Iron Sharpens Iron: Elizabeth Anscombe

Week Five of the C.S. Lewis and Women Series

Elizabeth Anscombe

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The lady is quite right to refute what she things bad theistic arguments, but does this not almost oblige her as a Christian to find good ones in their place: having obliterated me as an Apologist ought she not to succeed me?  – letter to Stella Aldwinckle 12 June 1950

In his preface to the first Socratic Digest, C.S. Lewis explains that the genesis of the Oxford Socratic Club began with an inquiry by a female chaplain, Stella Aldwinckle.  Aldwinckle asked Lewis if they could establish club where both sides of the debate over God’s existence (as well as facets of faith) could meet, discuss, and be welcomed. Lewis, intrigued by the idea, continues:

It is a little remarkable that, to the best of my knowledge, no society had ever before been formed for such a purpose.  There had been plenty of organizations that were explicitly Christian – the S.C.M. [Student Christian Movement], the Ark [Oxford Christian Society], the O.U.C.H. [Oxford University Church Union], the O.I.C.C.U. [Oxford Intercollegiate  Christian Union]- and there had been plenty of others, scientific and political, which were, if not explicitly, yet profoundly anti-Christian in outlook.  The questions about Christianity arose, no doubt, often enough in private conversation, and cast its shadow over the aesthetic or philosophical debates in many societies: but an arena specially devoted to the conflict between Christian and unbeliever was a novelty.  It’s value from a merely cultural point of view is very great. In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus.  The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and difference of opinion are embittered by group hostility.  Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other group can say.  In the Socratic all this was changed. Here a man could get the case for Christianity without all the paraphernalia of pietism and the case against it without the irrelevant sansculottisme of our common anti-God weeklies.  At the very least we helped to civilize one another; sometimes we ventured to hope that if our Athenian patron were allowed to be present, unseen, at our meetings he might not have found the atmosphere wholly alien  (386-387)

And so began the Oxford Socratic Club.  Lewis was enthusiastic about the idea, and served as president until he accepted a post at Cambridge University in 1954.  The club provided an opportunity to discuss intellectual concepts of belief and unbelief without all the “hostility” that usually ensues from differences in opinion.  Here, students presented papers which provided insight into various facets of spirituality.  Lewis was taking quite a gamble; this club could easily have stirred passions to the point where students were no longer receptive, thus increasing strife and encouraging a culture of misunderstanding. However, under Lewis’s direction, the club thrived.

One important aspect to note is that the club started after an inquiry from a female chaplain.  Adlwinckle was the Pastorate’s chaplain for women students, and noticed that scientific arguments were affecting modern belief. She had previously hosted a series of discussions “for agnostics and atheists at Somerville College” and wished to “establish such a forum across the university as a whole” (McGrath). Equally as important is a composition of the club.  McGrath remarks that its members were primarily women.  In 1944, records indicated 164 members, 109 of which were students hailing from Oxford’s five all-women colleges.

In 1947, Lewis published Miracles: A Preliminary Study.  During this term, it was expected the Lewis would bring facets of his argument up for debate at Socratic meetings. One of Lewis’s points was that naturalism is self-refuting. This argument is located in the third chapter of Miracles, originally titled “The Self-Contradiction of the Naturalist”.   On 2 February 1948, a young scholar named Elizabeth Anscombe presented an argument titled “A Reply to Mr. C.S. Lewis’s Argument that ‘Naturalism’ is Self-Refuting”.

In this keen, insightful paper, Anscombe basically dismantled Lewis’s argument. Lewis has stated previously, “If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason have we to trust it?”   If our beliefs are products of “environmental factors or evolutionary pressures”, and we cannot trust it when navigating our complex beliefs, then it is also untrustworthy when it attempts to build a case against the existence of God.  Materialist and “naturalist” J.B.S. Haldane wrote:

If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true.  They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have to reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.  In order to escape from this necessity of sawing away the branch on which I am sitting, so to speak, I am compelled to believe that mind is not wholly conditioned by matter (“When I am Dead”).

Lewis illuminated that if naturalism results from “rational reflection, then the validity of that process of thought has to be assumed in order to reach this conclusion” (McGrath). Essentially, Lewis states that “No thought is valid if it can be fully explained as the result of irrational causes”.  In this way, it negates itself, or is “self-refuting”.  Anscombe, on the other hand, believed that “irrational causes” that supposedly spurn human thoughts could be debated.  In her paper, she claims,

What sorts of thing would one normally call “irrational causes” for human thoughts? – If one is asked this, one immediately thinks of such things as passion, self-interest, wishing only to see the agreeable or disagreeable, obstinate and prejudicial adherence to the views of a party or school with which one is connected, and so on.  Suppose one mentions such things, and then someone says: There are also tumors on the brain, tuberculosis, jaundice, arthritis, and similar things, one would rightly object that these do not belong in the same list as the others. They are not “irrational causes”; they are conditions which we know to go with irrational beliefs or attitudes with sufficient regularity for us to call them causes.

You speak of “irrational causes,” and by that you seem to mean “any cause that is not something rational.” “Something rational” you explain by example: “such as (you say) argument from observed facts.” You contrast the following sentences: (1) “He things that dog dangerous because he has often seen it muzzled and he has noticed that messengers always try to avoid going to that house”; (2) “He thinks that dog dangerous because it is black and ever since he was bitten by a black dog in childhood he has always been afraid of black dogs.” “Both sentences” you say “explain why the man thinks as he does. But the one explanation substantiates the value of his thought and the other discredits it…The difference is that in the first instance the man’s belief is cause by something rational (by argument from observed facts) while in the other it is caused by something irrational (association of ideas).” – Socratic Digest 2012, edited by Joel Heck

Furthermore, Anscombe is also critical of his conclusions based upon faulty reasoning.  In the club notes, she addressed Lewis on his misuse of “cause” and “ground”.  She also accused Lewis of “misunderstanding her” because he did not “distinguish between ‘having reasons’ and ‘having reasoned’ in the causal sense”.  The notes indicate that the group was conflicted: some members sided with Anscombe while others sided with Lewis or at least requested that he clear up ambiguities associated with terms used in his initial argument (Miracles). Lewis notes later that disagreed with the use of the word “valid” and makes several more assertions about his position.

Over the years, many biographers have argued that Lewis was spiritually deflated by this episode.  Alister McGrath points to several authors, A.N. Wilson among them, who have suggested that this “loss” deeply affected Lewis, to the point where he questioned his value as an apologist.  He altered chapter three of Miracles after the debate, retitling it “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism”.  The quote from his letter to Aldwinckle, included above, illustrates that he felt defeated, but it does not suggest that Lewis “gave up”. Supposedly, Lewis “abandoned” theological argument and began writing children’s stories and devotional works. In her introduction to Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind, Anscombe recalls that Dr. Havard had her over for dinner and invited Lewis to perhaps mend fences:

The meeting of the Socratic Club at which I read my paper has been described by several of his friends as a horrible and shocking experience which upset him very much. Neither Dr. Havard (who had Lewis and me to dinner a few weeks later) nor Professor Jack Bennet remembered any such feelings on Lewis’s part…My own recollection is that it was an occasion of sober discussion of certain quite definite criticisms, which Lewis’s rethinking and rewriting showed he thought was accurate. I am inclined to construe the odd accounts of the matter by some of his friends—who seem not to have been interested in the actual arguments or the subject-matter—as an interesting example of the phenomenon called projection.

What need was there for resentment?  Anscombe obviously respected Lewis and perceived her argument more as an intellectual exercise; it was never an attempt to “one up” a famous professor. She, like Lewis, hailed from Ireland.  She was a devout Catholic, after converting during her first year of studies at Oxford.  She was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a mother of seven children, and author of several celebrated philosophical works including Intention.

Here we see that Lewis is most democratic with the female members of the Socratic Club.  They had equal opportunities to explore (and even dispute, as we see here) various aspects of club topics. Lewis created the club with that very intention in mind, to expand and challenge the minds of others, including himself.  I do not see any evidence that Lewis resented Anscombe.  In fact, according to the quote from his 12 June letter to Aldwinckle, he strongly recommends Anscombe to replace him as Socratic Club president.  Would Lewis have wanted this if he were upset over loosing the debate to Anscombe?  I believe not.  Although we do detect a change in the direction of Lewis’s writing at that time, and would be foolish to completely dismiss Anscombe’s debate as making a significant impression on Lewis, it is not a “defeat”, just simply a new lens which perhaps prompted a new trajectory for Lewis’s writing. The suggestion that Anscombe was the inspiration for the White Witch in preposterous.  Lewis would not stoop to characterizing in such a negative light.

Next weekend, we will explore further an admirer of Lewis’s, poetess Ruth Pitter.

If you desire more information on the Socratic Club, please check out the 2012 version of the Socratic Digest, edited by Joel Heck.


Tim says:

I’ve always wondered about those stories that Lewis left the Anscombe debate with his tail between his legs. It just didn’t match up to everything else we know about his character and actions.

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