A good, responsible anus keeps its host as fresh and relieved as the day he was born.  To do this, it pretty much does the same thing over and over again, ideally every day.  An anus’ work is never done.  With that in mind, this one re-read Sellars’ Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind with a fresh eye, hoping to find in it some relief from the assumptions of philosophies past.  My, my, my, what a chore.  The anus hasn’t seen another anus work so hard for so little since it passed an entire bag of beef jerky in one sitting.  How can one go through so much struggle and end up with something almost identical to what one started with, just smaller, dryer, and more compact?  Retentive ain’t in it.

To begin, let’s start by stipulating that Locke and Hume were theorists proposing a theory of knowledge.  Seriously, it kind of follows from what they did.  In this theory, they posited entities not naturally evident to normal, non-philosophical introspection: ideas for Locke and impressions and ideas for Hume (when people normally introspect on their mind’s relationship to the world, they usually think of things as directly given, not mediated by “impressions” and “ideas”).  Anyway, these theoretical entities were created to explain the process of acquiring knowledge, and in this capacity they were offered as a framework for justifying beliefs, in so far as those beliefs imply a knowledge claim.  To expand the point, simple “impressions” and “ideas” were to be appealed to in the process of justifying beliefs regarding complex ideas, knowledge of external things, knowledge of the self, etc.; as such they were to serve as the ultimate, irreducible premises for these claims—a final court of appeal, one that has the last say, as it were.  Hume is quite specific on this point.  At the end of the Enquiry, he states, negatively: “Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?  No.  Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact and existence?  No.  Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”  Since the main task of experimental reasoning is tracing complex ideas and their relations back to their basis in relations of simple impressions and ideas in an attempt to circumscribe the limits of knowledge, i.e. ‘justified true belief’, Hume clearly gave his theoretical entities an explanatory role in justification.  That these impressions and ideas and their orders of association were part and parcel of the functioning of the mind is hardly incidental, but the description of this functioning– the explanation of it– was not the end in itself.  Rather it was part and parcel of setting up a theoretical framework for offering justifications for knowledge claims, or more specifically, for reporting the basis on which a knowledge claim is made, and arbitrating it as genuine or not.  Locke essentially does the same, just with a fewer theoretical entities and a more general concept of idea.  Let’s also stipulate that none of this theorizing would have been possible if Locke and Hume hadn’t learned language (really, duh).

This rather obvious point about what Locke and Hume did in practice (this says nothing about the worthiness of the accomplishment, just the fact of it) goes a long way toward undermining Rorty’s claim, already mentioned, that Locke (and by extension Hume) confuses explanation with justification.   Since Sellars in EPM draws this distinction between explanation and justification first in his argument against traditional empiricism, Rorty presumably gets it from him.  In any case, however—and this is the rather subtle but obvious point—no such confusion really exists because Locke and Hume, in terms of what they actually proposed, did just what Sellar’s himself tries to do in in EPM, just with his quasi-historical Myth of Jones—namely, to refute direct appeals to the non-epistemic givens in establishing knowledge claims.  In fact, understood appropriately both Locke and Hume are Jones: their epistemology, taken within the limits of their time and place, is precisely what Jones bequeaths as his “final service to mankind”: a way to make “reporting use” of the language of impressions (sensations) and ideas (thoughts) in the course of justifying a belief “in the space of reasons.”  To put the point another way, this time in Jones’ terms: after reading Hume’s therapeutically intended explanation of how the mind works, one can say, along with the pupils of Jones: ‘ “I have the impression of x” when, and only when, according to the theory, one is indeed having the impression of x.’  From there, the basis of an empirical claim is laid.  With this in mind, then, it can hardly be said that Locke or Hume “confuses” explanation with justification any more than Jones does, since they all offer theoretical explanations providing a conceptual framework for justification; all three offer tools and means for reporting premises in empirical knowledge claims.  That Jones does this with more circumspect self-consciousness in light of a contemporary understanding of language and mind, and that specifically labels it a model with an eye towards the awareness of the relationship between observation sentences and theoretical entities, is neither here nor there for the identification with Locke and Hume.  Locke, Hume and Jones all essentially one of apiece.  All three propose theoretical epistemology, and therefore there is no confusion between explanation and justification in two of them but not the other.

This identification of Jones with Locke and Hume—and therefore their epistemological equivalence, qualified with the proper logical clarifications—can be seen in another, more concrete way, namely, by comparing what Jones ends up in this theoretical explanation of ‘mind’ and what Hume ends up with in his.  For both Jones and Hume, “impressions” are replicas (Hume calls them “copies”), and replicas bear in an analogous way the traits and properties of the originals.  As Sellars states quite specifically: “this time the model is the idea of a domain of ‘inner replicas’ which, when brought about in standard conditions, share the perceptible characteristics of their physical source.”  Furthermore, for both Sellars and Hume, these replica impressions represent the last court of appeal for empirical knowledge claims about objects in the external world; for both, they are reported from within “inner states” as the non-inferential premises from which to draw inferential conclusions.  Sellars is quite specific on this point too: students of Jones “begin by using the language of impressions to draw theoretical conclusions from appropriate premises,” and they can do this for each empirical knowledge claim.  Finally, for both Jones and Hume, impressions occur ‘in’ the perceiver in some way, and they are apparently caused, not inferred, though both Hume and Jones leave unspecified the exact sense of this ‘in’ (though for Jones “cause” is quite clear).  So both Jones and Hume posit identical theoretical entities ‘in’ the subject that serve the same functional role in justification, but according to Sellars one of them (Hume) falls under the Myth of the Given, while the other (Jones) does not.  So wherein lays the difference?

Presumably it’s in the difference between being an antecedent particular ‘in’ a state of perceiving versus simply being a state of the perceiver himself.  As Sellars stipulates: “the entities introduced by the theory are states of the perceiving subject, not a class of particulars”, whereas for a misguided Jones who would fall under the Myth of the Given, “he [the misguided] construes as data the particulars and arrays of particulars he has come to be able to observe, and believes them to be antecedent objects of knowledge which have somehow been in the framework from the beginning” (emphasis added).  In other words, “it is in the very act of taking that he speaks of the given,” and this conflation is the Myth.

But is this difference so?  Are Locke and Hume guilty of claiming that impressions and ideas were always somehow “in the framework from the beginning”?  For them, are impression or ideas antecedent realities ‘in’ the mind prior to the framework of epistemology?  Certainly not, if they can be credited with discovering, through designation in a theory, these impressions and ideas.  In other words, if Locke or Hume claim to have looked into the operations of their own minds prior to theorizing and antecedently found “impressions” and “ideas” lurking there as replicas of physical objects—a highly unlikely event, given what un-philosophical introspection is typically like—then they fully fall under the Myth of the Given.  But if they had an axe to grind about how to justify knowledge in experience in advance of laying out a theory and then proposed a theory of “impressions” and “ideas” in order to explain that process of justification—a highly likely event, given what philosophers do—then they do not fall under the Myth: they would just be Jones, albeit a less methodologically self-conscious Jones.  Once again, the issue is made clear by Sellars himself: “And notice that while our ‘ancestors’ came to notice impressions, and that the language of impressions embodies a ‘discovery’ that there are such things, the language of impressions was no more tailored to fit antecedent noticings of these entities than the language of molecules was tailored to fit antecedent noticings of molecules.”  In short, the question of whether Hume and Locke fall under The Myth of the Given revolves on an academic because unanswerable point about the historical origin of their creativity.  Did they, or did they not, claim to find corresponding antecedent realities in their introspection and then name them, or did they designate impressions and ideas as ‘theoretical entities’ in an explanatory theory to frame the justification of knowledge, then ‘find’ these entities there though ‘discovery’?   It remains enough to say that they proposed these entities in their theory of knowledge without asking about their ultimate inspiration to insulate Locke and Hume from the force of Sellar’s critique.

What of that force itself?  Since apparently Sellar’s simply reiterates with his own myth what traditional empiricists actually proposed as one use for their epistemology, is there nothing left in Empiricism and Philosophy of Mind that can serve as a lesson for reading these empiricists, to wit, some advance beyond what their own theories propose?  Does The Myth of Jones and the anal logic leading up to it really teach us contemporary readers anything new?

One thing Sellar’s is convinced that Jones teaches as new is that psychological nominalism is true; specifically, the idea that awareness or notice of particulars, classes, resemblances, kinds, and sorts—virtually every discrimination and determination perceptually made—is an entirely linguistic affair.  In other words, for the authority of a reported statement like “this is green” to have any justificatory grip, it presupposes not just the concept of uttering a statement; it also presupposes the concept of “green,” and the concept of “green” presupposes in “an important sense” all other concepts pertaining to the observable properties of physical objects.  Never mind, again, that this nominalism makes it impossible to account for how anyone could even learn to make a determination of a particular thing “as green,“ or a determination of “green” as a particular kind of color, since language is never learned “all at once.” Seriously: if one concept, the first, requires all others, then whence that concept?  Whence any concept?  Never mind too that everything science teaches about pre-linguistic infant cognition (not to mention our primate cousins, who never acquire language) demonstrates that psychological nominalism is in fact false.  Despite both these points there remains a trivial truth to the theory, namely, that all conceptual determination is a linguistic affair, and slightly less trivially, that only conceptually contextualized facts—and not bare non-epistemic givens—can serve an evidentiary role in justifying knowledge claims.  But for the first incarnation of that claim, one need not read Sellars but instead only refer back to Dewey, who specifically distinguished, long before Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, between non-epistemic “givens” and epistemic “takens”.[1]  In fact, as mentioned before in the “Myth of Sellars Myth of the Given,” immediate epistemic givens are rejected in one chapter of Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, even as the entire book is devoted to developing what Sellars himself coins as“the logical space of reasons.”  So when the rubber really hits the road, abandoning psychological nominalism as false costs nothing; one can simply read Dewey’s Logic to get the same basic lesson without the fatal errors, and without all the facile rigamarole though which Sellars forces his readers about “looks” and “means” and what not just to end up nowhere new.  Since Dewey leaves us so much better off, why even bother with Jones?

In a nutshell, it can be said that despite the trivial truth that can be made of “psychological nominalism” in Empiricism and Philosophy of Mind, Sellars throws out the baby of the epistemic givens with the bathwater of non-linguistic or pre-predicative experience, thereby degrading the main—and non-original—insight in that essay into rubbish.  For while it is certainly correct to point out that there are no “self-authenticating nonverbal episodes,” the authority of which is “transmitted to verbal and quasi-verbal performances” (i.e. that there is no direct justificatory path from bare givens like ‘impression of green’ to takens like “This is green”), it is demonstrably incorrect to go on to say that particulars, sorts, kinds, resemblances, repeatables, patterns, etc.—in short, all the qualities and meanings that make pre-predicative experience what it is…it is simply a mistake to say they can’t be experienced (“given”) without the aid of language.  They can; it’s just that this giveness serves as no epistemic foundation, only in an epistemic function, meaning its use is purely functional in the process of justification.  As Dewey pointed out long before Sellars (and with a whole lot less struggle): “when inquiry occurs, these [given] materials are given to be known—a truistic and tautological statement, since inquiry is the subjection of the given experience to operations of inquiry with the intent of institution of objects as known” (emphasis added).  Or equivalently stated:  the materials of immediate experience are given without any epistemic authority beyond the functional and evidentiary role they are taken to have as reports in the process of justification.  Jones could hardly have said it better.  Just too bad he didn’t say it first, or even half as well.  Had he, he could have saved this anus a whole lot of trouble over nothing.[2]


[1] Even a singular or simple statement like Sellar’s “this is green” or “this tie is green”—in general “x is F”—is for Dewey a conceptually determined fact, or a taken, as opposed to a given in a bare, authoritative form.  As he says in his Logic: “The given in the sense of the singular, whether object or quality…is taken rather than given.  This fact decides the logical status of data.  They are not isolated, complete or self-sufficient.  [Rather they] help provide evidence which tests the solution that is hypothetically entertained” (Logic, p.127, emphasis original).  Just add that this data is “reported” in “the space of reasons”—which for Dewey it always is—and the utility of Sellar’s distinctions in EPM is pre-empted by Dewey’s, just without all the asinine logic of looks and means, or the fiction of Jones.

[2] It could be noted that Sellars, along with Dewey, faults the traditional empiricists for turning the distinction between a functional role in the process of justification (facts or ideas) into an antecedent reality (an impression or thought)—what Dewey calls the philosophic fallacy.  And that much is true.  But with his recourse to a non-inferential status and foundational role for both impressions and thoughts after they have been purged of the Myth of the Given, Sellars merely commits this fallacy at another level—sort of an antecedent-reality-posited-within-a-functional-theoretical-account, as it were.  For note, his beef with The Given isn’t that causal, non-epistemic impressions aren’t real; it is only that they aren’t antecedently real before theoretical stipulation. For Sellars, The Given is retroactively real after ‘discovery’ through a theory, and therein he deviates from Dewey’s admonishment against turning a functional distinction into an ontological one.  In short, he still commits the philosophic fallacy, albeit in a round-about way.



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