Sellars's critique of "the myth of the given" is a potent argument that weakens fundamentalism in epistemology. Edmund Husserl regarded "the given" as being "unconditionally/absolutely given," and it can be interpreted that we construct objects from given phenomena, which may be of a form of fundamentalism. However, Husserl also opposes fundamentalism, although the manner in which he does so is not entirely clear. Consequently, the question arises: Did Sellars effectively undermine Husserl's phenomenology?

  • Consider: emft.ro/images/pdf/soffer.pdf Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 13:10
  • I found in sep "(However, in principle not even beliefs forming part of a subject’s lifeworld are immune to revision. Hence, Husserl must not be regarded as an epistemological foundationalist; see Føllesdal 1988.)" Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 4:03

2 Answers 2


There is something to it, but things are more complicated. Sellars was not arguing against Husserl specifically, it is unlikely that he was even familiar with his phenomenology. He does draw on the continental tradition, unusually for an analytic philosopher, but mostly on Kant and Hegel. And his primary target were sense data theorists like his father, rather than Husserl. But after the early 20th century revolutions in physics and mathematics there was a remarkably parallel, considering their mutual isolation, movement in both traditions against fundamentalism in epistemology, against the "given" through which everything else is justified.

The difference between sense data and transcendental phenomena is that the latter are not received from mere sense perception. Husserl introduces also "ideal" perception, but it is a source of "the given" nonetheless. In a nutshell, one of the Sellars's chief arguments against "the given" is a dilemma: either our concepts, in which "the given" is received, are innate and absolute, which is highly implausible, or they are learned, and then "the given" is not given. Coming to grips with this second horn creates major problems for any traditional (metaphysical) realism, which already Sellars tried to tackle.

But even before Sellars's Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind Adorno wrote a paper Husserl and the Problem of Idealism, later expanded into a book Against Epistemology, where he launched a very similar critique directed at Husserl's (and Bergson's) phenomenology specifically. The following passage (in Miller's translation) is eerily reminiscent of Sellars, who also uses color red as an example:

"The accentuated “red moment” isolates the moment “color” from the present perception. If this were isolated as an autonomous unity, it would thereby fall into relations with other colors. Otherwise the color moment could not be isolated as autonomous at all, for in present perception it is simply blended into other things. It attains autonomy only by being brought together with a completely distinct dimension of experience, namely past acquaintance [Kenntnis] with color as such. Insofar as it is representative of “color,” the “red moment” is familiar to consciousness beyond sheer present experience. Its concept is presupposed, no matter how primitive and little actualized it may be; it does not come out of the hic et nunc."

The hic et nunc (here and now) is Husserl's common shorthand for phenomenological givenness. Miller's Phenomenology's negative dialectic: Adorno's critique of Husserl's epistemological foundationalism is a good commentary on Adorno's critique, and Sachs's The ideology of modernity and the Myth of the Given compares' McDowell's (post-Sellarsian) solution of the Myth of the Given dilemma to Adorno's. Soffer's Revisiting the Myth: Husserl and Sellars on the Given explores similarities and differences in their respective conceptions of givenness.

As for the defeat, it is certainly true that the early "pure" (intellectualist) and static version of Husserl's phenomenology was undermined by the critique of the "givenness". Husserl himself, in his later works, came to recognize "the problem of language", the difficulty with pouring phenomenological insights into pre-existent conceptual templates, which he optimistically waived away in Logical Investigations, and even in Ideas I, as unproblematic except in a technical sense. In response he developed a version of genetic phenomenology that attempts to trace concepts, also phenomenologically, to their primordial roots in (idealized) historical experience by bringing the entire genesis of concepts to the "givenness", a kind of experiential phenomenological reconstruction.

This was supplemented by immersing the entire phenomenology into the Lebenswelt (Lifeworld) of non-conceptual lived experience and praxis, introduced under the influence of rising at the time life philosophy and existentialism (primarily received through Husserl's star pupil, Heidegger). Husserl's last major work, Crisis of European Sciences, is written in the spirit of such "impure" genetic phenomenology, and it is this version that became dominant in the phenomenological movement after his death, from Merleau-Ponty on. In this sense, Husserl, and later phenomenologists, did abandon the traditional (intellectualist) epistemological foundationalism, see From a Continental Point of View by D’Agostini:

"Particularly, in the first decades of the century, there was the demand for defining philosophy in relation to the new ‘sciences of thought’: mathematical logic and empirical ­ ‘naturalistic’ ­ psychology... However, it was not on behalf of pure thought that the battle was won. On the contrary, the very adjective ‘pure’ soon began to fade, and the research culminated (for Heidegger since the 1923 winter courses on Faktizität) with the victory of impure existential thought. According to Heidegger, Jaspers and the heirs of neo-Kantianism, as well as the later Husserl, the sense of philosophical theory is preserved if and only if it is assumed in its impure version. Even the neo-Kantian effort at refounding the sense of a ‘pure’ philosophical logic ended up turning into a form of ‘culturalism’: from the ‘logic of experience’ Cassirer turned to the ‘philosophy of culture’."

An even more radical rethinking of classical phenomenology is found in the early works of Derrida, who builds on Adorno's critique and charts his path toward the post-structuralist deconstruction.

  • +1. Are you sure Sellars wasn't familiar with phenomenology? I've wondered, given that he would have been familair with Ryle and Chisholm, for instance, who both were familiar. Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 13:14
  • @transitionsynthesis At least, he does not allude to it in EPM, as far as I can tell, while Hegel and a list of empiricists are explicitly mentioned and analyzed. McDowell, who scrutinizes Sellars and Davidson in much detail, also does not mentions Husserl's phenomenology in connection with them.
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 0:59
  • @Conifold Thanks. To be clear, I wasn't challenging you. I don't have any special reason to think Sellars was, but I was curious since I've found it's not entirely widely known that Ryles' Concept of Mind came directly off the heels of Ryles' study of phenomenology. Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 1:45
  • @transitionsynthesis I didn't take like that, it is just my impression, and I didn't know about Ryle. I'd myself like to read Sellars's biography that explores his influences in detail, but I do not know of one. When I was reading EPM and Mind and World it surprised me that they do not even mention Husserl, which seemed natural, and then I was struck by parallels between Sellars and Adorno, with no obvious transmission link. It is possible that he picked up something in Oxford, and it would be exciting to find out for sure.
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 4:51

Just out of interest, there is an article called Autobiographical Reflections by Sellars available online wherein he details that he was introduced to Husserl when he studied under Marvin Farber. He also mentions phenomenology in his article on Phenomenalism (in like one line, where he describes it as conceptual analysis). So, he was familiar with the tradition.

Also, I'm currently writing a paper for an upcoming edition of Synthese which answers precisely the question you are asking. It takes quite a lot of nuance to get to the bottom of it, as understanding Husserl and Sellars is tricky. Stay tuned!

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