Wilfrid Sellars  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Wilfrid Stalker Sellars (May 20, 1912 - July 2, 1989) was an American philosopher. His father was the noted Canadian-American philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, a leading American philosophical naturalist in the first half of the twentieth-century. Wilfrid was educated at Michigan, the University of Buffalo, and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, obtaining his highest earned degree, an MA, in 1940. During WWII, he served in military intelligence. He then taught at the University of Iowa, the University of Minnesota, Yale University, and from 1963 until his death, at the University of Pittsburgh.

Sellars is best known as a critic of foundationalist epistemology, but 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. He 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.

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. 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 Hector-Neri Castaneda, Bruce Aune, Jay Rosenberg, Johanna Seibt, Matthew Burstein, Andrew Chrucky, Jeffrey Sicha, Pedro Amaral, Thomas Vinci, Willem de Vries, Timm Triplett, and Michael Williams.


Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind

Sellars' most famous work is the lengthy and difficult paper, "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind", a sustained discussion of what he called "The Myth of the Given," which consists of the claim, central to both phenomenology and sense-data theories of knowledge, that we can know things about our perceptual experiences independently of and in some important sense prior to the conceptual apparatus which we use to perceive objects. Sellars targets several theories at once, especially C.I. Lewis' Kantian pragmatism and Rudolf Carnap's positivism. Sellars then goes on to construct "The Myth of Jones," a philosophical parable to explain how thoughts, intelligent action, and even subjective inner experience can be attributed to people within a strict behaviorist worldview. Sellars calls his fictional tribe "Ryleans," named after Gilbert Ryle, whose The Concept of Mind he specifically wanted to address. Sellars' idea of "myth," heavily influenced by Ernst Cassirer, is by no means a necessarily negative one; a myth is something that can be useful or otherwise, rather than true or false. One of Sellars' most central goals, which his later work described as Kantian, was reconciling the conceptual behavior of the "space of reasons" with the concept of a subjective sense experience.

Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man

In his Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man, Sellars distinguishes between the "manifest image" and the "scientific image" of the world. The manifest image describes the way the world stands according to the language we ordinarily use in interacting with it (which includes, for example, intentions, thoughts, and appearances). Sellars allows that the manifest image may be refined through 'correlational induction' but not the postulation of imperceptible entities. The scientific image describes the world in terms of the theoretical physical sciences, including notions such as causality and theories about particles and forces. While the two images sometimes complement one another (e.g., the manifest image includes practical or moral claims, whereas the scientific image does not), they sometimes conflict, as when physics tells us that apparently solid objects are mostly made of empty space. Sellars attempts to outline a synoptic vision, wherein the scientific image takes ultimate precedence in cases of irreconciliable conflict, at least with respect to empirical descriptions and explanations.


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, 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.

(2) corresponds in part to the distinction Sellars makes between the manifest image and the scientific image.

The Incompatible Food Triad puzzle has been attributed to Sellars.


  • 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, MA; 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.]

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