James and Sellars “Hanging Together” (Notice the pun)

I will start teaching on Monday, and won’t be as free to blog about many things in the world. To this, I apologize. Maybe some of you like reading my thoughts, as scattered as they are.

I always suggest blog writing. It’s therapeutic. Blog writing frees the mind to write, and writing is a natural impulse for me. When I am thinking, I often write out my thoughts, and sometimes, I wish the very act of thinking manifested on a typewriter or word processor somewhere.

With that said, i wanted to leave you with a marvelous passage I found this summer, and I wandered if the celebrated Sellars got his famous saying about the role and current situation of philosophy from William James’s “The Thing and Its Relations” in his posthumously collected Essays in Radical Empiricism. Several of my colleagues are enthralled with Sellars version of neopragmatism, and these two passages just got stuck in my head. First, the often quoted passage from Wilfrid Sellars’ The Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man:

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term” (PSIM, in SPR:1; in ISR: 369).

And from the often neglected and celebrated personal favorite, William James:

Radical empiricism takes conjunctive relations at their face value, holding them to be as real as the terms united by them. The world it represents as a collection, some parts of which are conjunctively and others disjunctively relate. Two parts, themselves disjoined, may nevertheless hang together by their intermediaries with which they are severally connected, and the whole world eventually may hang together similarly, inasmuch as some path of conjunctive transition by which to pass from one of its parts to another may always be discernible. Such determinately various hanging-together may be called concatenated union, to distinguish it from the “through-and-through” type of union, “each in all and all in each” (union of total conflux, as one might call it), which monistic systems hold to obtain when things are taken in their absolute reality. In a concatenated world a partial conflux often is experienced. Our concepts and sensations are confluent; successive states of the same ego, and feelings of the same body are confluent. Where the experience is not of conflux, it may be of coterminousness (things with but one thing between); or of contiguousness (nothing between); or of likeness, or of nearness; or of simultaneousness; or of in-ness; or of -ness; or of for-ness; or of simple with-ness; or even of mere and-ness, which last relation would make of however disjointed a world otherwise, at any rate for that occasion a universe “of discourse.” (Section iv, p. 56, bold-faced terms are mine).

What I want to know is if Sellars has borrowed any deep sense of the term from James? I will just offer a brief statement about the passage before quitting blogging for the weekend (and possibly the near future).

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While it might not look like it, the fact that the various parts are experienced dynamically leads James to conclude that one metaphysical system cannot be exhaustive of how little we know the whole, and that holds for any philosophical effort that would systematize its efforts to the whole, including robust epistemologies, and ethical systems as well. The dynamism of the parts and how they appear (all the different ways we communicate those appearances with “grammatical particles”) In fact, we are ever in a position to know the whole reality of experience and must be humble about what relations we do posit about experiencing in general. In this way, James is offering us a dose of modesty about the various relations philosophers can claim about experience (and also the implicit idea that philosophizing can only be about experience itself). Given such limits, James’s pluralism follows from the limits of radical empiricism’s description of experience and from the fact that “so many of the conjunctions of experience seem so external that a philosophy of pure experience must tend to pluralism in its ontology” (p. 57). James’s use of “external” is not a reification of the outside versus the inside, as many have claimed about modern philosophers and their conception of the rational or empirical subject. Instead, the use of the term external is a metaphor for the intersubjective and transcendent feature of experience that various relations hold for not just me, but also you, very much like our shared experience of some external object.

Anymore discussion of the external object would be linked to F. H. Bradley, and that my friends would take too long, and derail the question I am putting to those interested in Sellars’s work.


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