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Friday, October 3, 2014


WallyVerr asked me to say something about Clarence Irving Lewis [C. I. Lewis, as he is usually known] and I am more than happy to do so, but though I have many stories to tell about Lewis from my undergraduate days at Harvard -- some of which I have told in my Autobiography -- I am less well-equipped than many to speak knowledgeably about his enduring place in American philosophy.  I would be delighted if Charles Parsons would write something about Lewis, and maybe Warren Goldfarb, who is rather younger than I, might want to chime in.

I am going to stifle my natural impulse to pour out stories about Lewis, and confine myself in this brief post to some remarks about his philosophical career and his place in American philosophy.  If anyone really wants stories, I will be happy to comply in a later post.

Lewis was born in Massachusetts in 1883 and took both his B. A. and his doctorate in philosophy at Harvard.  After teaching for nine years at the University of California, he returned to the Harvard Department and taught there until his retirement in 1953 -- my senior year.  It was my immense good fortune to be able to take all three of the courses he taught in that last year -- an undergraduate course on Epistemology, a graduate seminar on Epistemology, and the famous Kant course, in which I began my serious study of the Critique of Pure Reason.  Although I studied with Willard van Orman Quine and Nelson Goodman and Morton White and Hao Wang and Harry Austryn Wolfson and a number of other first-rate philosophers, it was Lewis more than anyone else who gave me an enduring image of what it means to be a philosopher.  In his reserved, formal, late-Victorian way, he managed to communicate to all of us that it is not merely intellectually desirable but morally imperative to achieve clarity and fidelity to the truth of ideas in one's work.  I think it is fair to say that I have spent the sixty-one years since he retired striving to be true to that calling.

American philosophy has always been parasitic on its European lineage.  As far back as Locke's New Way of Ideas, American philosophers have followed the lead of European authors.  Continental Rationalism, British Empiricism, Social Contract Theory, Utilitarianism, Kantian Critical Philosophy, German Idealism, Romanticism, Logical Positivism, Ordinary Language Philosophy, Existentialism, Phenomenology all were European imports.  There has really been only one school of Philosophy that arose in the United States -- Pragmatism.  And among the important figures in the creation and development of that movement -- William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey -- C. I. Lewis was, in my judgment, the best of them.  Lewis was a logician who trained Quine and many others coming through the Harvard Department in the first half of the twentieth century.  He was an epistemologist, and in his later years he was an ethicist as well. 

Lewis published a number of books, the most ambitious of which was An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation [1946].  One tiny story [I cannot resist].    In his very last semester at Harvard, the Spring semester of 1953, Lewis taught a seminar on epistemology, which I took.  At the last meeting of the seminar, he brought into class a number of books for which he had no further need -- presentation copies and such -- and invited each student to select one as a gift from him.  My graduate student classmates grabbed copies of the latest works to come from English philosophers and others, but I saw a copy of An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation and dove for it.  Lewis inscribed each book to the student who had chosen it, and so it is that my copy of Analysis is inscribed by the author himself.

Although Lewis may have intended Analysis to be the work for which he would be remembered, I think that his greatest work was Mind and the World Order, published in 1929.  It is, I truly believe, the best piece of philosophy ever written by an American.  I might describe it in shorthand as a marriage of Kant and Pragmatism as filtered through Lewis' understanding of formal logic.  It is not a difficult book to read, and in its elegant simplicity and clarity it is a true philosophical classic. 

I think that is as much as I wish to say about Lewis, but as I indicated, I would be delighted if any of my readers who feel up to the challenge would like to write something more extended and detailed about Lewis' philosophical achievements.


Jim Westrich said...

I figured it would be helpful to add *Mind and the World Order* is part of the Universal Digital Library (public domain). As such it is available in a variety of formats at:

Jim Westrich said...

Also (apologies for hitting enter before including this) *An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation* at:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am not sure I will ever get used to the twenty-first century. Just out of curiosity, is this the big project that Google undertook? Or Amazon?

Jim Westrich said...

The project is older and was originally called the "Million Book" project. It was started by Carnegie Mellon and initially funded by the National Science foundation but most of the funding has come from governments in India and China (some sources say Egypt has contributed but that may have stopped in the past few years).

The Universal Digital Library is a precursor to Google's project and probably contributed to US institutions losing interest in it (I do not think even Carnegie Mellon is involved any more). The project scanned over 300,000 English titles but has scanned nearly a million Chinese language books.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

It is interesting that for the analytically oriented community, it is Lewis's work on modal logical that matters most, S1 and all that. But, for others, e,g., me, it is the idea of the pragmatic a priori. Funny how those can be at odds, as modal logic has been employed to explain and defend an ontological, non-pragmatic analysis of necessity.

T Gent said...

Prof, I am sure I'm not alone when I ask you to tell any story you may have on Lewis.