I have a problem understanding Sellar's opinion about Qualia. On the one hand he denies the existence of the given in "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" but on the other hand he speaks about the given while describing a pink ice cube in Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man, and takes the existence of the feeling of color as a reason for the conflict between the scientific image and the manifest image of man.

According to this - Does Sellars believe that Qualia exist or they are only a myth for him?

  • Hello. What is PSIM? Apr 26, 2015 at 23:02
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    Are you sure you want to say he denies the existence of the given? I take the point to be denying the special status accorded the given as unmediated truth.
    – virmaior
    Apr 27, 2015 at 5:15
  • So are the two following points corrects? : 1. The given exists but we don't notice or conceptualize it before we learn the language. 2. the images still clash, concerning the given, because the ultimate homogeneity of the color (as brought up in "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man"), cannot be described in discrete scientific term.
    – Amit Hagin
    Apr 27, 2015 at 6:16
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    @AmitHagin "the given" is a epistemic rather than metaphysical notion. It's the idea there's something out there we can know directly without the intervention of our own knowing apparatus. That seems wholly compatible with believing we bring a concept of man to our perception of man and that we segment colors using our apparatus differently than a scientific instrument would.
    – virmaior
    Apr 27, 2015 at 12:09
  • But the feeling of colors occurs even before we use our apparatus of knowledge. Babies see pink before they know a word, but they can't use it as knowledge - it's not a fact for them. As it seems to me, I can rewrite my question like that: Is the given only a privileged vocabulary that relates directly to perceptions of the world or it is the perception itself - what the baby feels before knowing something.
    – Amit Hagin
    Apr 27, 2015 at 15:56

1 Answer 1


I think it will be well to distinguish between (a) qualitative experience, (b) qualia, and (c) the given.

I doubt that anyone denies qualitative experience. Sellars, anyway, did not. It seems to be a pre- philosophical fact, not a matter of controversy. In “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man” (PSIM) Sellars contrasts the scientific world image with the "manifest" world image, which includes qualitative experience. Sellars's emphasis in that work is to reconcile the two "world images", to give a place to each, within a single "synoptic" world image.

'Qualia' is a metaphysical term. Qualitative experience is explained by positing non- physical entities: the qualia. Sellars does not acknowledge qualia. In both Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (EPM) and PSIM Sellars puts it by arguing that only science, not sense experience, is sovereign to decide what exists and what does not exist. And since present science is materialistic, there is no place for non- material entities like qualia. Here is how Sellars formulates that principle in EPM, paraphrasing Protagoras:

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. (EPM §41)

'The given' is an epistemological term. It refers to a perceptual judgement which is certain, indubitable, by its very act. Sellars argues at length against the given in EPM. He suggests there that the very idea of the given is incoherent, because every judgement is a choice between alternatives. An indubitable judgement is therefore a contradiction in terms. So, while Sellars does not deny qualitative experience, he does deny that the basic perceptual judgments, the bases of empirical knowledge, are judgments about "given" qualitative experience. In fact, because of his principle that scientific theory, not perception, determines existence, Sellars denies the very fact of perceptual judgments, because judgments imply ontological commitments. He posits instead perceptual reports. Perceptual reports, a la Sellars, are like judgments in being fallible, yet are unlike judgments in not carrying with them ontological commitments.

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    Thanks a lot for the detailed answer. But I still can't understand how Sellars explains qualitative experiences. On the one hand he cannot define them in scientific terms (PSIM, pink ice cube), but on the other hand he claims that science decides what exists. When we notice pink - can we, according to Sellars, explain the whole process scientifically? How then? How can we not make a judgement about the given experience? It's a fact that we sense it, and a fact that we can speak about it - so in between raw feels must become knowledge, somehow.
    – Amit Hagin
    Apr 28, 2015 at 7:39
  • @AmitHagin That's a good question. I agree that the mystery of qualitative experience remains. Sellars has solved (at best) only a certain aspect of it. Apr 28, 2015 at 10:46
  • I would like to know how this fits with his defence of "sense impressions" (which are non-conceptual) as the necessary link between the physical/scientific and the conceptual/manifest in Science and Metaphysics, c.f. p. 16-17, §§41-42 and already prevalent (although not explicit) in EPM? My impression is that although he rejects a certain ontological status of qualia, he surely defends the necessity of their epistemological status, considering any possible reconciliation of the scientific and the manifest?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Aug 29, 2018 at 11:10
  • @PhilipKlöcking I can't answer at present. Perhaps you'll want to ask this as a separate question. Aug 29, 2018 at 17:24

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