Comment on Sellars' view of philosophy

Andrew Chrucky

The passage most often cited in characterizing Sellars' view of philosophy is the following one:
The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hand together in the broadest possible sense of the term. Under "things in the broadest possible sense" I include such radically different items as not only "cabbages and kings", but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. To achieve success in philosophy would be . . . to "know one's way around" with respect to all these things, not in that unreflective way in which the centipede of the story knew its way around before it faced the question, "how do I walk?" but in that reflective way which means that no intellectual holds are barred. (PSIM, 37)
But this passage should be juxtaposed with the following passages from his earliest writings:

In ENWW, Sellars writes: "I shall argue that philosophy is properly conceived as the pure theory of empirically meaningful languages." p. 645.

In PPE, he writes: "Philosophy, in other words, tends to be conceived as the formal theory of languages." p. 181.

Also, in the opening passage from Sellars' "The Intentional Realism of Everett Hall," Sellars gives the following characterization of Everett Hall's philosophy. But I believe this is also an apt characterization of Sellars' own philosophy. In fact, if I were to give a terse characterization of Sellars' philosophy, these are the very words I would use (substituting throughout "Wilfrid Sellars" for "Everett Hall"):

Everett Hall's intentional realism is an example of systematic philosophy at its best. It is no myopic sequence of small scale analyses strung together like beads on a string. Yet its foundation was laid over the years by painstaiking and scrupulous probings into the many problems and puzzles with which a systematic philosophy must deal. Again, though it is rooted in a sympathetic and perceptive interpretation of the philosophical classics, it is as contemporary as the latest issue of Mind. Few philosophers have taken as seriously the obligation to keep in touch with the best work of their contemporaries. He recognized that it is only by submitting ideas to the constant challenge of other lines of thought that philosophers can gain assurance that their speculations are not sheltered idiosyncracies. Everett Hall's philosophy is thoroughly empiricist in temper, but completely lacking in the procrustean urge which has marred so many recent empiricists. Above all, it is in a most important sense self-conscious or self-referential in that it includes as an essential component a theory of the philosophical enterprise, a theory which faces up to the ultimate challenge which any systematic philosophy must face: What is the status of your philosophical claims, and what are the criteria by which you distinguiah them as true from the false and unacceptable claims made by rival philosophies? Thus, by no means the least important of his achievements is the way he found between the horns of Hume's dilemma, which in modern dress, reads as follows:

Philosophical statements are either analytic (in which case they tell us nothing about the world) or synthetic (in which case they fall within the scope of empirical science).

Inspired by the dilemma, Hume was willing to throw all distinctively philosophical statements into the flames. (One wonders whether he would have done so with his own.) The Wittgenstein of the Tractatus denied that there are any distinctively philosophical statements. What purport to be such he found to be therapeutic devices which can be cast aside, perhaps into the flames, once they have served their purpose. Hall offers instead a conception of philosophy as "neither a priori nor empirical."{1} By "empirical" he has in mind, I take it, the inductive methods of the empirical and theoretical sciences. He argues for "a third kind of knowledge" which he calls "categorial" (Hall, p. 6). The test of claims falling within this "third enterprise" is to be found "in the forms of everyday thought about everyday matters in so far as these reveal commitment in some tacit way to a view or perhaps several views about how the world is made up, about its basic "dimensions" (Hall, p. 6). "We find," he continues, "these forms of everyday thought chiefly in the grammatical structures (in a broad sense) of daily speech, in what may be called the resources of ordinary language, although they are also present in the ways in which we personally experience things. . . . The latter," he adds, "reflect, to a great extent, the formative influence of our mother tongue." (Hall, p.6) a theme to which I will return.

This characterization of the philosophical enterprise illustrates once again the catholicity (i.e., the universal sweep) of Everett Hall's philosophy, for, in my opinion, this conception of philosophy is the truth to which both the descriptive phenomenology of Husserl and the conceptual analysis of the developing phase of Oxford philosophy are halting approximations.

The best description of Sellars' view of philosophy is given by Jeff Sicha in Pure Pragmatics and Possible Worlds: The Early Essays of Wilfrid Sellars, ed. and intro. by Jeffrey F. Sicha (Reseda, California: Ridgeview Publishing Company, 1980).

However, in evaluating Sellars' metaphilosophy, alternative theories of metaphilosophy should be taken into account, among these is:

Curt Ducasse, Philosophy as a Science (New York: Oskar Piest, 1941].


{1} Everett Hall, Our Knowledge of Fact and Value, Chapel Hill, 1961, p. 5. References made solely by page number will be to this work. [Back]