Paper read at the American Philosophical Association Convention (Pacific Division, 1991).


Andrew Chrucky

Most readers of Sellars' philosophy learn about a Manifest-Scientific Image distinction, and because apparently nothing significant hinges on what at first sight seems just a neologistic labeling of a familiar distinction, it is henceforth wrongly associated with a pre-systematic commonsense/scientific framework distinction. The Manifest Image is not identical to the commonsense framework; nor is the Scientific Image identical to the scientific framework. In this paper I will concern myself only with arguing that the Manifest Image is not identical to the commonsense framework.

That such an identification of the Manifest Image with the commonsense framework is widespread is obvious from reading some of Sellars' commentators. The following passages are culled from the critics:

Richard Bernstein: "For the manifest image is intended to represent a way of thinking common to all of us which has been one of the poles of philosophic reflection."1

William Rottschaefer: "The classical Sellarsian formulation of the problem we are discussing is that of the relationship of the Manifest and Scientific Images. An alternative formulation of the problem is in terms of the relationship between ordinary knowledge and scientific knowledge."2

Thomas Russman: "Many of us who are interested in Sellars' work were first attracted to his discussion of the relationship between the manifest or commonsense image of the world and the scientific image of the world."3

James Cornman: ". . . the manifest or common-sense description. "4

Alan Donagan: ". . . it would be wrong to follow Sellars in describing this image [manifest image] as corresponding to the world as we know it to be in ordinary experience."5

Vincent Potter: "Wilfrid Sellars thinks that the scientific image is the really real world (the noumenon) while the manifest or common-sense image is only appearance (the phenomenon)."6

Not all commentators, however, endorse the equation. Here are a few who do not.

Robert Ackermann: "An easy mistake is to take the manifest image to be the image of commonsense."7

Albert Casullo: "Insofar as Sellars' Manifest Image is an attempt to capture the manner in which commonsense conceptualizes and reasons about perceptual experience, this appears to be a serious shortcoming."8

Joseph Pitt: "Sellars was misguided in his efforts to identify something as 'the manifest image'. For the manifest image is a function of commonsense, and commonsense is not a static body of beliefs and principles."9

C. A. Hooker: "The Manifest Image is an idealized construction . . . I can see no warrant for accepting the particular characterization of the Manifest Image he offers."10

The latter commentators are, of course, correct in repudiating the equation. Though there is a close relationship between a commonsense conceptual framework and the Manifest Image; still, it is wrong to equate the two. My main reason for not equating the two is that Sellars' Manifest Image is built on the ontology of things, understood as Aristotelian substances. It does not accord processes (events) an irreducible status. As J.J.C. Smart put it in his article "Sellars on Process," "Sellars's theory might be called a "no event" theory."11

The question this raises is whether there is in the commonsense framework a recognition of processes (events) in addition to substances? If there is, then the next question is whether process or event talk is reducible to substance talk? Or is substance talk reducible to process talk? Or is there a dualism such that substance and process talk are irreducible to each other? Whatever the answer, this presupposes that the distinction between substances and processes (events) is recognized.

I will first examine reasons for thinking there is such a distinction in commonsense, and, second, I will give reasons for thinking that Seliars' attempted reduction of event talk to substance talk is only partially successful. I will conclude with an argument, based on Sellarsian principles, for recognizing irreducible events or processes in commonsense.

The locus classicus for the discussion of the difference between substances and absolute processes is, as Sellars recognizes, chapter VII, especially the section beginning with the "Independent Discussion of the Notion of Substance," of C. D. Broad's Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy.12 Broad uses various synonymous expressions for 'substances' and 'processes'. Substances are referred to as Continuants and Things, while Processes are referred to as Occurrents and Events.

To bring out the categorial distinctions between substances and processes, Broad employs the technique of considering which predicates are appropriately used with which linguistic expressions. By using this method, Broad notes that "There is then, prima facie, a distinction between two sorts of substantive, which we will call "Processes" and "Things" respectively."13

In Indo-European languages, at any rate, there are at least two kinds of substantive-name, viz., thing-names and process-names. There are several different kinds of adjective-phrase which can be conjoined with thing-names to give intelligible sentences. if any of these be joined with process-names the result is nonsense. Similarly, there are several kinds of adjective-phrase which can be conjoined with process-names to give intelligible sentences. If any of these be joined with thing-names the result is nonsense. This linguistic fact may suggest that there are two fundamentally different, though no doubt closely interconnected, kinds of particulars.14

He illustrates this distinction by noting that "It is sensible to say: 'There is a noise going on' or 'There is a movement taking place'. But it would be nonsensical to say: 'There is a chair going on in my study.'"15 Again, in the use of temporal predicates, "we talk of Things as 'enduring' or 'persisting through' a period of time. We talk of Processes as 'going on for' longer or shorter periods of time." He adds:
There are certain kinds of adjectives which may be called 'dispositional adjectives'. Obvious examples are words like 'poisonous', 'fusible', 'massive', etc. These are properly _ conjoined with thing-names and not with process-names.17
These observations, I think, are sufficient to note that there is at least a seeming distinction in commonsense between substances and processes. Any adequate description of common-sense must take this distinction into account.

Does Sellars take this distinction into account? The answer is: yes and no. Sellars recognizes a distinction, but thinks the distinction is apparent only. Talk of events is, for Sellars, reducible to talk of substances changing.

Against this reduction thesis, 1 will defend the irreducibility of a class of events, which are to be called, following Broad and Sellars, absolute processes.

My main objection to the identification of the Manifest Image with the commonsense framework is that the Manifest Image excludes the category of absolute processes. Of course, the exclusion of absolute processes is justified if, as Sellars claims to be doing, he is reconstructing the history of the Platonic tradition. This tradition is built around the category of substance, and does not have a place for independent absolute processes or events. Events, in this tradition, are always to be construed as aspects or histories of substances. In the substance-as-basic-entity tradition, according to Sellars, talk of events is reducible to a subject predicate form of expressions in which events are not mentioned. Events are given the status of facons de parler, that is, paraphraseable modes of speech: a thesis explicitly argued for in Sellars' article "Time and the World Order," in which we read:

Now in the thing framework it is things which primarily exist, and in the 'event' framework it is 'events' which primarily exist. The contrast, in each case, is between the items which are named (by both proper and common names) and the items which are either contextually introduced (e.g., events in the thing framework, and 'things' in the 'event' framework) or are at bottom linguistic entities (thus qualities, relations, facts).18
he goes on:
If this is interpreted as a question concerning the structure of 'ordinary' temporal discourse, it seems to me perfectly clear that the basic individuals of this universe of discourse are things and persons -- in short the 'substances' of classical philosophy.19
There is some wavering on Sellars part on exactly how to provide the translation. On the one hand, he wrote: "Indeed, it is clear that ordinary discourse event-talk is in some sense derivative from substance-talk."20 On the other hand, he concedes that "I failed to appreciate the kinship of event-expressions with abstract singular terms."21 Specifically, "We have already construed events as a special kind of proposition."22 But this wavering is unimportant for my purposes because I will claim that talk about absolute processes defies paraphrase.

So, the question must be raised whether Sellars has succeeded in providing an analysis of all kinds of event talk in terms of thing talk. One commentator, Eddy Zemach, thinks he has:

it has been shown by several philosophers (most clearly, probably, by Wilfrid Sellars, in "Time and the World Order" that the ontology and the language of events can be defined by using the language of things only . . .23

I believe that Zemach is wrong about this for the following reason. When speaking of events there is an ambiguity. In one sense of 'event', an event is whatever happens to something in the course of time, or the relation of that thing to other things in the course of time. These kinds of events Sellars recognizes and analyzes correctly as states and relations between substances. On the other hand there are the other kinds of events, 'quasi-physical objects', as Sellars' calls them, such as flashes of lightning, thunder claps, C#-ings, buzzings, etc.

In publications prior to the Carus lectures, Sellars recognized as basic only physical objects, animate creatures, and persons. But he hedged about the status of what he called 'quasi-physical objects', as is hinted in the following passage: What is an event? 'Event' is a category expression, and to ask the question is to ask for the place of 'event' in a system of categories. Leaving aside such puzzling occurrences as claps of thunder and flashes of lightning . . . These puzzling events which are left aside are 'absolute processes '. To mark the distinction, let us refer to the former (reducible) events as 'events-1' and to the latter, substantive events (absolute process) as 'events-2'.

When we examine the cases of 'events' for which Sellars does succeed in providing a reduction, they turn out to be the following sort of cases. For example, 'the event of Caesar crossing the Rubicon' is equivalent to 'the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon'. And such talk is metalinguistic talk about the truth of propositions. Thus, 'the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon' is equivalent to 'it is true that Caesar crossed the Rubicon'. And if we incorporate Sellars' dot-quotational procedure, this is to be translated as: ·Caesar crossed the Rubicon· is true.

On another occasion, he gives an almost identical analysis. He says that 'the event of Brutus killing Caesar took place' is paraphraseable as 'that Brutus killed Caesar was true.' His next step is to claim that 'that clauses' are disguised ordinary language quoting devices; so the next (second-order) paraphrase becomes "'Brutus killed Caesar' was true."25

We may call all these examples propositional events, and what Sellars has to say about them seems to be true. But there is another type of event talk which is not so easily disposed off; this is the talk of occurrences like flashes of lightning and noises, which in his writings prior to the Carus Lectures Sellars referred to as 'quasi-physical' objects. In "The Structure of Knowledge"26 he calls such events 'basic entities', but never explains why they are not full-fledged physical objects, and otherwise ignores their ontological status.

For Sellars, prior to the Carus Lectures, the difference between full-fledged physical objects and some quasi-physical objects, such as thunder claps and flashes of light, seems to rest on the fact that these quasi-physical objects are fleeting substances or particulars. It is only in his Carus Lectures that Sellars acknowledge these quasi-physical objects to be irreducible processes.

My impression is that Sellars would say that though there is event-2 talk in common sense, it is taken by common sense to describe fleeting particulars (substances). Yet these are puzzling occurrences because it is unclear what would be the logical subjects of these events. He considers such locutions as 'it flashes' and the 'flash flashed'. But these locutions lead nowhere. All he manages to do is draw attention to an awkwardness in our subject-predicate talk about absolute processes. The bottom line for Sellars, despite this awkwardness, is that in the Manifest Image talk of events-2 must be talk about ephemeral, fleeting substances. But the plain truth is that the categorial status of absolute processes in commonsense is obscure in the writings of Sellars prior to the Carus Lectures. And it is these kinds of events which find no place in the Manifest Image despite the fact that Sellars 'verbally' includes them. They cannot be included because they are not reducible to things. Sellars seems to concede their irreducible status only in the Carus Lectures. But if there is no room for events-2 in the Manifest Image, then it may be one of the shortcomings of that Image; and a good reason within Sellarsian philosophy to abandon the Manifest Image for the Scientific one.

By using the phrase 'Manifest Image', I believe Sellars is trying to get at something like the core of commonsense. However, I am troubled by his philosophical way of characterizing common sense. I ask myself: What about the commonsense of the Hopi Indians? For all 1 know, Whorfs characterization of their language as based on categories of events and processes is correct. Now isn't the Hopi commonsense different from the English or American notion of commonsense? To this question, I can only guess Sellars' answer. If Strawson's Individuals or Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (as interpreted by Strawson in his Bounds of Sense)27 can be used as guides here, then the answer would be that a language built solely on the categories of pure processes is impossible. The necessary conditions for an empirical language are the requirements of the identification and reidentification of objects which are relatively stable; otherwise the universe would appear to be too chaotic. Perhaps so. But a mixed language of substances as primary entities and pure processes as secondary entities having a conceptually dependent status on the concepts of material objects and persons is possible. Sellars himself raised this possibility when he wrote: "we begin to wonder about the relative merits of 'substance' ontologies and 'process' ontologies (to say nothing of 'mixed' ontologies). "28 Unfortunately, he did not examine the mixed ontology alternative, concentrating on the merits of either a pure substance or a pure process ontology instead.

I believe that our commonsense conceptual framework contains the sort of mixed ontology which Sellars ignored. And in fact we can construct a very simple argument based on Sellarsian principles to show that these principles imply a commitment to a mixed ontology. The argument is this. Consider the following inconsistent triad:

(1) All theoretical terms in the Scientific Image are introduced by models from the Manifest Image.

(2) The Manifest Image does not include a concept of absolute processes.

(3) The Scientific Image is grounded in the theoretical positing of absolute processes.

(1) is a principle of theory construction for Sellars, (2) and (3) are definitive of these Images.

Sellars neglects to discuss explicitly how it is possible to introduce the concept of pure processes in the Scientific Image given principle (1). His explicit discussion in his Carus Lectures on the introduction of sensa as pure processes in the Scientific Image uses as models sentence types containing dummy subjects, such as, for example, the sentence 'It is raining'. But the conceptual framework from which these subjectless or dummy subject sentences are obtained is never mentioned. And since by stipulation this conceptual framework cannot be the Manifest Image, I conclude that it must be a different framework -- the commonsense conceptual framework. Given this alternative resource, (1) must be substituted with:

(1') All theoretical terms in the Scientific Image are introduced by models from the Manifest Image or the commonsense conceptual framework.

My solution, then, to the inconsistent triad is to deny (1), specifically I distinguish a commonsense conceptual framework from the Manifest Image, and hold that the commonsense framework recognizes the existence of absolute processes which also act as models for the theoretical posits of the Scientific Image.


After writing the above, I read Johanna Seibt's book Properties as Processes: A Synoptic Study of Wilfrid Sellars' Nominalism (Ridgeview, 1990). In this book she writes that expressions such as 'its buzzing' which contain dummy subjects are parts of the Manifest Image. Here is a clause from her book: "But although Sellars uses manifest absolute processes to model the entities of the 'last' ontological framework . . ." (p. 264). And a more explicit formulation: " 'Absolute processes,' as Sellars refers to subjectless processes, resorting to a concept of Broad's, belong to the categorial repertory of the manifest image" (p. 253). Her answer to me, I take it, is to deny the truth of (2). She apparently believes that the category of absolute processes is part of the make-up of the Manifest Image.

She herself is careful elsewhere not to identify the Manifest Image with, the Common Sense Image. She points out that the Manifest Image is a truncation and idealization of the common-sense framework as expressed in the history of the Platenic-Aristotelian-Strawsonian philosophy. So apparently she has a different idea of what is truncated from what. For me, but apparently not for Johanna, the Manifet Image abstracts from, truncates, such expressions as 'its buzzing.' The only categories recognized are substances with attributes. The ontology based on 'its buzzing' would be a 'basic sortal' ontology, while the Manifest Image tradition has as basic a 'substance-attribute' ontology.

In view of Johanna's challenge to my claim I must provide arguments. I have three arguments. The first argument is that Sellars himself implies that absolute processes are not in the Manifest Image. He writes in the Carus Lectures: "We have been working within the manifest image, a framework in which the primary objects endure through change and belong to kinds, the criteria for belonging to which are, largely, conditional properties. It is time that we consider an alternative framework" [emphasis added].29 This alternative framework is that of neutral monism.

The second arguments for not identifying absolute processes in the Manifest linage is this. As Johanna admits, the Manifest Image is a truncation and categorial refinement of the Original Image, in which all things are persons. By truncating the concept of a person we get the concept of a physical object. So the Manifest image differs from the Original Image by including both persons and physical objects. I suppose a case can be made for the claim that the concept of an absolute process is a truncation and a refinement of the concept of a physical objects. Still, by introducing a new -- albeit derived -- category, we are dealing with a third conceptual framework.

The third reason for not including absolute processes in the Manifest Image is simply that in all Sellars' previous (pre-1975) discussions of" the Manifest Image absolute processes are never mentioned. This is especially true for the essay "Phenomenalisra" where Sellars discusses models from the Manifest Image for sense data. If he did think of absolute processes as part of the Manifest Image he certainly would have taken them into account. But he didn't. The implication is that absolute processes are not part of the Manifest Image.


1. Richard Bernstein, "Sellars' Vision of Man in the Universe," Review of Metaphysics 2 0 (1966), p. 117.

2. William Rottschaefer, "Ordinary Knowledge and Scientific Realism," in The Philosophy of Wilfrid Sellars: Queries and Extensions, ed. Joseph Pitt (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 19 78), p. 136.

3. Thomas Russman, "The Problem of the Two Images," in Queries and Extensions, ed. Joseph Pitt (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1978) , p. 73.

4. James Cornman, "Sellarsian Scientific Realism without Sensa," in Queries and Extensions, p. 61.

5. Alan Donagan, "Determinism and Freedom: Sellars and the Reconciliation Thesis," in Action, Knowledge and Reality, ed. Hector-Neri Castaneda (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1975), p. 79.

6. Vincent G. Potter, S. J., Philosophy of Knowledge, 4th revised printing (New York: Fordham University Press, 1988), p. 19.

7. Robert Ackerniann, "Sellars and the Scientific Image," Nous 7 (1973), p. 141.

8. Albert Casullo, "Adverbial Theories of Sensing and the Many-Property Problem," Philosophical Studies 44 (1983), p. 158.

9. Joseph Pitt, Pictures, Images and Conceptual Change (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidei, 1981), p. 140.

10. C. A. Hooker, "Sellars' Argument for the Inevitability of Secondary Qualities," Philosophical Studies 32 (1977), p. 346.

11. J.J.C. Smart, "Sellars on Process," The Monist 65 (1932): pp. 302-314.

12. C. D. Broad, Examination of McTaggart' s Philosophy, vol. 1 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1933), pp. 128-170.

13. Ibid., p. 142.

14. Ibid., p. 150.

15. Ibid., p. 142.

16. Ibid., p. 146.

17. Ibid., p. 142.

18. Wilfrid Sellars, "Time and the World Order," in Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, ed. Herbert Feigl and Grover Maxwell (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962), p. 594.

19. Ibid., p. 594 .

20. Wilfrid Sellars, "Metaphysics and the Concept of a Person," in The Logical Way of Doing Things, edited by Karl Lambert, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), p. 227.

21. Ibid., p. 230.

22. Ibid., p. 233.

23. Eddy Zemach, "Four Ontologies," Journal of Philosophy 67 (1970), pp. 235-236.

24. Wilfrid Sellars, "Actions and Events," Nous 7 (1973), p. 195.

25. Ibid., p. 197.

26. Wilfrid Sellars, "The Structure of Knowledge: (1): Perception, (2): Minds, (3): Epistemic Principles," in Action, Knowledge, and Reality: Essays in Honor of Wilfrid Sellars, edited by Hector-Neri Castaneda, (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1975).

27. Peter Strawson, Bounds of Sense (London: Methuen, 1966).

28. Wilfrid Sellars, "Foundations for a Metaphysics of Pure Process: The Carus Lectures," The Monist 64 (1981), p. 49, #56.

29. Ibid., p. 55, #80.