Pragmatism, sometimes called the characteristically American philosophy, is usually considered to have been best exemplified in the writings of William James, Charles S. Peirce, and John Dewey. The position is sometimes called “humanism” (for example, the point of view developed by the English philosopher F. C. S. Schiller) and sometimes called “instrumentalism.” Although there were many variations in the specific philosophies of these individuals, they shared a belief in the relativity of truth to the concrete verification processes and to the practical role that humanity plays in the world. In general they also were in agreement in being more or less hostile toward metaphysics, at least of an absolutistic sort, and feeling that a view of the universe that “made no difference” to the common person, either in the sense that it could not be confirmed or disproved by observable phenomena or in the sense that it did not help one to live a better life, was really meaningless, and that indulgence in speculation of this kind was a waste of time.
C. I. Lewis had many of the same interests that Peirce did, and like Peirce he made important contributions to the fields of the philosophy of science and symbolic logic. Lewis’s A Survey of Symbolic Logic (1918) is one of the standard works in this area. In Mind and the World-Order, this broad knowledge of the nature of deductive systems and of the difference between a priori and a posteriori cognition is used to develop a position that Lewis called “conceptualistic pragmatism.” It has much in common with the views of the earlier pragmatists, and Lewis frankly acknowledges his indebtedness to these philosophers, but it also has certain distinctive aspects. For this reason it deserves careful consideration as an important philosophical position. Lewis modified pragmatism to make it more compatible with the methodologies of the mathematical and natural sciences.
Lewis attempts to reduce his point of view to three principles: First, a priori truths are not forms of intuition or categories that determine the content of experience; they are, rather, definitive in nature and limit reality only in the sense that whatever is called “real” is selected from experience by means of criteria that are antecedently determined. Second, the application of any a priori concepts to a particular experience is hypothetical because it is instrumental or pragmatic; consequently, empirical truth is never more than probable. Third, no belief in the conformity of experience to the mind or its categories is required, for a complete nonconformity of these two aspects of knowledge is inconceivable.
Definition of Philosophy
To explain these principles Lewis begins with an analysis of philosophical method. Philosophy is not “another science,” nor is it a substitute for science. It is the critical and reflective application of the mind to experience. It deals with what is already familiar to us, but it analyzes this familiarity into the clear ideas that constitute it. Philosophy begins with the experiences of reality, goodness, and validity, which we all have, and attempts to clarify these notions by critical consideration of what is implicitly in them and therefore does not transcend experience. (A person with no sense of reality will not acquire one by the study of metaphysics.)
More specifically, this analysis of experience involves the discovery of categories—the formulation of the criteria of reality. Experience does not determine its own categories; mind provides these criteria and they are imposed upon the given by our active attitude. Philosophy is not empirical if this claim means that it takes what is merely given to the mind as the totality of experience; nor is it analytic in the sense that it accepts a ready-made experience. Philosophy is not rationalistic if this claim means that it forces reality into a procrustean bed, but it is rationalistic in the sense that it is particularly concerned with that aspect of...
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