C.I. Lewis: Kant + Pragmatism

C.I. Lewis is one of the most significant philosophers of the early twentieth century, his biggest contributions being in epistemology. Lewis investigated how it is that humans gain knowledge. As a man who falls under the category of an analytic philosopher, he concluded in his philosophy that we gain knowledge empirically, or through experience. Lewis names his phenomena the given, which is reminiscent of Kant’s theory of Given. For the sake of clarity in this essay I will capitalize Kant’s Given, and use lowercase for Lewis’. Another parallel to be drawn between Kant and C.I. Lewis is their similarities in ethics. Kant’s deontology emphasizes the inherent good in actions. Seemingly evolved from that, Lewis’ moral philosophy is concerned about the potentiality of goodness in actions, not goodness of objects or consequences as other non-deontological moral theories hold. C.I. Lewis’ epistemology and ethical theories should be viewed as an evolution of Kant’s ideas; Lewis can be seen as Kant plus Pragmatism.

The analytic tradition of philosophy in the twentieth century came about in order to focus philosophy on practical subjects. It began because speaking about metaphysical matters seemed pointless, as no metaphysical facts could be proved or disproved. Analytic philosophers turned their focus on much smaller problems that could possibly be solved by the help of philosophy. The analytic philosophers adopted an empiricist and scientific approach to philosophy, breaking away from rationalists before them. Many of the analytics focused on language, however C.I. Lewis took a much more Kantian approach in a lot of is work by tackling epistemology and how we interpret the given.

To understand how Lewis evolved from Kant’s epistemology, we will first examine Kant. One of Kant’s most notable contributions to philosophy, and why he often marks the end of “Modern Philosophy” is due to his attempt at bridging the gap of empiricism and rationalism. This is the first sense in which we can see an evolution forming that may lead into the analytic tradition. By not only relying on rationalism to base his epistemology, Kant is adopting an empiricist justification. Kant’s views the world as divided into two main categories: the noumenal world and the phenomenal world. The noumenal world is the existence of an object in itself, and this world is not accessible to humans. The noumenal world is less important here, as it refers to a metaphysical idea of objects, which is not of great significance to analytic philosophers such as C.I. Lewis. In fact, this world would be completely irrelevant to analytic philosophers because anything that cannot be empirically justified is of no consequence. To make claims about that which we cannot see is useless.

On the other hand, and more importantly, Kant identifies the second world as the phenomenal. This is the world of the Given. The phenomenal is the world as we perceive it.

The phenomena of human experience depend on both the sensory data that we receive passively through sensibility and the way our mind actively processes this data according to its own a priori rules. These rules supply the general framework in which the sensible world and all the objects (or phenomena) in it appear to us. So the sensible world and its phenomena are not entirely independent of the human mind, which contributes its basic structure. (Kant SEP)

Kant’s Given is the sensory data that we receive from the world involuntarily. This is a passive process that our mind then responds to according to certain limitations in which we understand the world: persons and objects causally interacting in space and time. In this way, Kant believes that each human perceives only appearances of the world, but also that humans understand the world through these innate mechanisms (persons and objects causally interacting in space and time) in the same way. Two people that perceive the same exact phenomena are going to process said phenomena in the same way because of these innate mechanisms.

C.I. Lewis holds a similar view to Kant in respect of only perceiving phenomena. Lewis viewed the world as having one important aspect: the phenomenal. It cannot be said that Lewis did not believe in any metaphysical beings such as God or even Kant’s noumenal world, but he certainly did not see any importance in studying or writing about it. Lewis did, however, see the phenomenal world as a world of appearances that humans receive involuntarily. Lewis asserts “the two elements to be distinguished in knowledge are the concept, which is the product of the activity of thought, and the sensuously given, which is independent of such activity” (Lewis 186). Here we see the first way in which Lewis evolves from Kant’s epistemology. Where Kant does not distinguish between the involuntary perception of phenomena and the interpretation, Lewis does. He understands the given (as opposed to Kant’s Given) as the passive perception of phenomena, but the way in which we understand that given depends on the human being.

This may need clarification, as it is a fine line to draw between the two. Surely Kant believes that different persons can have different opinions on phenomena they receive, that is something most people will agree on. This is different from the point I am making, however. Kant does not, however, allow for different worldviews to be the innate mechanisms of the mind, whereas Lewis does. Kant sees everyone as having the same mechanisms that process the Given, but Lewis holds that different conceptual frameworks (such as physics or biology, which I will speak more of) can act as these mechanisms of the mind. This is where Lewis’ addition of pragmatism to Kant’s epistemology surfaces. Pragmatism is “marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief” (Pragmatism, M.W. Dictionary). This means that although the phenomena of the Lewis’ given may be the same for everyone, the conceptual framework that our mind conforms the given to may be different for different people.

A contemporary physicist will have a much different set of innate mechanisms that interpret the given than a commonsense realist. The physicist is going to interpret the given in terms of strings and branes, and how these objects will affect future findings in contemporary physics. To reiterate, the given is the same for both the physicist and the commonsense realist, but the mechanisms by which their mind understands the given is a different story. Arguably, I believe Kant is correct in saying that basic innate mechanisms are persons and objects and how they causally relate in space and time, however I do not believe these are the only innate mechanisms which is how Lewis evolves from Kant. The physicist is in a conceptual framework completely different from the commonsense realist, and thus his mind has a different way of processing the given. As Lewis notes about processing the given:

When we conceptually interpret the given, we form hypothetical expectations and make predictions in the light of past experience, usually automatically and without conscious reflection, concerning what other experiences we would have were we to engage in specific actions, and so, in applying concepts, as Kant suggests, we relate our experiences to each other. (C.I. Lewis, SEP)

The way personal conceptual frameworks affect the way in which we understand the given is an important evolution from Kant’s Given. Rather than every person understanding given phenomena in the same way, this allows for justification though past and future experience.

This difference in interpretation of specific given phenomena can be seen more simply with the example of a pen, “my designation of this thing as ‘pen’ reflects my purpose to write; as ‘cylinder’ my desire to explain a problem in geometry or mechanics” (188). A person experiencing the pen may not interpret it as such if they are a mathematician determining the spatial dimensions of the object. Just as a person using the pen will interpret it as a tool to write with. The interpretation of the given is according to ones own conceptual framework that dictates the innate mechanisms, and the knowledge that can be derived from an experience is justified pragmatically. This means justification of truth and falsity relies on other experiences and interpretations.

Lewis maintained a conceptual pragmatist view of knowledge because, as is inherent with empiricism, knowledge only exists in the possibility of error, “Thus, he modified the traditional view of sensory experience, which regards it as a guarantee of true knowledge and certainty about reality because an individual cannot possibly be mistaken about the sheer impressions given by the senses. According to Lewis, epistemological problems are instead a matter of the subjective interpretations that individuals make about their sensory experiences” (Lewis, E. Britannica). Lewis takes Kant’s attempt at bridging the gap between empiricism and rationalism into the realm of analytic philosophy by getting rid of the noumenal world and basing his adapted epistemology on empirical phenomena and pragmatic justification.

Similar to Lewis’ evolution of Kant’s epistemology, his ethical theory can be thought of in the same way. Kant’s ethics, deontology is one of the most famous in philosophy. Kant believed that the only thing that is inherently good is a good will. He bases his moral philosophy on the idea of human autonomy, he says that our own understanding “provides laws that constitute the a priori framework of our experience” (Kant SEP). Kant believes that through governing ones own actions, we can chose what to will ourselves to do, which is why he values a good will over everything. Where as some moral philosophies maintain that certain objects are good, or the consequences of certain actions are good, Kant holds that what is good is a good will; the action of choosing the right thing is good.

Kant holds that there is a basic law of morality, which he calls the categorical imperative. “He saw the moral law as a categorical imperative—i.e., an unconditional command—and believed that its content could be established by human reason alone. Reason begins with the principle ‘Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law’” (Deontological Ethics, E. Britannica). Kant’s ethics are highly involved with the individual’s duty to conform to maxims, or laws, while still having the autonomy to chose not to. Similar to his epistemological view that every person interprets the Given in the same way, Kant believes that all people necessarily come to the same laws, “Kant holds that we give the moral law to ourselves, just as we also give the general laws of nature to ourselves, though in a different sense. Moreover, we each necessarily give the same moral law to ourselves, just as we each construct our experience in accordance with the same categories” (Kant, SEP). Just like his epistemology, Kant’s ethics are about constructing a world, but in a theoretical manner.

Lewis’ ethical theory is much more hedonistic than Kant’s, but it can be seen as an evolution of his deontology. While Kant saw a good will as the highest good in the world, Lewis saw the potentiality of good as the value of objects and actions,

The value of an object consists in its potentiality for conducing to intrinsically valuable experiences, and is thus a real connection between objects, persons, and the character of experience, which we can be empirically warranted in accepting on the basis of the empirical evidence and the probability on the evidence of such objects yielding such intrinsically valuable experiences. (Lewis, SEP)

While Lewis does place a lot of importance on the pleasure he gets from certain experiences, he is still using his still under a Kantian framework because he holds there are universal imperatives that individuals must follow. He also follows Kant’s maxim that one should ‘Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law’, by saying that “’No rule of action is right except one which is right in all instances, and therefore right for everyone” (Mothersill, 85). The main difference between the two moral philosophies is that Lewis’ says the highest good is personal satisfaction.

Just like Kant believes there is inherent good in the will, Lewis takes it a step further by specifying, “the summum bonum as the maximization of personal satisfaction for the whole of life and […] the ‘ethical imperative’ is one which concerns the rights of other people” (Mothersill, 87). Lewis takes Kant’s categorical imperative and sets it apart, instead seeing it as a different from a personal set of morals. Lewis sees the imperative as concerning other people and the “summum bonum” as concerning personal satisfaction, which is why Lewis can be seen as a Hedonist deontologist.

Lewis’ contribution to analytic philosophy in epistemology and ethics is very prominent. His epistemology is a great stride for empiricists of the twentieth century by ridding the problem of verification and replacing it with pragmatic justification by way of given phenomena. This can be seen as an evolution of Kant’s epistemology of the phenomenal world and the way humans process the Given though innate mechanisms of the mind. Lewis’ ethics can also be seen as a development of Kant’s deontology as he still advocates for the categorical imperative by which everyone should live. However, Lewis adds his own hedonist take on ethics by valuing personal satisfaction as the greatest good. Lewis took Kant, one of the most noted and acclaimed philosophers of the modern era, and advanced his ideals to fit the prevailing ideas of twentieth century analytic philosophy.


Works Cited

“C.I. Lewis”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2014 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/338117/CI-Lewis&gt;.

“Deontological Ethics”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2014 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/158162/deontological-ethics&gt;.

Hales, Steven D. “The Given Element (C.I. Lewis).” Analytic Philosophy: Classic Readings. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002. N.
pag. Web.

Hunter, Bruce, “Clarence Irving Lewis”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/lewis-ci/&gt;.

Mary Mothersill. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 5, No. 6 (Dec., 1954), pp. 81-88

“Pragmatism.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pragmatism&gt;.

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