Monday, January 25, 2010

Santayana's Game

A line drawing of the face and upper torso of George Santayana as a middle-aged man. He is balding, wearing a suit, and looking away from the viewer to the right.

I said in the last* that Santayana was winning his game by playing with his machine of philosophy better than I could, even though, I implied without modesty, I might be a better philosophical player than he, that is, that I was more right!

A fanatic he said was someone who was satisfied with the symbol of doing good, repeating it, admiring it, protecting it, rather than actually doing good. He said philosophy too had its fanatics, those who took true perceptions about the world, and admiring them, repeating them, protecting them convinced themselves they were really there in the world, seeing as they played such a large part in their own private perceptions.

For example if we learn from strong opposition in conversation, we get to thinking the world itself learns and develops by a continuous chain of opposed ideas, that we have discovered something about the world when really we have only discovered one thing about our (only our) own relation to the world.

Every philosopher wonders at the blindness of his predecessors. It isn’t blindness strictly speaking, but preoccupation with a single way of looking at things.

Santayana had his “life of reason”, a view of life that emphasized that all ideas were a product of our individual attempts to put order into our experiences in life, and then act experimentally on them.

He wrote about this with great insight, both epigrammatically and thoroughly. But when you read more than a 100 pages a day of it you begin to feel that something is wrong, that some culpable imbalance is being put over on you in all these demonstrations of skilled expression.

Like a fanatic the philosopher seems to be upholding his idea, seeing it in the world at the expense of other ways of seeing the world. Santayana says his way is his way because of who he is, his character and his education, and notably because of his Catholicism.

Catholicism brings an emphasis on transcendence of this world in the name of an ideal other world, and his philosophy is an expression of this view and could not be otherwise, he says.

When he sets himself to criticize the view of Bergson, his philosophical rival, he does not hesitate to call it Jewish. Bergson turned his attention away from ideas which referred to an ideal world of unchangeable eternal things, and set his eyes on the movement of life, a flow of force that lead us to form ideas, which themselves were merely accidental lower forms of reality. This is said to be Jewish because it reflects the life of a people who are always radically unstable, finding themselves in a crisis of action, forbidden the worship of images. Bergson talked about duration, memory, life force, where Santayana talked about the life of reason, the reflection on material things.

Both philosophers make themselves fit to play the role of fanatic, filling thousands of pages with ideas, theories, views, which in their repetition seem to become the story of what the world itself did for itself to keep itself as it is. For Santayana the world seems to be reasonable and reflective, and a constant suggestion to Catholic transcendence, and for Bergson the world seems to be uncertain but promising fulfillment and happiness in this world of love that the life force brings us to if we but attend to it, a Jewish world.

The starting point of the philosophy, that guides it into its repetition and omissions, is the ending point. Both are saying, “We are not fanatics, we were just made this way so we must behave like fanatics. Because we know this we won’t force our ideas on other people, but we are stuck with them ourselves. We don’t say the life force or life of reason is identical with the world, only that we are made to think and act as if it were so.”

But that conclusion simply is wrong. Being Catholic or being Jewish does not force anyone to make a picture of themselves or of the world based solely on their religious upbringing. Our education might force us to create a certain kind of picture, but nothing forces us to confuse descriptions of the world for the world itself, nothing that we know about the world restricts us to making only that picture. We are not doomed from birth to fanaticism, though we are liable to make a certain kind of mistake: the perception of how our lives can be lived as a whole is transformed into a belief that the world works in the same way as a whole as we describe living our lives. And then the great prestige of the world living its life like we, in one way of looking at it, live our lives makes all the rest of what we do appear insignificant.

The world is neither an act of reason nor a movement towards recovering love. It is both together! What makes reflection good is love, and what makes love better is reflection. In the beginning of philosophy Plato told stories of Socrates going about his life of love with the aid of philosophic discourse. We can say of the life lived as whole that its possibility at least has been demonstrated. We cannot, once we know this, ever take seriously the fanatical views that would have single “idols” of good life worshiped, whether the reasonable perception and judgment of Santayana or the movement of desire of Bergson, Catholic or Jewish.

When we are sold on views of life as a whole, we act as if what we have bought describes the whole of life, when actually the farthest our purchase can take us is a claim that in each moment of life we can see how it might be applied. We can always find opportunity to reason, we can move fluidly at any time. We might as well be talking about air, water, earth, fire. The fact that we can use the same words to say something about everything does not guarantee that we can say anything significant about anything!

Yet tricks like these are successfully put over on us, year after year, phase after phase of history. We are duped by the argument that because part of our education is a view of life as a whole, it must determine that we form a view of the world as a whole, even if we know very well that it is fanaticism, because we can’t help repeating ourselves and thus becoming blind to the other kinds of repetitions we could be making.

That we are not doomed to fanaticism, that love and thinking can go together: if you doubt this, all I can say is go back and read Shakespeare again. We reason, we love, we imagine, we experiment, we cheat and give in to weakness in failures to love, imagine, think, innovate, all mixed together. If you recognize any truth in this the falseness of the simplified idol-world of philosophy is obvious.

Santayana was a great winner. In his writing and researches he demonstrated something true, but that was, under the distracting surface of much common sense, only the fact of his own fanaticism. But like our politicians with their false economics and war-making theories he went on doing what was wrong, pleased to have made a success of himself in his successful career, pleased to have had the prudence to work the social machine to such great personal reward.
* We Win!