Sellars’ “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” shows how a little intellectual honesty, a lot of hard work, and the tightest anus on the block can elevate one to Mythical Status in a tradition that values these three things in all the wrong proportions.  This status is puzzling, though, for several reasons.  First, Dewey asked and answered essentially the same question about so-called immediate knowledge of presumable givens as the basis for justifying inferences in a chapter called, no less, “Immediate Knowledge: Understanding and Inference.”  So why the rush to see the issue raised again?  Second, it wouldn’t be a stretch in the least to say that a main theme of Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (where that chapter occurs) is precisely what Sellars concludes in EPM—namely, that “justification,” such as it is, must be sought in the public “space of reasons,” a space where, for Dewey at least, competing knowledge claims are tested against one another by their consequences, not their conformity to an antecedent reality apprehended through privileged representations.  So again, where’s all the excitement coming from?  Finally, in another place Dewey even one-ups Sellars on Kant—a figure Sellars discussed in great detail, and from whom he draws considerable influence.  For Dewey noted, and Sellars did not, that Kant places the justification of knowledge claims in the union of two givens (concepts and intuitions), thus violating the “myth of the given” not once but twice.  Since Dewey was the first to point out that Kant’s principle error was to place the justifying union of two givens in the private and essentially unknowable realm of transcendental operations occurring ‘in the mind’, it’s hard to see much novelty in Sellars’ treatment, at least as far as the essential points go.  So if the substance of the “myth of the given” was worked out a generation before Sellars, why the Mythical Status he has in anal-lytic philosophy?  Why, for that matter, even bring him up now?

Because however unoriginal in insights, EPM is original in error.  That is, although Dewey pre-empted the useful lessons of EPM by about 40 years, he didn’t make a critical error Sellars makes, one that undermines the validity of his valid repetitions.

For Sellars, “all awareness of sorts, resemblances, facts, etc., in short, all awareness of abstract entities—indeed all awareness of even particulars—is a linguistic affair.  According to it, not [sic] even awareness of such sorts, resemblances, and facts as pertain to so-called immediate experience is presupposed by the process of acquiring the use of language.”[1] This is the “psychological nominalism” which contextualizes his specific arguments against “givens,” without providing them with all of their logical force.  But his anal-lysis in the main does hinge upon it, and in any case, however critical, it is both incorrect and unnecessary to dissuade any compulsion towards epistemically foundational “givens.”

It is incorrect in so far as some of the “all” Sellars considers—specifically resemblances, in a sense “sorts,” in a sense “particulars,” not to mention patterns and kinds—all these have been experimentally determined not just to precede linguistic awareness but also to make language acquisition possible in the first place.  For instance, it is known that infants detect within the undifferentiated (to them!) stream of adult speech specific, particular phonemes to such an extent that their non-canonical phonetic babbling starts to include actual canonical phonemes through imitation and repetition at about 8 months.  How they isolate these particulars from an undifferentiated (to them!) stream of speech remains controversial, but the fact that they do does not.  This process requires, minimally, awareness not just of particulars and resemblances, but also awareness of the repetition of particulars differentiated from other particulars in a pattern of streaming sorts—in a word, it requires discrimination.  Additionally, as infants go from babbling to canonical babbling, other sorts of awareness of resemblances, particulars, and patterns go into effect, enabling them to begin forming repeated combinations of these now recognized phonemes into words that resemble adult words– again, particulars.  So whatever the mechanisms through which this occurs– and they remain largely unknown– almost certainly some process of evaluation after discrimination of particulars within kinds is taking place, otherwise resemblance would not be possible.  If recognition, particularization, differentiation, resemblances and “sorts” (read “patterns”) did not precede language acquisition in some kind of evaluation, it would be impossible, given what we know scientifically, to account for how language is acquired.  This is a distinct problem for a psychological nominalist who says that the knowledge derived by science is the first and last “the measure of all things.”[2]

Now it would be a mere tautology to say that the logical conceptions of all these resemblances, sorts, particulars, facts etc. all those “abstract entities,” are presupposed by “the process of acquiring the use of language,” since these logical forms do in fact emerge from and are applied to its use—without, it might be added, being reducible to that original, existential origin and later existential application.  But that point, one independent of psychological nominalism, was already made by Dewey when he argued that formal logic is the accrual of forms to the ‘use of language’ in its functional capacity in controlled inquiry.  He even offered a rather detailed account of the origin and use of some of those forms.  Given that Dewey both preempted Sellars’ rather tortured and marginally useful arguments against recourse to foundationally epistemic “givens,” and that he offered essentially the same idea that justification occurs propositionally in the “public space of reasons”—both without recourse to an incorrect theory (psychological nominalism): it is hard to see how the Myth of Sellars even began.   Perhaps Rorty’s notion of what is familiar in established paradigms explains it, for in his own take on “psychological nominalism”—on which his own main argument relies—he says: “nothing counts as justification unless by reference to what we already accept, and that there is no way to get outside our beliefs and our language so as to find some test other than coherence.” Since that ‘truth as coherence of discourse’ is the main point he and other anal-lytic philosophers are so fond of making, could that be the appeal– mere confirmation bias? Does that consequence of the theory account for the endurance of “The Myth of the Given”?

If so, it’s best just to dismiss the whole route, for this stripe of nominalism employs a rather useless metaphor that language is something we need to get “outside of” in the first place, as though we aren’t always to some extent “outside” it already—something evident in the cognition both before and in the process of learning it, and as we struggle for the right words to say what we want to say about the world and each other in the process of using it, once we already have it.  It’s also best to dismiss it because it can’t even account for new knowledge, only the demonstration of old knowledge, which calls into question its use as a theory on a deeper level, in that it can’t explain what in fact occurs in all successful attempts to know.  Unless you are willing to throw the baby of knowledge out with the bathwater of absolute or foundational justification in “givens”—as Rorty is but Sellars most emphatically is not—then psychological nominalism of both varieties (Sellars’ and Rorty’s) has rather unappealing consequences, probably because the first one happens to be empirically false and the second one both empirically false and so diluted from the original as to pragmatically useless to boot.

Perhaps it is more satisfying to late-in-coming psychological nominalists to have their own reflections mirrored back to them, but this mirroring defies the essential thrust of pragmatism, and the actual movement of science.  But does not this mirroring speak to the foundation of Mythical Status in anyone?


[1] It is puzzling that despite all the citations and the profound influence of this passage, it’s not mentioned that only by eliminating “not” does the point make sense.

[2] If one finds the use of “particulars” and “resemblances” and what not problematic in this point about language acquisition, the anus refers any skeptical reader to the rather large empirical literature establishing infant cognition regarding—i.e. awareness of—particulars, properties, causality, basic number sense, abstract numbers, object permanence, familiar versus unfamiliar faces, maternal versus non-maternal voices, racial preferences, and helpful intentions.  That this literature all came well after Sellar’s own thoughts about awareness and language is no excuse for thinking about it in such in a way that makes investigation into the matter not just impossible but pointless.



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