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]

Levi R. Bryant: Powers, Dispositions and the Analytical Debate

Meaning depends on rules governing use. To say what an expression means is to say what criteria govern its application across all the contexts in which it can be applied.

the late George Molnar. Powers: A Study in Metaphysics

In analytical circles the very notion of disposition is controversial, much less trying to define just what it is. Instead we might ask: What do powers and dispositions do?

Continuing my reading of Levi R. Bryant’s new book Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media under the heading “Machines Are Split Between their Powers and Products” he makes the assertion that the “being of a machine is defined not by its qualities or properties, but rather by the operations of which it is capable” (40).1 First we need to return to what Levi means by “operations”. What Levi is trying to do is move the ball out of the older ontological perspective of subject/object debates. When we think of objects we automatically infer that there must be a relation to a subject and vice versa. But is this true? It may or may not be, but that’s Levi’s point, metaphysics has a history of debating this from every angle to the point that any further debate seems futile. So instead of continuing the debate Levi has changed the terms of the debate from one of subject and objects to the notion of units and operations, or machines and their input/outputs, etc. Relying on Ian Bogost’s articulation of the notion of an operation who defined “…an operation is a basic process that takes one or more inputs and performs a transformation on it”2. Bogost explicating this in a previous book:

I use the term operation very generally, covering not only this traditional understanding but also many more. Brewing tea is an operation. Steering a car to avoid a pedestrian is an operation. Falling in love is an operation. Operations can be mechanical, such as adjusting the position of an airplane flap; they can be tactical, such as sending a regiment of troops into battle; or they can be discursive, such as interviewing for a job. A material and conceptual logic always rules operations. In their general form, the two logics that interest the present study are the logic of units and the logic of systems. In the language of Heidegger, unit operations are creative, whereas system operations are static. In the language of software engineering, unit operations are procedural, whereas system operations are structured.3

For Levi its this sense of a procedural rather than a structural operation that counts for the actions of machines as they provide outputs or receive inputs. So that instead of an ontology based on a structural descriptive approach we get one based on the pragmatic performance of the operations of machines and processing entities that provide inputs and outputs according to the dictates of particular powers and dispositions.

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Ian Hacking: What are scientists doing in the world?

…whenever we find two philosophers who line up exactly opposite on a series of half a dozen points, we know that in fact they agree about almost everything.

Ian Hacking, Representing and Intervening

Ian Hacking’s statement above reflected his appraisal of the philosophers Rudolf Carnap and Karl Popper. Carnap a defender of induction and verification: a bottom-up approach to scientific truth in which one make observations then sees if these confirm or refute one’s theoretical statements; while the other, Popper, a defended  deduction and falsifiability, a top-down approach in which one formulates theoretical conjectures then deduces the consequences through a process of testing to apprehend the truth or falseness of the conjecture. That both, as Hacking relates it, shared a common basis in scientific naturalism is both a marvel and a part of history.

Both thought there were distinct differences between observation and theory. Both believed the growth of knowledge is cumulative. Popper may be on the lookout for refutations, but he thinks of science as evolutionary and as tending towards the one true theory of the universe . Both think that science has a pretty tight deductive structure. Both held that scientific terminology is or ought to be rather precise. Both believed in the unity of science.

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Idealism/Materialism: Is this dichotomy obsolete?

I’m down with using representations/maps/models to do/guide neuroscience research but as for actual “representations” in the brain, not so much…


In a recent post on the project of neuroscience philosopher William Bechtel I discovered from dmf and R. Scott Bakker that Bechtel is an Idealist, that he affirms representations as real entities or mental entities that exist in the mind. Being a materialist I’ve fought such notions for a while now, but something that Bakker said intrigued me:

This really is the mystery in his[Bechtel’s] work. Both he and Craver like to steer clear the ‘traditionally philosophical’ issues to better prosecute what they see as their superior ‘low altitude philosophy of science,’ where you begin with what scientists actually say and do and build from there rather than philosophical definitions and principles (as per the old covering law model).

So I pressed him after this very talk on this very subject, and I assure you he thinks representations are real entities, and that the ‘mental’ is more than a metaphor. He told me that anti-realism about content, if confirmed, would be ‘disastrous.’ I agreed, but asked what that had to do with science!

The last part of this statement that anti-realism about the existence of real entities in the brain not existing would be ‘disastrous’ spurred this post. Also I wonder, too, what this has to do with science?

In their book on the history of Idealism Iain Hamilton Grant defines Idealism as the “realism of the Idea”. By this Grant and his team explicate Idealism as:

The concrete universal, or the whole determined by the particular it generates and that differentiate it in turn, is the Idea exactly as Platonism conceived it: as the cause of the approximations of becomings to particular forms, and as the “setting into order of this universe” from disorder (ataxia), as organization. When idealism is therefore presented as realism concerning the Idea, this means: first, that the Idea is causal in terms of organization; second, that this is an organization that is not formal or abstract in the separable sense, but rather concretely relates part to whole as the whole; and third, therefore that such an idealism is a one-world idealism that must, accordingly take nature seriously.1

This notion of the Idea as causal in terms of organization, of the concrete relation of part/whole as whole, and the notion of naturalism as Idealism is the baseline of this philosophical perspective.

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Theories of the Subject

We can see today that the centuries-long conflicts fought within science were ostensibly futile since their arguments focused on words and concepts that actually lost their meaning over time.

Stanislaw Lem, Summa Technologie once quipped of Science

That a certain form of linguistic nihilism pervades our scientific era in which the very tools we use, words and concepts no longer hold valency or traction, while on the other hand we are exposed within philosophy to a multitude of heuristic devices as mind-tools and road maps to the Real rather than the real itself is par for the course. Yet most of our problems in the sciences and philosophy at the moment seem to revolve around the notion of ‘intentionality and the subject’ – the message in the bottle that is reality is about something rather than that something itself. Wilfred Sellars was part of that older intentionalist world and tried to incorporate it into a new conceptual framework:

Thus the conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives. A person can almost be defined as a being that has intentions. Thus the conceptual framework of persons is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it. Thus, to complete the scientific image we need to enrich it not with more ways of saying what is the case, but with the language of community and individual intentions, so that by construing the actions we intend to do and the circumstances in which we intend to do them in scientific terms, we directly relate the world as conceived by scientific theory to our purposes, and make it our world and no longer an alien appendage to the world in which we do our living. We can, of course, as matters now stand, realize this direct incorporation of the scientific image into our way of life only in imagination. But to do so is, if only in imagination, to transcend the dualism of the manifest and scientific images of man-of-the-world.2

Within this Order of the Intentional he thought we could merge the folk wisdom of the past with the scientific truths of our sciences. But we have to begin at that point, and with that question:

Is a person a being that has intentions?

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Franz Brentano: The Age of Intentionalism

One of the most important innovations is that I am no longer of the opinion that mental relation can have something other than a thing [Reales] as its object. In order to justify this new point of view, I had to explore entirely new questions, for example I had to go into the investigation of the modes of presentation.

Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint

The recursive nature of the mind goes back as far a Kant (1787) who spoke explicitly of ‘inner sense,’ and Locke (1690) defined consciousness as the ‘perception of what passes in a man’s mind.’ Brentano (controversially) interpreted Aristotle’s enigmatic and terse discussion of “seeing that one sees” in De Anima III.2 as an anticipation of his own ‘inner perception’ view.

In some ways the Age of Intentionalism is coming to an end. We’ve been skirting around this issue for some time now but have yet to meet it on its own terms. If we are moving toward a post-Intentional view of the Mind then we should be reminded once again of Wilfred Sellars admonition:

Once again, as so often in the history of philosophy, there is a danger that a position will be abandoned before the reasons for its inadequacy are fully understood, with the twin results that: (a) it will not be noticed that its successor, to all appearances a direct contrary, shares some of its mistakes; (b) the truths contained in the old position will be cast aside with its errors. The almost inevitable result of these stampedes has been the ‘swing of the pendulum’ character of philosophical thought; the partial truth of the old position reasserts itself in the long run and brings the rest of the tangle with it.

– Wilfred Sellars, Phenomenalism

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Wilfred Sellars: Knowing Our Way Around

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.

– Wilfred Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality

Analytic and Systematic Wilfred Sellars brought together a deep historical understanding of the problems facing modern philosophy. Knowing one’s way around is, to use a current distinction, a form of “knowing how” as contrasted with “knowing that.”(Kindle Locations 92-93). Sellars did not see his systematic approach to a broad spectrum of problems as static, but as part of an ongoing ever revisable program without end. For him philosophy is universal in scope, its ultimate aim practical (i.e., a for of know-how), distinct from any special discipline – although reliant on those disciplines and their presuppositions and the truths they reveal; it is reflective, both in the sense that it is a second-order knowledge that puts all our other knowledge into perspective, and in the sense that it must itself be pursued reflectively; and, finally, it is neither fully analytic nor synthetic:

… while the term ‘analysis’ was helpful in its implication that philosophy as such makes no substantive contribution to what we know, and is concerned in some way to improve the manner in which we know it, it is most misleading by its contrast to “synthesis.” (Kindle Locations 137-139).

For Sellars the modern philosopher is confronted by two conceptions, equally public, equally non-arbitrary, of man-in-the-world and he cannot shirk the attempt to see how they fall together in one stereoscopic view  (Kindle Locations 175-177). The modern philosopher is confronted not by one complex many-dimensional picture, the unity of which, such as it is, he must come to appreciate; but by two pictures of essentially the same order of complexity, each of which purports to be a complete picture of man-in-the-world, and which, after separate scrutiny, he must fuse into one vision. Let me refer to these two perspectives, respectively, as the manifest and the scientific images of man-in-the-world(Kindle Locations 161-164).

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