Thursday, November 24, 2016

C. S. Lewis's Critique of Chronological Snobbery

Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my "chronological snobbery," the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also "a period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.


T said...


Unknown said...

Wow, I really like this post. I wonder if there are philosophical ideas buried in the past, just waiting. Edward Fesser's autobiographical post over on his blog is just like this: you can watch his slow progression from atheism to Christian theism. It's actually pretty funny, how he at first was teaching a class on what he took to be "out dated" arguments for God's existence until realizing he wasn't being fair. Here's a quote from his post:

"I don’t know exactly when everything clicked. There was no single event, but a gradual transformation. As I taught and thought about the arguments for God’s existence, and in particular the cosmological argument, I went from thinking “These arguments are no good” to thinking “These arguments are a little better than they are given credit for” and then to “These arguments are actually kind of interesting.” Eventually it hit me: “Oh my goodness, these arguments are right after all!” By the summer of 2001 I would find myself trying to argue my wife’s skeptical physicist brother-in-law into philosophical theism on the train the four of us were taking through eastern Europe."

B. Prokop said...

It's absolutely astounding how many people today will say something like "Nobody knows who really wrote the Gospels," without having the slightest idea where that notion came from or how to defend it. And tell them that it's a product of its times (the late 19th Century) and you'll get a blank stare in return.

This is one of those "truths" that gain respectability by sheer repetition. Thank God for the recent publication of works such as Brant Pitre's The Case for Jesus, which provide a much needed counterweight to mindless citing of such "facts".

B. Prokop said...

There is another aspect to the problem of chronological snobbery to which I wonder whether Lewis devoted enough attention, and that is the concept of an idea being a "product of its times". On page 13 of the truly excellent book The Geographies of Mars, author K. Maria Lane writes, "The geopolitical moment [the late 19th/early 20th Centuries] in which the inhabited-Mars narrative unfolded - dominated as it was by European imperialism and American expansionism - produced an intellectual and social climate in which the view of Mars as an arid, dying, irrigated world peopled by unfathomably advanced beings was really the only interpretation of Mars observations that could plausibly have been accepted by large numbers of Western scientists, writers, and audiences." (emphasis in original)

We should always consider an idea's context when evaluating its objectivity, or even its veracity - a sort of mirror image to chronological snobbery. While we should never discard an unrefuted argument simply on the grounds that it came from an earlier time, neither should we ignore the influence of that time on the argument.