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.

Three Principles

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 experience that the mind contributes by its interpretive act.


Analysis of knowledge reveals two elements: the concept and the sensuously given. The former is the product of thought; the latter is merely presented and involves no such activity. The conceptual element is a priori, and philosophy can be defined as the study of the a priori in the sense that it undertakes to define, or explicate, such concepts as the good, the right, the valid, and the real. The pure concept and the sensuously given do not limit each other; they are mutually independent. Knowledge is the result of interpreting the given by means of concepts. Consequently, there is no knowledge in the mere awareness of the given. Furthermore, all empirical knowledge is only probable because it is based on the application of a temporally extended pattern of actual and possible experiences to something that is immediately given, and this pattern may have to be revised in view of what future experiences disclose. However, the independence of the conceptual and the given in no way prevents us from having valid knowledge. Nor does it in any way restrict the possibility of finding concepts under which any conceivable experience can be subsumed.

Experience: Given and Conceptual

There are two theories of experience, Lewis argues, which do not accept the partition of experience into the given and the conceptual. One of these eliminates the conceptual entirely and reduces experience to the given. This theory is exemplified by Henri Bergson and the mystics. Its inadequacy can be clearly seen in its inability to handle the fact of error. If mind is pure receptivity, that with which it coincides in knowledge must always have the same objectivity, and we can never make mistakes. The other theory eliminates the given and reduces knowledge to the conceptual. This is the position of the idealists. Its inadequacy lies in its failure to recognize in knowledge an element that we do not create by thinking, one that we cannot, in general, displace or alter. This element is always ineffable, for if it is describable, concepts must have been brought in. It is an abstraction, for it never exists in isolation in any experience or state of consciousness. It is given in, not before, experience. It is made up of “qualia,” which are repeatable and recognizable but have no names. They are fundamentally different from the universals of logic. They may be characterized by such terms as “the given,” “the data of sense,” “the sensuous,” and “the given in its feeling character,” provided one does not in the use of this terminology give the qualia merely a psychological status.

The conceptual element of experience, on...

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Perceptual Knowledge

Having indicated that experience consists of two elements, the given and the conceptual, Lewis proceeds to ask what is involved in our perceptual knowledge of objects. His first task is to show that there is no knowledge by mere acquaintance; that is, knowledge always transcends the immediately given. This view requires him to distinguish, on the one hand, between qualia and our immediate awareness of them, and, on the other, between objects and our knowledge of them.

Qualia are subjective and have no names in normal language; they can be indicated by such phrases as “looks like” or “appears to be.” Because they are immediately given, they have no need of verification and we cannot possibly be mistaken about them. However, if we take the simplest concepts, for example, “blue” or “round,” we can see that what they embrace are not qualia but patterns of relations. This is shown by the steps that we would take in order to confirm our judgment that a given penny, say, is round: We might walk around it or view it from a different angle, we might pick it up and turn it in our fingers, we might move toward it or away from it. In each case, we are attempting to confirm certain predictions that are involved in the supposition that it really is round. If these do not turn out as anticipated, we withdraw our judgment.

The objective reality of the property consists in what would verify it and in what would disprove it....

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No Knowledge Without Interpretation

In further elaboration of this theory of knowledge, Lewis shows that the examination of the problem of how we know has been guided since René Descartes by an erroneous belief in the incompatibility of three alternatives: knowledge is not relative to the mind; the content of knowledge is not the real; and the real is dependent on mind. He proceeds, first, to show that there is no contradiction between the relativity of knowledge and the independence of the object. Indeed, relativity requires an independent character in what is thus relative. The fact, for example, that the weight of an object can be determined only relatively to a standard, such as a pound or a gram, does not imply that weight “in itself” has no...

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Explaining A Priori Knowledge

After proving that certain historical conceptions of the a priori, which identify it with that which is psychologically undeniable, that which is self-evident, or that whose denial implies its affirmation, are erroneous, Lewis turns to an explanation of the a priori. The a priori has nothing to do with anything that is inescapable; it always permits of alternatives. It has its origin in an act of mind, thus exhibiting mind’s creativity and not its dependence on anything inside or outside itself. Mind is, of course, limited in the sense that our perceptual organs are restricted to a certain range of stimuli; dogs can smell things that we cannot smell, and eagles can see things that we cannot see. However, these things are not...

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The Question of Order

Lewis concludes with a chapter entitled “Experience and Order.” If all knowledge is in terms of concepts and concepts are of the mind, the application of concepts to experience demands a certain orderliness in the world. The givenness of certain qualia must be a clue to certain expected sequences, and the occurrence of these sequences in the past must be a valid ground for our belief in their occurrence in the future. This is commonly called the “assumption of the uniformity of nature.”

Lewis tries to show just what is involved in this necessary “uniformity.” It can be expressed in three principles. Principle A says that “it must be false that every identifiable entity in experience is equally associated...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Colella, E. Paul. C. I. Lewis and the Society Theory of Conceptualistic Pragmatism: The Individual and the Good Social Order. San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992. Examines the individual and the social order in Lewis’s version of pragmatism.

Gowans, Christopher W. “Two Concepts of the Given in C. I. Lewis: Realism and Foundationalism.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 27, no. 4 (October, 1989): 573-591. This essay examines realism and foundationalism in Lewis’s beliefs.

Luizzi, Vincet. A Naturalistic Theory of Justice: Critical...

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