What's the big idea?

The glory of the philosopher up until fairly recently was to produce a grand synthesis, an interpretation of reality (or at least one aspect of human experience) that was the cumulative result of all his prior reflection. It was usually based on one or two basic ideas which were the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe and could be applied consistently to all other parts of the philosopher's work. The aim was to present the world with a vision of our place in the universe and how to live well.

This aspiration seems to have all but disappeared as a result of post-modernism and its suspicion, indeed rejection of all grand narratives. Philosophers generally specialize in one very small sub-field of inquiry, grasping at fragments of insight with no idea how to connect them into a larger whole. Some philosophers may become very well known for their work in one particular field, even a fairly large one like epistemology or ethics and even produce definitive overviews of that field. Still, the sense of a larger vision is lacking.

When we look back through history, though, we see that the greatest philosophers of all time, whose work continues to provoke and inspire to this day, invariably produced grand syntheses of knowledge. One only has to think of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Thomas Aquinas and in the modern period Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Hume and Kant. We all (at least those who have had some college education) know their big ideas: forms, essence, emanation, monads, phenomenal vs. noumenal distinction...the list goes on. But another theme that all these philosophers have in common is that their grand syntheses were based on the reality of God. Even Hume and Spinoza, usually considered skeptics and atheists, had at the foundations of their schemes an ultimate reality which transcended the world of appearances. And it is their ideas which still inform Western thought, even if we no longer embrace all aspects of their thought.

I think this suggests that any kind of unified interpretation of reality requires something like God to give it cohesion and explanatory power. Without God, all we have left are fragments, mere tatters of a garment of philosophy that used to be seamless, at least as an ideal.


J.L. Hinman said…
that tendency preceded the postmodern. It's directly the result of the reductionist types in science. The advent of emotivism in ethics and positivism in philosophy was to reduce philosophy to a servant fo science that just does the sweeping up (reference to A.J. Ayer's statement that philosophy clears the way for science by cleaning up the clutter--the "clutter" being metaphysics).

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