Author Information: Patrick J. Reider, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, PJR23@pitt.edu
Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents
Reider, Patrick J. 2012. “Sellars on Perception, Science, and Realism: A Critical Response.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 39-56.
The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-B8
In this article, I explain the manner in which Sellars’ version of realism is undermined by his Kantian commitments and his normative functionalism. After providing an account of the perceptual and scientific models that support his realism, I argue for the following: Sellars’ perceptual/cognitive models do not permit sufficient perceptual and conceptual access to warrant a version of realism predicated upon our ability to know mind-independent existence. In other words, Sellars’ Kantian commitments, his norm-driven view of concepts, and his norm-guided view of reason place severe limits on one’s access to mind-independent reality. Consequently, when one strictly holds Sellars to these limits, he cannot show (or significantly support) the manner in which knowledge of mind-independent existence is possible.
In what manner does Sellars believe perceptual knowledge is possible in light of his normative functionalist views? For instance, if 1) the meaning of words can be partly or fully reduced to the function they play in a language, 2) norms mediate and/or determine these functions, and 3) the manner in which perception unfolds is shaped by these norms (all of which are important aspects of normative functionalism), then in what sense does Sellars believe we can have objective empirical knowledge? This is an important question to ask, as it reveals the manner in which Sellars believes science, as a discipline founded upon empirical observation, can lead to knowledge of mind-independent existence.
In order to answer the above questions, we need to understand Sellars’ account of perception. One of his most complete accounts of perception, as it concerns his peculiar brand of realism, can be found in Science and Metaphysics: Variations on Kantian Themes. Given the norm-driven account of Sellars’ views on meaning and the foreknowledge that Sellars is a realist, one might expect (and believe he needs) a view of perception that un-problematically supports realism. Instead, Sellars surprisingly makes numerous Kantian commitments that are central to his perceptual model — commitments which are historically interpreted as counter to realism. For example, take the following five Kantian commitments that Sellars adheres to in Science and Metaphysics (and throughout all of his later career): 1) neither sensibility (in itself) nor conceptuality (in itself) are capable of providing knowledge of the thing-in-itself, 2) without a pre-existing conceptual framework, no knowledge of empirical content is possible, 3) we are not directly aware of sensations, 4) in order to recognize empirical content, as facts or states of affairs, a judgment is required, and 5) in order to relate concepts to sensory content, via a judgment, the mind must first synthesize sensory content into coherent units of time and space.
The above views are surprising for a realist to embrace, because they play a central role in Kant’s claim that the thing-in-itself (an entity’s true existence independent of how a person’s mind may contingently experience, believe, or feel about it) is unknowable. Despite Sellars’ Kantian commitments, he believes that “the gulf between appearances and things-in-themselves, though a genuine one, can in principle be bridged” (50). In what follows, I will first explain the manner in which Sellars believes this is possible. I then argue that his perceptual views do not support or allow the type of realist conclusion he draws from them. Continue Reading…