Wilfrid S. Sellars Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2275 words.)