What is Bulverism? An art movement, perhaps, or a school of philosophy, or a figure of speech? I’ll admit, having studied history, art, and literature in high school I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of it before. I shouldn’t have been. It turns out that Lewis invented the term “Bulverism” himself, along with the story of its fictitious creator, Ezekiel Bulver. Though Bulver may not have actually existed, however, Bulverism was and is very real, both in Lewis’s time and ours.
Bulverism is the notion that “refutation is no necessary part of argument”. In practice, it is attacking an opponent’s motives or bias rather than proving that his or her argument is actually false in order to distract attention from the real issue at hand. Lewis gives the example of someone dismissing the Christian faith on the grounds that clergy in past centuries benefitted from giving the poor laity hope of reward in a life to come. Certainly, he replies, the clergy did benefit. They may even have preached out of self-serving motives. But does this fact necessarily prove Christianity to be false? Clearly, it does not. Such a person’s argument is illogical at best, and underhanded at worst.
At the outset of his essay, Lewis poses two central questions. First, are all thoughts tainted by selfish motives, subconscious desires, economic impulses, etc.? And second, if a thought is tainted, must it then be untrue? He echoes “Meditation in a Toolshed” by responding that if all thoughts are tainted, then the thoughts of those who are disagreeing with him must be just as tainted as his own. If being polluted by selfish motives or desires doesn’t make a thought invalid, fair enough; but Christians are then just as safe as their accusers. We can never get outside of our own thoughts, just as we can never live outside of our own experiences. Thus, if either thoughts or experiences are universally misleading humanity is in quite a pickle.But how should we address this issue of Bulverism? How can the temptation to resort to it be put aside? In our class discussion, many students brought up the idea of humility, of being willing to listen to those who disagree with us, and to separate the argument from the person making it. Bulverism is more likely to happen when we see criticism of our beliefs as a personal attack, and retaliate in kind. However, another student also mentioned the need to recognize that, as human beings, our ideas are finite. No solution or system we devise will ever be perfect. Every choice we make will always have both benefits and costs. And so we’re met with a strange contradiction. To eliminate Bulverism, we must both distance a person from their arguments and at the same time tie the two even more closely together. We must avoid substituting insults for sound counter-arguments, all the while realizing that the ideas we are refuting came from another human mind, limited and fallible like ours.