Review: Two Books by Wilfred Sellars

Usually I begin these book reviews with a little extra commentary; some examination of a philosophical issue I thought inappropriate to go into in the book review itself. I’m sure there are such issues in Sellars’ work for me, but having read these two books I am not confident enough in what Sellars was talking about to say very much. Sellars is certainly no antirealist, but I’m not sure he would call himself a realist (in Searle’s terms) either. He is one of the premier philosophers of logic and language in the thread leading from the Vienna circle through Wittgenstein, and on to Quine, Tarski, and Sellars himself.

Perhaps we could call him a “linguistic realist” as he seems to believe that it is through the acquisition of language that a human child comes to distinguish joints in the world. For Sellars, perception (the five senses) occurs in pre-linguistic children but is at that point inchoate, a jumble of impressions in which nothing is clearly distinguished from anything else. Perhaps the first “joint in the world” the child recognizes as such is its own mother. If my reading of Sellars is correct, the child first distinguishes its mother from the rest of the world when it first connects the word “mom” (even if it cannot yet vocalize it) to that object. In other words, for the child to recognize its own mother, in an intellectual sense, it must be able to “think linguistically”.

I have a big problem with this idea because only humans have such abstract language and yet animals, adult higher animals, clearly have a very sophisticated ability to discriminate “joints in the world”. A dog could not catch a Frisbee if it did not, and even a chicken knows enough to associate dark cool places with the prospect of more juicy insects and so on. Could a philosopher as brilliant as Sellars have missed such an obvious counter example to his connection between language and perception? I wouldn’t think so… It is possible I am interpreting him incorrectly.

Naturalism and Ontology

I have never before given such a low rating to a book by a professional philosopher of Sellars’ reputation. I also wonder about the value of reviewing a 40 year-old book whose author has long since passed on. But for the sake of my few followers I’ll deliver here, keeping it short.

Sellars says his analysis of language, reference, meaning, and truth (in descending order the main topics of this book) is needed to formulate a consistent (contradiction-free and perspicacious) naturalistic ontology. He takes the truth of naturalism for granted (most philosophers do these days) and while recognizing the term applies mainly to scientific method uses it as a stand-in for “materialism” throughout. I’m being rather loose with the word ‘throughout’ as he barely mentions naturalism or ontology (though repeatedly rejecting anything Platonic) beyond the book’s introduction!

In point of fact, Sellars never directly connects up his theory of reference to ontology, other than insisting that only a nominalism can be right. Sellars’ focus is on the role words (names, descriptions, declarations) play in language. His analysis proceeds through illustrations in formal logic which, while not individually complex, become overwhelming as they go on page after page. I’m guessing a full half the text of the book consists of these formal statements.

Overall the book is based on a series of talks. He says in his introduction that the first three chapters are straight from the talks, while the remainder of the book is more heavily edited to make the whole work come together. Yet the last two chapters of the book are a series of exchanges (unedited correspondence) he had with another philosopher and the book ends following the last of these. He does not ever conclude by summarizing anything. Indeed in the middle of the book there is another page of commentary (from a philosopher not named) criticizing Sellars’ whole approach. He is surely brave to put this in. Nowhere does he respond to this critique, and in point of fact, at least in my opinion, the critic’s approach more sense than Sellars’ view!

I got into this book because Terry Horgan (“Austere Realism” see my review) mentions him a lot and it strikes me that Horgan’s view of how language works, what makes ordinary statements true or meaningful, is derived from Sellars’ work. Horgan however (right or wrong) produces the summary, a synthesis of language’s relation to ontology, with which Sellars should have ended this book. Having read this, do I understand how Sellars links language to meaning and truth? Yes if vaguely. What about ontology as such? No, not at all.

Science, Perception, and Reality

This is my second review of a Sellars book (see “Naturalism and Ontology” also reviewed). I have the same problem here I had with the other. Like that other book, this one is something of a collection of separate essays on the same theme; the relation of language to action, thought, and the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world.

A carefully crafted collection of related essays on the title’s subject, it is nevertheless very difficult to grasp what Sellars is trying to say overall. To my mind this is a stylistic problem and I imagine that students of Sellars familiar with more of his ideas generally will get much more out of this than did I. We are all used to the mechanism of “flashbacks” in novels. But imagine a novel in which a first level of flashback results in yet another deeper flashback and then one more. When the author returns from the last flashback where is the reader dropped off? One level up? Two? Or back to the original story thread?

In every chapter of this book Sellars begins with a brief statement of his intent and then, before explicating it more fully, informs the reader that certain preliminaries must be taken care of first. Such preliminaries end up nesting to two or more levels and (along with covering various objections and alternatives) occupy 90% of the chapter’s material. By the time Sellars gets back to the main thread, not only am I lost, but I come away with the suspicion that some of those preliminaries are used to introduce definitions and points of view, themselves often controversial, on which his final theses come to hang.

None of this confusion on my part has to do with disagreements in viewpoint. I read a lot of philosophers with whom I disagree but I understand nevertheless what claims they are making and arguments for those claims. From this book, and the other is the same, I come away understanding certain points of detail but not, overall, what Sellars is trying to say about his subject. Yes I get that Sellars believes the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world, our capacity to discriminate “one something from another” goes through language. Yes I get that our “understanding”, our very ability to have thoughts “about” something, depends on language, but I have yet to figure out what sorts of ontological commitments he draws from this approach.

Sellars is clearly one of the great thinkers in the century-long thread of “linguistic analysis” in philosophy, but while a great thinker, he is not a perspicacious writer.

John Searle: Seeing Things as they Are


I gave this book 5 stars in my review and possibly I should have left it at 4. Not only is Searle a bit over confident about consciousness in general (this is not the book’s focus but he does review his position because most perception happens in consciousness), and the validity of his somewhat circular argument for the nature of perception. However for other reasons (I am after all a realist philosopher) I do believe that his description of what it is that perception delivers to mind is correct, and he very effectively compares and contrasts that description to most of the other dominant philosophical threads on the subject. Thus even if his own view is not so perfectly supported, his demolition of competing views is effective.

Searle’s work dovetails with that of Maruzio Ferraris just about perfectly. I mention this in the review, but I want to say something more about the connection here. Both philosophers might be called “common sense realists” despite their emerging from radically different backgrounds; Searle from Anglo-analytic realism, and Ferraris from Continental anti-realism. For Ferraris, the evidence that our senses present (Searle’s term) already structured mind-independent reality is its unamendability. In terms of “objective ontology” a tree cannot be wished or for that matter simply pushed out of your path. In relation to subjective ontology (what vision presents to mind) you cannot simply “see it” ten feet to the left. By contrast, if you close your eyes and merely imagine the tree, you can, in your imagination, move it anywhere you wish. Reality (Ferraris again) also provides affordances. With the proper tools, you can cut the tree down and make a shelter from it. In Searle’s terms, mind-independent reality responds to (fits) our acts upon it.

I have two more books from Searle to read, the subject being social reality. I expect to find more parallels with Ferraris. For Ferraris, the ontologically objective basis of social reality is located in documents, from constitutions and laws to parking tickets and restaurant menus. One of the first things Searle mentions among constructed social phenomena is money, one of Ferraris’ recorded documents whether represented in bills, coins, or bits in computer memory. I expect to find these parallels because both Ferraris and Searle are genuine realists as compared to “speculative realists” like Harman and Meillassoux. For genuine realists the bottom line, the philosophical starting or ending (depending on which way you look at it) has to be, well, logically prior and already structured mind-independent “objective reality”. If realism is true, then all realists have to agree on (start or end with) the same mind-independent reality. This is clearly not the case with the “speculative realists” (see my “Problems with Object Oriented Ontology” and its links). Harman and Meillassoux come to different and mutually exclusive conclusions about what constitutes the mind-independent world because they are not fundamentally realists at all.

Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception (Kindle Edition 2015)

A very good book. Searle’s focus is on perception, particularly vision, but he brings the other senses in as well. He begins by reviewing what he calls the “bad argument” which he claims has misled philosophy for the past few hundred years. His review of the “bad argument” is straight forward but its badness springs directly from its opposition to his own view which he calls “direct realism”, a term he prefers to “naive realism” which nevertheless also fits his position. Searle’s view is like a glass of cool water on a hot day. I would call it “common sense realism”, but M. Ferraris has already adopted that phrase for his “new realism”. The two views have much in common, but Ferraris’ focus is not perception as such. I have reviewed a few of Ferraris’ books elsewhere on Amazon.

In an early chapter on consciousness in general Searle burnishes his materialist credentials by declaring (at least as concerns life on Earth) that consciousness is necessarily associated with brains (which is uncontroversial), but he also declares that brains alone are sufficient to produce consciousness, something that no one (on Earth) knows for sure. This precisely why there is a “hard problem of consciousness”. He repeats this claim a few times but his theory of perception does not hang on it. Another quibble is that he is a little sloppy as concerns statements of cosmological fact. In one of his examples he says “I look at the star and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago”. He could only mean “I look at the stellar explosion” (a nova or supernova) and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago.” If he “sees the star” then the light of its demise has not reached us yet and he could not know that it has already ceased to exist.

Searle begins by recognizing that when we experience something visually, what we have is a “subjective ontology”, a phenomenal experience that philosophers for centuries have called a “sense datum”. The “bad argument” comes down to the belief that this sense datum is really all we KNOW and that for all we know there is nothing about “objective ontology”, the structure of the mind-independent world, to which we have access unless the sense datum represents the objective to the subjective. What has confused philosophy for centuries is the matter of how (or if) this representation actually works. Searle’s argument here is very simple. Our senses, particularly vision and touch, do not merely represent the world, but PRESENT it, presentation being a special case of representation. What constitutes presentation specifically is that there are “conditions of satisfaction” for the presentation. If I see a tree, the sense datum is satisfied (and so presented and not merely represented) by there being an actual tree where I see it. This accounts for hallucinations. If the identical sense datum is hallucinated then the satisfaction criteria are not met, no tree is present where I appear to see it.

Presentation is causal with the direction of cause going from world to mind, objective to subjective. Response (what Searle calls “direction of fit”), on the other hand goes from mind to world. Searle also gets a bit into “action” because it happens that its connection between mind and world is the inverse of perception. Cause goes from mind to world and the “direction of fit” from world to mind. This ties in beautifully with Ferraris’ concepts “unamendability” (perception) and affordance (action). Searle recognizes the matter of will, free will, comes up here but he demurs. I would like to see him talk about it somewhere.

Searle goes on to flesh out perception with a distinction between basic presentational properties like shape, color, motion, and so on, and those properties that require background knowledge on the part of the receiver. Perception is hierarchical. This accounts for the distinction between seeing a shape and color (basic perception) and seeing “an automobile”, and further up the hierarchy (additional background), recognizing “my car”. Importantly, “conditions of satisfaction” lie all the way up the hierarchy and they really apply TO THE OBJECT. The base phenomenology is not only a black object of such and such a size, but a car, and furthermore, it really is my car! All of this makes perfect sense to me, but then I am also a realist. It is hard to imagine not living one’s life in a realist mental environment. If you are about to step off a curb into a lane of traffic but have a visual experience of a black object about the size of a car hurtling down the same lane towards you, you likely ASSUME that the object IS a car and that it makes sense not to step into the lane. You take for granted that the object is being presented and not merely represented to you.

Philosophically though, Searle’s perception requires two assumptions. First that your brain and sensory system are operating within normal parameters, and second that the mind-independent world is genuinely structured AS PRESENTED. It is this mind-independent structure (including I believe its causal relations) that constitutes the “conditions of satisfaction” of the presentation which rests also on the causal relations between perception and the perceived object! For Searle to get his theory of perception out, he has to presuppose that the world is real and already structured having causal properties. The apropos structure must be present to be presented. This is the very assumption that anti-realists want desperately to avoid and it makes Searle’s argument circular. Because of the causal properties, the demand that we live AS IF the world is presented breaks the tie in favor of Searle’s position (and against anti-realism), but I do not recall him acknowledging this circularity..

Apart from this omission, the book is a very refreshing departure from all the anti-realism I’ve been reading lately. It is not a long or very technical read. I highly recommend it.