Revisiting the Myth: Husserl and Sellars on the Given
Soffer, Gail, The Review of Metaphysics
IN SCIENCE, PERCEPTION, AND REALITY, Sellars marvels at the power of fashion in philosophy, which all too often offers us the spectacle of a stampede rather than a careful sifting of gold from dross. (1) Sellars was worried that the flight from phenomenalism would lead to the familiar pendulum effect and so thwart his effort to "usher analytic philosophy out of its Humean and into its Kantian stage," as Rorty has put it. (2) Accordingly, Sellars's critique of the Myth of the Given aimed to show that what was really wrong with phenomenalism was nothing particular to the sense-data of the positivists but the framework of givenness itself.
Sellars's critique of the Given made an enormous impact, but did it not set off a new stampede? On the contemporary horizon, the dust is settling around numerous philosophies, including phenomenology, and the hoofprints look strikingly like those of the postpositivistic analytic philosophers who are Sellars's progeny. And, some might think, not without good reason. Are not phenomenology and phenomenalism kindred cousins? Does not the notion of an immediate, private "given" lie so much at the core of the Husserlian enterprise that phenomenology is unthinkable without it? Does not Husserl wish to erect the edifice of objective knowledge on this unshakable foundation? Does not Sellars extend his critique of the Given to Chisholm and so to Brentano and Husserl? (3) When we come to the essence of the matter, can we not treat Husserl and Russell in one breath as an indivisible unity, as does Rorty throughout Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature? (4) In the wake of Sellars, Wittgenstein, Rorty, the linguistic turn, and the rest, would we not do well only to mention and not to use the word "given" in polite philosophical company?
According to the spirit if not the letter of Sellars, it is my hope in this paper to redimension the relationship between postpositivistic analytic philosophy and Husserlian phenomenology by revisiting some of the arguments advanced by Sellars against the Myth of the Given and in favor of the linguistic turn. One thesis advanced in this paper is that there is more common ground between Husserl and Sellars than is usually thought. For the main aim of Sellars's critique is to attack the given as the immediate and to show that empirical knowledge requires concepts, inferences, and language. Here there is little if any disagreement with Husserl, who is hardly concerned with immediacy and makes very similar points about the mediacy of empirical knowledge, albeit in a different way.
However, certain divergences remain, and a second aim of this paper is to reconstruct and evaluate them. One important dispute concerns the relation between language and intentionality. For Sellars and his progeny, language is a precondition for attentive, object-directed consciousness; whereas on a phenomenological account, there are prepredicative, preverbal forms of intentionality. A second, related difference arises in the respective approaches to intersubjectivity. Sellars treats the attribution of intentionality to others as primarily a theory for the explanation of behavior; whereas for Husserl the "constitution" of the other is not primarily theoretical, and a relation to behavior does not belong to the very concept of intentionality.
Behind these disputes lie certain deeper differences concerning the nature of the mental and the relation between science and everyday life. For there is a secondary tendency in Sellars's linguistic turn which shies away from the given not as the immediate but more generally as the subjective, experiential dimension of life, which Sellars sometimes associates with the Cartesian, "mind's eye" view of consciousness. Sellars's functional-linguistic approach to intentionality aims to define the mental without making any explicit reference to the properly subjective dimension of mental life. This approach is meant to clear the way for an eventual reduction of the mental to the physical in neurophysiological terms. …