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Escape from the Myth of the Given


Admission requirements

  • BA students in Philosophy: propedeuse degree has been obtained. (It is highly recommended that the student has already followed a minimum of two years of philosophy courses, since we will be reading several very difficult texts.)

  • BA students from other departments: propedeuse degree has been obtained, and additionally at least three of the following philosophy courses are required: Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Mind, History of Modern Philosophy. (It is highly recommended that the student has already followed a minimum of two years of philosophy courses, since we will be reading several very difficult texts.)


In his Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (1956), Wilfrid Sellars attacks the ‘Myth of the Given’. One form of this myth is the idea that some of our knowledge is given to us unmediated by any prior knowledge. Because it is immediate, and therefore not prone to contamination by earlier errors or false interpretations, the Given forms the authoritative foundation on which the rest of our knowledge is based.

To reject the Myth is to reject a time-honoured foundationalist conception of knowledge. According to Sellars, foundationalism fails because thought is always normative, and because normativity is always holistic. Sellars’s arguments thus hinge on the distinction between naturalistic descriptions of subjects in terms of causes and normative descriptions of them in terms of reasons. But making such a fundamental distinction between Nature and Reason raises deep questions about the relation between the rational subject and its world. Some of these questions are taken up by John McDowell in Mind and World (1994), where he shows that the very possibility of meaningful perception and of conceptual thought are at stake.

We will perform an in-depth reading of the difficult and very rich books of Sellars and McDowell. We will also read a selection of other articles that critically engage with these issues. Depending on time and the interests of the students, we may make excursions to closely aligned philosophers such as Richard Rorty and Robert Brandom, and/or to the Kantian and Hegelian roots of Sellars’s and McDowell’s attack on the Myth.

Course objectives

This course aims to initiate the student into the modern debate surrounding the Myth of the Given, and the epistemic and metaphysical relation between reason and nature.

Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of:

  • Wilfrid Sellars’s attack on the Myth of the Given, including the distinction between the natural space of causes and the logical space of reasons, and the consequences that follow for epistemology;

  • John McDowell’s attempt in Mind and World to stop the philosophical pendulum from swinging between foundationalism and coherentism, including his ideas on conceptual content and the relation between Reason and Nature;

  • the philosophical background against which these contributions can be understood.

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • explain the concepts and positions in the literature that has been discussed;

  • engage critically and fruitfully with this literature;

  • draw links between is and the surrounding philosophical landscape.


See Collegeroosters Wijsbegeerte 2014-2015, BA Wijsbegeerte (BA Plus-traject of Standaardtraject), derde jaar.
See Timetables Philosophy 2014-2015 , Timetable Undergraduate Courses in English

Mode of instruction

  • Lectures and seminars

Class attendance is required.

Course Load

Total course load: 280 hours.
Attending lectures/seminars: 3 × 14 = 42 hours.
Studying weekly compulsory literature: 6 × 14 = 84 hours.
Completing weekly assignments: 4 × 14 = 56 hours.
Writing final paper: 98 hours.

Assessment method

  • Weekly assignments (50%)

  • Final essay (50%)

Class participation is a mandatory requirement for taking the tests.
One resit will be offered, consisting of the final paper. Any student who did not take the first examination cannot take the resit.


Blackboard will be used for announcements, distribution of some texts, and a discussion board.

Reading list

The following titles must be purchased in advance:

  • Wilfrid Sellars, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind; with an introduction by Richard Rorty and a study guide by Robert Brandom. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674251555. (Note: the online text of EatPoM is not a substitute, as it does not contain the introduction and study guide.)

  • John McDowell, Mind and World. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674576101.

Additional texts will be distributed during the course.


Please register for this course on uSis.
See Inschrijven voor cursussen en tentamens

Students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number which can be found in the collegerooster in the column under the heading “”.

Exchange students and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Registration Contractonderwijs
Registration Studeren à la carte: not applicable


Dr. V.A. Gijsbers: