October 21, 2009

Santayana's message is clear: The epistemological project that Russell's Problems epitomizes is diseased

Santayana's main philosophical work consists of The Sense of Beauty (1896), his first book-length monograph and perhaps the first major work on aesthetics written in the United States; The Life of Reason five volumes, 1905–6), the high point of his Harvard career; Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923); and The Realms of Being (4 vols., 1927–40). Although Santayana was not a pragmatist in the mold of William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, Josiah Royce, or John Dewey, The Life of Reason arguably is the first extended treatment of pragmatism ever penned.
Like many of the classical pragmatists, and because he was also well-versed in evolutionary theory, Santayana was committed to a naturalist metaphysics, in which human cognition, cultural practices, and social institutions have evolved so as to harmonize with the conditions present in their environment. Their value may then be adjudged by the extent to which they facilitate human happiness. The alternate title to The Life of Reason, "the Phases of Human Progress", is indicative of this metaphysical stance.
Santayana was an early adherent of epiphenomenalism, but also admired the classical materialism of Democritus and Lucretius (of the three authors on whom he wrote in Three Philosophical Poets, Santayana speaks most favorably of Lucretius). He held Spinoza's writings in high regard, without subscribing to the latter's rationalism or pantheism.
Although an atheist, he held a fairly benign view of religion in contrast to thinkers like Bertrand Russell who held that religion was harmful in addition to being false. His views on religion are outlined in his books Reason in Religion, The Idea of Christ in the Gospels, and Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. Santayana described himself as an "aesthetic Catholic", and spent the last decade of his life at the Convent of the Blue Nuns of the Little Company of Mary on the Celian (Caelius) Hill at 6 Via Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome, cared for by the Irish sisters there.
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The move from Harvard marked not only a geographical shift but a philosophical one as well. Henry Levinson in Santayana, Pragmatism, and the Spiritual Life provides a well-balanced account of this gradual but distinctive move from the Harvard philosophical mentality. Leaving Harvard also meant that Santayana abandoned the view of a philosopher as a public, philosophical statesman and of language as being representative. This philosophical turn placed makes him a forerunner of many issues in the next two centuries. Removing himself, literally and philosophically, from the American scene, Santayana increasingly came to believe that the “brimstone” sensibility of pragmatism was wrong-headed (Character and Opinion in the United States, 53).
A major aspect of this sensibility was the view that philosophers must be engaged fundamentally in social and cultural policy formulation, and if they are not, they are not pulling their civic weight. In this fashion, Santayana believes the pragmatists came to belie “the genuinely expressive, poetic, meditative, and festive character of their vocation” (Levinson,165). A condition that James took seriously in his “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” suggesting that the world of practical responsibility fosters a blindness to multiplural ways of living that can only be escaped by catching sight of “the world of impersonal worths as such” — “only your mystic, your dreamer, or your insolent loafer or tramp can afford so sympathetic an occupation” (James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals, 141). Interestingly, America's imperialistic actions toward the Philippines during the Spanish-American War sparked James' remarks; this was a war that had a much deeper ancestral and historical aspect for Santayana and led to his poem, “Young Sammy's First Wild Oats.” Whether connected or not, Santayana later came to identify himself as an intellectual vagabond or tramp, not isolated in the specific perspectives of an ideology, hosted by the world, and devoted to spiritual disciplines that “appear irresponsible to philosophers hoping to command representative or some otherwise privileged authority at the center of society” (Levinson, 167).
Building on his naturalism, institutional pragmatism, social realism, and poetic religion, Santayana on leaving Harvard moves even farther from the role of philosophical statesman by removing the representative authority of language from the quest for a comprehensive synthesis, by narrowing the line between literature and philosophy (as he had earlier done between religion and poetry), and by wrestling more with the influence of James than of Emerson. Santayana's stay in Oxford during the Great War led to his famous counter to Wilson's war to end all wars: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” (Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, 102)
Santayana's message is clear: The epistemological project that Russell's Problems epitomizes is diseased. The renewed quest to establish unmediated Knowledge of Reality simply leads to “intellectual cramp” (Soliloquies, 216). Philosophy has itself become spiritually disordered by blinding its practitioners from their traditional and proper task, which is to celebrate the good life. If the spiritual disciplines of philosophy are to thrive, philosophers have to take off the bandages of epistemology and metaphysics altogether, accept the finite and fallible status of their knowledge claims, and get on with confessing their belief in the things that make life worth living (Levinson, 204). Leaving Harvard and America enabled Santayana to develop his naturalism.
4. Naturalism
Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923) introduces Santayana's mature naturalism. In summary, he maintains that knowledge and belief are not the result of reasoning. They are inescapable beliefs essential for action. Epistemological foundationalism is a futile approach to knowledge. A more promising approach is to discern the underlying belief structures assumed in animal action and imposed by natural circumstances. The foundations for this approach are rooted in Aristotle's concept of activity and the pragmatic approach to action and knowledge. Explanations of natural events are the proper purview of scientists, while explications of the meaning and value of action may be the proper sphere of historians and philosophers. Even so, both scientific explanations and philosophical explications are based in the natural world. Meaning and value are generated by the interaction of our physical makeup, which Santayana calls “psyche,” and our material environment.
Santayana's critique of epistemological foundationalism is as unique as his heritage. With Spanish irony, he structures his argument after Descartes' Meditations but arrives at an anti-foundationalist conclusion. Drawing attention to what is given in an instant of awareness (the smallest conceivable moment of consciousness), he maintains that any knowledge or recognition found in such an instant would have to be characterized by a concept (or “essence” to use Santayana's term). Concepts cannot be limited to particular instances; rather the particular object is seen as an instance of the concept (essence). Thus, pursuing doubt to its ultimate end, one is confined by the “solipsism of the present moment.” That is, in a single instant of awareness there can be no knowledge or belief, since both require concepts not bounded by a moment of awareness. Hence, the ultimate end of doubt, an instance of awareness, is empty. It is the vacant awareness of a given without a basis for belief, knowledge or action. Santayana concludes that if one attempts to find the bedrock of certainty, one may rest his claim only after he has, at least theoretically, recognized that knowledge is composed of instances of awareness that in themselves do not contain the prerequisites for knowledge, e.g., concepts, universals, or essences. That both skepticism and proofs against skepticism lead nowhere is precisely Santayana's point.
Philosophy must begin in medias res (in the middle of things), in action itself, where there is an instinctive and arational belief in the natural world: “animal faith.” For Santayana, animal faith is the arational basis for any knowledge claims. It is the nether world of biological order operating through our physical, non-conscious being generating beliefs that are “radically incapable of proof” (Scepticism, 35).

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