A cybernetic theory of persons: how Sellars naturalized Kant


  • Carl Sachs Marymount University




cybernetics, Immanuel Kant, Wilfrid Sellars, behaviorism, enactivism


I argue that Sellars’s naturalization of Kant should be understood in terms of how he used behavioristic psychology and cybernetics. I first explore how Sellars used Edward Tolman’s cognitive-behavioristic psychology to naturalize Kant in the early essay “Language, Rules, and Behavior”. I then turn to Norbert Wiener’s understanding of feedback loops and circular causality. On this basis I argue that Sellars’s distinction between signifying and picturing, which he introduces in “Being and Being Known,” can be understood in terms of what I call cybernetic behaviorism. I interpret picturing in terms of cycles of cybernetic behavior and signifying in terms of coordination between cybernetic behavior systems, or what I call triangulated cybernetic behavior. This leads to a formal, naturalistic understanding of personhood as the capacity to engage in triangulated cybernetic behavior. I conclude by showing that Sellars’s thought has the resources, which he did not exploit, for introducing the concept of second-order cybernetics. This suggests that Sellars’s philosophy of mind could be developed in the direction of autopoiesis and enactivism.


Akins, Kathleen, 1996, “Of Sensory Systems and the ‘Aboutness’ of Mental States”, in Journal of Philosophy, 93,7: 337-372.

Baars, Bernard, 1986, The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology, The Guilford Press, New York.

Davidson, Donald, 1990, “Epistemology Externalized”, in Davidson 2001: 193-204.

Davidson, Donald, 1992, “The Second Person”, in Davidson 2001: 107-122.

Davidson, Donald, 2001, Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Friedman, Michael, 2001, Dynamics of Reason, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford.

Froese, Tom, 2010, “From cybernetics to second-order cybernetics: A comparative analysis of their central ideas”, in Constructivist Foundations, 5,2: 75-85.

Froese, Tom, 2011, “From Second Order Cybernetics to Enactive Cognitive Science: Varela’s Turn from Epistemology to Phenomenology”, in Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 28, 6: 631-645.

Haugeland, John, 1998, “The Intentionality All-Stars”, in Having Thought: Essays in the Metaphysics of Mind, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA: 127-170.

Hook, Sidney, 1943, “The New Failure of Nerve”, in Partisan Review, 10,1: 2-23.

Huebner, Bryce, 2018, “Picturing, Attending, and Signifying”, in Belgrade Philosophical Annual, 31: 7-40.

Kline, Ronald, 2017, The Cybernetics Moment: Why We Call Our Age the Information Age, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Kusch, Martin, 1995, Psychologism; A Case Study in the Sociology of Philosophical Knowledge, Routledge, New York.

McCulloch, Warren and Walter Pitts, 1943, “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity”, in The Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics, 5: 115-133.

McDowell, John, 1998, “Intentionality is a Relation”, in Journal of Philosophy, 95, 9: 471-491.

Olen, Peter, 2016, Wilfrid Sellars and the Foundations of Normativity, New York, Palgrave.

O’Shea, James, 2021, “What is the Myth of Given?”, in Synthese, 199: 10543-10567. <https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-021-03258-6>.

Rosenblueth, Arturo, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow, “Behaviour, Purpose and Teleology”, in Philosophy of Science, 10: 18-24.

Rowlands, Mark, 2010, The New Science of the Mind, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Sachs, Carl, 2019, “In Defense of Picturing: Sellars’s Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Neuroscience”, in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 18,4: 669-689.

Sachs, Carl, 2020, “A Conceptual Genealogy of the Pittsburgh School: Between Kant and Hegel”, in K. Becker and I. Thompson, eds. The Cambridge History of Philosophy, 1945-2010, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Sellars, Wilfrid, 1980, “Language, Rules, and Behavior”, in Sicha, Jeffrey, ed. Pure Pragmatics and Possible Worlds: The Early Essays of Wilfrid Sellars, Ridgeview Publishing Company. Reprinted from 1950, “Language, Rules, and Behavior”, in Hook, Sidney, ed. John Dewey: Philosopher of Science and of Freedom, Barnes and Noble, New York.

Sellars, Wilfrid, 1963a, “Being and Being Known”, in Science, Perception, and Reality, Ridgeview Publishing Company, Atascadero: 41-59.

Sellars, Wilfrid, 1963b, “Some Reflections on Language Games”, in Science, Perception, and Reality, Ridgeview Publishing Company, Atascadero: 321-358.

Sellars, Wilfrid, 1963c, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”, in Science, Perception, and Reality, Ridgeview Publishing Company, Atascadero: 1-40.

Sellars, Wilfrid, 1963d, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind”, in Science, Perception, and Reality, Ridgeview Publishing Company, Atascadero: 127-196.

Shapiro, Lionel, 2011, “Intentional Relations and the Sideways-On View: On McDowell’s Critique of Sellars”, in European Journal of Philosophy, 21,2: 300-319.

Tolman, Edward, 1932, Purposive Behavior in Animals and Man, The Century Company, New York.

Tolman, Edward, 1948, “Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men”, in Psychological Review, 55,4: 189-208.

Weber, Andreas and Francisco Varela, 2002, “Life After Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality”, in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1: 97-125.

Wiener, Norbert, 1948, Cybernetics, or Communication and Control in the Animal and in the Machine, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Wisdom, John, 1951, “The Hypothesis of Cybernetics”, in British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 2,5: 1-24.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 1974, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; Eng. tr. by D. Pears and B. McGuinness, Routledge, New York.

Wolfendale, Peter, 2019, “The Reformatting of homo sapiens”, in Angelaki, 21,1: 55-66.