If philosophy has had one distinctive job throughout it’s history, I think it is captured in this quote from Wilfred Sellars:
The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.
Most of the philosophers we still read from philosophy’s history were system builders in the sense that they tried to show how the various dimensions of human experience are conceptually related.
This tendency toward showing systematic connections has been radically curtailed in recent decades. As knowledge has become more specialized, philosophers have followed suit. Most philosophers today focus on specific, narrowly structured problems within subfields of philosophy. Yet, many nevertheless find it necessary to address how their conclusions or methods impact the larger subfield in which their inquiry is located. Furthermore, some philosophers take on the task of investigating how the various subfields of philosophy are related or how they their research influences or is influenced by empirical work in the sciences, social sciences, or other disciplines in the humanities. Thus, while contemporary philosophers are seldom “system-builders” in the sense of Kant or Hegel, the collective enterprise of philosophy is still devoted to understanding “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”
But philosophy would seem to have another job as well. That is to examine the ground on which one stands—the local, the singular, as opposed to the general and universal. After all, each of us thinks of ourselves as bearing some set of properties that makes us unique, and we think of the spaces in which we live as equally singular. Why should philosophy not try to uncover that ground on which one stands?
This is especially true if philosophy is understood as a way of life. If we live our lives as singular beings then our self-understanding must involve the singular if it is to be comprehensive.
The singularities of life have always been the purview of the arts. As John Dewey wrote, “The local is the only universal, upon that all art builds.” But if the brush stroke, the flash of an articulate word, or flight of a melody captures the singularities of life, what tool does the philosopher have to uncover the singular ground on which one stands? To what extent does the goal of understanding “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together” conflict with grasping the local? The danger is that the restless, reflective tilling of experience buries more deeply what we’re trying to uncover.
If the ground on which one stands is too ephemeral, its capture may have little significance. But the very methods we use to make it more present and enduring—i.e. philosophical theory—may sacrifice what makes it worth preserving.