The Philosophy of C.I. Lewis
Values and Imperatives
Collected Papers of C.I. Lewis
Analytic Philosophy of Knowledge
The Possibility of Altruism
What are epistemologists for? One conception of the role of the philosophical theorist of knowledge has a consoling quality. It appeals to the epistemologist by assigning him a reasonably dignified position, and to the generally interested public, which it sees as his clients, it has the merit of taking him to be socially useful. This is the conception of him as the professional guardian of the standards of rationality. Beliefs abound, reasons are adduced in support of them, claims to knowledge are advanced. The task of the epistemologist, on this view, is to act as an umpire who closely observes all this cognitive play and blows his whistle when the rules of justified belief are infringed.
The run-of-the-mill epistemologist deals with the beliefs of ordinary men: that there are chairs and tables, people other than oneself who think and feel, past events and future probabilities. There is also the more specialized trade of scrutinizing the claims made in particular disciplines: history, the natural and social sciences, theology, the criticism of art and literature, psychology, and what may be called substantive ethics, the reasoned affirmation of principles of conduct.
On this view epistemology is, if a science at all, a normative one, an ethics of belief, in W. K. Clifford’s phrase, that aims to lay down principles for discriminating justified beliefs from unjustified ones. C. I. Lewis certainly thought of epistemology in this way and, indeed, in very much these terms. He constantly stressed the analogy between logically right thinking and morally right action.
There is something a little vaunting and Promethean about this notion, since it suggests that the epistemologist is somehow above and detached from the cognitive strivings he surveys. Some philosophers have tried to avoid any such immodesty, influenced, perhaps, by the thought that their own discipline is itself just one among many ways in which beliefs are formed and claims to knowledge made.
Three different versions of a humbler idea of epistemology have some currency. First, there is the view of linguistic philosophers that the epistemologist should do no more than describe the rules to which, in their understanding of words like “know,” “believe,” “certain,” and “probable,” their non-philosophical users are already committed. His task is to remind, not to legislate. Secondly, there is the view recently expressed by Quine that epistemology is a part of psychology, an account of the mental and linguistic mechanisms through which beliefs are formed, compete, and persist. Finally, there is the conventionalist view, held at one time by Carnap, which sees the epistemologist as a kind of conceptual entrepreneur, more specifically as a cognitive management-consultant, who devises possible systems of belief-formation and offers them to anyone interested in replacing unreflective habits with an explicit policy.
I do not believe that epistemology can be neutral to this degree. The linguistic philosopher’s description is critically selective and the whole point of the rules he propounds is to exclude some actual reasonings and beliefs from their scope. Of course the epistemologist does not…
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