Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sellars challenging "the Given"

Last time, I wrote about Roderick Chisholm's idea that at least some kinds of empirical knowledge could be foundational knowledge. This means that some kinds of knowledge that we get from the senses can be so basic such that we don't even have to provide reasons for it. For example, if I think something like "I see the Mac screen in front of me," I couldn't give you any other belief of mine that would be the reason for that belief, other than something like "Well, I just see the Mac screen in front of me, is all." According to Chisholm, this kind of knowledge from the senses counts as what could be called basic belief onto which other beliefs are built.

Philosopher Wilfrid Sellars challenges this. He thinks that this kind of thinking about basic beliefs is just plain wrong. Take a common example, like the sentence or the thought "I see the color green." Sellars writes in "Does Empirical Knowledge Have a Foundation?": "one couldn't form the concept of being green, and, by parity of reasoning, of the other colors, unless he already had them." He further writes:
Now, it just won't do to reply that to have the concept of green, to know what it is for something to be green, it is sufficient to respond, to green objects with the vocable 'This is green.' Not only must the conditions be of a sort that it appropriate for determining the color of an object by looking, the subject must know that conditions of this sort are appropriate.
In a nutshell, there must necessarily be a whole host of other concepts that someone knows and a whole host of conditions a person must know so that he or she can think thoughts in that situation whatsoever or howsoever. So, with sentences like the one mentioned about green or the first one we started with, "I see the Mac screen in front of me," I have to know the concepts that make up that thought and when I or anyone would think thoughts like that, and so that entails knowledge about the situation or environment. There are even more things that Sellar didn't think about, or couldn't have, because he was a behaviorist. I must also know, if I think that thought internally in propositional or sentential form, or if I were to vocalize it, something about English syntax, the roles pronouns, verbs, articles, prepositions, etc., play in the phrase structure of my language. There are more things I am leaving out but at any rate this should be proof enough that no sentence or thought or belief about something easily perceived is so basic so that it can't be asked of it what other reasons I believe that.

Here is Sellar's again:
[I]f it is true, then it follows, as a matter of simple logic, that one couldn't have observational knowledge of any fact unless one knew many other things as well... For the point is specifically that observational knowledge of any particular fact, e.g. that this is green, presupposes that one knows general facts of the form X is a reliable symptom of Y. And to admit this requires an abandonment of the traditional empiricist idea that observational knowledge 'stand on its own feet.'
Basically, then observational knowledge, assumes other knowledge of concepts and conditions/parameters and possibly, I might add, a complicated abductive or inferential process.

And Sellars for the next to last time:
The essential point is that in characterizing an episode or a state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says.
That is to say, when we think about thinking, namely beliefs, we think of them as logically interconnecting with others and allowing us opportunities to check those beliefs against one another for consistency.

Sellars' final words (which he seemed to love so much he plagiarized himself in another of his writings):
[E]mpirical knowledge, like its sophisticated extension, science, is rational, not because it has a foundation but because it is a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim in jeopardy, though not all at once.
What do you think? More to come, same Bat Channel.

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