Ultimate and conventional truth in Wilfrid Sellars

Let me begin with a guessing game, for those readers who consider themselves relatively widely read in philosophy. I am thinking of a text that examines two different views of human beings. It examines on one hand the view that humans are entities that act on the world of the sort that one can tell stories about, using language, living in communities, giving and taking. It juxtaposes this view on the other hand with the view that humans are collections of smaller imperceptible particles that operate strictly according to universal laws of causation. The texts comes to the conclusion that the latter view is the one that corresponds to reality, with the former simply an appearance or convenient way of speaking. Which text is this?

If you guessed Wilfrid Sellars‘s “Philosophy and the scientific image of man”, you would be right. If you guessed the Milindapañhā, the Questions of King Menander – or the Theravāda texts that follow it, such as Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga or many Abhidhamma texts – you would also be right.

When I read Sellars’s article this analogy was striking to me. Sellars is situated firmly within the twentieth-century analytic tradition of English-language philosophy. Unlike his fellow analytic philosopher Derek Parfit, who had at least a passing familiarity with Buddhism that he places in an appendix to his very Buddhist-like Reasons and Persons, I have seen no evidence that Sellars knew or cared about Buddhist philosophy. And yet the position Sellars describes is one startlingly similar to way Theravāda Buddhists describe the distinction between ultimate and conventional truth. (It is quite different from the way Madhyamaka Buddhists, like Śāntideva, describe that distinction – but that is to be expected, since their position arose as a critique of the views in the Theravāda Abhidhamma.)

The basic issue here is the application of atomism to human beings, to persons. Many philosophers through the ages have come to an atomist position of some sort, according to which things are reducible to imperceptible individual particles; for example that was the position of Democritus and Epicurus, the subjects of Karl Marx’s dissertation. Of course modern biologists and physicists, with the help of microscopes and similar tools, have examined worldly phenomena and observed an ever-smaller series of particles that make them up. What Sellars’s article does is acknowledge that human beings are made up of those particles, and then take up the question of what to do about our everyday “manifest” picture of human beings as the kind of beings who act on the world with distinct individuality, the kind we can tell stories about.

It is in taking up that question that Sellars’s concern comes very close to the Milindapañhā, which may be the oldest Buddhist text to articulate a distinction between conventional and ultimate truth. The monk Nāgasena insists to the Greek king Menander (Milinda, in Pali) that while ultimately (paramathato) the person (puggala) is not to be found, he can still speak of himself and of the king as a convention (voharo), a mere name (nāmamatta). (p. 28 in the PTS edition) But the ultimate reality described here is not the ineffable, uncharacterizable reality pointed to by the later Madhyamaka tradition. Rather, it can quite accurately be characterized and described, as atomized parts. A chariot has no ultimate existence any more than a person does; what does have that ultimate existence is the chariot’s parts, the wheels, the axle and so on. And so likewise, the person has no ultimate existence, but what does ultimately exist is the five aggregates – material pieces like hairs and bones, and sensations (vedanā), concepts (saññā), memory traces (saṅkhāra) and consciousness (viññāna).

The biggest difference between Sellars’s scientific picture and the Milindapañhā’s: the Buddhist view departs not only from modern science but from Democritus, Epicurus and Marx in that it is not at all materialist. The particles that make us up can be organized into five _khandha_s – bundles, “aggregates” – and only *one* of these consists of matter. The other four are mental. For Sellars, by contrast, the scientific image is characterized by its physicality and materiality.

Yet just like the Milindapañhā, Sellars’s scientific image is a reductionist one – even an atomist one. The scientific image is not inhabited by persons, or for that matter by chariots, but by minute entities like cells, biochemical compounds – and atoms. And where the similarity between the two gets most striking is when Sellars describes the manifest image: “The point I wish to make now is that since this image has a being which transcends the individual thinker, there is truth and error with respect to it, even though the image itself might have to be rejected, in the last analysis, as false.” (“Philosophy” 14, emphasis in original)

The manifest image, with its persons and tables and chairs, at least may not be true in the “last analysis” – which is exactly to say that it may not be ultimately true! And yet there is still truth and error with respect to it – a truth we can reasonably call conventional. The ultimate truth is constituted by small particles, not by King Menander or his chariot. Yet conventionally it is still true to say King Menander arrived at the discussion in a chariot – as it would be false to say that he arrived in an airplane. This much, Sellars and the Milinda share. And it suggests that Buddhists and modern scientific philosophers have something to learn from each other, since both are engaged in the project of trying to square a precise reductionist understanding of reality with a more conventional world of human beings and everyday objects.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

4 thoughts on “Ultimate and conventional truth in Wilfrid Sellars

  1. Hi Amod, it might be worthwhile remembering that there is a reading of Buddhaghosa on which his usage of the distinction through abhidhamma does not map on to metaphysical one you make. You’ll see it in Maria Heim’s book, Forerunner of All Things.
    She and I argue further for this view in ‘In a Double Way: Buddhaghosa on nama-rupa’, currently accessible on Philosophy East and West Early Release.

    • Hm, this is interesting. I may need to reread Forerunner on this point – I did read the book but didn’t think the position was substantially different from what I point to here. I did hear Heim allude to a different take in a presentation she made, though.

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