Wilfrid Sellars

From Academic Kids

Wilfrid Stalker Sellars (May 20, 1912 - July 2, 1989) was an American philosopher, at the University of Pittsburgh for most of his career. He was the son of Roy Wood Sellars, also a noted Canadian-American philosopher in his time.

Sellars is widely regarded both for great sophistication of argument and for his assimilation of many and diverse subjects in pursuit of a synoptic vision. He was perhaps the first philosopher to effectively combine elements of American Pragmatism with elements of British and American analytic philosophy and Austrian and German logical positivism. He worked on a broad range of subjects in both philosophy and its history, and has had lasting influence on subsequent philosophy. One of the things that makes Sellars such a difficult read for some is that he insisted on writing for the ages. He considered the lingua franca of philosophy to be the history of philosophy, so his writing is a rich engagement with both the philosophy of his period and of the entire history. Robert Brandom has called him, along with Willard van Orman Quine, one of the two most profound and important philosophers of his generation. His work is the foundation and archetype of what is sometimes called the "Pittsburgh School"—Robert Brandom, John McDowell, John Haugeland, James Conant, and several others.

Sellars' most famous work is the lengthy and difficult paper, "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (http://ditext.com/sellars/epm.html)," a sustained discussion of what he called "The Myth of the Given," which, roughly, consists in the claim, central to both phenomenology and sense-data theories of knowledge, that we can know things about our perceptual experiences independently of and in some important sense prior to the conceptual apparatus which we use to perceive objects. Sellars' discussion targets several theories at once, especially C.I. Lewis' Kantian pragmatism and Rudolf Carnap's hyper-positivism. Sellars then goes on to construct "The Myth of Jones," a philosophical parable to explain how thoughts, intelligent action, and even subjective inner experience can be attributed to people within a strict behaviorist worldview. Sellars calls his fictional tribe "Ryleans," after Gilbert Ryle, whose book The Concept of Mind he specifically wanted to address. Sellars' idea of "myth," heavily influenced by Ernst Cassirer is not entirely negative; a myth is something that can be useful or unuseful, rather than true or false. One of Sellars' biggest goals, often described as Kantian in his later work, is to reconcile the conceptual behavior of the "space of reasons" with the concept of a subjective sense experience. This approach is thought by some to entail the blurring of the traditional empirical distinction between knower and known, subject and object, as well as entailing "linguistic idealism."

Sellars also deserves credit for certain now-common idioms in philosophy, such as the "space of reasons", used to indicate, first to describe the conceptual and behavioral web of language that humans use to get intelligently around their world, and second, that talk of reasons, justification, and intention are not the same as and cannot necessarily be mapped onto talk of causes and effects in the sense that physical science speaks of them. This corresponds in part to a Sellarsian distinction between the "Manifest Image," or the way the world stands according to the language we ordinarily use in interacting with it (which includes, for example, intentions and thoughts), and the "Scientific Image", the description of the world offered by the theoretical physical sciences.

(Among many, many other things the Incompatible Food Triad puzzle has been attributed to Wilfrid Sellars.)

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