Sellars, Wilfrid Stalker (1912–89)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD065-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 16, 2021, from

2. Ontological perspectives

Along with Wittgenstein, Sellars figured among the pre-eminent contributors to the twentieth century’s thoroughgoing critique of Descartes’ picture of first-person privileged access to the states of a thinking substance (see Descartes, R.; Privacy). Unlike Wittgenstein, however, Sellars proceeded to develop a positive reconception of the problem space traditionally centred on a dualism of bodies and minds as a transposition of a more fundamental dualism of facts and norms (see Dualism; Fact/value distinction). Kant’s analysis of the distinct contributions of the sensibility and understanding in perceptual experience became the guiding thread for Sellars’ further sharp separation of problems regarding ‘raw feels’ from questions regarding intentional (object-directed) thought.

Along with Quine, but without his global rejection of semantic, mental and modal contexts, Sellars helped consummate the shift of semantic attention from the categories of thought to those of public language. Sellars differs from Quine, too, in that his own rejection of Cartesian models of the mind never issued in a correlative (radically behaviourist) abandonment of inner episodes per se. Instead, Sellars’ critique of the positivist picture of scientific theories enabled him to develop an alternative, thoroughly realistic, understanding of sophisticated scientific inquiry in terms of which the status of concepts pertaining to inner episodes could be constructively understood on the model of theoretical discourse (see Scientific realism and antirealism; Theories, scientific).

Sellars’ fundamental metaphysical conviction that the distinguishing mark of the real is the power to act or be acted upon was reflected in his thoroughgoing naturalism. This, in turn, imposed strong nominalistic constraints, not only on the overall synoptic project, which consequently needed to find a place for mind that did not require independent ontological status for intentional entities, but also on traditional categorial ontology, which could legitimately maintain the reality of abstract entities only if it were possible simultaneously to supply an adequate account of their place within the causal order, broadly conceived. Sellars’ response to both of these naturalistic challenges was to develop a sophisticated theory of conceptual roles at the heart of which was the idea that one and the same item could be at once both a causally evoked response to the environment and a normatively significant item in a rule-governed network of reasons. On Sellars’ view, a person’s grasp of a concept, for example, the concept ‘red’, consists precisely in their differential disposition to produce such inferentially articulated responses to red things (see Semantics, conceptual role).

Sellars consequently proposed to interpret both categorial ontological idioms and mentalistic intentional contexts in terms of a semantic discourse fundamentally conceived in terms of the inferential roles of public ‘natural linguistic objects’. Like Rudolf Carnap, Sellars embraced a form of ‘linguistic nominalism’, which treated traditional categorial discourse as the classificatory discourse of a functional metalanguage transposed into the ‘material mode of speech’. Unlike Carnap, however, he refused to identify the extensional constructs of ‘pure’ formal syntax or semantics with their corresponding ‘descriptive’ pre-philosophical counterparts, arguing that to do so is to fail to acknowledge properly the irreducibly normative aspects of syntactical and semantical words functioning as such.

In the philosophy of mind, Sellars adopted ‘psychological nominalism’, the denial that any sort of commerce with abstract entities is an essential ingredient of mental acts, and espoused instead what he came to call ‘verbal behaviourism’, according to which the primary sense of (occurrently) thinking that-p is a ‘thinking-out-loud that-p’, that is, in first approximation, an event of candidly and spontaneously saying p (see Behaviourism, methodological and scientific; Language of thought). The conceptual framework of inner episodes was to be understood as built upon the semantical characterization of overt verbal episodes in a manner analogous to the way in which, for instance, the framework of molecules is built on the observable behaviour of gases. On Sellars’ account, the concept of a thought is fundamentally the concept of a causally mediating logico-semantic (inferential) role player, the determinate intrinsic ontological (empirical) character of which is left open. The identification of such intentionally-characterized inner episodes with, for instance, occurrences in an organism’s central nervous system thus generates no ontological tension, and the manifest image’s conception of persons as thinkers can fuse smoothly with the scientific image’s story of complex material organisms. These proposals constituted the original version of functionalism in the contemporary philosophy of mind, the subsequent manifold varieties of which were both facilitated and directly or indirectly inspired by the theoretical space of philosophical options they had opened (see Functionalism).

As in the case of thoughts, Sellars argued that talk about sensations (‘raw feels’) can also usefully be interpreted on the model of a species of theoretical discourse. Since, however, with Kant and contrary to the Cartesian tradition, Sellars viewed sensations as non-intentional items, his account both of their place within the manifest image and their ultimate relocation within the scientific image differs essentially from his ontologically noncommittal functionalist picture of occurrent thoughts. Sellars proposed that it is the job of analogical thinking to construct new forms of concepts pertaining to theoretical entities. Within the philosophically refined manifest image, sensation concepts pick out non-intentional states of individual perceivers, ‘sensings’, whose intrinsic characters are analogically indicated by adverbial transpositions of qualitative predicates of objects. In a series of essays stretching over a period of forty years and widely regarded as among his most difficult and challenging works, however, Sellars argued further that, because the manifest image’s unitary perceiving subjects have ontological pluralities as their scientific image counterparts, the fusion of the two images at the point of sensations will in fact require the postulation of further (theoretically) basic entities which actually ontologically instantiate qualitative sensory contents conceived in yet another analogically constructed categorial guise distinct from both ‘properties of objects’ and ‘manners of sensing’. In particular, he concluded, sensory contents can be non-epiphenomenally integrated into the scientific image only after it has as a whole been transposed from its classical ‘thing-like’ (particulate) form into a categorially monistic framework all of whose fundamental entities are ‘event-like’ absolute processes (see Mental states, adverbial theory of; Epiphenomenalism; Qualia).

Citing this article:
Rosenberg, Jay F.. Ontological perspectives. Sellars, Wilfrid Stalker (1912–89), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD065-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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