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Wilfrid Sellars and the nature of normativity

Wilfrid Sellars would have been 105 this month. He stands out as one of the more ambitiously systematic philosophers of the last century, with contributions to ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language, alongside incisive historical examinations of Kant, and several others. We can read him as a philosopher in a classical mode, always in conversation with figures from the past. But he also had a very modern set of concerns: what is it to construct scientific theories, and how do we fit into the “image” of the world that they generate? This ambitious project was what first drew me to Sellars’s work.

One focus running across his work is the nature of normativity – what we ought to do, what is good, correct, etc. Sellars demonstrated the indispensability of normative dimensions of our concept usage, not only to moral reasoning, but also to epistemic facts. This dimension of his work would be folded into equally robust commitments to naturalism and scientific realism. There would be no appeals to mysterious (“queer” as J.L. Mackie would have said) normative entities. But he was not proposing an anemic normativity, awaiting reduction; that would be “a radical mistake” (Empiricism and the Philosophy of the Mind, §5). Instead, much of his work can be read as anticipating themes and maneuvers that would later be taken up by some expressivists in ethics, and broader expressivist projects in philosophers such as Robert Brandom and Huw Price. Once we recognize that our words can play roles beyond the descriptive and the logical, we see that “many expressions which empiricists have relegated to second-class citizenship in discourse are not inferior, just different” (Counterfactuals, Dispositions, and the Causal Modalities, §79). Normative terms that initially appear to be descriptions of an agent instead function as ascriptions of normative status – crediting, demanding, permitting and entitling agents to their beliefs and the actions that this might license.

This might feel underwhelming if it ended here – normativity as “what folks around you let you get away with.” Can there be substantial normative truths without violating those naturalist commitments? Sellars suggested that this should be pursued by an analysis of the structure of intentions. Were we to express our own subjective intentions overtly, we might say something of the form “I shall do A in C” where A is some action and C is some set of conditions. But we might also express some intentions in the form of “It shall be the case that C,” in which case my commitment to take future actions is more open-ended. Compare, for example, “I’ll feed Lauryn’s cats this weekend,” with “My students will learn Fitch notation this semester.” We often undertake such intentions because they are subjectively reasonable to us, if not to others. But theoretical reason in all its domains has an intersubjective quality. What proves a conjecture, or warrants for a hypothesis is not a matter of personal conviction, but of satisfying standards that rational agents engaged in those theoretical projects would ideally agree upon and adopt. Sellars would characterize this as categorical reasonableness in practical reasoning and strive to “make intelligible the intersubjectivity and truth of moral oughts” (Science and Metaphysics: Variations on Kantian Themes VII.4). This intersubjective agreement could be expressed as what Sellars would call “we-intentions,” e.g. “We shall do A in C.” Moral principles would be generalizations we could derive from empirical knowledge of ourselves and the world, given a we-intention to maximize general welfare.

Two slightly tricky questions remain, though: who are “we,” and what is good for us? Sellars’s proposal rides on there being some unifying account of general welfare, from which to derive thicker moral principles. This notion is thin by design, and when we look under the hood, I would say that we do not find neatly delineated human goods around which directives can be formulated. Rather, we find layer after layer of interests, conditioned by race, gender, class, and other dimensions of our social practices. The pluralism this suggests preceded Sellars, of course, and was a feature of the pragmatist side of his intellectual ancestry. This plurality of interests has led many to calls the objectivity and universality of normative claims into question, leaving us to coalesce into smaller communities where agreement comes more easily, but in which we are immune to the reasons of others and insulated from compelling concern for their welfare. (No one embraced this view with more gusto than Richard Rorty).

I believe we should embrace the sort of pluralism described here, but reject the view that it entails this sort of fragmenting of normativity. There is great value in Sellars’s vision of unifying intentions, so long as we can see that they must be shaped by many different voices, that we have often failed to heed them in the past, and that their development is a perpetual self-critical, self-correcting process. “We” are not something to be discovered, “we” are something to be achieved. But many academic philosophers do meagre service to this even when they genuinely embrace more inclusive, “progressive” values. Even where race, gender, and class are recognized as concerns in thinking about knowledge and value, they are often treated as parallel, perhaps secondary problems, rather than central concerns. (This is not simply to wag my finger at fellow philosophers; I have drifted in these directions myself over the years.) Philosophers love the universality and necessity, and we tend to reach for them by subtraction, constructing agents in general terms by eliminating specifics. But even our best efforts to imagine what “everyone” is like will tend to look most like ourselves, recapitulating our own assumptions and ideologies in the process. To do better requires taking voices other than our own seriously, and engaging with the messy complexity that pluralism suggests. These are not idle academic concerns. To read the news of late is to see fissures between different communities in the west yawning more widely, and tearing away at practices and institutions that would challenge them. This is not a moment for those engaged in philosophy to punt on the social and political dimensions of their work.

Recent Comments

  1. David Glidden

    In my youth, when I was reading Sellars under the tutelage of Richard Rorty, I became addicted to reading as much of Sellars as I could, though I found his style peculiarly archaic. It reminded me of Aquinas’ commentaries on Aristotle. When I discovered Sellars had studied at Henry IV in Paris, I realized he was a secular Aquinas.

  2. Karl Young

    Nice piece, and as a philosophical duffer, I haven’t read Sellars (only some of his philosophical progeny like van Fraassen) but look forward to doing so. And though I find the discussion in this piece compelling I have a hard time squaring pluralism with naturalism. Though it’s no doubt a personality flaw of mine, it seems to me that the great modern task, and one partly brought on by trying to come to grips with pluralism, is how to give scientific efficacy it’s due while questioning the rather widespread devotion to naturalism.

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