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2012-11-20
On So-called Myth of the given

On So-called Myth of the given

Chaohui Zhuang

Myth of the given by Sellars is an important topic in contemporary analytical philosophy. I will show that Sellars’s argument is invalid.


1. First, Sellars found ambiguities in some sense-datum theories, but these ambiguities could be clarified. I will present a clearer sense-datum theory.

1.1 Sellars said:

“The sense-datum theorist, it would seem, must choose between saying:

(a) It is particulars which are sensed. Sensing is not knowing. The existence of sense-data does not logically imply the existence of knowledge.

(b) Sensing is a form of knowing. It is facts rather than particulars which are sensed.”

For a sense-datum theory, the answer is quite easy: (a) is right. The next question is: Sensing is not knowing, then where is knowledge? The answer is also quite easy: After sensing, knowing occurs. Sensing and Knowing are different events, they are not one thing.

In our sense-datum theory, there are two activities:

a.   Sensing activity: It is particulars which are sensed.

b.   Judging activity(/understanding activity): According to acquired conceptual schemas, particulars are conceptualized to be facts, or knowledge.


(BTW, Sellars did not mention which sense-datum theory agreed opinion a, which agreed opinion b, which agreed both opinion a and b. )


1.2 Next, Sellars said:

“It is clear from the above analysis, therefore, that classical sense-datum theories are confronted by an inconsistent triad made up of the following propositions:

A. X senses red sense contents entails x non-inferentially know that s is red.

B. The ability to sense sense contents is unacquired.

C. The ability to know facts of the form x is something is acquired.

A and B together entail not-C; B and C entail not-A; A and C entail not-B.”


For our sense-datum theory, the answer is quite easy: (A) is wrong. ‘X senses red sense contents’ is a kind of sensing activity, while ‘x non-inferentially know that s is red’ is a kind of judging activity. The left part of (A) and the right part of (A) are different activities.  The left part of (A) cannot entail the right part of (A).


(Again, Sellars did not give citations. We do not know which sense-datum theory is this kind of ‘classical sense-datum theories’. )

Sellars considered this possibility:

“He can abandom A, in which case the sensing of sense contents becomes a noncognitive fact - a noncognitive fact, to be sure which may be necessary condition, even a logically necessary condition, of non-inferential knowledge, but a fact, nevertheless, which cannot constitute this knowledge.”

The answer is: it is right that sensing activities cannot constitute knowledge, but the following judging activities can constitute knowledge.

Sellars made confusion between sensing activities and judging activities. When we talk about sensing activities, he said that sensing activities cannot constitute knowledge. He asked for more demands than he ought to.


2. Second, Sellars made confusion between two kind logics of 'Looks'.


In the second part of his paper, Sellars criticized Ayer’s sense-datum language.

There are two kinds of usage of ‘colors’: the first kind is objects’ colors and the second kind is objects’ appearance colors in someone’s eyes. For Ayer, it is quite clear that he was talking about appearance colors. In this sense, he used the word “look”.


Sellars attempted to understand Ayer’s sense-datum language according to ordinary language, which made confusion.

In Sellars’ example, a necktie looks blue under sunshine. John knew that. Now, this necktie looks green in the shop, under a certain kind of electric lighting. John says that “this necktie looks green”. It means that “this necktie merely looks green”. It means that this necktie looks different under sunshine and under a certain occasion. In ordinary life, we take sunshine as the standard condition. Therefore, this necktie is blue under the standard condition and this necktie’s real color is blue. Now, the appearance color of this necktie is different with this necktie’s real color. In this very sense, John says that “this necktie looks green”.

Therefore, Sellars concluded that the concepts of looking green presuppose the concepts of being green. In other words, the concepts of looking green depend on the concepts of being green.

But Sellers’ reasoning procedure was quite confusing. He made confusion between the first kind of look (Ayer’s sense) and the second kind of look (Ordinary’s sense). We will give a clearer explanation as follows.

A.    The first kind of look (Ayer’s sense): In this sense, we can say “this necktie looks blue under sunshine”, and “this necktie looks green under a certain kind of electric lighting”. They are both right. A same object can appear different colors in different occasions. This kind of look is fundamental.

B. Standard condition and standard color: We choose ‘under sunshine’ as the standard condition and we choose blue as the standard color of this necktie. In ordinary language, we say that this necktie is blue.

C. The second kind of look(Ordinary’s sense): In shop, this necktie looks green under a certain kind of electric lighting. But we cannot say “this necktie is green”, so we say “this necktie looks green”. It means that “this necktie merely looks green”. When we made this judgment, we have to compare appearance color (blue) under standard condition with appearance color (green) on a certain occasion of a same object (this necktie). In short, we have to compare different appearance colors of a same object.


In the first kind of “look”, we have no need to compare different appearance colors of a same object, we just need to know the concept of a certain color. These two kind of “look” are quite different. Sellars made confusion. He tried to understand Ayer’s sense-datum language according to ordinary language, which is some kind of ordinary-language-ism. The same thing happened in Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia.

We do not completely accept Ayer’s theory; we just say that Sellars’s criticism was invalid.


3. Third, Sellars gave his high standard for observational knowledge according to his prejudice. The analysis of this part is same as the above analysis of “look”.


4. Conclusion

In Sellars’s argument, he often thought two different things as one thing, which caused this argument was invalid. If we can find that there are two different things under a same word, we can clarify confusions and present a clearer theory. In this sense, Wittgenstein said that: “Don't think but look!”

In conclusion, so-called myth of the given is just a myth. The given is not a myth.


(The post is a part of a full paper in Chinese. )