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Wilfrid Sellars

Wilfrid Sellars by James R. O’Shea

Daniel Fernandez gets to know Wilfrid Sellars, US Chief of Epistemology.

For the non-sellars-specialist, Robert Brandom’s recent on-line declaration that “Wilfrid Sellars is the greatest American philosopher since Charles Sanders Peirce… [and] the most profound and systematic epistemological thinker of the 20th Century” might seem rather baffling. Even though a quick glance at his disciples reads like a who’s who of contemporary American philosophers, mentioning Sellars is more likely to evoke images of a certain English actor. Thankfully this is all set to change, with the publication of four major books in the last four years devoted entirely to Wilfrid Sellars. Hardly merely the latest in transient academic fads, understanding Sellars instead gives much insight into the paths American philosophy took in the twentieth century. With his pioneering insights in the philosophy of mind and language and in epistemology, Sellars may also provide a glimpse of where American philosophy is heading.

James R. O’Shea’s Wilfrid Sellars is a welcome addition to the literature, particularly in its accessibility to undergraduates or those not so well-versed in the nuances of analytic philosophy. Besides providing an introduction to Sellars’ philosophy, it also provides a succinct and illuminating biographical sketch of a man raised in an intensely intellectual environment.

Wilfrid Stalker Sellars (1912-1989) was the son of Roy Wood Sellars, a seminal naturalist of the first half of the twentieth century. His mother, Helen Maud Stalker, was a French translator. The younger Sellars’ formative years were spent in Paris and Munich, with his formal philosophical training taking place in Michigan, Buffalo, Oxford and eventually Harvard. What resulted was an insightful and incisive philosopher with a gift for imaginative and witty writing. Sellars’ academic career would begin at Iowa, moving on to Minnesota and Yale, before ending up at Pittsburgh, where his legacy is reflected in different ways by Robert Brandom and John McDowell.

Sellars’ relative obscurity is not entirely due to bad luck: what makes Sellars’ work so appealing is simultaneously what makes it unappealing to others. The scope and depth of his work certainly touches on issues of concern to both professional and non-professional philosopher alike. What is a mind? What do we mean by meaning? What is knowledge? What is the individual’s relationship to society? Sellars provides answers to all these questions, but he does so in an idiom that analytic philosophers have found odd, if not perplexing. On the one hand, much of his work relies heavily on a more-than-casual acquaintance with the history of philosophy. On the other, many of his arguments are couched in thought experiments and analogies that require subtlety and close reading to understand. Yet these qualms are also what makes Sellars such an inventive and exciting thinker.

O’Shea’s strategy for threading the diverse strands of Sellars’ corpus is to stress how Sellars sees himself as a systematic philosopher despite his varied interests. Sellars thought the task of philosophy was to provide a ‘synoptic’ view of “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term.” But rather than trying to obliterate common sense with some philosophical wrecking ball, Sellars asks a more difficult question: just where and how does our commonsense outlook fit into our increasingly fine-grained scientific outlook? To take a characteristic example, how can we make our perception of a pink ice cube compatible with ‘colorless’ particle physics? Questions like these express the clash of what Sellars called the manifest and scientific images of man. And while he ultimately prides himself a scientific realist, a notable feature of Sellars’ philosophy which distinguishes him from, say, Quine, is the importance placed on the manifest image – that is, how things naturally appear to us. For according to Sellars, philosophy is at the end of the day about us, about persons.

Throughout his text, O’Shea tries to capture the zeitgeist for both Sellars and our times: he places the philosopher’s work within the contexts both of his contemporaries and of ours, as if to answer the reader’s implicit question of why Sellars matters today. Like today, throughout the early twentieth century philosophers struggled over where and how philosophy fits in with naturalistic science. The Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle, for instance, suggested subordinating philosophy to science and of purging philosophy of anything unverifiable.

Although inspired by the Vienna Circle to some degree, Sellars’ synoptic view presents a richer scientific worldview than logical positivism would allow. Sellars views our non-scientific ways of thinking as being indispensable not only for knowledge but as the very basis for perception and thought. Such is the lesson of Sellars’ famous rejection of the ‘myth of the given’. Empiricist philosophy says that our ideas come from direct experience of things. The ‘myth of the given’ is that individual pieces of data can be known directly, that is, without any knowledge of associated concepts. While Sellars broadly defends empiricism he nonetheless identifies something wildly circular about this model. Consider: How can I say I know what red is from the fact that some things look red to me? In Sellars’ view, in order to say anything ‘looks red’ we would already require the concept of ‘is red’. But having that concept would assume we can already distinguish red from other colors, as well as that we can distinguish color from, say, shapes. Sellars then is a psychological holist, for whom awareness of anything requires knowledge of many other things as well as requiring the operation of rules of social norms for how all these things hang together mentally.

Figuring out how things (ie ideas) hang together also requires figuring out who figures this out and what such a figuring out means. O’Shea thus offers us an introduction into how Sellars viewed thought and language. Rather than thoughts being substantial entities identified either with physical brains or immaterial minds, Sellars understands thoughts as having functional roles, requiring some physical system to be instantiated, but perhaps no one particular physical system such as someone’s brain. Think of thoughts here like word processing. Word processing needs some machine to get its work done, but the hardware and software of word processing has changed a great deal since the 1980s.

This view of mind gave birth to what is called functionalism these days. Functionalism has had a significant impact on cognitive science and the philosophy of artificial intelligence. Indeed, as O’Shea points out, there are many today (Daniel Dennett, for instance) who would go so far as to credit Sellars as the founder of functionalism.

Sellars took a similar approach to language, where the meaning of a word is the role it plays in the economy of the language as a whole. This circles back to Sellars’ views on perception and knowledge, where to have a perception or thought is to have mastery not just of a word, but of a whole battery of words. In other words, thought is modeled on speech for Sellars, instead of the other way around. Readers of the later Wittgenstein will certainly see affinities here, as will some readers of Hegel. Of course, this kind of ‘logical’ holism is up for as much debate today as when Sellars published Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind in 1956. While O’Shea presents the criticisms of Sellars’ contemporaries, the variety of present-day Sellarsian interpretations and criticisms are given scant attention. In all fairness, however, such a task is for another book entirely.

O’Shea consistently stresses the importance of Kant to Sellars – a facet that has often been neglected in the recent rushes to make Sellars’ functionalism one’s own. Yet given Sellars’ occasional and subtle references to Hegel (especially in the very first sentence of Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind), it is disappointing that there is scarce treatment of possible Hegelian influences. This is unfortunate considering that the Sellarsian renaissance, as it were, is taking place in an age where many philosophy departments think it acceptable to fast forward from Kant right through to Frege. Sellars’ approach to ethics and action, barely even mentioned in current conversations of his work, is also given altogether too brief a treatment. However, O’Shea certainly provides enough of a starting point for those interested in pursuing these topics, and the preceding chapters lay the ground for appreciating Sellars’ metaethics in the context of his other work. In the author’s own prefatory admission, the book is an introductory text, rather than a comprehensive study. But O’Shea’s extensive bibliography is as useful as it is thorough, especially in its inclusion of the vast secondary literature.

With Sellars nearly becoming required reading for some of the current debates in philosophy, and despite additional overviews having already arrived, O’Shea’s text offers a systematic initiation that compels the reader to pursue her own further research. This seems to be the only cure for those of us who have been “tempted by the apple of the serpent philosopher” as Sellars, quoted by O’Shea, called them. For once one sees philosophy in the vein that Sellars does, once can continue only by “eating the apple to the core; for after the first bite, there is no return to innocence.” (Wilfrid Sellars, p.10.)

© Daniel Fernandez 2009

Daniel Fernandez teaches philosophy at St. John's University and Nassau Community College and is a doctoral student in philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Wilfrid Sellars by James R. O’Shea, Polity Press, 2007, 256 pages. £55.00, ISBN: 978-0-7456-3002-1

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