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  • Wilfrid Sellars and the Foundations of Normativity by Peter Ole
  • William A. Rottschaefer
Peter Olen. Wilfrid Sellars and the Foundations of Normativity. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Pp. viii + 240. Cloth, £66.99.

In this very informative volume, Peter Olen addresses questions that are of interest both to philosophers generally and to students of Sellars's thought in particular. Do philosophers have a job that is distinct from the scientists'? Yes. What is the nature of normativity and how is it discerned? Roughly, normativity is connected with the extra-conceptual content that normative language adds to factual content. Do Wilfrid Sellars's career-long efforts to account for the nature of both philosophy and normativity present itself as a unified, consistent one? No, so the interpreters of Sellars who find in his works a unified position are incorrect. The pure pragmatics developed by the early Sellars gives way to a rule-based account. How do Sellars's views relate to those of prominent contemporary Sellarsian interpreters? Students of Sellars's thought should avoid the temptation of trying to find an ahistorical unity in his thought. Sellars may have ended up as James R. O'Shea's middle Sellars, taken a Kantian turn, or developed a transcendental linguistics. But that is not were he started. Given the significance of these questions and the prominence of Sellars as one of the leading Anglo-American philosophers of the twentieth century, Olen's book is a welcome contribution.

The book contains seven chapters and an appendix. In the introductory chapter, Olen succinctly outlines his historical and developmental approach with its focus on the early Sellars, roughly from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, starting with Sellars's pure pragmatics and ending with his adoption of a rule-based perspective for understanding the normativity of human language, thought, and agency. Chapter 2 sets the Iowa context for Sellars's development of pure pragmatics, a context in which Olen argues Sellars's pure pragmatics is influenced by his acceptance of Everett Hall's and Gustav Bergmann's misinterpretation of Rudolf Carnap's pure semantics and their differing approaches to solving the issue of the relationship between language and the world. In chapter 3, Olen lays out Sellars's pure pragmatics solution. Chapter 4 is about the reception of pure pragmatics then and now. Chapter 5 narrates Sellars's move from pure pragmatics to an account of language, thought, and agency that incorporates behavioral, psychological, and sociological facts without abandoning a distinctive role for a philosophical account of normativity. In chapter 6, Olen presents his central interpretative claim concerning Sellars's mature account of normativity. According to Olen, Sellars moves from an internalist account of normativity in which normative force derives only from an individual, voluntary adoption of a formal system to an externalist account of normativity, one in which the sui generis nature of normative concepts contrasts with purely formal or factual matters. Moving beyond both, community norms present external demands upon users of a language, ones reflected in rule-following behavior and manifested in rule-governed behavior. Olen concludes in chapter 7 by summing up the results of his developmental or historical account, contrasting it with ahistorical and thematic accounts. He also briefly addresses some further issues that arise in the context of pure pragmatics such as nominalism. An appendix of selected correspondence and unpublished papers follows. Unfortunately, Olen appends this material without annotation connecting it to the issues discussed in the earlier chapters and without specific reasons why these pieces were selected from the store of Sellars's unpublished materials.

In my own work on Sellars's thought, I have taken what Olen calls a thematic approach, focusing on issues involving Sellars's idea of the synoptic vision. So I do not have the expertise to assess critically Olen's arguments for his developmental account of Sellars. If his arguments are sound, then Olen is right in urging that a developmental perspective is the proper one. Continuing with full disclosure, I count myself among the leftwing Sellarsians, those who take very seriously Sellars's scientific realism and his claim that science should be the measure of what is and what is not...


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