16 April 2008

I like C.I. Lewis

I read "A Pragmatic Conception of the a priori" for the first time the other day, and it's fantastic. If one wants to retain the a priori/a posteriori distinction, I think Lewis does a wonderful job of showing how to do it. (The retained distinction will, of course, be unable to play the (bad) metaphysical role it has been called in to do in times past.) I really find nothing to object to in this paper: so long as one is not troubled by the idea that what is "held true no matter what" might also be rejected at some future point, I think it is a thoroughly splendid essay, especially for something so short.

In the interview which was reprinted at the end of "Problems of Rationality", Davidson says that he thinks Quine and C.I. Lewis were closer than Quine recognized: "The explanation for that is that Quine had no training in philosophy [when he encountered Lewis at Harvard] and so when he took Lewis's course in epistemology, he took it for granted that this was what everyone knows about epistemology.... I don't think he realized any of this, but you can find most of Quine's epistemology in C.I. Lewis minus the analytic-synthetic distinction. Epistemology naturalized was very close to the heart of C.I. Lewis. I don't think Quine knows the extent to which there really is a sequence that starts with Kant and goes through C.I. Lewis and ends with Quine."

I would add that C.I. Lewis does not appear to suffer from Quine's scientism, and he certainly doesn't have the weird fetish for classical logic that Quine does. And at least in "A Pragmatic Conception of the a priori", the analytic/synthetic distinction seems to be doing nothing objectionable (it passes largely without comment, and plays no essential role in the paper). Which makes Quine a lesser version of C.I. Lewis.

I almost don't want to read "Mind and the World Order", just in case it's not as good as this essay was.

7 comments:

tanas said...

So, we need to buy the book to learn what C.I.Lewis says on the issue? Do tell us, please :)

Daniel Lindquist said...

That is a fair point. I don't know why the paper is not online; it's from 1923, I was pretty sure that was old enough for it to be public-domain. It's been reprinted pretty widely, though.

I would summarize it now, but a) I am lazy, b) there are lots of small touches that I like in the paper.

tanas said...

No problem, thanks for pointing to it.

J said...

Pragmatism, or the philosophy of the pseudo-engineer: "we always built this bridge like dat, and it ain't fallen down, usually, so the equations must all work, at least for now." Zealots, whether xtian, or anti-xtian, love efficaciousness.

Currence said...

I almost bought a copy of "Mind and the World Order" at the local used bookstore a few months ago, after I heard Conant mention it in his "varieties of skepticism" lectures. He seemed to be of the opinion that Lewis had a pretty nuanced position regarding the conceptual and non-conceptual, and much of what Sellars was on about was closely related to what was in Lewis originally. (I hope my memory is serving me well here.)

www.wordviews.tk said...

Just bumped to your blog, a late reply then. MWO is essentially an expansion on the themes presented in "The Pragmatic [...] A Priori". If you liked the paper, I am sure you will find MWO very rewarding. It is only in The Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation that Lewis goes deeper with the analytic/synthetic distinction.

I really liked your notions about Quine/Lewis; I am somewhat baffled about Quine's apparent hostility towards Lewis, since there seems to be so much common ground there once you scratch the surface. Especially Quine's beef with intensional logic escapes me. I understand there are some consistency issues, but as concerns natural inference and language, I feel that intensional logic, and especially Lewis' take on it, goes a long way further than any extensional one. Perhaps it is a mathematical issue; I remember reading somewhere (I think it was Murphey's book) that after "Two Dogmas", Lewis remarked that he simply does not have the mathematical firepower to answer Quine's critique. But still, even if extensionality gives one more consistency, in terms of natural inference the paradoxes it entails are, in my opinion, almost unacceptable. I wish somebody could enlighten me with this issue...

Daniel Lindquist said...

What book is "Murphey's book"?

Quine's beef with modal logic is pretty clearly laid out in "Reference and Modality": Lewis's version of it just doesn't work. It allows substitution of co-extensive terms in what is supposed to be an intensional context (thus allowing valid inference from "Necessarily, four and five make nine" to "Necessarily, there are nine planets (counting Pluto)"). Which is as counterintuitive a result as you could ask for. (Quine rejects post-Kripke modal logic because he doesn't go in for "possible worlds"-talk, and thinks that's the only way anyone's given to avoid the sort of criticisms he made in "Reference and Modality". See this article for a more substantive Quinean criticism of post-Kripke/David Lewis talk of de re modalities than any I'm aware of Quine giving.)

I agree that Lewis's logic avoids a lot of the weirdness that extensional logics run up against when applied to natural language, but I think it's worth noting that Lewis's logic allows weird results, too (or at least his strict conditional does -- everything still implies all logical truths for example, and contradictions imply everything, as do any conditionals with impossible antecedents). Graham Priest's "Introduction to Non-Classical Logic" is good for highlighting things like this; by the end of the book it seems pretty clear that no existing logic does a perfectly smooth job at capturing all and only those patterns of inference which we want to endorse in natural language. (Some relevant logics seem to come pretty damn close, but it comes at the expense of being horribly unwieldy.)