«Many philosophers take Wilfrid Sellars to have decisively demonstrated the Given to be an untenable notion, and therefore that the Myth of the Given ...»
Jeremy Randel Koons
SELLARS, GIVENNESS, AND EPISTEMIC PRIORITY
ABSTRACT. Recent critics of Sellars’s argument against the Given attack Sellars’s
(purported) conclusion that sensations cannot play a role in the justification of
observation beliefs. I maintain that Sellars can concede that sensations play a role in
justifying observation reports without being forced to concede that they have the
foundational status of an epistemic Given. However, Sellars’s own arguments that observation reports rest, in some sense, on other empirical beliefs are not sufficiently well-developed; nor are his comments concerning internalism, which is crucial to his attack on the Given. As a result, both of these aspects of Sellars’s epistemology have been attacked, and their significance has gone unrecognized by many philosophers. In this paper, I will try to fill in some of the missing pieces, so that we can see that not only are Sellars’s theses concerning internalism and epistemic priority correct, but they represent a devastating attack on the Given, even if Sellars concedes that sensation can play a role in justifying observation beliefs. In short, we will see that these recent arguments in support of the Given have not succeeded in reviving it. The Given remains a myth.
Many philosophers take Wilfrid Sellars to have decisively demonstrated the Given to be an untenable notion, and therefore that the Myth of the Given has been laid to rest. Of course, there have always been dissenters (see, e.g. Alston 1983 and Chisholm 1986). But recently, there have been a spate of criticisms aimed at reviving the notion of the Given (see, e.g. Alston 1998, Bonevac 2002, and Vinci 1998).
I will argue that these criticisms share a common thread. Namely, they attack Sellars’s (purported) conclusion that sensations (or “appearings” or “lookings,” etc.; for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to all of these as “sensations” in this introduction) cannot play a role in the justification of observation beliefs. I will argue that Sellars can concede this point to the critics (i.e., he can admit that sensations can stand in a justificatory relation to observational belief) without having to admit that these sensations have the foundational status of an epistemological Given. Even if sensations play a role in justification, this does not show that they can serve as a Given to justify empirical beliefs and vindicate epistemological foundationalism. The further In: M.P. Wolf and M.N. Lance (eds.), The Self-Correcting Enterprise: Essays on Wilfrid Sellars (Poznań Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 92), pp. 147-172.
Amsterdam/NewYork: Rodopi, 2006.
148 Jeremy Randel Koons question, often neglected (but not by Sellars), is “What else would need to be in place before these sensations could serve to justify our empirical knowledge?” We will see that many other epistemic states must be in place before sensation can serve a justificatory role, and that crucially, these states are epistemically prior to sensation.
However, Sellars’s own comments on epistemic priority (his famous discussion of reliability and “standard viewing conditions”) are not sufficiently well-developed; nor are his comments concerning internalism, which is crucial to his attack on the Given. As a result, both of these aspects of Sellars’s epistemology have been attacked, and their significance has gone unrecognized by many philosophers. In this paper, I will try to fill in some of the missing pieces, so that we can see that not only are Sellars’s theses concerning internalism and epistemic priority correct, but they represent a devastating attack on the Given, even if Sellars concedes that sensation can play a role in justifying observation beliefs. Ultimately, we will be in a better position to see the truth in Sellars’s comment that “if there is a logical dimension in which other empirical propositions rest on observation reports, there is another logical dimension in which the latter rest on the former” (1997, §38/p. 78). In short, this result shows that these recent attacks on the Given have not succeeded in reviving it. The Given remains a myth.
The paper is structured as follows. First, we will outline Sellars’s arguments against the epistemic significance of sensations and “lookings” or “appearings.” Next, we will discuss several authors’ attacks on Sellars’s position. Finally, we will discuss and extend Sellars’s views on internalism and epistemic priority, and show how this aspect of Sellars’s philosophy undermines his critics’ attempts to revive the Given.
1. The Given
In “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” (1997: hereinafter, EPM), Sellars is attempting to demonstrate how we can do without the Given in a number of areas in philosophy. He wishes to show that we can explain linguistic meanings, private episodes (both thoughts and impressions), empirical “seemings” or “lookings,” and the justification of non-inferential observation reports without appealing to the Given in any form. Despite the broad range of targets discussed in Sellars’s essay, most philosophers’ discussion of the Given focuses on the role the Given is supposed to play in observation. Clearly, this
is an important target for Sellars; consider the opening sentence in his essay:
Sellars, Givenness, and Epistemic Priority I presume that no philosopher who has attacked the philosophical idea of givenness or, to use the Hegelian term, immediacy, has intended to deny that there is a difference between inferring that something is the case and, for example, seeing it to be the case. (1997, §1/p. 13) Right from the start, Sellars puts the role played by the Given in observation in his sights. Two pages later, he writes, “[T]he point of the epistemological category of the given is, presumably, to explicate the idea that empirical knowledge rests on a ‘foundation’ of non-inferential knowledge of matter of fact” (1997, §3/p. 15). The recent criticisms of Sellars on which I would like to focus are directed toward this notion of the experiential Given, and the role it is supposed to play in foundationalist epistemology.
What is this notion of the experiential Given? Fundamentally, it is the idea that any experience or sensation could be epistemically significant merely in virtue of its occurrence. In the context of foundationalist epistemology, the Given is an episode (generally, a sensation) which, merely in virtue of appearing, justifies some belief or other. Thus, according to the Myth of the Given, having a red sensation directly entails that one knows (non-inferentially) that one is looking at a red object.1 For example, my belief that this tie is green is, on this view, wholly justified by the presence of a green sensation or sensing. It is this view that Sellars attacks.
A common form of the Myth of the Given is involved with sense data theory, the theory that we sense sense-data, and it is these data that justify our observation beliefs. Sellars famously presents the sense-data theorist with a dilemma regarding the epistemic role of sensation. Sellars asks what exactly is sensed in sensation. The two possible answers (particulars or facts) form a
(a) It is particulars which are sensed. Sensing is not knowing. The existence of sense-data does not logically imply the existence of knowledge.
(b) Sensing is a form of knowing. It is facts rather than particulars which are sensed (1997, §3/p. 16).
Neither of these two options, it is thought, allows the Given to play the epistemic role it is supposed to play in foundationalism. As Sellars notes, on the first option, sensing does not entail knowing. All knowing, according to Sellars, involves classification. (In this, Sellars’s debt to Kant is clear, as Kant held that all judgment involves subsumption under a general rule or category.) 1 Sellars (1997, §6/p. 21). In this section, Sellars spells out the notion in terms of the sense datum theory. He writes that on the sense datum version of the Myth of the Given, “X senses red sense content s entails x non-inferentially knows that s is red.” 150 Jeremy Randel Koons If it is a particular that is sensed, then sensing cannot be knowing – the element of generality is missing. Since a key element of the Given is that sensing entails knowing, the first option abandons the Given. But on the second option – sensing is knowing, and it is facts which are sensed – sensation plays a justificatory role, but because sensing is knowing, it itself stands in need of justification and support.
Sellars’s Dilemma has been given a reconstruction which extends its reach beyond sense-data theories to any theory which tries to give sensation a
justificatory role in observation. Here is BonJour’s reconstruction:
The basic idea of givenness... is to distinguish two aspects of ordinary cognitive states, their capacity to justify other cognitive states and their own need for justification, and then to try to find a kind of state which possesses only the former aspect and not the latter – a state of immediate apprehension or intuition. But we can now see plainly that any such attempt is fundamentally misguided and intrinsically hopeless. For it is clear on reflection that it is one and the same feature of a cognitive state, namely, its assertive or at least representational content, which both enables it to confer justification on other states and also creates the need for it to be itself justified – thus making it impossible in principle to separate these two aspects. (1985, p. 78) Sellars responds to the dilemma by distinguishing between sensing and non-inferentially knowing. Sensing is non-conceptual and non-epistemic – but then sensing does not entail knowing. Sensing is a causal prerequisite for knowledge, but it does not play a justificatory role. On the other hand, there is non-inferential knowing, such as when I observe that a tie is green. In such observations, it is facts that are known – but this knowledge of facts stands in need of justification, and presupposes much other knowledge. And so proponents of the Given will find no support from Sellars’s view of observation and non-inferential knowledge.
Sellars’s discussion of the epistemic role of sensation continues with his well-known discussion of “looks-talk.” Many philosophers have held that sentences such as “The apple looks red to me” (a) are incorrigible and (b) represent an autonomous type of discourse, one that (in Brandom’s phrase) reports “a minimal, non-inferentially ascertainable, foundationally basic fact” (1997, p. 139). A foundationalist might be tempted to use such “lookings” or “appearings” as a foundation for our empirical knowledge; that is, she might try to use how things look or appear as a foundation for building up knowledge of how things are. Famously, Sellars denies both (a) and (b). Sellars writes, Now the suggestion I wish to make is, in its simplest terms, that the statement “X looks green to Jones” differs from “Jones sees that x is green” in that whereas the latter both ascribes a propositional claim to Jones’s experience and Sellars, Givenness, and Epistemic Priority endorses it, the form ascribes the claim but does not endorse it. (1997, §16/pp. 40-41) Thus, looks-talk only appears incorrigible; in reality, it is not incorrigible.
Nor is it corrigible: it is neither, since it is does not really assert anything.
Jones cannot be mistaken when he says, “This tie looks green to me,” but only because he is not endorsing the claim that the tie is green. Brandom explains
the point as follows:
One can be wrong about whether something is green because the claim one endorses... may turn out to be incorrect... But in saying that something looks green, one is not endorsing a claim, but withholding endorsement from one.