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Sellars’ Rylean ancestors

Page history last edited by Victoria Yupangco 16 years ago

Sellars' Rylean ancestors thought experiment




Wilfred Sellars’ Rylean ancestors thought experiment or the Myth of Jones is a very influential myth or “anthropological science fiction” (Sellars, 1956, p48) that was presented in his much read Empiricism And The Philosophy Of Mind paper in 1956. Since then it has been cited numerous times and is generally attributed to be the forbearer of the proposition that people understand the minds of others through a folk psychological theory (Andrews, 2006) that describes non-observational objects.  The myth posited a pre-history of the human race where humans only had possession of a Rylean (Gilbert Ryle) language, a language limited to a semantical form about public objects and the public properties of public objects (Sellars, 1956), the outside world, language and behaviour but had no reference of the existence of inner thoughts and sensations. Sellars created it in hopes to illustrate how people could have learned to “speak of inner episodes and immediate experiences” (Sellars, 1956, p48) such as feelings, mental intentions and propositional attitudes such as belief, desire and hope after the possession of and extrapolated from a Rylean language and not before. The myth was in part an argument against Descartes’ epistemic foundationalism (Andrews, 2006) and is an attempt to show how inner thoughts could have been modeled from outward public verbal speech and that the ‘inner speech’ of thought was based and formed from intersubjectivity between people (Knobe, 2007) rather than irreducible inner knowledge and exclusive access to the mind.


The myth has three stages and involves a main character named Jones who is a genius. Jones in the first stage lives in a community that possesses Rylean Language only and has no concept of thoughts, feelings, etc. In the second stage he realizes that even when others of his community are not verbally committing verbal episodes because they are silent, eating, etc. they still act in intelligent ways. This leads Jones to the conclusion that even when not speaking out loud verbally there must also be inner speech, which is regulating the coherence and rationality of the actions of people. Coming to this conclusion Jones applies it to the behaviour of other people and learns to interpret and predict actions through the attribution of this inner speech. He quickly teaches his other members of his community the insight. In the third stage Jones and the members of his community learn to apply the theory of inner speech leading and causing action to themselves and learn to be self aware and self-report internal states.








  • Sellars, W. (1956) Empiricism And The Philosophy Of Mind. In Herbert Feigl and Michael Scriven, (eds.), Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume I: The Foundations of Science and the Concepts of Psychology and Psychoanalysis, pp. 253-329 United States: University of Minnesota Press, (1956)
  • Andrews, K. (2006) The Functions of Folk Psychology. Retrieved March, 31, 2008, from http://www.consc.net/mindpapers/7.1a
  • Knobe, J. (2007) Folk psychology: science and morals In D. D. Hutto and M. Ratcliffe (eds.), Folk Psychology Re-Assessed, 157–173. Springer


- Kawai Lam, Unversity of Toronto


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