Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays


by Roy Wood Sellars

At the request of Professor Preston Warren, I am writing a brief Foreword to his careful study of the development of my philosophical position.

I have been fortunate in two things at least. I have had a long time to reflect on basic points in my theses, some sixty years in fact. And these theses have lent themselves to clarification and development. They were, it would seem, what I call neglected alternatives which were constantly bypassed by my contemporaries. They did not see how they could be fitted together. That was my job and I found considerable stimulus in integrating these parameters.

These were essentially three in number, though they involved enlargements as in my theory of value and what I call agential causality, or man as a causal agent. I early tried to show that valuation is a different operation from cognition, as such, and had different ingredients and criteria. I do not see how man could be an agent without this dimension in his life. The inorganic sciences, quite naturally, neglected it. They were concerned essentially with description and laws. And the idea of evolution came late and was not much meditated on. I think I was one of the first to stress levels of causality. That was in my Evolutionary Naturalism (1921), though I had suggested the idea earlier.

But, to come back to the three parameters which I sought to integrate. These were, first, a realistic analysis of perceiving which showed that sensations were not terminal but operationally used in sensuous thinking of the stimulating object. I also held that knowing was a development preceded by sensory guidance, as in animal life. The second parameter was the mind‑body question. Here I early developed a double‑knowledge approach, being very skeptical of Cartesian dualism. This fitted in with my theory of perceiving which had made sensations integral to the act of perceiving and not terminal. I thought of perceiving as a mind‑brain activity under external control but involving what I called directed response. This made possible a new kind of direct realism different from the presentational realism of the new realists. Things are responded to selectively and sensuously thought. My idea that guidance preceded explicit cognizing fitted in here. Man's color sense was probably developed in his arboreal state and enabled him to discriminate better.

The third parameter was that of the evolutionary approach to human life and experience. I think I was one of the earliest to stress emergent novelty. At least, Lloyd Morgan so believed, though American philosophers have given me small credit. I am really rather puzzled by this treatment. Certainly, after the thirties, American thinkers looked abroad for their paradigms. And I fear that Europeans were both clamorous and ignorant of American thought. As I recall it, young American thinkers were fed with the notion that there had been some sort of stalement [sic—stalemate?] here. May I be permitted to say that I have always kept my eye on problems rather than on slogans and fashions. The University of Notre Dame Press brought out a book of mine in the spring of 1969 devoted to reflections on American philosophy.

Now the reader can see that I succeeded in integrating these parameters. My analysis of perceiving not only gave me a direct realism but also fitted in with the natural idea that sensations arise in the cerebral centers connected with the sense‑organs. It is a curious fact that Dewey, Woodbridge, and Brand Blanshard rejected such location as involving a subcutaneous mind focussed on brain‑events. Lovejoy, likewise, made fun of the "under‑the‑hat" theory of mind. No one seems to have paid much attention to my analysis of perceiving as responsively directed and using sensation in guidance and sensuous thinking. But do we not look at the things which attract our attention and reach out to them, guided by the sensations they arouse? My view fits in more with modern information theory. Science is now developing artificial types of sensors. But, of course, our sense‑organs are still basic. As nearly as I can make out, the above men seem to have thought of perceiving as a sort of apprehension, and it could only apprehend the brain if there it was. I had a quite different idea of perceiving. I thought of it as it rather complex guided act in which sensations were used as controlled sources of information. I called this a non-apprehensional. view of perceiving. I stress a from‑and‑to circuit. Strange as it may seem for such brilliant men as the new realists, they had the belief that external things are somehow just presented. That is, they transformed Hume's sense‑impressions into presented objects. The only alternative they could think of was that of Locke's subjective ideas with its blocked attempt to get to the outer world. Montague insisted that I was in this situation. This was in his Story of American Realism. And, it was widely accepted.

Professor Warren makes it quite clear that mine is a referential realism which avoids the whole traditional gambit of starting with sensations, or sense‑data, removing them from their operational context and trying to infer an external world from them. I pointed this out once to Russell but be did not understand what I was driving at. Instead of perceiving, he stressed percepts. I have sometimes felt that among philosophers, as such, it was almost a case of Sellars against the world. I suppose something like that sometimes happens. Biologists, like Ritter of California and Herrick of Chicago, got in touch with me, and I have had a long standing relationship with psychologists. I have always been thankful that my son, Wilfrid, grasped my point and developed it technically against logical positivism. And I am glad that Farber, Warren, and Melchert are defending realistic naturalism against neglect and misunderstandings.

What, then, is critical realism? It is an explication of what takes place in perceiving and develops a different stance than presentationalism, realistic or phenomenalistic, and from traditional representationalism. In contrast to these, it emphasizes the referential framework of perceiving and regards sensations as used in the act as guiding and informational. It is, in this sense, a direct realism. In the strict sense we never intuit material things but achieve knowledge about them. Transcendence is, thus, an affair of directed reference and fed‑in information. It is only in this fashion that our human minds get to the stars. As Professor Warren points out, there is no mysterious, cognitive relation.

Let me turn now to the status of the sensory qualia used in perceiving. They seem mysterious to us since we have learned to think the material world in terms of abstract knowledge‑about qualified by lapses into naive, presentational realism. As I see them, they are translations in the sensory centers by the brain of the stimuli forwarded to them. We become aware of them and use them in guidance and in cognizing. I do not see how this could have been done otherwise.

Perhaps, as Sir Russell Brain suggested, we can learn more about the conditions of their emergence. But it must be remembered that we cannot intuit their neural setting. Here, and here alone, do we participate in nature. The panpsychist makes much of this but be is weak in epistemology. I think this holds of Whitehead.

A word now about truth. Professor Warren has, I think, brought out sufficiently my analysis of truth as evidenced knowledge‑about. To say that a statement is true is to endorse it with evidence given. The only element of correspondence is the informational base. It has long been realized that we cannot compare the statement with the state of affairs it is about. My direct realism avoids this traditional dilemma. The coherence theory of idealism stresses a logical test within knowledge. Pragmatism is a kind of compromise stressing working within experience. It has no clear epistemology. If we accept a statement as true, we regard it as a case of knowledge. The essential thing is to get the correct framework.

It will be recalled that I stressed evolutionary levels of causality. This rejects mere Newtonianism. I think the self emerges in the focus of control. Hence I speak of agential causality. Hence, I agree with the psychotherapists, like Rollo May, that self‑awareness and reflective deliberation are important. Erich Fromm and Karen Horney should also be included along with May—and indeed Sigmund Freud. There is no pushbutton "free‑will" but capacity to judge and work out standards. Wisdom is something to be acquired. I do not think our so‑called statesmen have too much of it. It requires compassion and imagination. They seem to me second‑raters. They can, of course, destroy the world. What a pity!

But this Foreword must not be too long. Nevertheless, I must say something about the transition from the world as perceived to the world as described as a result of scientific methods and instruments. It is still the perceivable world but this is not explored. The first step in the transition was that of the insights of Galileo and Newton. Inertia and mass were first discovered as testable concepts. Measurement and the behavior of bodies were stressed. The law of falling bodies is an example. The law of gravitation is another. Combining proportions in chemistry is still another. New instruments were invented and applied. One should read the history of science. I can find nothing epistemologically or ontologically puzzling. But philosophy was stymied in the mechanism of perceiving and the mind-body problem. I am not too much awed when I am told that a certain philosopher is also a mathematician or a physicist. I know something about these subjects and I know that curious philosophies were worked out by Mach, Eddington, and Jeans. So I sit tight and continue to analyze my parameters. Let Europe send its latest fashions from logical positivism to existentialism. I have not found in them anything as basic as critical realism and evolutionary naturalism.

These things sort themselves out in the long run. I want to thank Professor Warren for his great care in tracing my development and studying my period. I do think it was somewhat neglected.


SOURCE: Sellars, Roy Wood. Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays, compiled and edited by W. Preston Warren. St. Louis, MO: W. H. Green, 1970. Foreword, v-ix.

Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays: Contents by Roy Wood Sellars

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