WSS Interview #1: Willem deVries

Welcome to the first in what we hope will be a long, and very interesting, series of WSS interviews, an interview with our very own WSS President: Professor Willem deVries.

Professor deVries was a Ph.D. student of Wilfrid Sellars (University of Pittsburgh, 1981) and teaches at the University of New Hampshire. He wrote his dissertation on Hegel’s philosophy of mind, of which his first book, Hegel’s Theory of Mental Activity, is a successor.

deVries started writing on Sellars in 2000 as a biographer and historian, with a series of short articles on Sellars’ in World Philosophy. He has since become a foremost authority on his thinking. He is the author of numerous books and articles on Sellars, including: (with Timm Triplett) Knowledge, Mind, and the Given: Reading Wilfrid Sellars’s “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” (2000), Wilfrid Sellars (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), and is the editor of Empiricism, Perceptual Knowledge, Normativity and Realism: Essays on Wilfrid Sellars (Oxford University Press, 2009). His most recent article is, “Ontology and the Completeness of Sellars’s Two Images” (in Between Two Images: The Manifest and Scientific Conceptions of the Human Being, 50 Years On, Humana.Mente, ed. Carlo Gabbani, 2012).

In this wide-ranging inaugural WSS interview, Professor deVries discusses how we came to philosophy and to study with Sellars, Sellars’ complex relationship with analytic philosophy, the tension between left- and right-wing Sellarsians, and more.



What initially drew you to philosophy? And when did you realize that you wanted to be a philosopher?

The initial draw had to be a natural love of argument and enjoyment in the play of ideas. Already in elementary school I was arguing with my friends about God’s existence. I was a card-carrying atheist by 5th or 6th grade, and I really enjoyed those arguments. (The background is familiar to many: my parents weren’t very religious. My mother was from non-practicing Jewish stock; my father apostate Dutch Reformed. But they still felt the need for their kids to have something, so we were raised Unitarian-Universalist.) My parents were also socially involved through the church in the civil rights movement, so there were arguments about issues of justice and social policy. A bit later on, in high school, I started arguing against the Vietnam War in part because no one else was critical of the war (this was mid-‘60s, and we’d moved to Lynchburg, VA, a pretty conservative town). And I did a great job of convincing myself that that war was ill-conceived and ill-executed. I have to give some credit to my civics teachers, who did a good job of fostering an open debate in a culture that wasn’t sure openness was a value. I was also involved in some of the local racial politics – voter registration drives, the campaign to elect a black city councilman. I was not popular with the redneck contingent in high school, but, fortunately, I was big enough that my physical safety was not often in jeopardy (unlike some of my smaller friends in our little left-wing cell). But the tensions my senior year in high school — the year Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated — were palpable. Walking down the halls became an exercise in forbearance, because the redneck jocks loved to bump into all the people they didn’t like. Needless to say, going off to Haverford College, a Quaker school, was like getting out of prison; no, better than that, it was entry into a garden of abundance.

But there were plenty of specific indicators that I would enjoy philosophy. I remember one night in my sophomore year of high school. We had just moved to Lynchburg, so I didn’t have any friends and I was reading a lot. I’d read all the books I had, so I started cruising my mother’s shelves and happened to pull down her copy of Plato’s Republic, which she’d read in her own college philosophy course. As I recall, I did get through Book I, and I now know how little I understood of it. But I did envy Socrates’ ability to confute his interlocutors: I definitely wanted to know how to do that. My sister was in college at the time, living at home, and she took a philosophy class. She didn’t like it that much, but she said that I would love it. She knows me well, so I took that seriously. Similarly, my mother seemed to think philosophy would suit me; she certainly never raised any of the objections to it that parents so commonly do. She supported my decision to go into philosophy whole-heartedly, even proudly.

So the stars were already in alignment by the time I went off to Haverford. Haverford’s Philosophy Department was small, though now that I think about it, for a college of only 650, 5 tenure track members is a decent size. They were all fine teachers, and there were several visiting professors while I was there who were also excellent. Philosophy was hot at Haverford in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. My graduating class was a bit less than 150, and 20 of them were philosophy majors — only English had more majors! I bit, hook, line, and sinker. The department was pretty balanced. Three of the five were from Yale: Josiah (Tink) Thompson, who wrote on Kierkegaard, made a name for himself with Six Seconds in Dallas and several years later left his tenured position at Haverford to become a private detective. Paul Desjardins, who specialized in Ancient Philosophy, was a devout Catholic, and deeply influenced by Eastern thought — a mixture that was certainly intriguing.

My main influence, though, was Dick Bernstein. He’d come recently to Haverford after the self-destruction of the department at Yale. His tenure case was one of the straws that broke the back of the Yale department. He was denied, and the students protested loudly, and Haverford was smart enough to grab him. Dick is an amazing teacher. His seminars are works of art that I have always measured my own against (and come up wanting). He could foster an apparently free and open discussion that somehow always managed to get across all the points he wanted made. He was in control, yet almost invisible. Dick gave me a lot of opportunities. He was editor of the Review of Metaphysics at the time, and I became an editorial assistant, as one of my student jobs, though I really was the bookkeeper for the Review. I even babysat his kids occasionally. My senior year he took me on as an assistant in his Intro class — which I don’t think he’d done before — allowing me to lead discussion sections of the class. That was my first taste of teaching philosophy. And Dick gave me individualized reading classes, which we’ll come back to. I owe Bernstein a huge amount; he’s one of my models.

The other members of the Department included Aryeh Kosman, who was working on Aristotle. One of my big regrets is that I never had a class with Kosman. He was on leave two of my four years at Haverford, so it just never worked out. And Ashok Gangadean, a student of Fred Sommers. Ashok was the newbie in the department, coming to Haverford the same year I did. In my junior year, he gave a reading class on Wittgenstein to four of us, meeting in his living room, that had me absolutely enthralled. Among the visitors I had classes with Robert Kane and Louis Mackey deserve mention. I also went down to UPenn for a class with Anscombe my senior year. Well, that’s probably more than you want to know.

How did you end up studying with Sellars?

My junior year I took a Kant course. But it wasn’t one of the Haverford faculty, there was a visitor teaching it. I didn’t like the course much, so I won’t mention his name. He seemed to have just a few things to say about Kant, and said them over and over. As supplementary readings to help us with Kant, he had us order Strawson’s The Bounds of Sense and Sellars’s Science and Metaphysics, both recent publications. I got something out of the Strawson, but it was a struggle — Strawson isn’t much, if any, easier than Kant. I distinctly remember trying the Sellars and getting only to page 9 before feeling totally lost. But it was weird: I didn’t get the sense that Sellars was just talking nonsense or spewing jargon. He was saying things I wanted to understand but did not know how to get a grasp of. Dick Bernstein asked me about how that course had gone, and I did some complaining, including mentioning this book I couldn’t make sense of, but was nonetheless attracted to. Of course, Dick knew Sellars well (his article “Sellars’s vision of man-in-the-universe” *Review of Metaphysics* 20 (1966): 113-43, 290-312, is still one of the best treatments of Sellars) and had tremendous respect for him and his work. He explained in a way I could understand how Sellars was working out a Kantian approach that dispensed with the mysterious thing-in-itself in favor of a scientific realism, and I started to get excited about it. Dick offered to give me an individual reading course in Sellars. We read the essays in Science, Perception and Reality in the fall semester of my senior year. I was blown away by PSIM: I don’t think I grokked the details to any significant degree, but the overall vision felt like home to me. BBK also excited me. I learned a lot, though I know that I didn’t penetrate more than a level or two in those essays. But you have to start somewhere. Then, second semester senior year, it was time to write a senior thesis. I had talked with Dick about several possibilities, but eventually zeroed in on comparing Sellars and Merleau-Ponty on perception. I had to teach myself the Merleau-Ponty, with Dick’s help, of course. And I worked harder that semester than I had ever worked before. But it paid off. The thesis won High Honors in Philosophy.

The department at Haverford did not think of itself as preparing its majors for graduate school, and they didn’t encourage going to grad school in philosophy. I thought it was probably something I wanted to do, but I wasn’t entirely sure, so I didn’t apply to grad school while at Haverford. My girlfriend at the time had gotten a job in the Undergrad Library at UNC, so we moved to Chapel Hill (well, actually Carrboro). And I started looking for a job. And looking. And looking. There was a surfeit of well-educated people looking for jobs in the Chapel Hill area in 1972, and I had a degree from a place few North Carolinians had ever heard of, so my job search was frustratingly unsuccessful. It got so bad, I even signed on to try selling insurance. And I was probably the worst insurance salesman ever. In the meantime, a couple of things happened. I sat in on part of a Sellars Seminar that Jay Rosenberg was giving at UNC. I’m grateful to Jay for letting me do that. And after a couple of months of job-hunting frustration and the accompanying blues, I started to go to the library with my girlfriend every morning and stay there until lunch, reading philosophy. I read Robert Paul Wolff’s Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity, Hegel’s Lesser Logic, and some other things. And that turned my mood around and revivified my self-esteem and sense of purpose. Figuring things out then was easy: If I could and would do philosophy on my own, without assignments, deadlines, and grades, and have fun at it, then I needed to try to do it for a living. If I was going to go to grad school, then I’d like to study with Sellars. So I quickly put together an application to Pitt — having no idea how good a department it really was. (I did not do any of the kind of research into grad schools that I recommend to my own students. I was lucky, not good.) I sent them a copy of my senior thesis and I assume Dick Bernstein gave me a pretty strong recommendation, and I got in. As a side note, by that point my girlfriend had left UNC for a higher-paying job in Greensboro, NC, and I had finally landed a job as the assistant order clerk in the Library at Guilford College, a North Carolina Quaker school that had actually heard of Haverford. The people there were great, but the graduate assistantship Pitt gave me paid better than that job.

Here’s a postscript: When I got to Pitt, I was all excited because Sellars’s seminar that semester was just titled “Philosophical Topics” or something equally neutral, so we assumed it meant it would be pretty much on his current work. And that was right. The very first class I sat right in the front row, and Sellars read us his then current work: “Givenness and Explanatory Coherence.” I didn’t understand a word of it. I went home ready to cry; what had I gotten myself into? I still find that essay nearly impenetrable, and Sellars came back and tried it all over again in “More on Givenness and Explanatory Coherence,” so he must have recognized that the essay was not a piece of perfection. In any case, that was my initiation.

It seems that everyone that studied with Sellars found him to be an excellent teacher. What can you tell us about his teaching?

He was an excellent lecturer. I sat in on his Kant course several times. He didn’t use many notes; by that time, he must have taught the course 20 to 30 times. He did use the blackboard a lot. As others have mentioned, he started the course with a fairly simple diagram of a mind-body duo in the midst of Being, representing it, and then started complicating and refining the diagram to both take account of and explicate what Kant was doing. He really thought that if you read a philosopher closely enough, you could figure out what the ‘picture’ was he was operating with.

‘Picture’ is used here pretty literally. Pictures or diagrams were, he seemed to think, as important for philosophers as they were for Euclid. The class was listed as upper-level undergraduate/lower-level graduate, so the graduate students tended to dominate the discussion, with some notable exceptions. Sellars clearly enjoyed dealing with good questions or text-based challenges. He would tell us to flag certain passages in the CPR that he thought were particularly revealing.

When it came to dissertation direction, it took some getting used to working with him. I would write a chapter and give it to him, and a week later we’d sit down and talk. He never got down to talking about particular claims or sentences, however, the talk was all at a fairly high and abstract level. So I’d have to go home and think about why Sellars talked about that: just how was all that high-level talk relevant to the text I’d produced? And I always ended up finding the discussion very helpful. But it was Annette Baier who held my feet to the fire in terms of staying true to the Hegelian texts I was concerned with.

I don’t think I made the best use of Sellars as a teacher. I’m pretty reserved, even shy, and I found him pretty intimidating. There were some students who seemed to have a much easier or more familiar relation with him, such as Pedro Amaral. But I just couldn’t relax that much in his company. He was not himself socially easy, so we certainly never were friends. I also think he’d changed from the person he’d been at Minnesota or Yale, where he was famously accessible to his students. He wasn’t inaccessible by the time I got to him — it was easy to make an appointment to see him — but he was more guarded, I think. I think the events of 1967/8 took a toll on him. The Locke lectures were not a success, his wife committed suicide; it was not a good year for him. I took him out to dinner once — we ate at Frankie Gustine’s — and I cannot say it was a success. I was really nervous and pretty tongue-tied, and we never reached a point of relaxed conversation.

Here’s a specific regret. One semester his seminar was on topics in early modern philosophy, and my paper/presentation was on Spinoza, specifically comparing Spinoza’s insistence on the isomorphism between states of mind and states of bodies with Sellars’s insistence on an isomorphism between some items in the order of conception and some in the order of being. I worked hard on it and it seemed to go fairly well. At least Sellars didn’t just trash it. But then I did something very uncommon: after all that work on the paper, I skipped the next meeting of the seminar, feeling like I’d earned a break. I’ve always been pretty compulsive about going to class, so that was highly uncharacteristic for me. And then I heard that Sellars had been p.o.’d, because he’d come to class ready to say a few things more about the Sellars/Spinoza comparison I’d made, and I was not there. I found that embarrassing. One of the few times I missed a class, and it turned out to be a badly missed opportunity. I’m still mad at myself for that blunder.

How has Sellars influenced your practice of philosophy?

You know, I find that hard to answer, because his influence is so pervasive that it is difficult to point to any particular set of things and say, “that’s what I learned from Sellars.” But I can pick out a few things worth mentioning. I’ll try to avoid talking about particular doctrines I accept from Sellars, because you ask about the practice of philosophy.

One is what you could call a universal professional respect. Sellars respected the philosophical tradition deeply; he thought everyone who’d made an impact on the tradition had his finger on something important and worth learning. His attitude towards the history of philosophy was so different from that of the narrow-minded analysts who disregarded most of the history of philosophy as a history of error and not worth bothering with. He certainly did not believe that ‘real’ philosophy began with Russell and Moore or Frege. Sellars could be more dismissive of some of his contemporaries — he didn’t have anything good to say about Karl Popper, as I recall — but even with his contemporaries he cast his net far wider than most analytic philosophers. He knew his Husserl very well, and he loved arguing with various strains of Catholic philosophy — it was no accident that he visited Notre Dame frequently. I even recall a few mentions of Heidegger in his classes. This catholic (small ‘c’) attitude toward philosophy resonated with what I’d learned at Haverford, and in particular from Dick Bernstein, so I cannot say I learned it from Sellars, but he certainly reinforced and cemented it in my approach to philosophy.

The idea that every significant philosopher has something important to contribute — where “significant” isn’t a narrow filter — also makes it harder to say how Sellars himself influenced my practice of philosophy. Philosophy has been practiced in many ways and many different keys, so if you take Sellarsian panphilosophical respect seriously, it’s hard to believe that there is a right way or a wrong way to do philosophy. The fact that there’s no right and no wrong way to do philosophy, of course, doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between good and bad philosophy. But I think it might make it harder to figure out what one’s own practice of philosophy is. For many years, I think I was clearer about the philosophical vocabulary in which I was comfortable than I was about what exactly I was doing with it.

Let me get at my point this way: Sellars clearly thought of himself as an analytic philosopher. And between Essays in Philosophical Analysis and Philosophical Studies – the first journal expressly devoted to analytic philosophy –, Sellars contributed a lot to the shape of post- war analytic philosophy. But it has become increasingly clear to me over the years that Sellars stands in a very complex relation to mainstream analytic philosophy, however one defines it. The very title ‘analytic’ philosophy implies a fundamentally atomistic approach: break things down to elemental parts and show how the full-fledged phenomena are built from arrangements of such parts. That conception of method was powerful throughout the early modern period, and after the interlude of German Idealism, came roaring back in analytic philosophy. Sellars certainly has his ‘analytic’ moments, but it is easy to see that there is little in his philosophy of a search for simple elements out of which things can be constructed or reconstructed. He doesn’t assume that’s the way to go about doing epistemology, semantics, ontology, or ethics.

He describes his method instead as finding (sometimes constructing) models. But it is not essential to a good model that it have some atomistic structure, only that it provide an idealized abstraction of some domain that we can utilize to better understand that domain. Sometimes that is an atomistic structure, but often not. Often the model frames a context within which the relevant phenomenon becomes intelligible. Models can work well for us even when we haven’t an atomistic understanding of the modeling domain. Taking our concepts of intentionality to be modeled on semantic concepts makes that kind of move. And taking semantic concepts to be functional classifiers rather than expressions of relations also deviates from the traditional conception of reconstruction from atomistic elements. But looking for the larger context is not the sole method in philosophy either. As Sellars says, there is a systole and diastole in philosophy in which analysis and synthesis have to be kept in balance.

There is also some negative influence I can see: Sellars’s own papers, rich as they are, are more difficult than they need to be because he habitually allowed them to be structurally opaque. He’s bad about telling the reader where he’s going and how he’s going to get there. When I write, I try to avoid that structural opacity. I aim for clarity. My papers may not be as profound or worthy of repeated pondering, but I think they are intelligible and satisfyingly clear.

Your dissertation was on Hegel. Can you tell us how you started working on Hegel.

Strangely, I never took Dick Bernstein’s Hegel course at Haverford. It was, apparently, an awesome course. But I trusted Dick’s judgment so much that I figured Hegel had to be up to something very important. As I mentioned, I read the Lesser Logic in between undergrad and grad school, but I can’t say I understood much of it. In grad school, there were several of us really interested in German Idealism, so Paul Guyer gave a course on Hegel. He didn’t understand Hegel that well either, though, so it was a fairly frustrating course. A number of us tried to make sense of Hegel and tried to use the secondary literature to help us get a grasp on Hegel, but we pretty much all came to the conclusion that the secondary literature was, by and large, useless. Still, when it came time to choose a dissertation topic, I made the crass calculation that there was a lot of good stuff written about Kant and almost nothing on Hegel worth the paper it was printed on, so I was much more likely to make a valuable contribution to Hegel studies than Kant studies. That assumed that I would, in fact, figure Hegel out, which I hadn’t yet come close to. So it was open in my mind whether I would be writing a definitive debunking of Hegel or something more positive.

I was fortunate enough to write a prospectus for a dissertation on Hegel’s Logic that got me a Fulbright to study at the Hegel Archive in Bochum, Germany. That was invaluable; I learned German, even got fairly fluent, since I was living in a German dormitory. And it was easy to absorb a lot of Hegel quickly, hanging around the Archive. I actually wrote about 100 pages in draft of the dissertation, but when I got back to the States, I had to admit to myself that it was bullshit. I didn’t understand what Hegel was up to in the Logic, and as far as I could tell, no one else did either. None of the secondary works on the Logic was convincing. There were attractive grand visions of Hegel’s system, but nobody’s interpretation could really help you read that book paragraph-by-paragraph, much less sentence-by-sentence and show you why things happened in it in the sequence and way that they did. So I did the only thing I could do: I tossed the dissertation.

Now, Sellars had not been my advisor for that first dissertation attempt. I was too chicken-shit to ask him (I told you I was shy). But the year in Germany had at least let me grow up some, so I went to him and asked him if he would take me on for another attempt at a dissertation. What I don’t remember is whether I already had my next topic in hand or still had to find it. In any case, I started casting around, still looking at Hegel, because of all the time and effort I’d already invested. And I stumbled on Michael Petry’s recently published critical edition and translation of Hegel’s Philosophy of Subjective Spirit. And that was a scales-falling-from- the-eyes experience for me. Here were the issues about the nature of sensation and perception, of abstract concepts, of the role of language and judgment in thought that I’d become quite familiar with from Sellars and Annette Baier and Nick Rescher, but now treated neither rationalistically nor empiricistically, but in Hegelian fashion. And I could see both what Hegel was up to and how he was up to it. He didn’t find or hypothesize simple elements from which complexes could be reconstructed; he started with the apparently simple and showed how that apparently simple item was intelligible, made sense, only within a larger and more complex context, which itself made sense only within a still large context. Ultimately, Hegel argues, nothing really makes sense except insofar as it finds a place in the self-realization of the Absolute. Well, I can’t follow him all the way there, but it immediately became evident to me that Hegel had an incredibly good sense for the structures and relations of philosophical concepts and problems. I was no longer a skeptic towards Hegel; I’m convinced he’s one of the 4 greatest philosophers.

To my amazement and joy, it turned out that the Philosophy of Subjective Spirit is virtually ignored in the literature. (And the situation hasn’t changed much in the mean time.) So there was plenty of room to write a dissertation on it. And the dissertation got written relatively quickly and smoothly, as such things go.

Of course, that meant I went on the job market as a kind of curiosity: a Pittsburgh Ph.D. who’d written on Hegel (though I wasn’t the only one working on Hegel in Pittsburgh at the time). Few people knew what to make of me.

I still do some work on Hegel but German Idealism didn’t become the principal focus of my research in part because I never got the same kind of epiphany about Fichte and Schelling, whom I have always found rather painful to read. And I got pulled into becoming a Sellars exegete by my colleagues.

How did your colleagues pull you into Sellars exegesis?

Timm Triplett is very into epistemology, and had written an article defending foundationalism back in the ‘80s, before I came to UNH. But he’d heard from a couple of people, including Bill Lycan, that he had mischaracterized Sellars in it. So when I showed up at UNH, he wanted me to help him get his Sellars straight. There were several others who also had interests in that area, so we formed a faculty reading group and chose, naturally enough, to work through EPM together. Ken Westphal, Drew Christie, and Paul McNamara were also regular members of the group. We thought it would take a semester to work through the article. Well, two years later we were only half-way through, in Part VIII. Most of the others decided that it was just taking too much time; they needed to get on with their own research projects. But I had found trying to explain and defend Sellars to that crowd, and especially Timm, who is a very careful, painstaking philosopher, a real but enjoyable challenge, and Timm thought that these discussions were his research project. So we continued, and we conceived the idea that all the work we’d done trying to clarify just what is going on in EPM could and should be put to use for others as well. So we started writing our book. At the beginning, each of us wrote draft explications of about half of the parts in EPM, which were then heftily criticized by the other. And we went back and forth for several drafts that way. Then we switched, so that the sections Timm had first drafted, I now had charge of and vice versa. By the end of the process, which went to I don’t know how many drafts (Timm could tell you; he’s a meticulous record keeper), we no longer knew who had written what.

I especially remember banging my head for a good while concerning Part VIII, which is the linchpin for Sellars’s epistemology, before I had what I considered the breakthrough: Sellars thinks that proper attributions of knowledge are a kind of two-stage affair. In the first stage, one has to decide whether the organism is a knower at all, whether it is operating in the logical space of reasons at all, and only then can one worry about whether it has good enough reasons in this particular instance to constitute knowledge. These aren’t really separable ‘stages.’ One can’t ascertain whether one’s interlocutor is operating within the logical space of reasons entirely independently of being able to attribute particular knowledge to her. And we tend to simply assume without further ado that other humans are subject to reason , so the first “stage” is rarely something we thematize. But the judgment that someone is operating within the logical space of reasons — it’s a “someone,” not a “something” — is a move of tremendous significance, for it means that a whole different vocabulary is appropriate to the explanation and description of its behavior.

Anyway, Timm held my feet to the fire and forced me to get far clearer than I had been about what Sellars is up to in his epistemology and philosophy of mind. We still don’t agree about whether Sellars’s approach works — Timm remains a foundationalist, convinced that, though Sellars has much to teach us, there are still certainties of experience on which all our knowledge is grounded. I still think Sellars gets us moving in the right direction, though some of the details need further work. Our book represents a common interpretation of the arguments in EPM; our assessments of the success of those arguments is another thing. In fact, while we were working on what became Knowledge, Mind, and the Given, we were also working on a set of dialogues in which we argue about whether Sellars is right or not. Some of these have come out since then, but there are other that have not seen the light of day yet.

Once we had a manuscript, we let a few people see it while we were trying to get it published. Ruth Millikan used the manuscript in a course she taught several times at UCONN. David Rosenthal also was a big supporter. We had looked into publishing with one of those Dutch publishers, since we couldn’t anticipate big sales, but we were incredibly happy when it landed with Hackett, who was just the right publisher. They put it out in an inexpensive edition and have kept it in print. It sells a small but steady amount. And it remains the best explication of EPM there is.

Anyway, after all that work (and this was a process of 10+ years), when Acumen asked me to do the Wilfrid Sellars book in their Philosophy Now series, I jumped at it. They had asked Jay Rosenberg first, but he didn’t want to a survey of Sellars and sent them to me. All the work with Timm had primed me, and I was able to write the first draft of that book in a mere two years.

Much is made of the supposed rift between right- and left-wing Sellarsianism. In your work on Sellars, however, you seem to be trying to stand firmly between these poles. What do you think this distinction indicates about Sellars and Sellarsian philosophy? Do you think that this distinction marks out a genuine tension within Sellars’ philosophy?

Let’s start with the last question. I do think that there is a genuine tension in Sellars’s philosophy. But I don’t regard that as a mark of failure; we can say of any and every philosopher so far that they aren’t, in the long run, right. Every systematic philosopher is trying to balance out a number of competing insights, and nobody gets to work everything out thoroughly or entirely clearly. And Sellars is no different.

If the left/right split were simply a matter of Sellars’ philosophy being on its surface incoherent or containing some easily spotted inconsistency that different people resolve in different ways, it wouldn’t be interesting in the least. The fact that the split is interesting, in my view, testifies to the richness of Sellars’s philosophy at least as much as it testifies to a certain vagueness concerning its basic principles. In his attempt to be comprehensive and systematic, he made a number of choices and commitments, each of which is fairly powerfully motivated. But it isn’t clear how they can all co-exist. He thought he could keep everything in balance, keep all of his balls in the air, as it were. A number of people, however, don’t think those particular balls can all stay up at the same time, so something’s got to give. But people are still arguing about his philosophy, because we respond to those commitments and choices with a great deal of sympathy. Even if we don’t think all his commitments can survive together, we acknowledge the pull each one has on us. And the systematicity of his thought allows us to frame the tensions in our own views in a potentially productive manner.

I’ve tried to stand between the left and the right in part because, in a great deal of what I’ve written, I’ve been trying to be a good and faithful interpreter of Sellars; I’ve tried to make the best case for his views that I can. And I think that means trying to keep up in the air all the balls that he launched. At the very least, one has to see how long they can be kept up in that air. There are plenty of philosophers for whom being true to Sellars is not itself a goal — it isn’t my goal in all my avatars. Sellars’s philosophy is not for them treated as an end in itself but is clearly instrumentally valuable. He makes important points, develops some crucial arguments that they want to make use of and then move on to their own points and arguments. So there’s no interest there in keeping Sellars’s balls in the air; they have their own to worry about. The goal is to find the pretty or the useful balls, pocket them for later use, and let the others fall where they may. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that, as long as you recognize that that’s what you’re doing. If you pick out just the balls that you want to use and then proclaim those to be the true heart of Sellars’s position, well, that’s just wishful thinking, a.k.a. bad interpretation.

As I understand the right/left distinction, Sellars wouldn’t be surprised to see it, I think. He tells us in PSIM that the big challenge modern philosophy faces is the fact that the image of the world as science is coming to see it is challenging and will ultimately displace much of the long-standing scheme in terms of which we have hitherto made sense of the world. He is a self- proclaimed, card-carrying scientific realist, and yet, he cannot and will not dismiss as a mere history of error our previous efforts to understand how things hang together. He has tremendous respect for science; but he also has tremendous respect for the conceptual framework that enabled us to conceive of and practice science.

The right-wing Sellarsians, as I understand them, want to hold on to the scientific realism come what may, and where we can’t seem to retain something significant from the Manifest Image in an appropriately rigorous conception of the world as seen by science, well, so much the worse for the Manifest Image. The left-wing Sellarsians, in essence, want to reclaim Sellars for the perennial philosophy and endorse the Manifest Image as necessarily wider in scope than the sciences and therefore quite ineliminable. (Notice that this characterization of the split makes the left-wing the conservative wing, which breaks the analogy to left- and right-Hegelianism. But the left-wing also focuses on the essentially social nature of normativity, rather than finding an absolute ground for phenomena in scientific fact. That way of seeing the split retains the parallels to the post-Hegelian situation.) So, as I say, I don’t think Sellars would be surprised at such a split — he almost predicted it —, he’d just think that neither side has appreciated the full subtlety of his position, which enables one to have his cake and eat it too.

Trouble is, I’m less and less convinced that he’s right about that. I find myself drifting slowly leftwards as I try to think through the issues for my own sake. At least I think it’s leftwards.

How would you describe the most significant difference between your views and Sellars’?

I think the briefest way to say it is something like this: Sellars thinks that what is really ineliminable about the manifest image is a fundamentally formal aspect of it. He calls it the “language of individual and community intentions,” but within his system that is captured by or represented by a particular sentential operator, the ‘shall’ operator. As long as that remains in place, he seems to think, science will be able to displace or replace all the non-logical or contentful concepts (and maybe some of the logical concepts too) of the manifest image. This ‘shall’ operator is also the item in his system that recognizes the existential reality that it is subjective individuals that confront reality and act within it, for it is the only thing that is ineliminably first-personal.

Now, science aims to bleach the subjective factors out of our concepts and construct a point-of-viewless conception of the world. I’m not sure it’s properly called a “view from nowhere”, but it is at least supposed to be a “view from anywhere.” And it isn’t hard to see why that is useful. But while it is clearly a good thing to have a highly elaborated, accurate “view from anywhere” available to one, I can’t convince myself that such a view ought or will replace wholesale the concepts of the manifest image, which are thoroughly tainted with our human point of view. That we are individual existences confronting an often hostile world may in some sense be a ‘formal’ aspect of human reality, but it affects the way we conceive of the world incredibly deeply and not merely at some formal level. And it isn’t just that it does affect the way we see and interact with the world, it ought to as well.

Thus, I think the manifest image will and ought to prove more robust than Sellars seems to have thought, because it is tuned to the human condition in a way that the scientific image isn’t (and doesn’t want to be). It may still be the case that we end up, from the scientific point- of-viewless point of view, seeing the manifest image and the creatures who employ it as ultimately engaged in a particularly complex nexus of the kind of interactions science describes and deals with, but that’s not a point of view that we can live with or live in on a day-to-day basis. Metaphorically, I guess you could say that I stand to Sellars in these regards as Kierkegaard stood to Hegel. There is a truth to the experience of the human individual that must be done justice to. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, not just the love of knowledge. Wisdom has to speak to the individual in her lived situation.

This is the direction I try to move in in the 10th chapter of the Wilfrid Sellars book by supplementing the recognizably Kantian notions of empirical and transcendental reality with that of practical reality. That chapter is still, I think, my best effort to try to extend a fundamentally Sellarsian position to better take account of the ineluctable first-personness of human reality.

What are some possibly fruitful directions for Sellars-inspired philosophy in the early 21st century?

I think the new kind of pragmatics that Kukla and Lance are working on is very promising. Sellars gives us a pretty coarse set of functions in terms of which to analyze the semantics of words and thoughts. In the long run, the simple three-way distinction Sellars uses between language-entry, language-exit, and intralinguistic moves cannot possibly be fine-grained enough to do more than get us into the right ballpark in thinking about language and thought. Sellars never even tells us, for instance, whether responding to a question should be seen as a language-entry transition or as an intralinguistic transition! The functions of language that he focuses on are centered on the individual subject and her interaction with the world, but there are ineliminable functions of language that are essentially intersubjective. So starting to get finer- grained — distinguishing, e.g., between declaratives and observatives — is an exciting development. So is taking explicitly into account the social context or structures within which speech- and thought-acts occur. Their notion of a “transcendental vocative” function possessed by most speech acts is another way of building recognition of the ineliminability of the first- personal (and the second-personal) into our view of human thought. Given my view of how Sellars needs to be amended, as described in my response to the last question, you can see why I find that exciting.

I’ve also been excited recently at reading Huw Price’s essays in pragmatism. He has gotten to a place very close to Sellars from an entirely different angle, it seems, and he’s now starting to read and argue with Sellars straight up. Price, though, seems to be anti-metaphysical in a way that Sellars was not. Robert Kraut’s reading of Sellars’s nominalism makes it a less stridently metaphysical position than I had taken it to be, though not as ‘quietistic’ as Price would have us be. So I’m still worried about just what it is to do metaphysics. In the book, I distinguish between ‘formal’ metaphysics — e.g., the analysis of predication — and the substantive metaphysics that is involved in a position like scientific realism. But once you’ve thrown away what Price calls “the semantic ladder” and abandon the assumption that the structures of language mirror the structures of the world, just what is one up to in metaphysics, and how? Once you’ve really made the Kantian move to seeing categories as highest kinds of concepts and not highest kinds of objects, how do you avoid some form of idealism? We have no (cognitive) grasp of objects independently of concepts; arguably the notion of an object is itself correlative with that of a concept. “An object is that in the concept of which the manifold of a given intuition is united.”

I also note with great satisfaction the growth of Sellars studies in Germany. I can see why. Working on or with Sellars enables them to make contact with Anglo-American philosophy while re-affirming and exploiting the heritage of German Idealism. Sellars’s interpretation of Kant is very rich, but it remains, with some notable exceptions, relatively high- level and abstract. Johannes Haag has worked out in great detail a fundamentally Sellarsian interpretation of Kant. And it works well. These German Sellarsians will help make more evident how rich the tradition that extends from Kant through Hegel and then the pragmatists to Sellars really is.

Is there an area of Sellarsian philosophy that you think is significantly, and unfortunately, overlooked in work being done at the present?

Pretty clearly his work on practical reason. After you exclude the interchanges with Castañeda and Aune, I can think of only a couple of articles that take his work in that domain seriously. Given the current interest in norms and Sellars’s attempt to naturalize them without reducing or eliminating them, you’d think his treatment of practical reason would get much more attention. But I guess I’m part of that problem, because I haven’t written much about it either. I use the excuse that my focus is on M&E, and it should really be someone whose primary focus is on ethics and practical reason who takes on the task of working out the possibilities and problems with Sellars’s approach.

What would you like to see from the Wilfrid Sellars Society in the years to come?

It should never be a collection of sycophants or devotees for whom deviation from some accepted orthodoxy is anathema. It should be a place ruled by two very Sellarian characteristics: universal professional respect and the joy of the dialectic. Everyone’s welcome, but you better be ready to explain and defend yourself. Just as important, you have to be ready to understand your interlocutor. The joy of the dialectic isn’t the thrill of victory; it is the deeper satisfaction of seeing more, going deeper, gaining insight, and achieving an enduring, shared point of view. It should be a place where people can explore and extend a deep and significant line of philosophical thought that (for reasons I don’t pretend to understand) is still marginal in the current philosophical mainstreams. The WSS should help people find and explore a road less traveled.


Thank you for talking with us, Professor deVries!

Next month: Keith Lehrer talks about working with Sellars in the mid-1950′s at Minnesota, Sellarsian epistemology, his new book Art, Self, and Knowledge, and more.


Leave a Reply

Switch to our mobile site