The Tortoise and the Serpent: Sellars on the Structure of Empirical Knowledge

Michael Williams

in Empiricism, Perceptual Knowledge, Normativity, and Realism

Published in print November 2009 | ISBN: 9780199573301
Published online February 2010 | e-ISBN: 9780191722172 | DOI:

Series: Mind Association Occasional Series

The Tortoise and the Serpent: Sellars on the Structure of Empirical Knowledge

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In ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’, (EPM) Sellars adumbrates an epistemological third way that avoids the pitfalls of the traditional alternatives — foundationalism and coherentism — while preserving their strengths. But what is this third way? Sellars's position can appear to be a form of coherentism, for in his account of observational knowledge, Sellars insists on a principle of epistemic reflexivity. According to Sellars, for a person's observation reports to express knowledge, the person must not only be a reliable reporter on the range of facts in question: the reporter must recognize his own reliability. This reflexive reliability-knowledge appears to introduce into Sellars's epistemology the mutual justificatory dependence between knowledge of particular and of general facts that is characteristic of coherentism. Sellars is aware of the problem, and alludes in EPM to two distinct dimensions of dependence, though he does little to clarify the distinction. To see what he has in mind, one must look beyond EPM to Sellars's attempts to redeem this ‘notorious promissory note’. Sellars's radical fallibilism and his implicit endorsement of a default and challenge conception of epistemic justification allow him to argue that epistemic reflexivity does not entail epistemic circularity, and that reliability-commitments, while presupposed by observational knowledge, do not function in a straightforwardly justificatory role.

Keywords: coherence theory; default; challenge structure; epistemic reflexivity; externalism; fallibilism; foundationalism; Myth of the Given; observation report; reliabilism

Chapter.  12907 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Mind

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