According to Wilfrid Sellars any talk of a given out there should be condemned as a mere myth. Therefore, nothing from the physical world outside can limit our language - the "space of reason", and any concept gets its meaning by virtue of inferential relationships to other concepts only.

Externalism in the philosophy of language, on the other hand, holds that meaning must depend on things that are external to us.

To my understanding, both notions (the myth of the given and externalism) are widely accepted, yet, they seem to me to be contradicting: If no limitations from the outside are possible in order to fix meaning how can meaning be depended on the external world?

Am I making a mistake talking about these two approaches as belonging to the same philosophical area? Is it possible that they actually attempt to discuss about two different notions?

  • I fixed a few grammar errors (or what I took to be grammar errors). This is an interesting question, but can you clarify how you are interpreting Sellars -- the way you describe it transforms what I take to be a Kantian/Hegelian (or McDowellian to state it backwards) point into a structuralist one.
    – virmaior
    Dec 13, 2018 at 2:08
  • @virmaior, thanks for the corrections, English is not my native language.. I'm not familiar enough with the distinction you made. can you please elaborate? My understanding of Sellars is quite similar to the account given shortly in the answer by gonzo and my comment to this answer.
    – Amit Hagin
    Dec 13, 2018 at 10:59
  • @conifold: I'd pay money for you to weigh in on this question. To some extent, the answers are saying very similar things. Each focusing on "dissolving," rather than solving the putative contradiction, and reminding us of how complex terms/concepts that were quaintly [relatively] straightforward in mid 20th century have become almost irremediably complex. Harkening back to an earlier question, how would an AGI address the issue?
    – gonzo
    Dec 14, 2018 at 22:44

4 Answers 4


Simply put, "externalism" informs one that something is "[out] there," in the world. That something constrains, manifests friction. Sellar's myth of the given, on the other hand, suggests that perceptions, "facts," are “theory laden,” that is, that what is perceived to be there, how the nerve ending irritation/friction/constraint in the perceiver's mind is to be characterized, described, is informed by the prevailing theory, narrative, language or conceptual framework in existence (ie in the world, external) at the time of the impression/perception. In short: Externalism informs you that something is there, the myth of the given cautions you to be skeptical/thoughtful/cautious about what that "thing" (nerve ending irritation, for instance) is, or is to be described or characterized. Where's the contradiction?

  • Externalism, I think, says not only that there is something out there, but that the meaning of a concept is fixed also by relations to external factors. According to Sellars, any external data (nerve ending irritation, for example) can be interpreted in any possible way, depending on the language in use. Therefore, only language determines meaning. Language is a social practice. In that sense externalism can still hold (this might actually answer my question). But externalism is more ambitious than this. It claims to find meaning in physical causes as well, not only in linguistic practices.
    – Amit Hagin
    Dec 13, 2018 at 10:54
  • 1
    @AmitHagin Sellars is a scientific realist that clearly states that science is what ultimately decides about what there is. It is true that he allows for several incommensurable frameworks to be meaningful, it is questionable whether they all in the same sense are able of true propositions about the world. Externalism indeed is incompatible with Sellars, exactly because meaning and truth are semantic categories, not ontological ones.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 13, 2018 at 16:53
  • @Amit Hagin both your and Klockings comments are well taken, and I have revised the answer accordingly. In particular, to make more explicit the insight you had in your comment.
    – gonzo
    Dec 13, 2018 at 18:07
  • @gonzo, so externalism is true but only by means of the presence of external language. Putnam's twin-earth thought experiment, then, will not hold here, since the external source is material (water, or "xyz") rather than linguistic, and causal factors cannot determine meaning according to Sellars. Is that correct?
    – Amit Hagin
    Dec 13, 2018 at 18:16
  • @PhilipKlöcking, your last sentence is still not clear to me. Does Sellars discuss ontological questions rather than semantic ones? If so, Externalism is not incompatible with Sellars but deals with different subjects. Can you elaborate more?
    – Amit Hagin
    Dec 13, 2018 at 18:19

This answer complements gonzo's answer which I take to be fundamentally correct on its merits.

"externalism" is a term that has many applications, but I'm going to assume you are referring to "externalism about justifications" (SEP). So we can take externalism here to be: One knows something when one ascertains something about the world.

For obvious reasons, the opposite of externalism is internalism, which also has many forms, but is any of a set of views that make it so that one can have knowledge or can have knowledge through some internal process such as reflecting. In other words, the claim knowledge is at least possible without it being from the external world.

Moving to Sellars (SEP), the myth of the given is a claim about how human beings relate to the world. The claim is that when we relate to the world, we never do so as a blank slate and we neither can nor should want to access things-as-they. This claim is generally compatible with both externalism and internalism.

There's two assumptions that are moving in opposite directions that are creating a contradiction for you where (at least on my view of the matter) none need exist.

First, let's look at Sellars. In your formulation, Sellars' view produces the following outcome:

Therefore, nothing from the physical world outside can limit our language - the "space of reason", and any concept gets its meaning by virtue of inferential relationships to other concepts only.

On this reading, Sellars' view is unhinged from the external world and something close the structuralist and post-structuralist coherentism. I can see why one would say this, because Sellars is also a coherentist but being a coherentist does not imply that the system that coheres does not relate the external world. Instead, Sellars lacks an assumption that you and the post-structuralist coherentists share: without access to a layer more fundamental than thought, we don't have any knowledge.

Sellars is a coherentist but he rejects the above claim.

To understand what's going on, we need to look at two epistemologies.

First, the empiricists. They were externalists who think that the truest things are things out there in the world and that knowing is about trying to access the things out there by digging in and reach the datum as it is, and that doing so is truth. We could give them the slogan: "The truth is out there."

Second, we need to look at the epistemology of Kant and Hegel. The basic idea for both is that whenever we encounter the world, we bring tools with us that help us to make sense of the data. On this account, truth isn't out there, and it's impossible for us to access this bedrock layer itself (we don't have epistemic access to the thing-in-itself). So, things are still out there, but truth and facts and objects are not "out there" on this picture. To mix up vocabularies, truth-bearing statements don't exist in the physical world, they exist in human dialogue.

The myth of the given is the argument that the search for a bedrock given out there is fundamentally flawed, because there is no such layer for us. McDowell has a great article that makes this clear.

To return to your question as worded,

  1. Externalism and the myth of the given are compatible -- because externalism has to do with whether truth is about the world, and Sellars' coherentism believes truth is about the world but operates in our understanding rather than in things.
  2. Externalism and post-structuralism are incompatible -- because post-structuralism's coherentism makes it so that truth is no longer about the world.
  3. Empiricism and the myth of the given are incompatible, because empiricism adds to externalism the claim that the truth of the world is to be found in "the given" out there in the world.
  • Truth is about the world but how is it determined by the world? Let me ask a specific question: If the meaning of a proposition is depended only on other propositions, how is it possible the I mean two different thing by saying "this is gold" on earth and on twin-earth (where the "golden" material is actually XYZ). In both cases I have the same inferential web of beliefs, and hence the proposition I express gets its meaning internally, and should have the same meaning on both planets.
    – Amit Hagin
    Dec 14, 2018 at 13:48
  • There's several places where I think you're jumping ahead here. (1) determined by the world. Truth is about the world, but truth is a notion used for human beings. It does not obtain in the world itself.
    – virmaior
    Dec 14, 2018 at 22:39
  • (2) Twin world experiments are ... thought experiments. Yours primarily shows that we should think the same thing about the same thing and not be deceived by our senses, because's it's critical that XYZ and gold present the same way. How does that negate coherentist approaches?
    – virmaior
    Dec 14, 2018 at 22:42
  • (3) When you state that for Sellars, the proposition I express gets its meaning internally, this is not accurate of his view. Propositions get their meaning within the use of human reason about things in the world but as things we think. (this is conflating Sellar's species with post-structuralist coherentism).
    – virmaior
    Dec 14, 2018 at 22:45


Some brands of externalism do indeed run counter to the Myth of the Given. Some forms of the given do indeed take the form of being about meaning. But even if the myth of the given and externalism are not logically incompatible (according to DeVries/Triplett in their commentary on Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind), Sellars himself does not opt for externalism, nor internalism, but rather a middle way that adopts aspects of both externalism and internalism. It may be that he would have rejected any form of "pure" externalism and argued that there is givenness of some form involved, but we will never know.

Externalism - which kind?

Following Tim Button, I would like to call the brand of externalism you are aiming at semantic externalism:

According to semantic externalism, ‘“meanings” just ain’t in the head!’ [...] Putnam’s advocation of semantic externalism was always distinctly un-metaphysical. Indeed, semantic externalism per se is ultimately neutral with respect to the realism debate, in just the way that the Independence and Correspondence Principles are. Consequently, external realists, internal realists, and everyone in-between can accept semantic externalism. However, when pushed on just how external our semantic externalism should be, we find that we are being asked where precisely to locate ourselves on the spectrum between internal and external realism.

Source: Button, T. (2013). The Limits of Realism. Oxford University Press, p. 181.

This means that semantic externalism per se, even if it involves a natural tendency towards external realism, does not logically entail external realism as an ontological position.

Sellars' concept of meaning in Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (EPM) (and later texts)

Sellars treats semantic externalism under the name of "thermometer view" and "aboutness" in EPM Part VII: The Logic of 'Means' (§§30-31):

Sellars' discussion of the "thermometer view of meaningfulness will have repercussions for his theory of justification as well. On the thermometer view, having a particular meaning is essentially a matter of being correlated with a particular aspect of the environment - just as thermometer indications are about the temperature because they correlate with it under normal conditions. According to the thermometer view, whether there is any inner "understanding" or mental entity associated with an expression is quite irrelevant to the expression's meaning. The expression's meaning is determined solely by facts about what features of the environment its utterance is reliably correlated with.

Indeed, its meaning is what it is correlated with. For example, an occurance of the verbal expression "It is raining" is simply a sign that rain is present - much like the nonverbal behaviour of picking up an umbrella as one walks toward the door. To say a person understands the meaning of "It is raining" on this account is just to say that the person's utterances of these words can be closely correlated with the actual presence of rain in the person's environment, just as the height of a column of mercury in a thermometer can be closely correlated with the surrounding air temperature.

Source: DeVries, W. A., Sellars, W., & Triplett, T. (2000). Knowledge, Mind, and the Given: Reading Wilfrid Sellars's" Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind," Including the Complete Text of Sellars's Essay. Hackett Publishing, pp.65-66.

This kind of correspondence theory of meaning is criticised by Sellars since it would indeed mean that facts that are external to language and logic, i.e. the Space of Reasons, would somehow be "given" to persons since otherwise, they could not validate truth at all.

There are many conclusive objections to the thermometer view of meaning. For one thing, it offers no way to account for the meanings of, for example, 'or', 'and', 'not', 'griffin', or 'transfinite cardinal number'. For another, since we occasionally misspeak or misidentify things, words are not constantly correlated with their extensions. But Sellars wants to insist that it commits a more fundamental error in misconstructing the logical grammar of means statements by treating them as relational. Sellars's rejection of the thermometer view is consistent with the fact that it is important to the meaning of 'red' that it is often used in response to red things. Nonetheless, according to Sellars, the object-word correlation cannot be constitutive of the word's meaning. (DeVries/Triplett 2000, p. 66)

This does not mean that there cannot be any semantic externalism that has to rely on the given, but Sellars does not endorse externalism, but a middle way, since all his argument is about that neither (epistemological/justificational nor semantical) internalism, nor externalism, are viable positions:

A thermometer treatment of meaning leaves the door open for an externalist approach to meaning, for there need be no internal or subjective appreciation of the natural facts underlying possession of a semantic property in order for that semantic property indeed to characterize some mental state or event, a point that Sellars himself sympathizes with. And this point, in turn, leaves the door open for an externalist account of justification, for one could then also say that noninferential cognitive states might get justification simply by being lawfully correlated with the facts they are about. But, as we will see in our discussion of Part VIII, despite Sellars's sympathies with aspects of the thermometer view, he does not adopt an externalist position - or rather, he adopts a position in which externalist and internalist elements are clearly both required.

This view of meaning, Sellars believes, makes a coherent version of psychological nominalism possible. It is a version incompatible with many basic tenets of classical empiricism, for according to Sellars's psychological nominalism, to understand the meaning of a word - to have a concept at all - one must command a large chunk of a language system. Thus, concepts cannot be acquired by abstraction from occurent examples, and one cannot know what redness is simply in virtue of having sensed something red. (Ibid)

This is what Tim Buttons under use of Putnam's arguments - without being able to make the link to Sellars's position - seems to have in mind after having rejected both externalism and internalism as logically incoherent positions:

In this book, I have done my best to obliterate faith in external realism. But I have set up no new faith in its place. I have not painted a picture which rivals that of reasoning from a God’s Eye point of view. I have found no salvation in any particular philosophy of perception. I have offered no comforting conceptual connection between truth and justification. I have provided no metaphor that explains the relationship of minds, words, and world. I have merely rejected external realism, on the grounds that it is ultimately incoherent.

But I have also rejected internal realism. Although all nightmarish Cartesian sceptical scenarios can be defeated with biv-style arguments [biv = brain-in-a-vat], some less global Cartesian sceptical scenarios remain standing. And since there is no sharp point at which we can say that a sceptic is invoking magic in defence of her sceptical scenarios, I cannot say precisely where I sit between external realism and internal realism. (Button 2013, 221)

Keep your externalisms straight

As other answers note, there are many kinds of externalism. Sellars discusses justificational and semantic externalism as incoherent, both of which are about language and how its truth/meaning relates to external objects. External realism, on the other hand, is a specifically ontological position, i.e. it is mind-independent entities that ultimately exist.

External realism, even if - as we have noted - not necessarily entailed in semantic externalism, makes some sense when coming together with it: If meaning is constituted through correspondence with objects independent from our mind, it is quite natural to assume that these objects are what we commonly call "world" and that the world actually exists - otherwise, the very concept of being meaningful seems to have a hollow feel to it.

This is a line of thought Sellars is sympathetic with: Even if Sellars rejects semantic externalisms of his time (we cannot judge later frameworks), he clearly is an external realist, more specifically a scientific realist:

[I]n 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, §42)


After reviewing our discussion, reading Virmaior's answer, I was inspired provide a further answer to clarify its strengh:

The problem is that, as Virmaior notes, the Internalism/Externalism distinction has multiple applications -- for instance, moral philosophy, epistemology/epistemic justification [is what I believe reliably justified], and philosophy of mind/mental states [what is the content of a mental state, belief, which is often considered to be the “meaning” of that belief/mental state.

While your question purports to be focused on the “philosophy of language,” I take it to be a mind/mental state question: What is the content of what I have in mind [in the form of the intentional mental state belief], or, to use a much deservedly maligned term, what do I “mean” when I articulate, say that steel is an alloy. What do I “mean” by such an assertion (Putnam argues for externalism in his twin earth scenario). Externalism tells us that what we really have in mind [what I mean] when I believe that such and such is water is not entirely up to me, it also depends upon external things like the nature/chemical composition of water (and the way we use words).

On the other hand, Virmaior’s answer is about the internal external distinction in the realm of epistemology, of epistemic justification. Here, internalism holds that the justification of a person’s belief depends entirely upon internal states, such as perception or thought process, other beliefs, that soundly/validly justifies the belief (coherentism), rather than, say, wishful thinking. A justified belief is one for which one has good reasons. If a believer’s belief is justified, a believer is aware that it is justified. Whereas epistemological externalism is the view that factors other than internal states (say, other beliefs) of the believer are relevant to whether the belief is justified. For instance, reliablism holds that knowledge turns on whether the belief in question is produced by a reliable process or methodology. The causal theory of knowledge holds that a justified true belief that x is one that is caused by the state of affairs x. An individual may have a belief that is justified despite having no good reasons for adopting it -- in that the condition’s necessary for a belief to be justified can be fulfilled even if the believer is unaware of the fact.

While I am insufficiently familiar with Sellarian philosophy to speak authoritively, your query mentions that it follows from Sellar’s “myth of the given” that “nothing from the physical world outside can limit our language - the "space of reason", and any concept gets its meaning by virtue of inferential relationships to other concepts only.” It seems to me that what follows from Sellar’s myth is that only a concept (belief) can serve as epistemic justification of another concept (belief). Which arguably has little to do with what a concept “means,” or what is the content of a particular intentional mental state (belief).

The problem you discern can be seen through the lens of the later Wittgenstein’s , language games. “Meaning” , or the “content" [of mental states, such as beliefs], belongs in the language game of mental states (philosophy of mind), whereas justification belongs in the game of epistemology/epistemic justification. The notion of semantics got into trouble (giving birth to the later Wittgenstein), precisely by confounding the distinctions between the two. As, presumably, did Sellars.

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