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Brandom believes Sellars to be the most important American philosopher of the 20th century. Some ways in which Sellars was remarkable:

  • Sellars had a systematic / synoptic vision, which was rare for analytic philosophers (who largely preferred to write ‘gem-like’ articles).
    • This makes it also hard to read Sellars - it’s hard to get a hold of one piece of it without getting the whole.
  • Sellars had an almost unique knowledge of and appreciation for the significance of the history of philosophy
    • (not just a subdiscipline, but rather as the language in which philosophy is pursued).1
  • Sellars’ overall aim was to move analytic philosophy from its Humean phase to its Kantian phase.
    • Epitomizes his views towards empiricism/naturalism (which had characterized analytic philosophy).
    • That Kant was worth respecting a radical view at the time - he had been written out of the canon due to his connection to Hegel.
    • Rawls on the theoretical side and Strawson/Bennett on the practical side brought Kant back into respectability in Anglophone circles, but Sellars was way out in front of this (and appreciated the significance of Kant deeper).
    • This is also why Sellars wasn’t so influential - people didn’t understand the Kant needed to appreciate him.

Kant’s influence on Sellars

Kant’s big idea:

What is sapience? (what distinguishes knowers and mere responders to an environment?)

  • It’s not some presence of “mind-stuff” (i.e. Cartesian dualism)
  • It’s that judgments and intentional doings are things that knowers and agents are in a distinctive sense responsible for.
  • Judgments express commitments of those subjects / their exercises of authority
  • The difference between mind minded things and unminded and things isn’t an ontological one, but a deontological one.

Judgment is important for Kant

  • it is the minimal thing that we can be held accountable for (the smallest unit of consciousness)
  • The form of the judgment has two parts:
    • Subjective: the “I think …” that can accompany any judgment
      • Who is responsible
    • Objective: “object = x”
      • what you make yourself responsible to by taking the judgment
      • what you need to consult in order to determine the correctness

Cartesian questions are about our grip on concepts. Thinking about concepts as rules for making judgments, Kantian questions are about the concepts’ grip on us.

  • A concept is the rule you bind yourself to by calling the coin ‘copper’. (You commit yourself, whether you know it or not, to it’s being an electrical conductor, melting at a particular temperature, etc.).

  • Rather than a Cartesian mind-body problem, it’s a norm-fact problem. The relationship between prescription and description - that’s what is special about us.

Hegel took this Kantian question and observed that normative status are socially instituted statuses - we have to look at social practices to understand what responsibility / authority are. (this idea was reintroduced indepenently by the later Wittgenstein - for example his children’s game investigates the normative significance of beliefs/desires/intentions).

Sellars on what is philosophy: “the attempt to say how things, in the largest sense of that term, hang together, in the largest sense of that term.”

Core programs of analytical philosophy

Analytic philosophy held together as being a semantic project.

  • Understand the meanings of potentially-problematic target vocabularies in terms of the meanings of putatively-unproblematic base vocabularies.
    • Some debate over what the relation between target and base vocabularies needs to be:
      • definability
      • translatability
      • paraphrasability
      • “analyzable in terms of”
      • reducibility
      • supervenience
  • Examples:
    • On denoting: problematic vocabulary is definite descriptions, translated into the unproblematic vocabulary of FOL with identity.
    • Frege’s problematic vocabulary was arithmatic statements, which were made sense of in quantificational logic with identity.
  • Things like intentional, normative, metaphysical vocabularies were typically problematic.
    • Core programs of empiricism and naturalism can be understood as having different choice of base vocabularies
      • Empiricism: base language is sensory experience (e.g. a language of sense data, language of how things seem or appear)
      • Naturalism: language of natural science (possibly just fundamental physics or broader)
      • The Vienna Circle was divided into two wings. Schlict (empiricist) and Otto Neurath (naturalist), and Carnap in between. Prime source of tension between them was modality / lawlikeness.
    • Functionalism: Unproblematic vocabulary is talking about how something plays a role in a larger system. (paradigmatically shows up in the philosophy of mind.)
      • Sellars was the first functionalist. broader than the sense that it comes up in the philosophy of mind: Sellars is a semantic functionalist.

Another reason why Sellars is important is his distinctive views about empiricism, naturalism, and functionalism.

Role of logic

Logic as developed in the early 20th century is a powerful tool for giving us inferential control. Logical empiricists found this tool indispensible. They viewed the early empiricists (e.g. Locke, Hume) as having the right building blocks, but “association” was too weak of a mortar to hold them together and build the edifice of knowledge of the objective world. Although Sellars isn’t a logical empiricist, he also found logic to be a useful tool and can be thought of as a logical Kantian. After Kant, the nextmost important philosopher for Sellars was Carnap. (despite Carnap’s empiricism.)

Summary of views

It is debated whether or not Sellars was an reductive naturalist, but Brandom does not think so.

Transclude of block

  • This is a powerful weapon against empiricist reductionisms of all sorts, according to Brandom.

There is a Cartesian dualism threatening the tradition that Kant is overcoming. Is Sellars replacing this with a norm-fact dualism?

What is a dualism? What a distinction becomes when it is drawn in such terms that the relation between the distinguished terms becomes unintelligible. Complaint about Cartesian dualism:

  • if you’re committed to “mind stuff” being non-extended.
  • and to the physical world being extended.
  • throw in some general claims about causation (e.g. it occurs in a place)
  • then perception and agency become unintelligble (how is the mind affected by real stuff / how can the mind cause something?)

For norm fact distinction.

  • Epistemological questions:
    • How can we know about norm stuff? in the way we know about mass?
    • Does it causally affect us?
  • Ontological questions:
    • Where in the world of natural science do we find these things?

A reductive naturalist doesn’t have to face this threat of a dualism. But one loses the meaning.

A Kantian idea that sellars never lost sight of: the transcendental move

The conceptual framework that makes it possible to give matter-of-factual descriptions of how things actually are - that framework has essential features which can also be put into words - but those words will not be playing the role of describing things how they are. For example: alethic modal vocabulary.

To describe things you have to commit yourself to inferential relations that are counterfactually robust (otherwise you’re merely labeling).

Hume thought he could understand what means for the cat to be on the mat but not that it is impossible for the cat to be weightless or as big as the sun. Sellars says that, unless you make some distinction about what is possible/necessary for cats and what is not (note you don’t have to get it right), you can’t count as applying the concept cat to describe something. So you can’t be in the predicament Hume thought he was in. The argument is seen in Counterfactuals, Dispositions, and the Causal Modalities.

A ‘master idea’ that Sellars never explicitly says at this level of generality:

every philosophically interesting/problematic vocabulary turns out metalinguistic:

  • logical vocabulary:
    • “if … then …” does not describe something in the world but makes explicit inferential commitments that articulate the contents of concepts that do (in the narrow sense) describe thing
  • alethetic modal vocabulary
    • Makes what you are doing with subjunctives explicit
  • normative vocabulray
  • semantic vocabulary
    • because it’s true of normative and modal vocabulary
  • intentional vocabulary
    • because it’s true of semantic vocabulary
  • ontological vocabulary
    • e.g. universals

His strategy for dealing with problematic vocabulary is to treat as metalinguistic.

His notion of metalinguistic isn’t made explicit anywhere. It’s more flexible than for Carnap. One attempt at explaining it: what metalinguistic discourses do is functionally classify bits of vocabulary. He thinks of it as transcendental grammar.

Pragmatic dependencies make explicit conceptual dependencies.

  • E.g. “Looks ” talk depends on “Is ” talk. (EPM)

Cautionary tale about saying things aren’t descriptive

First-wave metaethical expressivists said that the role ethical vocabulary played was not to describe but rather to express attitudes (e.g. approval, disapproval). But Geach showed that there exist some descriptive content due to the intelligibility of “If he ought to do X, then he has reason to do X” (one is not expressing approval of doing X).


Kant is a empirical realist, transcendental idealist. Sellars is an empirical naturalist, but a trancendental non-naturalist. This gives Sellars his unique perspective on the problems of philosophy.

  • the empricial naturalism is epitomized by Scienta mensura quote
  • the transcendental non-naturalism comes from the ineliminble expressive role that is played by metalinguistic expressions
    • There is no prospect of getting rid of that in our discourse
    • Yet it is also not in the jurisdiction of science.

Despite Sellars is concerned with transposing things into a linguistic key and sees the significance of conceptual change, he is still a Kantian rather than a Hegelian.

  • He wants to figure out what was happening around the time of Newton and Locke.
  • He does not see that there’s one phenomenon of which the scientific revolution is one manifestation. And the French Revolution is another.
    • Hegel saw that there was such a thing as modernity
    • Brandom says you don’t get to count as a Hegelian unless you’re concerned with that whole thing, rather than just the scientific revolution.

Personal note

When Brandom joined the department in ‘76, Sellars was a bitter, grumpy old man, aged 65. This surprised Brandom in his youthful innocence (how could you be unhappy when you’ve been so philosophically accomplished? just think about your accomplishments!).

  1. It’s taken until Kant’s death until now for anybody (i.e. Sellars) to figure out
    what he was on about. He thought he’d get the same fate.
  2. He felt he’d been treated badly by the profession.
  • He hadn’t written anything until he was age 35.
  • In 1956 he had three lectures in London which were a stunning success.
  • In 1960, more dissertations were written on Sellars than any other living philosopher.
  • But that was the same year Word and Object came out. It was a tidal wave.
  • Only thing that interrupted that wave, if anything, in the next decade was Naming and Necessity.
  • Sellars’ Locke lectures in 1963 were utterly disasterous. Sellars never recovered from this. On his deathbed he said it was the worst experience of his life.
  • He had the view, admirable but disasterous, to only deliver unfinished work at seminars (let’s work out these ideas together, I don’t want to tell you something that I have no chance of changing my mind about - that’s what written publishing is for).
  • At age 45 he was finally getting the respect he deserved and 9 years later it was all over.


  1. This is one dimension along which the world spirit has caught up with Sellars.