Mind and the World-Order

by C. I. Lewis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311

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

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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

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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.


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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

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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 the other hand, is quite different from the given. It is the construction, or interpretation, which is put upon the given. It is not to be understood in terms of any imagery or any psychological state of an individual mind. On the contrary, it is defined as “that meaning which must be common to two minds when they understand each other by the use of a substantive or its equivalent.” Verifying the commonness of meaning in the case of any concept takes one of two routes: exhibiting the denotation by a behavioral act, or employing a definition. The former is unsatisfactory because it does not enable us to determine uniquely the meaning of the concept. The latter specifies the meaning directly in terms of a pattern of other concepts: A is defined in terms of B and C, and these are defined by other concepts. This is obviously a process that is never completed, but it does enable us to ascertain a genuine identity of meaning in two minds. It should not be interpreted as an analysis of meaning in the sense of a repeated dissection of a meaning into other meanings until one is reached which is no longer relational; every concept is a pattern of other concepts. To argue this definition of concepts on the grounds (a) that when we use a concept we “seldom have in mind” such a pattern of concepts, and (b) that we may have a meaning which we cannot state in terms of such a pattern without further thought, is to overlook the fact that concepts play a role in knowledge which is primarily practical; meanings may be exhibited implicitly in the consistency of behavior, as well as explicitly in the statement of definitions.

Perceptual Knowledge

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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. Thus, the existence of an objective property is not constituted by the presentation of a given quale but by the presentation of a given quale plus the concept of an ordered relation of different qualia tied up with certain conditions of behavior. The concept means this pattern of qualia. It therefore extends temporally beyond the given quale, permitting the pattern to be confirmed or disproved as an interpretation of the given, and it always prescribes possible ways of acting toward the presented object. Without such a pattern we could never identify an object.

However—unfortunately, perhaps—even with such a pattern, we cannot surely identify an object, because the pattern always contains unrealized future experiences and because a certain pattern may serve to identify different qualia. Also, different patterns may be applicable to the same quale. Our perceptual knowledge of an object is consequently more than mere acquaintance with a quale; when we ascribe objectivity to a presentation, the “acquaintance with” changes into “knowledge about” and we have a conceptual interpretation of what is presented. Knowledge consists of that part of the flux of experience that we ascribe to ourselves and that we change by our activities, and of that part that is objective and that we cannot predicate of ourselves. The world is bigger than the content of our direct experience only because we are active beings, only because we can say to what is revealed in our experience, “If we should do this, then we should experience that,” and we find that the carrying out of these actions often reveals new truths about the world.

No Knowledge Without Interpretation

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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 meaning and that the object is therefore outside the category of weight. The concept of weight is an interpretation that transcends this relativity because it is a relational pattern exhibited by the independently real object. Furthermore, one should not, on the grounds that mind cannot be known, argue from the dependence of knowledge on mind to the conclusion that such knowledge cannot be of the real.

For I do know my mind, Lewis argues, though I learn it only in its commerce with real objects. In other words, I can learn the relation between mind and object by varying the object and noting the variation in its appearances and subjective manifestations, and by varying the mind and noting the resulting variations in the object. Finally, the fact that mind may have unrecognized limitations in its capacity to know the real does not imply either that knowledge is deceitful or that we must forever remain ignorant of the real.

Having shown that there is no knowledge without interpretation, Lewis examines the consequences of this fact. One of these is that there must be at least some knowledge that is a priori. The reasons for this are easy to see. Interpretation represents an activity of the mind and is always subject to test by future experience. The mere fact that interpretation reflects the character of past experience is not sufficient; there must be an assumed orderliness in experience that will entitle us to expect a certain kind of future on the basis of what the past has disclosed. This knowledge that nature is orderly must be necessarily true and independent of the particular character of experience. Knowledge of this kind is a priori.

Explaining A Priori Knowledge

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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 beyond the range of our conception, though they are beyond the range of our perception. Could there be anything, then, which is beyond the range of our conception? Obviously not, for in saying that an object is conceivable, we are really saying something whose opposite makes no sense; the alternative to what can be experienced could not even be phrased. However, although the range of the conceivable cannot be determined by any act of mind, the range of the real might be so determined. Science, in fact, does precisely this. It prescribes the character that reality must possess. Consequently, when we say that we experience dream objects, or fairies, or mermaids, science tells us that these kinds of “objects” cannot possibly be real.

A priori principles are required to limit reality; they are not required to limit experience. An interpretation is a priori only in the sense that it prescribes for a particular case and is thus not subject to recall even if the particular should fail to conform to the prescription. On the other hand, an interpretation is a posteriori if it is abandoned when the case does not fit. Let us suppose, for example, that we set up the categorial interpretation of scientific reality as “the realm in which every event has a cause.” Now let us further assume that we come upon what is presumably a genuine miracle. We have two alternatives: we can say that the miracle did not really happen, or we can say that real events can happen without any natural causes. If real events must always have natural causes, then the miracle could not have been real; but if real events generally have causes (but might not), then the particular case could constitute an exception to the generalization. In the former case our interpretation is a priori; it can be maintained in the face of all experience, no matter what. In the latter case our interpretation is empirical and subject to disconfirmation in terms of experience. Lewis illustrates his point by the story of the man who boastfully made out a list of the names of all the men whom he could whip. When one burly man, whose name appeared on the list, approached him belligerently and insisted that he could not be whipped, the maker of the list said, “All right; then I’ll just rub your name off.” His original boast had no a priori character.

The apparent problem, of course, is how to get the empirical and the a priori together. However, the real problem, according to Lewis, is not to “get them together” but to discover their copresence in all cases of knowledge. The analysis of knowledge reveals the following five phases: (1) the immediate awareness of the given, exemplified by “This looks round”; (2) judgments about presented objects, exemplified in “This object is round”; (3) the a priori development of abstract conceptual schemes, exemplified in such mathematical judgments as “In a Euclidean triangle, the sum of the angles equals 180 degrees”; (4) the categorical knowledge implied in our interpretation of reality, exemplified in the judgment, “If this is a round object, then if I change my position in a certain way, it will appear elliptical”; and (5) empirical generalizations, such as “All swans are white.”

Misunderstanding is sure to arise if we fail to distinguish phase 1 from phase 2. Merely to be aware of an appearance (a quale) is, as we have seen, not knowledge. However, to judge that an object is round, rather than appears round, is knowledge. What makes it knowledge is the fact that it rests for its corroboration on a judgment of the kind indicated in phase 4: “If this object is round, then I can expect certain other appearances to reveal themselves.” In fact, when I say that it is round, I assert implicitly everything the failure of which would falsify the statement. This is a priori and regulative in character, for it commits me to saying, “If I find that the presented object does not confirm my predictions of its other appearances, I shall deny that it is round.”

An a priori proposition always has this characteristic. For example, the statement “All swans are birds” is a priori because if any creature originally designated as a swan were discovered not to be a bird, the designation “swan” would be withdrawn. On the other hand, an empirical generalization, such as “All swans are white,” might be contradicted if we found a black swan. Thus, an a priori proposition does not assert any limitation of experience; it asserts merely that we are tentatively trying out a certain categorical system that is so compactly organized that if one of its concepts does not fit reality, its other concepts will also not fit, and we should therefore abandon it and try another. Only if we have such a rigid scheme can we have knowledge of reality at all, for if an object is to be identifiable in terms of a certain concept, we must be provided with a criterion by means of which we can decide whether the object exemplifies the concept. If we were to change our criterion whenever an object failed to exemplify it, we could never have any criteria and we could never have knowledge. It does follow, of course, that our knowledge of objects can be probable only, never certain, for no matter how many predictions concerning the expected appearances of the object have been confirmed, there is always the possibility that the next one will not be; all verification is partial and a matter of degree. If we demand, therefore, something more than this, and require that in order to save us from skepticism empirical knowledge must be certain, we are doomed to disappointment.

The Question of Order

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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 with every other.” This assumes merely that there are some recurrent sequences in nature; that is, there are things of such nature that concepts can be applied to them. Principle B states that whenever we have cases in which Principle A does not apply (namely, in which the sequences seem to be “random”), we can extend these situations through certain identifiable entities in such a way as to make them satisfy Principle A. For example, if we can find no order among events, we can pass to simpler elements by deeper analysis, or to a larger whole containing the original constituents, or to a higher level of abstraction by disregarding irrelevant aspects. In each case, we will find order where there had previously appeared to be none. Principle C affirms that “the statistical prediction of the future from the past cannot be generally invalid, because whatever is future to any given past, is in turn past for some future.” This states simply that the person who uses as a basis for prediction a statistical generalization that is continually revised in terms of actual observations cannot fail to make more successful predictions than one who does not.

A world that exhibits these principles is certainly not an inconceivable one. Indeed, since all we want to assure ourselves of is the probability of our apprehensions and our generalizations, not their certainty, we can hardly imagine a world that would not provide a basis for such knowledge. For certain modes of cognition and irreducible variety in the world would be completely irrelevant. Moreover, our demand for uniqueness in the individual thing seems to require a world of unlimited variety. However, in most modes of understanding the uniformity is not discovered in the world but imposed on the world by our own categorical procedure. What we are really saying, therefore, when we assert that the world is orderly is merely that there must be apprehensible things and objective facts—and to this conclusion there seems to be no conceivable alternative except the nonexistence of everything.


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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 Commentary on, and Selected Readings from, C. I. Lewis’ Ethics. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981. This volume looks at ethics and justice from Lewis’s point of view.

Quine, Willard V. “Truth by Convention.” Reprinted in Readings in Philosophical Analysis, edited by Herbert Feigl and Wilfred Sellars. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1949. Lewis’s younger colleague Quine examines the view that a priori statements are based on conventions of language.

Quine, Willard V. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” In From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953. This famous article attacks the view, held by Lewis and many others, that there is a legitimate philosophical distinction between a priori and empirical statements.

Rosenthal, Sandra B. The Pragmatic a Priori: A Study in the Epistemology of C. I. Lewis. St. Louis: W. H. Green, 1976. This volume looks primarily at the epistemology of Lewis while emphasizing the pragmatic dimension.

Saydah, J. Roger. The Ethical Theory of Clarence Irving Lewis. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1969. This volume presents a detailed study of the ethical position held by Lewis.

Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of C. I. Lewis. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1968. Contains an autobiographical statement by Lewis, more than a dozen essays on his philosophy by others, his own fairly brief replies to those comments, and a bibliography of his writings.

West, Cornel. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. This readable survey of American pragmatism contains only a few references to Lewis because it emphasizes the social dimension. It is nevertheless helpful for placing Lewis in relation to other pragmatists.

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