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Monday, June 13, 2016

neglected books: skepticism and animal faith

George Santayana has always been the odd man out among the great American philosophers. The native genius of American philosophy sprang from a pragmatism shot through with Emerson’s transcendental occasions;  and Santayana, if we scan the  CV only, seems to have duly drank at this spring. He was the student of William James, after all, and during his heyday in the twenties and thirties, he played Atreus to Dewey’s Thyestes, or, more exactly, Dupin to Dewey’s Minister D… Dewey, in Santayana’s opinion, was too heady, too fumbling, and above all too liberal. Santayana, in Dewey’s opinion,  was too clever by half and too inclined to worship an order that gave him every privilege – a rentier philosopher.

The too clever reputation has stuck. Open Santayana and it is easy to see why. When we read Skepticism and Animal Faith, the first thing we are struck by is that, if he absorbed James’s pragmatism, he imbibed it with a writing style much more like James’s brother’s, Henry. And this stylistic choice was not an accident, but a methodological choice. Santayana thought that philosophy was not really best advanced, or, as he might put it,best  performed by  debate; the impress of this conviction lies behind a style unlike almost any other in American philosophy, presenting philosophical views that are less arguments than a sort of uncovering of ideational motives corresponding to the characteristics of philosophical figures (the skeptic, the Platonist, the naturalist, etc.)  in much the way James’s characters, in the latter novels, approach by indirection the betrayals that they are, to their retrospective horror, all too capable of.

In this vein, Santayana’s Skepticism and Animal Faith is one of the great frustrating books, advancing its themes less as deductions than as a sort of striptease in which the philosophical figures cavort on a stage to an audience of bloodless angels. Santayana, too, has that American philosophical allergy to the “myth of the given” , but his way of doing philosophy, after fully accounting for the insufficiency of the given to really account for any of the ‘facts’ of the world, is to take a tremendous detour back to a curious defense of essences. Santayana’s sense of essence has been radically converted by the skeptic’s questioning to one that has only a distant kinship with  essence as it appears in traditional theology, morality and cosmology. Plato, in one of his dialogues, asks whether it could be possible for such things as dirt and hair to have a correspondence in the ideas, and decides that they couldn’t – they are all too existentially connected to becoming. Santayana ignores this famous Platonic division and cheerfully welcomes dirt and hair and all other things into the realm of essence. For Santayana, essences are to the world what a book catalogue would be to Borges’s Library of Babel – “It [the realm of essence] is simply the unwritten catalgue, prosaic and infinite, of all the characters possessed by such things as happen to exist, together with the characters which all different things would possess if they existed.”

Santayana argues this position at more length than I am prepared to go in his three volume opus on the Realms of Being. One can allow the practicing philosopher to take up those tomes; Scepticism and Animal Faith, on the contrary, can be picked up by the merely curious reader, because, while it does not stint on technicalities, it is not enchained by them. It contains marvelous extended scenarios, some of the best in the philosophical literature. For instance, here is Santayana, doing justice to the solipsist’s position and putting it back into what he feels to be its natural position:

So far is solipsism of the present moment from being self-contradictory that it might, under other circumstances, be the normal and invincible attitude of the spirit; and I suspect it may be that of many animals. The difficulties I find in maintaining it consistently come from the social and laborious character of human life. A creature whose whole existence was passed under a hard shell, or was spent in a free flight, might find nothing paradoxical or acrobatic in solipsism; nor whouold he feel the anguish which men feel in doubt, because doubt leaves them defenceless and undecided in the presence of on-coming events. A creature whose actions were predetermined might have a clearer mind. He might keenly enjoy the momentary scene, never conceiving of himself as a separate body or as anything but the unity of that scene, nor his enjoyment as anything but its beauty: nor would he harbour the least suspicion that it would change or perish, nor any objection to its doing so if it chose. Solipsism wouod then be selflessness and scepticism simplicity. They would not be open to disruption from within. The ephemeral insect would accept the evidence of his ephemeral object, whatevver quality this might chance to have; he would not suppose, as Descartes did, that in thinking anything his own existence was involved. Being new-born himself, with only this one innate (and also experimental) idea, he would brign to his single experience no extraneous habits of interpretation or inference; and he would not be troubled by doubts, because he would believe nothing.”

This is magnificent, and even, given the ethology of the time, plausible. The standard of intelligence by which philosophers and their henchmen, the journalists or popular science writers, still judge animals is, comparatively, retarded. Intelligence is never judged for the animal – there is no novelistic transposition into what it is “like” to be such and such a beast. Of course, that novelistic leap is all too human, and the solipsism of the fly, such as it is described by Santayana, strikes me as strangely akin to that of the Wall Street stockbroker, of whose kind Santayana knew a few.

The price to be paid for Santayana’s kind of philosophy (a kind in which style is as intrinsic as the carapace is to a beetle) is not entrapment in an infinitity of technical questions of diminishing resonance (the fate of analytic philosophy), but a cold bloodedness that is all too freezing for my taste. Santayana was a very closeted gay man, who ended his life living as a tenant in a nunnery in Rome. His affections were always, so far as I can gather from the letters, frost-bitten. In SAF, this disposition is always just beneath the surface:

 “I myself have no passionate attachment to existence, and value this world for the intuitions it can suggest, rather than for the wilderness of facts that compose it. To turn away from it may be the deepest wisdom in the end. What better than to blow out the candle, and to bed! But at noon this pleasure is premature. I can always hold it in reserve, and perhaps nihilism is a system – the simplest of all – on which we shall all agree in the end.”

This accomodates our final end a bit too richly. It reminds us of the fascist slogan: viva la muerte!

This is perhaps no accident. Santayana’s politics was always inclined to fascism. In 1931, surveying the problematic modern scene (which he took in a wholly sub species aeternitas fashion – the Great Depression was a matter for intermittent notice in the letters, where he made the usual rentier complaints against FDR), he wrote that one of the great problems among the “Western” countries was:

… an inherited form of government, by organized parties
and elections, which was based on revolutionary
maxims, and has become irrelevant to the true work
of the modern world if not disastrous for it.

In 1951, a year before his death, he corresponded with Corliss Lamont, who wanted to enlist him as a “humanist”. In the course of so doing, Lamont defended Santayana from the charge of fascism. Santayana gently disabused him, writing that,, on the contrary,  he welcomed Mussolini (Santayana had been living in Italy by this time for around thirty years) and Franco, even if he agreed that Mussolini, at least, was a bad man. He at least, to paraphrase Santayana’s defense, made the trains run on time.   

Like other of the great modernists, Santayana’s authoritarian streak arose from a cancerous nostalgia for something other than modernity. Unlike Pound or Lewis or Eliot, though, Santayana fully accepted the nihilism that gnawed at the very core of the existentialist project. He’s perpetually the philosophical loner, which I accept as a genuine posture of thought. In that spirit, Skepticism and Animal Faith is a loner’s masterpiece.  

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