‘Conceptual Thinking and Nonconceptual Content: A Sellarsian Divide’

In James R. O'Shea & Eric M. Rubenstein (eds.), Self, Language, and World: Problems from Kant, Sellars, and Rosenberg. Ridgeview Publishing Co. (2010)
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Central to Sellars’ account of human cognition was a clear distinction, expressed in varying terminology in his different works, “between conceptual and nonconceptual representations.” Those who have come to be known as ‘left-wing Sellarsians’, such as Richard Rorty, Robert Brandom, and John McDowell, have tended to reject Sellars’ appeals to nonconceptual sensory representations. So-called ‘right-wing Sellarsians’ such as Ruth Millikan and Jay Rosenberg, on the other hand, have embraced and developed aspects of Sellars’ account, in particular the central underlying idea that human perceptual cognition involves a certain naturalistic ‘mapping’ correspondence or structural ‘picturing’ isomorphism between internal mental representations and the layout and behavior of objects in the surrounding environment. Sellars, despite his defenses of nonconceptual representational content throughout his career, has with no small irony come to be cited as one of the “founding fathers of conceptualism.” While recognizing the strong conceptualist elements in Sellars’ Kantian account of perceptual cognition, I argue that a central core of Sellars’ account of nonconceptual sensory contents does not by itself fall afoul of the philosophical worries raised by the left-leaning Sellarsians, and that in fact it has significant merits in its own right.

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James O'Shea
University College Dublin


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