C. S. Lewis’s work is certainly varied, from children’s fantasy fiction, to science fiction, to scholarly writings in English literature, to Christian apologetics, and of course this is only the beginning. Most of this work has philosophical relevance to a greater or lesser extent. While some attention has been paid to Lewis as a philosopher in recent years, in general I would have to say that, for the most part, Lewis has been neglected even by Christian philosophers.
Some of Lewis’s critics would attribute this to the fact that while Lewis was capable of powerful rhetoric, the philosophical thinking underlying his writings is shallow, superficial, and prone to fallacy. Such is the verdict of John Beversluis’s C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion. Now, Beversluis apparently considers the Christian theism that Lewis defends to be in error. But other philosophers who indeed embrace Lewis’s overall philosophical perspective often find him difficult to bring into contemporary philosophical debate. This is partly because Lewis’s writings are not typically written for an audience of philosophers, and also because philosophical style and terminology is subject to change. A professional philosophical culture has developed in the Anglo-American world that was not present when Lewis was getting his philosophical training, and Lewis didn’t consider it has calling to address that culture. This makes Lewis something of a misfit from the point of view of present-day philosophy. He is, I believe, closer to what we today would call analytic philosophy than he is to Continental philosophy, and yet his work doesn’t fit the framework of contemporary analytic philosophy either.
People who want to make use of Lewis’s work in the context of contemporary philosophy have to do a certain amount of translating. Lewis’s argument from reason, for example, today meets with objections based on cognitive science, or supervenience theory, or functionalism, or eliminativism, all concepts that Lewis would not have known about in his time. Hence, in my work defending the argument, Lewis provides the basic idea and the starting point, but I have to develop the argument to make it responsive to current philosophical developments.
Some critical readers of Lewis’s apologetics focus on certain sharply-worded passages which seem to make Christian apologetics look easy, indeed easier than it really is. Yet an acquaintance with Lewis’s overall work leaves us firmly convinced that his convictions were reached at the end of a long, hard process. That process seems indeed to have been a process of long philosophical reflection. While philosophers such as myself have concentrated on bringing Lewis’s arguments into play in contemporary philosophy, Adam Barkman has taken a different path, and that path primarily involves tracing out Lewis’s philosophical journey, and trying to understand the philosophical positions he takes through the lens of that journey.
The first step in that process is to replace a narrowly professional conception of philosophy with the idea of philosophy as a way of life. It is this concept of philosophy that Plato would have understood, as opposed to the idea that a philosopher is someone who has a job with a philosophy department and delivers papers to APA meetings on a regular basis.
Barkman’s second step is to trace out Lewis’s philosophical journey leading up to his conversion to Christianity, a conversion he frequently described as an almost purely philosophical conversion. We now have access to a comprehensive set of Lewis letters, and other biographical material that Lewis scholars of previous generations could only dream about, and Barkman makes good use of them to reconstruct this story. Barkman claims that Lewis’s own account of his conversion story in Surprised by Joy actually downplays the philosophical content of his conversion for the sake of his audience. (I should note that, in spite of this, you can see Lewis’s philosophical wheels turning even in that book. For example, in Lewis’s account of his rejection of what he there calls Realism we see the biographical basis of his Argument from Reason). The starting point for Barkman’s study is from an account of Lewis’s own development found in his preface to Pilgrim’s Regress, he offers an account of the philosophical content of the stages of his conversion:
'On the intellectual side my own progress had been from 'popular realism' to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity.1
However, Barkman finds this summary somewhat incomplete. “Popular realism” has to be identified as a metaphysical materialism. Barkman also identifies a “metaphysical dualist” phase in 1918 which is left out of this account. Third, a distinction has to be drawn between Lucretian materialism and Stoical materialism. When Lewis became an idealist, he oscillated between subjective idealism and absolute idealism, identifying only absolute idealism with pantheism. In fact, he thinks there were seven stages on Lewis’s way: Lucretian Materialism, Pseudo-Manichean Dualism, Stoical Materialism, Subjective Idealism, Absolute Idealism, Theism, and Neoplatonic Christianity.
At this point it pays to pause and consider how different the philosophical climate is today than it was in this time. Many debates in philosophy or religion are conducted between people who accept some version of materialism and those who accept some kind of theism, and idealisms of whatever sort are not currently on the map. When Lewis rejected materialism, he became, not a theist, but an idealist, and then after that found reasons for becoming a theist.
Once the template of these various positions is laid out, he proceeds to use them to trace Lewis’s development as it concerns various ideas, such as heavenly desire, myth, culture, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. The insights he provides from a chronological perspective are worthwhile certainly. Sometimes, he defends Lewis’s central claims, such as when he defends the argument from desire. And sometimes, he is critical, as when he discusses the so-called “trilemma” argument, where he takes the view that the argument is at best very incomplete, since it merely assumes that Jesus made claims to his own divinity.
The book is long, (611 pages) and it takes work to get something out of it. But it will reward those who study it carefully.
1 C. S. Lewis, the preface to the third edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress, in C. S. Lewis: Selected Books (Short Edition) (1933 reprint; London, Harper Collins, 2002), 5.