In a recent piece, Brad Littlejohn wrote:
Analyses like Whitehead and Perry’s turn out to be little more than exercises in institutionalized “Bulverism.” Instead of showing why someone is in fact wrong, they attribute objectionable beliefs to some identity and thereby, illogically, dismiss them.
Bulverism, coined by C.S. Lewis, is that ubiquitous logical fallacy that consists in the charge, “You’re only saying that because you’re a _____ (man/woman/Democrat/Republican/Christian/atheist/etc.).”
The worst forms of Bulverism are those that trade on constructed labels or identities like “Christian nationalism.”
They begin by observing some set of correlations (people who believe X are also more likely to believe Y), and then construct a label to describe that correlation.
Then, they turn around and propose that this label is the cause of the beliefs it describes, thus confusing correlation and causation and at the same time reasoning in a circle.
Since they’ve decided in advance that they don’t like some element of this belief matrix, this causal connection becomes the justification for dismissing the entire system.
Lewis explained his coining of the term in his 1941 essay, “Bulverism”:
You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.
The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.
In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day 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 a 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 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 national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.”
That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant—but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must first find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.
Once you understand the “Bulverism” fallacy, you start to see it everywhere. (Especially, one might add, in books and hot takes about contemporary “evangelicalism.”)
Here is a creative way to work through Lewis’s argument: