Notes on Sellars and Philosophy of Nature

– Sellars spends a good deal of time in his essay ‘Aristotelian Philosophies of Mind‘ critiquing said philosophies of mind on the grounds that they represent a prescientific way of thinking about intellect, cognition, etc. They’re simply outdated, Sellars seems to say (though his goal is more to elucidate when/how such ideas went wrong than to simply knock them around).

– I suspect that some of these critiques can be deflected if we distinguish between a scientific account of how (say) sensation works and a philosophical account of the nature of sensation, or what sensation is. James Madden notes in ‘Mind, Matter, Nature’, that it is the latter, not the former, which Aquinas is offering, and thus far from being refuted by our given psycho-physical understanding of the brain is open to really just about any empirical findings.

– Put another way, Aquinas’ account of sensation as caused by physical impressions on our organs from which the forms are abstracted by the intellect into a formal identity between the knower and known isn’t a play-by-play description of the physiology of the brain – if this were so, than this would be a rather easily refutable theory (to use Sellars example, if this account were a scientific account of what cognition is, then if I thought of a lion, I would have to have a lion in my brain and in my eye! Easily refutable would be an understatement) Aquinas’ account of the mind may jive more easily with this or that empirical finding, but on its own its simply a category mistake to take it as an empirical account of cognition or sensation.

– A case in point would be in Sellars’ closing, where he cites findings in the empirical science of the brain against the existence of the active intellect (and as it happens, I think the passive/active intellect can map very well onto contemporary accounts of cognition).

– Madden also points out, keeping with the theme above, that the accusation of being prescientific is absolutely correct if the Thomistic philosophy of nature (form, matter, etc) is taken to be an account of the conduct of science – Madden affirms that when it comes to the empirical sciences, it is indeed a proper methodology to exclude things like form, final cause, etc. These are concepts which serve as the ground of the empirical sciences – the nature of physical law, change, etc. This being the case, Sellars’ objections lose some force, since what he’s critiquing as being a prescientific kind of empirical science is in fact a more fundamental consideration.

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