Letter from Wilfrid Sellars to David Solomon: June 28, 1976*

University of Pittsburgh
Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Department of Philosophy

June 28, 1976

Professor David Solomon
Philosophy Department
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Indiana 46556

Dear David:

Here are some considerations which may dispel some of the more puzzling features of my views on logically sharable intentions and the moral point of view.

1. Distinguish, of course, between

'We shall do A'


'We intend to do A'

2. Take into account the familiar (but much neglected) distinction between, on the one hand,

A1: predicates which ascribe 'mental states' to groups (e.g. Russia fears China)


A2: predicates which ascribe mental states to individuals;

and, on the other hand, between

B1: group actions


B2: individual actions.

3. Thus,

'We intend to do A'

doesn't (because of these possible ambiguities) formally entail

'I intend to do A.'

4. And, by virtue of the A-distinction,

We (as a group) intend that Jones fly a kite'

doesn't entail

'I intend that Jones fly a kite.'

5. While, by virtue of the B-distinction,

'We intend to disperse.'

doesn't entail

'I intend to disperse.'

6. Again, also by virtue of the B-distinction

'We shall do A'

doesn't formally entail

'I shall do A.'


'We shall disperse'

doesn't entail

'I shall disperse.'

7. On the other hand

'We shall disperse'

will have some implications (which will depend on the circumstances) of the form

'I shall do A.'

Thus, at the very minimum, it implies

'I shall not impede the disperesal.'

8. I am now in a position to make the first positive point, which is that

'We shall do A'

has the logical intersubjectivity which you correctly point out I was looking for. It permits different people to have, in a strong sense, the same intention.

9. Notice that

'We shall do A'

need not, as some critics have supposed, be 'chorused.' It is a form of practical thought which can go on in foro interno. I can think in terms of we. In this sense it is a 'form of life.'

10. Obviously people need not agree in their logically intersubjective intentions. The point is that they can literally agree.

11. Coming closer to the target, we must distinguish between

'We shall (as a group) do A (e.g. disperse)'


'We shall (each of us, individually) do A (e.g. fly a kite).'

12. Clearing away one last possibility of confusion,

'Shall [any of us do A, if C]'

is not, as such, the expression of a logically intersubjective intention. It can still represent the 'personal point of view' -- even though it contains a reference to any of us. Consider

'Shall [any of us scratch my back, if it itches].'

13. Notice, however, that the latter does, according to my theory of practical reasoning, entail

Shall [I scratch my back, if it itches].

14. Now to hit the target. The moral point of view involves the form

'We shall any of us do A, if C,'

which entails

'I shall do A, if C.'

To flag its origin (or ground) in a logically intersubjective intention, I represent the latter as

'Shall(we) [I do A, if C]'

15. The fundamental intention characterizing the moral point of view has the form

'We shall any of us do that which (in his/her circumstances) promotes (maximizes) our common good.

16. I have argued that such an intention can be construed as 'categorically valid' because sharing such an intention defines what it is to be members of a community.

17. Obviously there can be a 'nesting' of communities. The community involved in a 'moral point of view' is what I have called the 'embracing community, i.e. that which is taken by those involved in a moral dialogue to be the inclusive we to which an intersubjective intention of the above (15) pertains.

18. Accordingly, the case of conflict between the moral point of view and the personal point of view which I describe in "this I, he or it (the thing) which thinks ..." involves the alternatives of affirming either

'Shall(we) [I do A] (because the circumstances are C)'

as derived from the categorically intersubjective intention

'We shall any of us do that which (in his or her circumstances) maximizes our general welfare (common good)'

with the addition of factual premises believed true; or

'Shall(I) [I do B] (beause the circumstances are C),'

as derived from

'Shall(I) [I do that which promotes my happiness]'

where the I-flagging indicates that this intention is not, in turn, derived from a logically intersubjective intention.


This is all tersely put and certainly leaves a lot of ground uncovered. But it will, I hope, clarify what I have been up to in wrestling with moral philosophy. You have done an excellent job of tracing the dialectical structure of my thinking on these topics. You have been particularly successful in grasping what I was up to in 'IILO.' My only caveat is that that paper stems from the 50's, and that more of its weaknesses than you seem to allow were corrected (I believe) in the less involuted papers which followed.



Wilfrid Sellars


{*} Edited in hypertext by Andrew Chrucky.
Editor's Note: I wish to thank Professor Ausonio Marras for providing me with a copy of this letter.

Because of the limitations of current hypertext, the expression 'shall' when followed by the subscript 'we' or 'I' is respresented respectively as 'shall(we)' and 'shall(I)'. [Back]

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