The most important philosopher you never heard of

The latest video in the Sophia “Dan & Massimo” series covered a philosopher you likely never heard of, and yet you should. We talked about Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989), who had a big influence on Dan and who I discovered only relatively recently, to my delight.

Sellars is perhaps most famous for his distinction between what he called the “scientific image” and the “manifest image” of the world, meaning our understanding of how things are from, respectively, the scientific and the commonsense standpoints.

Sellars’ lifelong project was to articulate how we should see the relationship between these two “images” of the world, a project that may well be understood as one of the main ongoing goals of modern philosophy.

Sellars didn’t subordinate either standpoint to the other: that’s because while scientific knowledge is, in fact, more sophisticated than everyday knowledge at describing the world, it tells us relatively little about a lot of things we care about and can’t do without, like values and normativity.

In the end, Sellars said that we need to develop a kind of “stereoscopic” vision, being able to simultaneously hold the scientific and manifest images in front of us, integrating them in a way that makes sense for a human being. It is, of course, a compromise between scientism and irrationalism that I very much appreciate and have made — as readers of this blog know very well –my own major project in recent years.


208 thoughts on “The most important philosopher you never heard of

  1. Massimo: “Professional philosophers better know about Sellars (I also found out about him in graduate school, but that was late in my career, due to its idiosyncratic path). But I bet the public at large has never heard of him, and they should, since his idea of developing a “stereoscopic” vision encompassing the scientific and the manifest images is crucial in order to navigate an everyday world increasingly affected by science.”

    I just watched the video, and haven’t read the article or the rest of the comments yet, but this is all extremely interesting to me, as it amplifies and clarifies some ideas I’ve been working on arising from Popper’s “Three Worlds” concept, that seems to me quite closely related to what you and Dan were discussing. I have to read the Sellars paper and the Stanford article, and see if I can put it together. That was definitely food for thought!

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  2. Bunsen, I see them as ind of like two partially overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. As for how they function, I’ll refer to another of our senses. In breathing, we normally, if not under a high physical workload, breathe through one nostril at a time.


  3. saphsin,

    They are different mediums.

    Then again, pictures of dead children seem to be leading us to war.


    Speaking of images, how about science as a microscope and manifest as a movie?


  4. Hi DM,

    For instance, I’m a platonist. You are not. We also disagree on the nature of personal identity. Science is not going to sort these disagreements out.

    But the point is that we’re not disagreeing on anything of substance, on any facts of the matter. We’re only disagreeing on which concepts we personally find useful. Your version of platonism is literally empty, it is making no fact-of-the-matter claims. Similarly, if we make a copy of Kirk in a transporter, the fact of the matter is as just stated. What language you apply to the copies is up to you.

    The relevance here is that there is no fact of the matter as to what art “is”, since there is no art independent of what people think about art. If one person considers that art by a chimpanzee is “art” and another does not, then neither is right, neither is wrong, they merely think about art differently.

    If you understand Dan’s position, then why are you asking him for examples of questions science cannot answer?

    I think I understand his broad world view, and why it is radically different from mine. That doesn’t mean I know all the particulars. Anyhow, the main point of asking for examples is that such discussions are often best conducted in terms of specific and illustrative examples.

    But it’s a lot less abstract than the kind of stuff philosophers deal with.

    I’d disagree with that. Dirac’s prediction of anti-matter was highly abstract, based on arcane maths. (Especially back then, before anything corresponding to his prediction had been observed.) A discussion such as “what counts as art?” is much more in-line with everyday experience. You could have a worthwhile discussion of the latter with a class of 13-yr-olds, but they wouldn’t be able to follow or discuss Dirac’s maths.

    But if you want to say that Socrates/Plato were doing science when developing the Euthyphro dilemma, then you’re way out on your own.

    The topic of understanding morality is something that I would certainly call science. Euthyphro, on its own, doesn’t do that, what it does is show that one of the most common accounts of morality doesn’t work. Science uses tools such as maths and analysis of concepts (e.g. Euthyphro) all the time. Those tools are not in themselves “science”, any more than a saw is carpentry, they are tools used by science.

    Thus, agreed, it sounds weird to say that Euthyphro is science (just as it sounds weird to say that a saw is carpentry), but equally I would not agree that Euythphro is outside of the domain of science or something different from science (just as one would not say that using a saw is outside the domain of carpentry).

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  5. Hi Coel,

    The problem is that as soon as you go saying that philosophy of art is a part of science, you are taking different assumptions on board than Dan and Massimo, and so you will not be understood. It’s not really fair to turn every discussion into a discussion of this issue. I think it’s better to just accept that people view science and philosophy as largely disjoint areas for the sake of not derailing every conversation that touches on either. You can mention this view I guess but maybe don’t take it for granted as you do.

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  6. Hi DM,

    The problem is that as soon as you go saying that philosophy of art is a part of science, you are taking different assumptions on board …

    OK, but I didn’t really word it like that. The OP seemed to try to place much of what humans do as outside the realm of science (which, as I see it, is human exceptionalism, or even a harking back to cartesian dualism — the buzzword “intentionality” seems to be a code word for a form of cartesian dualism, essentially an attempt to place human minds outside of the realm of science; and I’m beginning to think that all talk of “intentionality” is as unhelpful as dualism).

    So of course a scientismist like me would, in response, argue that human are natural products of a natural world and thus that science can study humans and what humans do.

    But, as Massimo says, if people don’t want to discuss such views then they can . . . not discuss them! After my first comment, in reply to the OP, virtually every other comment of mine has been a reply to a reply to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. When I mentioned “new-branded scientists” (or X scientists, fill in the X) what I was thinking of was newly-coined sciences like network science (“the study of network representations of physical, biological, and social phenomena leading to predictive models of these phenomena”) and data science.


  8. Coel that’s simply not true. I commented more than once about degrees of consciousness and intentionality among non-human animals, and it wasn’t in response to you in the first place.


  9. Coel,

    While it is true that people don’t have to reply to your comments, it is also true that nevertheless your comments do have a way to highjack the conversation, in pretty fruitless directions (or at least, not new ones), so far as I can see.

    Please try to refrain from repeating the usual experience in the next several posts. I don’t want to ban anyone, but I will enforce restrictions if I deem them necessary. Thanks.


  10. While it is true that people don’t have to reply to your comments, it is also true that nevertheless your comments do have a way to highjack the conversation, in pretty fruitless directions (or at least, not new ones), so far as I can see.

    I thought the discussion between Coel on one side and Dan & the others on the other side was much ado about nothing.

    I agree with Coel that science can study whatever it wants to study, even art, and may produce results. I also agree with Dan there’s no (or very little) reason to believe that these results will add anything substantial to our thinking about the nature of art etc.

    Art poses a number of problems that aren’t amenable to the scientific method (which doesn’t mean they aren’t amenable to rational thinking), My favourite example is the role that matter plays in our appreciation of art (the matter the piece of art is made of). Study this role scientifically if you want; but I’m afraid the result will be perfectly banal.

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  11. Hi Massimo,
    It’s of course entirely up to you what you want to allow on your blog and what direction you want the conversation to go in.

    Just to note, though, that your video with Dan (in the first half, not so much the second half) contains a large number of explicit attacks on scientistic-type thinking. So if the aim of the comments is to discuss the video then … is it a hijack?

    I’ve just done a quick count of comments on this thread. I’m in fifth place (I think):

    Dan K: 58 (Obviously he’s an author of the OP so that’s expected)
    Socratic: 22
    DM: 21
    Bunsen: 17
    Coel: 16

    (No I haven’t done a count of recent threads, but I’m usually being several others — Socratic, Robin, brodix — in post count.)

    My count here would be less if I hadn’t got into a discussion of my views with DM. Maybe we could do that more by email, though if someone queries my view here it’s natural to reply here. But I’ll bear your request in mind.


  12. Coel,
    As professional editor Socratic can tell you, column inch tells us more than number of posts. Your comments are often quite lengthy, and even ignoring you, one has to scroll a great distance to find another’s comment.

    But here’s the real problem, for me: While sometimes you have an interesting point to contribute, more often the implication of your assertions (many of which remain that, with little real argument) is that the OP should not have been written. The implication of your comments here, for instance, is that Dan and Massimo have simply wasted our time; the Manifest Image is delusional, science will answer everything eventually. Descriptions constitute the only social knowledge we need; people should stop discussing art, ethics – all things non-descriptive or non-quantitave.

    Do you not see how offensive this can be? That was always the problem with the Ayres-like positivist rejection of philosophical discussion of values. It was presented as simply a professional demand – ‘let non-professionals talk among themselves, what they say has nothing to do with knowledge.’ But if that’s the case, non-professionals are just wasting their breath.

    That was one of the reasons why, with the dominance of scientistic/positivistic analysis in the late ’50s/early ’60s, people outside the academy just stopped paying attention to American philosophy. And if scientists pursue similar lines of argument or attitude, that will be just one more reason for many people to ignore science.

    Now, I’ve known you long enough to know that your knee-jerk response will probably be ‘no, that’s not what I’m saying!’ But as I noted, this is a reasonable implication of many things you do say.

    Personally, I think much of what DM had to say to you here spot on (at least in earlier comments; after a while, protracted quarreling gets tiresome). But on a thread on another post, I just stopped arguing with DM when he became intractable in his position. Intractability is a serious problem in comment discussions here; ultimately, one has to decide whether its worth the trouble.

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  13. Ejwinner’s comment puts me in a quandry. It’s a considered and reasoned comment that surely deserves a considered and reasoned reply. Yet if I were to do that it would only reinforce the problem people are complaining about. So I’ll try hard to avoid the temptation to do so.

    Nope, I failed. 🙂 At least to the extent of saying this. I never said that people should stop discussing art, ethics or values in general. It’s because I think ethics are important that I want to understand them properly.

    (Yes I do realise that that just proved you right.)


  14. I think one useful way to go about commenting on posts is to ask oneself:

    1) Is there anything here that might give me pause or pose some challenge to the way I thought about ____ before engaging with the post.

    2) Can I identify the source of that challenge and understand the tension between my prior conception and some possible update.

    If “No” to #1 there is probably no benefit I will get from posting a comment. The only reason to post would be some clear up someone else’s confusion, but there are almost always others here better able to that than I am.

    If yes to #1 it might benefit myself and maybe others if I can post something that identifies the conceptual tension the post raised for me. In the end it might not change my original thinking, but at least I would have giving myself some new steps to climb. The view might be the same for now but who knows what might be seen if I can keep this mode of climbing.


  15. Now that the dust has settled, may I ask a question?
    I think we all agree now that methods used to understand the scientific image are of little value for the typical questions raised when thinking about the manifest image.
    But what of the other way around?
    Take philosophy of science.
    Is PoS trying to apply methods, suitable for and refined in the manifest image, in the scientific image?


  16. Oy. (EJ, that’s 1 column inch, including parenthetical!)


    I will plead guilty to sometimes wandering off topic, with links, occasionally mine, occasionally others. That said, as in my hope last Friday that Massimo would discuss American entry into World War I, I think that, at a minimum, they’re things worthy of humanistic discussion, and at a maximum, worthy of philosophical discussion.


  17. Couvent, I can’t speak to philosophy of science, but I can to philosophy of religion. I think this is that “Venn diagram” I mentioned. I would rephrase your question as “Philosophy of religion applies methods refined in the manifest image to study how manifest image groundings in the scientific study of religion influence interpretations of material.” (Or something like that.)


  18. And something like that could be said for Philosophy of science. After all, PoS isn’t postulating unobservable entities, it is simply trying to both describe and understand how the process of science works (or fails, when it does).


  19. Massimo,

    I know Sellars writes about those unobserved entities, but I don’t know how important they are in more modern interpretations of his thoughts. Intentionality and intensionality are unobservable too, and as far as I understand Dan finds them acceptable when thinking about what’s happening in the manifest image. So, whether someting is unobservable or not doesn’t seem to be very important.

    PoS is trying to describe how the process of science works. But what is it looking at? Only the things that are part of the manifest image? How is that different from Coel, who wants to look at art through the lens of the scientific image?


  20. I have to say I sympathize with Coel, even though he wouldn’t want it.

    Science is reductionistic and analytical, but that goes pretty deeply into how our minds function. Look at these conversations, for example. It’s all about breaking the larger reality down to bite sized chunks and figuring how they work and work together with other such conceivable concepts.

    So, yes, science has established itself as an ideal of this process and those entranced by it will logically think the techniques apply to everything, while others prefer more wholistic, if slightly more fuzzy approaches.

    The reality though is these methods have their limits and we don’t see them, until we are well beyond them. Reductio ad absurdum, progress one funeral at a time, reset, etc. That also is how the process works. Bubbles and waves.

    As I see it, the question is whether people can become detached enough to sense the elemental process at work and get a better feel for where different states fall in the cycle. Currently theoretical physics is in a quandary, yet we also have an economic model and geopolitical confrontations building due to the same underlaying process, as the status quo becomes ever more rigid and short sighted and everyone is waiting to see when it cracks, likely even many of its supporters.

    Maybe one day, philosophy will climb out of some of the ruts it seems to find itself in and consider those larger dynamics.


    Interesting discovery in cosmology;


  21. Massimo, does philosophy of science address methodological presuppositions, like a philosophy of religion, or as I mentioned earlier, history, with its different schools? I’m guessing that in that way, there’s not a direct parallel between “philosophy of natural science X” and “philosophy of social science/humanities X.” On the other hand, since you mentioned in the past that it IS “philosophy of natural science X” and not “philosophy of science,” with physics, maybe there IS a parallel. Dunno about biology. Chemistry, I can’t think of any such parallel.


  22. I am not sure it would be possible to take a consistently Wittgensteinian approach. After all, how would you know that the last time you thought you took a Wittgensteinian approach you didn’t take a Quittgensteinian approach?

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  23. More seriously, given Wittgensteinians are always telling us that we might be mistaken about our volitions, that when we think we are following such and such a rule be we can’t really be doing that or that there is no difference we can tell between raising an arm and an arm going up, given all that what is the objection to the idea that the most effective way of studying human, including social, behaviour might be from a biological or chemical standooint?


  24. ejwinner: “That was one of the reasons why, with the dominance of scientistic/positivistic analysis in the late ’50s/early ’60s, people outside the academy just stopped paying attention to American philosophy. And if scientists pursue similar lines of argument or attitude, that will be just one more reason for many people to ignore science.”

    Exactly. That’s when I was in college, and the philosophy departments were not talking to humanists, or at least the ones who were were getting “primaried out.”


  25. Couvent,

    Not sure that intentionality counts as an unobservable entity, if it did then every concept would too, which would be weird. Philosophers of science also don’t draw the distinction that way. They talk of electrons, say, as “unobservable,” but not of the many concepts they have to deploy in order to talk about science — including “science,” for that matter.

    PoS looks at the behavior of scientists in order to infer the logic of scientific analysis. That seems entirely different from what Coel is suggesting. Besides, I don’t think there is any problem in the idea of studying art from a scientific perspective, it’s just that what we learn is very different, orthogonal, I’d say, from what we learn when we talk to art historians and critics.


    Yes, PoS also addresses methodological (and even metaphysical) presuppositions of science. I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a parallel between, say, philosophy of biology and philosophy of the social sciences. Or any philosophy of X, for that matter. In all cases “philosophy of” means that one brings the analytical tools of philosophy to bear on the nature, inner workings, and selection of questions and methods, of discipline X. Whatever X is.


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