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Sellars’s Metaphilosophy

Sellars was a systematic philosopher par excellence. "The aim of philosophy," he wrote, "is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term." [PSIM, 37] This image of the philosopher as a reflective generalist recurs frequently in Sellars’s metaphilosophical reflections. His most explicit account of the central task confronting contemporary philosophy aligns it firmly with the modernist project of achieving a rapprochement between our humanistic understanding of ourselves as free and rational agents, at home among meanings and values, and the thoroughly "disenchanted" picture of the world being painted by an increasingly comprehensive natural science. Sellars thematized this contrast as a confrontation of two "images": the "manifest image" whose primary objects are persons, beings who can and do conceive of themselves as sentient perceivers, cognitive knowers, and deliberative agents, and the "scientific image", whose primary entities are some sophisticated version of "atoms in the void". "The scientific image," Sellars wrote, "presents itself as a rival image. From its point of view the manifest image on which it [methodologically] rests is an ‘inadequate’ but pragmatically useful likeness of a reality which first finds its adequate (in principle) likeness in the scientific image." [PSIM, 57] As Sellars saw it, the goal of philosophy was to transform this tension between our lived self-conception and our hard won explanatory understanding of the world into a single "stereoscopic" image, a synoptic vision of persons-in-the-world. Much of his philosophical work is addressed to three central moments of this complex undertaking: accommodating the intentional contents of thought and language, the sensuous contents of perception and imagination, and the normative dimensions of knowledge and conduct within such a stereoscopic image - all the while resolutely maintaining a robust scientific realism, for "in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not." [EPM, 173]