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Sellars, Wilfrid Stalker (1912–89)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD065-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Wilfrid Sellars was an original, systematic philosopher in post-Second World War America. At a time when many thought of philosophy as piecemeal puzzle-solving, Sellars sought to develop a unified and coherent approach to philosophical issues across many different fields. His early work, up through his classic essay ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’ (1956), prefigured the major developments in subsequent Anglo-American philosophy. First, a powerful critique of ‘the myth of the given’ or foundationalism in semantics and epistemology; this is the idea that some of our knowledge (or meanings or of facts) is simply given to us entirely independently of any other knowledge we have – or, in other words that knowledge and meanings come in atoms, each of which could be had independently of any others. Second, Sellars articulated a functionalist approach to meaning and intentionality; functionalism holds that the meaning of linguistic expressions or the intentional content of mental states is a matter of the functional role the expression or state plays in the activity of the linguistic community. Finally, Sellars proposed the idea that folk psychology is much like a theory explaining behaviour. In subsequent work, Sellars elaborated on these themes in distinctive fashion. While responding to logical empiricism in ways that consciously mirrored Kant’s response to Hume, Sellars rejected Kant’s idealism in favour of the idea that science ultimately reveals what the world is in itself. This scientific realism combined with a semantic theory that treated apparent reference to abstract entities as a way to address the function or conceptual role of various terms or concepts. He was a thoroughgoing naturalist, but also argued that normative or prescriptive/evaluative discourse can neither be reduced nor eliminated. Rather, normative discourse is essential to and generated by interactions of rational agents in social structures. Though our cognitive and conative capacities have developed through evolution, normative discourse enables us to subject their use to assessment and at least some editorial control. Besides his profound contributions to the literature of philosophy, Sellars contributed to the discipline also as a distinguished teacher and influential editor.

Citing this article:
de Vries, Willem. Sellars, Wilfrid Stalker (1912–89), 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD065-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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