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.

Concept of Law

When Kant distinguishes free beings as acting in accordance with concepts of law rather than merely in accordance with law, he makes a vital point that deserves to be expanded upon. Even inanimate objects exhibit rule-governed behavior, and mere obedience is at best a low degree of virtue. To act in accordance with concepts of laws is to act in a principled and thoughtful way, exercising judgment on how best to realize the high-level ends behind a body of law, charitably interpreted in a spirit of universal fairness. It is to take our place as co-legislators in the universal community of rational beings.

Actualization of Freedom

Chapter 4 of Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy is concerned with the actualization of freedom.  Hegel makes abundant use of the Aristotelian concepts of actuality and actualization.  To begin with, Pippin wants to resolve worries that Hegel’s emphasis on the actuality of Spirit submerges the agency of individuals, or that it gives too strong a “providential” sanction to existing states of affairs.  Hegel indeed had little use for the narrow “self-will” of individuals, and in his semi-popular lectures on the philosophy of history applied potentially misleading metaphors of providence and theodicy to history.  As Pippin observes, the meaning especially of some of Hegel’s more rhetorical statements is sometimes “profoundly unclear”, and apparently at odds with his more careful articulations.

If we step back and consider what actuality is in both Aristotle and Hegel, individualization is one of its fundamental characteristics.  Actual things are specific, concretely embodied, and indeed particular.  The actuality of spirit is not some ghostly presence over and above things, but lies rather in the concrete actions of individual people as ethical agents.  And actuality, as Pippin notes, “is not merely a question about whether a concept does or does not have instances corresponding to it in the real world” (p. 95).  

Hegel distinguished “ideas” from mere concepts precisely as taking into account their actuality and embodiment.  In language that could very easily be misunderstood, he also spoke of the concept giving itself its own actuality.  Pippin begins to explain this by noting that concepts for Hegel always involve an “ought”.  They are “rules telling us how to make categorical distinctions, principles that govern material inferences, that prescribe what ought or ought not to be done” (p. 97), and “the Concept” with a capital “C” just is normativity.  All concept use is involved with considerations of rightness.  “By virtue of what is one inferential move legitimate, another not?” (ibid).  To be able to judge what anything is, we must be able to distinguish it from what it is not.  

Hegel gives unqualified praise to Kant’s thesis that the unity of the concept is none other than the unity of apperception.  Pippin says this gives the concept a non-empirical origin that ties it to self-legislation.  “[A]ll judgment rests on excluding and inferring relations [Brandom’s material incompatibility and material consequence] that constrain what we can intelligibly think and articulate by normatively constraining ‘what we ought to think’, not by being psychological propensities or limits” (p. 99).  This all has to do with the determination of what is right, not with any causing of things to exist in a certain way.  

Pippin says the whole third part of Hegel’s Logic – the “logic of the concept” – is concerned with these Kantian considerations related to self-legislation.  He concludes that actuality for Hegel especially refers to the objective validity of a normative status, not simple existence.  This is what is behind Hegel’s famous and tremendously misunderstood phrase “the rational is the real, and the real is the rational”.  Both reason and actuality or reality for Hegel are normative concepts.  

Here we have an answer to the worries about a conservative providential seal on factual existence.  What is metaphorically said to be governed by something like rational providence is not factual existence but normative validity.  “The Science of Logic’s argument suggests that… such a responsiveness to reason… is neither an imposition nor an unreflective subordination to the ‘practically given’” (p. 102). 

In talk about self-legislation “The point being made is about the autonomy of the normative domain, in both theoretical and practical contexts.  It is because of this claim that Hegel is completely untroubled by the threat of scientific or any other form of determinism….  This is not a claim about the theoretical requirement of an uncaused spontaneity of thought, as Kant flirted with…, but a claim about the space of reasons itself and what could and could not in the Hegelian sense be ‘logically’ relevant to it” (p. 103).  

For Hegel, conceptual determinacy is not separable from conceptual legitimacy.  Normative authority is “constructed we might even say, not discovered” (p. 104).  Pippin says Hegel’s notion that the concept should be understood as a “free” structure only makes sense in these terms.  “Conceptual legitimacy is not secured by being shown to be hooked onto the world in a certain way, but by virtue of its being instituted and sustained in the right way” (p. 105).

Hegel is concerned to develop “a theory of the possibility of content in general – how concepts in their judgmental use and claims to normative authority, might successfully pick out and re-identify an aspect of reality” (p. 107).  For both Kant and Hegel, objectivity is no longer a matter of representation, but rather a matter of a kind of legality.  “[W]e will not be searching about in the metaphysical or empirical world for the existent truth-makers of such claims” (p. 109).

“Whereas Kant held out some hope for a deductive demonstration of a notion’s or a norm’s actuality, or objectivity or bindingness, Hegel’s procedures in all his books and lectures are developmental, not deductive….  The proof procedure shifts from attention to conceptually necessary conditions and logical presuppositions to demonstrations of the partiality of some prior attempt… and the subsequent developments and reformulations necessary to overcome such partiality” (pp. 109-110).

“I am only subject to laws I in some sense author and subject myself to.  But the legislation of such a law does not consist in some paradoxical single moment of election….  The formation of and self-subjection to such constraints is gradual and actually historical” (p. 117).

Substance Also Subject

Hegel’s many references to Aristotle should help to clarify the Hegelian claim that “Substance is also Subject”. In particular, Aristotle’s own thesis of the identity of thought with the thing thought is relevant, as is his dialectical development of the different senses of ousia (“substance”) in the Metaphysics.

A thought for Aristotle is identical with its content. It just is a discursively articulable meaning, not a psychological event. What we care about in thought is shareable reasoning. Moreover, this shareable reasoning has a fundamentally ethical character.

Thought in this sense is essentially self-standing, and unlike the mental-act sense not dependent in the determination of its meaning on a “thinker” (who optionally instantiates it, and if so is responsible for the occurrence of a related event). This gives a nice double meaning to the autonomy of reason. (What such thoughts do depend on is other such thoughts with which they are inferentially connected.)

The primary locus of Aristotelian intellect is directly in shareable thoughts of this sort and their interconnection, rather than in a sentience that “has” them. Hegel adopts all of this.

Concepts in a unity of apperception are forms to be approached discursively, not mental representations or intentional acts. They are more like custom rules for material inference. The redoubling implied in apperception, like that of the Aristotelian “said of” relation, hints at the recursive structure of inferential articulation. The Hegelian Absolute, or “the” Concept, just nominalizes such an inferential coherence of concepts.

Thus, “Substance is also Subject” has nothing to do with attributing some kind of sentience to objects, or to the world. Rather, it is the claim that Substance properly understood (in the Aristotelian conceptual sense of “what it was to have been” a thing, rather than in the naive sense of a real-world object, or of a substrate of a real-world object, that Aristotle starts with but then discards) is already the right sort of thing to be able to play the functional role of a transcendental subject. A “Subject” for Hegel just is a concept or commitment, or a constellation of concepts and commitments. (See also Subject and Substance, Again; Substance and Subject.)

Consistent with this general approach, I consider the direct locus of the subject-function to be in things like Brandomian commitments and Kantian syntheses. The subject-function is also indirectly attributable to “self-conscious individuals” by metonymy or inheritance, and to empirical persons by a further metonymy or inheritance. (See also Subject; Substance; Aristotelian Dialectic; Brandom and Kant; Rational/Talking Animal; Second Nature.)

Concept, Form, Species

Where Kant and later writers talk about concepts, Plato and Aristotle and medieval writers talked about forms in somewhat analogous ways. Neither concepts nor forms have the immediate unproblematic accessibility that is claimed for Cartesian mental representations or Lockean ideas or medieval species. Where concepts or forms are to the fore, we are generally in discursive territory.

Leen Spruit has documented that the middle ages also saw a huge variety of doctrines of so-called “species”, both perceptible and intelligible, which in one aspect were mental representations, some resembling phantasmata in Stoicism, some seeming rather like Cartesian mental representations or Lockean ideas. These were generally considered to be contents immediately accessible to the mind. I tend to think a lot of these were probably associated with what Brandom calls two-stage models of representation, where representings are considered to have an immediate intelligibility that representeds lack.