When one examines the social theory of C. I. Lewis against the backdrop of his philosophy as a whole, a fundamental dilemma comes immediately to the fore. Lewis had placed a great deal of emphasis upon social theory and ethics as the crowning element of his thought, yet he was never able to work out his social theory to his own satisfaction. With his attitude towards social theory in mind, this study turns to the other areas of Lewis' philosophy in order to provide the resource material needed to produce a more detailed view of his account of human social experience. The outline of a social theory that Lewis does provide is built around two central concepts: the social inheritance of ideas and the autonomous individual. The former refers to the acquired knowledge and skill which is passed on from one generation to the next and by means of which human practical interest is satisfied. The latter refers to the individuals who employ this socially inherited knowledge. Individuals are autonomous in the sense that they choose the ends that social inheritance will serve and they criticize the adequacy of inherited knowledge and beliefs, making alterations in it when necessary. When both social inheritance and autonomous individuals are present, Lewis maintains that one finds the good social order the primary characteristic of which is the ability to make progress. Much of the ambiguity which surrounds these constituent components of the incomplete social theory is removed when one turns to the remainder of Lewis' philosophy for clarification. The notion of sense meaning, which is the cornerstone of his epistemology, becomes instrumental in rendering the meaning of the social inheritance of ideas more precise. Likewise Lewis' positions on value and the imperatives of rightness are shown to be indispensible in clarifying the nature of the autonomous individual. As a result of this supplementary study of the remainder of Lewis' philosophy, one uncovers an individualistic conception of the human social order. It is a social order in which prudently oriented individuals engage in socially inherited habits of action while pursuing their own practical, valued ends. All of this activity takes place within a social context of respectful non-interference. Yet even within this detailed account of the social theory, three fundamental problems remain. First, there is Lewis' reliance upon a weak and unsupported view of human nature which leads him to formulate a non-pragmatic picture of the good social order. Second, there is his overwhelming abstract generality on the issues of social cohesion and social relationships among individuals. And finally, there is the extension of this abstract generality to his conception of justice. The final task becomes the effort to locate the source of these weaknesses in Lewis' thought itself. Using pragmatic liberalism as a device for gaining a critical perspective on Lewis' social theory, an unresolved tension is discovered in his thought between its flexible elements on the one hand and its static and non-developmental elements on the other. The profound flexibility of his epistemology exists side by side with the non-evolutionary fixity which characterizes human nature and the imperatives. Lewis' response to the crisis of contemporary society reproduces this tension within the social theory and elevates the non-developmental aspect of his thought to a place of considerable importance. As a result, the fundamental weaknesses which were discovered in the social theory become unavoidable. Consequently, Lewis' social theory is valuable in that it unifies and completes his philosophy, but it contains fundamental flaws which weaken its adequacy as a valid account of what human social experience is and what it ought to be.

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Recommended Citation

COLELLA, ERCOLE PAUL ANTHONY, "THE SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY OF C. I. LEWIS" (1981). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8111311.