How C.S. Lewis handled losing a debate with Anscombe

Derek Ouellette —  January 22, 2013 — 2 Comments

There are three lessons we can learn from Lewis’ defeat to Anscombe in a public and humiliating debate.

 

Elizabeth Anscombe

THE BACK STORY

In 1941 the Pastorate’s chaplain for women, Stella Aldwinckle at Oxford believed it was necessary to establish an Oxford Club that focused on apologetics. So the “Socratic Club” (as she called it) was founded as an Oxford University student society. According to the rules of the University, a student club required a “Senior Member” – an Oxford don – who would take responsibility for the club. C.S. Lewis – by this time famous for his War Time apologetics that would become Mere Christianity, was the obvious academic choice.

The purpose of the club was to be a forum for Christians to defend and debate the faith (it was primarily made up of women, p.252). Lewis’ overall responsibility was to attend the club and to oversee it. He was not heavily involved in the gatherings or in the debates. In fact, he hardly spoke at all. Alister McGrath writes,

“Lewis, usually present, was rarely the main attraction, on average speaking only once a term. Yet his presence was formidable.” (p.251)

The club was open to professionals of all sorts, philosophers, historians, other faiths and so on. These leading figures were often invited to speak and present their views to the club for discussion and debate.

In 1947 C.S. Lewis wrote Miracles. It is said to be his last “frontal attack” work of an apologetics nature, and it would also become something of a centre attraction for discussion and debate in the Club that he led.┬áIn 1948 “a young Catholic philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe, called Lewis to task” over some of his arguments in this book. Lewis had a chapter on Naturalism that was, many conclude, written quite quickly. Many of his arguments fell short of their logical order and it seems – even to McGrath who tells the story in his biography on Lewis – that it was a chapter not well thought out.

Anscombe agreed with the basic argument that Lewis was making. But she took issue with how he came to his conclusions. Lewis argued that Naturalism was “irrational.” Anscombe made the point that not all natural causes are irrational. “Anscombe rightly pointed out that many (probably most) natural causes can legitimately be described simply as ‘non-rational.’

In the end Lewis – humiliated (p.255) – realized that this particular chapter needed to be revised. The conclusions were right – to reject naturalism – but the arguments to get there were wrong.

This debate has had some historical significance. In particular it is often suggested by Lewis biographers that this debate caused Lewis to abandon apologetics all together and to turn to writing children’s stories.

I’ve already addressed this myth to some extended in a previous post (Why Lewis didn’t write for Christianity Today – Reconsidered). In short, Lewis did not abandon apologetics. Rather he shifted his approach to apologetics (but not completely). Rather than appealing to people’s reasoning to convince them of the truth of Christianity, he began to appeal to their imagination (though he had already done this to some extend with his Space Trilogy). This is because it was J.R.R. Tolkien’s appeal to Lewis’ imagination – not his reason – that led to his conversation. (p.159)

THREE LESSONS WE CAN LEARN

Putting that whole debate aside for a moment, I’m also interested in how Lewis handled losing such a public debate. Here are three lessons we can learn from him.

1. He reworked almost the entire chapter, taking into consideration Anscombe’s arguments and published a revised edition of his book.

“A chastised Lewis recognized the weakness of one specific argument he had deployed (a little hastily, it must be said), and worked to improve it… The positive and beneficial outcome of Anscombe’s intervention is clearly evident in the revised version of Lewis’s argument.” (p.254)

2. Anscombe was highly recommended by Lewis as a rising star speaker at the Socratic Club in 1950.

In fact, his exact words were, “Having obliterated me as an Apologist, ought she not to succeed me?” (p.260) To my mind it is a powerful testimony of a humble spirit. I know that often times when I’ve been defeated in a debate – especially on my own turf – pride inhibits me from doing or saying anything that might promote the victor.

SURPRISING TURN OF EVENTS: REMATCH

Turning back to the debate for a moment, there’s some sympathy we must offer to Lewis which, at the time of the debate in 1948, he was not privileged to. See, Anscombe was a “Wittgensteinian” philosopher. That is, her philosophy was drawn from Wittgenstein who developed reasoning based on the distinction between “reasons and causes.” Lewis, at the time of writing Miracles, was unaware of this philosophy and thus ill-equipped to engage Anscombe.

In 1960 another Oxford philosopher, “J.R. Lucas presented Lewis’ arguments again in a rerun of the debate with Anscombe at a meeting of the Socratic Club.” McGrath makes it clear that in this “rerun” – rematch of the argument with Lucas playing the role of Lewis – it was Lucas who “succeeded against her.” (p.256). Lucas went on to explain what Lewis’ problems were back in 1948, and why Lucas beat Anscombe in 1960. He writes,

“Miss Anscombe was a bully, and Lewis a gentleman, which inhibited him from treating her as she had treated him. But I had come across her in previous encounters, and had no inhibitions. So the contest was determined by the actual cogency of the arguments adduced. That is to say, I won.” (p.256)

This brings me to my third lesson from Lewis’ losing of this debate:

3. He lost the debate in part because he was a gentleman.

The three lessons we learn from Lewis having been beaten in a public and humiliating debate are worth repeating: First, he reconsidered his position, second he honoured the person who beat him and third, he was a gentleman through and through.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • James Palmer

    Great post! I remember reading Miracles, at least a decade ago. This makes me want to go back and at least reread the chapter in question (I’m sure my edition has the revised version.)

    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      Thanks James. It sure would be interesting if we could get our hands on the original.