Inflating C.S Lewis’ Argument Against Historicism

In this brief paper, I will argue that C.S Lewis’ argument against historicism in his Fern-seed and Elephants and Other Essays in Christianity[1], in conjunction with a dynamic conception of time, requires that historicism is necessarily false. The historicist account requires, Lewis argues, that the whole of history is known (knowing the whole of history is a ‘necessary condition’ for knowing the meaning of history). The historicist, however, can reject this principle and argue that it is at least logically possible that the meaning of history could be known at some future (or past) point. In contradistinction to this, I shall argue that such logically possible situations are only possible on a static conception of time; thus, on a dynamic conception of time historicism is necessarily false in that future contingencies do not exist. First, I will lay out two of Lewis’ arguments against historicism and explain why I find his arguments cogent. The first argument I shall call the argument from the ‘infinitude of the present’, the second the ‘impossibility of knowing future contingencies.’ I will argue that the first argument probabilistically falsifies historicism whereas the second, on a dynamic conception of time, requires that historicism is necessarily false. In the end, I will conclude that by adopting a dynamic conception of time Lewis’ argument shifts the truth-value of historicism from probably false to necessarily false.

Lewis distinguishes history from historicism and argues that the latter makes the mistake of deriving metahistorical meaning from the former. Lewis defines his thesis as such: “Historicism is an illusion, and that Historicists are, at the very best, wasting their time.”[2] By ‘illusion’, I take Lewis to mean that historicism is false.[3] By ‘Historicism’, Lewis means the “belief that men can, by the use of their natural powers, discover an inner meaning in the historical process.”[4] So, Lewis is arguing against anyone who says that they have discovered some alleged meaning in the historical process by their natural faculties. As I understand it, the term ‘meaning’ that arises from the historicist interpretation of history denotes “why something matters.”[5] As such, ‘metahistorical meaning’ or ‘the meaning of history’ denotes why history itself matters. The terms ‘natural faculties’, too, is worth noting for two reasons. First, Lewis is broadening his audience by this assertion; all historicists i.e., theistic or secular historicists, are necessarily being challenged since Lewis rejects all forms of historicism (as he defines it). Secondly, this implies that if metahistorical meaning is possible, it is only from divine revelation.[6] As a preliminary objection, it could be argued that the meaning of some event could be in principle seen and discerned in one’s lifetime and hence the meaning of the event is known. In response, this objection is perhaps prima facie true, but not upon careful reflection. The logical equivalent of this argument is, where E is some event and M is the meaning of the event, E seems like it obtains M and therefore E obtains M. Lewis would challenge such a claim probabilistically by appealing to the incommensurable amount of happenings in life which necessitates not being able to infer metahistorical meaning: “A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded.”[7] Thus, although it may appear that we are justified or warranted in inferring a particular meaning on the basis of our observations, our limited knowledge prohibits such inferences.

Lewis lays out a brief history of historicism and explains why the arguments in favor of historicism do not work. He mentions briefly where  historicists have made their mark in history beginning with Carlyle and onward to Hegel.[8] Lewis has two basic arguments against historicism; the first I shall call the ‘infinitude of the present’ and the second the argument from ‘the impossibility of knowing future contingencies.’ I do not want to make any terminological discrepancies with the first argument inasmuch as ‘infinitude’ could have mathematical (or philosophical) implications. The word ‘infinitude’ here merely denotes a state of affairs that entails an incommensurable amount of events, persons and the like into a single second. More to the point, by ‘infinitude of the present’ I am referring to Lewis’ statement (a premise in his argument) that “A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded.”[9] To explain this more precisely, Lewis explores further: “None of us could at this moment give anything like a full account of his own life for the last twenty-four hours. We have already forgotten; even if we remembered, we have not the time. The new moments are upon us. At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of ‘history’ falls off the world into total oblivion.”[10] So, Lewis’ first argument is that the inherent vastness and plenitude of human experience precludes, probabilistically , inferences to metahistorical meaning.

In response to this, it might seem that Lewis’ argument is question begging. It might seem that his interpretation of history (consisting of an ‘infinitude’ of happenings in human life) is question begging in that he implicitly suggests that the real meaning of history possibly lies in one of these ‘non-meaningful’ events (say, for instance, a flower blooming) and could constitute the meaning of history. Thus, Lewis concludes, it would remain impossible for us to infer that this seemingly ‘non-meaningful’ event actually constitutes the meaning of history. As Lewis himself notes, “how can we suppose that we have seen ‘the point’ already?”[11] The real problem with Lewis’ argument, says the objector, lies in his conclusion that knowing the meaning of history is improbable with respect to the amount of ‘things’ happening in lived life. Further, Lewis’ insistence that the ‘non-meaningful’ happenings i.e., the hitherto flower blooming, could be part of what constitutes the meaning of history. It could, rather, be the case that there are particular candidates for making history meaningful and hence non-meaningful instances are ruled out (making the probability of discerning the meaning of history significantly higher).[12] There are two arguments against this objection. First, Lewis’ point is that from these events, whether they be ‘non-meaningful’ or ‘meaningful’, there is no method by which we can verify inferences which purport to suggest some overriding metahistorical meaning. Second, this argument has no criteria by which ‘meaningful’ and ‘non-meaningful’ can be distinguished. ‘Non-meaningful’ as it appears to one person in some historical spatio-temporal context may not appear to be ‘non-meaningful’ in the full context of history. It could be that some event that seems ‘non-meaningful’ truly is meaningful. For instance, consider a person giving away a book at a local charity organization. This could appear (given certain circumstances) non-meaningful (maybe the donator wanted to rid himself/herself of the book and is not interested in the content of the book or who receives it); and, unbeknownst to the donator, the donator has indirectly contributed to a person buying the book and being profoundly impacted by it. What at first seemed ‘non-meaningful’ has become ‘meaningful.’ (It could happen that the inherent meaning of an action is realized at some time T and not T* (rather than, say, meaning being indirectly extrinsically conferred upon the situation by the donator). Analogously, what is suggested to be omitted from the candidates for grounding the meaning of history are in the same situation; namely, what seems ‘non-meaningful’ could (or is), in the course of time, be potentially (or actually) meaningful.

Lewis’ second argument against historicism from the ‘impossibility of knowing future contingencies’ in conjunction with the dynamic conception of time requires that historicism is necessarily false. Lewis’ argument here suggests two basic ideas. First, naturally we have no direct access to the past or future. Secondly, knowledge of the whole of history is needed to understand the meaning of history (knowing the entirety of history is a ‘necessary condition’, then, for knowing the meaning of history). Regarding the first idea, Lewis offers support as follows: “The past, by definition, is not present.”[13] This, I shall contend, also applies to the future. For past and future events, if they contained (hypothetically) the ‘point’ of history, are essentially inaccessible. Lewis shares his skepticism as such: “Do we possess even up to the present date the content of time as it really was in all its richness?”[14] Thus, Lewis argues that if “a story is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be understood till you have heard the whole of it” then, insofar as we do not know the story in its entirety, “we must not say what it means, or what its total pattern is.”[15] So Lewis’ second argument comes into play and this is where he argues against knowing the future and past in its entirety. However, an objection could be raised against the first and second ideas. Suppose, hypothetically, that the principle that ‘knowing history in its full is a necessary condition for knowing the meaning of history’ is given up, and a more modest principle is adopted, namely, that ‘the meaning of history in some hypothetical situation could be obtained.’ For example, the meaning of history could be derived from someone who exists in 2050, who, via. a time-machine, (somehow) knows the ‘point’ of history.[16] Thus, this fellow from 2050 has the technology to reach into the past (our present) via. a time-machine. This is a logically possible state of affairs iff a static conception of time is true. So, a definition of the static conception of time is needed (and its counterpart, the dynamic conception of time). William Lane Craig, in his Time and Eternity, has defined the static conception of time as such: “Space-time neither changes nor becomes; it just is (tenselessly).”[17] Thus, all points in space-time are equally real (and hence it is in principle logically possible for some person in 2050 to time-machine, permitting such a machine could be made, make his way to the present (2015)). Elsewhere, in his Reasonable Faith, Craig defines the dynamic conception of time as follows: “things/events in time are not all equally real: the future does not yet exist and the past no longer exists; only things which are present exist.”[18] Having differentiated both theories of time, the dynamic conception of time has implications that extend to Lewis’ critique of historicism as they preclude the fellow in the aforementioned example handing over to the present the meaning of history.

The dynamic conception of time, if true, requires that no logically possible state of affairs could bring it about that the meaning of history is known in its entirety. This argument requires two presuppositions. First, this argument requires that on the static conception of time it is at least logically possible that one could come to the present moment from some future generation who has (somehow) obtained the meaning of history. Thus, it would follow that historicism is true on Lewis’ requirement that historicism can only be true iff one knows the whole of the story. Secondly, I am presupposing, with Lewis, that historicism requires knowing the whole of history in order to understand the meaning of history. If the dynamic conception of time is true, then future contingencies do not exist. I argue this insofar as future contingencies are, by definition, things which will be the case in the future. Since on the dynamic conception of time the future does not have a real and objective existence, it follows that no events are actually the case in the future at the present moment. Therefore, the logically possible scenario concerning the fellow coming to the present moment kindly delivering the meaning of history cannot, necessarily, exist. So, even if the principle is given up that one must know the entirety of history to know the meaning of history, the dynamic conception of time rules out any method by which one can know the meaning of history via. natural faculties.

In this brief paper, I have argued that Lewis’ argument against historicism can be inflated by adopting a dynamic conception of time. The implications of this conception of time is that it is logically impossible to derive any hypothetical situation which could save the historicist’s contention that it is at least logically possible for historicism to be true. If knowing the entirety if history is a necessary condition for historicism’s being true, then historicism, on a dynamic conception of time, is necessarily false.

[1] Lewis, C.S. Fern-seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianity. (Great Britain: Collins, Fount Paperbacks, 1975), Print.

[2] p. 46.

[3] Lewis argues that historicism is an ‘illusion’ on the basis that metahistorical meaning is impossible to know given our historical spatio-temporal and cognitive limitations; he draws his skepticism as such: “Are we in Act I or Act V?” (p. 53). For the sake of clarity, I shall take this to be an independent argument against historicism (what I will later term ‘the impossibility of knowing future contingencies’); however, for here it is simple enough to say his thesis is that historicism is false.

[4] p. 44.

[5] Craig, William Lane. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2010), p. 30.

[6] In the case of ‘divine revelation’ (apart from instances in the Bible), Lewis says that “that would be another matter.” (p.44). Also, this brings forth a theological dilemma. Suppose that God is propositionally omniscient, that is, as Tyler Journeaux puts it (following very closely to the definition William Lane Craig offers), “For any proposition P, if P is true then it is known, and if P is not true then P is not believed.” Journeaux, T. (2015, November 5). Defending Propositional Omniscience: A Way Back to Full Omniscience. Retrieved November 27, 2015, from Perhaps philosopher Alvin Plantinga makes the point much more succinct: “[God’s] believing a proposition is logically equivalent to that proposition’s being true.” Plantinga, Alvin and Daniel Dennett. Science and Religion: Are they Compatible? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 58. That being so, God will know the meaning of history as such. However, if the meaning of history is necessarily known iff (if and only if) the whole of history taken as a whole is known (‘history’ construed as the conjunction of past, present and future), then God cannot know the meaning of history (how could God know what it is logically impossible to know?). To this, I should say that inasmuch as this question will get into theological issues regarding divine foreknowledge and middle knowledge, a more full-fledged defense against this objection is a subject for another paper. But, a brief note should be mentioned. God can know, in my view, unactual future events. It is not the case that inasmuch as 1) future contingencies do not exist at some time T that 2) (FC) will not come to be actualized at some later time T*. On a model that sees God as having this sort of knowledge, God can know the full meaning of history at T since God knows at T* the (FC) will be actualized. In sum, God can know future events (and hence the aggregate of all events (history)) prior to their occurring; thus, there is simply no inconsistency between asserting the nonexistence of future contingencies and God’s knowing the meaning of history.

[7] Lewis, p. 55

[8] Ibid., p. 45. Lewis would have been gratified, in my view, to know that Karl Popper also leveled an argument against the historicism of Plato, Marx and Hegel. See Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies. (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1994), Print.

[9] Ibid., p. 55.

[10] Ibid., p. 55.

[11] Ibid., p. 54.

[12] I am making no technical probability assertions here. The objection merely wants to move Lewis’ claim that historicism is false on the basis of the ‘infinitude of the present’ by lessening considerably ‘non-meaningful’ events for being candidates of ‘meaningful’ ones. For instance, suppose x is some candidate of being ‘the point’ of history. If x appears to be ‘non-meaningful’, then x is ruled out. Hence, if there are a series of ‘non-meaningful’ candidates, say x1…x17, then they can be ruled out and Lewis’ contention that “A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded” (p. 55) does not establish it being the case that inferring the meaning of history is as improbable as Lewis suspects.

[13] Lewis, p. 54.

[14] Ibid., p. 54.

[15] Ibid., p. 53, 54.

[16] I am not using an example from the past for one important reason, namely, that such methods by which a person could reach the present from the past (iff this is in principle possible, which I do not agree to) would be by time-travelling (which the technology would not permit).

[17] Craig, William Lane. Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2001), p. 169.

[18] Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2008), p. 121.


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