Tuesday, March 20, 2007

In the kitchen with Quine and Sellars

Professor K. is retiring from my midwestern alma mater (ESU), I've just learned. I never took a course with him, but one of my treasured and enduring school memories involves a reception in his home for two distinguished visitors in the late '70s: Willard van Orman Quine (1908-2000) and Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989), probably the most famous philosophers in America at that time. I vividly recall being in Dr. K.'s kitchen on Westmount Avenue (a personally significant address, for reasons I'll discuss in a future post) with Quine and Sellars, and thinking how delightfully improbable the memory would seem, decades later. And so it does. Both of them have had their influence, though I don't remember either of them saying anything profound in K.'s kitchen that evening. (Would a callow undergraduate have recognized profundity if it bit him, back then?)

Some say this Sellars statement was savvy: "The aim of philosophy is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term." Sellars wanted to reconcile the scientific and "manifest" images of life, and to preserve the philosophically worthy elements of everyday common sense.

Quine was considered a reductionist and revisionist sort of empiricist, saying things like: "Physical objects and the (Homeric) gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits". And: "Philosophy of science is philosophy enough". That's definitely not common sense. But is it wrong?

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