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Rational American

The Philosophy of C.I. Lewis

edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp
The Library of Living Philosophers, Open Court, 709 pp., $15.00

Values and Imperatives

by C.I. Lewis
Stanford, 201 pp., $7.50

Collected Papers of C.I. Lewis

edited by J. Goheen, edited by J. Mothershead
Stanford, 441 pp., $15.00

Analytic Philosophy of Knowledge

by Arthur C. Danto
Cambridge, 270 pp., $9.50

The Possibility of Altruism

by Thomas Nagel
Oxford, 148 pp., 30 shillings

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 prescribe ex nihilo, like Rousseau’s legislator, to a constituency of cognitive barbarians; he has to build on their fitful intimations of rationality. But his standpoint is inescapably corrective and critical.

However, it is one thing for epistemologists to claim this role, a very different thing for the claim to be effectively admitted by the public at large. It might seem that, for the most part, epistemologists, like contemporary poets, communicate only with each other. If they are to have an influence it must be through the students who pass through their hands and return to the outside world with improved and explicit standards. The exponents of other intellectual disciplines, to whom the epistemologist’s more specific injunctions are addressed, are commonly reluctant to receive correction.

There was a notable example of such resistance in this Review some time ago when J. H. Hexter applied the ethics of historical reasoning propounded by Morton White to a test case, Mattingly’s Defeat of the Spanish Armada. For Hexter, Mattingly’s book was an incontrovertible example of genuine historical knowledge. Since it did not remotely comply, in his view, with White’s specifications, the latter could be regarded as fit only for ornament, not for use.

There is one feature of the history of philosophical theorizing about knowledge that is a little at odds with the notion I have been considering of the epistemologist as a socially useful being in his role as critic of our intellectual processes. This is that the greatest epistemologists, by common acceptation, have all defended more or less wild, indeed radically subversive, conceptions of the genuine and proper pursuit of knowledge. For Plato true knowledge was demonstrative in its method and confined for its objects to abstract essences: the contents of the world in space and time lacked the kind of reality which was required for knowledge of them to be possible. Descartes went a little further by allowing that there is also knowledge of one’s own current mental states, but he could support the main body of our ordinary convictions only by relying on the principle that a benevolent God, whose existence he claimed to prove, would not deceive us. Hume seemed to himself, and to all of his readers except a group of resolute reinterpreters who take his skepticism to be essentially rhetorical, to have shown that we can know nothing but our own impressions and merely conceptual truths about the relations between our own ideas. Kant, attempting to answer Hume, concluded that we could know the world, but only if it was conceived as largely our own construction; things in themselves being forever beyond our grasp.

There is, however, a body of epistemologists, of the second class, perhaps, by comparison with the great extremists, who lay down altogether less stringent conditions for cognitive salvation: Aristotle, Locke, Reid, John Stuart Mill. These more earnest and responsible figures comment on the methods and results of our common knowledge in a practically more applicable way. The extremists, because of the extravagance of their ideals, can communicate at most a style to the thinking men who are influenced by them. No one, for example, could believe as little as Hume seems to allow, but there is a Humean stand-point of skeptical detachment which has its appeal. Similarly the reorganization of our beliefs that Descartes recommends, in which all our convictions about the common world are rescued only by subordinating them to the veracity of God, is not accepted by all those Frenchmen whose brisk, abstract, uncompromising mode of reasoning displays his influence.

The moderates accommodate their demands more realistically to the human propensity to believe. In Locke our ordinary beliefs are broadly endorsed, even if they show the bruises left by his examination of them, and in Reid the commonsensical dogmas which much philosophy has sought to undermine are sanctified as self-evident truths about the nature of things. It almost seems that the two kinds of philosopher are necessary to each other. The Don Quixotes produce their explosive illuminations; the Sancho Panzas put the pieces together again.

In this century and in the Englishspeaking world, something like this relation obtains between Russell and C. I. Lewis. Russell’s first great achievement was the construction of a purely extensional system of logic. This implied, as Russell eventually came to agree, that logic is not a substantive discipline with a subject matter of its own: it is essentially formal and concerned with the arrangement of substantive discourse about the world, not with making a further addition to such discourse. Lewis’s first books rejected this idea in favor of an intensional logic in which attention is paid not merely to the mathematically manipulable form of our assertions but to the necessary connections of meaning between the terms they contain.

For most of his career Russell was heavily skeptical about memory and induction and confessed in his last major work, Human Knowledge, that scientific theorizing could be ratified only by arbitrary postulations about the world it is applied to. Lewis, on the other hand, gave arguments for the necessary reliability in general of both memory and induction and held that the abyss of doubt that Russell claimed to have detected about everything but what is immediately present to the senses is an illusion.

Finally, despite his strong moral commitments, Russell became convinced that there could be no knowledge in the domain of values and that value judgments expressed personal emotional attitudes and not objective matters of fact. Lewis, in his later writings, fought this widespread opinion with determination, and even ferocity, insisting that our evaluations do express genuine knowledge about the conditions of human satisfaction and suffering.

It is clear to me that Lewis was the most distinguished American professional philosopher of the last halfcentury. The date and the requirement of professionalism rule out Santayana, who left the United States for good in 1914 and was more a critic of culture than a philosopher in the narrow sense. Dewey is Lewis’s most serious competitor. But although he was a much larger figure and has no doubt had more influence than Lewis through his work (most of all in education), as a philosopher pure and simple he is Lewis’s inferior. Despite his rejection of the type of Hegelian idealism in which he was brought up, Dewey retained the edifying amorphousness of its literary and, more to the point, logical style. Lewis, by contrast, is a hard and definite reasoner, although not much more of a stylist than Dewey.

He has now been honored, five years after his death, by the publication of a volume devoted to him in the “Library of Living Philosophers,” the thirteenth person to be so honored. These volumes consist of an autobiography, with more or less intellectual emphasis, by the subject; a series of essays by other people on aspects of his work; and a concluding essay, ideally rather long, in which the subject of the volume answers the criticism in the preceding essays. Three volumes in the series, which has been edited throughout by Professor P. A. Schilpp, are essential philosophical reading: those on Russell, Moore, and Carnap. These philosophers evoked some admirable critical essays and provided thorough and serious answers to criticism. Indeed Carnap’s reply to his critics is the best study of Carnap’s philosophy that there is.

The Lewis volume is not so good as these three major successes. The autobiography, though enjoyable for its revelation of Lewis’s gruff, dour character, is brief and peters out in the middle of Lewis’s career. The essays, although for the most part sound and decent, are generally a little uninspired. The selection of commentators is largely confined to a kind of philosophical Middle America and there are few arresting performers of the kind whose thoughts would be interesting in their own right. Lewis’s reply to his critics is, as he admits, fairly perfunctory. Here, as in other volumes in the series, the subject of the volume was too old by the time the opportunity of commenting at length on his own work came to him to take the best advantage of it. Certainly the next volume announced, which is on Popper, looks more exciting.

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