Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Bulver

June 9, 2021 • 9:00 am

Today’s Jesus and Mo strip, called “Bulver”,  came with a long explanation. (You may have to go to its Patreon page to see it, which is what I did.)

Today I learned a new word: Bulverism. It was coined by CS Lewis. The Wikipedia entry explains it all:
In Lewis’s own words:

“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.”

And the 21st.

I think that the author (and the barmaid, who always represents the voice of reason) are talking about the classic Wokeist technique of attacking your opponent’s character rather than their argument.

23 thoughts on “Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Bulver

  1. Am I being stupid in saying that surely the best way of showing that someone is wrong is by explaining it?

    1. No, you’re not. There’s a potential ambiguity in Lewis’ use of “explain”, although I think his full discussion resolves it. The distinction is between explaining the facts of the matter, vs. explaining why a particular person has a particular view. Suppose I claim the Empire State Building is the greatest building in the world. You disagree with me, and explain to me that other buildings are taller/wider/hold more people/have greater floor space, etc. This would be an argument, the form of which Lewis would approve, about why I was wrong. If you disagree with me, and point out that, since I’m from New York, my claims on such matters should not be taken seriously, then you are being a Bulverist. It’s pretty much the same as making an ad hominem argument– to bulverize is to attack the speaker, and not what they said.


      1. Thank you for articulating this issue around “explain”. The ambiguity makes it hard to just allude to the error in simple phrasing.

        A similar difficulty hits when I see someone arguing on the lines I would describe as “We should be asking why would someone in your position be asserting these ideas” or “psychoanalyzing your opponent”. This is just about the same thing, considering how closely related ‘explain’ and ‘why’ are.

        To those noting how this resembles ad hominem, I would answer that yes, it *is* ad hominem — but undisguised, acknowledged, blatant. Here the Bulverist, facing a response of “you’re using ad hominem” would not respond “No I’m not” as might be done in ordinary argument, but rather “Maybe well so, and it is entirely justified — we should not be hearing from a narrow range of voices”.

    2. Confused me too until I got to the last panel. “Why they are wrong” refers not to the facts that refute their argument, but to which perceived character flaws and conflicts of interest etc allegedly brought them to the “wrong” conclusion.

      For example, I don’t think that trans women should be allowed to compete against women in sports as a general rule (exceptions may apply). A lot of people disagree with me and some will give reasoned (but wrong IMO) arguments against my position. However, some will just label me transphobic and declare victory.

      1. “However, some will just label me transphobic and declare victory.”

        I think that is simply an ad hominem – not a Bulverism.

        It would be a Bulverism …(this term is unsavory…)… if the statement was

        “people like you enjoyed watching too many sports since you were a child that are gender-segregated that of course you would think trans people should compete in the way you say.”… awkward to write,…

        1. No, it is a Bulverism. I’m wrong because I’m transphobic and bigoted. The fact that it is also an insult is incidental. In fact, the Bulverism in the last panel of the cartoon is very similar.

      2. Not to re-open a done-to-death subject, but it seems to me that the underlying fallacy held by the “you’re transphobic” crowd is that sport should consider gender instead in the first place. It’s about sex. It’s the other side that seem to be confusing sex and gender in this instance.

  2. “Bulverism”

    [ eyebrows point down, brow is furrowed ]

    … ookayyy… not sure I follow that cute story entirely…

    sooo…. I can see how this is distinct from ad hominem, but… how is it distinct from challenging claims, or explaining how something works – that Bulverism is taking a one way street? “You shut up and I tell you why you are wrong?”

      1. “How is it distinct from ad hominem? To me, it is a form of ad hominem.”

        Yes, I agree, and have a comment still in the approval queue expanding on that a little. It is, sort of, unembarrassed ad hominem.

      2. I am still thinking this out, but it appears that instead of “attacking” the person – their hair, their genes, the tone of voice (?)… the attack is on personal _attributes_ – so where they got their hair cut, where their genes came from (geographically), how their voice sounds *like* Hitler’s voice,…

        so … a Bulverism appears to be a case of a distinction without a difference.

  3. The better examples of bulverism are Republicans, Evangelicals and other right wing dingbats. Democrats are “liberals”,”socialists”, communists”, etc. which makes them the enemy and unworthy of consideration.

    1. “liberals”, “socialists”, “communists”- those words are so passé. Get with the new labels. Now we’re child abductors, child rapists, child murderers and drinkers of their blood and devourers of their adrenal glands. Now we’re an enemy unworthy of existence.

  4. It’s worth noting that Lewis coined the term “Bulverism” mainly to refer to challenges to Christianity. He thought people who looked for historical, sociological or psychological explanations for why people are Christian without first demonstrating the falsity of Christianity were engaging in “Bulverism”. This seems to go against Hitchens’s claim that that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

    And in any case, even if Christianity is true, it is unlikely that the truth of Christianity explains why most Christians believe it. So it seems perfectly legitimate to look for explanations of why people believe in Christianity without first settling the question of its truth.

    I can see the utility of the concept of Bulverism in certain cases, but if used as a general critique it seems to rule out a number of perfectly legitimate arguments.

  5. It seems that Bulverism did not catch on since Lewis’ coinage because its definition is narrow, even esoteric.

    Does Bulverism cover – and connote negatively – to take into consideration someone’s motives when evaluating their claim? Looking into a claimant’s motives, even those of allies, surely is not unsavory per se, especially in “soft” fields like politics and religion. In politics, it seems that’s even mandatory, for an unsavory aspect in one’s ally might give opponents an avenue of attack.

    1. I agree, especially in cases where one suspects that there is evidence out there that other people are aware of but oneself is not. Which in my case – your mileage may vary – applies to almost all subjects. If a claimant’s motives seem clean, the importance of investigating their alleged evidence increases. The probability that they have given a good or repairable argument also increases, even if one’s first reading of it makes it seem flawed. Which is not to deny that some claims are just too wildly improbable, and some arguments are repetitions of known fallacies. But in harder cases, evaluating the arguer is crucial to rational inquiry.

  6. “Bulverism” is not a particularly useful sub-category, IMO, within the “genetic fallacy” in informal logic. Genetic fallacies are attempts to evaluate a claim/argument based solely on the quality of the person making it. But a stopped clock is right twice a day, and just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean no one’s really out to get you. The label “genetic fallacy” at least explains the error involved, as long as you realize that “genetic” here means “genesis, origin” rather than only being about DNA.

    1. I take “genetic fallacy” as related to “ad hominem argument” as a broadening or generalization. And just as “Bulverism” as used in this post can be seen as acknowledged, unembarrassed, almost forthright ad hominem, there are pepole who *almost* promote thinking in a genetic-fallacy mode as useful and productive. Though of course without the fallacy label!

      That would be the case with fans of Nietzschean “genealogy” studies. Instead of arguing that this-or-that specific idea, or general way of thinking, is demonstrably incorrect, the genealogical approach is to ask “How did we come to think in these ways? Where did these ideas as usually-unarticulated defaults actually come from, historically?’

      And the next step, having omitted arguing their incorrectness, is to suppose mining up their origins has undermined their validity or usefulness. Which is quite parallel to some of the definition of Bulverism where we started! “If we explain why we use these concepts, we can shed them.”

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