Laurence Alan BonJour


June, 1969


1. The Problem of Knowledge.
2. Lewis on the Given.
3. Two Kinds of Apprehension.
4. Why the Given is a Myth.
5. The Nature of Coherence.
6. Observation Without the Given.
7. Observation and Justification.
8. The Problem of Empirical Truth.
9. Truth and Picturing: A Simplified Example.
10. Truth and Picturing: Our Conceptual System.


My greatest intellectual debt is to my adviser, Richard Rorty, both for originally introducing me to Sellars' philosophy in a way which stimulated me to persevere in the face of the initial difficulty and obscurity of Sellars' writings, and for much indispensable advice and encouragement in connection with the present essay. My second reader, Gilbert Harman, provided many thoughtful and challenging remarks and suggestions.

I have discussed almost every part of the essay at length with my friends Carolyn Magid and Alexander Nehamas. Their invariably penetrating questions and objections very often forced me to revise and clarify my views on the issues discussed herein, and thus greatly increased the adequacy of the final product.

Mrs. A. W. Gertzel deserves thanks for her careful typing of the final copy.

I was generously supported during the writing of this essay, as through the whole of my graduate studies, by the Danforth Foundation through its Danforth Graduate Fellow program.

My wife, Barbe, was a constant and invaluable source of encouragement, aid, and comfort.


The present essay has two faces. On the one hand, it is an essay in what I conceive to be the fundamental problems of epistemology, and a presentation and defense of solutions to those problems which I find plausible. On the other hand, it is also an essay in the philosophy of Wilfrid Sellars, and a selective defense thereof. obviously the connecting link which is required to make these two faces of the essay compatible with one another is a belief on my part that Sellars' epistemological position is fundamentally sound.

From the latter of these two standpoints, the essay, though its content is largely suggested and inspired by Sellars' philosophy, does not attempt to present anything like an exegetical account of his writings. One reason for this that an exegetical approach to Sellars could not succeed in anything like the space of this essay. Sellars' papers are numerous, mostly very long, extremely condensed, and extremely difficult, and an adequate exegetical treatment of them would require many years and many volumes (which is not to suggest that it would not be worth doing). And to treat only a small portion of Sellars' work would be to place it in the worst possible light and inevitably make key aspects seem seriously implausible. If Sellars has any one outstanding characteristic as a philosopher it is that his philosophy is thoroughly systematic; his accounts of widely separated issues complement and reinforce each other in a way which makes the whole considerably more than the sum of its parts. This made it seem more worthwhile in an essay of this length to try to convey the broad, perhaps sometimes schematic, outlines of Sellars' epistemological position, rather than concentrating on detailed exegesis.

A further related factor militating against an exegetical approach is what some would call the dialectical character of Sellars' writing, and what others would call its obscurity. The argument in one of his papers is always tortuous and winding, like the flower in the crannied wall, to use a metaphor which Sellars himself cites as a typical description of his style [SM viii]; it is packed to overflowing with historical allusion, dialectical thrust and counterthrust, detailed technical development of specific points, and suggestive remarks about further issues. These features make Sellars' papers, in my view, enormously challenging and rewarding from a philosophical standpoint; they repay close reading and re-reading and even re-re-reading. But these same features often have the result that the central position and argument of the paper is obscured by the dialectical detail. And this makes it seem worthwhile to attempt to present and argue for the central Sellarsian position in abstraction from the details, even at the risk of possible oversimplification and distortion at some points.

Thus the present essay differs in at least two important ways from Sellars' own accounts of the subjects with which it deals. In the first place, the order of exposition and argument is vastly different and, I think, much more straightforward. Secondly, my account is in many ways simpler than Sellars' own. Whether this latter difference results from my having oversimplified the issues involved, or alternatively from Sellars having overcomplicated them, is difficult to say, largely because the finer subtleties of Sellars' position are difficult to grasp with any degree of confidence. It is my impression that the balance of opinion among those who have read Sellars would incline to the latter point of view, but this fact does not make me very confident that such a view is correct.

Thus I emphatically do not want to claim that Sellars himself would approve of everything that I have written; on the contrary I am fairly certain that he would not. What I do want to claim is that the major theses of the essay are at least simplified versions of Sellars' own, and that the arguments given for those theses are at least similar to his. Perhaps the best way to put the matter is to say that this essay represents a systematic presentation and development of what I have learned from Sellars, without any very strong presumption either that my learning has been accurate and complete, or that my development of Sellars' views closely parallels his own. I have been guided and influenced by Sellars on almost every page, but I have been more concerned throughout to say something clear and defensible, than to precisely follow the details of Sellars' account.

Considered as a systematic discussion of epistemology, the essay could be characterized as an attempt to take seriously the traditional account of knowledge as justified true belief, and push it to the hilt. The first two chapters are concerned with the issue of justification, and examine two alternative approaches to a theory of justification. In chapter one, the traditional solution to the problem of justification, viz. the doctrine of the Given, is examined and found wanting. This conclusion leads, in chapter two, to an attempt to examine and render plausible the only apparent dialectical alternative to the Given, viz. a coherence theory of justification. The prime concern of chapter two is to show how a coherence account of justification can still leave room for something like an empirical constraint on human knowledge. Chapter three then focuses on the concept of truth, and attempts to show that a coherence theory of justification does not necessarily involve a coherence theory of truth. This is done by defending a greatly modified reconstruction of the traditional correspondence theory of truth. Thus the essay as a whole presents something approaching a unified picture of human knowledge.

Because of the scope of the systematic issues with which it deals, the essay is often fairly broad-grained in its analysis. The justification for this, if one is required, is that although fine- grained analyses are without doubt often extremely valuable and worthwhile, philosophy is in my view (and Sellars') ultimately a systematic enterprise whose most fundamental issues can only be discussed adequately in a broad context, the very scope of which forces a broad-grained and sometimes even schematic account. Sometimes it is worthwhile to forget the trees and look at the forest, and I submit that one of those times is when one is doing basic epistemology. I shall try throughout, however, to compensate to some extent by suggesting in passing how the results of such a systematic, albeit schematic, approach can shed light on issues of a somewhat more specific sort.

One of the consequences of a broad systematic approach is that the discussion often crosses the borders of epistemology in the strict sense to trespass upon the philosophy of science, the philosophy of language, and the philosophy of mind. For this I make no apology; on the contrary I should want to argue that neglect of these other areas, and especially of the first, has often resulted in bad epistemology. Despite its current partial eclipse, epistemology remains in many ways the core of philosophy and can neglect the peripheral areas only at great cost to itself and to them.

So much for preliminaries. I proceed in the first chapter to consider the traditional account of knowledge, a problem which grows out of it, and the traditional solution to that problem.

[Table of Contents] -- [Go to Chapter 1]

Published with the permission of Prof. Laurence BonJour. Transcribed into hypertext by Andrew Chrucky , June 20, 1997.


{1} The writings of Sellars which are most relevant to my purposes are his two papers, "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind," and "Some Reflections on Language Games," both reprinted in his Science, Perception and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963); also his book Science and Metaphysics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968). References to these three works will use the abbreviations "EPM," "RLG," and "SM," respectively, and will usually be inserted in the text to avoid unnecessary proliferation of footnotes.

[Table of Contents] -- [Go to Chapter 1]