American, b: 20 May 1912, Ann Arbor, Michigan. d: 2 July 1989, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Cat: Analytic philosopher. Ints: Analytic philosophy; metaphysics; philosophy of science. Educ: Rhodes Scholar, University of Oxford. Appts: University of Iowa, 1938–43; University of Minnesota, 1946–59; promoted to Professor 1951, Chair 1952–9; Yale University, 1959–63; from 1963, University Professor of Philosophy and Research Professor of the Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh; 1950, with Herbert Feigl, founded Philosophical Studies, the first scholarly journal explicitly devoted to analytic philosophy, edited jointly until 1971 and by Sellars alone for a further three years.
Sellars’ published work includes significant contributions to metaphysics and epistemology, to the philosophies of mind, language and science, and to moral philosophy and the theory of action, as well as to our understanding and appreciation of great historical figures from Plato to Kant. His writings are complex and conscientiously dialectical and synthesizing, typically undercutting accepted dichotomies and attempting to mediate conflicting intuitions.
Advancing a comprehensive critique of the ‘myth of the given’, Sellars became a leading contributor to the ongoing Anglo-American critique of ‘the Cartesian concept of mind’ and the correlative shift of semantic attention from the categories of thought to those of public language. He saw philosophy as challenged to achieve a synthesis of the manifest image, the focal concern of ‘perennial philosophy’, and the scientific image, still in the process of emerging from the fruits of theoretical reasoning, into a single synoptic vision. His own sketch of a synthesis was Kantian in spirit, but thoroughgoingly naturalistic and nominalistic. A sophisticated theory of conceptual roles, concretely instantiated in the conducts of representers and transmissible by modes of cultural inheritance, formed the basis for Sellars’ treatment of both categorial ontological idioms and mentalistic intentional contexts. His own ontology combined a robust scientific realism with a form of linguistic nominalism which treated traditional categorial discourse as the classificatory discourse of a functional metalanguage transposed into the ‘material mode of speech’. His account of intentional contexts was marked by psychological nominalism the denial that any sort of commerce with abstract entities is an essential ingredient of mental acts, and his own alternative ‘verbal behaviourism’ constituted the original version of functionalism in the contemporary philosophy of mind.
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