C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Subjectivism - page 1

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From the Summer 2009 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Subjectivism

by Jerry Root, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor, Christian Formation and Ministry, Wheaton College


.S. Lewis wrote in eleven literary genres: apologetics, autobiography, essays, fantasy, letters, literary criticism, lyric poetry, novels, narrative poetry, satire, and science fiction. Lewis’s focused vision is not to be missed amidst his wide-ranging capacity for literary success. He wrote often, and without equivocation, “I am a rhetor.” Every time he put his pen to paper, he sought to persuade his readers to accept some point of view. This being so, it might be asked, “What is his rhetorical point,” or “To what is he calling his readers to attend?”
  Like any good rhetorician, Lewis does not make it difficult for his readers to grasp his point. He wrote, “Correct thinking will not make good men out of bad ones; but a purely theoretical error may remove ordinary checks to evil and deprive good intentions of their natural support. An error of this sort is abroad at present. I am not referring to the Power philosophies of the Totalitarian states, but to something that goes deeper and spreads wider and which, indeed, has given these Power philosophies their golden opportunity. I am referring to Subjectivism.” Lewis, no matter what genre he employed, seems to have been perennially concerned about subjectivism, and his rhetorical interest in warning against its abuses weaves each of his literary genres into a seamless garment.

Subjectivism Defined

  Lewis was an objectivist. He believed Reality existed independent of whatever one might think about it. Reality is objective. He did not believe that an objective person understood reality absolutely. One might believe in absolutes but still not understand anything absolutely. An objectivist lives in recognition that one’s thoughts and impressions, that is, one’s subjective responses, ought to approximate objective reality. When error occurs, it can be corrected by an appeal to reality. Truth is not reality; truth is what I think about reality when I think accurately about it. That which is asserted by a false statement does not exist.
  This does not mean that Lewis denied the importance of the subjective. In fact, when he wrote The Abolition of Man, he began that treatise about objectivity by contextualizing his discussion within a framework of “just sentiments,” or what Augustine called ordo amoris (“ordered loves”). He quotes Thomas Traherene, who asked, “Can you be righteous unless you be just in rendering things their due esteem?” Justice is reasonable, for it seeks to render to reality accurate thought about it; it seeks to render to Natural Law moral choices in accordance with it; and it seeks to cultivate that kind of emotional life that feels in a manner that is in accordance with reality. Therefore Lewis asserts, for good reason, that “emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it).” Long before Lewis applies his rhetorical concern about objectivity of thought, he writes about objective sentiments; just sentiments, congruent with objective reality.
  The point is that Lewis does not write against subjectivity, but subjectivism. And again, subjectivism is that form of subjectivity no longer tethered to reality as best it might be known at any given moment. Subjectivism projects onto reality whatever it wants. It feels no obligation to ontological imperatives. It chooses whatever it desires, and rationalizes and justifies whatever choices it makes. In this way subjectivism seeks to adjust reality to itself, rather than adjust the scoliosis of its own soul to reality.

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