The Abolition of Man

C.S. Lewis was known for apologetics and fiction, but he has a thin little philosophical treatise called The Abolition of Man. The point of departure is a line Lewis read in a high-school literature textbook which claimed that in language “we appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings“. The example used was a tourist’s reaction to a waterfall, calling it sublime. No, said the text book: the waterfall is not sublime, the tourist is only having sublime feelings. All the tourist is doing is projecting his own feelings onto inert matter.

Lewis immediately points out the logical problem: the tourist is not having “sublime feelings” but rather the opposite: he is not feeling sublime himself, but feeling humble, and giving a sort of veneration for the waterfall. Likewise, someone who says “You are contemptible” is not having contemptible feelings, but feelings of indignation.

Lewis also points out the natural effect of the belief that value statements are about subjective states and not external realities: it is the conclusion that value judgments are not only subjective, but also unimportant.

Since Descartes, modern thought has found it nearly impossible to consider things as they really present themselves to us. We’ve become so aware of the gap between our human way of knowing and that which is known that we’ve lost the confidence to say anything about reality, we can only speak about what is in our heads. Our feelings likewise are not about anything outside of us, not really.

Thus the waterfall is not sublime, the sunset is not beautiful, the music is not inspiring, the girl is not lovable, etc, because of something real in the waterfall, sunset, music or girl, but something in the observer which is of interest only to him. The idea that these qualities actually adhere in the object is a conceit to be debunked.

The kind of human who believes this and acts accordingly is something of a reptile. For him, saying “Bach’s weihnachtsoratorium is beautiful” is saying “Bach’s music triggers a dopamine response in my human brain, which has an over-evolved capacity to recognize repeating patterns.” In essence, listening Bach is on the same level as watching pornography: one is just fiddling with the brain’s over-evolved chemical reactions.

For the most part, we modern people don’t want to be like this, but we find it hard to look at reality in any other way. We force ourselves to act as if the music is inspiring, the girl is beautiful, that there is some kind of meaning in inert matter, even if deep down we can’t justify the belief with the intellectual tools we have.

 

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