Sellars and the "Myth of the Given"

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William P. Alston
Syracuse University

To be presented at the Eastern Division APA Meeting to be held at the Washington Hilton & Towers (Washington, DC) on Dec. 27 - 30, 1998: Book discussion: Wilfrid Sellars's Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (International Ballroom West, Wed., Dec. 30, 1:30 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.) -- Published with the permission of Prof. Alston.

Since the body of the paper will be distinctly critical, I would like to begin by paying tribute to Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (EPM) as one of the seminal works of twentieth century philosophy. I still remember the growing excitement with which I read it when it first came out in Volume I of the Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science (1956), in the Detroit Airport, of all places. (My colleague, Tamar Gendler, remarked to me that I was probably the only person there reading Wilfrid Sellars, the others, no doubt, reading best sellers.) Over the ensuing decades the excitement, though never wholly extinguished, has been adulterated by numerous second thoughts, some of which will be expounded here.

Having already taken issue with Sellars' general argument against immediate knowledge in section VIII of EPM and elsewhere, in my essay "What's Wrong with Immediate Knowledge?"1, I will concentrate here on his complaints about "the given". But I must admit at the outset that it is not easy to pin down the target to which Sellars applies that title. At the beginning of EPM Sellars makes it explicit that though "I begin my argument with an attack on sense-datum theories, it is only as a first step in a critique of the entire framework of givenness". (128)2 But just what is this "framework of givenness" of which sense-datum theory is only one form? A bit later he says ". . . the 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". (128) That makes it sound as if any foundationalist epistemology is a form of the "myth of the given". And I am far from sure that this is not the way Sellars is thinking of it. Nevertheless, for present purposes I will construe the commitment to the given as more restricted than that, identifying it with one particular way of thinking of "non-inferential knowledge of matter of fact". This way involves taking non-inferential knowledge to be based on (or to be) an immediate awareness of something -- that something's being given to one's awareness; in contrast to other conceivable bases of immediate knowledge, e.g., the idea that some beliefs are "self-warranted". If one thinks that one's knowledge of one's own conscious states rests on a direct awareness of those states, that is to embrace, for this subject matter, the "myth" of the given.3 Moreover I will confine attention to the idea that certain things are given to, particularly sensory experience, in contrast to, e.g., rational intuition.

It is fortunate, for me, that Sellars does not confine his attack on the given to attacking sense-datum theory. If he had, this paper would be very short for I hold no brief for sense-data, and, indeed, I find most of Sellars' criticisms thereof to be well taken. I heartily agree that it is important to distinguish direct awareness of particulars from immediate knowledge of facts, though I doubt that many sense datum theorists were guilty of conflating them. Moreover, I am not at all disposed to defend the idea that there is an immediate, non-conceptual awareness of facts; I agree that there is no non-conceptual knowledge that so-and-so.4 Nor do I have any special attachment to thinking of direct awareness of particulars as knowledge by acquaintance, though I have no real objection to the latter term, properly understood.

But then where do I dissent from Sellars' attack on the given? It comes over the question of whether we have a direct...
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