In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section C. I. Lewis

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Books by Lewis
  • Collections of Lewis’s Work Edited Posthumously by Others
  • Early Years and The Place of Intuition in Knowledge
  • Logic
  • Mind and the World-Order (MWO)
  • Logical Empiricism, Science, and Values

Philosophy C. I. Lewis
Eric Dayton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0420


Clarence Irving Lewis (b. 1883–d. 1964) is arguably the most important philosopher bridging the pragmatism of the golden age of William James and Charles Sanders Peirce and the analytic quasi-pragmatism of philosophers like W. V. Quine, Nelson Goodman, Wilfrid Sellars, and Hilary Putnam (the first three of whom were taught by him). Lewis’s philosophy as a whole reveals a unified systematic development from his dissertation in 1910, his early work in logic, the development of his epistemology in the 1920s and 1930s, his account of value theory in the 1940s and 1950s, culminating in his work in ethics, which occupied him until his death. Along the way he offered a devastating critique of American absolute idealism and offered a rich epistemology grounded in a Peircean kind of pragmatism. Early in his career Lewis wrote the first the history of logic in English, and, critical of the paradoxes of material implication, he developed an account of strict implication and a set of successively stronger modal logics, the S systems becoming the father of modern modal logic. Lewis was the most influential American philosopher from the mid-1930s until after his retirement in the 1950s. His work helped shape American philosophy as an academic endeavor and contributor to the growing acceptance of rigorous philosophical analysis and European logical empiricism. Lewis spent practically his entire career at Harvard University, bridging the Harvard of James and Royce and the modern department of Quine and Goodman. During his career he wrote six books and a hundred or so papers and reviews. A student of Josiah Royce, William James, and Ralph Barton Perry, a contemporary of Hans Reichenbach, Rudolf Carnap, and the logical empiricists of the 1930s and 1940s, and the teacher of Quine, William Frankena, Goodman, Roderick Chisholm, Roderick Firth, Sellars, and others, he played a pivotal role in shaping the marriage between pragmatism and empiricism that has come to dominate much of current analytic philosophy. Despite his significant contributions, his work soon became neglected and misinterpreted, lost in the influx of interest in Wittgenstein and the philosophy of language. Fortunately, this neglect has begun to wane.

General Overviews

The broadest overviews are the exhaustive book Murphey 2005 and the symposium about that book, Barker, et al. 2006; the two online encyclopedia entries, Hunter 2016 and Dayton 2002; and the anthology of twenty-four descriptive and critical essays by his contemporaries, Schilpp 1968. Chapters of Kuklick 1977, Flower and Murphey 1977, and Reck 1968 offer useful accounts of Lewis’s views and position in American philosophy.

  • Barker, Stephen, John Corcoran, Eric Dayton, et al. “Symposium on Murray G. Murphey: C. I. Lewis: The Last Great Pragmatist.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 42 (2006): 1–7.

    This symposium contains seven discussions of different parts of Murphey’s book and his responses and is a useful addition for any reader of the book. Most of the participants broadly support Murphey’s account of Lewis, offering only minor revisions, but there is occasional criticism.

  • Dayton, Eric. “Clarence Irving Lewis.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. 2002.

    Dayton’s encyclopedia entry focuses on the historical ground and development of all Lewis’s views through his life, though in considerably less detail than Murphey’s grand book. It discusses arguments for and against some of Lewis’s late views and gives an overview of Lewis’s late ethics.

  • Flower, Elizabeth, and Murray G. Murphey. A History of Philosophy in America. Vol. 2. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977.

    Covering about the same period as Kuklick 1977, this book covers all the major pragmatists. The chapter on Lewis (chapter 15, pp. 892–958), written by Elizabeth Flower, gives an excellent account of Lewis’s views; it also offers an unusual but convincing account of the influence of William James on Lewis on his ethical views.

  • Hunter, Bruce. “Clarence Irving Lewis.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2016.

    This encyclopedia entry was revised and enlarged in 2016, especially in the logic and epistemology areas, including discussions of criticisms by philosophers typically in the 1960s and later of a number of Lewis’s positions. These are a welcome addition, offering evidence to explain the demise of Lewis’s reputation and his subsequent neglect. At the same time there is little defense of the positions under criticism by more recent philosophers.

  • Kuklick, Bruce. The Rise of American Philosophy: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1860–1930. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.

    Kuklick’s book is a wonderful study of academic philosophy at Harvard from 1860 to 1930, combining philosophy and intellectual history and revealing how philosophy became a profession in America. His chapter on Lewis (chapter 28; pp. 533–562) provides excellent and detailed analysis of his development up through Lewis 1956 (cited under Books by Lewis), as well as his contributions to the professionalization of philosophy and his place in the Harvard history of pragmatism.

  • Murphey, Murray G. C. I. Lewis: The Last Great Pragmatist. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.

    Murphey’s philosophical biography of Lewis has no peers in his extraordinary work on Lewis. His presentation of the trajectory of Lewis’s career is detailed and richly supported by his vast knowledge of the history of American philosophy. He situates every period of Lewis’s work in its historical context and offers a complete account of each period. The philosophical periods are enriched with biographical chapters, and the book covers every heading.

  • Reck, Andrew J. The New American Philosophers. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.

    Reck’s chapter on Lewis (pp. 3–43) interestingly identifies him as a logical empiricist, with the proviso that his account of analytic truth differs from that of the Vienna Circle version of logical empiricism. Generally, his account of Lewis focuses on his later work, and offers a useful general account of his epistemology.

  • Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of C. I. Lewis. Library of Living Philosophers13. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1968.

    Schilpp’s anthology is a collection of twenty-four critical essays on the work of C. I. Lewis. The book begins with an autobiography by Lewis and ends with a reply to his critics and a bibliography of his works. Lewis died four years before the publication of the book but had written his parts in 1960 and 1961, respectively. Being quite ill, his replies are short. The twenty-four philosophers contributing essays cover a wide range of his later views and most are valuable reading.

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