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Sellars and the "myth of the Given"

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William P. Alston

Syracuse University

To be presented at the Eastern Division APA Meeting to be held at the Washington Hilton & Towers (Washington, DC) on Dec. 27 - 30, 1998: Book discussion: Wilfrid Sellars's Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (International Ballroom West, Wed., Dec. 30, 1:30 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.) -- Published with the permission of Prof. Alston.

Since the body of the paper will be distinctly critical, I would like to begin by paying tribute to Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (EPM) as one of the seminal works of twentieth century philosophy. I still remember the growing excitement with which I read it when it first came out in Volume I of the Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science (1956), in the Detroit Airport, of all places. (My colleague, Tamar Gendler, remarked to me that I was probably the only person there reading Wilfrid Sellars, the others, no doubt, reading best sellers.) Over the ensuing decades the excitement, though never wholly extinguished, has been adulterated by numerous second thoughts, some of which will be expounded here.

Having already taken issue with Sellars' general argument against immediate knowledge in section VIII of EPM and elsewhere, in my essay "What's Wrong with Immediate Knowledge?"1, I will concentrate here on his complaints about "the given". But I must admit at the outset that it is not easy to pin down the target to which Sellars applies that title. At the beginning of EPM Sellars makes it explicit that though "I begin my argument with an attack on sense-datum theories, it is only as a first step in a critique of the entire framework of givenness". (128)2 But just what is this "framework of givenness" of which sense-datum theory is only one form? A bit later he says ". . . the point of the epistemological category of the given is, presumably, to explicate the idea that empirical knowledge rests on a 'foundation' of non-inferential knowledge of matter of fact". (128) That makes it sound as if any foundationalist epistemology is a form of the "myth of the given". And I am far from sure that this is not the way Sellars is thinking of it. Nevertheless, for present purposes I will construe the commitment to the given as more restricted than that, identifying it with one particular way of thinking of "non-inferential knowledge of matter of fact". This way involves taking non-inferential knowledge to be based on (or to be) an immediate awareness of something -- that something's being given to one's awareness; in contrast to other conceivable bases of immediate knowledge, e.g., the idea that some beliefs are "self-warranted". If one thinks that one's knowledge of one's own conscious states rests on a direct awareness of those states, that is to embrace, for this subject matter, the "myth" of the given.3 Moreover I will confine attention to the idea that certain things are given to, particularly sensory experience, in contrast to, e.g., rational intuition.

It is fortunate, for me, that Sellars does not confine his attack on the given to attacking sense-datum theory. If he had, this paper would be very short for I hold no brief for sense-data, and, indeed, I find most of Sellars' criticisms thereof to be well taken. I heartily agree that it is important to distinguish direct awareness of particulars from immediate knowledge of facts, though I doubt that many sense datum theorists were guilty of conflating them. Moreover, I am not at all disposed to defend the idea that there is an immediate, non-conceptual awareness of facts; I agree that there is no non-conceptual knowledge that so-and-so.4 Nor do I have any special attachment to thinking of direct awareness of particulars as knowledge by acquaintance, though I have no real objection to the latter term, properly understood.

But then where do I dissent from Sellars' attack on the given? It comes over the question of whether we have a direct (nonconceptual) awareness of particulars, one that constitutes a kind of cognition of a nonconceptual, nonpropositional sort. Sellars, as I read him, is concerned to deny this. though he never says so in so many words (at least not in EPM). Indeed, it is not clear to me whether Sellars wishes to deny all nonconceptual awareness of particulars. He does make it crystal clear that he rejects any nonconceptual awareness of sorts, and, depending on what counts as an "awareness of sorts", I am not disposed to disagree with him on that. But as to whether he rejects all nonconceptual awareness of particulars, I am forced to rely on various not wholly unambiguous pointers. He does hold that perceptual experience involves "propositional claims", which would make it conceptualized and from which it presumably follows that perception does not involve a nonconceptual awareness of particulars. And whatever his deepest thoughts on this point, his attack on "the given" is commonly taken to be an attempt to dispose of any givenness of anything. But whether or not that was his intent, it is reasonably clear that he reserves the term 'cognition' for mental states or activities that are conceptually, indeed propositionally structured. And it is that with which I take issue. To be sure, this could degenerate into an argument over how to use the word 'cognition'. Even if it should, that is no trivial dispute. In any event, I will seek to put more flesh on the dispute by adding the claim that our direct awareness of X's, and I will be thinking primarily of perception here, provides a basis (justification, warrant . . .) for beliefs about those X's. And this is a direct confrontation with Sellars' epistemological interest in the "myth of the given". And so, I think it safe to assume that, understanding immediate cognition of particulars in this way, there will be a clear disagreement between Sellars and myself.


It will sharpen the dispute if I make explicit the view of perception in the context of which I am committed to the givenness of perceived objects. It is a form of what has been called the "Theory of Appearing". I will not have time to argue for the position. I only put it forward as the form of "givenness" that I am concerned to defend against Sellars' polemic.

On this view the heart of sense perception of external objects consists of facts of "appearing", facts that some object or other looks, feels, sounds, smells, or tastes in a certain way



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