Letters 3:129)
Another key piece is the letter of Sept. 28, 1955, to Carl F. H. Henry, who asked him to write some apologetic articles for Christianity Today:
I wish your project heartily well but can't write you articles. My thought and talent (such as they are) now flow in different, though I think not less Christian, channels, and I do not think I am at all likely to write more directly theological pieces. . . . If I am now good for anything it is for catching the reader unawares — thro' fiction and symbol. I have done what I could in the way of frontal attacks, but I now feel quite sure those days are over. (Letters 3:651; emphasis Lewis.)
All of this suggests that Lewis really felt a change in himself in the wake of the Anscombe disputation. Nevertheless, he did from time to time return, in a small way, to apologetics, most notably in revising Chapter 3 of Miracles in line with Anscombe's critique for a 1960 reprint, as well as a variety of smaller pieces.

Of course, it should also be noted that Lewis's feelings and Lewis's arguments must be assessed separately. The fact is that his argument about naturalism was not obliterated by Anscombe, and in fact has enjoyed a revival, most notably in Alvin Plantinga's Warrant and Proper Function. Many of Lewis's enemies (for instance A. N. Wilson) attempt to employ Lewis's own retreat from apologetics as an ad hominem attack on the totality of his work, without engaging the particularities of the argument, or of Lewis's revision of it in the 1960 Miracles.

Personally, I prefer to see the hand of Providence in Lewis's turn from formal apologetics. If he hadn't turned to "fiction and symbol," would we have the Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces, The Four Loves; or the great critical works, such as The Discarded Image or Studies in Words? Omnia cooperantur in bonum.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: The "argument from reason": Victor Reppert, C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason; Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, 1993; Richard Taylor, Metaphysics, ch. 10 (1974). See Reppert's blog for other references, both pre- and post-Lewis.

UPDATE: For Jim Davila and others who have inquired: Anscombe's paper can be found in her collection Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind (1981; vol. 2 of her Collected Papers), which also contains her own memories of the disputation; Lewis's initial response and the minutes of the Socratic Club meeting are reprinted in the collection God in the Dock, pp 144-146 (UK title: Undeceptions).


Brandon said...

Great post, Ed!

Jim Davila said...

Thanks Ed, interesting post. Does a transcript survive of Anscombe's lecture?

Victor Reppert said...

This is interesting. My paper on the Anscombe Legend in The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy is my most detailed analysis of the "legend" issue. The Carpenter passage suggests a retreat toward something like fideism (No one can possibly do more than decide what to believe), and this cannot be correct. The evidence, even in the Chronicles of Narnia, is that Lewis was anything but a fideist. In Chronicles the relation between faith and reason is exactly what it is in Mere Christianity. Identifying the Green With with Anscombe, as Wilson (the most egregious of the Legend advocates), is insane.

It also cannot be the case that Lewis came to believe that his argument was bad, except very briefly. His immediate response to Anscombe that appeared in the Socratic Digest shows that he accepted her objections to her formulation of the argument against naturalism, but that using the very distinctions Anscombe introduced it could be shown that naturalism is in serious trouble. The central argument of the revised edition is right there in the response. Not only that, but versions of the argument from reason appear in A Grief Observed (see ch. 1 of my book) and in The Discarded Image.

So why these expressions of discouragement and disappointment made to various people? He may have been disappointed in his performance on that particular night. He may have been dismayed by the fact that, in the eyes of many, the rational defensibility of the faith depended upon how clever he might have been on some evening at the Socratic. And he may have recognized that the task of taking on particular philosophical movement like positivism or Wittgensteinianism was a job for a philosophical specialist like Plantinga.

I think Lewis came to believe that his style of argumentation would not be well-received in the philosophical atmosphere which he found to be more and more prevalent at the Socratic. This might have been hard on him because he did believe in the rational defensibility of Christianity and the importance of defending it in open dialogue.

I posted a response on this matter on my own blog yesterday. The quote from J. R. Lucas posted there illustrates my point.

Victor Reppert said...

I don't see why my comment doesn't come up on the main page.

EMC said...

Sorry, Victor, I think Blogger was down part of the day today. I appreciate your response, and I've left a comment on your blog as well.

Anonymous said...

Lewis revised his chapter in Miracles that presented that argument. Shouldn't that be the place to look for what his view turned into after Anscombe's criticism?

Victor, it's a little strange to say that Lewis could have felt the apologetics job should be in the hands of someone like Plantinga, because Plantinga hadn't really come on the scene yet. I'm not sure he was even in grad school yet by that time. Anscombe may have been one of the most prominent Christian philosophers, in fact (along with her husband Peter Geach).