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I am a Korean student who majors in philosophy.

Recently, I read Wilfrid Sellars' famous article "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man," but I'm faced with a lot of complicated sentences, which are hard to understand the exact meaning and grammatical structure. One of them is as follows:

"By empirical refinement, I mean the sort of refinement which operates within the broad framework of the image and which, by approaching the world in terms of something like the canons of inductive inference defined by John Stuart Mill, supplemented by canons of statistical inference, adds to and subtracts from the contents of the world as experienced in terms of this framework and from the correlations which are believed to obtain between them."

As a non-native English speaker, it is hard for me to grasp the exact grammatical structure of the sentence after "and which, by ..."

I think that there are two possibilities that I can understand the meaning of the sentence, but both of them are not satisfactory.

The first possibility is as follows:

"and which, (by approaching the world in terms of something like the canons of inductive inference defined by John Stuart Mill, supplemented by canons of statistical inference,) adds to and subtracts from the contents of the world as experienced (1) in terms of this framework and (2) from the correlations which are believed to obtain between them."

In this case, "in terms of" and "from" modify the antecedent verb, "experienced."

So, what is called "refinement" by Sellars adds to or subtracts from the contents of the world, and the world is something experienced in terms of the framework, so-called "the manifest image," and it is also experienced from a sort of correlation.

However, in this case, I cannot understand what "them" at the end of the sentence refers to.

The second possibility, I think, is as follows:

"and which, (by approaching the world in terms of something like the canons of inductive inference defined by John Stuart Mill, supplemented by canons of statistical inference,) adds to and subtracts from (1) the contents of the world as experienced in terms of this framework and from (2) the correlations which are believed to obtain between them."

In this case, "them" at the end of the sentence seems to refer to "contents of the world."

So the meaning of the sentence is, I think, that the "refinement" adds to and subtracts from not only "the contents of the world" but also "the correlations which are believed to obtain between them."

However, it is really strange that the prepositions "(adds) to and (subtracts) from" can correspond to the "from" behind of the "and."

Oh, you native English speakers!

Have pity on me, non-native but forced to read philosophical articles in English!

Tell me, what is the right interpretation, and how to analyze the structure of the sentence, if the two possibilities are both wrong.

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    Maybe useful: Wilfird Sellars: PSIM Mar 1 at 14:27
  • The second seems right:"and which, (by approaching the world in terms of something like the canons of inductive inference defined by John Stuart Mill, supplemented by canons of statistical inference,) adds to and subtracts from the contents of the world (as experienced in terms of this framework) and from the correlations which are believed to obtain between them." He didn't want to repeat "adds to and subtracts from" and so left just "from" for the second part, but "adds to" presumably applies to both parts as well.
    – Conifold
    Mar 1 at 18:14
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You haven't exactly chosen the easiest of all philosophers to read. But let me paraphrase and give context even though I am not a native speaker:

Two images

The book is about how there are two images of the world:

  1. The manifest image: This is how we perceive the world to be in our everyday experience. It can involve superstitions or erroneous belief.

  2. The scientific image: This is what the empirical method with its inductive inferences (the inference from a number of observations to a general rule) and statistical inferences (the inference from a distribution in a given sample to the distribution in all objects in the reference group) tells us how the world is.

Understanding the quote

The main thrust of the quote is that the scientific image gradually alters the manifest image. When science showed that lightning and thunder are electrical currencies and their manifestations, humans stopped seeing them as signs of angry gods. Like in that simple example, science does alter how we experience things all the time, it "adds" things to our experience of the world (electromagnetic waves, for example) and "subtracts" things we used to think of as part of the world (like spirits of nature, the ghosts of our ancestors, "elements" of fire, earth, air, and water making up the world, chi, etc.).

Thus, your second interpretation is spot-on: Sellars tells us how the framework of the manifest image, which constitutes how we experience the world, contains "contents of the world" and "the correlations which are believed to obtain between them" - and that the scientific image, which is formed by said methods of inference, does contain its own contents and correlations so that a revision of the scientific image leads to a revision of (adds to and subtracts from) the manifest image.

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  • I really thank you for the kind and clear answer! I agree with you that I should interpret the sentence as the second way if I read it on the basis of Sellars' context. However, I still wonder whether it is allowed in English grammar to arrange two prepositions ("to" and "for") and one preposition ("for") in parallel by using the conjunction "and." Is it natural to use prepositions as Sellars does? Mar 1 at 16:32
  • @YouseokYoun Well, the problem is that native speakers use to be bad at grammar. Seriously, I had this discussion with British people. They don't do much grammar at school (we do a lot of German and English grammar in German schools, btw.). I bet it is the same for the US. In the bit at hand, it would have been better to either drop the second 'from' and do not repeat the prepositions at all, or to repeat the whole "add to and subtract from" phrase. I would have preferred the former.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 1 at 16:53
  • Sellers himself is not immune from this - he wrote “the sort of refinement which operates” but probably intended “the sort of refinement that operates”. The difference being that ‘which’ is used only to add extra information about a subject, while ‘that’ is used to identify the subject.
    – Frog
    Jul 29 at 20:23

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