Pluralism and Pragmatism

The theme of pluralism is recurrent in Lewis’s treatment of the problem of the world order. We saw how Lewis departs from Kant, Royce, and the rationalist tradition on a crucial aspect, namely on the conceivability and existence of alternative categorial frameworks. The existence of alternative categorial framework has been documented both by history of science and anthropology. But more radically, there is no categorial framework without conceivable alternatives to it and any categorial framework partly owes its objectivity to the conceivability of alternatives. Accordingly, no set of categories is constitutive of an alleged fixed nature of the human mind and no set of “faculties” or “powers” (e.g., the faculty of understanding and the faculty of sensibility) is constitutive of what the human mind is capable of (Lewis 1929, 22, 34, 92, 233-234, 238-239).54 This departure from Kantianism can be thought of as resulting from a combination of two fundamental ideas: experience may be categorized in many ways without being limited; and the a priori is to be thought of as a “way of acting.” For Lewis, not only there is no incompatibility between pragmatism and pluralism, but pluralism is a cornerstone of his conceptual pragmatism. What, then, exactly is the significance of Lewis’s pluralism? In what sense does it differ from other kinds of pluralism? Answering these questions will lead to a further elucidation of the relation between a priori and experience.

The originality and relevance of Lewis’s pluralism partly lie in its being reducible neither to a Carnapian conventionalist pluralism according to which differences between categorial frameworks are merely differences between systems of conventions, nor to a logical or “alethic” pluralism according to which differences between categorial frameworks are evaluable in terms of truth/falsity and contradiction (Lewis 1929, 268), nor even to a pluralism of standpoints or perspectives on the world. Since categories are ways of acting and attitudes, Lewis’s pluralism is first and foremost a practical pluralism: the difference between two or more categorial frameworks is the difference between systems of attitudes or ways of acting.55

The notion of categorial framework is connected not only to the notion of a system of categorical ways of acting or attitudes but also to a notion of arbitrariness inasmuch as a categorial framework is determined by nothing “except some demand or purpose of the mind itself” (Lewis 1929,267). Yet, Lewis cautions against two misunderstandings: one consists in considering that a priori and categories are arbitrary “in the sense that they are capriciously determined” (237); the other consists in taking the freedom of the mind as a “liberty of indifference.”

First, while no a priori and no categories are dictated either by experience or by a standard constitution of the mind, they nevertheless answer to “criteria of the general type which may be termed pragmatic” (1929, 239; see also 247), that is, criteria related to the fulfillment of specifically human needs, interests, and ends. The practical and pragmatic aspects of the a priori can be connected as follows.56 A categorial framework is a system of attitudes and categorical ways of acting. There is no way of acting or attitude without conceivable alternative ways of acting or attitude. As guides for action and ways of acting, categories embody our ends and purposes. Only specifically human needs and purposes can discriminate between alternative ways of acting or attitudes. Therefore, only specifically human needs and purposes are likely to discriminate between alternative categorial frameworks “which are equally objective and equally valid” (1929,271).

Second, without being derived from experience, the a priori and the categories “which survive the test of practice will reflect not only the nature of the active creature but the general character of the experience

Aims and Claims of Conceptual Pragmatism 157 he confronts” (Lewis 1929, 21; my emphases, see also 26, 252, and 263). The independence of the a priori and the categories from experience should be understood in light of the independence of purposes from experience: “What is a priori is prior to experience in almost the same sense that purpose is. Purposes are not dictated by the content of the given; they are our own” (24). However, that does not imply an independence in every respect: a purpose that would not be realizable in terms of experience would be no real purpose and would soon disappear as a purpose. In the same way, a category that would find no suitable application to experience would be pointless (24, 27, 31). The practical and teleological dimension of categories invites us to see the problem of the application of the a priori to experience in a new light.

As we saw in Section 3, Lewis’s answer to the problem of the a priori relies on the idea that, since “that is a priori which we can maintain in the face of all experience no matter what, if experience does not fit it, then so much the worse for the experience” (1929, 224; see also 197, 221, 227, and 265): whatever does not meet our criterion of the physical is not an experience of anything being physical. Nevertheless, this “so much the worse for the experience” principle applies only if the “recalcitrant” experience is isolated and local, that is to say, if the counterfinality exemplified by the “recalcitrant” experience is not systematic. The a priori and the categories are independent of experience, but that does not mean that they are “completely independent of the general character of experience” (22) :57 if there were some “pervasive alteration in the general character of what is presented” (26), there would be no point to some of our categories. If we were “jellyfishes in a liquid world,” then our arithmetic would lose its interest for us, and there would be no point to it and to its application (252 and 257).58 That the applicability of the a priori and the categories presupposes certain general and natural features and recurrences in experience is attested through counterfactual conditionals in the antecedent of which occurs the negation of some of these general and natural features of experience (or, to put it briefly, through a method of counterfactual variation).

Criticism has been leveled39 at Lewis for not offering a satisfactory way to overcome the apparent contradiction in the following passage:

Though categorial principle must, in the nature of the case, be prior to the particular experience, it nevertheless represents an attitude which the mind has taken in the light of past experience as a whole.

(Lewis 1929,26)

On the one hand, the “so much the worse for the experience” principle would make it hard to see how experience could bear on the a priori; on the other hand, if such bearings were admitted, the difficulty would be to understand Lewis’s claim that the a priori may be maintained no matter what.

We can see now how to address this criticism. A genuine question is raised: how should we understand the notions of dependence and independence if the a priori and the categories are conceivably at once independent from and dependent on experience?60 The conclusion that there is no way out of what is considered as a predicament betrays a prejudice which can be described as follows: any relation of dependence of the a priori on experience would be a relation of origin or justification61 -whether it be direct or indirect - such that any a priori “truth” would be falsifiable or refutable, and, consequently, could lose its status of a priori truth. As we have seen, however, there is an alternative way of conceiving the relation of dependence of the a priori on experience that better fits Lewis’s account, namely as a relation of presupposition such that an a priori truth may happen to be “pointless,” “useless,” “inconvenient,” “fantastic,” “discarded,” or “given up” (1929, 27, 240, 240, 269, and 268), but neither contradicted by another a priori truth nor falsified by experience. Distinguishing between two senses of the notion of independence from experience makes it possible to understand how categories could depend on the recurrences of experience and its general and natural features without ceasing to be arbitrary and independent from experience. It also allows us to understand how far Lewis’s conceptual pragmatism is from a conventionalist conception of the a priori.

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