Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Sellars on concepts and laws

Of late I've been getting into Wilfrid Sellars's work. I read his "Concepts as Involving Laws, and Inconceivable without Them" which Brandom makes so much of. It was quite an essay. One of his main points which I found refreshing was his pluralism about universals. I'm not completely sure how to formulate it, but it is roughly the idea that the set of all the universals we have instantiated or relevant to our world does not exhaust the set of all universals. This leads to several interesting ideas. Instead of saying that there are no substantive relations between universals, e.g. that they are reorganizable since they are logically independent, he says that there are substantive relations between universals. The laws that govern their instantiation are essential to them, as are the particulars that instantiate them, but these universals are essential to those laws and particulars as well. This means that although laws are logically independent from properties, changing the laws means changing the properties. This connects with his championing of material content of terms, but that is a digression. Universals that are instantiated or relevant to a world are grouped together to create a family of histories. Each history in a family involves the same set of universals, although different starting conditions will lead to different courses of history. What light do these shed on anything? The motivation for the paper is to explain what laws are if they are not analytic and they are not restricted to actual events and a related dilemma about what sort of implication is involved in laws. Laws for Sellars are conditionals that are true across all histories in a family. Accidental regularities are true in some but not all histories in a family. That is a pretty tidy formulation that falls out of his idea.

Another thing that is very interesting about Sellars is his focus on counterfactuals and conterfactual situations. He was writing around the same time as Quine, when extensionalism was in vogue. He does a good job of showing how taking intensional constructions seriously can lead to good results in philosophy. There are a lot of other differences between Sellars and Quine, but that one in particular comes out in this essay.

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