Ray Brassier: The Manifest and Scientific Images of Wilfred Sellars

Senselessness and purposelessness are not merely privative; they represent a gain in intelligibility.

– Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound – Enlightenment and Extinction

Ray Brassier’s philosophical work  Nihil Unbound – Enlightenment and Extinction has been for the past few years a sort of touchstone text, a repository of specific problems and issues to be resolved, looked at, returned to, thought about, explored, digested, and finally adapted to my ongoing philosophical project. Those that have not read his work are missing out on one of the great mind’s of our time. His clarity of thought, ability to hone in on the specifics of a particular notion, idea, or concept is without peer in the scale of his undertakings.

In this specific work he takes on both Analytical and Continental traditions beginning with the work of Wilfred Sellers whose ‘Myth of Jones’ would crystallize and articulate for several generations the key to the “rational infrastructure of human thought” that binds us all as humans in a “community of rational agents”.1 Now these notions of rational agents and rational infrastructure are connected to Sellar’s two “images” of man, the manifest and scientific images. One must not see these as opposing images as much as the need to align them, as Brassier suggests, stereoscopically. Both images represent specific breakthroughs for humans in the long course of their evolutionary heritage, sophisticated theoretical achievements without which we would not be the types of beings we are now. The distinctive feature of the manifest image is that it was the first breakthrough or originary framework in which humans first encountered there new found conceptual abilities. When did we acquire these conceptual tools?


Darwin himself would suggest that the evolution of intelligence in man was due to several factors. Early humans would develop the ability to adapt their habits to new conditions of life. As he stated it:

He invents weapons, tools and various stratagems, by which he procures food and defends himself. When he migrates into a colder climate he uses clothes, builds sheds, and makes fires; and, by the aid of fire, cooks food otherwise indigestible. He aids his fellow-men in many ways, and anticipates future events . . . from the remotest times successful tribes have supplanted other tribes.2


Others have suggested that besides those mentioned by Darwin there were also a combination of selection pressures – climatic, ecological (e.g., hunting), and social – that influenced the evolution of the human brain and mind and the evolution of what is now called general fluid intelligence (ibid., KL 695) As tells us that with the help new neural imaging technologies the  “more than 100 years of empirical research – on general intelligence has isolated those features of self-centered mental models – the conscious-psychological and cognitive components of the motivation to control  – that are not strongly influenced by content and that enable explicit representations of symbolic information in working memory and an attention-dependent ability to manipulate this information in the service of strategic problem solving. (KL 1268-1272) This ability to anticipate, to so to speak time-travel mentally, to simulate past, present, and future events that allowed better coordination of activities in social, hunting, gathering, etc. was key. Strategy and anticipation, both keys to problem solving. And it was these specific environmental pressures that challenged these early humans to adapt and survive, to surmount problems in climate, ecological, and social realms that other animals did not need to encounter in the same way.

As Brassier states it for Sellar’s the thing humans acquired according to the myth of Jones was intentionality, the ability to focus and direct the mind toward specific goals and purposes: what he would term the “propositional attitude of ascription” (Brassier, 5). He remarks that the primary component of the manifest image “is the notion of persons as loci of intentional agency (Brassier, 6). Of course there is another school of thought that questions whether intentional states do indeed exist, whether such things as powers and dispositions are real entities (ontological) or just functional temporary processes (epistemological functions) within the ongoing decision making layers of the brain itself as connected to its different interactions with various forms of memory. Below you can see a chart of aspects of the memory:

Types of Human Memory: Diagram by Luke Mastin

As we know the brain is a hugely complex organ, with an estimated 100 billion neurons passing signals to each other via as many as 1,000 trillion synaptic connections. It continuously receives and analyzes sensory information, responding by controlling all bodily actions and functions. It is also the centre of higher-order thinking, learning and memory, and gives us the power to think, plan, speak, imagine, dream, reason and experience emotions.3

Because of humans development of differing forms of memory, and adapting both strategic and problem solving capabilities that the manifest image came about. This is why for Sellear’s the manifest image itself should be considered a type of the ‘scientific image’ – and, as Brassier remarks, it is “correlational” as compared to “postulational” in respect to our current framework of the scientific image. Ultimately what Sellars hoped to accomplish was not doing away with the manifest image, but rather a “properly stereoscopic integration of the manifest and scientific images such that the language of rational intention would come to enrich scientific theory so as to allow the latter to be directly wedded to human purposes (Brassier, 6).

The big problem here is if we truly have intentions at all. As Bruce Hood in his recent The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity states it:

My biases, my memories, my perceptions, and my thoughts are the interacting patterns of excitation and inhibition in my brain, and when the checks and balances are finally done, the resulting sums of all of these complex interactions are the decisions and the choices that I make. We are not aware of these influences because they are unconscious and so we feel that the decision has been arrived at independently—a problem that was recognized by the philosopher Spinoza when he wrote, “Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined.”4

What many neuroscientists are discovering is that most of us think we have intentions (“beliefs”, “emotions”, “desires”, etc.) because we are unaware of and blind to the actual layers of the brain that make and apply all these various decisions. Because of our blindness we invent subtle fictions and ascribe to these fictions an internal mapping as if they actually existed as real entities either ontologically or epistemologically. But as you will see below this is an illusion of our supposed self-reflexive first-person-perspective rather than an truth.

In the 1980s, Californian physiologist Benjamin Libet was working on the neural impulses that generate movements and motor acts. Prior to most voluntary motor acts, such as pushing a button with a finger, a spike of neural activity occurs in the brain’s motor cortex region that is responsible for producing the eventual movement of the finger. This is known as the readiness potential, and it is the forerunner to the cascade of brain activation that actually makes the finger move. Of course, in making a decision, we also experience a conscious intention or free will to initiate the act of pushing the button about a fifth of a second before we actually begin to press the button. But here’s the spooky thing. Libet demonstrated that there was a mismatch between when the readiness potential began and the point when the individual experienced the conscious intention to push the button.(Hood, pp. 127-128)

What they discovered was that our conscious intentions come after the fact, that the deeper layers of the brain that actually make all these decisions and processes are folded behind the invisible curtain that we with our self-reflexive first-person-singular fiction of self will never have direct access too. When certain philosophers speak of the notion of a post-intentional philosophy this is where their starting from. The idea that we have intentions or that we make our own decisions is a lot more complex that philosophy up to now has had to deal with, and some say they should not even try; that it is time to leave off from philosophy and let science do what it does best. I’ll not argue that point. For we still have the issues of the everyday use of the manifest image, and even Sellars knew that such a stereoscopic integration of manifest and scientific was hypothetical, not yet realized. But one thing for sure we will need to be attentive to what is happening in the sciences and be more open to integrate their findings in our contemporary forms of philosophy, otherwise we’ll be spinning tales for the babbling crowd than for the serious student of philosophy or science.

In my next post I’ll cover section 1.2 of Ray’s work The instrumentalization of the scientific image.

1. Ray Brassier. Nihil Unbound – Enlightenment and Extinction. (Palgrave McMillan, 207)
2.  (2012-03-22). Foundations in Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience (Kindle Locations 690-693). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
3. see Memory and Brain: http://www.human-memory.net/brain.html. Also Memory [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/memory/#MemCogSci
4. Hood, Bruce (2012-04-25). The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (p. 122). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. [also – you might be interested in R. Scott Bakker’s conceptions of BBT of Blind Brain Theory: here]

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