This Week’s Special: C.S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed”

By Daniel A. Kaufman

Click to access meditation-in-a-toolshed.pdf

On tap this week is a lovely little essay by C.S. Lewis that makes what I think is quite an important distinction, one that may permit us a little insight into what has seemed an intractable philosophical problem: namely, our inability to “reduce” various – mostly mental – concepts to various “lower level” physical ones.

Lewis refers to this distinction, first, as the difference between “looking along” something and “looking at” it, and later he characterizes it as the difference between seeing something “from the inside” as opposed to “from the outside.”  I may add a third characterization of the divide Lewis has in mind, in terms of examining something “horizontally” as opposed to “vertically.”  Each way of describing the distinction Lewis has in mind is illustrative – and thus useful – in its own way.

Lewis begins by reflecting on an experience he had, while in a toolshed (the essay’s namesake), an example that I actually find quite obscure.  Far better are the examples that immediately follow, in which the distinction comes through most clearly.  For instance:

A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes casual chat with her is more precious than all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. He is, as they say, “in love”. Now comes a scientist and describes this young man’s experience from the outside. For him it is all an affair of the young man’s genes and a recognised biological stimulus. That is the difference between looking along the sexual impulse and looking at it.

Lewis asks the following:  Which way of looking provides the “better” — in the sense of the truer — account of romantic love?  Those of a scientistic frame of mind clearly believe that the second way of looking is better, something that is indicated not just by their inclination to give (or demand) a reductive analysis in every investigation and inquiry, but in the ways in which they commonly describe such analyses.  We are told that experiencing some sensation or emotion or having a certain thought or even being conscious is “nothing but” or “nothing more than” or “merely” some set of physical things or events.

Lewis is right to characterize this language as an exercise in “debunking” and to lament it. For, regardless of the things that the reductive account does tell us – and no doubt, it tells us a lot – it fails to shed any light on what it is like to be in love or on the distinctive magic that pervades the experience of love or on the significance of that experience which, for many, may be the most significant experience they will ever have.

Now, a very different kind of investigation does shed light on these things.  Philosophical accounts of love, such as those one might find in Plato’s Symposium or, more recently, in Allan Bloom’s Love and Friendship, or even Lewis’s book on the subject, The Four Loves.  Romance poetry that you might find in the writings of a Byron or an e.e. cummings or a Shakespeare.  Romantic novels, of the sort written by Emily Bronte or Lawrence Durrell or Iris Murdoch.  Love songs.  Romantic films.  All of these advance our understanding of what it is like to be in love; of love’s special magic; of what makes love such a significant, transforming experience.  And they do so, in a way that only they can and in which a scientific or otherwise reductive analysis cannot.

The reason is that the sort of investigation that I am describing approaches the question “horizontally” and not “vertically,” as its reductive counterpart does.  It seeks not to take the phenomenon apart, to break it into smaller pieces, to look for some underlying mechanism that will somehow explain the properties it has at the surface; the characteristics that we think of, when reflecting upon the thing or describing it to others.  Rather, the sort of investigation I am talking about remains at the surface and stretches out across it.  The essay, the poem, the novel, and the song  provide additional accounts, descriptions, and expressions of the phenomenon itself, from many different peoples’ points of view, and by showing us how others experience love, express it, and value it, we come to better understand our own experiences, expressions, and valuations of love.

In itself, this may not seem like much of a response to the scientistic point of view.  Surely, our reductionist is going to want to dismiss the relevance or usefulness of understanding what are, in fact, the experienced or represented – qualities of things.  But Lewis is convinced – I think correctly – that this move is not available to the advocate of scientism.  For it is often the case that the only reason we are interested in a particular phenomenon in the first place – or at all – is because of its experienced or representational qualities, which means that accounts that ignore or otherwise bypass those qualities will fail to address the very interests that motivate the inquiry.

A physiologist, for example, can study pain and find out that it “is” (whatever is means) such and such neural events. But the word pain would have no meaning for him unless he had “been inside” by actually suffering. If he had never looked along pain he simply wouldn’t know what he was looking at. The very subject for his inquiries from outside exists for him only because he has, at least once, been inside

A similar issue arises when reductionists and eliminative materialists try to get rid of all reference to intentionality, in the pursuit of what they consider “scientific” psychology.   The trouble is that it is not clear that without the intentional idiom, one can even characterize the subject-matter of much, if not most psychological investigation.  As John Greenwood put it:

Many practicing psychologists…are not particularly concerned with the explanation of human behaviors or physical movements per se.  They are instead concerned to provide…explanations of socially meaningful human actions, such as aggression, dishonesty, helping, child abuse, and suicide.  They are concerned with the explanation of those behaviors that are constituted as human actions by their intentional direction and social location. (1)

The intentional dimension of human thought and behavior is what renders it resistant to reductive analysis and yet, understanding it is one of our main reasons for engaging in psychological investigation in the first place.  Eliminate it and you eliminate much of the motivation for doing psychology at all.  Lewis’s point – and mine – is that this important truth is generalizable, across a large number of the phenomena,  about which we desire greater understanding, for which we engage in various investigations.  The investigations, then, must be of the sort that can actually provide the understanding sought or else it is unclear why anyone would want to engage in them.

I am convinced that many of the things for which, historically, we have sought greater understanding are not of the sort that are amenable to reductive – “vertical” – investigation, because they involve an interest in things as they are experienced or as they are represented that scientific forms of investigation are simply not equipped to address.  Oftentimes, the mark that one is dealing with such a phenomenon is that every attempt at a reductive analysis seems to leave something out; to miss some crucial element.  Consciousness is such a phenomenon, as are sensations.  Freewill may very well be such a phenomenon.  Intentionality certainly is.

The question, then, is not so much whether there is or can be a unity of the sciences, but whether there is or can be a unity of investigations.  I might be inclined to define ‘science’ narrowly enough, so that the answer to the first question is “yes,” even while the answer to the second must be a resounding “no.”  However you slice it, you cannot eliminate the sorts of questions that are only answerable by way of the horizontal mode of investigation – by “looking along,” rather than “looking at” something — without getting rid of some of the things we care most about.


  1. John Greenwood, “Reasons to Believe,” in John Greenwood, ed., The Future of Folk Psychology: Intentionality and Cognitive Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 71.


  1. Daniel, last thread in a comment to you I did delete a substantial reduction/emergence paragraph, since things were getting a bit long winded. But then I also noticed that you had published this great piece, and thought perfect, now I can tell you that I fully agree, without wasting anyone’s time. Of course I didn’t quite use those “I fully agree” words, as Daniel Tippens did not, though I’m quite sure that this is what we did each did mean. Neither of us have asked for a neurological account of anything, but instead useful words from which to help get things straight — a bit of “psychology,” if you will. Surely psychology does still count as “horizontal”?

    Now there are plenty of ways that you could validly attack my last comment, which was indeed quite radical, though I hope that you don’t search too hard. I’d rather that we all work together to solve our various frustrations with academic exploration.

  2. Thanks! A really important topic for our present situation.

    I’ll look at Lewis’ essay soon as I get time; for now I wanted to react just to this description. I’m not in love with the characterizations “looking along” vs. “looking at”, but maybe they’ll be clearer after Lewis. Considering the ‘in love’ example I would prefer reframing things as follows: Which approach offers a truer picture when examining a new phenomenon — one which deliberately excludes some aspects of it’s full reality or one which tries not to?

    In this view, both the scientist’s exclusively external gaze and the be-smitten’s exclusively internal one is seen as lacking, falling short of the ideal: a complete picture of reality. This schism, emphasized in western culture since the 17th century and coming to a head nowadays, is reflected in the natural antipathy between a proponent of behaviorism in psychology and say, a Romantic poet, like Keats would feel. It’s pretty easy, at least from my vantage point, to find all sorts of examples which are reductive (of full reality) towards the scientific, exterior pole. I believe that is because we’ve swung the pendulum too far in that direction with our scientific method, and lately via our abuse of the humanities within our educational systems. Because of this, I agree with the citing of many literary, poetic, artistic examples as a kind of tonic. But more difficult to see is the inherent prejudice within the exlusively interiorized mindset. Another way to say this might be that it takes a skilled author indeed to capture both the logic and the poignancy of the heart. Maybe Shakespeare was the best at this.

    Often I see the unity of classical Greek thought as a kind of naive golden period when the exterior and interior vantage points were not quite as separate, and when it was more natural to consider all aspects of a thing. But we had to give up something of this naive unification in order to develop the precision of the scientific process. Subjectivity has become taboo in the pursuit of knowledge. Now, it must be reclaimed in a way which honors and heals the exteriorized preciseness. An interior precision. Probably not ironically, the science of consciousness is where an ideal beginning could be made of this project, assuming we can cleanse it of reductionist prejudice first.

    Fusing 1st and 3rd person scrutinies of a phenomenon is what would heal the rift. So, a new epistemology must find ways to delete prejudice in either direction, from either pole. All phenomena posess holistic reality. It is only our chosen methodologies which have created an artificial perceptual split in our apprehension of them. “Renaissance” figures had the right idea, the right instincts. We probably cannot all be Leonardos, but we can rejigger our education to hold this as an ideal.

  3. Ah, serendipity! I was scanning through my Feedly news feed and, lo and behold, came across a rather decent and recent article on C.S. Lewis. This is a general account of what made Lewis tick, as it were, by Wesley A. Kort, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University. While this article is not directed related to Daniel’s, it is not far-fetched to project–at least provisionally–that Lewis’s opposition to naturalism, or what Kort prefers to call “theoretical materialism,” would lead him to take a dim view of the current reductive aspects and findings in many studies by neurologists and cognitive scientists. Additionally, Lewis’s deep concern with notions of personhood and personal identity, regardless of how and to what extent they may have been shaped or influenced by his identification with Christian ideology, would seem to suggest that he would be deeply skeptical of the efficacy of such studies if alive today.

    One sentence in Kort’s essay was particularly insightful in my own case: “I suspected at the outset that Lewis’s devotees and detractors were both responding primarily to the role of religion, particularly Christianity, in his work.” My reflections took me back to the middle 1960’s when in high school we were assigned readings from Lewis in “religion” courses. And, inasmuch as this was a Jesuit school, much of the explication was directed at how Lewis provided insight into Christian–particularly Roman Catholic–principles. The fact that Lewis was an Anglican was glossed over. But why quibble over minor differences was, I suppose, the point. At any rate, I must confess that this experience–in light of Kort’s essay–biased my view of Lewis, at least with respect to the scope of his personal beliefs and his authenticity in shaping his personal credo, as it were.

    What has this to do with Daniel’s article or the cited news piece by Lewis? Not a whole lot. It does suggest, however, that I may have overreacted to what I saw as Lewis’s simply engaging in Christian apologetics. Kort’s observation that Lewis was opposed to naturalism or “theoretical materialism” is a good alternative, though my own tendency toward skepticism would suggest that it is formidable task to unravel the various components of any person’s worldview. Unlike many other readers, I was underwhelmed by the Toolshed article itself–a bit of understatement. I certainly wouldn’t characterize it as a “lovely little essay.” But de gustibus non est disputandum. My problems with it are both amply and tediously stated in prior comments. As for Lewis’s possible influence on the theories of mind/consciousness as purveyed by either Nagel or Chalmers, documentation might change my mind.

  4. Hi S. Wallerstein, well my point was that dealing with any experience (depression or love) can generally be handled without reductive references to neural mechanisms.

    I grant that some people suffer from unpleasant experiences which can be classified as medical issues and so benefit from medication or treatment that is based on our knowledge of neural mechanisms. Or, even if not a medical issue, can take advantage of such knowledge to enhance, or just play with (enjoy) their experiences.

    Still, that was going on well before we understood the mechanisms, with the “horizontal” experience of eating or drinking this makes me feel better, or happier. The reductive knowledge (these kinds of neurochemicals mediate feeling X) increases our range of options to intrude at a mechanistic level to affect experiences, but does not offer any interpretations of their meaning we couldn’t get at the higher level of understanding.

    Some might note that such knowledge can “debunk” hallucinations as being false perceptions, identifying the cause within the brain. Lewis basically dealt with this with the example of the (unfortunately named) savage. But I would add to this that we can just as easily use appeals to every day experience to debunk false perceptions. And moreover we need to know something is a false perception before studying how the brain mediates such perceptions. That is unless we open someone’s brain and mess around to find out what “cutting this wire” does and chance upon a realization a previously considered external perception was wholly internal.

    That said, I don’t think love is a false perception. Expectations that someone will love you forever don’t inherently come from a feeling of love. That is a cultural belief (to my mind detrimental), which children are raised with (all those love stories).

    On love, yes it is a powerful motivator, and there were societies that viewed love as a form of madness, an out of control state like any other strongly felt emotion. With this in mind some preferred systems of arranged rather than sentiment based marriages. Maybe they were on to something 🙂

  5. Stolzy,

    A very good description of the present impasse. The only point I would add is to reiterate my prior observations, in that an objective point of view is an oxymoron. We think and assume there must be some God’s eye perspective, by which all can be known, but it is the opposite. Omniscience is white noise. While a happy medium would also be a flatline. Perspective is a function of reductionism and subjectivity. It is a matter of tailoring it as best as possible, to the requirements of the situation. What defines us, also limits us, as what limits us, also defines us.

  6. Thomas,

    Given that Lewis was indeed a famous theist, in this regard I’m able to understand the issue that you’re having with him. Regardless of what was said in that specific paper, we might presume that he thought love and such does occur supernaturally. Surely the Christian church back then did preach this no less than it does today! Nevertheless if Daniel Kaufman, who is a true naturalist (that’s right, I said it!) is happy with what was said in that paper, then I can only complement this theist’s amazing associated restraint. Good for him!

    The last thing we need on this site is “quote mining,” and lately such petty bickering does seem restrained. I’d say that things are going pretty well here.

  7. ” As for Lewis’s possible influence on the theories of mind/consciousness as purveyed by either Nagel or Chalmers, documentation might change my mind.”

    Who exactly made this claim concerning influence in the comments? Certainly neither me nor DanK nor DanT nor anyone else. Declarations of similarity are not declarations of influence. I have already spelled out the historical context in terms of Lewis and philosophy: Lewis is midway between two periods of the discussion of anti-reductionism in Anglo-American philosophy, having been directly influenced by the first via Samuel Alexander and thus unsurprisingly anticipating elements of the second a number of decades later.

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