Wilfrid Sellars
Wilfrid Stalker Sellars

(1912-05-20)May 20, 1912
DiedJuly 2, 1989(1989-07-02) (aged 77)
EducationUniversity of Michigan (B.A., 1933)
University at Buffalo (M.A., 1934)[4]
Oriel College, Oxford (B.A., 1936; MA, 1940)
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Pittsburgh School
Process philosophy[1]
Critical realism (philosophy of perception)
InstitutionsUniversity of Pittsburgh
Academic advisorsMarvin Farber[3]
Thomas Dewar Weldon
Doctoral studentsJay Rosenberg
György Márkus
Paul Churchland
Robert Kane
Christopher Gauker
Héctor-Neri Castañeda
Richard Creath
Other notable studentsFred Dretske
Main interests
Philosophy of mind
Philosophy of perception
History of philosophy
Notable ideas
Critical realism (philosophy of perception)
Criticism of foundationalist epistemology (the "Myth of the Given")
Psychological nominalism
Kantian empiricism[4]
The distinction between the 'manifest' and the 'scientific' image
Logical space of reasons (the realm of the semantic)[4]
Sellarsian dilemma for foundationalism[5]
Synoptic vision[6][7]
Rylean myth[8]

Wilfrid Stalker Sellars (May 20, 1912 – July 2, 1989) was an American philosopher and prominent developer of critical realism,[10] who "revolutionized both the content and the method of philosophy in the United States".[11]

Life and career

His father was the Canadian-American philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, a leading American philosophical naturalist in the first half of the twentieth-century.[12] Wilfrid was educated at the University of Michigan (BA, 1933), the University at Buffalo, and Oriel College, Oxford (1934–1937), where he was a Rhodes Scholar, obtaining his highest earned degree, an MA, in 1940. During World War II, he served in military intelligence. He then taught at the University of Iowa (1938–1946), the University of Minnesota (1947–1958), Yale University (1958–1963), and from 1963 until his death, at the University of Pittsburgh.[13] He served as president of the Metaphysical Society of America in 1977. He was a founder of the journal Philosophical Studies.

Sellars is well known as a critic of foundationalist epistemology—the "Myth of the Given" as he called it.[8] However, 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. Sellars 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.

Philosophical work

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, epistemic 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.

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

"Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind"

See also: Perceptual conceptualism

Sellars's most famous work is "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" (1956).[14] In it, he criticizes the view that knowledge of what we perceive can be independent of the conceptual processes which result in perception. He named this "The Myth of the Given," attributing it to sense-data theories of knowledge.

The work targets several theories at once, especially C. I. Lewis' Kantian pragmatism and Rudolf Carnap's positivism. He draws out "The Myth of Jones," to defend the possibility of a strict behaviorist world-view. The parable explains how thoughts, intelligent action, and even subjective inner experience can be attributed to people within a scientific model. Sellars used a fictional tribe, the "Ryleans," since he wanted to address Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind.

Sellars's idea of "myth", heavily influenced by Ernst Cassirer,[15] is not necessarily negative. He saw it as something that can be useful or otherwise, rather than true or false. He aimed to unite the conceptual behavior of the "space of reasons" with the concept of a subjective sense experience. This was one of his most central goals, which his later work described as Kantian.

"The Language of Theories"

In his paper "The Language of Theories“ (1961), Sellars introduces the concept of Kantian empiricism. Kantian empiricism features a distinction between (1) claims whose revision requires abandonment or modification of the system of concepts in terms of which they are framed (i.e., modification of the fallible set of constitutive principles underlying knowledge, otherwise known as framework-relative a priori truths) and (2) claims revisable on the basis of observations formulated in terms of a system of concepts which remained fixed throughout.[4]

"Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man"

In his "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man" (1962), Sellars distinguishes between the "manifest image" and the "scientific image" of the world.

The manifest image includes intentions, thoughts, and appearances. Sellars allows that the manifest image may be refined through 'correlational induction', but he rules out appeal to imperceptible entities.

The scientific image describes the world in terms of the theoretical physical sciences. It includes notions such as causality and theories about particles and forces.

The two images sometimes complement one another, and sometimes conflict. For example, the manifest image includes practical or moral claims, whereas the scientific image does not. There is conflict, e.g. where science tells us that apparently solid objects are mostly empty space. Sellars favors a synoptic vision, wherein the scientific image takes ultimate precedence in cases of conflict, at least with respect to empirical descriptions and explanations.[16]

"Meaning as Functional Classification"

In "Meaning as Functional Classification" (1974) Sellars elaborated upon a version of functional role semantics that he had previously defended in prior publications.[17] [18] [19] For Sellars, thoughts are analogous to linguistic utterances, and both thoughts and linguistic utterances gain their content through token thoughts or utterances standing in certain relations with other thoughts, stimuli, and responses. [20]


The son of a socialist,[21] Sellars was involved in left-wing politics. As a student at the University of Michigan, Wilfrid Sellars was one of the founding members of the first North-American cooperative house for university students, which was then called "Michigan Socialist House" (and which was later renamed "Michigan Cooperative House").[22] He also campaigned for the socialist candidate Norman Thomas of the Socialist Party of America.[23]


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's 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.[24] Especially Brandom introduced a Hegelian variety of the Pittsburgh School, often called analytic Hegelianism.[25][26]

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's philosophical heirs also include Ruth Millikan, Daniel Dennett, Héctor-Neri Castañeda, Bruce Aune, Jay Rosenberg, Johanna Seibt, Matthew Burstein, Ray Brassier, Andrew Chrucky, Jeffrey Sicha, Pedro Amaral, Thomas Vinci, Willem A. de Vries, David Rosenthal, Ken Wilber and Michael Williams. Sellars's work has been drawn upon in feminist standpoint theory, for example in the work of Quill Kukla.[27]

Sellars's death in 1989 was the result of long-term alcohol use.[28] A collection of essays devoted to 'Sellars and his Legacy' was published by Oxford University Press in 2016 (James O'Shea, ed., Wilfrid Sellars and his Legacy), with contributions from Brandom, deVries, Kraut, Kukla, Lance, McDowell, Millikan, O'Shea, Rosenthal, Seibt, and Williams.


See also


  1. ^ "Process Philosophy". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 2021.
  2. ^ Ted Poston, "Foundationalism" (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  3. ^ a b James R. O'Shea, Wilfrid Sellars and His Legacy, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 4.
  4. ^ a b c d Wilfrid Sellars (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition)
  5. ^ Foundationalist Theories of Epistemic Justification (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  6. ^ Wilfrid Sellars (1962). "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man," in: Robert Colodny, ed., Frontiers of Science and Philosophy, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 35–78. Reprinted in Science, Perception and Reality (1963).
  7. ^ Jay F. Rosenberg (1990). "Fusing the Images: Nachruf for Wilfrid Sellars." Journal for General Philosophy of Science, 21: 1–23.
  8. ^ a b deVries, Willem (30 June 2017). "Wilfrid Sellars". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Wilfrid Sellars – The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University – via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  9. ^ Hunter, Bruce, 2016 "Clarence Irving Lewis" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  10. ^ Willem deVries, 2014. "Wilfrid Sellars," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Aug. 11,
  11. ^ "A Philosopher Who Shattered Our Complacency". The New York Times. 15 August 1989.
  12. ^ "Sellars, Roy Wood - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". www.iep.utm.edu.
  13. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Introduction to Wilfrid Sellars lecture, Naturalism and Ontology". YouTube. 16 September 2012.
  15. ^ Endres, Tobias (2021). "Ernst Cassirer's Influence on the Philosophy of Wilfrid Sellars". Cassirer Studies. 13/14: 149–170 – via Torrossa.
  16. ^ Brassier, Ray, Nihil Unbound (2007) p.3
  17. ^ Sellars, W. (1974). Meaning as Functional Classification: A perspective on the relation of syntax to semantics. Synthese, 27(3-4), 417-437.
  18. ^ Sellars, W. (1954). Some reflections on language games. Philosophy of Science, 21(3), 204-228.
  19. ^ Sellars, W. (1950). Language, Rules and Behavior.
  20. ^ Piccinini, G. (2004). Functionalism, computationalism, and mental contents. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 34(3), 375-410.
  21. ^ The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Second ed.). Oxford University Press. 2005. p. 863.
  22. ^ Jones, Jim (2007–2008). "Remembering the Mich House founders" (PDF). The Alumni Cooperator. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Inter-Cooperative Council: 15.
  23. ^ "Wilfrid Sellars". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 2021.
  24. ^ Chauncey Maher, The Pittsburgh School of Philosophy. Routledge. 2012.
  25. ^ Robert Brandom, A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel's Phenomenology, Harvard University Press, 2019.
  26. ^ deVries, Willem A. "Hegel's Revival in Analytic Philosophy". In: The Oxford Handbook of Hegel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. pp. 743–766: "Analytic philosophy is rediscovering Hegel. [There is] a particularly strong thread of new analytic Hegelianism, sometimes called 'Pittsburgh Hegelianism' ... The sociality and historicity of reason, the proper treatment of space and time, conceptual holism, inferentialism, the reality of conceptual structure, the structure of experience, and the nature of normativity are the central concerns of Pittsburgh Hegelianism."
  27. ^ Rebecca Kukla, "Objectivity and Perspective in Empirical Knowledge". Episteme 3(1): 80–95. 2006.
  28. ^ "Susanna Felder". www.ditext.com.

Further reading