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unclassified - 18 04 2002 - 12:05 - katatonik

Writing: the private and the public

“I spent the final months of the war in the statistical branch of Naval Air Intelligence in Washington. The work was routine, and I began to look to the future. The sudden end of the war brought me up with a start. I had done little reading or thinking about philosophical topics for some two and a half years, and suddenly it was time to return. My wife and I realized that we simply could not pick up where we left off. She had begun to write short stories with increasing success. A conversion experience on my part was essential. We resolved on a program according to which, on our return to Iowa City, we would work up to ten hours a day, day after day, on writing, however few words we got down on paper. We put this resolve into action and stuck with it. It was a team effort, and it worked.

I began to write a paper, catch as catch can, pushing ahead, letting the argument go where it would — almost in the spirit of writing an examination. I then made marginal comments and criticisms, after which I rewrote it in the same spirit. As I remember it, the paper started out to be about names, the given, and existential quantification. Three months and ten drafts later it began to be “Realism and the New Way of Words.” Rewriting large chunks of it at a time became a way of life. Some seventeen major revisions occurred before it finally appeared in print.

At last I had found a successful strategy for writing. And if, in the beginning at least, the result was a highly involuted style, I had learned that revising is a pleasure and that even the clumsiest initial draft takes on a life of its own. It took longer to put into practice the truism that a revision must simplify as well as correct and add. I soon discovered that spinning out, as I was, ideas in a vacuum, everything I wrote was idiosyncratic and had little direct connection with what others had said. Each spinning required a new web to support it, and the search for fixed points of reference became a struggle for coherence and completeness. As a result, each sentence of ‘’Realism” is a “flower in crannied wall.” I soon came to see that a dialectical use of historical positions is the most reliable way of anchoring arguments and making them intersubjectively available. In the limiting case, this use of history is illustrated by correspondence and controversial exchanges with contemporaries. Even on paper, philosophy becomes explicitly what it has always really been, a continuing dialogue.”

Wilfrid Sellars, philosopher (1912-1989): autobiographical reflections.

Problems from Wilfrid Sellars”: Site with information on, writings about and writings by Wilfrid Sellars, including the complete text of Sellars’ influential “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind”, famous for its attack on the “Myth of the Given”, the claim that the ultimate justification for knowledge lies in something that is “given”, such as sense-data, sense-contents, material objects, or certain principles, and which one just “has”, or “has present before one’s eyes”, without having acquired concepts.

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