The Myth of the Myth of the Given

Thomas Vinci

Sept. 11, 1998

     Now if we bear in mind that the point of the epistemological category of the given is, presumably, to explicate the idea that empirical knowledge rests on a "foundation" of non-inferential knowledge of matters of fact, we may well experience a feeling of surprise on noting that according to sense-datum theorists, it is particulars that are sensed. For what is known, even in non-inferential knowledge, is facts rather than particulars, items in the form something’s being thus-and-so or something’s standing in a certain relation to something else. It would seem, then, that the sensing of sense contents cannot constitute knowledge, inferential or non-inferential; and if so, we may well ask, what light does the concept of a sense datum throw on the "foundations of empirical knowledge"? The sense-datum theorist, it would seem, must choose between saying:

  1. It is particulars which are sensed. Sensing is not knowing. The existence of sense data does not logically imply the existence of knowledge, or

  2. Sensing is a form of knowing. It is facts rather than particulars which are sensed. 1

     Thus begins Sellars’s famous attack in EPM on the doctrine of classical foundationalism. Unfortunately, the main weapon (a destructive dilemma) misfires since some classical foundationalists have maintained that its objects are qualities rather than particulars. It is puzzling that Sellars should have omitted this possibility since on his own account given in later sections (sec. 26-28) Locke, Berkeley and Hume are treated as classical sense datum theorists who see sense data as determinate "repeatables". Repeatables are contrasted with particulars, suggesting that the former are regarded by Sellars as a species of property. The Empiricists are not alone in this view, properties are also the objects of Cartesian clear and distinct ideas.2 Let us therefore add to these two possibilities a third,

(a’) It is properties which are sensed.

     Sellars takes it for granted that if sensing is not a form of knowing sensing cannot be a foundation for knowledge. While it is perhaps obvious that this is true for the sensing of particulars, it is not true for the sensing of properties, or so I shall argue below. In any case, Sellars’s main argument will be directed against (b).

But if a sense-datum philosopher takes the ability to sense sense contents to be unacquired, he is clearly precluded from offering an analysis of x senses a sense content which presupposes acquired abilities. It follows that he could analyze x senses red sense content s as x non-inferentially knows that x is red only if he is prepared to admit that the ability to have such non-inferential knowledge as that, for example, a red sense content is red, is itself unacquired. And this brings us face to face with the fact that most empirically minded philosophers are strongly inclined to think that all classificatory consciousness, all knowledge that something is thus and so, or in logical jargon, all subsumption of particulars under universals, involves learning, concept formation, even the use of symbols. It is clear from the above analysis, therefore, that classical sense-datum theories ... are confronted by an inconsistent triad made up of the following three propositions:

  1. X senses red sense content s entails x non-inferentially knows that s is red.
  2. The ability to sense sense contents is unacquired.
  3. The ability to know facts of the form x is F is acquired.

Once the classical sense-datum theorist faces up to the fact that A,B and C do form an inconsistent triad, which of them will he choose to abandon? (EPM, 132)

     Unfortunately the conclusion (that A and B together entail not C, etc.) does not follow from the premises as stated but does follow if we think of premise A as saying that sensing is a kind of knowing and premises B and C as saying, respectively, that sensing lacks a property (being acquired) which all cases of knowing possess. Since this is how Sellars puts the premises in his informal statement of the argument, let’s treat the change as a friendly amendment.

     The key idea of this argument, hence the heart of Sellars’s attack on foundationalism, is given in the emphasized sentence. The argument for this can be expressed as a syllogism with at least three separate premises:

  1. All knowledge of interest to foundationalists is propositional knowledge.
  2. All propositional knowledge is an act of classificatory cognition.
  3. All classificatory cognition involves "learning, concept formation, even the use of symbols".


  1. All knowledge of interest to foundationalists involves "learning, concept formation, even the use of symbols".

     I propose to grant (1) and (3) without argument. What is the case for (2)? Sellars does not say but rather invokes the ready acceptance of this idea on the part of "empirically minded philosophers". Let’s consider an ordinary knowledge claim about a subject-predicate proposition where the subject is represented by a singular term and the predicate is represented by a common noun, e.g. the proposition that this piece of fruit is an apple. Knowing that this piece of fruit is an apple involves knowing that this piece of fruit is in the class of apples and knowing this fact entails knowing what fruit is, what an apple is, etc., all of which in turn entails knowing something of the taxonomy of kinds embodied in our ordinary concepts. So knowing that this piece of fruit is an apple is an act of classificatory cognition which, we may allow, has the properties Sellars ascribes to it. But just because of the categorial implications of this kind of predicate (predicates in the form of common nouns), knowing that this piece of fruit is an apple is not a good candidate for foundational knowledge. Suppose we try a purely qualitative judgment, e.g. "This is red". Qualitative predications (predications with no explicit commitment to classifications) are better candidates for foundational knowledge. Are they classificatory? One widely held assumption among the classical empiricists is that all forms of predicative judgment are inherently comparative, hence inherently classificatory.3 When I judge that this is red, so the empiricist story goes, I compare the sense impression of this with the idea of red: if I find that there is a resemblance I have ipso facto judged that this is red. Constructing equivalence classes of sense impressions in this way counts as a kind of classificatory cognition. The difference between categorial judgments and qualitative judgements lies in the degree of involvement of other classificatory cognitions: with the former the involvement is broad, with the latter, narrow. If we assume that all subject-predicate propositions are either categorial or qualitative, we have an argument for the conclusion that

  1. Knowledge of subject-predicate propositions is an act of classificatory cognition.

     However, by itself (5) does not entail (2). For Sellars to make his case in the full generality required by (2) he must also show that

  1. All forms of proposition which can be known (and would on other grounds be suitable as epistemic foundations) are, or depend on, acts of classificatory cognition.

I propose to argue that (6) is false.

     Sellars’s case for (2) is inspired by the Kantian idea that knowledge is a matter of judgment and judgment is a matter of the Understanding applying concepts (rules) to intuitions (singular mental representations) yielding propositional knowledge. There is, however, an alternative historical model of judgment due to Descartes wherein judgment is a voluntary act directed to preexisting propositional contents of consciousness made available by inference from non-propositional contents of consciousness. Cartesian inferences are not judgments, not even conditional judgments, but intellectual intuitions of necessary containment relations between properties and, in one special case, of a quasi-entailment relation between the presence to consciousness of properties (a state of affairs), and a proposition asserting that the properties are exemplified by something.4

     In general, intuitions are treated by Descartes as a generic form of immediate awareness present in a variety of modalities (sensory, imaginative, intellectual) and directed to properties, including immutable essences, sensations (and corporeal images perhaps), the actuality of oneself and ones own thoughts. All genuine forms of perception (those that are not confused judgments or amalgams of perceptions and judgments) are intuitions which, when they are recognized for what they are, Descartes calls clear and distinct ideas. Let's call these "classical intuitions". They are connected to propositions via a principle which I will paraphrase as follows:

If someone has an intuition of a property P then there exists a substance which either contains P formally (as P is in itself) or eminently (contains an analogue of P).5

     In the case where we can rule out eminent containment, thus forcing an ascription of formal containment, we are entitled to assert the truth of the proposition, "There is something that is P." This principle is a necessary truth known by intuition and equivalent to the famous rule of truth that Descartes places at the heart of his epistemology in Meditation III.6 (AT VII, 35; CSM II, 24)

     Cartesian intuitive inference is not inherently an act of classification - an act of subsuming particulars under universals. Nor does it depend on an act of classification for a premise even in the special case where what is inferred is a proposition. This follows from the fact that the existentially quantified conclusion of the rule of truth is not derived by an existential generalization on an antecedently given subject-predicate proposition (e.g. ExFx from Fa) but rather is inferred by a metaphysical principle that there are no uninstantiated properties.7 As such, this principle (the rule of truth) is a device that yields a proposition by intuitive inference from something that is not a proposition, a fortiori, not a subject predicate proposition embodying classificatory cognition.

     The rule of truth can be used to provide epistemic foundations in the following way. First one employs Cartesian method to identify among ones thoughts those that count as consciousnesses of properties. (Here the alternatives are (i) acts of judgment and (ii) confused thoughts, hybrid states that combine acts of judgment and acts of consciousness.) Then one sees intuitively that the presence to consciousness of a certain property P entails that there is something which contains P either formally or eminently. Assuming that we are in a position to rule out the possibility of eminent containment, we now infer that (it is true that) there is something that is P.

     One way in which this procedure can be understood is as an explicit inference from premises (1) and (2) to the conclusion (3)

  1. I am intuitively aware of the presence of property P
  2. If I am aware of the presence of property P then there is something that contains P either formally or eminently
  1. There is something that contains P either formally or eminently.

     Unfortunately this way of representing Cartesian judgments re-introduces the Sellarsian objection at premise (1): to assert this premise requires an act of classificatory consciousness (subsuming myself under the predicate of being intuitively aware), just the thing that the Cartesian account8 is supposed to avoid. Moreover, this inference also runs afoul of another formulation of Sellars’s basic argument against the given due to Robert Brandom. In his notes to section 3 of "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind"9 (the section from which the quotation at the beginning of this article is taken) Brandom identifies a sequence of because-relations running

  1. from physical objects to the sensing of sense contents
  2. from the sensing of sense contents to noninferential beliefs
  3. from non-inferential beliefs to inferential beliefs,
to which the foundationalist is committed. Brandom notes that according to Sellars there are only two possible interpretations of the because-relation, a purely causal relation that clearly holds in the first connection but not the third, and an epistemic relation that clearly holds in the third connection but not the first. The problem lies in determining which of these because-relations hold for the second connection. Here, according to Brandom, Sellars would claim that neither alternative is effective.

Suppose that one understands the sensing of a sense content to be the existence of a non-epistemic relation between one particular , the sense content, and another, the person doing the sensing. ...If so, then it is hard to see how the sensing of a sense content could entail or justify a claim...So it seems that that the foundationalist who wants to appeal to sensings as foundational must take the sensing of a sense content to be an epistemic fact about the sensing agent. But if so what becomes of the particular? (128)

     The explicit-inference version of the Cartesian story must see premise (1) as a belief explicitly held and must therefore treat this belief as either itself inferred from some other belief or as basic. Either way the account seems to be in trouble as a solution for the foundationalist’s problems. If the belief in premise (1) is inferential, the foundationalist needs to find a basic belief distinct from (1) upon which (1) rests evidentially but it is hard to see what belief could be more basic than (1)10. If the belief in premise (1) is basic, then Brandom’s dilemma applies to it: if the connection between the state of inuitional consciousness and the belief is merely causal, then it is unclear how evidential support flows from state to belief, but if the connection is inferential, then the state of intuitional awareness would itself have to be a belief which, ex hypothesis, it is not.

     We can avoid this unhappy result if we reconstrue Cartesian foundational judgments not as an explicit inference from (1) to (3) but as a single act of judgment applying a one-place existential predicate, there is something that contains ... either formally or eminently to a property demonstratively identified from among the items of which we are intuitively aware. Call this new proposal modified Cartesian foundationalism. This proposal assumes that we can demonstratively identify items of which we are conscious, including properties, without invoking acquired classificatory consciousness. I ask the reader to accept this assumption for the sake of the argument. It is also true that some acquired conceptual apparatus is needed to understand and apply such a predicate. But foundationalists need not deny that there are acquired conceptual capabilities involved in basic beliefs as long as the statements they represent are analytic. If we regard the rule of truth as a meaning postulate for the application of the existential predicate, applying this predicate to demonstratively identified properties necessarily yields an analytically true statement and so such predications are generally regarded as legitimate by foundationalists.

     In section 33, Sellars seems to consider a response such as this noting that

it has been claimed [by foundationalists], not without plausibility, that whereas ordinary empirical statements can be correctly made without being true, observation reports resemble analytic statements in that being correctly made is a sufficient as well as necessary condition of their truth. And it has been inferred from this – somewhat hastily I believe- that "correctly making the report "This is green" is a matter of "following the rules for the use of ‘This’, ‘is’, and ‘green’. (p166)

     Sellars appears to have two objections to treating Cartesian basic statements as analytic. The first is an undefended skepticism (implied by the remark "somewhat hastily" in this passage) that correct reporting is a matter of following semantic rules, the second is a comment made in the following section, that the language entry condition for the rules

commit one to the idea that the authority of [basic statements] rests on nonverbal episodes of awareness- awareness that something is the case, e.g. that this is green... These self-authenticating episodes would constitiute the tortoise on which stands the elephant on which rests the ediface of empirical knowledge. (167)

Sellars apparently takes it for granted that he has already subjected the idea of propositional basic awarenesses to a decisive critique. Let us grant that he has. Notice, however, that on the modified Cartesian proposal, the non-verbal awarenesses are not propositional to begin with but are property-directed, thus falling outside the (false) dichotomy that Sellars’s original critique depends upon. So the idea of a more-than-merely-causal role for non-verbal episodes of awareness in authenticating verbal judgments remains on the table.

     As for the first objection (that basic statements like "This is green" are not analytic), it is also ineffective against modified Cartesian foundationalism. Notice that the demonstrative element in "This is green" picks out a particular thing subsumed by the judgment under the predicate "green". Judgments of this sort are indeed not analytic. However, judgments of the modified Cartesian proposal reverse the roles of demonstrative and predicate, making the universal rather than the particular component of the judgment the object of demonstration. This allows us to quite plausibly treat the application of the existential predicate to the property identified demonstratively as a consequence of the semantic rules governing that predicate, hence allows us to treat the full statement as analytic. This means that even if acquired conceptual resources are needed (in addition to what is given) in believing that there is something that contains this property [demonstrated] either eminently or formally, reliance on these resources does not violate classical foundationalism since these resources are semantic resources (meanings) and meanings are generally thought by empirically minded foundationalists to be, in general, acquired.

     No doubt Sellars would find this defence of classical foundationalism unpersuasive because of his commitment to the position he calls "psychological nominalism"(160). But nominalism is a part of another myth, the myth that one can decide what there is by analyzing what we say rather than what we perceive. If Descartes and the classical Foundationalists are right about what we perceive then Sellars is wrong both about what there is and about how we know what there is.


C. Adams and P. Tannery (eds.). Oeuvres de Descartes (revised edition, Paris: Vrin/C.N.R.S., 1964-76, 12 volumes.). Cited as AT.

John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch and (vol. III only) A. Kenny (trans.). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volumes I, II, & III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984-1991). Cited as CSM I, CSM II or CMS III respectively.

1 Wilfrid Sellars, "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind," reprinted as chapter 5 of Science, Perception and Reality (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), 127-196. Hereafter references will be given in the text "EPM".

2 "Substance. This term applies to every thing in which whatever we perceive immediately resides, as in a subject, or to every thing by means of which whatever we perceive exists. By "whatever we perceive" is meant any property, quality or attribute of which we have a real idea. The only idea we have of substance itself, in the strict sense, is that it is the thing in which whatever we perceive (or whatever has objective being in one of our ideas) exists, either formally or eminently. For we know by the natural light that a real attribute cannot belong to nothing." (my emphasis, AT VII, 161; CSM II, 114).

3 Sellars would say that even with the use of bare demonstratives there is a presupposed categorial predicable, thus introducing a second reason for seeing classificatory cognition at work even in these thin subject predicate attributions.

4 I develop this contention more fully in my book on Descartes, Cartesian Truth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). See Ch. 1, sec. 1.2.

5 This paraphrase is based partly on a text from Principles I, 52: "This. if we perceive the presence of some atribute, we can infer that there must also be present an existing thing or substance to which it may be attributed." (AT VIIIA, 25; CSM I, 210) and partly - the part related to the disjunction between formal and eminent containment - on the text from the Second Replies quoted in note 2.

6 Or so I also argue in Cartesian Truth. See Ch. 1, sec. 1.7 and Ch. 2.

7 See the last sentence on the passagae from the Second Replies quoted in note 2, above for exegetical evidence that Descartes is committed to this principle. For those who find the principle too implausible to attribute to Descartes, recall that while all properties are contained in an actual substance, the form of containment is not always formal instantiation, thus blocking the inference from "There is something that contains P-ness" to "There is something that is P".

8 See note 10.

9 Robert Brandom and Richard Rorty, eds., "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" by Wilfrid Sellars (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), 126-127.

10 In the case of the historical Descartes's epistemology, it does treat the belief that I am in an intuitional state as an inferential belief derived from other premises, thus compromising Descartes's status as a classical foundationalist. See sections 1.8, 1.9 and the Epilogue in Cartesian Truth.