Fraught with Ought

Tim Crane

  • In the Space of Reasons: Selected Essays of Wilfrid Sellars edited by Kevin Scharp and Robert Brandom
    Harvard, 491 pp, £29.95, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 674 02498 4
  • Wilfrid Sellars: Fusing the Images by Jay Rosenberg
    Oxford, 320 pp, £45.00, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 921455 6

When Richard Rorty died last year, the New York Times called him ‘one of the world’s most influential contemporary thinkers’. Few philosophers would accept this assessment. Rorty was widely read and admired by many, he had a good nose for a controversy and was impressive in oral debate. But his influence on philosophy has, so far, been minimal: Rorty’s unconvincing attempts to show that traditional philosophy has had its day have largely been ignored by philosophers. Outside the field, he’s the philosopher you can cite in your defence if you dislike traditional philosophy as much as he did.

Few of the obituaries mentioned one of Rorty’s biggest influences: Wilfrid Sellars, a professor of philosophy at the universities of Iowa, Minnesota, Yale and finally Pittsburgh, where he taught until his death in 1989. Yet it is the spirit of Sellars which hovers over the best parts of Rorty’s best book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). One of Rorty’s aims in that book was to undermine the idea that there is a real problem about the ‘nature of the mind’. Our mental vocabulary, he argued, is used to explain the behaviour of others – we say that people do what they do because of what they think and want. But this should not be taken to reveal the nature of something called ‘the mental’: there is no such thing, and no such nature. In his argument against the philosophical idea of the mind as ‘our glassy essence’, Rorty relied (with explicit and generous acknowledgment) on some ideas in a long and influential paper by Sellars published in 1956, called ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’.

Sellars never achieved anything like the recognition Rorty did. His New York Times obituary was short and entirely lacking in evaluation. Although widely respected in academic philosophy, he’s not well known outside it. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the sheer dreariness of Sellars’s prose. Even for an academic philosopher, his writing style is poor. He often starts his discussions in the middle, he rarely tells the reader why he is discussing what he is discussing, he frequently introduces his own (often unhelpful) technical terminology, and rarely summarises his conclusions.

Rorty claimed that Sellars’s reputation for obscurity had a lot to do with the historical myopia of analytic philosophers: Sellars’s ‘wide and deep acquaintance with the history of philosophy,’ he wrote, ‘helped to make his writings seem difficult for analytic philosophers whose education had been less historically oriented’. This is special pleading. The truth is that Sellars can be at his clearest when writing about other philosophers; his discussions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, itself a notoriously obscure work, are some of the clearest parts of Kevin Scharp and Robert Brandom’s collection. It is his expositions of his own ideas which are often so hard to follow.

Other things contribute to Sellars’s relative invisibility in the broader intellectual landscape. He was an academic philosopher through and through: his father was a philosopher, and he spent almost his entire life in universities. He founded a journal (Philosophical Studies, still one of the field’s leading journals), he edited textbooks (Donald Davidson once said that he ‘got through graduate school’ by reading Feigl and Sellars’s Readings in Philosophical Analysis), he was by all accounts a charismatic and devoted teacher, and he clearly believed in academic philosophy as a discipline – a systematic, and not just a critical, enterprise. One of his more readable essays, ‘Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man’ (collected in this volume), begins with a definition of the aim of philosophy which is as good as any attempt to answer the impossible question of what it really is: ‘The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.’

Wry, uninformative and (uncharacteristically) concise, this is nonetheless a true description of philosophy in the tradition in which Sellars placed himself: the tradition which includes Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant and Hegel (and in the 20th century, Rudolf Carnap). These writers would not agree with Rorty that truth is ‘what your contemporaries let you get away with’ or that a systematic approach to philosophy is an unattainable goal, a product of an over enthusiastic extension of metaphors of the mind ‘mirroring’ reality.

Sellars was born in 1912 in Ann Arbor, where his father taught philosophy at the University of Michigan. He studied there and in Buffalo, before going to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. It was in Oxford that he began to develop his philosophical ideas: by 1934, he later wrote, ‘I had already come to think of myself as having a system.’ He then finished his graduate work in Harvard and spent formative years in Paris and in Munich. It’s hard to get much of a sense of Sellars himself from his writings, even from the short autobiographical essay he published in 1973. The impression one gets is of an industrious, cultured and introspective man, perhaps with a layer of anxiety deep underneath.

His first job was at the University of Iowa in the 1930s, where he began a long and fruitful working relationship with Herbert Feigl, an emigrant from Vienna and a member of the original Vienna circle of logical positivists. Sellars later wrote that ‘Feigl and I shared a common purpose: to formulate a scientifically oriented, naturalistic realism which would “save the appearances”.’ In a way, this remark sums up the basis of Sellars’s entire philosophical system. He was a naturalist, not just in the sense that he did not believe in the supernatural, but in the stronger (‘scientistic’) sense that he viewed natural science as the ultimate judge of how the world really is. About this he is unequivocal: ‘in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.’

Yet it is this doctrine which gives rise to perplexing philosophical problems. Physical science (for example) describes our world in terms of the arrangement of fundamental particles in fields of force, in a four-dimensional spacetime whose evolution over time is described by a few equations: the fundamental dynamical laws of physics. According to Sellars’s slogan (which Sellarsians like to call, rather grandly, the scientia mensura), this is how the physical world really is. But it does not seem like this to us. The everyday world we inhabit seems to contain towns and cities, houses and restaurants, and the whole panoply of what J.L. Austin called ‘medium-sized dry goods’, none of which is mentioned in any science. And that world seems to be full of value: we care about our friends and family, we care about doing the right thing, we care about our environment and about our communal and individual projects. All these things have value for us; but value is absent from science. And we too – human beings or persons, the source and locus of value – seem to be missing from science, even from scientific psychology. So how do we reconcile this picture of the everyday ‘lived world’ with what is sometimes called the ‘disenchanted’ picture of the world given by science?

This, for Sellars, was the fundamental task facing any systematic philosophy: to explain how things seem (in the broadest sense of that term) consistent with what science has told us about the world. In ‘Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man’ he gave a justly famous description of this task in terms of the contrast between the ‘manifest image’ we have of the world and ourselves, and the ‘scientific image’. The manifest image is the image of the world as containing persons, values and meaning: the world as we experience it. It is the same world that is described in the scientific image. But how do these two images fit together?

Sellars did far more than just formulate this problem: he responded to it with a systematic philosophy. Some more bone-headed philosophers have pretended not even to see the problem, and insist that the lived world is just an illusion which does not need to be ‘saved’. Others respond by rejecting naturalism. Sellars saw no merit in either response, and instead gave an account of mind, language, knowledge, nature and ethical value which can be seen as an attempt to save the ‘manifest image’ in the light of the scientia mensura. Hence the title of the late Jay Rosenberg’s collection of essays about Sellars, Fusing the Images.

Three aspects of the manifest image have been especially troubling to naturalistic philosophers. One is meaning or ‘intentionality’: the significance of symbols and thoughts, their ability to reach out beyond themselves and signify other things. Another is value: the fact that actions and people are conceived of as right or wrong, good or bad. The third is consciousness or awareness: the fact that our experience of the world has a certain feel or conscious character. Without ‘this inner illumination’, Einstein once said to Feigl, ‘the world would be nothing but a pile of dirt.’

We can begin to see what is distinctive in the way Sellars thought by looking first at his account of language and meaning. His approach can be contrasted with the orthodox approach to the philosophy of language, inspired by Frege’s work on logic, which dominated the philosophy of language during the 20th century. Those who follow Frege see the starting point to be a relation of reference between words and the things that they refer to. Names (like ‘Caesar’) refer to objects (Caesar himself), and predicates (like ‘was ambitious’) refer to the properties of things (ambition itself). A logically simple sentence like ‘Caesar was ambitious’ is true when the object referred to by the name has the property referred to by the predicate. Other more complex sentences can then be constructed in a systematic way from these simple elements.

The idea of a reference relation is the heart of orthodox semantic theory in logic and the philosophy of language. But Sellars thought that the idea of a reference relation between words and things was fundamentally problematic. This is not because there is no distinction between words and what they stand for: like all realists, he accepts that there is a world independent of thought. It’s rather that there can be no science in which such a relation figures, so the relation is utterly mysterious from a naturalistic point of view.

Some naturalistic philosophers have attempted to understand reference in terms of such naturalistically acceptable relations as causation. According to this view, things in the world cause our minds to form certain representations, which is why they represent what they do. Although Sellars does have a role (in one of the more obscure parts of his system) for collections of words ‘picturing’ what they represent in the style of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, this ‘picturing’ is not reference itself, and he ultimately rejects any naturalistic attempt to reduce reference – i.e. explain it in terms of something else. Instead, he replaces reference as the central semantic notion with the notion of inference. To talk about the meaning of a word is not to talk about the relation it bears to the object it stands for. Rather, it is to talk about what inferences – what legitimate patterns of thought and reasoning – that word can be used in.

Sellars’s point can be best appreciated by considering the meaning of a word taken from one language in another language. If I say that ambitieux in French means the same as ‘ambitious’ in English, I am not saying that the French and English words refer to the same property. For one thing, according to Sellars (who was a lifelong nominalist) there is no such thing as this, or any other ‘property’. For another, there is no such thing as this mysterious reference relation. Instead, what I am saying is that the word ambitieux plays the same role for a French speaker as ‘ambitious’ does for an English speaker. To give the meaning of a word is to indicate the rules for its correct (and hence incorrect) use.

Sellars’s view can be seen as a more detailed development of Wittgenstein’s dictum that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language.’ It has also been seen as pre-figuring the ‘functionalist’ views of meaning which appeared in the 1970s and 1980s. But it is also important to underscore what is really distinctive about Sellars’s view. In emphasising the central role of inference in the way he did, he was placing normativity at the heart of his system. To grasp the meaning of a word (to have a concept) is to take on certain commitments or obligations, to make yourself responsible to certain norms or standards. To call someone ambitious, for example, is to be committed to whatever follows from someone’s being ambitious; to know what an ambitious person is likely to do in certain circumstances, and to know what might or might not be evidence for being ambitious. The rules for the use of words (‘natural-linguistic objects’) are normative rules: they tell us how words should and should not be used. Signification and meaning are normative matters.

Sellars uses this account of meaning to give an account of thought itself. He criticises philosophers who treat thoughts as ‘inner episodes’, involving mysterious encounters with abstract concepts or ‘meanings’, and verbal behaviour as the mere effect of these encounters. But he does not deny the existence of mental episodes of thinking. Rather, he reconfigures thought as ‘inner speech’ – not, that is, as talking to oneself, but rather as employing the concepts one has learned in the course of acquiring a language, to make inferences which result in dispositions to make ‘outer’ verbal judgments. What makes thinking like speaking, for Sellars, is that the two are governed by the same normative rules.

It’s tempting to believe that, whatever the plausibility of Sellars’s views on meaning and thought, conscious experience or perception cannot be given the same treatment. How could the experience of seeing, say, a fig tree be explained in terms of the notion of inference? Of course I might infer certain things from seeing the fig tree, but it’s natural to think that the experience of seeing it is a matter of simply being visually presented with the tree. Inference is something else altogether.

Sellars rejected this whole way of distinguishing between experience and thought as a manifestation of what he called the ‘myth of the given’. Notoriously, he accused many very different philosophical views of subscribing to this, without ever telling us exactly what the myth was. But it is nonetheless clear that the idea of being ‘visually presented’ with (or ‘perceptually given’) a fig tree, conceived of as a mental episode which is prior to thought and language, is supposed to be a paradigm example. Sellars rejected any non-cognitive, non-linguistic conception of conscious experience and awareness: ‘all awareness’, he said, ‘is a linguistic affair.’ There is no such thing as simply taking in the world in experience, as if the senses themselves had some kind of magical ability to latch onto the world: this is the myth. Every episode of taking something in is really a case of conceptualising it, and conceptualising requires being subject to the norms which can only come with the acquisition of a language.

Sellars recognises that even if one rejects ‘the given’, there are still philosophically troublesome aspects of conscious experience that naturalism needs to account for. One is our experience of colour. Like many naturalists, Sellars believes that science has shown that colours as they appear to us (‘phenomenal colours’) are not part of the real world. But he was reluctant to drive phenomenal colours ‘inside’ the mind, as if they were real properties of inner sensory items, as some philosophers had done. Nor could he reductively identify colours with surfaces of physical objects, because coloured surfaces have a ‘homogeneity’ which the discontinuous matter postulated by physics does not. After wrestling with this question, he ended up predicting that science would discover in the structure of matter some ‘emergent’ features which apply only to sentient beings and which explain the appearance of phenomenal colours. It’s worth noting that this prediction clashes with the scientia mensura: for it is philosophical argument, not scientific discovery, which leads him to postulate these emergent features. If this is right, then science is not the measure of all things.

Sellars’s reflections on sensory consciousness are complex, and in my view unconvincing. His ‘inferentialist’ theory of thought and language is a clearer and more tractable part of his system. But how are thought and language, so conceived, compatible with the scientific image? Sellars was keen to stress that when talking about inferences he was talking about real causal processes of thought that real human beings engage in, often using real symbols (‘natural-linguistic objects’). And presumably real inferences are psychological processes, and thus, for Sellars, brain processes that can be studied by science. But this is not to say that meaning, thought and knowledge themselves will appear in the scientific image as such. This is because ‘in characterising an episode or a state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says.’ And what goes for knowing also goes for saying and thinking.

In this sense, questions about meaning and significance (and by extension, thought and consciousness) are not factual questions – questions about what is the case – but questions about what ought to be. They are not, therefore, questions for science, whose concern is simply with how things are: with ‘describing and explaining the world’. According to Sellars, when we say that someone is having a thought or an experience we are locating them in the ‘space of reasons’ by making them responsible to norms of thought and reasoning: ‘If they are thinking this, then they ought to think that too.’ Many philosophers have distinguished between the factual and the normative – for example, when they make a distinction between empirical fact and moral value. Sellars went further: not only moral value, but also thought and consciousness, are (in his words) ‘fraught with ought’. This is the appearance or image that we have to save from science. The manifest image is, fundamentally and irreducibly, a normative image of the world.

On the dust jacket of In the Space of Reasons, Rorty writes:

If analytic philosophers were to come to accept Sellars’s inferentialism, they would have to rethink almost every topic that they have discussed, from intentionality to meaning-change to indeterminacy of reference to mind-body identity to Kant’s transcendental ego. There would be a sea change in philosophy far more profound than that caused by Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’.

Even allowing for the hyperbole typical of the genre, this seems to me quite wrong. Sellars’s inferentialist conception of meaning and thought can be separated from many of his other doctrines, and could be adopted by those who take much more traditional approaches to questions of the self and the mind. In fact, Sellars’s own endorsement of mind-body identity owes little to his inferentialism; its motivation lies rather in a quite orthodox conception of the authority of science, as well as a refusal to deny the reality of the mental. He may have been a systematic philosopher, but that does not mean that certain ideas could not be detached from his system.

One thing which might be worth detaching is the scientia mensura itself. This idea receives remarkably little discussion in the essays in this volume; yet it is an idea which is as questionable as it is powerful. It goes beyond the idea that the fundamental laws of physics (say) apply universally; these laws could apply to all things without physics having the final say on what these things are. Sellars’s is the more extreme claim that science is the measure of all things: science says what there is and what there is not. Yet on the face of it there are so many apparently real things in the world about which science has nothing to say. What is the justification for the scientia mensura? It doesn’t come from science itself. And we have already seen that Sellars himself implicitly rejects it in his account of the experience of phenomenal colour. It is worth speculating what Sellars’s system would look like without this implausible idea. Certainly the question of the conflict between the scientific image and the manifest image would remain. But some of the details of his philosophy – for example, his views on colour – would look very different without this scientistic doctrine.

Sellars wrote so much, on so many central philosophical issues, and much of what he said has still not been absorbed by philosophers. We are not yet in a good position to evaluate his contribution to philosophy, but having these essential essays collected in one volume is a good start, even if they can hardly serve as an introduction to Sellars’s thought. A better one would be Rosenberg’s Wilfrid Sellars: Fusing the Images, and far better would be Willem deVries’s excellent Wilfrid Sellars (2005). But it is part of the impressive contribution of a thinker who identified some of the central questions philosophy has to face, and was not tempted by the easy option of concluding that they were merely idle confusions.