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Philosophers Today: David Lewis

June 19, 2019

This will be a mostly critical post, for the perspective of David Lewis is one I disagree with on many grounds. Firstly, i will quickly outline some of the main views he holds. Most of this, I have got from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on him: David Lewis, so insofar as his views differ from this, then the critique does not apply.

  1. David Lewis is a modal realist. He believes not only that there is value in the logic of possible worlds as a means for understanding and conceptualising things, but that these possible worlds are actually real, existent things, and he gives arguments to suggest why, if we are going to contemplate such possible worlds, we are best off to accept their reality also.
  2. This is related to his view on counterfactuals. David Lewis uses counterfactual scenarios a lot in order to prove/support his arguments.
  3. He thinks that language is conventional through and through, and he sees no problem with this, and no reason for it’s meaning to be grounded in something, such as a world, beyond these conventions.
  4. His Interpretationist theory of mental content, following Donald Davidson
  5. His project of global reductionism to the physical world, of things such as mind, free-will, etc..
  6. Related to this is his support of the view of Humean supervenience. This,is the doctrine that all there is to the world is a vast mosaic of local matters of particular fact, just one little thing and then another. In other words, “truth supervenes on being” and this “being” is reducible to the properties and relations of point-sized objects and spatio-temporal relations.

Now I find these to be a fascinating set of doctrines. They are an attempt very much in the analytical tradition of logical atomism and positivism from the early 20th century. Trying to provide an ontology that fits onto what physical science has to say about the basic ontology of the world, and not committing to anything more than this. It is felt, by these thinkers, that what science has to tell us about basic reality is more trustworthy and reliable than what individual metaphysicians may have to say.

Now, this could be correct for the most part. But this does not entail it can take a short-cut around reasonable discussion. If this ontology is to be accepted, it must not just pass the test of having the authority of scientific support and consensus on its side. It must also, if it is to be a philosophical position, pass the test of reasonable debate and discussion about its premises. We cannot hide some premises from discussion, just because “this is what science says”. And, in general, this is my problem with these kinds of approaches, as they tend to make this very error. The result is that a dogmatic creed tries to pass itself off as philosophy. A doctrine finds its way into a critical discussion that is not itself willing to be critically discussed. Now, imagine who is going to win in that debate? Well, of course, the thing that is not amenable to critical discussion! And this thing usually in these times is the doctrine science tends to support, of physicalism. Never, or rarely, is it mentioned how this doctrine does not work in the social sciences or in relation to moral problems. Mostly, they focus their efforts on what they feel are the next things that need to be “reduced” to this physical model. Namely, the mind and free-will.

So, I will go through, point by point, what I disagree with in the above six positions, and suggest the view I hold instead:

  1. Modal realism: Although I can see benefit in certain scenarios of this kind being entertained. For instance, in the way Saul Kripke uses them, I cannot see any grounds for realism about these possible worlds. They are possible for a reason, namely, because they are not actual. There is one actual world, that has gone, up to now, the way it has gone, irreversibly, leaving us here and now with one real situation to deal with.
  2. Counterfactuals: Similar criticism applies here. Take a quote from Lewis:I believe, and so do you, that things could have been different in countless ways. But what does this mean? Ordinary language permits the paraphrase: there are many ways things could have been besides the way they actually are. I believe that things could have been different in countless ways; I believe permissible paraphrases of what I believe; taking the paraphrase at its face value, I therefore believe in the existence of entities that might be called ‘ways things could have been.’ I prefer to call them ‘possible worlds.’ (1973a: 84)  This confuses two different things. We can entertain possibilities without it making them real. He says we all believe things could have been different in countless ways. But, no, I simply don’t believe this at all. Things up to now, in the past could not be different in any way. The past cannot be changed, this is basic common sense to my mind.
  3. Conventionalism: I think it is absolutely necessary that language be grounded in a non-linguistic reality. This is what gives language a grounding to its meaning. No amount of “rules” and “conventions” and “agreements” describing language after the fact can ever constitute an explanation for language. This is the confusion people engage in here, of providing only a description of language use and think that is sufficient for an explanation. Well, of course it simply isn’t. To describe something is not to explain it. An explanation requires something more, that “something more” is a world beyond language that gives language its meaning.
  4. Radical Interpretation: This whole view about radical interpretation, taken from Davidson and from Quine is motivated by trying to provide an externalised account of mental contents, to replace the internal, introspective perspective on mental contents with a publicly accessible form. The onus is on them to show it can be done. I am personally happy to accept the common sense view here that private introspection provides additional and important knowledge of internal mental contents that cannot be expressed in an external, public form.
  5. Global Reductionism: I don’t think things such as the intentionality of the mind, can be reduced to a physical world. I have seen no good arguments to suggest this. Not to mention narrative and implicit teleology in social and biological sciences. It is only, when specifically in the domain of physical science that this reduction can seem tempting and possible. This is precisely because it was for this domain that the methodology of physicalism of seeing things as isolated atoms, only contingently related was set up. It works well in this area, to follow this on methodological grounds. It makes sense there. It makes no sense to turn this methodology into an ontology that we must then apply in all other domains than the physical.
  6. Humean Supervenience: This approach makes the mind ineffectual in a world out of its control. It isolates and confines the mind to a here and now point, paralysed, observing a world all around it, randomly and contingently impinging upon it, as and when it wants. This view is the height of disempowerment of human beings that has often motivated these physicalist projects, ever since the time of the logical positivists. I have made many arguments in other places against this view. The basic point is that they are arguing this position on methodological and pragmatic grounds, not based on any ontologically convincing reasons. On a point of methodology they insist that all phenomena are contingently related. I argue that there are necessary connections in the world of phenomena. These are the necessary a posteriori truths that Saul Kripke refers to in his work.

So, that is a brief critique. If you are interested to know more about my own views and on the views of other thinkers in the 20th century I recommend you check out my new book I have written on the subject, due for release in mid-July.

journeythrough20thcenturyphilosophyA Journey Through 20th Century Philosophy: From Russell to Searle (

A Journey Through 20th Century Philosophy: From Russell to Searle (

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