Wilfred Sellars And Marxism

Remarks on Tim Crane’s “Fraught with Ought,” London Review of Books, 19 June 2008

“Fraught with Ought” reviews two new books concerning the American philosopher Wilfred Sellars (1912-1989). These are a collection of papers about Sellars by Jay Rosenberg (Wilfred Sellers: Fusing the Images, Oxford, 2007) and an anthology (In the Space of Reasons: Selected Essays of Wilfred Sellars, Harvard, 2007). Why all this interest in an academic philosopher, unknown to the general public, and dead for almost twenty years? And what has any of this to do with Marxism?

Briefly, Sellars was an analytic philosopher, a member of a school stemming back over a hundred years, that grew out of the rejection of the European philosophical tradition growing out of German Idealism, especially Kant and Hegel. Marxism also grew out of this German tradition.

Recently some analytic philosophers have come to believe that the wholesale rejection of Hegel and others in the classical tradition has been a mistake and was based on a faulty understanding of their works by some of the founders of the analytic movement, especially Bertrand Russell.

Sellars’ philosophy is being examined in this light and is taken by some to be useful in reclaiming Kant and Hegel, for example, and using them as part of the program of analytic philosophy — viz., of using the analysis of ordinary language usage and the philosophy of language to find the solution to philosophical problems. Rehabilitating the thinkers from whom Marx and Engels learned so much and whose ideas they grappled with in forming their own is also a way of reminding the contemporary world of the continuing relevance of Marxism.

One of Sellars’ most important works was his 1956 paper “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind.” Although not in this work, Sellars gives an interesting definition of the aim of philosophy: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”

This really is quite general and could be said of the natural and social sciences as well. The aim of Marxism could be said to be to bring about the end of human exploitation in the broadest possible sense by the most effective means, considered in the broadest possible sense, of eliminating capitalism and abolishing classes.

Marxists also share a common aim with Sellars. He wanted, in his own words. “to formulate a scientifically oriented, naturalistic realism which would ‘save the appearances.’” The last expression refers to a desire not to stray too far from common sense. His love of science is the same as that of all true Marxists and is very clearly expressed by him when he writes, “in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.”

In other words, he shares with Marxists the idea, as Crane says, that philosophy’s “fundamental task” is “to explain how things seem (in the broadest sense of that term) consistent with what science has told us about the world.” The term “scientia mensura” is used by Sellarsians (it could be adopted by Marxists as well)to sum up this view. The job of philosophy is to bridge what Sellars called the “manifest image” of the world [i.e., common sense] and the “scientific image” [we are just a bunch of vibrating strings or atoms, etc.] Crane says Sellars developed his own “systematic philosophy” to deal with this problem. Let us see how far it agrees with Marxism.

Many philosophers such as Sellars have been bothered by three things about the manifest image of the world, according to Crane, namely intentionality or meaning, value, and consciousness. All bourgeois realists, just as all Marxist materialists, accept “that there is a world independent of thought.” Bourgeois realists are in fact materialists. Sellars, however, has a problem with how we become aware of the world and how we use language to describe it.

Marxist and non-Marxist realists alike tend to see language as somehow reflecting or referring to the objects of the world. We learn what “cat” means by referring to a real cat. “According to this view,” Crane says, “things in the world cause our minds to form certain representations, which is why they represent what they do.” This is what Lenin thought when he said consciousness or sensation is a picture of reality. Crane says it is the view of the early Wittgenstein (of the Tractatus). But Sellars doesn’t buy this. He has his own theory by which he replaces “reference” with “inference.” As Crane puts it, “To talk about the meaning of a word is not to talk about the relation it bears to the object it stands for. Rather, it is to talk about what inferences — what legitimate patterns of thought and reasoning — that word can be used in.”

This is a very dicey development. It seems to grow out of the later Wittgenstein (the Philosophical Investigations) and his notion of a “language game.” Whether this view can be reconciled with materialism is still being debated. What is really distinctive in this view is, Crane says, the role that normativity comes to play in the system. Sellars refers to words as “natural-linguistic objects” and we have to learn the rules (norms) for their use: “they tell us,” Crane points out, “how words should and should not be used. Signification and meaning are normative matters.” This leads us to a very important key concept of his philosophy — namely, “the myth of the given.” I’m not sure this “myth” is really a myth.

Sellars thinks of thought as “inner speech”, as Crane says, “as employing the concepts one has learned in the course of acquiring a language to make inferences which result in dispositions to make ‘outer’ verbal judgments.” So thinking, just as speaking, is subject to rules and norms.

Crane uses the example of a fig tree to clarify Sellars’ views. An old fashioned materialist (such as Lenin) might say that we have the notion of a fig tree as a result of having learned how to use the words “fig tree” as a result of our early education. Our senses were presented with a particular object, our parents say “fig tree” and we learn that this “given” is to be referred to as a “fig tree.”

This is an example (but not a good one) of “the myth of the given.” Sellars says “all awareness is a linguistic affair.” As crane puts it “the perceptually given” is not “a mental episode which is prior to thought and language.” This has the smell of idealism clinging to it.

Let’s try to be clearer. Crane says Sellars holds, “Every episode of taking something in is really a case of conceptualizing it, and conceptualizing requires being subject to the norms which can only come with the acquisition of a language.” Sellars is really saying it is wrong to think there was a “concept of x” in the mind of the child just waiting to be given the name “fig tree”. It was only by learning a language that a fig tree could present itself to the child as a fig tree and not just some kind of perceptual static.

Sellars’ ideas about sense perception are weak, I think, and I agree with Crane when he says he thinks them “unconvincing.” I think, for example, that consciousness and consciousness of objects have evolved from organisms that were precursors of H. sapiens. Other animals certainly have awareness and can even think yet are without “language” — or least without what we humans think of as “language”. Sellars appears to believe that only humans have language. If we grant this and restrict ourselves to “human language” then Crane thinks Sellars’ ideas are “clearer and more tractable” if we confine the inferentialist theory to thought and language and leave sense perception out of it.

Now thought, language, meaning, and inference are the result of brain processes that can be studied by science. This is the case even if meaning, thought, and knowledge will not themselves be, as Crane says, part of “the scientific image as such.” Why is this so? Sellars writes that it is because “in characterising an episode or a state as that of KNOWING, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says.” And Crane reminds us, this also goes for saying and thinking. If I say, think or know that e.g., my redeemer liveth, or that workers by uniting will only lose their chains I must give reasons that logically lead to a justification for these statements. I am not just referring to some chemical or neurological activity in my brain.

What is important about this part of Sellars’ theory is, according to Crane, that questions dealing with “meaning and significance” are not about facts — “questions about what is the case” — they are questions concerning “what ought to be.” They are not questions for science. Sellars thinks they are normative because we have to follow rules for justification which are located in “the logical space of reasons.” Sellars says. “If they are thinking THIS, then they OUGHT to think THAT too.”

What is going on here? It seems natural to distinguish between factual (scientific) statements and value (moral, un- or non- scientific) statements. But, says Crane, Sellars has gone beyond this dichotomy: “not only moral value, but also thought and consciousness, are (in his words) ‘fraught with ought.’” There are problems with this I think. If I give justifications for my belief that united workers have only their chains to lose those justifications are intended by me to be true factual statements about the world and thus subject to scientific scrutiny. It is scientific socialism to which I appeal. It is another question, indeed fraught with ought, whether that commitment logically forces me to embrace the dictatorship of the proletariat as well.

Some have come to think that Sellars’ views would cause a “sea change” in philosophy. Crain disagrees and thinks Sellars’ “inferentialism” with respect to “meaning and thought” can be weaned away from other elements in his system and adopted by those with “more traditional” attitudes towards “the self and the mind.” I think that there is no need for Sellarsian extremism on the question of the “scientia mensura.” To save the appearances, the “manifest world”, we don’t have to divorce it so completely from the “scientific world” as Sellars maintains. We only need show there is no manifest contradiction between the two worlds. There is no contradiction between our being human beings running about with “minds” on the one hand, and being ultimately vibrating strings or atoms on the other.

Marxists view the human world of consciousness as a higher level organization of matter (that stuff existing independently of the human mind from which the universe and everything in it derives) and what science ultimately discovers this stuff to be will not be in contradiction to the view that the manifest world is part of the continuum logically derived from the knowledge of the scientific world. Thus, Marxists can adopt some portions of Sellars’ inferentialism, especially with regard to the consistency of their thoughts with respect to what they ought to believe and do given what they say they believe and do.

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.

3 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Bo said on September 9th, 2008 at 1:09am #

    What a phenomenal article! I’m surprised that ‘deadbeat’ hasn’t leveed the accusation that it is a manifestation of ‘judeobolshevism’ yet. Excellent. Excellent, indeed.

  2. cg said on September 9th, 2008 at 8:27am #

    “An absolutely new idea is one of the rarest things known to man.”

    “Kant was probably the worst writer ever heard of on earth before Karl Marx. Some of his ideas were really quite simple, but he always managed to make them seem unintelligible. I hope he is in Hell.”

    H.L. Mencken

  3. Deadbeat said on September 11th, 2008 at 7:50pm #

    I’m surprised that ‘deadbeat’ hasn’t leveed the accusation that it is a manifestation of ‘judeobolshevism’ yet. Excellent. Excellent, indeed.

    Bo,

    Zionism is not Judaism.