Archives For Willem A. deVries

Author Information: Patrick J. Reider, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg,

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Reider, Patrick J. 2012. “Sellars and Knowing the Thing-In-Itself.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 68-82.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:


DeVries’ article “Sellars, Realism, and Kantian Thinking” misinterprets my argument that Sellars cannot show a sufficient degree of perceptual access for science to produce knowledge of “things-in-themselves” as involving a Cartesian characterization of Sellars. In correcting this misinterpretation (among many others), I will show that there are aspects of Sellars’ views on sensory receptivity, analogies, and representation that are at odds with the epistemic claim Sellars makes in regard to knowing the thing-in-itself, which deVries fails to acknowledge. In highlighting the nature of these internal discrepancies, I argue that Sellars’ and deVries’ (reading of Sellars’) account of science’s ability to achieve metaphysical realism entails criteria for knowing the thing-in-itself that is normative and/or presumed rather than the product of scientific discovery. In short, this paper has two foci: first, to respond to deVries’ misinterpretations of my account of Sellars, and second, to show that the traditional analytic commitment to metaphysical realism is central to Sellars, as well as to his readers, but cannot be sustained.

Section 1

In “Sellars on Perception, Science, and Realism: A Critical Response,” I argued that Sellars cannot show a sufficient degree of perceptual access to permit his accounts of scientific concepts, theories, analogies, and models to count as knowledge of “things-in-themselves.”[1] DeVries’ response to this paper in “Sellars, Realism, and Kantian Thinking” misinterprets my critique as relying on a Cartesian form of the “new way of ideas” to characterize Sellars. In attempting to dissuade me from a view I do not hold, deVries offers several excellent accounts of Sellars’ views on analogy and picturing. While correcting his mischaracterization of my view of Sellars, I will argue that neither Sellars’ nor deVries’ (reading of Sellars’) account of science and picturing permits knowledge of the thing-in-itself. Additionally, I will argue that Sellars’ and deVries account of the attainability of metaphysical realism via science entails criteria for knowing (what Sellars calls) the “thing-in-itself,” which can only be normative and/or presumed rather than the product of scientific discovery. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Willem A. deVries, University of New Hampshire,

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

deVries, Willem A. 2012. “Sellars, Realism and Kanitan Thinking.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 57-67.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

This essay is a response to Patrick Reider’s essay “Sellars on Perception, Science and Realism: A Critical Response.” Reider is correct that Sellars’s realism is in tension with his generally Kantian approach to issues of knowledge and mind, but I do not think Reider’s analysis correctly locates the sources of that tension or how Sellars himself hoped to be able to resolve it. Reider’s own account of idealism and the reasons supporting it are rooted in the epistemological tradition that informed the British empiricists, rather than in the metaphysical reasons that ruled within the German tradition from Leibniz through Hegel that has much more in common with Sellars’s position. Thus, Reider takes Sellars’s notion of picturing to be just another version of the representationalism that has dominated the Anglo-American tradition since Locke, whereas, in my view, because picturing is a non-semantical relation, it is an important ingredient in naturalizing the coherentist theories of the idealists.

Section I

Reider starts off, appropriately, with a discussion of analogy and science in Sellars’s thought. The target here is correct, but the discussion goes awry in some important ways. This is most directly seen in Reider’s speaking as if Sellars wants to exploit something like a Thomistic “analogy of proportion,” when, in fact, Sellars is claiming that the kinds of analogies he’s exploiting, unlike the Thomistic version, offers us “new determinate concepts” [my emphasis], rather than an allusion to something of some general nature whose specific reality remains beyond our ken.

Granted, there is something like a Thomistic analogy of proportion in play when, in the midst of his analysis of perception, Sellars tells us that “sheer phenomenology or conceptual analysis takes us part of the way” in understanding sensory episodes, namely, “to the point of assuring us that

Something, somehow a cube of pink in physical space is present in the perception other than as merely believed in (SSOP §26: 89).”

This result yields, like a Thomistic analogy of proportion, a highly indeterminate concept of what is present to us in the perception: something that is somehow a colored, shaped object in physical space. However, for our purposes the main point is that scientific theorizing goes far beyond this; eventually, it will develop a determinate conception of what is present in the perception and how it can manage to be colored and shaped, that is, what properties it has that are counterparts to the properties of the physical objects that normally cause such sensory states. This will be a family of determinate concepts of sensa.

There are two significantly different forms in which Sellars thinks analogies can lead to new determinate concepts. One is a matter of analogical relations between sets or families of concepts. Scientists use such analogies to generate new conceptual schemes that might prove explanatorily useful and be subject to empirical test. So, for instance, around the turn of the 20th century, after the discovery of the electron, J. J. Thomson proposed the “plum pudding” model to explain the structure of the atom, which was fairly quickly replaced by the Rutherford “planetary” model, which was then quantized by Bohr. Analogies to plum puddings and solar systems enabled scientists to think about the objects they were investigating and the principles that might explain their behavior by using concepts of domains with which we were already familiar. This facilitated the development of new tests that drove the scientists to new models. Sellars has this kind of analogy in mind when he argues, as he did in so many places, that our mentalistic concepts are formed by means of such an analogy, and in fact, by two different analogies. One likens our intentional states to episodes of ‘inner speech’, the other likens our sensory states to ‘inner replicas.’

The second significant form of analogy that Sellars considers is based on an isomorphism between two domains of objects and their relations (as opposed to concepts and their relations). When the objects and their relations in one domain bear a useful isomorphism to those in some other, nominally different domain, Sellars often speaks of “counterpart properties and relations.” We can find at least two or three different places where Sellars claims that such an isomorphism plays an important role. One is in the analysis of the sensory domain, where our sensory states exhibit counterpart properties to those exhibited by the manifest image sensory objects they are typically caused by, and are arranged in a scheme that involves counterparts of spatial and temporal relations (SM I ¶74). The other is in Sellars’s difficult notion of picturing. Some tokens of a linguistic type (what Sellars calls a “natural linguistic object”) picture some objects in nature in virtue of participating in a complex system of such natural linguistic objects that, in virtue of an unimaginably complex projection relation, is isomorphic (in certain respects) to the worldly objects thus pictured. Continue Reading…