You Need to Avoid Dismissiveness with the Body’s Hermeneutic Role

Accounts of hermeneutics in biblical studies frequently don’t consider the reading body’s relevance to the interpretive task.1

Even so, the body has hermeneutic effects. And these effects are very real even if they might not manifest the same way as they can in a law court when a hungry judge might be less likely to grant parole.

At the same time, “Bulverism” isn’t the point. Understanding is.

1. Bulverism dismisses without reasons.

In a delightfully vivid essay worth quoting at some length, C. S. Lewis describes how

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found [a] 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 the 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 then 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.…

Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long.… But … it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion [or anything else] is true or false.…

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally the Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning—never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.…

[O]ur thoughts can only be accepted as a genuine insight under certain conditions. All beliefs have causes but a distinction must be drawn between (1) ordinary causes and (2) a special kind of cause called ‘a reason’. Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than belief. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs. Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes. A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless.2

2. The body’s effects on reading aren’t invitations to Bulverize.

Looking from the outside at someone else’s work, it would be entirely unfair and ad hominem to say someone interprets a text a given way or makes a specific argument because that person

  • became uncomfortable while reading,
  • needed to remoisten a pair of dry eyes,
  • heard a loud noise,
  • smelled coffee, or
  • had a cramped hand and so wrote insufficient notes.

All of these kinds of Bulverism are fairly silly and innocuous. But the logical structure of Bulverism lends itself also to more offensive dismissals of viewpoints from individuals who might have a given

  • gender,
  • racial or ethnic background,
  • age,
  • disability, or
  • other medical condition.

None of these bodily qualities should insulate from critique. But also, none of them can inherently render a viewpoint wrong.

As Lewis helpfully illustrates again,

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.3

And depending on the specific case, further speculation about psychological or other bodily causes for a wrong idea may be unnecessary or inappropriate.


So, how the body shapes interpretation and, therefore, reading as a kind of interpretive act can’t be an excuse to Bulverize. Bulverism is thoroughly problematic, and one of its problems is that it represents shoddy scholarship. Scholarship precisely as such requires reasons and evidence—not mere pronouncements that pretend to authority and dismissals of others’ arguments without demonstration.

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma. For helping me frame the posts in this series, I’m indebted to the suggestive comments of Thomas Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 

  2. C. S. Lewis, “Bulverism,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 273–75. 

  3. Lewis, “Bulverism,” 272–73; italics added except on the word “after.” 

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