Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind by Wilfrid Sellars

This is actually a long essay, which I read in a collection of essays by Sellars called Science, Perception and Reality. But the essay has been published separately as a book, with an introduction by Richard Rorty and study notes by Robert Brandom, and since I’ve read that introduction and those notes, I’m listing Sellars’s essay as a book.

More to the point, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” is an attack on what Sellars calls the “Myth of the Given”, his term for the view that our knowledge of the world is based on basic or foundational beliefs, and that we derive such basic beliefs from what is “given” to us by sense perception. In particular, Sellars focuses on the philosophical theory that our fundamental knowledge of the world is knowledge of sense data.  Sense data are thought to be the particular impressions that we are aware of when we perceive the world. According to this theory, when I perceive a red apple, for example, I actually experience a red expanse of color, which may or may not represent an actual physical object. Philosophers who accept the sense data theory believe that our knowledge of the world rests on the foundation provided by such sense data.

Sellars criticizes this view in various ways, for example, by arguing that language about how something appears to us (like the language of sense data) is logically dependent on language about how things actually are (like the language of physical objects). Sellars also argues that the sense data theory fudges the clear distinction between non-cognitive impressions (sentience) and cognitive beliefs (sapience) — beliefs belong to the “space of reasons” and sense impressions don’t. In sum, “one could not have observational knowledge of any fact unless one knew many other things (i.e. had the relevant concepts) as well”.  In Brandom’s words, “one can’t think until one has learned to speak”, and one can’t speak until there is a community of speakers engaged in the social practice of speech (which includes giving and asking for reasons).

The last part of the essay is devoted to his own myth, which is supposed to explain how human beings came to talk about sense impressions in an intersubjective way, as theoretical entities. I didn’t find Sellars’s arguments or explanations convincing enough to rid me of the urge to take sense data or foundationalism seriously. But this is a difficult work that seems to deserve detailed study.  (10/13/10)

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