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Reviewed by:
  • Sellars and His Legacy ed. by James R. O'Shea
  • Niels Skovgaard-Olsen
James R. O'Shea, editor. Sellars and His Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xviii + 266. Cloth, $74.00.

Wilfred Sellars's deeply original and systematic thought continues to inspire into the twenty-first century. Part of the explanation must be that Sellars's struggle to integrate a Kantian-Wittgensteinian normative view of meaning and intentionality with a naturalistic outlook remains at the forefront of philosophical inquiry. To acknowledge the deep impact that Sellars has had on their work, a list of prominent, contemporary philosophers honor Sellars's legacy in a volume craftily edited by James R. O'Shea with a superb introduction. Like Sellars's own work, the contributions are distributed across a wide range of topics from, roughly, philosophy of perception (John McDowell, David Rosenthal), philosophy of language and thought (Ruth Millikan, Rebecca Kukla and Mark Lance, Robert Brandom, Michael Williams), metaphysics (Robert Kraut, Willem deVries, Brandom, Johanna Seibt, O'Shea), and epistemology (O'Shea, McDowell, Williams).

Although Sellars's problems have been inherited, it speaks to the quality of this volume that his solutions undergo critical scrutiny at every corner.

A good example is Williams's illuminating discussion of Sellars's theory of truth as semantic assertibility (i.e. truth as assertibility according to idealized, epistemic rules), which is anchored in the world by a (controversial) theory of picturing that eschews semantic relations in favor of isomorphisms in the causal order between language episodes considered as natural objects, and other worldly entities. Under Williams's scrutiny, this position is found to be inferior to contemporary deflationist and minimalist theories as a means for carrying out Sellars's inferentialist program. It is to Williams's credit that he goes beyond programmatic statements to give some details on what concrete inferential role explications of the truth predicate and causal, law-like, claims could look like. But even here we are still left with an explication that features a placeholder for a future more adequate account, because supplying semantic clauses is not Williams's primary concern.

Another good example, on the opposite side of the spectrum, is the self-proclaimed "renegade daughter," Ruth Millikan, who likewise challenges Sellars's picture theory along with other aspects of the Kantian-Wittgensteinian structure of language and thought that Sellars wants to integrate with the scientific image. At the heart of their dispute is the issue of whether the constitutive norms take a prescriptive form. Millikan does not say so directly, but the conflict seems to concern whether agent responsibility—and appraising uses of norms (see Florian Steinberger, "Three ways in which logic might be normative," forthcoming), where ought-to-be rules of criticism open the speaker up to questions and challenges—plays [End Page 358] a constitutive role for language and thought. Moreover, Millikan and Sellars disagree about whether the naturalized implementation should take place at the psychological (and perhaps sociological) or biological level of description. As Millikan emphasizes, the inferentialist account of socially instituted norms, and her competing conception of norms based on the "proper functions" of language forms for which they were naturally selected (see Millikan, Language, Thought and Other Biological Categories, 1984), have opposing implications for the account of language acquisition. Indeed, Millikan suspects that Sellars's program rests on "a largely false empirical assumption about the nature of language and thought, that is, on a mistake at the level of theoretical linguistics and psychology" (122).

As someone who conducts psychological experiments on a local, inferentialist account of conditionals (see Skovgaard-Olsen, Singmann, and Klauer, "The Relevance Effect and Conditionals," 2016; "Relevance and Reason Relations," 2016), I would applaud if the empirical consequences of these opposing views were spelled out across a broad range of topics in cognitive science (e.g. language acquisition, compositionality, categorization, concept-formation, linguistic and non-linguistic thought, reasoning tasks, the cognitive evaluation of sentences).

To be sure, Seibt's chapter features a rich discussion of Sellars's views in the light of recent developments in embodied cognitive science that goes in the right direction. However, if our goal were to make the philosophical theories from above useful for scientific...


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