All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1984

Evading The Issue

Dr. Carson has written and taught extensively, specializing in American intellectual history, He is the author of several books, his most recent being Organized Against Whom? The Labor Union In America. He is working st present on A Basic History of the United States to be published by Western Goals, Inc.

Reason has not fared well in this century. This is the more strange because never before have there been so many ways to convey thought and ideas so swiftly and extensively to other people. Before the 1840s, when the telegraph was invented, it was only possible to convey ideas either in person or on paper, written out by hand or printed and shipped at the same speed, more or less, as other cargo. Now, ideas and pictures can be communicated virtually instantaneously around the world via satellites. This development is, if not the culmination, one of the most re cent in a dazzling array of inventions and discoveries for making words available or retrievable over distances with great rapidity: the telephone, recordings, radio, television, motion pictures with sound tracks, microfilm, and so on.

Yet conveying carefully reasoned and sustained thought is very much an uphill job in this century. Indeed, it may well be much more difficult than in earlier centuries. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that there is a causal connection between the proliferation of the means of communication and the resistance to the product of sustained thought. Undoubtedly, the great cacophony of sound and sights made swiftly available by these devices does make more active discrimination necessary if we are to distinguish between sound and sense in this century.

But there is good reason to believe that the low estate of sustained rational thought in this century has other explanations. Reason has been subjected to sustained direct and indirect assaults for more than a century now. It has been dismissed as rationalization, abandoned as ineffective, and ignored as if it were beside the point. Reason has been widely discredited, and it has been swept aside by the dominant irrational currents in many fields of thought.

Above all, though, reason has been made to appear irrelevant by focusing the intellectual attention elsewhere. Whole schools of thought have taught us to ask why people say, think, or believe as they do, rather than to ask whether what they say is valid or invalid, true or false. They have taught us to deal with secondary questions about ideas rather than the primary one, thus avoiding the basic question or evading the issues raised by trains of reasoning. The late C. S. Lewis devised an imaginary name for this turn of mind. He called it “Bulverism.”

“Some day,” Lewis wrote, “I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment,’ E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the . . . dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.”

Unfortunately, Lewis never got around to writing this illuminating biography. Indeed, his description of “Bulverism” is fragmentary (in the version printed in the collection of essays, God in the Dock, published by Arlington House, pp. 271-77). His main concern was with Christian apologetics; in that endeavor he employed reason rigorously, albeit with much wit and charm, and he insisted over and over again that the basic issue that precedes all others was whether or not the Christian view is correct and true. Those who raised subsidiary issues first were, in his view, evading the issue. He saw clearly that “Bulverism” was an obstacle to his efforts, as well as those of anyone using reason to arrive at such truth as they could hope to arrive at and convey to others.

Examples of “Bulverism”

The two actual examples which Lewis gives of “Bulverism” at work are from Freudianism and Marxism. More broadly, what he had in mind was the habit of psychologizing and appealing to economic determinism as a means of explaining (away) statements or beliefs. “The Freudians have recently discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes,” Lewis said. “The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class.” Thus, he says, if the claim is made that Elizabeth I was a great queen, the Freudian says that if the claimants are analyzed it will be discovered that they believe this “because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source.” The Marxist, on the other hand, says that if people think that economic freedom is a good thing it is “because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are ‘ideologically tainted’ at the source.”

These approaches are profoundly subversive of reasoned and sustained thought. They are evasions of the issues. They assume what has not yet been tested, i.e., whether Elizabeth I was indeed a great queen or whether economic freedom is a good thing. To answer the question about Elizabeth, it would be necessary to weigh the evidence pro and con and arrange it in some fashion to arrive at a conclusion. To decide whether economic freedom is (or is not) a good thing it is necessary to engage in a lengthy process of reasoning, supported at the appropriate places with such evidence as can be assembled.

It may well be that propositions could have been chosen to which reason could be more aptly applied to arrive at satisfactory conclusions. But that is irrelevant. The point is that the basic question about a proposition is its truth or falsity, that why it is believed becomes of interest mainly when it has been shown to be false, and that the only way for us to ascertain the truth of a proposition is by reason.

The question now becomes: Is our thought tainted at the source? The answer, I think, depends both upon the source of thought in general and the source of any particular line of reasoning. So far as I can make out, the source of thought in general is the premises upon which it rests. The source of any particular line of reasoning is the particular premise from which it proceeds. If the premise is sound, and the rules of reason have been carefully observed, the conclusion reached should be valid.

What I am saying is this. If we trace any line of reasoning back to its source, what we discover is a premise. If the premise is invalid, then the source of our thought is indeed tainted, and our conclusions will also be invalid. To know where we stand, it is highly important to test our premise. To do that, we must, of course, advert to the premise(s) on which it rests, back finally to the First Cause, Original Source, or God, as philosophers have pointed out from time immemorial. But I point out the last here mainly to make clear that I do not have in mind some sort of infinite regression.

Naturalistic Premises of Marxists and Freudians

The basic premises of the Marxists and Freudians are naturalistic in character. The broad frame within which their conceptions took hold is known as naturalism. (If it be objected that I am here explaining why they believed as they did, it should be pointed out that it is necessary to do this to get to their premises.) Although naturalism had many facets, the one that concerns us here is its application to ideas. Naturalists tended to view ideas as natural events in the same stream of causation as other natural events.

Karl Marx was (as any Marxist is) a materialist. That is, he believed that ideas and beliefs have a material cause, more specifically, that they are a reflex—an ideology—of economic interests determined by what class controls the instruments of production. In any case, they are materialistic in origin and are in a natural, i.e., material, in this case, stream of causation.

Sigmund Freud’s thought was not so simplistically naturalistic as was that of Marx. Nonetheless, his explanations are basically naturalistic, though they are rooted in mental phenomena more than in the exterior world. Naturalistic ideas had already made considerable impact before Freud made his psychoanalytic innovations. Mechanistic (or materialistic) psychology comes out most clearly in behaviorism and its emphasis upon external stimulus and internal response.

Freud was not a behaviorist, but he did treat the mind and its contents as if they were in a natural stream of causation. The contents came from past experience and were stored largely in the unconscious (subconscious, non-rational, or irrational) mind. Our conscious ideas are apparently altered and driven or directed from the seat of the unconscious. True, Freud’s psychoanalysis purports to deal with pathological states, but that has not in the least deterred Freudians generally from treating ideas as if they were all tainted by their subconscious origins, i.e., have a non- or irrational base.

Neither Marxians nor Freudians recognize reason as it has been understood for the better part of 2,500 years in Western philosophy or describe the rules for its normal operation. Clearly, ideas are not material objects, such as billiard balls, which follow a path determined by the angle from which they are struck with cue sticks. No one has ever seen, felt, tasted, smelled, or heard (in the literal sense) an idea. Ideas are immaterial or, since that word has two distinct connotations, non- material; they can, therefore, only be affected by material in whatever ways that which is immaterial can be. That the material ordinarily has a determinative effect on the immaterial is most doubtful. In any case, it is highly doubtful that thought or reasoning is in the chain of natural causation.

Thought is not a natural event, as we usually construe that phrase. It is sui generis, unique, belonging to its own category, distinct from all others. If reason is any kind of event at all, it is a human event. The ability to do sustained reasoning is a distinctly human ability. As for its place in causation, sustained reasoning, or the results of it, joins the chain of causation as a cause, not an effect. When thought is performing its proper office it is determinative, not determined. That this is the nature and role of reason is not some new insight of mine; it is the common sense of those throughout the ages who have given thought to the matter.

Some qualifications are in order, of course. Undoubtedly, all sorts of things may influence, disrupt, distort, or even condition our thinking. Intense heat or cold may make any but the most elementary thinking extremely difficult. Low pressure systems in the atmosphere may depress us, and high pressure systems may exhilarate us. Our wishes, whether born of material interests or immaterial desires for diversion, may lead us to wrong conclusions. Pathological mental states may render us incapable of sound reasoning. Our minds do not exist in splendid isolation from our bodies but are rather so much connected with them that we can rarely ignore them for long. If I were bitten by a rattlesnake, I suspect I would have great difficulty even breathing, much less thinking.

But all that should be nothing to the point. It is the very office of reason to put at naught all these influences which distort conclusions. If I draw my conclusion as to what is of ultimate importance in this world in the presence of a Bengal tiger on the loose, I may be expected to modify it in more serene surroundings, to say nothing of how others might view my conclusion. In like manner, it is the business of reason to remove all discrepancies in thought, whatever their source. The source of the discrepancy does not matter any more than the fact that Ezekiel Bulver’s father was a man mattered in his conclusions about a triangle. The question is whether or not it is possible to construct a triangle any two of whose sides must not be longer combined than the other. If it is not, it matters not at all whether the person who drew the conclusion was a man or woman, a bourgeois or industrial worker, had an inferiority complex or had sublimated his sexual desires. Anyone who doubts this axiom about triangles can test it for himself. All else is irrelevant. It evades the issue.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.