The Manifest and the Scientific

1. Does Philosophy make Progress?

In the recent ‘Chronicle of Higher Education’ (14 April 2014) Rebecca Goldstein plugs her latest book through the article ‘How Philosophy Makes Progess’.

In doing so, she draws upon Wilfrid Sellars’s concept of the ‘manifest image’.

Goldstein first presents two viewpoints of philosophy, both suffering from lack of progress:

Philosophy’s lack of progress over the past 2,500 years is accepted as a truism, trumpeted not only by naysayers but even by some of its most enthusiastic yea-sayers. But the truism isn’t true. Both camps mistake the nature of philosophy and so are blind to its progress. Let’s consider the yea-sayers first.

The structure of universities demands that a field be designated as a science, a social science, or one of the humanities. This structure has ill served philosophy. It’s not a science, and it’s not a social science. Therefore it belongs, by default, to the humanities, … And what are the humanities? They are [about] … “the irreducible reality of inwardness” and are, in fact, “the study of the many expressions of that inwardness.”  …  Some philosophers might agree to the aestheticizing of the field (… Richard Rorty?), but many more would not.

When it comes to philosophy’s progress, the inward-looking view … decrees that there is none: “The history of science is a history of errors corrected and discarded. But the vexations of philosophy and the obsessions of literature are not retired in this way.”

Now for the naysayers. … nowadays the most vociferous of the naysayers are secular and scientific. While the yea-sayer sees philosophy as a species of literature, the naysayer sees philosophy as failed science. He urges us to look at the history of science and its triumphant expansions, which is simultaneously the history of the embarrassing shrinkage of philosophy. … Questions of physics, cosmology, biology, psychology, cognitive and affective neuroscience, linguistics, mathematical logic: Philosophy once claimed them all. But as the methodologies of those other disciplines progressed … questions over which philosophy had futilely sputtered and speculated were converted into testable hypotheses, and philosophy was rendered forevermore irrelevant.

She then presents a third way, drawing upon the synoptic philosophy of Wilfrid Sellars…

… The naysayer’s view of philosophy as failed or immature science denies it the possibility of progress, as does the yea-sayer’s view of philosophy as a species of literature. But neither conforms to what philosophy is really about, which is to render our human points of view ever more coherent. It’s in terms of our increased coherence that the measure of progress has to be taken, not in terms suitable for evaluating science or literature. We lead conceptually compartmentalized lives, our points of view balkanized so that we can live happily with our internal tensions and contradictions, … It’s the job of philosophy to undermine that happiness

One troubled conceptual border to which philosophers attend concerns science itself. In his essay “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”, the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars agrees that the proper agenda of philosophy lies in mediating among simultaneously held points of view with the aim of integrating them into a coherent whole. But for Sellars the action is focused on the border between what he calls the “scientific image” of us-in-the-world and the “manifest image” of us-in-the-world. (His actual language is “man-in-the-world.”)

“For the philosopher is confronted not by one complex many-dimensional picture, … 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.” The “manifest image” Sellars explained as the conceptual framework “in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world. …

…. We can’t give up on either of the two images of us-in-the-world without destroying the other. They are codependent even when there are issues between them—which is beginning to make philosophy sound like a couples therapist.

…And there is the scientific image of us-in-the-world elaborated by neuroscience, one in which I am a brain consisting of a hundred-billion neurons, connected by a hundred-trillion synapses, and this brain itself hasn’t a clue as to what’s going on among those synapses. How can this be reconciled with the manifest image of me as me, pursuing my life, remembering it and planning for it, singularly committed to its persistence and flourishing? How can the neuron-level view be reconciled with the manifest truth that at some level our brains undeniably think about things? Where’s the aboutness to be found among those neurons and synapses? And is the scientific image even coherent if we can’t assert that we think about that scientific image, and that in thinking about it, we are thinking about the world?

Once again we come up against the codependence of the scientific and manifest images, even as they sit on the couch with arms folded self-protectively across their chests and resentful ungivingness in their glares, while philosophy, charged with bringing them together, recognizes their mutual needs. As science progresses, philosophy’s work of increasing our overall coherence progresses in tandem. In fact, the scientific image couldn’t even coherently claim for itself its expansionist triumphs without helping itself to philosophers’ work—to explicate what is essential to scientific methodology and why it is uniquely effective, to argue why it offers an image of reality and not just one more social construction.

Sellars is right that philosophy is best viewed neither as inward-expressing literature (in which case give me poetry over philosophy) nor as failed science (in which case give me physics over philosophy), but as the systematic attempt to increase our overall coherence.


2. Goldstein’s Philosophical Progress

Goldstein then deviates from Sellars…

Still, his conception is too narrow. Philosophy does indeed always involve our manifest image, but it needn’t always involve the scientific image. In particular, some of philosophy’s most significant progress has proceeded independently of science, and here the work of increasing our moral coherence is particularly important. ….

As living organisms we are primed, unthinkingly, to do all we can to thrive; to be more precise, we are primed, unthinkingly, to do all we can to increase the probability that copies of our genes will survive. But our manifest image of us-in-the-world compels us to give reasons for our actions, ….


The reasons we are prepared to give to ourselves and one another in accounting for our behavior make no mention of the machinations of the selfish gene. …. On the contrary, coherence work of the moral kind pushes in the direction of less influence by those unthinking processes and the presumptions they spawn—all variations on “me and my kind are worth more than you and your kind.”

She continues with her argument…

Gregarious creatures that we are, our framework of making ourselves coherent to ourselves commits us to making ourselves coherent to others. Having reasons means being prepared to share them—though not necessarily with everyone. The progress in our moral reasoning has worked to widen both the kinds of reasons we offer and the group to whom we offer them. There can’t be a widening of the reasons we give in justifying our actions without a corresponding widening of the audience to which we’re prepared to give our reasons. …. Every increase in our moral coherence—recognizing the rights of the enslaved, the colonialized, the impoverished, the imprisoned, women, children, LGBTs, the handicapped … is simultaneously an expansion of those to whom we are prepared to offer reasons accounting for our behavior. The reasons by which we make our behavior coherent to ourselves changes together with our view of who has reasons coming to them.

And this is progress, progress in increasing our coherence, which is philosophy’s special domain. In the case of manumission, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, criminals’ rights, animal rights, the abolition of cruel and unusual punishment, the conduct of war—in fact, almost every progressive movement one can name—it was reasoned argument that first laid out the incoherence…

She finishes…

… No wonder progress, though real, is laborious. But given enough time and talent—and maybe even a bit of funding—our descendants will look back at us and wonder why we stopped short of the greater coherence they will have achieved.


 3. Sellars’s ‘Manifest Image’

To respond to Goldstein’s position, I will first look to Sellars (“Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”) directly for more substance about the ‘manifest image’ and comment on that.

For Sellars, humans uniquely among creatures have an image of themselves and their place in the world. This is what he calls the ‘manifest image of man-in-the-world’ (as opposed to the ‘scientific image of man-in-the-world’).

“There is a profound truth in this conception of a radical difference in level between man and his precursors.”

The manifest and scientific images seem to form a duality –a duality more like the wave/particle duality than the Cartesian mind/matter duality. The two images provide different ways of looking at mans’ place in the world.

“The basic objects of a framework need not be things in the restricted sense of perceptible physical objects. … ‘what are the basic objects of the manifest image?’ … the primary objects of the manifest image are persons.”

The ‘manifest image’ is a ‘conceptual framework’ (this itself is acknowledged by Sellars as a scientific concept) which deals with ‘persons’ – conceptually rather than physically. Sellars is in no way saying that there is something more than the physical (despite many others doing so):

“I shall, therefore, provisionally assume that although behaviouristics and neurophysiology remain distinctive sciences, the correlational content of behaviouristics points to a structure of postulated processes and principles which telescope together with those of neurophysiological theory, with all the consequences which this entails. On this assumption, if we trace out these consequences, the scientific image of man turns out to be that of a complex physical system.”

“…the essential dualism in the manifest image is not that between mind and body as substances, but between two radically different ways in which the human individual is related to the world. Yet it must be admitted that most of the philosophical theories which are dominated by the manifest image are dualistic in the substantive sense.”

This manifest image is derived from an ‘original image’ of man-in-the-world in which we (pre-) historically saw everything as persons – an animist worldview. Gradually, we have come to see objects other than ourselves as not being ‘persons’:

“… a framework in which all the ‘objects’ are persons. From this point of view the refinement of the ‘original’ image into the manifest image, is the gradual depersonalization’ of objects other than persons. That something like this has occurred with the advance of civilization is a familiar fact. Even persons, it is said (mistakenly, I believe), are being ‘depersonalized’ by the advance of the scientific point of view.”

I would assert that the scientific view is certainly about ‘depersonalizing’ humans. Part of science’s effort to provide a coherent and universal understanding of the world is to look inside the ‘black boxes’ of our bodies and brains to work out how we work. Themes emerging from this blog site are about:

  • A soft boundary between ‘man’ and ‘the world’, and
  • A purely physicalist account of ‘mind’ (i.e. the brain).

In contrast, the ‘manifest image’ framework is about creating a view of the world in which:

  • There is a hard distinction between ‘man’ and ‘the world’ – one that is outside of science – with a firm notion of ‘persons’ (or, as firm as a concept can be).
  • Cartesian dualism often plays a role (though not in Sellars’s case).

The two images differ in that there is:

“ an irreducible discontinuity in the manifest image, but … a reducible difference in the scientific image.”

The scientific image can ‘reduce’ man to ‘just a bunch of neurons’ but the manifest image, we are nothing less than persons.

The ‘manifest image’ provides:

  • A framework for consciousness: into which our sensation fits.
  • A moral framework: a vision of persons as responsible agents (with consequent free will).

Without such a moral framework, there is danger:

“what I called the ‘manifest’ image … any sense in which this image, in so far as it pertains to man, is a ‘false’ image this falsity threatens man himself”

If we only having a scientific framework, it might lead to a morality in which individuals (‘persons’) are no longer the prime unit – a sinister morality in which  ‘responsible agents’ could be somewhat other than a person:

  • Super-human: such as a nation state or other such ‘higher cause’.
  • Sub-human: such as just my left cerebral hemisphere, perhaps in cahoots with my mobile phone, or
  • Non-human: just the mobile phone?

A key aspect of Sellars’s ‘manifest image’ concerns speech, community and intention, formulating behaviourist accounts of the brain in sentences expressing ‘intentional acts’:

“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

“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 … within which we live our own individual lives. A person can almost be defined as a being that has intentions.”

“But, and this is an important point, the postulated episodes are not postulated on neurophysiological grounds — at least this was not true until very recently, but because of our background knowledge that something analogous to speech goes on while people are sitting ‘like bumps on a log’.”

(Note: Sellars is always careful to emphasize that this relationship with speech is an analogy.)

But there is almost the concession here that this ‘manifest image’ is offered in lieu of science – and particularly neuroscience because, ‘until very recently’, neuroscience had not made sufficient progress. So, because we don’t know, let’s just make something up?

Now, I whole-heartedly agree with Sellars’s overall project:

“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.”

And I can empathize with his approach:

“For the 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.”

I recognize that that two major subdisciplines within philosophy – epistemology and ethics cannot be compartmentalized and need to be unified somehow.

But just not this-how: it is far from obvious to me what value the ‘manifest image’ brings to the overall philosophical project of working out how things ‘hang together’.

The advance of the ‘manifest image’ seems minimal: it seems to provide those things expected of a Cartesian ‘mind’ (e.g. individual atomicity, free will) whilst being compatible with a physicalist concept of mind.

And yet, the two ‘images’ do not seem to ‘hang together’ at all.  There may be coherence within the manifest image but, contrary to the overall aims of philosophy, there is just no coherence between them.

By adopting the ‘manifest image’, it seems to me that this constrains our thinking of the ethical along the same lines as Cartesian dualism. It seems to throw away whatever potential there might be from trying to ‘fuse together’ a physicalist scientific view with ethics, in whatever way is possible:

  • A wider philosophy that unifies the ‘conceptually compartmentalized’ sub-disciplines of epistemology and ethics, or
  • A wider philosophy that encapsulates epistemology within an ethical framework, or
  • A wider philosophy that encapsulates scientific knowledge within a unified epistemology-cum-ethical framework.

The existing ‘Cartesian’ moral framework has a binary all-or-nothing approach to ‘personhood’. It firmly rejects our fellow great apes and struggles with human foetuses and the infirm. It confers responsibility equally on all persons and then compensates for ‘diminished responsibilities’ in an ad hoc way.

The ‘manifest image’ is presented as a solution but seems to suffer from all the same problems as that that it replaces. It offers nothing new and feels disingenuous.


4. Coherence

And now back to Goldstein.

Goldstein talks of progress in philosophy through the increasing coherence (philosophy’s special domain) with specific reference to increasing moral coherence. But her historical widening of the circle of those afforded rights from Greeks to all humanity corresponds to what I understand as ‘expanding the circle’ (a la Peter Singer) and it is not obvious to me at all how this expansion is greater coherence.

Note that her increasing ‘moral coherence’, widening those counted as moral agents, works in the opposite direction Sellars’s ‘dehumanization’ process of the decreasing circle of those accepted as being intuitional agents.

Maybe it is that there is greater coherence between a modern, widely-inclusive morality and the ‘manifest image’ that includes all persons (and excludes all non-persons). But the ancients could have created their own conceptual framework of the ‘manifest image’ that included all Greeks (and excludes all non-Greeks) and theirs would have been equally coherent. Expanding the circle increases universality, not coherence.

Generally, the stories that are the most coherent are the ones that are the simplest. Every ancient creation myth provided a philosophy that was simple and coherent – more coherent than modern worldviews, but it did virtually nothing towards providing a universal means of prediction for the world, which is what science is about. Because truth is about correspondence as well as coherence (see ‘What I Know and Why I Know It’: the correspondence of our ideas to the world about us as well the coherence between our ideas.

Sellars acknowledged that the scientific and manifest images can sometimes be coherent but at other times will conflict (and, on empirical matters, that the scientific image should prevail).


5. Conclusion

Philosophy should be about how things hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term – of better coherence of our ideas. But I do not see any merit in Goldstein’s story of increased coherence using Sellars’s ‘manifest image’. It is a distraction. The manifest image is best regarded as a temporary framework around which our ideas hang, like scaffolding. But scaffolding is erected to fit in with the intended building, not the other way around. If we want progress, we should not be trying to erect a new edifice within the confines of a temporary framework.

I am not saying I have the answers, just that this seems the wrong direction to be looking for the answers. It can only act as a barrier to producing a proper coherence between the scientific and the manifest. It displays a poverty of ambition.

To fire Goldstein’s own concluding words back at her, I cannot help but feel that if we adopt the ‘manifest image’:

“… our descendants will look back at us and wonder why we stopped short of the greater coherence they will have achieved.”



Thanks to John Little for pointing me to Goldstein’s article.

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