Sellars on Kantian Imagination

The analytically trained Kantian pragmatist Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989) is increasing recognized as one of the greatest American philosophers of the 20th century. It has been said that he played a central role in taking analytic philosophy from its empiricist beginnings to a new Kantian stage. He is known for his critique of the “Myth of the Given”, his work on material inference, and his concept of the space of reasons. I found an essay of his on the Kantian productive imagination.

He begins by contrasting two approaches to perceptual judgment. First is a standard empiricist notion that goes as far as possible in reducing judgment to grammatical predication, to the point where the perception itself is treated as a bare this, and all the cognitive work of judgment is concentrated in applying a predicate to the bare this.

“Traditionally a distinction was drawn between the visual object and the perceptual judgment about the object…. This suggested to some philosophers that to see a visual object as a brick with a red and rectangular facing surface consists in seeing the brick and believing it to be a brick with a red and rectangular facing surface: ‘This is a brick which has a red and rectangular facing surface’…. Notice that the subject term of the judgment was exhibited above as a bare demonstrative, a sheer this, and that what the object is seen as was placed in an explicitly predicate position (“The Role of Imagination in Kant’s Theory of Experience”, in In the Space of Reasons: Selected Essays of Wilfrid Sellars, Scharp and Brandom, eds., p. 455).

Rather than pretending that perception gives us only a bare this, we should recognize that at least we talking animals live always already immersed in meaningful content. The most primitive human sense perception involves taking something not just as this, but as something with definite characteristics. This will turn out to be what Kant calls a schema, as distinct from a concept.

“I submit, on the contrary, that correctly represented, a perceptual belief has the quite different form: ‘This brick with a red and rectangular facing surface’. Notice that this is not a sentence but a complex demonstrative phrase. In other words, I suggest that in such a perceptually grounded judgment as ‘This brick with a red and rectangular facing side is too large for the job at hand’ the perceptual belief proper is that tokening of a complex Mentalese demonstrative phrase which is the grammatical subject of the judgment as a whole. This can be rephrased as a distinction between a perceptual taking and what is believed about what is taken…. From this point of view, what the visual object is seen as is a matter of the content of the complex demonstrative Mentalese phrase” (ibid).

In a nonessential decoration of the argument, he mentions “Mentalese”, a term used by analytic philosophers for inner speech. We need not concern ourselves here with whether or not there is a “mental language” distinct from, but patterned on, natural language, as this term suggests. The important point is that in every human perceptual “taking”, there is a kind of linguistic or language-like articulation, which we can express with a phrase consisting of classifying terms and syntactic relations between them.

“We must add another distinction, this time between what we see and what we see of what we see…. How can a volume of white apple flesh [hidden inside the apple] be present as actuality in the visual experience if it is not seen? The answer should be obvious. It is present by virtue of being imagined (p. 457).

“Before following up this point, it should be noticed that the same is true of the red of the other side of the apple. The apple is seen as as having a red opposite side. Furthermore, the phenomenologist adds, the red of the opposite side is not merely believed in; it is bodily present in the experience. Like the white, not being seen, it is present in the experience by being imagined” (ibid).

Here he seems to recall Husserl’s perceptual “adumbrations” or foreshadowings. Sellars is a bit more straightforward and explicit in attributing these to imagination.

“Notice that to say that it is present in the experience by virtue of being imagined is not to say that it is presented as imagined…. Red may present itself as red and white present itself as white; but sensations do not present themselves as sensations, nor images as images. Otherwise philosophy would be far easier than it is” (pp. 457-458).

When we imagine something to be the case, we are most often not aware that we are doing so. We simply think or believe that it is the case. As soon as we already have experience, what Sellars in the thin modern sense calls the “actual” presence of the imagined content comes to us as primitively mixed in with that of the perceived content. It takes work to analytically separate them, and any such separation always has a hypothetical character.

“But while these [hidden] features are not seen, they are not merely believed in. These features are present in the object of perception as actualities. They are present by virtue of being imagined” (p. 458).

As with Husserl’s “presentified” contents, the contributions of imagination are not theoretical constructs, but part of the experience itself.

“We do not see of objects their causal properties, though we see them as having them…. To draw the proper consequences of this we must distinguish between imagining and imaging, just as we distinguish between perceiving and sensing…. Roughly imagining is an intimate blend of imaging and conceptualization, whereas perceiving is an intimate blend of sensing and imaging and conceptualization” (ibid).

I like the way Sellars recognizes the interweaving inherent to these “intimate blends” of imaging and conceptualization.

“Notice that the proper and common sensible features enter in both by virtue of being actual features of the image and by virtue of being items thought of or conceptualized. The applehood [by contrast] enters in only by virtue of being thought of (intentional in-existence)” (pp. 458-459).

“The upshot of the preceding section is that perceptual consciousness involves the constructing of sense-image models of external objects. This construction is the work of the imagination responding to the stimulation of the retina…. The most significant fact is that the construction is a unified process guided by a combination of sensory input on the one hand and background beliefs, memories, and expectations on the other. The complex of abilities included in this process is what Kant called the ‘productive’ as contrasted with the ‘reproductive’ imagination. The former, as we shall see, by virtue of its kinship with both sensibility and understanding unifies into one experiencing the distinctive contributions of these two faculties” (p. 459).

Here we have a very basic Kantian point about the nature of experience — all perception involves imaginative construction. Objects are not just given to us fully constituted.

“Notice once again that although the objects of which we are directly aware in perceptual consciousness are image-models, we are not aware of them as image-models. It is by phenomenological reflection (aided by what Quine calls scientific lore) that we arrive at this theoretical interpretation of perceptual consciousness…. Thus we must distinguish carefully between objects, including oneself, as conceived by the productive imagination, on the one hand and the image-models constructed by the productive imagination, on the other” (pp. 459-460).

In common with Plato, Kant is at pains to point out that everything we experience — including everything we apprehend in inner sense — is appearance. I would say we also have “contact” with reality underlying the appearances, but we do not easily get knowledge of that reality.

“Kant distinguishes between the concept of a dog and the schema of a dog…. [O]ur perceptual experience does not begin with the perception of dogs and houses…. But though the child does not yet have the conceptual framework of dogs, houses, books, etc., he does, according to Kant, have an innate conceptual framework — a proto-theory, so to speak, of spatio-temporal physical objects capable of interacting with each other; objects — and this is the crux of the matter – which are capable of generating visual inputs which vary in systematic ways with their relation to the body of the perceiver ” (p. 460).

Here he explains the important Kantian notion of a schema. Concepts express nonperspectival essences, but schemas are perspectival, involve potentially sensible content, and implicitly include a relation to a perceiver.

“Consider the example of a perceiver who sees a pyramid and is walking around it, looking at it. The concept of a red pyramid standing in various relations to a perceiver entails a family of concepts pertaining to sequences of perspectival image-models of oneself-confronting-a-pyramid. This family can be called the schema of the concept of the pyramid…. Notice that the pyramid-schema doesn’t follow from the concept of a pyramid alone. It follows from the complex concept of pyramid in such-and-such relations to a perceiver” (p. 461).

In a Kantian context, we have no access to a sensible world apart from a perceiver’s perception of it.

“However thin — as in the case of the child — the intuitive representation may be from the standpoint of the empirical concept involved, it nevertheless contains in embryo the concept of a physical object now, over there, interacting with other objects in a system which includes me. It embodies a proto-theory of a world which contains perceivers of objects in that world” (p. 465).

Here we have the basis of Kant’s “transcendental deduction”, which aims to show that perception and imagination effectively already presuppose the same categories that govern understanding. This is how Kant recovers the possibility of objectivity.