Normativity and Instrumentalism in David Lewis’ Convention

History of European Ideas 37 (3):325-335 (2011)
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David Lewis presented Convention as an alternative to the conventionalism characteristic of early-twentieth-century analytic philosophy. Rudolf Carnap is well known for suggesting the arbitrariness of any particular linguistic convention for engaging in scientific inquiry. Analytic truths are self-consistent, and are not checked against empirical facts to ascertain their veracity. In keeping with the logical positivists before him, Lewis concludes that linguistic communication is conventional. However, despite his firm allegiance to conventions underlying not just languages but also social customs, he pioneered the view that convening need not require any active agreement to participate. Lewis proposed that conventions arise from “an exchange of manifestations of a propensity to conform to a regularity” (87–8). In reasserting the conventional quality of languages and other practices resting on mutual expectations, Lewis comfortably works within the analytic tradition. Yet he also deviates from his predecessors because his conventionalist approach is comprehensively grounded in instrumentalism. Lewis adopts an extension of David Hume's desire-belief psychology articulated in rational choice theory. He develops his philosophy of convention relying on the highly formal mid-twentieth-century expected utility and game theories. This attempt to account for language and social customs wholly in terms of instrumental rationality has the implication of reducing normativity to preference satisfaction. Lewis’ approach continues in the trend of undermining normative political philosophy because institutions and practices arise spontaneously, without the deliberate involvement of agents. Perhaps Lewis’ Convention is best seen as a resurgent form of analytic philosophy, characterized by “a style of argument, hostility to [ambitious] metaphysics, focus on language, and the dominance of logic and formalization” that solves the dilemma of “combining the analytic inheritance…with normative concerns” by reducing normativity to individuals’ preference fulfillment consistent with the axioms of rational choice.

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S. M. Amadae
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


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