Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Sellars and Kant on Intuition (I)

In the first posting I did on Maimon and Kant on intuition I referred to a connection between Maimon's response to the status of "intuition" and the views more recently advanced by Wilfrid Sellars and John McDowell. However, that posting grew so long that I was unable to come back to the views of Sellars and McDowell. In this posting I want to explore just some of the comments made by Wilfrid Sellars in the first chapter of his seminal work Science and Metaphysics: Variations on Kantian Themes.

The first chapter of Sellars' book opens by reporting Kant's heterogeneity thesis: namely, that there are two separate and distinct branches of cognition, namely, sensibility and understanding. Sellars relates this distinction directly to that between intuition and conceptuality and that between spontaneity and receptivity. Sellars aims to show that intuition has a double-aspect, in line with considerations we have been looking at in the last postings. The first argument to this effect concerns the way in which Kant describes concepts which is generally as a term for something general and not particular. On these grounds Sellars suggests a relationship between intuition and the presentation of individuals. However, the problem with such a view of intuition that Sellars considers, is to the effect that many particulars are clearly not of a sort to be presented as "intuitive". So, to incorporate this, Sellars points out that particulars are generally presented in such a way as to require mediation in their representation by concepts.

By contrast, with intuitions, Kant does specifically refer to the notion that there is something immediate about them. This claimed immediacy is something that is far from easy to understand and Sellars does not wish, at least at first, to endorse the conception that it should be understood as a causative claim (that is, that the presence of an intuition in a representation is brought about by something affecting the cogniser). Rather, Sellars' first suggestion is to the effect that the immediate particular that gets represented in an intuition is instead something that we should understand on the model of the "demonstrative this".

Now, if to represent an individual as a "this" is to be engaged immediately in an intuitive representation and yet the notion of such a "this" requires (as Hegel suggested in the "Introduction" to his Phenomenology) a basic conceptual relation, then this conceptual relation that is at work in the presentation of the "this" is one that belongs to the specific working of intuition. On these grounds, Sellars presents his first argument for thinking of intuition as, in some sense, conceptual. (Oddly, and more in keeping with Maimon, Sellars also refers to the way that Kant can include such a notion of an infinite intellect that is intuitive as an additional consideration for viewing intuitions as, in some way, capable of being comprehended conceptually though, unlike Maimon, Sellars does not develop this suspicion.)

Further considerations for approaching intuition in a manner which complicates the initial schematic representation of Kant's view quickly follow. Firstly, the representation of space is something that surely requires reference to understanding. This point is asserted and not yet argued. Secondly, the notion of the synthesis of imagination, implies a view of representing intuitions that involves some kind of meeting between spontaneity and receptivity and is certainly not a matter of what Sellars terms "sheer receptivity".

This conception of "sheer receptivity" is one that is not easy to work out the sense of in Sellars' use of it and I suspect I will need to say much more about it in future postings. Here it seems to be understood as the form of receptivity that involves no form of spontaneity. As such it appears that it would require a sense of "intuition" that is non-conceptual. So Sellars has now cashed out his view that there is a dual aspect to intuitions with one part being conceptual and one part not. The part which is conceptual would have to have a connection to judgment as is argued for in what I have elsewhere termed the "symmetry thesis" of the Metaphysical Deduction (A78-9/B103-4).

Sellars next compares the picture he has thus developed with the classic Aristotelian notion of abstraction pointing to the view that the judgment concerning an individual seems to arise from abstraction away from the individual presentation of something. In this case, unlike in the Aristotelian, the point would be that the individual intuitive presentation was itself already a result of active work and not something passively related to by the cognition.

However, despite the difference between the pictures, objections to the Aristotelian view surely resurface in slightly emended forms here. The suggestion that the presentation of a line, for example, emerges after the sense of the particular line has been given certainly seems implausible. Such a view certainly requires, at any rate, a strong commitment to the existence of a level of perception in which the determination of the "this" is working by means of something within the perception itself.

The connection of these reflections to Kant's argument arises from the point that "intuition" in Kant is, as pointed out by Henry Allison amongst others, at least distinguishable between the product of synthesis and a passive manifold towards which cognition is directed. This distinction is again related by Sellars to the difference between Kant's talk of a manifold of representations and the representation of a manifold. Whereas the latter involves synthesis the former may well not. (The explicit attention involved in the representation of a manifold as a manifold is something else entirely.)

Sellars now returns to his notion of "sheer receptivity" which appears to mark his view of what is at work in the manifold of representations being given to us. At this point Sellars assumes that this givenness by sheer receptivity is something that is simple and this suggestion appears to emerge from the sense that we are not here dealing with synthesis. Once synthesis emerges there is an evident complex but, in the absence of it, what need is there for a complex to be spoken of? That which appears to cognition without synthesis being needed ("sheer receptivity") would be a simple and so what is represented by means of it would also be simple. This equation is somewhat quick on Sellars' part since the means of representing may be simple without what is represented necessarily being so.

The case that begins now to be considered by Sellars is that of space which he argues cannot be given to "sheer receptivity" as a complex and, in arguing this, he relates the understanding of it to the notion that it is the form of "outer sense". Now, if space is part of sheer receptivity (intuitive in a non-conceptual sense) then, in being so part, it does not really fit with outer sense as such on Sellars' view. One reason is that such a simple form as would be given by space in this case is not fit to be the form of the representings of outer sense. If there is something given in outer sense then what is so given is surely not something that a simple mode of representing could capture and, because of this, it is also incapable of being what is represented by outer sense.

To be sure this does not directly tell against the view that space is the form of outer sense if we assume that space is an intuition of a conceptual sort but then it appears that space does not belong with "sheer receptivity" at all. This is the culmination of the first movement of Sellars' first chapter. Two questions arise from it: firstly, how does Sellars go on to account for intuition and, secondly,  in what sense can the notion of "sheer receptivity" be shown to have a role in cognition? The latter question is one of some interest since it reflects a way of understanding the non-conceptual element of Kantian intuition, an element that we need some handle on.

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