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This volume collects a number of significant essays that Wilfrid S. Sellars wrote between 1951 and 1962. These essays explore topics in metaphysics and epistemology and give a good picture of Sellars’s philosophical system in these areas, but they do not exhaust the range or depth of his thought. Sellars is reacting in part against the logical empiricism that dominated the American philosophical scene at the time. There is a Kantian flavor to his response to empiricism, distinguishing between the (strictly speaking, phenomenal) realm of the conceptual, normative, and social and the realm of causal, physical reality. However, Sellars accommodates the insights of the rationalists and idealists without abandoning his naturalism by treating the conceptual and social as normatively constituted dimensions of human activity that supervene on the physical. The opening essay, “Philosophy and Scientific Image of Man” remains the best statement of Sellars’s philosophical mission, and “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” is still his most influential work.

Manifest and Scientific Images

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Sellars’s view of the philosophical enterprise is extremely liberal: namely, that it is the attempt to “understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Yet he pinpoints the principal challenge facing philosophy: Though we have come to understand the world by employing a conceptual framework called the “manifest image,” itself a dynamic structure of concepts and categories that has been and continues to be revised in the light of experience, this framework engenders a rival, the “scientific image,” enriched by the explicit postulation of unobservable microentities. The two images are not straightforwardly compatible. Each claims completeness-in-principle, but they disagree both about ontology (the basic entities in the world) and about ideology (the basic properties exemplified by basic entities). Sellars argues that the scientific image is, in matters of ontology, authoritative and will displace the manifest image in that regard. However, the ideology of science is confined to those aspects of the world relevant to causal explanation, whereas the ideology of the manifest image also includes normatively constituted, action-oriented or (in the Kantian sense) practical concepts. This other dimension can be joined to the scientific image in a synoptic vision.

The Intentional and Sensory

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Sellars’s underlying theme is unifying the scientific image of humans as complex structures of microphysical entities with our self-understanding as cognitive and moral agents. This requires developing a theory of the nature of the cognitive and the practical and their relation to the physical. Sellars does not deal significantly with the moral as such in Science, Perception, and Reality, leaving that topic for other works. His theory of the relation of the cognitive to the physical is sophisticated and left a lasting mark in philosophy. According to Sellars, a theory of cognition requires two parts: a theory of the intentional or conceptual, and a theory of the sensory. The locus classicus for Sellars’s discussion of these issues is “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” but the other essays in this volume augment these ideas.

An adequate theory of the intentional and its relation to the physical must overcome the errors of both rationalism and empiricism. The rationalists had sound insight into the logical, normative structure of the intentional realm but tended to understand the intentional in terms of relations to abstract entities. This Platonizing tendency is not consistent with a thoroughgoing naturalism. The empiricists tended to nominalism but assimilated the intentional to the sensory. Both accepted the “myth of the given”—the belief that there are certain states of a human, the natural properties of which fully determine its epistemic status without regard for its epistemic relations to other states. Most commonly, this myth has adopted the form that our own mental states are known to us directly, “by acquaintance.”

In “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” Sellars attacks this conception on several fronts. He argues that there are persistent, unresolved tensions in sense-datum theories of knowledge, that appearance theories mistake the grammar of “looks” statements, and that abstractionist theories of concept acquisition are circular. He further proposes an anti-Platonist theory of meaning cum theory of concept acquisition and claims that the cognitive has a normative dimension that renders it irreducible to natural fact.

Sellars proposes, positively, that a subject, S, knows observationally that p only if S is disposed spontaneously to report that p, S’s disposition is a reliable symptom that p, and S knows that S’s disposition is a reliable symptom that p—an analysis of perceptual knowledge that prefigures externalist themes that emerged elsewhere only a decade later yet retains a significant commitment to internalism.

A Theory of Knowledge

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Sellars then proposes, via a “countermyth,” a theory of our knowledge of the mental that is consonant with his theory of direct, perceptual knowledge. Sellars hypothesizes a community of proto-persons who possess a language for public objects with the basic logical operators and structures (especially the subjunctive conditional), including semantical discourse (for example, meaning-and truth-predicates) but lacking any psychological vocabulary. In Sellars’s myth, the folk hero Jones proceeds to add psychological vocabulary to the language in order to explain certain complex kinds of human behavior. Jones uses two different models in extending his language. To explain how humans can exhibit intelligent action even when not accompanying their behavior with overt speech, Jones postulates “inner speech” that is modeled on overt language (in that it has structure and content) and is causally responsible for overt speech and for guiding action. Call this “thought.” To explain how humans can sincerely engage in behavior appropriate to the observation of objects or conditions that do not obtain, Jones postulates internal sensory states modeled on the objects or conditions that typically cause them. These sensory states, or sense impressions, can occasionally occur in nonstandard ways, say, in a perceptual illusion.

Having adopted this fruitful new theory of behavior, Jones and his comrades become able to apply it directly—that is, noninferentially—to each other and, most particularly, to themselves. This enables them to make first-person reports of their inner mental lives without using any theoretical, inferential machinery. This countermyth undermines the Cartesian principles that we must know our own minds first and best, and that mental states must inhere in a nonphysical substance.

The essays other than “Philosophy and Scientific Image of Man” and “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” all relate to some part of this general line of argument. “Being and Being Known” and “Truth and Correspondence” focus on the difference between the intentional order and the natural, causal order and on the importance of a picturing relation within the causal order between symbols and reality, a relation that must be distinguished from semantic signification or designation, which always remains within the intentional order. “Phenomenalism” develops Sellars’s attack on phenomenalistic metaphysics and epistemologies. “The Language of Theories” details his analysis of theoretical constructs and outlines his scientific realism and the phenomenality of the manifest image. “Naming and Saying,” an interpretation of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung” (1921; best known by the bilingual German and English edition title of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922, 1961), “Grammar and Existence: A Preface to Ontology,” and “Particulars” all contribute to the defense of Sellars’s nominalism. “Is There a Synthetic Apriori?” and “Some Reflections on Language Games” both elaborate Sellars’s theory of meaning. His idea is that meaning is determined by an expression’s functional role in a complex linguistic economy and that semantical statements such as “Rot (in German) means red” convey information about the similarity of role of the two expressions involved without explicitly stating that they are similar or describing the role they play. This idea is important both to his defense of nominalism and to his explication of the nature of intentional states.

Sellars’s Impact

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Science, Perception, and Reality left a significant mark on twentieth century Anglo-American and German philosophy. Sellars’s distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image is widely known, and the phrases have acquired a life of their own in the literature. Sellars is widely credited with a major assault on the myth of the given in “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” though there is disagreement about the exact nature of his argument. Sellars’s assault, together with W. V. O. Quine’s attack in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951), was principally responsible for foundationalist epistemology’s falling into disfavor in the last half of the twentieth century.

Less universally acknowledged, but no less significant, is Sellars’s tremendous influence on the philosophy of mind. He is properly given credit for developing a functionalist treatment of intentional states as a middle path between logical behaviorism and type-identity theories of mind. He also anticipated the criticisms of functionalist treatments of sensation that were raised against the generalization of functionalism. His own treatment of the sensory has found fewer adherents, however.

Other significant figures in late twentieth century philosophy, such as Robert Brandom and John McDowell, find inspiration in various Sellarsian doctrines, including his inferential theory of meaning and his insistence that semantical and epistemic concepts are normative and practical concepts are properly located in the “logical space of reasons.”

Sellars is also responsible for several ideas developed by others into philosophical positions that he himself would not accept. For instance, Sellars originally developed the notion of a language of thought, or “Mentalese,” to flesh out his claim that our concepts of the mental are a transposition of semantical concepts into a new key, but he would not accept the idea that Mentalese is an innate, unlearned language, as Jerry Fodor has argued. Sellars’s comparison of psychological concepts to theoretical concepts led some, notably Richard Rorty, Paul M. Churchland, and Patricia Churchland, to claim that such folk psychology is not only a theory, but a bad theory—one that will, with the development of science, be eliminated in favor of a more directly neurophysiological theory.


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Additional Reading

Bernstein, Richard J. “Sellars’ Vision of Man-in-the-Universe.” Review of Metaphysics 20 (1965-1966): 113-143, 290-312. An extensive critical review of Wilfrid S. Sellars’s book, still an excellent, lucid exposition of Sellars’s thought.

Castañeda, H-N., ed. Action, Knowledge, and Reality. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975. A collection of articles examining aspects of Sellars’s philosophy as well as his “Autobiographical Reflections” and “The Structure of Knowledge.” Includes an extensive bibliography of Sellars’s publications.

Delaney, C. F., Michael J. Loux, Gary Gutting, and W. David Solomon. The Synoptic Vision: Essays on the Philosophy of Wilfrid Sellars. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977. Notre Dame philosophy faculty examine aspects of Sellars’s work. A highly readable complete general overview of the philosopher’s system.

Pitt, Joseph C., ed. The Philosophy of Wilfrid Sellars: Queries and Extensions. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1978. Revised proceedings of a workshop on the philosophy of Sellars held at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, in November, 1976. The essays focus principally on Sellars’s philosophy of science and philosophy of language, but two deal with his views on practical inference and altruism.

Pitt, Joseph C. Pictures, Images, and Conceptual Change: An Analysis of Wilfrid Sellars’ Philosophy of Science. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1981. A thorough treatment of Sellars’s philosophy of science.

Rosenberg, Jay F. “Wilfrid Sellars’ Philosophy of Mind.” In Philosophy of Mind. Vol. 4 in Contemporary Philosophy, edited by Guttorm Floistad. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1983. A general exposition of Sellars’s philosophy of mind by one of his leading expositors.

Rosenberg, Jay F. “The Place of Color in the Scheme of Things: A Roadmap to Sellars’ Carus Lectures.” The Monist 65 (1982): 315-335. An intelligible study of Sellars’s controversial treatment of sensory states.

Seibt, Johanna. Properties as Processes: A Synoptic Study of Wilfrid Sellars’s Nominalism. Atascadero, Calif.: Ridgeview, 1990. An explication and defense of Sellars’ nominalism.

Vinci, Thomas C. Cartesian Truth. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A look at how science and metaphysics are closly interwoven in the work of Descartes.