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 …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.