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Summary Article: Sellars, Wilfrid (1912–89) from Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Epistemology

American philosopher. The epistemological view most closely associated with Wilfrid Sellars is surely his thoroughgoing critique of what he called “the Myth of the Given”. The philosophical framework of givenness has historically taken on many guises, of which classical sense-datum theory is but one. But Sellars considered the very idea that empirical knowledge rests on a foundation at all, of whatever kind, to be a manifestation of the Myth of the Given, as was the assumption that one’s “privileged access” to one’s own mental states is a primitive feature of experience, logically and epistemologically prior to all intersubjective concepts pertaining to inner episodes. At the heart of Sellars’ critique of “the entire framework of givenness” is his articulate recognition of the irreducibly normative character of epistemic discourse.

The essential point is that in characterizing 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.

(1956, p. 169)
The mere occurrence of “experiences,” however causally systematic, consequently does not yet constitute perception in the epistemic sense that allows for a meaningful contrast of “veridical perception” and “misperception”. Perception in this sense is always of something as something, and so requires more than mere exercise of differential response propensities. In so far as an instance of perceiving something as such-and-so is a candidate for epistemic appraisal, it necessarily encompasses the judgement that something is such-and-so, and a fortiori a classification of its content under concepts. It follows that the senses per se grasp no facts, and so it becomes clear that

instead of coming to have a concept of something because we have noticed that sort of thing, to have the ability to notice a sort of thing is already to have the concept of that sort of thing, and cannot account for it.

(1956, p. 176)
Consonant with his rejection of the Myth of the Given, Sellars proceeded to interpret an individual’s first-person epistemic authority with respect to aspects of his or her own experience as built on and presupposing an intersubjective status for sensory concepts. Correlatively, sensory consciousness cannot provide a form of knowledge of empirical facts that is “foundational” in being immediate (non-inferential), presupposing no knowledge of other matters of fact (particular or general), and constituting the ultimate court of appeals for all other factual claims. Although a person can indeed directly know an empirical fact in a sense which implies that he has not inferred what he justifiably believes from other propositions, Sellars insisted that the belief constituting such direct knowledge was not on that account somehow self-justifying, self-warranting, or self-authenticating. Rather

to say that someone directly knows that-p is to say that his right to the conviction that-p essentially involves the fact that the idea [belief] that-p occurred to the knower in a specific way. I shall call this kind of credibility “trans-level credibility,” and [speak of] the inference scheme ... to which it refers, as trans-level inference.

(Sellars, 1963a; p. 88)
So, for example, when someone sees there to be a red apple in front of him – a perceptual taking that Sellars models by a candid, spontaneous thinking-out-loud of the form: “Lo! Here is a red apple” – then,

given that he has learned how to use the relevant words in perceptual situations, he is justified in reasoning as follows:

I just thought-out-loud “Lo! Here is a red apple” (no countervailing conditions obtain); so there is good reason to believe that there is a red apple in front of me.

(1975a, pp. 341–2)
This reasoning does not have the original perceptual judgement as its conclusion, but is rather an inference from the character and context of the original non-inferential experience to the existence of a good reason for accepting it as veridical. The “trans-level” character of such a justificatory argument derives from the fact that its main premise asserts the occurrence (in a certain manner and context) of precisely the belief that is warranted by the reasoning as a whole, and it is this fact, too, that creates the impression that the belief in question is somehow self-warranting.

Sellars’ thoroughgoingly holistic view of cognition and justification (see HOLISM) implies that the reasonableness of accepting even first principles is a matter of the availability of good arguments warranting their acceptance (Sellars, 1988). What is definitive of first principles, FP, is the unavailability of sound reasonings in which they are derived from still more basic premises:


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Therefore, FP

The unavailability of sound reasonings of the form (A1), however, is entirely compatible with the existence of good “trans-level” arguments of the form:


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Therefore, it is reasonable to accept FP,

in whose conclusion the principle FP is, in essence, mentioned.

Since accepting principles is something persons do, Sellars interpreted the conclusion of (A2) as the claim that a particular course of epistemic conduct could be supported by adequate reasons, i.e. that there is a sound practical argument whose conclusion expresses the intention to engage in such conduct:


I shall achieve desirable epistemic end E

Achieving E implies accepting principles of kind K.

The principle FP is of kind K Therefore, I shall accept FP.

On Sellars’ view the forms of justificatory reasoning governing the acceptance of individual lawlike generalizations (both universal and statistical) and whole theoretical systems mobilize just such patterns of practical inference. Adopting a systematic theoretical framework is ultimately justified by an appeal to the epistemic end of “being able to give non-trivial explanatory accounts of established laws” (1964, p. 384); and adopting statistical nomologicals which project the observed frequency of a property in a class (including the case in which this frequency = 1) to unobserved finite samples of the class, by the epistemic end of

being able to draw inferences concerning the composition with respect to a given property Y of unexamined finite samples ... of a kind, X, in a way which also provides an explanatory account of the composition with respect to Y of the total examined sample, K, of X.

(1964, p. 392)
Crucially, these epistemic ends are concerned with “the realizing of a logically necessary condition of being in the framework of explanation and prediction” at all (1964, p. 397). Since, on Sellars’ view, inductive reasoning does not need to vindicated, i.e. shown to be truth-preserving, but rather is itself a form of vindication, i.e. (deductive) practical justificatory reasoning, the ends-in-view to which it appeals must be capable of being known to obtain or be realized. The end of being in possession of laws and principles that enable one to draw predictive inferences and produce explanatory accounts satisfies this practical constraint: such Reichenbachian ends as being in possession of (approximately) true limit-frequency statements, where such limits exist, do not.

See also THE GIVEN.

  • Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” in Sellars 1963, pp. 127-96.
  • Science, Perception and Reality (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963).
  • Phenomenalism,” in Sellars 1963, pp. 60-105; cited as (1963a).
  • Induction as Vindication,” in Sellars 1975, pp. 367-416.
  • Philosophical Perspectives (Springfield, IL: Thomas, 1967); reprinted in two volumes, Philosophical Perspectives: History of Philosophy and Philosophical Perspectives: Metaphysics and Epistemology (Reseda, CA: Ridgeview, 1977).
  • Essays in Philosophy and Its History (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1975a).
  • The Structure of Knowledge,” in Action, Knowledge, and Reality, ed. Castaneda, H.-N. (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975b).
  • The Carus Lectures for 1977–8, The Monist 64 (1981).
  • On Accepting First Principles,” Philosophical Perspectives 2 (1989). Contains a complete bibliography of Sellars’ published work through 1989.
  • Wiley ©2010

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