Friday, June 23, 2006

The False Anscombe Legend

This is familiar material to those of you who read my book or my essay for the Chronicles of Narnia volume, but I am working on an entry for a C. S. Lewis encyclopedia, so I have put a couple of things I wrote in different places together here.

The False Anscombe Legend
It is sometimes argued that not only are Lewis’s apologetics woefully inadequate, but that Lewis himself recognized this and abandoned apologetics at the height of his apologetic career, as a reaction to a devastating encounter with a real philosopher. This encounter was not with an atheist, it was with the Roman Catholic Elizabeth Anscombe.
The legendary debate with Anscombe took place at the Oxford Socratic Club on February 2, 1948. In his book Miracles, published the year before, Lewis argued that naturalism—the view that only physical reality exists—is self-contradictory. Anscombe sharply criticized the argument, claiming that it was confused and based on the ambiguous use of key terms. According to the “Anscombe legend,” Lewis not only admitted that Anscombe got the better of the exchange, but recognized that his argument was wrong. Further, as a result of the exchange, Lewis gave up on Christian apologetics. According to Humphrey Carpenter, one of the purveyors of the Anscombe legend, “Though [Lewis] continued to believe in the importance of Reason in relation to his Christian faith, he had perhaps realized the truth of Charles Williams’s maxim, ‘No-one can possibly do more than decide what to believe.’’ In short, Lewis went from a belief in the rationality of his faith to a fideistic position, according to which belief is based on faith and should not be defended rationally.
Now it is true that, immediately following the debate, Lewis expressed disappointment to friends as to how the debate went. Further, Lewis did think that Anscombe’s objections were serious enough to require him to rewrite the relevant chapter of Miracles. And it is also true that he wrote no more explicitly apologetic books after Miracles. But we have no reason to believe that he had any apologetic books in mind that went unwritten because of the exchange with Anscombe. What we do know is that he did continue to write essays on apologetical subjects. In “Is Theism Important” (1952), Lewis affirms the importance of theistic arguments, and says “Nearly everyone I know who has embraced Christianity in adult life has been influenced by what seemed to him to be at least probable arguments for Theism.”4 In “On Obstinacy of Belief” (1955), Lewis defends Christianity against the charge that while scientists apportion their beliefs to the evidence, religious people do not, and are therefore irrational. In “Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger” (1958), Lewis defends his Christian apologetics against criticisms from a prominent theologian, hardly what you would expect him to do if he thought his career as an apologist had been misguided The essay “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” (1959) is a stinging assault on modern Biblical scholarship of a skeptical variety, the sort of scholarship that is currently represented by members of the Jesus Seminar.7 If that essay is not a piece of Christian apologetics, then I simply do not know what the term means.
I should note that Lewis not only revised his chapter on Miracles, he expanded the chapter. Now if you really thought that someone had proved you wrong, why in the world would you expand the very chapter that had been disproved? What is more, this revision was not just something he thought of years later; an examination of the original issue of the Socratic Digest in which Anscombe’s article appears we find a short response by Lewis in which he lays the foundation for the subsequent revision, which appeared in 1960.8
One devastating blow to the Anscombe legend has come from a surprising source. In his 1985 book C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion John Beversluis criticized C. S. Lewis’s apologetics as a failure, and in so doing made reference to the psychological impact of the Anscombe incident. He also analyzed the arguments, and found that “the arguments that Anscombe presented can be pressed further, and Lewis’s revised argument does nothing to meet them.” However, in a subsequent review of A. N. Wilson’s biography of C. S. Lewis, which implied Lewis wrote Narnia because he was running away from the thumping he got from Anscombe, Beversluis, much to his credit, abandoned the Anscombe Legend entirely. He wrote:
First, the Anscombe debate was by no means Lewis's first exposure to a professional philosopher: he lived among them all his adult life, read the Greats, and even taught philosophy. Second, it is simply untrue that the post-Anscombe Lewis abandoned Christian apologetics. In 1960 he published a second edition of Miracles in which he revised the third chapter and thereby replied to Anscombe. Third, most printed discussions of the debate, mine included, fail to mention that Anscombe herself complimented Lewis's revised argument on the grounds that it is deeper and far more serious than the original version. Finally, the myth that Lewis abandoned Christian apologetics overlooks several post-Anscombe articles, among them "Is Theism Important?" (1952)—a discussion of Christianity and theism which touches on philosophical proofs for God's existence—and "On Obstinacy of Belief"—in which Lewis defends the rationality of belief in God in the face of apparently contrary evidence (the issue in philosophical theology during the late 1950s and early 60s). It is rhetorically effective to announce that the post-Anscombe Lewis wrote no further books on Christian apologetics, but it is pure fiction. Even if it were true, what would this Argument from Abandoned Subjects prove? He wrote no further books on Paradise Lost or courtly love either.

1 comment:

JD Walters said...

Dr Reppert,

It's always a good idea to give a little historical context to a particular argument or line of reasoning, but frankly one of the only complaints I had about your otherwise excellent book is that you devote two whole chapters to 'rehabilitating' Lewis as a philosopher and showing that the 'Anscombe' legend is false. Maybe there is some historical clearing up to do, but arguments should be evaluated on their own merits regardless of how they came to be. Your book was on the 'Argument from Reason' and as you rightly point out it is not an original argument to C.S. Lewis, but goes back to such philosophers as Immanuel Kant, Rene Descartes, James Jordan, Arthur James Balfour, yourself, William Hasker, etc. I understand your wanting to pay tribute to a great philosopher and writer whom you (and certainly I) greatly admire but stop pounding on an open door. The AFR needs more elaboration, skillful presentation, engagment with the latest neuroscientific and philosophical work and less historical perspective. If critics swallow ad hominem arguments against Lewis wholesale without objectively reflecting on his own arguments, that's their problem.