|Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man
by Wilfrid Sellars
The Philosophical Quest
“The aim of philosophy is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”
Note the holistic aspect of this formulation. This is very far removed from a more traditional conception, for example, “to grasp the underlying nature of reality”. Interestingly, Pierre Duhem, the physicist whose holistic views of confirmation Quine embraced, had this latter conception of philosophy. He said that the aim of philosophy was to explain, not merely describe, and he explicitly said that
“to explain is to strip reality of the appearances covering it like a veil, in order to see the bare reality itself.”
This clearly is neither Sellars’ nor Quine’s conception of philosophy, and you can see why. They understand philosophy to be governed by the same rules as science. There is no method available to do the reality stripping Duhem attributes to philosophical aims. They only have the methods of science, and therefore they characterize their interests accordingly.
For Sellars, then, both scientists and philosophers seek a coherent understanding of reality, but philosophers seek a more general and abstract understanding than any particular branch of science, and they are particularly interested in constructing a worldview that makes sense of all the different kinds of entities that humans tend to acknowledge:
“cabbages and kings, numbers, duties, possibilities, finger snaps, aesthetic experience, and death.”
Knowing How vs. Knowing That
You can know how to do something without really understanding what you are doing. For example, you may know how to ride a bicycle without really understanding why it stays upright (principles of angular momentum) or what you actually do to keep from falling when you turn. (you lean slightly in the opposite direction.) This way of putting it contains the prejudice that real understanding is not about knowing how, which is merely practical, but knowing that, which is intellectual and propositional.
This intellectualist intuition has informed philosophy for millennia, but it is something that tends to be rejected within the pragmatic and naturalist traditions. Again, you are prepared to see why this is the case. Carnap, Quine, and even Kant to some degree all acknowledge in their own ways that pragmatic criteria- i.e., what you are trying to do with your knowledge- ultimately inform what you are going to believe, and also that this is proper, as there is no real alternative.
So, philosophy is ultimately about knowing how. It is not an attempt to achieve an impossibly objective perspective on our entire epistemic system, but rather to achieve a particular kind of competence within it, specifically competence in repairing and improving the system itself. This is precisely Quine’s busy sailor.
According to Sellars, philosophy has no special subject matter.
“What is characteristic of philosophy is not a special subject-matter, but the aim of knowing ones way around with respect to the subject matters of all the special disciplines.”
Sellars addresses the Anglo-American conception of philosophical inquiry as analysis, and finds that it has some unfortunate connotations.
First, the term ‘analysis’ as an activity (contrasted with ‘synthesis’) suggests a narrow, myopic conception of philosophy as the perennial chopping of things up into smaller and smaller pieces, learning more and more about less and less until we finally know everything about nothing.
Second, ‘analysis’ as a mode of insight, suggest that philosophers aim their own unique light on the special disciplines, and clarify them in a way that its own practitioners can not.
Third, ‘analysis’ suggests the presentation of some complete whole that is grasped in its unity and fullness, but not in its specifics. But philosophers are never presented with such a whole to analyze. Rather, it is the whole that we are trying to grasp from a “complex many dimensional picture.”
The Manifest Image and the Scientific Image
The main thesis of the paper is this: We are presented with two distinct pictures of “man in the world”, both very complex, and both purporting to be complete. These are the manifest image and the scientific image.
Very roughly speaking, the manifest image of the world is the world as it is given to us, or manifested in perception. It is not the purely subjective world of “sense data” but the public world of physical objects and all their sensible qualities. The scientific image of the world, on the other hand, is the world as it is described by science. The central point is that these images appear to conflict in essential ways, many of which will be familiar.
The Manifest Image
For Sellars, both the MI and the SI are cognitively advanced in that they provide an image of “man in the world”. In other words, they both assume self awareness, and the human ability to pose questions concerning our own thinking.
Sellars characterizes the MI as the “framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as ‘man in the world’.” But he does not intend for this to be understood as an inherently primitive framework. It has been refined and modified over time.
There are two ways in which the MI has been refined: Empirical and Categorical.
Empirical refinements to MI
It is within the MI that our understanding of mathematics, causation and the rules of statistical inference were developed and refined. There is nothing about the MI that is inherently pre-scientific in this sense.
Einstein said that “the whole of science is nothing more than the refinements of common sense.”
We can think of the MI as the most refined and highly articulated version of “man in the world” that still comports with our common sense intuitions. Sellars would disagree with Einstein in the following sense, however: The scientific postulation of theoretical entities is not a refinement of common sense. It is this move, that ultimately distinguishes the MI from the SI.
The Perennial Philosophy
For Sellars, the perennial philosophy is committed to the reality of the manifest image. Whatever the SI brings to bear on our understanding of the world must, on the PP, be incorporated as a refinement of the MI, not an abandonment of it.
This is why Sellars likens the PP to looking through a stereoscope with one eye, the MI eye dominating.
Categorical Refinements to the MI
The primary objects of the MI are persons. In the original MI, everything is a person. That is to say that, the whole of nature is subsumed under the category person.
Sellars’ way of putting this point is important. It’s not that primitive man would have seen what we now call a tree as also a person. Rather a tree was a person in the way that a triangle is a plane figure. To change this view is not a change in belief, but a more fundamental change in category.
(Sellars’ also warns us against any necessarily Cartesian, or dualistic (mind/body) conception of a person. Neither primitive man, nor ancient philosophy subscribed to a dualistic framework. Dualism is just one of the stages in the historical refinement of the MI).
What does it mean to say that in the original, unrefined MI everything was a person?
Basically, it means that everything in the world is understood as doing or acting, not merely occurring or happening.
Some crucial distinctions:
Actions that are expressions of character vs. those that are out of character.
Actions that are deliberate vs. those that are habitual.
It is important to understand that the actions of persons may be any of these kinds, and it is a category mistake to characterize the actions of non persons in any of these ways.
Moreover, none of these categories of action are equivalent. Both ones deliberate and ones habitual actions may be either in or out of character.
The gradual depersonalization of nature can be understood as seeing the wind as moving from full-fledged personhood, to a kind of quasi-person that acts on habit alone, until finally its movement is understood as caused only and in no sense directed from within.
Sellars does not identify specific stages of depersonalization, but something like the following is a very crude version of what he is imagining
Stage 1: Total Personification of Nature
The wind desires to punish those who fail to appreciate its power, so it huffs and puffs and blows their straw houses down.
Stage 2: Habitual, non deliberative action:
The wind has a regrettable habit of blowing down poorly built straw houses.
Stage 3: Total Depersonalization:
Straw houses typically won’t withstand winds in excess of 80 knots.
Naturalization and Depersonalization
It is tempting to characterize the gradual depersonalization of nature as “naturalization” but you can easily see why this would be confusing. There is actually nothing at all non naturalistic about the primitive personalized MI. Nature is simply understood to have these personal characteristics.
Classical Philosophy and the Manifest Image
Sellars thinks that the vast majority of classical philosophy, the “perennial philosophy,” is best interpreted as an effort to delineate the MI, and Sellars endorses a patently relativistic notion of truth and falsity for this purpose. This image, he says
“has a being which transcends the individual speaker. There is truth and error with respect to it, even though the image itself might have to be rejected, in the last analysis, as false.”
From the point of view of traditional philosophy this is a very disturbing statement, because Sellars here employs the concept of truth and falsity in a relativistic and a non relativistic sense.
The thing to notice is that the aim of philosophy still seems to be in some important sense transcendental- it is what Sellars calls the “synoptic view.”
The Limits of the MI (p.13)
For Sellars, the perennial philosophy operates on two fundamental assumptions.
(1) Concepts may not be construed or explained in terms on things that are not conceptual in character. This means that the human capacity to think must ultimately be understood in terms of the grasp of concepts, and that concepts themselves are non reducible to things that aren’t conceptual in nature.
(2) The process of conceptual thinking “echoes the intelligible structure of the world”.
This basically means that from within the MI, an account of human conceptual abilities purely in terms of biology, chemistry, or physics, could never be accepted as correct. The problem, as Sellars points out, is that it some such naturalistic account must be correct, for “somehow the world is the cause of an individual’s image of the world.”
For Sellars, the MI runs up against the limits of its framework when it attempts to grasp the social character of conceptual thinking. It is plain, even from within the MI, that conceptual thinking can not occur outside commonly accepted standards of correctness. Language is, after all, essentially a means of communication.
But communication is not a magical process, it is the result of some form of causal interaction between individuals. This is something that can be acknowledged from within the MI, but not explained. Sellars says:
…any attempt to explain this mediation within the framework of the manifest image was bound to fail, for the manifest image contains the resources for this attempt only in the sense that it provides the foundation on which the scientific theory can build an explanatory framework; and while conceptual structures of this framework are built on the manifest image, they are not definable within it.
(An analogy here might help. Think of the MI as the visual perspective of earth bound people. Such people have the materials and know-how to build a rocket that will give people a new perspective. But that perspective can not itself be had from earth. Of course, the problem with this analogy is that we didn’t get a new perspective when we went to space. We had already fully and correctly imagined it.)
Reasons and Causes
Within the MI we recognize two kinds of causes, those which move thoughts (aka: reasons) and those which move bodies. This duality of causation underwrites the categorical distinction between mind and body and ultimately distinction between is and ought.
The End of the Manifest Image
For Sellars, man essentially conceives of himself in terms of the manifest image. In other words, we understand ourselves and our place in the world in terms of the concepts supplied by the MI. Whether you think of man as essentially rational, or essentially moral, or essentially free, or essentially capable of imagining the future and the past, the critical point is that all of these conceptions are rooted in the MI.
Sellars question in this essay, is “in what sense, and to what extent, does the manifest image of man-in the world survive the attempt to unite this image with…man as conceived in terms of the postulated objects of scientific theory.
The Scientific Image
Be sure to retain these two points:
(1) traditional philosophy attempts to preserve the manifest image as real. It attempts to “understand the achievements of theoretical science in terms of the framework of the manifest image.”
(2) the distinction between the MI and the SI is not the distinction between unscientific and scientific. The MI is highly scientific in every aspect but one, and that is its relation to the theoretical posits of science.
According to the MI, the imperceptible theoretical posits of science are valuable only insofar as they help us to predict correlations between perceptible objects.
According to the SI, the theoretical posits of science actually explain these correlations.
Note: The contrast between prediction and explanation is far from clear or standard. This debate actually gets carried out by reference to different theories of explanation, some of which see explanation as a purely predictive relationship (which services the aims of MI realists) and others which see explanation as inherently presupposing the reality of the explanatory posits (which services the intuitions of SI realists). For more on this see Theories of Explanation in IEP.
Nature of the SI
First, there is no one, unified scientific image. There are currently different images supplied by different sciences. What brings them together is the postulation of theoretical entities. However, theoretical unification, i.e., the demonstration that, say, the principles of biology are special cases of the principles of chemistry, and that the principles of psychology are special cases of principles of neurophysiology is an accepted aim.
Second, the SI is built on the MI, in the sense that it is the perceptible world that supplies the raw content, and the character of which the SI is designed to explain. However Sellars warns us from arguing that because the MI is methodologically prior to the SI, that it is substantively prior. The SI purports to be a complete picture.
This essay was written at a time when behaviorism was taken seriously. There are two forms of behaviorism, both of which are highly problematic.
Psychological behaviorism prescribes a purely correlational (stimulus-response) methodology for doing psychological research. It was a productive paradigm and it served as a good prophylactic on ultimately unfalsifiable and unquantifiable methods.
Logical behaviorism supported the above methodology by defining psychological states as behavioral states, i.e., propensities to behave in certain ways. This shows extreme allegiance to the MI in the sense that it actually forbids postulating entities that would explain behavior (i.e., reference to internal mental states was regarded as literally nonsensical.) which, of course, is required by neuroscience.
The Clash of the Images
Sellars detects three ways of managing the conflict
1. Manifest objects are identical with systems of imperceptible objects.
2. Manifest objects are what really exist; systems of imperceptible objects are just symbolic ways of expressing them.
3. Manifest objects are appearances to human minds of a reality which is constituted by systems of imperceptible objects.
Sellars explores the 1st and 3rd options in this article. (The 2nd option is associated with an instrumentalistic and/or conventionalist point of view.)
Sellars regards option 1 as plausible for properties that are legitimately attributed to objects in both the MI and the SI. For example, we can say that a rock just is a collection of smaller particles, because big particles and small particles have the same basic spatio- temporal properties (though quantum mechanics tells us this is actually not so.)
The problem with option 1 is just that other perceptible properties, like color, aren’t legitimately attributed to imperceptible objects. (This, of course, is just Locke redux.)
This leads us to option 3, viz., that the manifest objects are appearances to the human mind of imperceptible objects.
The standard objection to option 3 is a kind of common sense realism, best framed by G.E. Moore. E.g.
Chairs, tables, etc. as we ordinarily think them to be, can’t be appearances of systems of particles lacking perceptible qualities because we know that there are chairs, tables, etc., and it is a framework feature of chairs, tables, etc., that they have perceptible qualities.
Sellars think the right response to this is that Moore is operating within the framework of the MI, and within the framework what he says is true. But the philosophical issue here is about the framework itself, and framed that way he thinks Moore’s objection disappears.
The real problem with 3 is that it appears to be dualistic. It invites us to think of the mind as a magical place where the magical process of appearing happens. Of course, we aren’t required to be dualists. It is not obviously incoherent to say that the mind is the brain, and that both conceptual thinking and sensation are themselves properly conceived of as brain processes, and that these processes are capable of appearing to the brain itself.
However, the dualist is ultimately preoccupied by the worry that this just makes no sense. As Sellars puts it:
If we now say that all there really is to sensation is a complex interaction of cerebral particles, then we have taken them out of our world picture altogether. We have made it unintelligible how things could even appear to be colored.
As Sellars notes, it’s just this sort of consideration which often leads even people who are tempted to some kind of reduction of the mental to the physical back to the primacy of the MI, and to ultimately embrace some version of (2) above that
(2) Manifest objects are what really exist; systems of imperceptible objects are just symbolic ways of expressing them.
The Primacy of the Scientific Image
It’s important to see that Sellars regards it as enormously problematic to demonstrate the primacy of the scientific image. There are two basic problems:
(1) Showing that mental entities and events are best understood in terms of the postulated entities of science.
(2) Showing that persons are best understood in terms of the postulated entities of science.
Sellars’ general outline for the reduction of the mental to the physical.
There are two questions here. (1) Can conceptual thinking be fully understood in terms of brain processes? (2) Can sensations be fully understood in terms of brain processes?
Sellars thinks that we can already answer (1) affirmatively. In his view thoughts really have no qualitative component at all. In other words, when we focus our attention on some thought we have, say,
A yak’s is a long-haired, humped, domestic bovine.
We will probably have a corresponding image of a yak, but the thought itself has no qualitative characteristics, except insofar as it seems analogous to speech.
Hence, for Sellars there are no significant conceptual hurdles to identifying the process of thinking with patterns of neurological activity.
(2), the reduction of sensations and feelings to patterns of neurological activity is much more difficult. The argument for doing so is straightforward:
Just as we represent the character of conceptual thinking as analogous to speech, we conceive the character of sensation and feeling by analogy with the things that cause them. So, the image of a fuzzy yak has the character it does because of the fuzziness of the yaks that give rise to that image.
The problem, of course, is that the character of perceptions, what he calls their “ultimate homogeneity” is not something that will be captured or represented at the level of neurological processes. i.e., a red perception will not be due to red neurons, a fuzzy yakky image will not be due to fuzzy, yakky neurons. So if we insist on this sort of identification, we are left with the qualitative character of sensation as an ultimately mysterious, “emergent” property.
Person and the Scientific Image
The problems here are well known. Human freedom and agent responsibility do not seem to be compatible with the scientific image of man.
Sellars supplies only a sketch for how to deal with this area. For Sellars, to be a person is not to have magical powers of freedom, but to think of oneself as a member of a particular community. (Note here the connection to our understanding of language as essentially communicative in nature.)
Hence, moral judgments are expressions by such beings of the intentions of the community to which they belong. This sounds a lot like bat-shit moral relativism, but note that it is strictly silent on the question whether there is a universal community of humankind.
Hence, for Sellars, for science to do justice to personhood, is to give an ultimately plausible scientific account of both individual and community intentions.