Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2275

Article abstract: Sellars is best known for his attack on the “myth of the given,” his attempt to synthesize the “manifest” and the “scientific images,” and his philosophy of mind.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Wilfrid S. Sellars Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Early Life

Wilfrid Stalker Sellars was the elder of two children born to Roy Wood and Helen Stalker Sellars. His father was a critical realist philosopher who taught at the University of Michigan for many years. Sellars’s early life in Ann Arbor was marked by a year spent in New England when he was nine years old, followed by a year in Paris where he attended the Lycée Montaigne. Back in Ann Arbor, Sellars attended the high school run by the University’s School of Education, where he particularly enjoyed mathematics. After graduation in 1929, Sellars returned to Paris with his mother and sister. He entered the Lycée Louis le Grand, where philosophy was in the curriculum and Marxism was in the air. This was Sellars’s first contact with philosophy, for he had not discussed philosophy before with his father. He thus began in philosophy as a French Marxist. When his father joined the family in the spring of 1930, father and son finally began the philosophical dialogue that lasted throughout their lives.

After six months studying in Munich, Sellars returned to the United States in 1931, beginning his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan. He was soon caught up in traditional English-speaking strains of philosophy: the critical realism of his father, the analytical philosophy of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, the work in logic of C. I. Lewis and C. H. Langford. His studies at the lycée enabled Sellars to test of enough courses that he graduated with his cohort in 1933 and moved on to graduate school at Buffalo, New York, where he studied Edmund Husserl and Immanuel Kant with Marvin Farber and wrote a master’s thesis on the metaphysics of time in 1934.

Sellars won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University, where he read for the B.A. in philosophy, politics, and economics at Oriel College with W. G. Maclagan as his tutor and H. A. Prichard and H. H. Price, other significant influences. He took first class honors in 1936 and returned in the fall of that year for a D.Phil., attempting a dissertation on Kant under T. D. Weldon. Unable to bring that enterprise to completion, Sellars returned to the United States in the fall of 1937, undertaking graduate studies at Harvard and passing his prelims in the spring of 1938. He wedded his first wife, Mary, in 1938 as well. Sellars then took a position as assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Iowa, where he was primarily responsible for covering the history of philosophy. During this period, Sellars developed the outlines of the comprehensive view of the history of philosophy that informed his later writing. Sellars never did finish the dissertation at Harvard and was plagued for a number of years by an inability to get his thoughts down on paper. His Oxford M.A. became his last official degree. (Doctoral degrees from Oxford were still relatively uncommon at the time, and the Oxford M.A. was considered a terminal degree.)

World War II interrupted Sellars’s academic career. He spent 1943-1946 in the U.S. Navy, first as an instructor in antisubmarine warfare and then in naval air intelligence. Upon release from the Navy, Sellars closeted himself to focus entirely on his writing and, after many drafts (seventeen by his own count), produced his first publishable paper, “Realism and the New Way of Words.” This marked a watershed for Sellars, for he had finally discovered a writing process that enabled him to be a productive scholar.

Life’s Work

In 1946, Sellars accepted a post as assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, where he rejoined Herbert Feigl, who had originally hired him at Iowa. Having now discovered his writing process, Sellars began publishing steadily. He also undertook several projects that made his name familiar to English-speaking philosophers everywhere: In 1950, Feigl and Sellars founded Philosophical Studies, the first journal expressly devoted to analytic philosophy. He and Feigl also published Readings in Philosophical Analysis (1949), which quickly became a classic collection of analytic philosophy. Sellars combined with John Hospers to produce Readings in Ethical Theory (1952), an equally significant collection for moral theory. Sellars was promoted to professor of philosophy in 1951 and chaired the department at Minnesota from 1952 to 1959, a time that also saw the flowering of the Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science.

Perhaps the most fundamental theme in Sellar’s philosophy is his commitment to developing a naturalism that is nonetheless rich enough to accommodate without loss the domains of discourse distinctive of metaphysical and normative reflection. This requires combining rationalism’s insights into the logical grammar of metaphysical and epistemological predicates with empiricism’s rejection of the Platonism typical of rationalism. In his earliest publications, 1947-1954, Sellars recast classical philosophical problems of metaphysics and epistemology in an explicitly linguistic key and, playing off Rudolf Carnap’s philosophical semantics, sought to approach these problems by developing a “pure pragmatics” that would analyze the relation of a richly structured language to the world in which it is used. In later years, Sellars sought increasingly to locate and clarify his methods and doctrines by responding to major figures from the history of philosophy, especially Kant.

Another constant theme in his work, coordinate with his naturalism, is scientific realism. Sellars was deeply involved in the Center for the Philosophy of Science while at Minnesota and developed a sophisticated understanding of the nature of scientific theory and its relation to observational evidence and to the broader conceptual framework within which science initially emerges. His belief that the theoretical language or languages of science are grounded in observation without being translatable or reducible to the language of observation became a key insight that served as a model for other nonreductive relationships between domains of discourse.

By 1956, the fundamental principles of Sellars’s systematic philosophy were evident in print, with two major essays that dropped some idiosyncrasies of the earliest works and laid out the framework for much of his subsequent thought. In “Some Reflections on Language Games,” Sellars developed his account of meaning as functional classification, which enables him to construct a nonreductive but thoroughly nominalistic treatment of meaning in tune with his naturalism. The insights thus garnered were applied in “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” which was quickly recognized as a revolutionary step in philosophy. In this work, he introduced a groundbreaking critique of empiricist foundationalism—a particularly salient form of the myth of the given—and a broadly nonreductive but physicalistic philosophy of mind.

Sellars moved to Yale University as professor of philosophy in 1959. Another watershed for Sellars came shortly thereafter, in 1963: His first book, Science, Perception, and Reality, a collection of his most influential essays, was published, as well as his essay in ontology, “Abstract Entities,” in which he worked out the details of his theory of meaning and nominalism and first developed the concept of dot-quotation that he subsequently employed to explain his theory. That same year, he also became university professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Sellars’s inaugural lecture at Pittsburgh, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” provided an overview of his philosophical mission and was reprinted in Science, Perception, and Reality. In that piece, he distinguished between the “manifest image,” the conceptual framework that has been slowly refined by ages of intellectual labor and in which we are able to encounter ourselves reflectively, and the “scientific image,” a conceptual framework that, by postulating imperceptible entities to explain the behavior of perceptible things and thereby revising the basic categorial scheme used by the manifest image, has come to constitute a significant challenge to the manifest image.

These two images, “each of which purports to be a complete picture of man-in-the-world,” must somehow be fused into one vision. The scientific image, Sellars argues, must be granted ontological primacy: “In the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of what is, that it is, and what is not, that it is not.” However, personhood, agency, and the norms constitutive of such concepts do not appear within the scientific image. If we are self-reflective persons, the manifest image—the only point of view from which our personhood appears—must be adjoined to the scientific image. Sellars believes these two images can be unified once we realize that the norms constitutive of personhood are to be analyzed in terms of the most general common intentions of a community, and that the language of community and individual intentions can be joined onto the language of science without conflict.

During his years at Pittsburgh, Sellars elaborated the themes that he had set out by 1963, deepening the levels of analysis and enriching the interconnections among the various parts of his system. He wrote numerous pieces revisiting important figures in the history of philosophy, especially Kant, refining his attack on the given, elaborating his theory of meaning and intentionality, articulating his treatment of action, agency, and the mind-body problem, and treating fundamental issues of ontology. He was also a very productive supervisor of doctoral degree students and continued as editor of Philosophical Studies until 1975. Slowed by a stroke in 1984, he continued teaching until his death in 1989.

Sellars visited numerous universities during his career and gave a number of distinguished lecture series, including the John Locke Lectures at Oxford (1965-1966), the Matchette Foundation Lectures (1971), the John Dewey Lectures at the University of Chicago (1973-1974), the Paul Carus Lectures for the American Philosophical Association (1977-1978), and the Ernst Cassirer Lectures at Yale in 1979. Sellars served as president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in 1970-1971.


Sellars revolutionized several aspects of philosophy, but he has not always been given full credit for everything he accomplished. For example, he has long been known for his attack on the given in “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” but that essay also contains the first clearly functionalistic treatment of intentional states, well before Hilary Putnam’s essays, which are usually credited with being the first to contain this treatment. Although he was among the fathers of functionalist philosophy of mind, Sellars did not fall prey to its excesses: He was never attracted to a narrow machine functionalism, and from the very beginning, he was aware that sensations need a very different treatment from intentional states. He sought on numerous occasions to argue that reconciling sensations with the physical sciences would prove such a challenge that physics would ultimately have to make a special accommodation for them, treating sensations as basic entities in their own right. Thus Sellars also anticipated the resurgence of interest in the 1990’s in the “hard problem” of consciousness.

Sellars’s essays, each of which went through a tortuous process of repeated revision, have a reputation for being very dense and difficult to understand, though those who attempt them seriously find them to be profound, subtle, and richly rewarding. He is a thoroughly systematic philosopher. As deep and complex as each essay might be, it reveals only a small piece of a much larger picture that must be pursued in numerous other difficult essays to be fully understood. He was, however, a brilliant lecturer and teacher who inspired many students who have gone on to introduce their own students to this penetrating thinker. While the complexity and extent of Sellars’s philosophy have discouraged some, for many others, his philosophy has provided a sophisticated framework within which to work out further issues or against which to elaborate alternative positions.

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. 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.

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.

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.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

Explore Study Guides