Sunday 26 June 2011

Chronological snobbery - Lewis and Barfield


From Surprised by Joy - by C.S. Lewis - with reference to his friendship with Owen Barfield (my punctuation and emphasis):


"[Barfield's] counter attacks destroyed forever [an element] 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the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.

"You must find out why it went out of date.

"Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom 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 their own age is also 'a period', and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions.

"They are likely to lie in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels necessary to defend them."



Why did something go out of date: was it ever refuted? Or to people disbelieve it merely because it is old-fashioned.

Some of the greatest intellectual shocks of the life have been recognizing that old ideas were never refuted but merely died away, to be replaced by something with novelty value but little or nothing else to recommend them - merely because of fashion, because that is the nature and definition of fashion.


I came across numerous examples in science (IQ research) medical history - especially psychiatry (the electroencephalogram); and the biggest example in philosophy - where the vast and coherent synthesis of Aquinas was progressively dismantled and discarded for ever smaller, more partial and less coherent systems.


Of course the process is most obvious in the arts over the past century, where the decline in quality is impossible to hide.

And then of course there are morals...



JP said...

"Chronological snobbery" is greatly evident in the field that concerns itself directly with chronology - i.e., history. Most history written today naturally relects uncritical acceptance of the modern PC climate. Sometimes one finds a past work of non-PC history that is refuted on the basis of newly available evidence, but most often non-PC works of history are simply ignored. Happily, a great many non-PC works of history are readily available via Google Books. One wonders how long the PC mandarins will permit this resource to exist before shutting it down on grounds of "racism" or some similar pretext.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - PC is already pre-immunized against old books.

(C S Lewis wrote a lot on this topic - eg in the Screwtape Letters and Screwtape's speech).

First, history has been made a profession and divided into sub-specialties, and rendered subject to fashion - and historians are ranked in authority by the PC-controlled university system.

But secondly, there is what Lewis called Bulverism. This is a mode of discourse where you simply assume that when people in the past differ from the present they are *wrong*, and you simply need to explain *why* they are wrong.

People don't even know they are doing this - so habitual has it become.

I came across an exmaple yesterday in The Narnian by Alan Jacobs, which is a mostly excellent biography and critical study of Lewis. Having described Bulverism, Jacobs then does it himself in a long and PC-anguished section of Lewis's attitudes to women.

Jacobs simply assumes that where Lewis's beliefs about women differ from those of modern PC then Lewis is wrong (either weird, or silly, or sinister); and having implicitly asserted Lewis's wrongness, Jacobs sets about explaining how Lewis came to these false conclusions (e.g. Lewis was a victim of his culture, Lewis didn't know much about women, the women Lewis knew were un-representative, he was emotionally scarred by his relationship with Mrs Moore... and so on).

And he makes excuses for Lewis's beliefs on the basis that - whatever he wrote - in real life he was respectful to women etc.

The point is that even for those who imagine themselves to be immune to chronological snobbery and Bulverism - the pervasiveness of PC makes it so easy to dismiss the past without refuting it, that even people who should know better can do it effortlessly and unaware.

JP said...

If you want to see Bulverism in its most furious and hypertrophied form, simply quote a pre-1860 author on the subject of slavery. Even an ostensible conservative of 2011 will indignantly argue that pre-1860 authors who opposed abolition were wrong, and should obviously have known they were wrong. Quote such authors to a modern liberal and it will evoke an outburst of chimp rage.

Thursday said...

the biggest example in philosophy - where the vast and coherent synthesis of Aquinas was progressively dismantled and discarded for ever smaller, more partial and less coherent systems.

Again to be fair, many Aristotelian views really were a serious impediment to the advancement of science. Even today a Thomist like David Oderberg in his book Real Essentialism can say some shockingly stupid things about biological species. But the moderns weren't content to merely correct the errors of Aristotle and his followers, they went after them with a hatchet. Hobbes is particularly egregious in this respect.

There are also aesthetic considerations. I tend to find the portrait of God in Aquinas quite unattractive. God in Aquinas is a little too intelligible. The record of artistic types turning away from Aquinas is quite long. Petrarch's case is notorious, but Hopkins turned away from Aquinas towards Scotus. People like Pascal, Newman and Chesterton, all of whom I have read a fair bit of, seem to me quite un-Thomist, despite the latter even writing a book on him. Or think of the wildness of Aslan in C.S. Lewis. Aquinas' God in contrast seems a little too domesticated, a little too pat.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - Even more furious is the response to reading closely the slavery abolitionists of the US Civil War: many of whom risked or lost their lives to end slavery; yet the abolitionists were all without exeception (or so I have read in contemporary writings and also in impeccably PC modern authors like Louis Menand) 'racists' of an extreme and uncompromising kind - at least according to current ideas of what that term means.

@Thursday - I regard Aquinas as the supreme *philosopher* - certainly not a great theologian.

I accept the Eastern Orthodox line that scholastic philosophy was 'a bad thing' (a major cause of the Great Schism) - and that Aquinas was not a saint, but indeed overall harmed Christianity by his work and by the tendency it established for philosophical specialization and professionalization (although more harm was done by those that came after).

As for the advancement of science - I was persuaded by Erwin Chargaff (amongst others , and by my own experience) that the *proper* (sustainable) rate of advancement of science is pretty slow - certainly much slower than happened in the late 19th early 20th century.

We now expect science to advance in three year increments, with the result that actually real science has been unravelling for some decades, and it is the hype which advances rapidly and reliably.