Amanda Beech Final Machine, still.
July 2, 2015

Notes for “Stereoscopy, Exit, and Escape”

A portion of these notes were delivered as a guest lecturer for Diann Bauer and Patricia Reed’s “Art and its Reason(s)” seminar at the New Centre for Research & Practice on June 8th, 2015. I have since added to them and cleaned up the presentation. The intent of this material was to present a broad outline of Wilfrid Sellars philosophy and make suggestions as to how we might think of some of his positions in relation to problems with recent art practice, and in what ways it may help us reconsider certain positions on art. For the most part it remains focused on Sellars’s philosophy with a few suggestive remarks on how it may be applied to art which could surely be expanded. In composing these notes I relied not only upon Sellars’s own texts, but the indispensable commentary of the late Jay Rosenberg, Willem deVries and Tom Triplett’s reading of Sellars’s “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind”, Steven Levine’s insightful criticism of Sellars’s positions, and Johanna Seibt’s process ontology.

The Myth of the Given

What is the given? The notion of the given derives from a particularly entrenched view in the history of Western philosophy derived from Descartes mind/body dualism. This view has both an epistemic and metaphysical character. In its metaphysical formulation, there are two distinct kinds of things in the world: the mental and the material. The material is associated with the causal laws of physics, while the mental with laws of reason and thought. The epistemological mistake of the Cartesian picture is to associate the immediacy of what is known with the cause of that knowledge, such that directness of access to a cause guarantees the foundation of that knowledge. However, this elides the distinction between justification and causation. What is caused cannot act as a justification for our knowledge, since, being non-conceptual, and therefore non-contentful (propositional), it lacks the right kind of status to act as a reason for our beliefs about the world. Yet, even propositional statements about our direct experience by themselves are insufficient in their own right – for to make a reliable statement, one must have knowledge about the reliability of their own statements, which is itself further justification. Broadly speaking, it is the foundational assumption of some epistemically independent basis that the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars takes aim at with the myth of the given. By sorting out the relation between causation and justification, and identifying the constructed nature of our knowledge, Sellars hopes to overcome Cartesian dualism and propose a picture of the world that naturalizes the mental.[1]

Photo: Wilfred Sellars.

Photo: Wilfred Sellars.

But what does this have to do with art?

Of the things that have been considered to be given, it was commonly assumed among empiricists that our sensory experience was itself a kind of reliable given. Since we have direct access to our senses, they must provide a foundation for our knowledge. So, for example, assume there is a red ball in front of me. I might ask, how do I know this ball is red? It seems intuitive to make an appeal to the sense experience that I am having of this object before me at this juncture, and claim simply that this is what my senses tell me. Nonetheless, this sense experience alone does not justify my belief — perhaps I am viewing a white ball under a red light, and this makes it appear red to me. While leaving aside some complex questions about the issues of color perceptions, I would therefore not be justified in claiming that this ball is red. This short example serves to illustrate the unreliability of sense-perception as the basis of our knowledge.

With art, however, sensory experience has been taken to be a basis for its own disciplinary development. When Clement Greenberg enjoins his famous essay on Modernism with a reference to the critical philosophy of Kant, he makes the crucial mistake of conflating the conceptual dimensions of experience (erfahren) with the perceptual dimensions of experience (erlebnis). This experience was, of course, nothing less than the experience of opticality itself:

That visual art should confine itself exclusively to what is given in visual experience, and make no reference to anything given in any other order of experience, is a notion whose only justification lies in scientific consistency.[2]

This mistake leads him to the faulty conclusion that it is the critical stripping of art’s disciplinary norms in favor of a perceptual purity which is the realization of art’s own critical development.

Greenberg’s aesthetics are fairly passe in Contemporary Art practice, however. Nonetheless, I believe we can trace from Greenberg a kind of fallacy that has woven its way into the fabric of how art approaches its remit. Krauss, for instance, unbound the categorical limits of medium specificity which Greenberg placed upon art with the vision of the expanded field, yet retained the immediacy of the experience of art as efficacious.

While experience may be necessary for the formation of knowledge, it is not sufficient to act as the basis of our knowledge. Sellars turns instead to a normative conception of knowledge, based around the coherence of concepts and inferential reasoning. Sensory experiences are not epistemically viable, and so cannot act as reasons for for a belief. As Jay Rosenberg points out, “In so far as an instance of perceiving something is a candidate for epistemic appraisal, it necessarily encompasses the judgement that something is such-and-so, and a fortiori a classification of its content under concepts.”[3] That is, in order to have a belief about something, we already have to have judged it under some conceptual schema that it is that thing. To judge that the ball is red, requires that I have a concept of “red” in relation to my other concepts.

Yet, what concepts define the field of art? We cannot understate the influence of Duchamp on Contemporary Art practice — conceptualism, pop-art, neo-conceptualism, relational aesthetics, post-internet art — all in various ways follow downstream of the Duchampian gesture. The readymade goes beyond the categorical limits which Greenberg set and Krauss attempted to redefine. It proposes that the art object is whatever the artist chooses to nominate as art. This gesture does not depend upon any positive conceptual status for the work, but is defined against the existing norms that set the disciplinary status of art. Once art generalized this as a strategy, the negational attitude becomes nothing but consumptive of art as determinate practice. It becomes, as Suhail Malik has warned, nothing but the repetition of difference without capacity for judgement[4]. We are simply presented a series of “given” facts of the work, and asked to reflect upon this experience in-itself.

Picturing and signifying

This problem of indeterminacy can be placed in respect of the social-normative nature of knowledge, and the inherently communal practice of conceptual revision. I will elaborate on this point, but first, I want to touch upon how it is that we do have knowledge of the world if it is not through some means of the world directly impressing itself upon our minds.

As mentioned, Sellars offers a coherentist position of concept formation in place of the foundationalist perspective. The foundationalist presents basic concepts which we have direct and reliable access to at the root of our knowledge, and it is from these that our non-basic concepts develop. However, since the most basic concepts of the foundationalist cannot play a justificatory role in latter conceptual developments without running afoul of the problem of givenness, we must abandon this picture. The coherentist alternative is to argue that our concepts are not justified based upon some linear chain of knowledge where we can finally settle our disputes on some ultimate bedrock principle, but that justification is derived from the related coherence of our conceptual framework taken as whole. This, however, does not answer the question of how our conceptual framework relates to things in the world. One could have a perfectly coherent theory about how all of reality is moved by invisible daemons, but if it has no hold on the world as it is, it is easily dismissable. Since concepts and causes do not play the same role, it is curious how one could relate to the other.

In a coherentist framework, terms acquire their meaning only from their deployment in relation to the rules of the language system as a whole. “Meaning” for Sellars is inherently linguistic. The term “rain”, for instance, acquires its contentfulness not because it refers to our non-linguistic sense of some stimuli that signals “rain”, but because the term is situated in relation to other linguistic tokens in the system which, on a meta-linguistic level provide rules for its deployment in relation to the other terms of the system. These meta-linguistic rules provide the role of a given term within the network of language, and meaning is asserted by following permissible patterns within the rules of the language game.

However, this is only a normative account, for Sellars to claim that his epistemology is naturalist, he has to show how the normative account matches with a causal account. This is where Sellars’s notion of picturing comes into play: Though the meaning of a word comes from its correct usage in relation to the other words in the language, when we apply terms to empirical events, the correctness of the term is also judged, in part, by the correctness of its application to the empirical event. For instance, the term “red” is determined by its relation within the rules of language system in respect of the meanings of other terms internal to that same system. However, the correct application of the term “red” in empirical situations is not judged by the rules of that system, but according to how it matches with the uniformities of an empirical appearance of the color red. There is no rule internal to the system for guiding my usage of the term “red” according to the regularities of the appearances of red things, since I can have no forewarning about when I will next see something that is red, because this happenstance is subject to the contingencies of the causal order. Instead, uniformity of application is learned through a causal association of the appearance of a red objects, and the linguistic token “red”. As the philosopher Steven Levine says:

The causal hookup between language and world that takes place through our being inculcated into certain non-conceptual uniformities is one of picturing while the rule-regulated aspect of a language is one of signifying. While signifying is a relation between items in the intentional order, picturing is an isomorphic relation between two types of objects—’natural linguistic objects’ and natural objects—in the causal or real order.[5]

Picturing is the mapping of the linguistic token to the causal order of the real world, through its empirical regularity. The patterning of language then, follows the patterns discerned in nature, and thereby through the isomorphy of the picturing relation, translates them into normative discourse.

The American Grandfather Stereoscope, 1861.

The American Grandfather Stereoscope, 1861.

Manifest and Scientific images: The synoptic approach

The Cartesian framework divides the world between the mental and the material, which implies an epistemological distinction between the internal and the external. Strong internalism implies that beliefs are justified by some process completely internal to the thinking being. On the other hand, philosophies like behavioralism sought to explain belief, not according to an internal state, but through an entirely externalist framework. The behaviorists thought that all thoughts and actions could be explained by the appropriate external causes. The upshot of this perspective is that it is strongly naturalistic, since there are no mysterious divisions between the subject and the world to explain. Unlike the private psychology of the internalists, the behaviorist is able to examine psychology through publically available behaviors and inter-subjective states, producing scientifically replicable results. It does, however, fail to adequately account for intuitions we have regarding introspection. A straightforward reduction of the mental to the behavioral seems unable to account for processes internal to the mind[6].

Sellars opts to take a middle path. Since he wants to claim that the mental is something inside of nature, and not above and beyond it, he recognizes the functional/causal achievements of the behaviorist’s methodology, without subscribing to their elimination of the mental. In “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”[7] Sellars proposed that we begin with our common-sense perspective in terms of what he called the “manifest image”. While the manifest image is a developed accounting of our intuitive understanding of the world, including our phenomenal sense impressions, intentionality, and thoughts of the world, the “scientific image” develops a theoretical perspective according to scientific methodology of the world which is beyond our given understanding. Ultimately, it is science which provides the measure of what exists[8] – theoretical entities are not simply complicated stories about what we believe to exist, but entities for which we have good theoretical reasons to believe exist. This entails a synoptic understanding of the manifest image, for the scientific image must be able to provide good theoretical reasons for even the abstract mental entities of the manifest image.

Sellars provides a means of conceptualizing the how the abstract mental processes of thoughts have a place within the naturalistic picture of science through the science fictional story of “The Myth of Jones”[9]. Sellars poses a community of Ryleans based on the behaviorist philosophy of Gilbert Ryle. Ryle believed that our thoughts were merely subvocalizations of vocal linguistic expressions, and therefore suppressed expressions of an external behavior which had become internalized, and that there was nothing more to “thought” than what it expressed. This theory, is of course problematic, but we will not get into the details of it – merely, it should be helpful to understand what Sellars has in mind with his community of Ryleans – they are capable of having the full range of linguistic expression one would expect of any community of language speakers, yet they have no conception of thoughts or internal behaviors. Everything they say and do is expressed in terms of explicit action, until Jones comes along and theorizes “thoughts.” What Sellars wants to demonstrate is not that our ideas of thoughts really evolved from external behavior in some kind of Julian James esque bicameral mind[10], but that it is in principle plausible that the theoretical types of entities used to methodologically explain other features in the world, such as the behaviour of gases by non-manifestly observable theoretical entities, such as atoms, might also be applied to entities like thoughts. The suggestion is that thoughts play a functional role in the behavior of human beings, for which we yet lack an ontological explanation, but this explanation is, again, in principle suppliable by science. Philosophically, however, we can proceed with a functionalist account, without specifying the ontological structure which underlies it.

Consider the issue of color sensation again. Jones notices that two tribe members describe the same object with distinct color tokens under different circumstances. How to understand this discrepancy? He must theorize that the sense impression of the object is like an inner “copy” of the object in the mind of the perceiver. So as not to confuse the issue, the perceiver does not intend this state, but it is something that happens to them as a result of the conditions under which they are viewing an object. Let us assume it is the red ball we discussed above. The perceiver has a an occurrence of a “red ball state”. Furthermore, given the linguistic recognition of the user’s awareness of being in this state, they must have the appropriate distinctions between a “red ball state” and a “white ball state”, or any other similar or dissimilar state. That is to say, the sensation cannot play an explanatory or given role in itself without an accompanying concept.

For the manifest image, the color red is a kind of thing — but this raises an ontological question — is the color a real property of what is in the world or is it a property of a type of seeing the world? That is, this view seems to recapitulate the mental/physical dualism if the sensation of color, which appears to be a thing, cannot be described according to the micro-physical states of particles and basic physics, where the sensation of color (as a homogeneous entity) appears nowhere in them. By theorizing sensation to a theoretical property of the observer (the copy which is the sensation — or maybe more properly simulation) Jones begins to think that the mistaken impression which one of the tribesman reported is not actually a quality of the world, but a state of the perceiver qua perception. This transposition of the theoretical entities in question, makes an analogy between the category of the theoretical states of entities in the world, to a new category of theoretical states internal to the perceiver. We may not be consciously aware of these states as states belonging to a process within us, since the appear to transparently represent the world, but they in fact are.[11] Removing the barrier between a scientific description of color perception and an intentional (manifest) perception requires thinking of color states as something that happens adverbally to the perceiver. This is a thinking red-ly rather than red, where the perception of red is not of an object, but part of a process that occurs below our conscious awareness and involves states which emerge as a part of a dynamic navigation system.[12] The types of processes that perform these perceptual occurrences may not be logically reducible from a manifest perspective, which views entities from the format of the medium-sized dry goods of everyday experience, but are causally explicable from the perspective of science, which may provide theoretical descriptions of the emergent neurobiological system.

The decomposition of sensation in terms of a theoretical space has consequences for artistic practice. Rather than unproblematically granting sensation its role as a point of departure which provides some given access to the truth of the world by virtue of its immediacy, this shift in perspective postulates the human perceptual system as a manipulable system with its own constraints and invariances. While some of the moderns toyed with the limits and biases of the human perceptual system (the Impressionists and Op-Artists come to mind), we have thus far lacked a comprehensive map of how the various sub-systems of cognition dynamically influence navigation, and so have only largely been able to approach these systems from one of error identification, not construction. A future art may not only design for, but also explore the cognitive consequences and possibilities of the resources of perception in a systematic and rigorous fashion.

Communities and practical action

Sellars’s account is both normative and functionalist — it is normative in its account of the manifest image, but functionalist in how it attempts to naturalize mental states within the causal order.[13] This two pronged approach is necessitated by the fact that, as we have normative access to the world vis a vis the manifest image, it is methodologically necessary to proceed via normativity. Normativity allows Sellars to explain how the cognitive capacity of the manifest image supplies the means for a rational account of overcoming through its own conditions of possibility. For our linguistic concepts do not relate directly to some pre-linguistic experience of the world as it is, but must be refined in the space of reasons and according to the pattern governed relation between language and the uniformity of nature.

Normative rules for patterned governed behavior are learned from being a part of a community. Sellars argues that we are trained into the usages of pattern governed behavior by the deliberative and purposeful demonstrations of others. He distinguishes between rules of criticism (ought to bes) and rules of action (ought to do). Those training others in the use of language can distinguish between the correct usage of the language by the actions of those who are learning the language – by demonstrating the correct usage of the term “red” in the appropriate circumstances (ought to do), we can see that trainees follow ought to bes. One is therefore a language learner first, and only potentially an agent once one has mastered the appropriate level of command over the language and can reflexively apply it to their own behavior[14].

Sellars uses the verb “shall” to idiosyncratically designate the process of performing intentional actions and distinguish the non-conceptual operations of practical performance from the inferential operations of cognition, which he has designated as “oughts”. This distinction signals that the motor-processes of practical action hold a similar ontological role in relation to conceptual thought as the sub-processes of perception, except that they are temporally oriented towards future[15].

From this perspective then, practical actions may be integrated with the scientific image. However, if our view of the human is to be reconciled with the scientific image, we must consider how the categories of manifest intentionality are to be reinscribed within those of science. That is, the ethical and logical standards which the human designates must become consonant with the concepts of science[16]. For Sellars, the concept of a person as a being with the capacities for normative conception and valuation marks the human as an intrinsically social animal. Our moral and ethical considerations are only ever formed as a part of the intentions of a community and are defined by the intersubjective valuations of that community as whole. Sellars thought that while the construction of the scientific image may transpose our conception of sensation and thoughts into a new order of understanding, the framework of persons remained logically, if not materially distinct and must, rather than be subsumed by the scientific image, joined to it

… not with more [or different) ways of saying what is the case, but with the language of community and individual intentions, so that by construing the actions we intend to do and the circumstances in which we intend to do them in scientific terms, we directly relate the world as conceived by scientific theory to our purposes, and make it our world and no longer an alien appendage to the world in which we do our living.[17]

Charles Street Mall, Boston Common, by Soule, John P., 1827-1904.

Charles Street Mall, Boston Common, by Soule, John P., 1827-1904.

Whither art?

An art which derides any normative standards for the deployment of its own concepts and simply reiterates difference, is incapable of understanding the basis of its own resources (the manipulation of perception through mediation) and any substantive relation to the world (through an understanding of its specific theoretical conception). The ‘scientia mensura’ provides the broadest most reliable communal standards upon which we may base our practical actions. Nonetheless, our scientific image is incomplete, and it has been cognitive computational necessity to embrace a parallel distributed process of cognition to advance on many fronts at once. Science is therefore splintered and specialized even as it gropes towards the universal — it is a multi-perspectival field that measures different scopes and scales of the world as we now know it[18]. It is, and remains, a constructive process, but one that art may play a role in, as a unique mediating technology.

Though our sensations are biased in particular ways, and do not represent the world as it is revealed to us through the theoretical knowledge of science, they remain indispensable to our continued practice. In addition, further elaboration of the hidden processes that inform our senses may make them available for more constructive manipulation. Considering this unique — but not privileged — role sensation plays in our cognitive-navigation schema, art (as a cognitive technology), plays a noteworthy role in the development of our knowledge.

Where once genre played the role of specialization in the arts, setting the criteria for the judgement of the disciplinary techniques organized in the artwork, the successive revolutions of history have disillusioned us to the axioms that once defined these categories. Here, I think the functions of the distinct practices of the sciences — as a plurality — can provide normative constraints upon which we can deploy the technology of art. This may be an art which no longer speaks to the common fundament of human phenomenology, but one that speaks to the universal telos of the scientific project by relating to its specific content and distinct functional applications.[19]


[1] This summary of Wilfrid Sellars concept of the “given” is based on his writings from “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” and further draws upon the lucid exposition developed by Willem A. deVries and Timm Triplett in Knowledge, Mind, and the Given: Reading Wilfrid Sellars’s “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 2000. [back]

[2] Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting”. [back]

[3] Jay Rosenberg, “Sellars, Wilfrid (1912-89)”, The Blackwell Companion to Epistemology, eds. Jonathan Dancy, Ernest Sosa, and Matthias Steup, p. 727. [back]

[4] I am drawing on points from Suhail Malik’s talk at Artist’s Space, “Exit from Contemporary Art”, which diagnoses the state of recent art as hegemonic condition paralyzed by indeterminacy and complicit with capitalism.

Soon to be formalized and released as a book from Urbanomic. [back]

[5] Steven Levine, “The Place of Picturing in Sellars’ Synoptic Vision”, The Philosophic Forum, 2007. [back]

[6] deVries and Triplett, Knowledge, Mind, and the Given: Reading Wilfrid Sellars’s “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, p. xxxv-xxxvii. [back]

[7] Wilfrid Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”. [back]

[8] “[In] the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.”, Sellars, “Empricism and the Philosophy of Mind”. [back]

[9] Sellars, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind”. [back]

[10] The Bicamerial Mind is a book by Julian James that hypothesized that the myths and religion developed out of historical peoples coming to a slow awareness of their own self-consciosness, and that what were mistaken as the voices of gods or spirits were really the sub-vocalizations of people’s own inner voices. [back]

[11] “[The] esse of cubes of pink is percipi or, to use a less ambiguous term, sentiri. Of course, .. we are not perceptually aware of cubes of pink as states of ourselves, thought that is in point of fact what they are. “ Sellars, “The Carus Lectures”. For more on this point and a comparison of the Sellarsian position with Metzinger’s assertion that “there are no such things as selves”, see Ray Brassier, “The View from Nowhere”, The Journal for Politics, Gender, and Culture, Vol 8., No 2., Summer 2011. [back]

[12] Johanna Seibt, “How To Naturalize Sensory Consciousness and Intentionality Within A Process Monism with Normativity Gradient: A Reading of Sellars”, Sellars and His Legacy, ed. James O’Shea, forthcoming.. [back]

[13] Levine, “The Place of Picturing in Sellars’ Synoptic Vision”. [back]

[14] Jay Rosenberg, Wilfrid Sellars: Fusing the Images, Oxford, NY, 2007, p. 20. [back]

[15] ibid., p. 28. [back]

[16] ibid., p. 29. [back]

[17] Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”. [back]

[18] The various subfields of the sciences do not all provide continuous explanations for their areas of local application. Famously, this is apparent in the disconnect between micro and macro physics, where quantum theory does not align with relativity. In other areas, such as climate science, attempts to knit together multiple levels of reality under complexity theory typically maintain several multi-perspectival and pluralistic views. For more on the compatible pluralisms of complex systems see Jon Lawhead, “Laws, Patterns, and Integrative Pluralism in Modelling Complex Systems”. The social sciences must also deal with the issues of complexity and the requisite divisions of labor — for Durkheimian inflencted view of this see R. Keith Sawyer, Social Emergence, Societies as Complex Systems. Finally, James Ladyman, James Lamber, and Karoline Weisner suggest that computability not only constrains our ability to understand complex systems, but can be utilized as a measure for them. See “What is a Complex System?”. [back]

[19] For more on these points, see my forthcoming paper “The Wrong Domain: The Functions of Art and Politics”. [back]


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