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.

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