Wilfrid Sellars

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Wilfrid Sellars
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| birth_place = Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S.198925mf=yes}}| death_place = Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.| education = University of Michigan (B.A., 1933)University at Buffalo (M.A., 1934)Wilfrid Sellars (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition)Oriel College, Oxford (B.A., 1936; MA, 1940)| institutions = University of PittsburghAnalytic philosophy>AnalyticPittsburgh SchoolCritical realism (philosophy of perception)Anti-foundationalismTed Poston, "Foundationalism" (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)Philosophy of mindPhilosophy of perceptionEpistemologySemantics>MeaningPragmatismBehaviorismHistory of philosophy| influences = Gilbert Ryle, Rudolf Carnap, Immanuel Kant, Roy Wood Sellars, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger Clarence Irving LewisHunter, Bruce, 2016 "Clarence Irving Lewis" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. | influenced = Robert Brandom, Paul Churchland, John McDowell, Richard Rorty, Daniel Dennett, Bas van Fraassen, Ruth Millikan, Annette Baier, Jay RosenbergCritical realism (philosophy of perception)Criticism of foundationalism>foundationalist epistemology (the "Myth of the Given")psychological nominalismKantian empiricismThe distinction between the 'manifest' and the 'scientific' imageLogical space of reasons (the realm of the semantic)Sellarsian dilemma for foundationalismFoundationalist Theories of Epistemic Justification (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)Rylean myth|academic_advisors = Marvin FarberJames R. O'Shea Wilfrid Sellars and His Legacy, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 4.Thomas Dewar WeldonJay RosenbergPaul ChurchlandRobert Kane (philosopher)>Robert Kane| notable_students = Fred Dretske}}Wilfrid Stalker Sellars (May 20, 1912 – July 2, 1989) was an American philosopher and prominent developer of critical realism,Willem deVries, 2014. "Wilfrid Sellars," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Aug. 11, who "revolutionized both the content and the method of philosophy in the United States".WEB,weblink A Philosopher Who Shattered Our Complacency, 15 August 1989,,

Life and career

His father was the Canadian-American philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, a leading American philosophical naturalist in the first half of the twentieth-century.WEB,weblink Sellars, Roy Wood - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, Wilfrid was educated at the University of Michigan (BA, 1933), the University at Buffalo, and Oriel College, Oxford (1934–1937), where he was a Rhodes Scholar, obtaining his highest earned degree, an MA, in 1940. During World War II, he served in military intelligence. He then taught at the University of Iowa (1938–1946), the University of Minnesota (1947–1958), Yale University (1958–1963), and from 1963 until his death, at the University of Pittsburgh.WEB,weblink Introduction to Wilfrid Sellars lecture, Naturalism and Ontology, He served as president of the Metaphysical Society of America in 1977. He was a founder of the journal Philosophical Studies.Sellars is well known as a critic of foundationalist epistemology—the "Myth of the Given" as he called it.BOOK,weblink Wilfrid Sellars – The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Willem, deVries, Edward N., Zalta, 30 June 2017, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, However, his philosophical works are more generally directed toward the ultimate goal of reconciling intuitive ways of describing the world (both those of common sense and traditional philosophy) with a thoroughly naturalist, scientific account of reality. He is widely regarded both for great sophistication of argument and for his assimilation of many and diverse subjects in pursuit of a synoptic vision. Sellars was perhaps the first philosopher to synthesize elements of American pragmatism with elements of British and American analytic philosophy and Austrian and German logical positivism. His work also reflects a sustained engagement with the German tradition of transcendental idealism, most obviously in his book Science and Metaphysics: Kantian Variations.

Philosophical work

Sellars coined certain now-common idioms in philosophy, such as the "space of reasons". This idiom refers to two things. It:
  1. Describes the conceptual and behavioral web of language that humans use to get intelligently around their world,
  2. Denotes the fact that talk of reasons, epistemic justification, and intention is not the same as, and cannot necessarily be mapped onto, talk of causes and effects in the sense that physical science speaks of them.
Note: (2) corresponds in part to the distinction Sellars makes between the manifest image and the scientific image.

"Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind"

Sellars' most famous work is the lengthy and difficult paper, "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" (1956).WEB,weblink EMPIRICISM AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF MIND,, In it, he criticises the view that knowledge of what we perceive can be independent of the conceptual processes which result in perception. He named this "The Myth of the Given," attributing it to phenomenology and sense-data theories of knowledge.The work targets several theories at once, especially C. I. Lewis' Kantian pragmatism and Rudolf Carnap's positivism. He draws out "The Myth of Jones," to defend the possibility of a strict behaviorist worldview. The parable explains how thoughts, intelligent action, and even subjective inner experience can be attributed to people within a scientific model. Sellars used a fictional tribe, "Ryleans," since he wanted to address Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind.Sellar's idea of "myth," heavily influenced by Ernst Cassirer, is not necessarily negative. He saw it as something that can be useful or otherwise, rather than true or false. He aimed to unite the conceptual behavior of the "space of reasons" with the concept of a subjective sense experience. This was one of his most central goals, which his later work described as Kantian.

"The Language of Theories"

In his paper, "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" (1961), Sellars introduces the concept of Kantian empiricism. Kantian empiricism features a distinction between (1) claims whose revision requires abandonment or modification of the system of concepts in terms of which they are framed (i.e., modification of the fallible set of constitutive principles underlying knowledge, otherwise known as framework-relative a priori truths) and (2) claims revisable on the basis of observations formulated in terms of a system of concepts which remained fixed throughout.

"Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man"

In his "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man" (1962), Sellars distinguishes between the "manifest image" and the "scientific image" of the world.The manifest image includes intentions, thoughts, and appearances. Sellars allows that the manifest image may be refined through 'correlational induction', but he rules out appeal to imperceptible entities.The scientific image describes the world in terms of the theoretical physical sciences. It includes notions such as causality and theories about particles and forces.The two images sometimes complement one another, and sometimes conflict. For example, the manifest image includes practical or moral claims, whereas the scientific image does not. There is conflict, e.g. where science tells us that apparently solid objects are mostly empty space. Sellars favours a synoptic vision, wherein the scientific image takes ultimate precedence in cases of conflict, at least with respect to empirical descriptions and explanations.Brassier, Ray, Nihil Unbound (2007) p.3

Founder of cooperative housing for students

As a student at the University of Michigan, Wilfrid Sellars was one of the founding members of the first North-American cooperative house for university students, which was then called "Michigan Socialist House" (and which was later renamed "Michigan Cooperative House").JOURNAL, Remembering the Mich House founders, Jones, Jim, The Alumni Cooperator: A Publication of The Inter-Cooperative Council, Inter-Cooperative Council, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2007–2008,weblink 15,


Robert Brandom, his junior colleague at Pittsburgh, named Sellars and Willard Van Orman Quine as the two most profound and important philosophers of their generation. Sellars' goal of a synoptic philosophy that unites the everyday and scientific views of reality is the foundation and archetype of what is sometimes called the Pittsburgh School, whose members include Brandom, John McDowell, and John Haugeland.Chauncey Maher, The Pittsburgh School of Philosophy. Routledge. 2012.Other philosophers strongly influenced by Sellars span the full spectrum of contemporary English-speaking philosophy, from neopragmatism (Richard Rorty) to eliminative materialism (Paul Churchland) to rationalism (Laurence BonJour). Sellars' philosophical heirs also include Ruth Millikan, Hector-Neri Castaneda, Bruce Aune, Jay Rosenberg, Johanna Seibt, Matthew Burstein, Ray Brassier, Andrew Chrucky, Jeffrey Sicha, Pedro Amaral, Thomas Vinci, Willem A. de Vries, David Rosenthal, Ken Wilber and Michael Williams. Sellar's work has been drawn upon in feminist standpoint theory, for example in the work of Rebecca Kukla.Rebecca Kukla, "Objectivity and Perspective in Empirical Knowledge". Episteme 3(1): 80–95. 2006.Sellars' death in 1989 was the result of long-term alcoholism.WEB,weblink Susanna Felder,, A collection of essays devoted to 'Sellars and his Legacy' was published by Oxford University Press in 2016 (ed., James O'Shea), with contributions from Brandom, deVries, Kraut, Kukla, Lance, McDowell, Millikan, O'Shea, Rosenthal, Seibt, and Williams.


  • Pure Pragmatics and Possible Worlds-The Early Essays of Wilfrid Sellars, [PPPW], ed. by Jeffrey F. Sicha, (Ridgeview Publishing Co; Atascadero, CA; 1980). [Contains a long introductory essay by Sicha and an extensive bibliography of Sellars' work through 1979.]
  • Science, Perception and Reality, [SPR], (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd; London, and The Humanities Press: New York; 1963) [Reissued in 1991 by Ridgeview Publishing Co., Atascadero, CA. This edition contains a complete bibliography of Sellars' published work through 1989.]
  • Philosophical Perspectives, [PP], (Charles C. Thomas: Springfield, IL; 1967). Reprinted in two volumes, Philosophical Perspectives: History of Philosophy and Philosophical Perspective: Metaphysics and Epistemology, (Ridgeview Publishing Co.; Atascadero, CA; 1977).
  • Science and Metaphysics: Variations on Kantian Themes. [S&M], (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd; London, and The Humanities Press; New York; 1968). The 1966 John Locke Lectures. [Reissued in 1992 by Ridgeview Publishing Co., Atascadero, CA. This edition contains a complete bibliography of Sellars' published work through 1989, a register of Sellars' philosophical correspondence, and a listing of circulated but unpublished papers and lectures.]
  • Essays in Philosophy and Its History, [EPH], (D. Reidel Publishing Co.; Dordrecht, Holland; 1975).
  • Naturalism and Ontology, [N&O], (Ridgeview Publishing Co.; Atascadero, CA: 1979). [An expanded version of the 1974 John Dewey Lectures]
  • The Metaphysics of Epistemology: Lectures by Wilfrid Sellars, edited by Pedro Amaral, (Ridgeview Publishing Co.; Atascadero, CA; 1989). [Contains a complete bibliography of Sellars' published work through 1989.]
  • Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind [EPM], edited by Robert Brandom, (Harvard University Press.; Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1997). [The original, 1956, version of [EPM] (see below), lacking footnotes added in [SPR], with an Introduction by Richard Rorty and Study Guide by Brandom.]
  • Kant and Pre-Kantian Themes: Lectures by Wilfrid Sellars, edited by Pedro Amaral, (Ridgeview Publishing Co.; Atascadero, CA: 2002). [A transcription of Sellars' Kant lectures, plus essays on Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, and Leibniz.]
  • Kant's Transcendental Metaphysics: Sellars' Cassirer Lecture Notes and Other Essays, edited by Jeffrey F. Sicha, (Ridgeview Publishing Co.; Atascadero, CA: 2002). [Contains a complete bibliography of Sellars' published work, philosophical correspondence, and circulated manuscripts through 2002.]

See also



Further reading

  • McDowell, John. Mind and World. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996.
  • Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979.

External links

{{Analytic philosophy}}{{Authority control}}

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