Wilfrid Sellars: A double impact

Today, a steadily growing number of philosophers regard Wilfrid Sellars as a principal pillar not just of American analytic philosophy, but of twentieth century philosophy in general. But not so long ago, things were different: though Sellars has held the acclaim of a first-rate philosopher for a couple of decades, it is only recently that he has achieved the nimbus of a philosopher whom you must read. It is largely due to his outstanding disciples and followers, from Paul Churchland and Ruth Millikan to Richard Rorty, Jay Rosenberg and Robert Brandom. In many respects, Wilfrid Sellars is a philosopher who somehow eludes the context of his contemporaries. In comparison with brilliant essayists such as Quine or Rorty, he writes in an old fashioned, slightly convoluted style, which is liable to confuse an unprepaired reader. Surrounded by philosophers who see philosophy as shrinking to a residual enterprise, such as merely the logical analysis of language, he does not shy away from claiming that "the aim of philosophy is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term". In contrast to the extreme specialists for whom even logical analysis is a theme too broad to entertain, his strategy is, in deVries' words, "to approach philosophical problems not as independent, individual cases, in principle amenable to piecemeal treatment, but as always constituted within a larger context and requiring not resolution by the establishment of some particular thesis, but the development of a more insightful or more adequate model that permits us to see how the particular phenomenon or puzzle fits within a larger, coherent whole". For all these reasons, it is highly challenging to grasp the bulk of Sellars’ teaching. It cannot be mastered piecemeal because its faraway components often mutually underpin each other in a way that is bound to escape his novice readers.
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