Sellarsian Picturing in Light of Spinoza’s Intuitive Knowledge


In this article, we will attempt to understand Sellars’ puzzling notion of ‘adequate picturing’ and its relation to the Sellarsian ‘conceptual order’ through Spinoza’s intuitive knowledge. First, it will be suggested that there are important structural similarities between Sellarsian ‘adequate picturing’ and Spinoza’s intuitive knowledge which can illuminate some ‘dark’ and not so well understood features of Sellarsian picturing. However, there remain some deep differences between Sellars’ and Spinoza’s philosophy, especially with regard to their notion of ‘adequacy’ and the sense in which an idea can be said to ‘correspond’ with its object. As a consequence of those differences it turns out that, from a Sellarsian viewpoint, Spinoza’s notion of intuitive knowledge is a version of the myth of the Given. However, Sellars’ own proposed way out of the Myth has problematic consequences by Sellars’ own lights: His sharp distinction between the ‘space of reasons’ level and the level of picturing makes the Sellarsian vision of the ‘stereoscopic fusion’ of those levels virtually unintelligible. Finally, it will be argued that a non-standard interpretation of Spinoza’s intuitive knowledge -proposed in Baltas (2012)-, combined with a Sellars-inspired bifurcated understanding of Dreyfusian expert knowledge, can provide the means 1) for constructing a notion of intuitive knowledge that evades the myth of the Given, and, 2) for making full sense of the claim that the ‘space of reasons’ dimension of understanding the world can in principle be fused with the ‘picturing’ dimension and provide us with a single complex coherent experience of reality and our place in it.

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  1. 1.

    Note that the second and third kind of knowledge are clearly closer to one another than either is to knowledge of the first kind. For example, by contrast to the latter, both ‘reason’ and ‘intuitive knowledge’ are necessarily true and adequate knowledge (E II p41). However, the fact that Spinoza does not spend much time explicating the differences between those two necessarily true and adequate kinds of knowledge, has posed problems among commentators regarding the precise nature of the distinction (Wilson 1996, 132; Soyarslan 2013). According to one line of interpretation, for example, the epistemic disparity between reason and intuitive knowledge is due entirely to differences in their respective methods of cognition (knowledge of the second kind is mediated by inference while intuitive knowledge is immediate, non-inferential), which implies that everything that can be known by intuition can also be known by reason (see e.g. Yovel 1989; Nadler 2006). By contrast, many other commentators argue that the above two kinds of adequate knowledge differ not only with respect to their method, but also in terms of what they represent, i.e. their content -which, in turn, implies that there is something (the singular essences of things) that can only be accessed by intuitive knowledge, not by reason (see e.g. Curley 1973; Allison 1987; Wilson 1996; Soyarslan 2013). As is obvious, I take the latter view to be on the right track here. Following Soyarslan (2013), I take it that while reason, exactly like intuitive knowledge, does give us necessarily true and adequate knowledge of the essences of things, it does so only under a specific understanding of term ‘essence’ in which the latter refers to a common nature repeated in the modes of the same kind (as is the case e.g. with ‘human nature’). But this sense of ‘essence’ (which might be called the ‘shared’ essence of things) is directly opposed to the actual, singular essences of things, as the latter precisely cannot be the same for numerically different things. No two things have the same actual essence (Della Rocca 2000, 133–34). (For an account of how Spinoza can espouse both shared and unique essences at the same time in the Ethics see Della Rocca 2008 and Martin 2008.) Below I shall elaborate a bit more on the nature of those actual essences.

  2. 2.

    This is the well known conatus, i.e. the appetitive and desiring (yet purposeless) force that is brought into existence when the individual thing begins to exist, constitutes its activity while the thing exists, and ceases to exist when the thing is destroyed (Deleuze 1992, 230–231). Importantly, as we shall see below, the conatus is what explains the particular causal history of an individual thing, and in this sense, it can be understood as the immanent explanatory factor which accounts for the fact that this individual is singled out as such (i.e. as having an enduring spatiotemporal existence) thereby being distinguished from all other individuals.

  3. 3.

    See also (E III p11) where Spinoza claims, on the basis of his doctrine of psychophysical parallelism, that whatever increases or diminishes the mind’s power of thinking must likewise increase or diminish the body’s power of acting.

  4. 4.

    This also shows the way in which the complexity of the representational acts in question is compatible with their being unified single states. This is because in those ‘picturing events’ a single (basic representational) state performs a double function: representing an object in its environment (or itself) and representing that object as being of a certain character (Sellars 1981a, 338). And it does so by virtue of its ability to play a role in two ‘search strategies’ -one for finding an individual item, the other for finding items of particular type (Rosenberg 2007, 111).

  5. 5.

    See also Seibt 2009 for a conception of Sellarsian picturing along these lines. Specifically, according to Seibt Sellarsian picturing can be understood as an emergent, non-linear dynamic regime which ‘translates’ changes in the external and internal environment and is tied in with motor actions and affective responses that ultimately serve navigational purposes of ‘recursively self-maintaining systems’ (all the way up to human organisms).

  6. 6.

    For example, the basic singular statement ‘A’ (written in Sellars’ resolutely nominalistic language, called ‘Jumblese’, in which predicates are dispensable, their functional role being that of helping bringing it about that two (or more) names stand in a certain dyadic (or polyadic) matter-of-factual relation) could represent (picture) the object a by virtue of being ‘a’-shaped and represent a as being red and triangular by virtue of being italicized and capitalized. In this way, the complex state of affairs that we might represent in a logical calculus by an extended conjunction -‘Ra & Ta & Bb & Sb & aLb’- could be represented in a Jumblese-style representational system by a single composite sign whose mode of composition is a matter of its parts simultaneously instantiating a multiplicity of (representationally relevant) properties and relationships. In this way, it becomes possible to conceive e.g. of our own total visual field at a given time as a single composite state functioning as a ‘pictorially’ complex representation of our then and there visual environment. And insofar as they are appropriately caught up in dispositions to inferences and behavior, such sensory states could be said to function as highly complex Jumblese-style ‘sentences’ (Sellars 1967, 120; 1979, 57; Rosenberg 2007, 111–113). In this case, it would be as if nature ‘speaks’ to us through a sensory (and affective) ‘dialect’ of Jumblese (Rosenberg 2007, 112–113). Notice also, importantly, that, from this point of view, an expression that is syntactically ‘molecular’, i.e. constructed according to formation rules which make use of connective and quantifier signs, can nevertheless be semantically ‘atomic’, i.e. represent by picturing. And this enables even highly theoretical (scientific-image-informed) representational systems to contain, in principle, basic singular representations used to make ‘atomic’ statements, which picture individual basic theoretical entities or processes (Rosenberg 2007, 114).

  7. 7.

    This is because basic singular statements and the nameable items in the world pictured by the former are the relata of the picturing relation. And, according to Sellars, the picturing relation relates items that both belong in the order of nature (Sellars 1960, 1962).

  8. 8.

    I do not mean to downplay the differences between Sellars and Spinoza at this point: Although, as was mentioned above, Spinoza’s notion of essence in not Aristotelian, it can be argued that his (radically monistic and ‘particularist’) metaphysics at its core is guided by a subject-predicate sentential logic. By contrast, Sellars (equally radically monistic and ‘particularist’) ‘process’ metaphysics relies on a ‘verb-adverb’ logic (Sellars 1981b; McGilvray 1983). In what follows, this basic difference between Sellars and Spinoza should be constantly borne in mind.

  9. 9.

    The counterfactual causal properties of individuals can, respectively, be explained by their ‘shared’ essences (e.g. the capacities and abilities that distinguish humans from other kinds of animals) which are the object of knowledge of the second kind (see also Soyarslan 2013).

  10. 10.

    Note, for example, in this connection, that, for Spinoza, 1) just as an individual cannot exist (or be conceived) without its essence, the essence of the individual cannot exist (or be conceived) without the individual (E II def2), and, that 2) to grasp the essences of singular things is to grasp the latter through their causes in the proper causal order, concluding with the proximate cause (see also Garrett 2010, 106–107). Hence, the essence of an individual is unique to that individual, and since this essence can be grasped through the identification of the prior causal history of that individual, it can be argued that the essence in question (conatus) is expressed in the actual causal (natural) history of the individual thing and is what immanently explains the latter.

  11. 11.

    Notice, for example, that, for Sellars, the essential dispositional properties which function as criteria for classifying individuals to Aristotelian kinds are precisely natural laws in the non-actual, a-historical sense of the term (Sellars 1957).

  12. 12.

    According to Spinoza, the actual causal history of an individual (including human individuals) is retained in its present bodily state through certain traces that are permanently impressed on its affected body from external bodies of all kinds that act upon it (E II post 5).

  13. 13.

    I take it that even if our last move here is not strictly necessitated by the above Sellarsian notions as Sellars himself uses it, it is at least consistent with his thinking in this matter.

  14. 14.

    Notice that Sellars needs this independent understanding if he is not to confuse the ‘order of being’ (picturing) with the ‘order of signification’ (knowledge, space of reasons), since erasing this distinction would amount, by Sellars’ own lights, to accepting a version of the myth of the Given.

  15. 15.

    Recall (n. 2) that the conatus 1) expresses the tendency or striving of every individual thing to persevere in its existence (unless disturbed by external causes), 2) is what ultimately makes individual things what they are (E II p13sl4d, E II p13sca2def) and 3) explains how and why individuals come to be, interact with one another and eventually destroyed and what properties and mere accidents they have at each stage in their histories (Garrett 2010, 109–110). To those characterizations it should be added that the conatus is also to be understood as a whole-part ‘unvarying’ ‘qualitative’ relation (e.g. between an organism and its organs) the parts of which mutually adapt themselves (their natures) to one another so as to harmonize with one another in a way that ‘maintains’ and ‘empowers’ the whole -or, in a way that makes it more ‘active’, if we conceive the conatus under the attribute of thought (Brandom 2002, 129–130, 135–138; see also Spinoza 1930, Epistle 32). Notice also that, according to Spinoza, the effects of this whole-part determination -i.e. the mutual adaptation of parts which is the conatus and hence the essence of individual things- cannot be separated from the effects of membership in a more inclusive whole without prior knowledge of the essence of this larger whole (E I p34, E I p36d; Brandom 2002, 132) This, interestingly, explains, among other things, why one can attain the third kind of knowledge only if one first has knowledge of the second kind; recall that the latter is precisely the knowledge that finds expression within a coherent, maximally inferentially interconnected, system of ideas (common notions) with maximal explanatory power -capable of displaying the necessary explanatory cause-effect connections operating at each and every layer of reality (part-whole relation).

  16. 16.

    As has already been mentioned, it must be constantly borne in mind that, for Sellars, the notion of adequacy (of picturing) also has a ‘space of reasons’ dimension in the sense that it is distinguishable yet inseparable from criteria of adequacy immanently expressed in the development of alternative conceptual systems of empirical-scientific beliefs with counterpart ‘more developed’ concepts (and systems of such concepts) succeeding their predecessor concepts. This is not the place to discuss this part of Sellars’ philosophy in detail (but see Sellars 1967, 128–143). Suffice it to say that since the adequacy or inadequacy of mapping (picturing) makes sense only in relation to some purpose that the mapping ultimately is to serve, the right place to look for throwing light to the (epistemic dimension of) the concept of adequacy of picturing is the ends or aims of empirical-scientific inquiry. For Sellars, those come down to the aim of maximal explanatory accommodation of our actual and possible perceptual experience. On this account, what challenges us to develop new and better theories are perceived irregularities by which our experience anomalously departs from (what was provisionally taken to be) its law-like course. Put in those terms, we can say that the inadequacy of our current theoretical ‘map’ manifests itself in the explanatory anomalies of our conceptual system, i.e. in the failure of the perceived outcome to correspond to the theoretically predicted outcome (Rosenberg 2007, 121–125). And an ‘ideally adequate’ system -what Sellars calls ‘Peirceish’ conceptual system (ideal scientific image) and conceives as a regulative ideal of inquiry- would be the one which, by facilitating the explanatory accommodation of whatever perceptual experiences we might find ourselves having, would provide representational resources sufficient to “lead to the avoidance of all surprise and to the establishment of a habit of positive expectation that shall not be disappointed” (Peirce 1931–58, vol. 5, 197).

  17. 17.

    For example, from the fact that every idea is identical with its object, Spinoza infers that every idea agrees with its object (E II p7s).

  18. 18.

    According to Spinoza, an adequate idea is that which has all the properties or intrinsic characteristics of a true idea, insofar as it is considered in itself and without relation to an object (E II def4). (If the idea in question is considered in relation to its object and corresponds with the latter, it is true -and Spinozistic substance monism along with psychophysical parallelism guarantees that it will be true.) The explication of the Spinozistic concept of adequacy of an idea in terms of its full inferential articulation (Brandom 2002), by internally connecting the adequacy of an idea with its conceptual content, which can be known irrespective of its actual truth, explains why Spinoza insists that an adequate idea is an intrinsic feature of the idea, considered in itself without relation to an object (that makes it true).

  19. 19.

    Here it should be noted that it is not open to Spinoza to hold that the propositions or ideas expressed in the context of our everyday dealings with the world are not fully true but not completely false either. Truth, for Spinoza, cannot come in degrees (and rightly so), since if it did he would have to reject the principle of excluded middle (equivalent to the bivalence principle of classical logics). But all of Spinoza’s indirect proofs in his Ethics presuppose the validity of this very principle.

  20. 20.

    Recall that, as was mentioned in section 2, while the Sellarsian notion of adequacy of picturing is decidedly non-normative, belonging to the ‘natural order’, it is distinguishable yet inseparable from its ‘space of reasons’ dimension, i.e. from criteria of adequacy immanently expressed in the ‘logic’ of development of alternative (conceptual) systems of semantical rules governing the use of counterpart empirical-scientific concepts (see n. 16). Note also that, for Sellars, semantical rules (language-entry, language-language, language-exit moves) generate by their very nature (ceteris paribus) semantical uniformities which belong in the ‘order of nature’, thereby establishing an internal (but not direct, ‘vertical’) connection between the space of reasons or the ‘order of signification’ and the natural order where ‘picturing’ takes place (Sellars 1962, 48). In this sense, it can be said that the semantical rules of a ‘more developed’ conceptual framework (e.g. a certain scientific theory) generate semantical uniformities which, as items in the natural order, picture more adequately worldly patterns and processes. And, in these terms, the ideal, ‘Peirceish’ scientific image would be the framework whose semantical rules would generate semantical uniformities able to track, in real time, the regularities or uniformities exhibited by natural processes.

  21. 21.

    We will not be concerned here with the question of whether Baltas’ construal of intuitive knowledge in terms of (an idealized form of) expert knowledge is strictly correct as an interpretation of Spinoza on this count -although, of course, this is an interesting question in its own right. Rather, we will focus on the potential of this interpretive proposal for resolving the abovementioned specific problems in Spinoza’s and Sellars’ philosophy.

  22. 22.

    This is, in effect, Sellars’ updated and corrected version of Spinoza’s ‘psychophysical parallelism’.

  23. 23.

    Although this is a controversial interpretation of the Spinozistic notion of eternity, it makes sense of Spinoza’s claim that “we can feel and experience that we are eternal” (E V p23s) and it is in line with his view that “eternity cannot be explicated through duration of time, even if duration is conceived as without beginning or end” (E I def8ex). If we conceive of the duration in question as that which can be measured in terms of metrical time (i.e. in terms of ‘moments’ temporally succeeding one another), then the claim that full absorption in the present moment is not ‘durational’, but a form of timelessness begins to make sense, since the experience of full absorption cannot be captured in terms of metrical time. In this connection, note, interestingly, that, on his part, Sellars holds that metrical time is a feature of the ‘conceptual order’ and does not belong in the ‘natural order’ where, by contrast, time is conceived non-metrically, in terms of a ‘continuous unfolding of a process’ (Sellars 1981b).

  24. 24.

    It should be noted, however, that there is a crucial difference between Spinoza’s and Sellars’ understanding of ‘cosmic coping’. In Spinoza there is a strong suggestion of the Stoic doctrine that the sage or philosopher can cope with the universe. Yet, in Spinoza, the cosmic coping of the sage is an individual epistemic/practical project, whereas for Sellars it is essentially collective. In this respect, Spinoza continues the Aristotelian tradition that the community is crucial for political life but that the genuinely philosophical life is to be found in the individual who ‘transcends’ his community. By contrast, Sellars is part of the Hegelian (or Hegelian-Peircean) tradition in which all of our projects, epistemic as well as practical, are necessarily communal or collective.

  25. 25.

    Here one might object that it is hard to see how Sellars would endorse such a grandiose metaphysical vision of cosmic coping. In response, we could point to the fact that the ideal ‘Peirceian’ scientific image is defined in a way that at least invites such a vision of cosmic coping. Recall, for example, that the ideal scientific image, by definition, provides representational resources sufficient to lead to the avoidance of all surprise and to the establishment of a habit of positive expectation that shall not be disappointed. In this connection, it must also be stressed that 1) this kind of ‘universal expertise’ could be an in principle possibility only on condition that the limits of the body’s capabilities are not necessarily what we presently take them to be (E III p2s) (a Spinozistic thesis with which I think Sellars would be in essential agreement), and that 2) this ideal situation of ‘cosmic coping’ should be understood in dynamic and processual terms (rather than static and ‘objectual’ ones). That is, it is to be understood as a dynamic process of continuous adaptation of our habits to the ‘habits’ of the environment, rather than as an essentially static, permanent state. In evolutionary terms, the envisaged situation in this ideal case can be understood as constituting a dynamic (organism-environment) habitat to which we all collectively adapt and must continuously do so, by developing adaptive habits apt for successful coping with the contingencies of the environment, in order for this habitat to be preserved as such. Yet, there is no guarantee that this collectively sustained (organism-environment) adaptive equilibrium will be permanently self-reproduced. No adaptation is final, since the environment that the organism is adapting to may itself change -indeed must change in response to other adaptations. This picture of reality, inspired by evolutionary theory, and which Brandom -here following Peirce- has called ‘ontological mutabilism’ (Brandom 2011, 37–38), would, I think, be congenial to Sellars.

  26. 26.

    Interestingly, Sellars himself, in his early article ‘Language, Rules and Behavior’ (1949), expresses a similar view. He argues that the ultimate raison d’être of rules (or of normative discourse in general) lies in transforming the world and in shaping our habits of action in such a way that an initially false empirical generalization (e.g. ‘people always say what they believe’), which lies at the core of the formulation of the rule (‘one ought to tell the truth’) be gradually turned into the respectively true empirical generalization, or, in other words, so as to bring it about -by shaping the ‘right’ habits of action- that what the rule prescribes be concretely realized in the world in the form of embodied generalizations (Sellars 1949, §17).

  27. 27.

    The phenomenological ‘space of motivations’ is a ‘bodily’ space ‘in between’ the space of reasons and the space of causes, ‘populated’ by sentient bodies directly responsive to affordances or solicitations to act (Dreyfus 2005, 56–57; Thompson, 2007).

  28. 28.

    Occasionally, Dreyfus seems to allow the use of scientific-image descriptive and explanatory resources in his description of skillful coping (see e.g. Dreyfus 2007b). But this goes against his insistence that the phenomenological ‘space of motivations’ has its own ‘embodied logic’ which is irreducible both to the space of reasons and to the scientifically described ‘space of causes’ (Dreyfus 1991, 2013). In any case, this infusion of the phenomenological description of skillful performance with scientific-image explanatory concepts would not save Dreyfus from falling prey to what McDowell calls ‘the myth of the mind as detached’, i.e. the view that ‘space of reasons’ rationality can only be conceived as something essentially detached from and antithetical to an ‘engaged’ or ‘situated’ viewpoint proper to the description of bodily expertise (McDowell 2007). But this is just one more version of the myth of the Given.

  29. 29.

    For a detailed account of the specific ways in which ‘space-of-reasons’ rationality is involved in real-time expert skillful performance see e.g. Montero 2016. However, there are important differences between Montero’s account of cognition-in-action and the one presented here. First, unlike Montero’s account which attempts to provide a descriptive phenomenology of skillful expertise as the latter is experienced in real-time performance, our notion of (conceptual-intentional) skillful coping is primarily focused on the normative aspects and import of the latter -i.e. on whether our experience in real-time skillful performance could be accountable to norms recognized by the subject, whether or not the subject is in a position to recognize and provide reasons for his expert actions when he is ‘acting in flow’. Second, unlike Montero’s account which is explicitly focused on professional-level expert action, our notion of skillful coping aims to cover cases of everyday expertise. Be that as it may, I take it that our account of skillful coping at the conceptual-intentional level is compatible with (yet not necessarily implied by) cognition-in-action models of ‘real time’ expert skillful performance, like Montero’s own.

  30. 30.

    Particularly interesting in this regard are cases of everyday actions which most of us perform skillfully while at the same time not realizing what is it that we are really doing and why, even when we are explicitly asked to attend to our action and provide a rationale for it. Consider, for example, styles of social background comportment such as distance standing, or, more interestingly, the (unconscious, non-rational) adoption of gender roles or racial stereotypes. In those cases, our actions embody an ‘unconscious habitual logic’ which cannot be captured by categories and notions operating within the sphere of ‘space of reasons’ rationality (e.g. ‘personhood’, ‘intentional directedness’, reason-oriented action etc.). I take it that those kinds of skillful coping could, in principle, be accounted for in scientific-image evolutionary terms, i.e. as kinds of adaptive habits that have occurred in specific environments through evolution-by-selection (where the learning process needed for the transmission of these skills to others can itself be understood in terms of the evolution-by-selection of a population of habits).

  31. 31.

    In Sellars’ words “to reject the myth of the Given is to reject the idea that the categorial structure of the world -if it has a categorial structure- imposes itself on the mind as a seal imposes an image on a melted wax” (emphasis original) (Sellars, 1981b I, §45). In my view, according to Sellars, the most general lesson from the rejection of the myth of the categorial Given is that the categorial structure of the world (if it has a categorial structure) or of our perceptual and practical experience cannot be somehow directly ‘read off’ or intuited on the basis of the basic descriptive and explanatory concepts of the categorial framework we actually employ in our everyday language. Those concepts, which constitute the ‘manifest image’ of man-in-the-world, although capable of yielding ‘direct awareness’ of the world and our place in it in the context of categorial system of which they are part, are nonetheless not unchangeable essences which put us in direct conceptual contact with the essential categorial structure of the world or our means of accessing it -that is, independently of the possibility of their being recategorized -driven by the need for their explanatory accommodation within our ongoing self-correcting empirical inquiry.

  32. 32.

    Is it plausible to hold that a notion of ‘intuitive knowledge’ purged of the myth of the Given would remain strictly speaking Spinozistic? This would depend on whether or not the myth of the Given can be said to ‘infect’ the very core of Spinoza’s whole system. However, in this section, the notion of intuitive knowledge was examined from a substantial, not interpretive point of view; hence, a proper examination of the interpretive issue will have to wait for another occasion.

  33. 33.

    For example, an essential feature of the new extra-phenomenological knowledge provided by the scientific-image about the nature and structure of skillful coping is that it can be incorporated into the intentional (space of reasons) dimension of skillful coping, thereby effectively criticizing, transforming and expanding our conception -and eventually our lived experience of- the nature and structure of the ‘field of attractive and repulsive forces’ in which our perception and action is unreflectively embedded.


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Correspondence to Dionysis Christias.

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Christias, D. Sellarsian Picturing in Light of Spinoza’s Intuitive Knowledge. Philosophia 45, 1039–1062 (2017).

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  • Sellars
  • Spinoza
  • Intuitive Knowledge
  • Adequate Picturing
  • Myth of the Given
  • Expert Knowledge