Sellars and the Myth of the Given

Wilfrid Sellars (1912-89) is famous in epistemology for his criticism of what he calls the ‘Myth of the Given’: a foundationalist form of empiricism but he does not reject empiricism entirely.In Empiricism and the philosophy of mind and especially ‘Does empirical knowledge have a foundation’ Sellars defends a form of empiricism but one which avoids the Myth of the Given. This work has been widely cited by more recent philosophers such as Rorty, McDowell and Brandom. Sellars describes (one form of) the Myth of the Given in the following way:

One of the forms taken by the Myth of the Given is the idea that there is, indeed must be, a structure of particular matter of fact such that (a) each fact can not only be noninferentially known to be the case, but presupposes no other knowledge either of particular matter of fact, or of general truths; and (b) such that the noninferential knowledge of facts belonging to this structure constitutes the ultimate court of appeals for all factual claims -- particular and general -- about the world. It is important to note that I characterized the knowledge of fact belonging to this stratum as not only noninferential, but as presupposing no knowledge of other matter of fact, whether particular or general. It might be thought that this is a redundancy, that knowledge (not belief or conviction, but knowledge) which logically presupposes knowledge of other facts must be inferential. This, however, as I hope to show, is itself an episode in the Myth. [Sellars 1997: 68-9]

He goes on to accept that experience can provide non-inferential knowledge and that such experience can constitute the ultimate court of appeals for factual claims. But he denies the claim that they presuppose no other knowledge of particular matters of fact. The reason for denying this third claim is that Sellars takes there to be a dual dependence between the kind of knowledge expressed in perceptual reports and an overall world-view. He suggests that perceptual knowledge has to jump two hurdles. The first concerns the reliability of the perceptual report.

The second hurdle is, however, the decisive one. For we have seen that to be the expression of knowledge, a report must not only have authority, this authority must in some sense be recognized by the person whose report it is. And this is a steep hurdle indeed. For if the authority of the report “This is green” lies in the fact that the existence of green items appropriately related to the perceiver can be inferred from the occurrence of such reports, it follows that only a person who is able to draw this inference, and therefore who has not only the concept green, but also the concept of uttering “This is green” -- indeed, the concept of certain conditions of perception, those which would correctly be called ‘standard conditions’ -- could be in a position to token “This is green” in recognition of its authority. In other words, for a Konstatierung “This is green” to “express observational knowledge,” not only must it be a symptom or sign of the presence of a green object in standard conditions, but the perceiver must know that tokens of “This is green” are symptoms of the presence of green objects in conditions which are standard for visual perception. [Sellars 1997: 74-5]

Whether or not Sellars is successful in articulating this requirement (contrast Brandom in [Sellars 1997: 157-9] and [McDowell 1998d]) it imposes a dependence of perceptually-based knowledge on an overall world view whilst Sellars also accepts a dependence in the other direction: empiricism without foundationalism.

  • Sellars, W. (1956) Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, section 'Does empirical knowledge have a foundation' extract on WebCT.

The extract is also here. The whole short book (which can be read in an evening) is here. An extract from Robert Brandom's fascinating study guide (in the Harvard book version of EPM, well worth buying) is here.

Further reading.

    • The short entry on this in the Stanford Encyclopedia.

  • McDowell, J. (2009) 'Why is Sellars’s essay called “Empiricism and the philosophy of mind”?' in his Having the World in View, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press but also here.

  • McDowell, J. (1994) Mind and World, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press lecture 1 pp3-23

Reflections on the session.

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