Wilfrid Stalker Sellars
May 20, 1912
Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S.
|Died||July 2, 1989 (aged 77)|
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Education||University of Michigan (B.A., 1933)|
University at Buffalo (M.A., 1934)
Oriel College, Oxford (B.A., 1936; MA, 1940)
Critical realism (philosophy of perception)
|Institutions||University of Pittsburgh|
|Academic advisors||Marvin Farber|
Thomas Dewar Weldon
|Doctoral students||Jay Rosenberg|
|Other notable students||Fred Dretske|
|Philosophy of mind|
Philosophy of perception
History of philosophy
|Critical realism (philosophy of perception)|
Criticism of foundationalist epistemology (the "Myth of the Given")
The distinction between the 'manifest' and the 'scientific' image
Logical space of reasons (the realm of the semantic)
Sellarsian dilemma for foundationalism
Wilfrid Stalker Sellars (May 20, 1912 – July 2, 1989) was an American philosopher and prominent developer of critical realism, who "revolutionized both the content and the method of philosophy in the United States".
His father was the Canadian-American philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, a leading American philosophical naturalist in the first half of the twentieth-century. Wilfrid was educated at the University of Michigan (BA, 1933), the University at Buffalo, and Oriel College, Oxford (1934–1937), where he was a Rhodes Scholar, obtaining his highest earned degree, an MA, in 1940. During World War II, he served in military intelligence. He then taught at the University of Iowa (1938–1946), the University of Minnesota (1947–1958), Yale University (1958–1963), and from 1963 until his death, at the University of Pittsburgh. He served as president of the Metaphysical Society of America in 1977. He was a founder of the journal Philosophical Studies.
Sellars is well known as a critic of foundationalist epistemology—the "Myth of the Given" as he called it. However, his philosophical works are more generally directed toward the ultimate goal of reconciling intuitive ways of describing the world (both those of common sense and traditional philosophy) with a thoroughly naturalist, scientific account of reality. He is widely regarded both for great sophistication of argument and for his assimilation of many and diverse subjects in pursuit of a synoptic vision. Sellars was perhaps the first philosopher to synthesize elements of American pragmatism with elements of British and American analytic philosophy and Austrian and German logical positivism. His work also reflects a sustained engagement with the German tradition of transcendental idealism, most obviously in his book Science and Metaphysics: Kantian Variations.
Sellars coined certain now-common idioms in philosophy, such as the "space of reasons". This idiom refers to two things. It:
Note: (2) corresponds in part to the distinction Sellars makes between the manifest image and the scientific image.
Sellars' most famous work is the lengthy and difficult paper, "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" (1956). In it, he criticises the view that knowledge of what we perceive can be independent of the conceptual processes which result in perception. He named this "The Myth of the Given," attributing it to phenomenology and sense-data theories of knowledge.
The work targets several theories at once, especially C. I. Lewis' Kantian pragmatism and Rudolf Carnap's positivism. He draws out "The Myth of Jones," to defend the possibility of a strict behaviorist worldview. The parable explains how thoughts, intelligent action, and even subjective inner experience can be attributed to people within a scientific model. Sellars used a fictional tribe, "Ryleans," since he wanted to address Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind.
Sellar's idea of "myth," heavily influenced by Ernst Cassirer, is not necessarily negative. He saw it as something that can be useful or otherwise, rather than true or false. He aimed to unite the conceptual behavior of the "space of reasons" with the concept of a subjective sense experience. This was one of his most central goals, which his later work described as Kantian.
In his paper, "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" (1961), Sellars introduces the concept of Kantian empiricism. Kantian empiricism features a distinction between (1) claims whose revision requires abandonment or modification of the system of concepts in terms of which they are framed (i.e., modification of the fallible set of constitutive principles underlying knowledge, otherwise known as framework-relative a priori truths) and (2) claims revisable on the basis of observations formulated in terms of a system of concepts which remained fixed throughout.
In his "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man" (1962), Sellars distinguishes between the "manifest image" and the "scientific image" of the world.
The manifest image includes intentions, thoughts, and appearances. Sellars allows that the manifest image may be refined through 'correlational induction', but he rules out appeal to imperceptible entities.
The scientific image describes the world in terms of the theoretical physical sciences. It includes notions such as causality and theories about particles and forces.
The two images sometimes complement one another, and sometimes conflict. For example, the manifest image includes practical or moral claims, whereas the scientific image does not. There is conflict, e.g. where science tells us that apparently solid objects are mostly empty space. Sellars favours a synoptic vision, wherein the scientific image takes ultimate precedence in cases of conflict, at least with respect to empirical descriptions and explanations.
As a student at the University of Michigan, Wilfrid Sellars was one of the founding members of the first North-American cooperative house for university students, which was then called "Michigan Socialist House" (and which was later renamed "Michigan Cooperative House").
Robert Brandom, his junior colleague at Pittsburgh, named Sellars and Willard Van Orman Quine as the two most profound and important philosophers of their generation. Sellars' goal of a synoptic philosophy that unites the everyday and scientific views of reality is the foundation and archetype of what is sometimes called the Pittsburgh School, whose members include Brandom, John McDowell, and John Haugeland.
Other philosophers strongly influenced by Sellars span the full spectrum of contemporary English-speaking philosophy, from neopragmatism (Richard Rorty) to eliminative materialism (Paul Churchland) to rationalism (Laurence BonJour). Sellars' philosophical heirs also include Ruth Millikan, Hector-Neri Castaneda, Bruce Aune, Jay Rosenberg, Johanna Seibt, Matthew Burstein, Ray Brassier, Andrew Chrucky, Jeffrey Sicha, Pedro Amaral, Thomas Vinci, Willem A. de Vries, David Rosenthal, Ken Wilber and Michael Williams. Sellar's work has been drawn upon in feminist standpoint theory, for example in the work of Rebecca Kukla.
Sellars' death in 1989 was the result of long-term alcoholism. A collection of essays devoted to 'Sellars and his Legacy' was published by Oxford University Press in 2016 (ed., James O'Shea), with contributions from Brandom, deVries, Kraut, Kukla, Lance, McDowell, Millikan, O'Shea, Rosenthal, Seibt, and Williams.