Sellars, Wilfrid
Wilfrid Sellars was born in 1912. He held positions at the University of Iowa, the University of Minnesota, Yale University, and finally, from 1963 until his death in 1989, at the University of Pittsburgh. Sellars is best known as a critic of foundationalist epistemology. He was one of the first functionalists and one of the first to hold that intentional states are theoretical entities postulated for the sake of a certain kind of explanation and prediction of behavior.

Wilfrid Sellars was born in 1912. His father was the well-known naturalist philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, who taught at the University of Michigan. Wilfrid Sellars received a BA from the University of Michigan in 1933 and an MA from the University of Buffalo in 1934. He went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and received a BA there in 1936 and an MA in 1940. In 1938 he was appointed Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa. During the war years he saw active duty as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve. In 1946 he joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota. He remained on the Minnesota faculty until 1959, when he joined the faculty of Yale. In 1963 he moved to the University of Pittsburgh, where he remained until his death in 1989.
Sellars is best known as a critic of foundationalist epistemology. He also made wide ranging contributions to metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language and the study of the history of philosophy. This article will deal exclusively with those of his ideas that bear directly on current issues in the philosophy of mind.
Many of the most important basic ideas in contemporary philosophy of mind are recognizable in Sellars's writings from the 50's and 60's. It is probable that these ideas came onto the scene through Sellars's influence, although that influence is seldom acknowledged. His writings are notoriously difficult to follow, and so many authors may not have felt entirely sure what they could attribute to him.
I. The Myth of the Given
Foundationalism in epistemology might be defined as the thesis that all of our knowledge rests on a foundation of indubitable truths about sensory experience. Such a philosophy can be found in the works of C. D. Broad and C. I. Lewis and was widely accepted throughout the first half of the 20th century. Sellars's best known piece of writing, "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" (EPM), first published in 1956, is in part a critique of this doctrine. There Sellars refers to this doctrine as the myth of given.
Sellars's critique can be understood as resting on a distinction between the materials of sense and the inputs to the processes of reason. The inputs to the processes of reason are conceptualizations. We may react to sensory experiences with such conceptualizations, but the sensory experiences and the conceptualizations are not the same thing. Inasmuch as there is always the possibility that our conceptualizations are mistaken in some manner, there can be no foundation of indubitable truths about sensory experience such as the foundationalist imagines.
Sellars's critique of the myth of the given is significant for contemporary issues in the philosophy of mind for at least two reasons. First, it is bound up with the realization that there are really two very different mind-body problems. One problem is what Sellars termed the "sensorium-body" problem, which is to make it understandable how sensory qualities can be in brains. The other is what Sellars called the "mind-body" problem proper, which is to make it understandable how thoughts can be in brains.
Second, the critique of the myth of the given is bound up with Sellars's conceptual holism. The reason why the distinction between conceptualizations and the sensory experiences they respond to undermines the notion that our knowledge rests on firm foundations is that the conceptualizations with which the mind responds to sensory experience are sensitive not only to the intrinsic nature of that experience but also to the larger system of concepts to which they belong.
II. Functionalism
Functionalism may be defined as the doctrine that to say that a word has a certain meaning or that a thought has a certain content is to say that the word or thought has a certain functional role in a system of some kind. Functionalism has been an attractive doctrine in recent decades because it seems to explain how physical entities of very different physical types might all possess meanings. For instance, a human being and a Martian, or a human being and a robot, could both think that steel is an alloy of iron and carbon. Sellars was one of the first philosophers to advocate a kind of functionalism. (The widely used analogy between words and chess pieces derives from Sellars's "Some Reflections on Language Games", although the debt is seldom acknowledged and perhaps not always recognized.)
Sellars's functionalism was as much a response to problems in metaphysics as it was to problems in the philosophy of mind. For Sellars, one of the challenges was to explain what it could mean to say such things as, "'Dreieckig' (in German) stands for triangularity" without positing the existence of such things as triangularity. His solution was to interpret such sentences, which apparently refer to abstract objects, as really making claims about functional roles. Thus, "'Dreieckig' stands for triangularity" tells us, in effect, that "Dreieckig" in German plays the same functional role as "triangular" plays in English..
Sellars's theory of functions is presented primarily as a theory of spoken language. The functions of an expression are to be defined in terms of three kinds of pattern-governed behavior. These are (i) Language Entry Transitions, which may be thought of as patterns of verbal response to external events, (ii) Intralinguistic Moves, which are basically inferences, and (iii) Language Departure Transitions, which are patterns of nonverbal response to verbal imperatives.
III. The Myth of Jones
In a famous section of "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind", Sellars concocted a story, or myth, of his own that he thought would serve as a useful guide to our thinking about the mind. Sellars imagines an early genius named Jones who invents the thought theory, that is, the theory that people are moved to act as they do by certain entities, namely, thoughts. Jones notices that what people do depends on what they say and that what they say depends on what is going on around them. On this basis he supposes that people's actions can be explained, even when they say nothing out loud, by citing inner events that are analogous to acts of speech.
To conceive of thoughts as theoretical entities postulated for the sake of a certain kind of explanation was a radical departure from the conception of thoughts that prevailed at the time Sellars was writing (the middle 50's). At the time, and still in certain circles, thoughts were conceived as essentially introspectible. For Sellars, thoughts are not essentially introspectible; however, he acknowledges that the theoretical vocabulary of thoughts may acquire what he calls a reporting role. Thus, a person may learn to report that he or she has a certain thought only when he or she does indeed have that thought.
Sellars's myth of Jones is acknowledged to be one of the primary sources of the contemporary notion that beliefs and desires should be conceived as theoretical entities, that is, that a thing is a thinking thing just insofar as it is a model of a thought-theory. However, it should be noted that in two important respects Sellars differs from many contemporary philosophers in his conception of the thought theory. First, it is not clear that Sellars would have agreed that the pertinent theory may be represented as a body of folk psychological laws. This is unclear despite his manner of explaining functions in terms of patterns, or rules.
Second, although Sellars conceived of overt speech as among the behaviors to be explained in terms of thought, he explicitly denied that overt speech is typically an action resulting from motives. On the contrary, our model for thought was supposed to be precisely a kind of spontaneous, thoughtless speech that he sometimes called thinking out loud. Overt speech is normally the product of inner speech only in the sense that overt speech may be part of a train of thought most of which consists of inner speech. Sellars rejected the idea, commonly accepted now, that overt speech is meaningful only insofar as it stands in a relation of expression to an independently constituted thought.
IV. Consciousness and the Metaphysics of Pure Process
One of Sellars's best known essays is "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man". It is in that essay that Sellars draws his well-known distinction between the scientific image of man and the manifest image of man. (The manifest image is not the image of common sense, as is sometimes supposed; it is better explained in terms of the framework of 17th and 18th century philosophy.) In attempting to reconcile these two images, he tells us, we confront the problem of understanding what a homogeneous pink ice cube could be. We can identify the ice cube with a collection of imperceptible particles and then locate the pinkness of the ice cube in its appearance, but then it remains to explain what kind of thing in the scientific image this appearance is supposed to be. This was Sellars's way of introducing what is now called the hard problem of consciousness.
In that essay Sellars offered only a few cryptic remarks toward a solution. There he pointed to the possibility that "when it comes to an adequate understanding of the relation of sensory consciousness to neurological process [italics in the original], we must penetrate to the non-particulate foundation of the particulate image, and recognize that in this non-particulate image the qualities of sense are a dimension of natural process which occurs only in connection with those complex physical processes which, when 'cut up' into particles in terms of those features which are the least common denominators of physical process--present in inorganic as well as organic processes alike--become the complex system of particles which, in the current scientific image, is the central nervous system" (1963, p. 37).
In one of Sellars's last major writings, "Foundations for a Metaphysics of Pure Process", he returned to this idea and attempted to place it into the context of a more general conception of an ontology composed of events, such as, memorably, that C#-ing in the corner.
Christopher Gauker