Monday, August 31, 2015


SANTATANA: a cursory note

I have always felt there are deep affinities between Santayana’s thought and mine. Yet, although I have repeatedly re-read works with which I find myself in disagreement in various degrees, for years, for decades, I have not read or re-read any Santayana. Santayana is always so lucid, so reasonable, so right, that while I fund him immensely enjoyable and invigorating, he does not prick me to new thought, either to correct, to complement, or to clarify. But lately I downloaded Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy: Five Essays (a Project Gutenberg Ebook), which I have now read.

First I was delightfully reassured to find support for a major position I have been fighting to drive home. In the second essay, “Fifty Years of British Idealism”, speaking of German idealism Santayana says:

“By developing romantic intuition from within and packing all knowledge into one picture, the universe might be shown to be, like intuition itself, thoroughly spiritual, personal, and subjective.”

I find this agreeing with the view that I have been advancing, that all metaphysical philosophy puts forward creative visions, the value and ‘truth’ of which reside completely in their coherence and intelligibility; in other words, their value and ‘truth’ is wholly aesthetic. Such a metaphysics only errs when it pretends to be true of the objective world.

I suppose that when Santayana insists on his being a materialist he means that a philosopher being within the world can only have his thoughts within the actual world; she or he cannot view the world objectively since she or he cannot view the world from outside the world. Whatever we think of ultimate reality, we are trapped in the phenomenal world. This is also what Wittgenstein affirmed when he denied that we can make any statement about the World.

All of this is further confirmed when Santayana says:

“There is therefore no need of refuting idealism, which is an honest examination of conscience in a reflective mind. Refutations and proofs depend on pregnant meanings assigned to terms, meanings first rendered explicit and unambiguous by those very proofs or refutations. On any different acceptation of those terms, these proofs and refutations fall to the ground… If by ‘knowledge’ we understand intuition of essences, idealism follows; but it follows only in respect to essences given in intuition: nothing follows concerning the seat, origin, conditions, or symptomatic value of such intuition … Idealism, therefore, without being refuted, may be hemmed in and humanised by natural knowledge about it and about its place in human speculation …”

This also incidentally supports what I have repeatedly asserted about the futility of controversy in philosophy, which necessarily “depend(s) on pregnant meanings assigned to terms, meanings first rendered explicit and unambiguous by those very proofs or refutations”.

Not unrelated to this is what we read in the fifth essay, “The Prestige of the Infinite”, in which Santayana reviews Essai d'un Discours cohérent sur les Rapports de Dieu et du Monde, by Julien Benda. Benda sees the development of the world as a removal from God as infinite Being and sees attachment to the world as treason to infinite Being. I hope this flimsy summation of Benda’s position will not render the following remarks completely meaningless. We first read: “If once we accept (Benda’s) definitions, his corollaries follow.” Then we have:

“Unless we can view these movements of thought in their natural setting and order of genesis, we shall be in danger of turning autobiography into cosmology and inwardness into folly.”

In an inspired phrase – “turning autobiography into cosmology” – Santayana concisely defines the sin of all dogmatic metaphysics. Properly, all genuine philosophy is ‘autobiography’ in the sense intended by Santayana here. Hence we may be justified in finding fault with Santayana’s criticism of Benda’s position, which criticism would only be cogent if we require that position to be valid as a cosmology. If Benda were to confess his system to be nothing but ‘a midsummer night’s dream’, then all logical criticism becomes irrelevant.

Santayana wonders why Benda “introduced infinite Being at all into his description of the world”. I imagine that Benda could say that Infinite Being as Nothingness (non-existence) is needed as the condition of existence, for all existence is mixed with nothingness, all that is is conditioned by what it is not. Vishnu cannot have being without Shiva. Santayana offers another answer; he says that Benda “was not engaged in describing the world, except by the way, but rather in classifying and clarifying his ideas in view of determining his moral allegiance.”

However, Santayana’s criticism is not destructive like the negative criticism of scholarly erudition. When he contrasts the “monochrome” infinity of Benda with the “infinitely many-coulered” “infinity of essence” we are on a flight to Plato’s celestial abode of Forms, “so that in ‘returning to God’ we might take the whole world with us”.

Sixth-October City, Egypt,

August 31, 2015.


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