Philosophy Wilfrid Sellars
by
Michael P. Wolf, Jeremy Randel Koons
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0134

Introduction

Wilfrid Sellars (1912–1989) did some of the most interesting and challenging work in Western philosophy in the 20th century. At a time when most philosophers were moving towards increasingly narrow specialization in their scholarship, he produced a large corpus that was both systematic and extensive in scope. Sellars is also a difficult philosopher to read, however. “I revise my papers until only I can understand them,” he is rumored to have said, “and then I revise them once more.” His prose is both idiosyncratic and ambitious, striking out in novel directions while striving to address the concerns of the past on every page. In this entry, we strive to address his most significant contributions to epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and ethics. We pass over most of the details of his work in the history of philosophy, particularly his work on Kant. Wherever possible, we have included original dates and sources of publication to give the reader a sense of the progression of Sellars’s work, but nearly all of these papers are included in one or more of the anthologies listed.

Collections

The wide scope of Sellars’s work makes him a philosopher best understood through collections of related papers, and several excellent collections are available. For those interested in the broadest collection of his best papers in several areas, the collection edited by Scharp and Brandom (Sellars 2007) is a good choice. For those more interested in his major papers on epistemology, language and science, Sellars 1991 has been the preferred source for many years. Sellars 1979, Sellars 1967a, and Sellars 1980a offer more narrow selections, tailored to more specific periods and interests. Sellars 1992 and Sellars 1980b are both collections of lectures that function well as complete books to encapsulate the major themes in Sellars’s work. (Readers may also want to see Castañeda 1976, cited in Ethics, Actions, and Intentions, for its review of Sellars’s work.)

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. Philosophical Perspectives: Metaphysics and Epistemology. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1967a.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Originally published as the second part of Philosophical Perspectives in 1967. This volume includes fewer major works that are not available elsewhere, but it does include some works that will be of secondary interest to those looking deeply on Sellars’s work.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. Essays in Philosophy and its History. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1974a.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A more broad collection than Sellars 1991, with works on Plato and Kant as well as replies to some contemporaries. More heavy on issues in metaphysics, this collection is less a career overview like Sellars 1979 or Sellars 1967a and more a collection of mid-to-late-period works.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. Philosophical Perspectives: History of Philosophy. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1979.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Originally published as the first part of a volume called Philosophical Perspectives in 1967. This volume contains several works on Aristotle and Kant, which are both original readings and point to features of his contemporary works.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. Pure Pragmatics and Possible Worlds: The Early Essays of Wilfrid Sellars. Edited by Jeffrey Sicha. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1980a.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A collection of Sellars’s work from the 1940s and 1950s. The primary virtues of this volume lie in its collecting just the right early works and including extensive outlines of the articles for the readers. Many of these essays will be easily accessible through JSTOR and other electronic resources, but it is also the most readily available source for Sellars 1947a (cited under Conceptual Content, Meaning, and Rules).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. Naturalism and Ontology: The John Dewey Lectures for 1973–1974. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1980b.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This is a shorter work (about 150 pages), but it is probably the most important work from Sellars’s late period. Delivered as the Locke Lectures at Oxford, and primarily a work on metaphysics, though with a significant lecture on meaning. It includes a correspondence with Michael Loux.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. Science, Perception, and Reality. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1991.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sellars’s first collection of essays and an excellent source for his most important mid-period works on language, epistemology, and scientific realism. Most of the major works in those areas cited below are here, including the main text of Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (Sellars 1997, cited under Knowledge and Justification), originally published in 1956.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. Science and Metaphysics: Variations on Kantian Themes. The John Locke Lectures for 1965–1966. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1992.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Frequently drawing on the work of Kant, Sellars gives a unified account of perception and its objects, meaning and intentionality, reference, truth, mental episodes, and practical reasoning. This book gives a very good overview of Sellars’s views on these issues, and it comes closer than any other work to giving a broad summary of Sellars’s philosophy. Originally published in 1967.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. In the Space of Reasons: Selected Essays of Wilfrid Sellars. Edited by Kevin Scharp and Robert B. Brandom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This is a more recent anthology edited by Kevin Scharp and Robert Brandom. It includes several of the essays originally in Sellars 1991—though not Sellars 1997 (cited under Knowledge and Justification)—and expands to include some of Sellars’s historical works on Kant and some later works on the mind. Readers interested in the full scope of Sellars’s work (especially his relation to Kant) and wanting it in one volume may prefer this to Sellars 1991.

    Find this resource:

Commentaries

There was a period of waning interest in Sellars during the 1980s and early 1990s, but that trend has reversed itself in the last fifteen years with a burgeoning array of works inspired by or offering detailed exegesis of neglected themes. Rorty 1980, McDowell 1996, and McDowell 1998 placed Sellars at the heart of analytic philosophy in the 20th century. These authors’ major works take up important ideas from his epistemology and philosophy of mind, though both Rorty and McDowell take some of those ideas in directions that Sellars would not have pursued. In the same spirit, Coates 2007 takes Sellars’s work on perception as a starting point for his own account. deVries 2005 and O’Shea 2007 both offer exegesis not merely sympathetic to Sellars work, but advocating its importance and his correctness. Rosenberg 2007 takes this a step further, elaborating on a number of important Sellarsian accounts and mounting defenses where needed. Wolf and Lance 2006 present a collection of new essays, most of them critical but sympathetic to Sellarsian views. Readers may also want to visit Andrew Chrucky’s extensive and very current collection of works on Sellars and review the special editions of Philosophical Studies and The Monist described in this section.

  • Coates, Paul. The Metaphysics of Perception: Wilfrid Sellars, Perceptual Consciousness and Critical Realism. New York: Routledge, 2007.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Coates’s book is more narrow than deVries 2005, Rosenberg 2007, or O’Shea 2007, focusing on perception, and Coates takes Sellars’s work as a starting point for his own account, rather than an endpoint for exegesis. Coates defends a version of “critical realism”—a causal theory of perception on which the objects of perceptions are inner states—and he draws inspiration for it in large part from the later sections of Sellars 1997 (cited under Knowledge and Justification).

    Find this resource:

  • deVries, Willem A. Wilfrid Sellars. Philosophy Now. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2005.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This is an especially accessible volume on Sellars’s work, which was notoriously difficult to read. All the major themes discussed in this entry are included, and the tone is aimed more squarely at those readers just becoming familiar with Sellars. Highly recommended for graduate students and even upper-level undergraduates.

    Find this resource:

  • Lance, Mark, ed. Philosophical Studies 101.2–3 (2000).

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Guest edited by Mark Lance, numbers 2 and 3 of this volume contain essays by MacBeth, Rosenberg, Kukla, Lange, Seibt, and Hurley on a wide range of Sellarsian themes. They serve as complements and extensions of numerous works listed here, and this volume is highly recommended to anyone looking for the most current defenses and extensions of Sellars’s ideas.

    Find this resource:

  • McDowell, John. Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    McDowell explains that Sellars’s position that sensation is non-conceptual and hence incapable of justifying observation belief makes it impossible to explain how inputs from the world can place rational constraints on our empirical theories. Since we can only view sensations and the world from within the framework of our conceptual apparatus, we must view sensations as already imbued with conceptual content.

    Find this resource:

  • McDowell, John. “Having the World in View: Sellars, Kant, and Intentionality.” Journal of Philosophy 95 (1998): 431–491.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    These are McDowell’s Woodbridge Lectures, and much like McDowell 1996, they begin with sympathies for Sellars, but the criticisms here are even sharper. McDowell aims to “correct” Sellars’s reading of Kant by assigning to Sellars views on “transcendental” philosophy that entail a position outside the “space of conceptual goings-on,” continuing lines of criticism from McDowell 1996. (All three lectures are included in this edition, but the first of these is most squarely focused on Sellars’s work.)

    Find this resource:

  • Monist 65.3 (July 1982).

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A special issue of the journal consisting of largely supportive articles, late in Sellars’s career and right on the heels of his Carus Lectures (Sellars 1981b, cited under Ontology and Metaphysics). Electronic access to The Monist before 1990 can be a little tricky, and this volume is not broken into editions. This volume splits time between articles on Peirce and articles on Sellars, with the Sellars articles coming later.

    Find this resource:

  • O’Shea, James R. Wilfrid Sellars: Naturalism with a Normative Turn. Malden, MA: Polity, 2007.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Like deVries 2005, this is intended as an exegetical text for those first coming to Sellars’s work. O’Shea places much greater emphasis on “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man” (Sellars 1962a, cited under Scientific Realism) as a touchstone for themes in Sellars, and his exposition reflects this, devoting more time (proportionally) to scientific realism and normativity and less to meaning. A briefer, more selective introduction, but highly readable.

    Find this resource:

  • Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This is perhaps the most controversial major book in analytic philosophy in the last three decades, but its challenges to prevailing views of objectivity and the purpose of philosophy are accessible and incisive. Chapters two through six draw heavily from Sellars’s work on foundationalism and the mind, and Rorty argues for Sellars’s place among the most important philosophers of the century.

    Find this resource:

  • Rosenberg, Jay F. Wilfrid Sellars: Fusing the Images. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This was Rosenberg’s last major work before his passing, and he devotes it to a review and defense of Sellarsian ideas against critics such as Alston, as well as exegesis on his and McDowell’s different readings of Kant. Chapter 9 in this volume will be especially helpful to those readings Sellars’s Carus Lectures (Sellars 1981b, cited under Ontology and Metaphysics).

    Find this resource:

  • Wolf, Michael P., and Mark Norris Lance, eds. The Self-Correcting Enterprise: Essays on Wilfrid Sellars. New York: Rodopi, 2006.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This volume includes ten original essays on Sellars, covering topics from non-conceptual content to conceptual role semantics. It is longer on semantic and epistemological themes, with less on metaphysics and ethics. It includes a dialogue between Willem deVries, one of Sellars’s staunchest longstanding proponents, and Timm Triplett, a critic in equal measure.

    Find this resource:

Knowledge and Justification

Sellars is best known for his attacks on foundationalism, particularly the sense-data theories prevalent in the early 20th century. Sellars 1997 is his single most important work, and this more recent edition is essential reading. (Brandom’s reading of Sellars in the “Study Guide” is controversial in some quarters, but the slim volume is very good by all estimates.) Sellars 1981b (cited under Ontology and Metaphysics) is also a valuable complement to these themes, written later in his life. Sellars 1973a is the best statement of his positive account of justification from the later years of his career. Induction and a priori knowledge were also long-standing interests for Sellars, and those are addressed in Sellars 1991 (cited under Collections) and Sellars 1973a, respectively. Chisholm 1986, Bonevac 2002, and Alston 2002 all defend some form of the Given from Sellarsian objections, and a new Sellarsian defense is mounted by Koons 2006.

  • Alston, William P. “Sellars and the ‘Myth of the Given.’” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 65 (2002): 69–86.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1933-1592.2002.tb00183.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Alston defends the Given against Sellars 1997 by arguing that is-talk is not conceptually prior to all species of looks-talk, and that even if it were, conceptual priority does not entail epistemic priority or dependence. In addition to Koons 2006, readers may want to look at Rosenberg 2007 (cited under Commentaries) for a direct reply to Alston.

    Find this resource:

  • Bonevac, Daniel. “Sellars vs. the Given.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 64 (2002): 1–30.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1933-1592.2002.tb00140.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Probably the most thorough critique of the argument against the epistemic Given in Sellars 1997. Bonevac attacks Sellars’s thesis of the priority of is-talk over looks-talk, his idea that knowing something is green requires knowledge of standard viewing conditions, and his idea that a non-conceptual sensation cannot play a role in the justification of an observation belief.

    Find this resource:

  • Chisholm, Roderick M. “The Myth of the Given.” In Empirical Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology. Edited by Paul K. Moser, 55–75. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1986.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Chisholm defends the Given by arguing that beliefs about appearances are self-justifying. Like Alston 2002, he argues that there is a species of looks-talk that is not conceptually dependent upon is-talk. Reprinted (minus the final section) in Epistemology: The Big Questions, edited by Linda Martin Alcoff (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 169–186.

    Find this resource:

  • deVries, William A., and Timm Triplett. Knowledge, Mind, and the Given. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2000.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    DeVries and Triplett present another version of Sellars 1997, with an extensive historical introduction and supplemental footnotes along the way. Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (Sellars 1997) is the core text here, but with substantial clarification of its place in the history of philosophy. For those completely new to Sellars, this version might be slightly preferable to Sellars 1997.

    Find this resource:

  • Koons, Jeremy Randel. “Sellars, Givenness, and Epistemic Priority.” In The Self-Correcting Enterprise: Essays on Wilfrid Sellars. Edited by Michael P. Wolf and Mark Norris Lance, 147–172. New York: Rodopi, 2006.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this paper, Koons defends Sellars’s attack on the Given from recent challenges, asserting that the critics misconstrue several key issues. Worth reading in conjunction with Bonevac 2002 and Alston 2002.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Is There a Synthetic A Priori?” Philosophy of Science 20 (1953a): 121–138.

    DOI: 10.1086/287251Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sellars argues that there is synthetic a priori knowledge (propositions that are not logically true or false, but are universal and true by simply in virtue of the meaning of the words they employ). However, since our conceptual framework is one of many, and we should be willing to alter our framework in the name of the progress, such knowledge is in no way timeless or certain. Reprinted with revisions in 1991.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Givenness and Explanatory Coherence.” Journal of Philosophy 70 (1973a): 612–624.

    DOI: 10.2307/2025027Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this article, Sellars suggests that allegedly foundational beliefs are themselves justified in part by epistemic principles, which are themselves justified by considerations of coherence.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sellars’s most famous work is an attack on many forms of the “Given,” the notion that mere acquaintance with a non-conceptual item can confer knowledge. The most famous form is that of the epistemic Given, but Sellars also attacks it as it appears in philosophers’ attempts to explain our knowledge of meanings and inner episodes. Also reprinted in Sellars 1991 (cited under Collections). Sellars 1991 is the most complete, with some footnotes that do not appear in other versions.

    Find this resource:

Intentionality and the Mind

Sellars argues that thought and language are intimately connected, but his view of the connection is subtle and sophisticated. While Sellars rejects the common view that thought is logically prior to overt linguistic episodes, and that the role of the latter is merely to express the former, he doesn’t precisely reverse the order of explanation either. Rather, mental concepts are analogous to theoretical concepts modeled on overt verbal episodes. Since inner episodes are modeled on overt linguistic behavior, we can import the metalinguistic tools from the latter context to the former; the theory of meaning as functional classification can be imported to explain the content and intentionality of mental states, thus giving rise to a proto-functionalist theory of the mental. Sellars most famously makes his case for the relation between thought and language and defends his argument in his correspondence with Chisholm (Chisholm 1958). For Sellars’s early precursor to functionalism about the intentionality of the mental, see Sellars 1953b. For more on recent debates about non-conceptual content, see Forman 2006 and Schellenberg 2006. Williams 2006 addresses some recent criticisms of Sellars’s work on intentionality and non-conceptual content in Sellars’s defense.

Conceptual Content, Meaning, and Rules

Sellars strove to make sense of the normativity of rule-governed linguistic behavior while avoiding both Platonism on the one hand and reductionism on the other. In Sellars’s first two published essays (Sellars 1947a and Sellars 1947b), he gives a theory of “pure pragmatics”—a theory of such “epistemological” notions as “means,” “designates,” “true,” “verified,” and so forth. This early manifesto continues in Sellars 1948b. He attempts to steer a via media between rationalism (which rightly stressed the normativity of such concepts, but wrongly thought they were factual) and empiricism (which rightly rejects the factuality of such concepts, but inadequately accounts for their normative character). These essays jointly present in early form Sellars’s central ideas about the importance of material rules of inference (called “conformation rules”) in meaning, and his novel theory of the meaning of terms in the semantic metalanguage. Sellars’s view was that semantic terms like “means,” “refers,” “true,” and so forth do not denote a relation between language and another item (such as a meaning, or a mental item, or the world). For example, “means” is a special form of the copula; when one says “‘X’ means Y,’” Y names a functional role and (roughly speaking) predicates this role of the token Xs in the given language. The meaning of a word is constituted, in the first instance, by the web of material inferences in which it is involved (as argued in Sellars 1953c). In chapter 3 of Sellars 1992 (cited under Collections), he gives a parallel account of reference denying that “refers” denotes a relation between language and the world. Sellars’s account of truth is given in chapter 4 of the same volume. Brandom 1998 greatly expands Sellars’s project in semantics while strengthening the central role of normativity and giving and asking for reasons in such an account.

  • Brandom, Robert B. Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Brandom develops what he calls a “normative pragmatics” and “inferential semantics” based largely on the work of Sellars and Wittgenstein. In particular, he sees Sellars’s argument for the essentiality of material rules of inference (Sellars 1953c) as central to an understanding of concepts and propositions. Brandom is probably the major contemporary philosopher most strongly influenced by Sellars.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Epistemology and the New Way of Words.” Journal of Philosophy 44 (1947a): 645–660.

    DOI: 10.2307/2019792Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The first of three early essays on “pure pragmatics,” and the first appearance of some of his ideas on semantics and metalanguages, as well as the normative character of concepts. Earlier versions of arguments that would appear in Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (Sellars 1997 1997, cited under Knowledge and Justification) are here, and there’s even a fellow named “Jones.” Reprinted in Sellars 1980a (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Pure Pragmatics and Epistemology.” Philosophy of Science 14 (1947b): 181–202.

    DOI: 10.1086/286945Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A defense of normative approaches to epistemology, against what Sellars calls “psychologism” and “factualism” (roughly, empiricism and rationalism) that fail to capture the nature of epistemic predicates. The final section rejects views of designation as word-world relations in ways that presage much of his work on language, as well as that of Brandom 1998. Reprinted in Sellars 1980a (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Concepts as Involving Laws and Inconceivable without Them.” Philosophy of Science 15 (1948a): 287–315.

    DOI: 10.1086/286997Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sellars argues that universals are differentiated by the natural laws that govern them. He accounts for the lawlikeness of natural laws in terms of possible worlds (or “possible histories,” as he calls them), and develops his theme that lawlike expressions are not mere statements of descriptive regularities but normative metalinguistic statements that license a particular inference using the relevant theoretical terms. Reprinted in Sellars 1980a (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Realism and the New Way of Words.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 8 (1948b): 601–634.

    DOI: 10.2307/2103687Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The last of the three “pure pragmatics” essays. He argues against naive realism in epistemology by elaborating views on meaning and pragmatic metalanguage that allow for more sophisticated notions of confirmation and verification than naive realism can provide. Reprinted in 1980a (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Language, Rules and Behavior.” In John Dewey: Philosopher of Science and Freedom. Edited by Sidney Hook, 289–315. New York: Dial, 1950.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sellars explains what distinguishes linguistic behavior from mere stimulus-response behavior, and argues that moral, logical, and physical necessity must be understood in terms of linguistic rules. Reprinted in Sellars 1980a (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Inference and Meaning.” Mind 62 (1953c): 313–338.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An early essay making the case that material rules of inference are essential to meaning. The most important of Sellars’s early papers and enormously influential on “inferentialist” or “conceptual role” semantic theorists like Harman, Block, and Brandom. Reprinted in Sellars 1980a and Sellars 2007 (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Some Reflections on Language Games.” Philosophy of Science 21 (1954): 204–228.

    DOI: 10.1086/287344Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Another important paper in Sellars’s inferentialist theory. Sellars distinguishes between language-entry moves (primarily perception), language-exit moves (primarily action), and language-language moves (primarily inference). All three sorts of moves are rule-governed in a way; but Sellars wants to argue that linguistic competence (while constituted by rules in some sense) isn’t a matter of consciously applying rules. He describes “pattern-governed” behavior as a middle ground between rule-obeying and merely rule-conforming behavior.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Meaning as Functional Classification.” Synthese 27 (1974b): 417–437.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00484606Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This is a relatively short paper (originally delivered at the APA meetings) that presents Sellars’s most mature development of his account of meaning in a very concise fashion. Sellars treats “means” in “x means y” as a special form of the copula and connecting specially characterized functional types of expressions. Readers may also want to see the comments and replies in the original volume from Putnam and Dennett.

    Find this resource:

Scientific Realism

Sellars was one of the staunchest scientific realists of the 20th century. He challenged the phenomenalism of most of the logical positivists in papers such as Sellars 1961 and incommensurability Sellars 1973b and refined accounts of theoretical explanation involving unobservable entities (Sellars 1963a and Sellars 1965b). Much of Sellars’s work can be seen as an attempt to reconcile this abiding commitment to science with a rich philosophical understanding of the human condition, and this set of concerns animates Sellars 1962a. Churchland 1986 offers a sympathetic but radical take on Sellarsian scientific realism, while Cornman 1970 offers revisions and Van Fraassen 1980 offers the most direct challenges to it.

  • Churchland, Paul M. Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Churchland takes Sellars’s arguments about the shift of theoretical terms to observational terms from Sellars 1997 (cited under Knowledge and Justification) and for scientific realism in general to make the case for a new vision of philosophy, developed hand in hand with neuroscience. Not all Sellarsians think this is a faithful reading, but it amounts to one of the most important offshoots of Sellars’s legacy.

    Find this resource:

  • Cornman, James W. “Sellars, Scientific Realism, and Sensa.” Review of Metaphysics 23 (1970): 417–451.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Cornman offers a brief review of Sellars’s work, particularly the reconciliation of scientific realism with sense impressions (“sensa”) that resist straightforward materialist reduction. Cornman reads Sellars as making an argument against materialism that Cornman argues fails on any plausible reading. This is worth reading in conjunction with Sellars 1962a and Sellars 1982 (cited under Ontology and Metaphysics).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “The Language of Theories.” In Current Issues in the Philosophy of Science. Edited by Herbert Feigl and G. Maxwell, 57–77. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1961.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This paper looks at the meanings of theoretical terms and takes a turn sharply away from phenomenalism (and hence, most logical positivism) in favor of a realist interpretation. This, along with Sellars 1967b, is crucial groundwork in a theory of meaning for the scientific realism he pursues elsewhere. Reprinted in Sellars 1991 (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man.” In Frontiers of Science and Philosophy. Edited by Robert G. Colodny, 35–78. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962a.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of Sellars’s most important works. Here, Sellars distinguishes between the scientific image (roughly, the picture of the world as told by physics) and the manifest image (which contains people, norms, sensations, thoughts, and so forth). Though Sellars argues for the primacy of the scientific image, he also argues for the ineliminability of the manifest image, and argues that the latter needs to be “fused” to the former. Reprinted in Sellars 1991 (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Theoretical Explanation.” In Philosophy of Science: The Delaware Seminar. 2 vols. Edited by Bernard Baumrin, 307–334. New York: Wiley, 1963a.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Here, Sellars develops a number of themes on the structure of scientific theories, emphasizing their use of deductive frameworks and “correspondence rules” that relate observation and theoretical vocabularies. He also develops the idea of a “model” in a scientific theory, or a set of metaphors and constructs that serve as heuristics in the development of the entire theory.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Scientific Realism or Irenic Instrumentalism: A Critique of Nagel and Feyerabend on Theoretical Explanation.” In Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Vol. 2. Edited by Robert S. Cohen and Marx W. Wartofsky 171–204. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1965b.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Here, Sellars compares important elements in the accounts of Nagel and Feyerabend, finding points of dispute and agreement with both. At stake is the relation of unobservable posits to the medium-sized objects of common sense, and whether common sense itself is merely another theory. This is an especially important paper for those interested in Churchland’s later treatment of these themes in his own brand of scientific realism. Reprinted in Sellars 1967a (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Phenomenalism.” In Intentionality, Minds and Perception. Edited by Hector-Neri Castañeda, 215–274. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1967b.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A dense and extensive essay, but a particularly important piece in the development of his account of direct realism in perception and against the instrumentalism and phenomenalism of the logical positivists. He argues here that perception is theory-laden and theory-guided in ways that were later taken up by people like Churchland and McDowell. Reprinted in Sellars 1991 (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid “Conceptual Change.” In Conceptual Change. Edited by Patrick Maynard and Glenn Pearce, 77–93. Dordrecht, The Netherlands, and Boston: Reidel, 1973b.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Here, Sellars addresses changes in theoretical concepts from science, no doubt driven to some degree by the sort of challenges to his form of scientific realism presented by Kuhn and Feyerabend. Theoretical terms whose meaning appears to shift—say, “length” before and after 1905—are cast as different concept-types falling under higher-order types. “Newtonian length” and “relativistic length” are thus both “length” concepts, whose affinities and dissimilarities can then be fruitfully compared.

    Find this resource:

  • Van Fraassen, Bas C. The Scientific Image. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Van Fraassen defends a version of constructivist empiricism in the natural sciences. He offers numerous criticisms of scientific realism in chapter 2, particularly against Sellarsian views on the observation/theory distinction in the sciences.

    Find this resource:

Ontology and Metaphysics

Despite drawing heavily from the pragmatist and early analytic traditions—both lines of thought that viewed metaphysics as suspect at best and nonsense at worst—Sellars wrote extensively on metaphysics, particularly in the area of ontology. Like Quine, much of his work defended nominalism by linguistic analysis that undercut the apparent need to posit real universals. Sellars had a sophisticated account of abstract entities, which he defended most notably in Sellars 1963b as well as Sellars 1960b. Elsewhere, he criticized the idea of bare particulars (Sellars 1952) and “sensa”—phenomenal objects of perception (Sellars 1982)—and defended a version of the A-series in the metaphysics of time. His most expansive work in metaphysics—one that draws on several of the themes here, as well as Sellars’s work listed under Collections—was his Carus Lectures (Sellars 1981b), where he offered an ontology of “pure processes” in the spirit of Whitehead. Seibt 1990 is recommended for those looking closely at the Carus Lectures. Wetzel 2009 offers a comprehensive recent attack on the types of paraphrase strategies Sellars sought to deploy in defense of his nominalism.

  • Seibt, Johanna. Properties as Processes: A Synoptic Study of Wilfrid Sellars’s Nominalism. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1990.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Seibt reviews Sellars’s work on nominalism, construing that as an approach involving semantics and epistemology, as well as ontology. The work has three major sections, devoted to properties, predicates, and naturalism. Praised by others (including Sellars, who wrote its foreword) for its depth and fidelity, it remains a deep and challenging work.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Particulars.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 13 (1952): 184–199.

    DOI: 10.2307/2103871Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Here Sellars argues against the notion of a “bare particular” and seeks to trace the root of this idea back to confusion about the relation of (non-Platonic) abstract entities to particulars in the process of change. This is a particularly dense and difficult paper, but it serves as an important leaven to his nominalist accounts elsewhere. Reprinted in Sellars 1991 (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Grammar and Existence: A Preface to Ontology.” Mind 69 (1960b): 499–533.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A paper that presents several strategies for dealing with apparent ontological commitments based on surface features of natural language grammar. A precursor to much of Sellars’s later work on nominalism, as Sellars 1961 and Sellars 1967b (cited under Scientific Realism) were precursors to his scientific realism. Reprinted in Sellars 1991 (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Time and the World Order.” In Scientific Study, Space, and Time. Edited by Herbert Feigl and Grover Maxwell, 527–616. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science 3. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962b.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sellars argues here that tense is an indispensible part of temporal discourse and that this reflects features of time itself. This amounts to an extensive defense of the A-series in contemporary debates.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Abstract Entities.” Review of Metaphysics 16 (1963b): 627–671.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A defense of the view that abstract entities are “rarified linguistic entities” and thus most apparent cases for Platonism can be analyzed away. Offers a metalinguistic analysis of most apparent references to abstract entities as “distributive singular terms” and a functional analysis of the remainder in keeping with Sellars 1974b (cited under Conceptual Content, Meaning, and Rules). Reprinted in Sellars 1967a (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Foundations for a Metaphysics of Pure Process: The Carus Lectures of Wilfrid Sellars.” Monist 64 (1981b): 3–90.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This is a comprehensive statement of themes in Sellars’s metaphysics from his late period. As the title suggests, this is a series of three lectures largely devoted to developing an ontology in which the fundamental elements are processes, rather than things. Sellars describes the lectures, in part, as refinements of his ideas and argument in Sellars 1997 (cited under Knowledge and Justification) and Sellars 1962a (cited under Scientific Realism). Comparatively accessible, though long for an article.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Sensa or Sensings: Reflections on the Ontology of Perception.” Philosophical Studies 41 (1982): 83–111.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00353525Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This paper offers an extended account of the metaphysics of perception, particularly debates about the reality of sense impressions and qualia. Sellars was an early defender of adverbial theories of perception and this paper does the most to make the ontological implications of such theories explicit.

    Find this resource:

  • Wetzel, Linda. Types and Tokens: On Abstract Objects. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Wetzel defends a strong realism about universal and abstract objects. She is critical of several of the strategies proposed by Sellars for the paraphrase of reference to abstract objects, as well as descendents of those views.

    Find this resource:

Ethics, Actions, and Intentions

Sellars’s work in practical philosophy was primarily focused on meta-ethics; he had very little to say about first-order ethical theory. For Sellars, moral judgments are a subset of intentions called “we-intentions,” which exist when an individual intends something qua member of a larger group. His theory allowed him to defend a species of motivational internalism (the idea that moral judgment is conceptually connected to action), while maintaining (contra the non-cognitivist) that moral judgments are conceptual and capable of involvement in practical inferences. In an explicitly Kantian vein, Sellars argues that intentions can be hypothetically or categorically reasonable and that our moral obligations are categorically reasonable we-intentions. Sellars works out his logic of practical inference in Sellars 1956 and most completely in Sellars 1980c. Castañeda 1976 and Aune 1978 critique and expand these Sellarsian positions.

  • Aune, B. “Sellars on Practical Inference.” In The Philosophy of Wilfrid Sellars: Queries and Extensions. Edited by Joseph C. Pitt, 19–24. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1978.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Aune argues (like Castañeda) that Sellars’s theory of practical reasoning is beset by certain difficulties (e.g., that “shall”-statements cannot appear within the scope of quantifiers or logical connectives) and that a simplified Sellarsian account (proposed by Aune) avoids these difficulties.

    Find this resource:

  • Castañeda, Hector-Neri. “Some Reflections on Wilfrid Sellars’s Theory of Intentions.” In Action, Knowledge, and Reality: Critical Studies in Honor of Wilfrid Sellars. Edited by Hector-Neri Castañeda, 31–35. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Castañeda criticizes Sellars’s fundamental principle of practical inference (“Shall P” implies “Shall Q” if “P” implies “Q”) because Sellars’s theory holds, as a consequence, that “shall”-statements cannot appear within the scope of logical connectives.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Imperatives, Intentions, and the Logic of ‘Ought.’” Methodos 8 (1956): 228–268.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sellars argues that several features of “ought” claims are best explained by construing such claims as expressing “we-intentions,” which is a way of intending qua member of a group.

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Reflection on Contrary to Duty Imperatives.” Noûs 1 (1967c): 303–344.

    DOI: 10.2307/2214622Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sellars attempts to develop a deontic logic that satisfies Chisholm’s demand that any such logic should be able to accommodate contrary to duty imperatives (i.e., cases where “you ought to do ‘a,’ but if you don’t do ‘a,’ you must, by all means, do ‘b’”).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “On Knowing the Better and Doing the Worse.” International Philosophical Quarterly 10 (1970): 5–19.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sellars defends a moderate version of motivation internalism and diagnoses weakness of the will as arising out of a conflict between the personal and the interpersonal point of view. Reprinted in Sellars 1974a (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “Actions and Events.” Noûs 7 (1973c): 179–202.

    DOI: 10.2307/2214491Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Here Sellars is concerned with how reasons (both theoretical and practical) can be causes. He analyzes the distinction between inference and mere association of ideas, and the parallel distinction between actions (which are done for reasons) and “mere events.” Reprinted in Sellars 1974a (cited under Collections).

    Find this resource:

  • Sellars, Wilfrid. “On Reasoning About Values.” American Philosophical Quarterly 17 (1980c): 81–101.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This is a sophisticated extension of the theory of prescriptive discourse developed in Sellars 1956. Sellars devotes careful attention to the structure of practical inference, when “oughts” are understood along Sellarsian lines.

    Find this resource:

back to top

Article

Up

Down