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What We Talk About When We Talk About This Being Blue

C. I. Lewis and R. W. Sellars on the Object of Perception
Matthias Neuber


The relationship between American pragmatism and American critical realism needs to be reconsidered. The two currents shared many aspects, but there were also significant differences. One of these differences pertains to the object of perception or, more precisely, to the question of what we talk about when we talk about this, for example, being blue. By re-addressing that question, some light can be shed on the historical development of analytic philosophy in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. My case in point is the respective positions of C. I. Lewis and R. W. Sellars. I shall point out that Sellars’s view has more to recommend it because it provides a more compelling framework for a comprehensive explanation of perception.

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“The world we live in is the world of sense data; but the world we talk about is the world of physical objects.”
(Wittgenstein 2016: 82)

1. Introduction

1Clarence Irving Lewis (1883-1964) and Roy Wood Sellars (1880-1973) are important figures of twentieth-century American philosophy. Lewis, the founder of axiomatic modal logic (and teacher of Willard Van Orman Quine), stood for a – partially Kantian inspired – “conceptualistic” pragmatism. Sellars, on the other hand, was the leading representative of “critical” realism (and father of Wilfrid S. Sellars). Both partook of what W. H. Werkmeister called “the naturalistic trend in American philosophy” (Werkmeister 1949: 577). However, Lewis’s pragmatist and Sellars’s realist approach were divided over several issues, the most prominent being Sellars’s rejection of analytic philosophy. In Sellars’s view, “so-called analytic philosophy […] did not seem to me very creative in either epistemology or ontology. American addiction to it and disregard of its own momentum struck me as a form of neo-colonialism” (Sellars 1969: 5; emphases omitted). Lewis would surely not have agreed with this assessment. Moreover, Lewis and Sellars defended divergent accounts regarding the issue of perception. Whereas Lewis located the very object of perception in the realm of sensorily given data, Sellars held that a thing is that which is perceived. This is very roughly stated, but it ultimately hits the nail on the head.

2The aim of the present paper is to comparatively reconstruct Lewis’s and Sellars’s respective conceptions of the object of perception. In systematic terms, an answer should be delivered as to the question what we talk about when we talk about this, for example, being blue. As a result, it will turn out that Sellars’s view has more to recommend it because it provides a more compelling framework for a comprehensive explanation of perception.

3I will proceed as follows. In section 2, Lewis’s conceptualistic pragmatism and its implications regarding the object of perception is going to be outlined. Section 3 is devoted to Sellars’s critique of Lewis’s approach. In section 4, Sellars’s positive account of the issue will be discussed at some length. Section 5 discusses exegetic and interpretative problems regarding Lewis’s theory of the given and the latter’s debatable status as a “myth.” Section 6 concludes the paper with a few comments on broader philosophical consequences.

2. Lewis on “the Given” and “the Pragmatic a priori”

  • 1 Though being inspired by Kant, Lewis’s version of apriorism is not transcendental (nor transcendent (...)

4In his seminal Mind and the World Order, published in 1929, Lewis advocates a “conceptualistic pragmatism” (Lewis 1929: xi). According to this view, perceptual knowledge consists of two components: (a) the sensorily given and (b) its conceptual interpretation. For Lewis, “[e]xperience does not categorize itself. The criteria of interpretation are of the mind; they are imposed upon the given by our active attitude.” (Ibid.: 14). Moreover, Lewis sees himself in opposition to any form of speculative – transcendent – metaphysics. He points out: “Metaphysical issues which supposedly concern what is transcendent in experience altogether, must inevitably turn out to be issues wrongly taken. […] Why not a world of sensa with nothing behind them?” (Ibid.: 31) It is important to note that, for Lewis, this distinctive anti-metaphysical stance is not at all at odds with a certain form of apriorism. In his view, interpretative concepts are independent of experiences and objects. In fact, they are instruments of “dealing with what is given to the mind” (ibid.). Already in his earlier “A Pragmatic Conception of the A Priori” (1923), Lewis had argued along these lines (see Baldwin 2007). In Mind and the World Order, Lewis accounts for the pragmatic element by stressing that the very meaning of interpretative concepts lies in “the empirical consequences of the active attitude” (Lewis 1929: 31). If they would not have such “practical consequences, the mind would never use them” (ibid.).1

5In order to better understand Lewis’s conceptualistic pragmatism, it is mandatory to clarify two points: first, what exactly is meant by “the given”; and second, how does the pragmatic a priori apply to it?

6Let us begin with Lewis’s account of the given. The given is, according to him, characterized by three features: it is (a) ineffable, (b) foundational regarding objects, and (c) essentially veridical. The first of these three features implies that what is immediately presented by the senses “remains untouched and unaltered, however it is construed in thought” (ibid.: 53). Thus the given forms the unshakeable ground of all our perceptual knowledge. It is for this reason that Lewis, referring to a paper by J. Loewenberg (see Loewenberg 1927), speaks of “preanalytic data” (Lewis 1929: 54) in this very context. Accordingly, the given element in perception figures as “an ultimate epistemological category” (ibid.). However, what exactly should be considered as the given element in perception? This question brings us to the second feature: On Lewis’s account, the given lies at the very bottom of objecthood. More precisely speaking, objects are seen by him as being constructed out of sensory elements. Therefore, the given not only has epistemological but also ontological impact and thus pertains to what Lewis defines as the “problem of metaphysics,” namely “’the problem of the categories’” (ibid.: 10). In a similar vein as did Bertrand Russell in his Our Knowledge of the External World (1914), Lewis assumes that sensorily given elements, such as particular patches of color or particular tastes, provide the foundation for a subsequent interpretative process. He points out: “An object such as an apple is never given; between the real apple in all its complexity and this fragmentary presentation [that it tastes sweet], lies that interval which only interpretation can bridge.” (Lewis 1929: 120). On the other hand, and this pertains to feature number three, the given element in perception is essentially free from error, i.e. it guarantees certainty. For Lewis, “the given itself is never misrepresentative; always it is true of the real, however partial” (ibid.: 179). If perceptual errors occur, then they are due to the interpretative (judgemental) part of cognition which, in turn, is always merely probable and thus fallible (see ibid., ch. X).

7Which brings us to Lewis’s conception of the pragmatic a priori. Here, too, three features are worth mentioning: the pragmatic a priori is (a) the source of conceptual order, (b) historically dynamic, (c) essentially connected to practical needs. Feature number one brings in the Kantian element of Lewis’s approach. Though not at all identical with Kant’s original contribution (see Boyer 1958), conceptualistic pragmatism proceeds from a similar central idea. Lewis writes:

In experience, mind is confronted with the chaos of the given. In the interest of adaptation and control, it seeks to discover within or impose upon this chaos some kind of stable order, through which distinguishable items may become the signs of future possibilities. Those patterns of distinction and relationship […] are our concepts. These must be determined in advance of the particular experience to which they apply in order that what is given may have meaning. (Lewis 1929: 230)

  • 2 According to Misak, “[t]his fallibilism about the a priori is Lewis’s pragmatic twist on Kant. […] (...)
  • 3 Tough Lewis’s conceptualistic pragmatism does not reduce to an adaptationist conception, it is sign (...)

8That concepts must be determined “in advance” implies their apriority. However, in contrast to the historical Kant, Lewis fundamentally relativizes the a priori. In his view, the a priori, since “made by the mind” (ibid.: 233), is also alterable. Thus it can change through development of knowledge, experience, and in particular science (for a similar approach, see already Reichenbach 1920). This is the second of the three features listed above. To make it more explicit: Lewis holds that “[t]here will be no assurance that what is a priori will remain fixed and absolute throughout the history of the race or for the developing individual” (Lewis 1929: 233).2 Given this supposition, the question pops up how the relativization of the a priori gets restricted. Lewis’s answer to that question, which pertains to feature number three, is through and through pragmatistic. Already in the introduction to Mind and the World Order, he makes it clear that “[o]ur categories are guides to action. Those attitudes which survive the test of practice will reflect not only the nature of the active creature but the general experience he confronts” (Lewis 1929: 21). And in the chapter devoted to the “nature” of the a priori he states that “while the a priori is dictated neither by what is presented in experience nor by any transcendental and eternal factor of human nature, it still answers to criteria of the general type which may be termed pragmatic” (ibid.: 239). In short, the relativized a priori gets restricted by practical needs of adaptation to the experienced environment.3

9It should be noted that the position so far outlined significantly diverges from the “classical” pragmatist approach. To be sure, Lewis’s reliance on practical needs of adaptation clearly stands in the tradition of Peirce, James, and Dewey. But it must be seen that Lewis’s is a conceptualistic pragmatism. In sharp contrast especially to James and Dewey, Lewis focuses on questions from traditional epistemology, dating back at least to Kant. His Mind and the World Order is subtitled “Outline of a Theory of Knowledge”; and the interpretative function of concepts regarding the given plays the crucial role in his account (see ibid.: ix). Classical pragmatism, in his view, is too trustful in “the validity of rather superficial and capricious attitudes” (ibid.: 267), such as personal motives and desires. For Lewis, the actual epistemic situation must be clarified in the first place. He therefore declares: “We must all be pragmatists, but pragmatists in the end, not in the beginning.” (Ibid.: 267).

  • 4 More specifically, the predictive element in Lewis’s account of objects significantly reinforces th (...)

10Coming back to the relationship between the given and the pragmatic a priori, it can be summarized that according to Lewis perceptual knowledge consists in the interplay of unalterable, ontologically foundational and essentially veridical sensorily given elements, on the one hand, and interpretatively ordering, historically relative and at the same a priori concepts, on the other. The crux of the matter is, for Lewis, that perceptual knowledge pertains to “objects” as conceptual constructions. Again, as with Russell, he is convinced that “[t]he world of experience is not given in experience: it is constructed by thought from the data of sense” (ibid.: 29). Accordingly, it is these data of sense which form the actual object of perception. We will come back to this point in a moment. For the time being, however, another aspect of Lewis’s approach should be briefly mentioned: According to him, the overarching aim of knowledge is a predictive one. In his view, “[t]o ascribe an objective quality to a thing means implicitly the prediction that if I act in certain ways, specifiable experience will eventuate: if I should bite this, it would taste sweet; if I should pinch it, it would feel moderately soft [etc.]” (ibid.: 140). From examples like this, Lewis comes to the conclusion that “[t]he whole content of our knowledge of reality is the truth of such ‘If–then’ propositions […]” (ibid.: 142). Consequently, things (or objects) as constructions fulfill their practical role by helping us predict future sensory experiences.4

11So much for Lewis’s conceptualistic pragmatism. It should have become clear that, according to Lewis, perception is a complex interpretative and at the same time practice-oriented process. Furthermore, it has turned out that the given element in perceptual knowledge is essential for Lewis’s whole approach. It still remains to be determined, though, how the status of the given is to be assessed. The following section should prove instructive in this regard.

3. Sellars’s Critique of Lewis’s Approach

12Sellars’s critique of Lewis’s approach is very interesting because the two thinkers shared several common concerns. Sellars himself was no doubt aware of that fact. Thus, for example, in his paper “Critical Realism and the Independence of the Object,” published in 1937, he frankly states:

Perhaps I can not better express my sense of the logical keenness of Lewis’s analysis than by saying that, if a fatal weakness in my analysis of the categorical distinctions of cognition could be shown, I would regard his position as the most tenable alternative. It strikes me as much superior to the common versions of positivism, logical or otherwise. (Sellars 1937: 548)

13Already in his seminal The Philosophy of Physical Realism from 1932, Sellars had made a similar, albeit more polemic, statement in that direction. There, he writes: “In many ways his [Lewis’s] approach is similar to mine; but there remains a theoretic subjectivism which is obscured by language and yet reveals itself in passage after passage.” (Sellars 1932: 186). How is this to be understood? A first step in answering that question is provided by Sellars’s claim that Lewis’s approach is “an attempted blending of Berkeley and Kant in the setting furnished by pragmatism” (Sellars 1937: 545). Sellars himself was neither a Berkeleyan, nor a Kantian, nor a pragmatist. All of these currents were for him expressions of “subjectivism.” Accordingly, it might be expected that his critique turns out to be quite fundamental. Let us see if this is really the case.

14Confining ourselves to the exposition in The Philosophy of Physical Realism (the work in which Sellars expresses his critique most clearly) three principal objections against Lewis’s approach can be identified. The first of these objections, let us call it the representationalist objection, says that the roles of both sensory presentations and active attitudes are overrated by Lewis. In Sellars’s words:

The Berkeleian note [in Lewis’s approach] is dominant. Experience is the ultimate term. The logical problem is to conceptualize presentations properly. Don’t bother with questions of what lies beyond presentations, for they are essentially meaningless. In the terms of Carnap these are Scheinprobleme. To all this, I reply that it is independent and enduring things which we suppose ourselves to perceive, and not presentations. […] When I ordinarily assert that I am biting into a peach, I do not mean that I am biting into a presentation, a sensory datum. […] In knowing we are spectators and not primarily agents. (Sellars 1932: 146-7; emphasis in original)

15What Sellars is implying here is that, while sensory data are presented, things are re-presented; hence the label “representationalist objection.” However, his insinuation that for Lewis we are “primarily agents,” is exaggerated. We have already seen that Lewis’s pragmatism is conceptualistic in the first place and thus not to be confused with classical pragmatism. Accordingly, Lewis can (at least partially) be defended against Sellars in this connection.

16So what about the second objection? Here the central claim is that the place of sensorily given elements in perception is falsely located by Lewis. Let us call this the anti-positivist objection. In Sellars’s words, it reads as follows:

The independence of reality – its independence of the knowing mind – means [for Lewis] the givenness of the given, the truth of “If-then” propositions, and the accrual of something in the future which cannot now be determined. In short, the rejection of co-existential transcendence is complete. […] In opposition to this positivism, the critical realist argues that knowing is, in intention, the interpretation of physical things as these in common measure appear, or are manifested, in sensory presentation and that, in critical knowledge, we achieve a complex content which is regarded as revealing the independent, physical thing. (Ibid.: 152; emphasis in original)

  • 5 Interestingly, Tyler Burge, in his Origins of Objectivity, arrives at a very similar diagnosis as S (...)

17Thus, just as with the advocates of positivism, Lewis, according to Sellars, dispenses with mind-independent physical things and consequently puts the given in their place. Things as constructions are for Sellars not things at all. What is more, in Sellars’s view, Lewis has no other option than to identify the object of perception with the given. And this, he thinks, is fatal since when we talk about this, for example being blue, we talk about concrete things, such as a ball, a pen, or what have you. This is not to say that Sellars sees no use for sensational elements in perception. But he locates them differently than Lewis. In fact, Sellars sees their role in guiding us in perceiving physical things. More on that will be said in the following section. For the moment, suffice it to remark that the anti-positivist objection is instantaneously convincing because it accords with our common sense intuitions. Lewis’s understanding of objects as constructions appears rather artificial in comparison to our everyday understanding of perceptual processes.5

18Sellars’s third objection, which might be called the semantic objection, is tightly connected with this point. In a nutshell, it says that in Lewis’s account the generation of stable meanings is fundamentally obscured. Or as Sellars puts it himself:

[P]erceiving is always thicker than the awareness of sense-data. Sense-data are enveloped in a directed complex of meaning in the perceptual experience; and this fact is not hard to understand when we realize that perceiving involves organic response. As I see it, Lewis realized this supplementation; but his empiricism led him to make the sense-data the objects of interpretation rather than the guides of an interpretation of affirmed external things with properties. And this stand made it impossible for him to make a physical organism the basis of repeated meanings. (Sellars 1932: 202)

19To better understand Sellars’s point, let us come back to the example of this being blue. To be sure, Lewis would not deny that it is, for instance, a ball of which we actually say it is blue (see, for example, Lewis 1929: 57-9). However, as Sellars correctly observes, by making sense-data the objects of conceptual interpretation Lewis becomes confronted with the problem of how to specify the range of application of such a term as “blue.” If, in our example, the ball itself is the object of perception, then a stable meaning can be established to the effect that it can repeatedly be said of the same ball that it is blue. If, on the other hand, sense-data are conceived of as the object of perception, then we have no sameness anymore. Sense-data are always in flux and thus not stabilizable. The predicate “blue” would apply to as many different objects as there were different sense-data whenever we see the ball. Consequently, we would stand in need of a “private language,” since each individual person has its own sensational data. I dare say that Lewis’s account ultimately breaks down at this very point.

20To summarize, Sellars’s critique of Lewis’s approach is indeed fundamental and in more than one respect convincing. Regarding the object of perception, the two thinkers stood in radical opposition to each other. For Lewis, the sensorily given is the object of interpretation and, thus, of perception. For Sellars, in contrast, it is affirmed external things that are interpreted and thus perceived. Sense-data, according to Sellars, merely serve as guides of interpretation. They are by no means foundational (or terminal). Accordingly, the question of what we talk about when we talk about this, for example, being blue is answered in two completely different ways. What needs to be done next is to figure out whether Sellars’s positive account has more to offer than Lewis’s one.

4. Sellars’s Positive Account

21To begin with, Sellars defended the critical realist point of view already as early as 1908 (see Sellars 1908). In 1916, he published a book explicitly titled Critical Realism. In that book he still held that “we perceive percepts […] and not physical things” (Sellars 1916: viii). Four years later, Sellars co-published the Essays in Critical Realism (see Drake et al. 1920). In his own contribution to that volume, “Knowledge and Its Categories,” he made it clear that he now thought that “[w]e mean independent objects and we interpret these objects in terms of ideas” (Sellars 1920: 194). The principal implication of this change of view becomes particularly clear from the following statement in Sellars’s 1929 “A Re-Examination of Critical Realism”: “[D]irectness and mediation are not contradictory in the theory of knowledge.” (Sellars 1929: 440). Accordingly, perceptual knowledge is now conceived of as being both direct and mediated. As with the representatives of American “neo-realism” (Perry, Holt, and others), Sellars assumes that the perceiving individual is directed to mind-independent things from the very first. On the other hand, in contrast to the neo-realists, Sellars’s realism is critical insofar as it reflects upon the conceptual presuppositions of the perceptual situation. In his view, concepts and categories serve to disclose the characters of “the actual physical things to which we are reacting and adjusting ourselves” (Sellars 1920: 191). Just as for Lewis, concepts and categories are for Sellars means of interpretation. However, unlike Lewis, Sellars assumes that it is physical things (and not sensory presentations) that get conceptually interpreted. At any rate, concepts for Sellars have a representational role to play: they are the essentially mind-dependent vehicles through which the perceptual process is mediated.

22In order to adequately understand Sellars’s positive (mature) account, it is necessary to consider his rejection of the idea of a cognitive relation. In his article “Is there a Cognitive Relation?,” published in 1912, Sellars claims that “[t]he subject-object relation is a dogma which has been an article of faith” (Sellars 1912: 229). And in his contribution to the Essays in Critical Realism he emphatically states: “The critical realist holds that knowledge is a function of the knower rather than a peculiar, real relation between the knower and the known.” (Sellars 1920: 206; emphasis in original). Let us call this “the functional idea.” The gist of Sellars’s advocacy of that idea is the attempt to bring together two apparently divergent approaches in the philosophy of perception: his already mentioned representationalism and what nowadays is called enactivism (see, for example, Noë 2004). The enactivist aspect is provided by the insight that perception is an intention-based activity of an organism in its environment. Therefore, perceptual knowledge does not have the status of an abstract, static relation. Rather, it should be conceived of as the organism’s inter-action with its experienced environment. This is where Sellars, again, agrees with Lewis. However, as already outlined, the sensorily given element in perception is, for Sellars, not the very object of perception, but rather that which guides us in affirming and conceptually interpreting the actual physical thing. Accordingly, “the critical realist regards perceiving as a non-inferential selection and interpretation of a thing as an object. This selection is a guided intent, guided, in point of fact, by sense-presentations.” (Sellars 1937: 546; emphasis in original).

23It is important to note that Sellars’s functional idea is a more or less immediate reaction to both traditional (Lockean) representationalism and contemporary (American and British) neo-realism. Regarding the first, Sellars employs the enactivist aspect of his account in order to prevent the “Berkeleyan impasse.” It is commonly known that Berkeley had objected against Locke that by relying on mediating ideas, a direct knowledge of external things is made impossible (see, for example, Berkeley 1710, §20). Sellars agrees with this critique, but he also sees an alternative to Berkeley’s resulting plea for idealism (or “subjectivism”). As a matter of fact, Sellars attempts to account for the directness (and thus non-inferentiality) of perceptual knowledge by dynamizing the representational relation. Thus, he points out:

[T]he critical realist would not speak of a relation between external fact and the idea mediating knowledge of it. Rather would he regard the act of knowing as a descriptive interpretation of an external state of affairs now made the object of a cognitive intent. In such a situation, representation is a use made of an idea which is presumably such that it corresponds to the object of the intent. (Sellars 1932: 128; emphasis in original)

  • 6 It would clearly transcend the scope of this paper to elaborate on Sellars’s relation to more recen (...)

24Again, as with Lewis, Sellars focuses on the active attitude of the perceiving organism. In doing so, he is in a position to argue (implicitly against Locke) that we do not infer how things are, but that in actively encountering the way they appear to us, we directly get in touch with them. This dynamic interaction might include such activities as attending to an object, manipulating it, or estimating its spatial distance from us. Yet, unlike Lewis, Sellars connects the active (intentional) attitude in perception to an externalist objectivity condition. Following a recent proposal by Tyler Burge, “perceptual objectivity” might be defined as “veridical representation of a mind-independent reality” (Burge 2009: 285). This condition is externalist insofar, as it implies that perceptual representations are constitutively dependent on relations to an environment of physical things, and not of sensations or other mental states (Burge himself speaks in this connection of “anti-individualism”; see Burge 2009: 292 and Burge 2010, ch. 3). Accordingly, the mere availability (and manipulability) of perceivable objects is not enough for Sellars. In his view, perceptual representations can be accurate or inaccurate, so that it becomes an important task for the epistemologist to explain how perceptual representations refer to or are descriptive of experienced physical things. To put it more strikingly: According to Sellars, getting something right cannot be reduced to getting something done. Both aspects must be taken into account. More specifically, Sellars appeals to epistemic normativity, that is, to the question of justification, and thus to issues such as reliability, fallibility, and probability of empirical knowledge. Just like Lewis, Sellars thus constrains the pragmatic (enactivist) component by essentially epistemic criteria.6

25Moreover, Sellars rejects the neo-realists’ assumption that perception be characterized as the literal presence in experience of the objects perceived. In Sellars’s view, this variant of “pan-objectivism” (Sellars 1920: 188) is doomed to fail (not at least because it is unable to explain perceptual errors). His alternative to it amounts to a sophisticated form of representationalism, or what he himself calls “epistemological dualism” (ibid.). According to epistemological dualism, “knowledge of objects is mediated by ideas which are in some sense distinct from the objects of knowledge” (ibid.: 190; emphasis in original). What exactly does this mean? It is the notion of content, which is decisive in this regard. For Sellars, objects are perceived directly. However, the process of perceiving is mediated by cognitive elements that – by being effected by the active mental being – constitute the content. Thus, in an article from 1918, Sellars explains:

[T]he very gist of the difference between neo-realism and critical realism is that the knowledge-content, or object of awareness, is […] numerically distinct from the existent or object of knowledge. The only justification of the phrase epistemological dualism resides in this fact. The existent acknowledged, but not given, is the object of knowledge, while the mental content given is the material and content of knowledge, but not the object. (Sellars 1918: 507)

26In his 1927 essay on “Current Realism in Great Britain and United States,” Sellars specifies this point as follows: “We make things objects, we mean, select, affirm them in a specific and definite way; and yet these objects do not literally enter our consciousness. Rather are they interpreted in terms of meanings and characters which stand out in our perception and in our thought of them.” (Sellars 1927: 507). In short, in perception objects do not become part of the brain, but are rather deciphered on the basis of representational contents.

27To sum it up: Sellars’s functional idea is focused on the active attitudes of an organism in its environment. Since the organism forms part of this environment, its being directed to “external” things is, in fact, an ingredient of the perceptual situation from the start. It is in the process of perceiving that representational contents turn out to be means of “making” things objects. Sensations play a functional role insofar as they serve as indicators of something non-sensational, namely physical things. Though not the very objects of perception, sensations help us “in our pressing need to adapt ourselves to our environment” (Sellars 1920: 191). They, in other words, guide us in generating perceptual contents which, in turn, serve to disclose the characters of physical things that are the subject of conceptual interpretation. The things themselves remain unaltered by this whole process. Our direct knowledge of them is an “achievement” (Sellars 1932: 79) being documented by our successfully referring to them. Nevertheless, it is the functionally interpreted contents that pave the way to this achievement.

28On the whole, then, perception according to Sellars is a form of “triangulation,” so that we have

  1. the thing existing independent of the mind;

  2. the sensation which guides perception;

  3. the perceptual content which furnishes the basis for the conceptual interpretation of the perceived object.

  • 7 For more extended discussions of Sellars’s critical realism, see Chisholm 1954, Wright 1994, Hatfie (...)

It should be stressed again that this account of perception stands in sharp contrast to Lewis’s. Whereas, for Sellars, sensations count as registration of information and perceptions serve as means of generating representational content, Lewis explicitly rejects the representationalist approach. In passing he notes “the total impossibility of this representationalist position” (Lewis 1929: 166) and ironises “the subtleties of the critical realists” (ibid.: 155).7

5. Exegetic and Interpretative Problems Regarding Lewis’s Theory of the Given

29In light of the previous two sections, one might ask: Did Sellars’s critical realism “win out over” Lewis’s conceptualistic pragmatism after all? In historical terms, it is highly interesting to see that Roy Wood Sellars’s son Wilfrid, in his critique of the “myth of the given” (see W. Sellars 1956), argued along exactly the same lines as his father. The account of Lewis was one of Wilfrid’s main targets too (see O’Shea 2021). Already in a paper from 1954, he had put the issue thus:

[W]hen Jones sees a chair, although his perceptual experience is founded on, guided, and controlled by his sensations, there is nothing in the nature of aboutness or reference which requires us to say that his experience is primarily about the sensations, and only about the chair in some complicated or derived sense of “about.” His perception is “mediated by” the sensations, but his perception is not about the sensations. (W. Sellars 1954: 20; emphases in original)

30This is nothing but Roy Wood’s point of view, so that it can be claimed that the latter was the precursor of the critique of the myth of the given (see, in this connection, also Gironi 2017).

31However, the criticism of Lewis as a proponent of the myth of the given has not remained uncontested. For example, Peter Olen asserts that “R. W. Sellars radically misinterpreted conceptual pragmatism” (Olen 2015: 157). In a similar vein, Cheryl Misak categorically states: “One of the gravest injustices in the history of modern philosophy is the relegation of Lewis to the dustbin of foundationalism and what Sellars later called the Myth of the Given.” (Misak 2014: 334). And Tomasz Zarębski holds that “Lewis’s conception of the given is immune to Sellarsian criticism of the ‘myth of the given’” (Zarębski 2017: 200). Assessments such as these are surely motivated by passages like the following from Lewis’s Mind and the World Order:

It is indeed the thick experience of the world of things, not the thin given of immediacy, which constitutes the datum for philosophic reflection. We do not see patches of color, but trees and houses; we hear, not indescribable sound, but voices and violins. […] The given, as here conceived, is certainly an abstraction. (Lewis 1929: 54)

32To be sure, this very passage provides some exegetical support against seeing Lewis as an advocate (or “victim”) of the myth of the given. However, in systematic terms, there still remains a fundamental discrepancy in Lewis’s account: How could it be that “a world of sensa with nothing behind them” (Lewis 1929: 31; see above, sect. 2) turns out to be “the world of things?” Of course, there are “things” in Lewis’s ontology. But their status is that of constructions. And here the trouble begins. Take again our example of the blue ball: According to Lewis, our talk of its being blue would rely to particular sense-data, and their interpretation by concepts would imply a constructive maneuver. This is plainly at odds with the actual mechanism of perception (as well as with respective insights from Gestalt psychology). In (both Roy Wood and Wilfrid) Sellars’s view, on the other hand, conceptual interpretation amounts to the sensorily guided and perceptually grounded representation of particular states of affairs. It is things about which we talk when we talk about this, for example, being blue.

  • 8 For a similar assessment, see Misak (2013: 181 and 184); further Sachs (2014, ch. 2).
  • 9 As already said, Dayton does not deny that a Cartesian reading of the given can be found in the lat (...)
  • 10 Misak puts the same point thus: “What is given to us in experience does not justify beliefs. Someth (...)

33But even with all that said, there still remain certain interpretative “rescue measures” regarding Lewis’s theory of the given. Thus, for example, Henri Wagner (2021a: 5) suggests to categorically distinguish between two different readings of the given in Lewis’s account: a Cartesian, epistemic one, and a Kantian, existential one. While the former interprets the given as the ultimate justifying reason for empirical belief, the latter interprets the given as the ultimate cause responsible for such belief. Wagner is drawing here on an influential paper by Eric Dayton (1995). According to Dayton, “Lewis uses a conception of the given which serves a very different purpose than to found knowledge inferentially upon certainties” (ibid.: 255). The latter would be the Cartesian interpretation (in Wagner’s terminology), which, Dayton maintains, can only be found in Lewis’s later An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation from 1946. By contrast, in Mind and the World Order, Lewis, according to Dayton, uses the concept of the given “in a Kantian sense to refer to the element which is ‘given’ to the mind by the world and is thus independent of the mind’s constructive activities” (ibid.).8 The point of this segregation of readings is to shield Lewis’s approach against the accusation of epistemological foundationalism. By “epistemological foundationalism,” Dayton (1995: 256-7) means the complex assumption that certain privileged beliefs are (a) self-justified, (b) basic regarding justified beliefs that aren’t self-justified, (c) certain, and (d) sensuous. As Dayton takes it, the given only in its Cartesian reading amounts to foundationalism thus conceived.9 By contrast, the Kantian reading amounts to some form of coherentism and thus to a conception of empirical knowledge in which the given plays no epistemologically justificatory role at all. In Dayton’s words: “All knowledge is conceptual; the given, having no conceptual structure of its own, is not even a possible object of knowledge. Foundationalism of the empiricist sort is thus directly precluded.” (1995: 267).10

  • 11 It should be noted that Dayton’s interpretation was anticipated to some extent by Gowans 1984. Furt (...)

34There can be no doubt that the non-foundationalist reading advocated by Dayton is standard today. The assessments by Olen, Misak, and Zarębski quoted above are to be seen against this background.11 However, the predominance of non-foundationalist readings does not automatically mean that they are adequate. For one thing, all of these readings are selective in a dubious sense: they tend to pick out only the overtly defensible parts of Lewis’s often incoherent doctrines, while downplaying or even ignoring the undeniable weaknesses and shortcomings of these doctrines. What is more, in doing so the non-foundationalist readings run risk of being rejected quite easily. For example, Lewis speaks explicitly of “the immediate certainty of the given data” (Lewis 1929: 337). How should this square with the Kantian interpretation of the given, according to which, in Dayton’s words, the given is “not even a possible object of knowledge?” It is clearly a confirmation of the Cartesian interpretation! However, Dayton (1995: 256) categorically declares that none of the four features of foundationalism listed above are implied by Lewis’s 1929 epistemology and that “throughout his life Lewis held a realist account of the objects of knowledge” (ibid.: 278). Whatever “realist” might mean in this connection… Similarly, Misak boldly claims that Lewis “explicitly denies the foundationalist thought” (2013: 182). Again, textual evidence at least part points in a completely different direction – for example, when Lewis writes:

[T]here is an absolute certainty of the empirical which has been recognized – the immediate apprehension of the given. Such direct awareness is not indubitable knowledge of an object, but the content of it is an absolutely given fact. This immediate presentation is our confrontation with reality and is requisite to the distinction of particular empirical truths from falsehood. Immediate qualia constitute the ultimate denotation in experience of our concepts, and the specific character of the given plays its indispensable part in any verification. (Lewis 1929: 310)

  • 12 Here I am in good company with Griffin Klemick (2020) who in a recent paper has convincingly argued (...)
  • 13 This is the strategy originally adopted in Gowans 1989.
  • 14 That Schlick had to fight a similar struggle with his foundationalist theory of Konstatierungen (‘a (...)

35In view of passages like this I cannot help but to conclude that Lewis was a foundationalist after all.12 To be sure, there seems to be a last resort for the defenders of the non-foundationalist (“Kantian”) reading: they could retort that Lewis advocates foundationalism only in the later chapters of Mind and the World Order, but not in the early chapters of that book, where foundationalism is (allegedly) opposed.13 But how then does one bring the two parts of the book together? If this is not done – and I am not aware of any attempt to do so –, then it would only confirm that Lewis was ultimately incoherent. Perhaps this was why he eventually lamented in his intellectual biography that the question of the given is “the most difficult – the most nearly impossible – enterprise to which epistemology is committed” (1968: 18).14

6. Some Broader Philosophical Consequences

  • 15 For reasons of fairness it should be noted that Lewis, in his An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuatio (...)
  • 16 For example, William Pepperell Montague, himself a neo-realist, in his 1937 retrospective “The Stor (...)
  • 17 For example, in his Reflections on American Philosophy from Within, he retrospectively states: “I h (...)

36So what are the resulting consequences of our examination? I think two points are salient. First, compared to critical realism, conceptualistic pragmatism is the less convincing view. Both Sellars’s critique of Lewis’s inherently unstable position and the critical discussion in the foregoing section confirm this claim quite neatly.15 However, critical realism is by no means the only option within the realist ballpark. In Sellars’s own time, for instance, so-called neo-realism proved to be a serious rivaling stance. As is well known, the neo-realists rejected the notion of representation and argued in terms of a “direct” relation between perceiver and perceived (for details, see Werkmeister 1949, ch. 17). Although the neo-realists themselves eventually conceded that they had lost the inner-realist struggle with the critical realist movement,16 it is highly interesting to observe that their rather short-lived tradition is currently experiencing a renaissance (see, for example, the contributions in Wilson & Locatelli 2017). Therefore, the question of what kind of perceptual realism is the appropriate one is still a hot topic. Secondly, as indicated at the very beginning of this paper, Sellars explicitly rejected analytic philosophy and, as should be added, logical empiricism as well.17 By contrast, Lewis might be considered “a key figure in the rise of analytic philosophy in the United States” (Hunter 2021, Introduction) and thus less “retrograde” than Sellars. A critical comparison between Lewis and Sellars in terms of their respective methodological orientations and styles of argumentation is therefore undoubtedly a desideratum.

37Regarding these and other controversial issues of the Lewis-Sellars connection, it might be concluded that further exploration is worth pursuing. On a larger scale, the relationship between American pragmatism and American critical realism needs to be reconsidered. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, the two currents shared many aspects; but, as we have seen, there were also significant differences. Hopefully, the present paper will contribute to extended research on this revealing episode in the history of American philosophy.

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1 Though being inspired by Kant, Lewis’s version of apriorism is not transcendental (nor transcendent), but rather reflective. Understood as a non-speculative (“immanentist”) contribution to metaphysics, this “reflective method” is characterized by Lewis as follows: “It will seek to determine the nature of the real, as ethics seeks to determine the good, and logic, the valid, purely by critical consideration of what does not transcend ordinary experience.” (Lewis 1929: 10).

2 According to Misak, “[t]his fallibilism about the a priori is Lewis’s pragmatic twist on Kant. […] We investigate, revise, and perhaps even re-invent our framework” (Misak 2013: 193). Quite similarly, James O’Shea speaks of “Lewis’s pragmatic relativization of the a priori” (O’Shea 2018: 203) and diagnoses a “robust conceptual framework-relativized pragmatic conception of a priori knowledge” (ibid.: 211). One of the reviewers of this paper objects that there is no relativized a priori in Lewis’s views, but rather the pragmatic conception of the a priori in combination with a ‘Platonist’ view of concepts. Apart from the fact that Lewis devotes a whole chapter of Mind and the World Order (among other things) to the “Relativity of Knowledge” (Lewis 1929: 154) and “conceptual relativity” (ibid.: 171) in particular, it needs to be retorted that conceptual Platonism is entirely alien to Lewis’s, as it were, enactivist approach to concepts. Thus, already in the introduction to Mind and the World Order he emphasizes that “even what is a priori may not be an exclusive product of ‘reason,’ or made in Plato’s heaven in utter independence of the world we live in” (ibid.: 21) And he continues: “Indeed our categories are almost as much a social product as is language, and in something like the same sense.” (Ibid.). Admittedly, at one place Lewis in fact goes as far as to claim: “Categories and precise concepts are logical structures, Platonic ideas; the implications of them are eternal and the empirical truth about anything given, expressed in terms of them, is likewise through all time unalterable.” (Ibid.: 269) As is so often the case, however, Lewis’s argumentation in this regard is simply not coherent: how can it be that “there will be no assurance that what is a priori will remain fixed and absolute throughout the history of the race” and at the same time remain “through all time unalterable?” He cannot have it both ways, and a sympathetic reading should disregard his unbridled Platonist excursion at this one place.

3 Tough Lewis’s conceptualistic pragmatism does not reduce to an adaptationist conception, it is significantly informed by adaptationist insights. Thus, for example, in chapter XI of Mind and the World Order, Lewis reflects more generally on this issue, pointing out that “[t]he instant mental reaction to experience, the manner in which we approach it and the way in which we abstract from it the representation of objects, reflect millennia of nature’s work to the end that we may grasp whatever in experience is clue to some uniformity of the sort which intelligibility requires” (ibid.: 358).

4 More specifically, the predictive element in Lewis’s account of objects significantly reinforces their status as constructions. Thus, according to Lewis, statements about “real” objects involve a whole series of counterfactuals about what sensory experiences we would have if confronted with performing future tests on the basis of certain sensory cues. Consequently, objects are not only constructed from certain sensory qualities, but also constructed in anticipation of such sensory qualities. For the details of this counterfactual conception of objecthood, see Wagner (2021a: 6-9) and Wagner (2021b: 146-7).

5 Interestingly, Tyler Burge, in his Origins of Objectivity, arrives at a very similar diagnosis as Sellars. Burge points out: “Lewis stands firmly in the tradition that takes representation of sense data to be prior to representation of physical bodies. More specifically, perceptual belief about environmental objects derives both content and justification from hypothetical, broadly probabilistic predictive forms of verification that ultimately lead back to sensory experiences. Such experiences are not experiences of objective, physical objects or properties in the environment.” (Burge 2010: 127). For Burge, as for Sellars, it is physical things (viz. environmental objects) and not sensorily given data that are perceived. See esp. Burge (ibid., ch. 9), where a principled distinction between perception and sensation is drawn and systematically cashed out.

6 It would clearly transcend the scope of this paper to elaborate on Sellars’s relation to more recent accounts of externalism in the philosophy of perception. Nevertheless, it should at least be noted that the biologically inspired framework of Sellars’s comprehensive naturalism – a perceiving organism in its environment – entails externalism in the form of what Sellars calls “transcendent reference” (Sellars 1932: 33). See in this regard Warren in Sellars (1970: 62). See further Slurink 1996, where a historical line to modern connectionism (Paul Churchland and others) is drawn. My own reference to Burge’s approach continues this line in a sense, although it is not more than a hint. (Just as an aside: though there are numerous similarities between Sellars’s and Burge’s account, there are also significant differences, the most striking being Burge’s downgrading of the role of concepts in the perceptual process. From Burge’s viewpoint, Sellars would be a representative of what he calls “second-family versions of Individual Representationalism” (Sellars 2010: 16) and thus someone who suffers from the syndrome of “hyper-intellectualizing” (ibid.: 13) constitutive requirements on perception.)

7 For more extended discussions of Sellars’s critical realism, see Chisholm 1954, Wright 1994, Hatfield 2015, Neuber 2020.

8 For a similar assessment, see Misak (2013: 181 and 184); further Sachs (2014, ch. 2).

9 As already said, Dayton does not deny that a Cartesian reading of the given can be found in the later Lewis’s writings. For example, in An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation, Lewis distinguishes between what he calls “objective language,” on the one hand, and “expressive language,” on the other (see Lewis 1946: 179-80). While the former pertains to the realm of probability, the latter pertains to the realm of certainty. Lewis’s claim is that, in order to prevent an infinite regress of probabilities, there must be some sort of reductive basis in the expressive language. He points out: “The data which eventually support a genuine probability, must be certainties. We do have such absolute certainties, in the sense data initiating belief and in those passages of experience which later may confirm it.” (Ibid.: 186). It is interesting to note that the logical empiricist Moritz Schlick arrives at a very similar conception of empirical knowledge in his 1934 paper “Über das Fundament der Erkenntnis” (for the details of Schlick’s account, see Uebel 2007: 308-9). In 1936, Schlick’s article “Meaning and Verification” appeared posthumously. In that article, Schlick discussed Lewis’s 1929 conception quite extensively (and favorably), arguing for the “absolute certainty” of the “immediately given” from the viewpoint of a “Consistent Empiricism” (see Schlick 1936: 346). Schlick’s article, by the way, was prompted by Lewis’s 1934 contribution “Experience and Meaning,” a paper in which logical empiricism, and the doctrines of the Vienna Circle in particular, are critically discussed. For further details, see Ferrari 2019.

10 Misak puts the same point thus: “What is given to us in experience does not justify beliefs. Something that is not a belief cannot stand in a justificatory relationship to a belief.” (Misak 2013: 181).

11 It should be noted that Dayton’s interpretation was anticipated to some extent by Gowans 1984. Further, more recent, interpretations in this vein would by Hookway 2008 and Westphal 2017.

12 Here I am in good company with Griffin Klemick (2020) who in a recent paper has convincingly argued for a “unified foundational interpretation,” that is, an interpretation according to which Lewis was a foundationalist, not only in An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation, but already in Mind and the World Order.

13 This is the strategy originally adopted in Gowans 1989.

14 That Schlick had to fight a similar struggle with his foundationalist theory of Konstatierungen (‘affirmations’) is documented in Neuber (2018: 33-59).

15 For reasons of fairness it should be noted that Lewis, in his An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation, responded to the criticism brought forward by Sellars in The Philosophy of Physical Realism. Yet, this rejoinder was limited to the rejection of equaling conceptualistic pragmatism with Berkeley’s idealistic metaphysics (see Lewis 1946: 200-2). Accordingly, it has no further argumentative use with regard to the positive aspects of Lewis’s position.

16 For example, William Pepperell Montague, himself a neo-realist, in his 1937 retrospective “The Story of American Realism” reports that the neo-realists were unable to adequately cope with the problems of perceptual error and illusory perceptions and consequently states that “the failure of New Realism to meet them was the cause and the justification for the coming of Critical Realism” (1937: 152).

17 For example, in his Reflections on American Philosophy from Within, he retrospectively states: “I have always been skeptical of men like Wittgenstein and Carnap who brushed [the problem of perception] aside and tried to work out a framework largely based on logic and semantics.” (1969: 3). This, by the way, is another common ground with Burge, according to whom the role of language in “mainstream twentieth-century philosophy” (2010: 115) – beginning with Frege and Russell and continued by the logical empiricists, Strawson, Quine, and others – is largely exaggerated, particularly when it comes to accounting for non-human animal perception.

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Matthias Neuber, What We Talk About When We Talk About This Being BlueEuropean Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], XIV-1 | 2022, Online since 13 May 2022, connection on 04 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Matthias Neuber

Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

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