Santayana or Descartes?
Meditations on Scepticism and Animal Faith
Of the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded...
Deux exces: exclure la raison, n'admettre que la raison.
If you are a seasoned museum-goer, you have probably heard of Stendhal
syndrome. First described by the French novelist after whom the condition is
named, this malady strikes culture-hungry souls who overdose on masterpieces
housed in one spot — Florence, for instance, to which Stendhal, a fervent art-lover,
repaired in 1817. Disoriented by a surfeit of beauty, victims of Stendhal syndrome are
seized by a joy so intense and so terrible that it paralyzes their reason. A form of
temporary insanity supervenes, as patients surrender to a feeling of dizzy panic laced
I mention Stendhal syndrome because I suffered from its philosophical equivalent
when I first read Scepticism and Animal Faith (saf). I was dazzled, vexed, shaken and
stirred by turns, as I discovered a book that was philosophical without ceasing to be
poetic, and conservative without ceasing to be creative. Undone by the subtlety and
thematic reach of Santayana's book, as well as by its lush metaphor-laden prose, I felt
then — as I feel now — unequal to the task of judging it.
Fortunately for all concerned, the task I have set for myself this evening is more
modest in several respects. First, I shall refrain from criticizing Santayana, opting
instead to expound and explore some of his principal doctrines. Second, instead of
surveying Scepticism and Animal Faith in its entirety, I shall focus on only a few of its
more prominent, eye-catching parts. Third, instead of viewing those parts in light of
subsequent developments in epistemology, I shall examine their complex relation to
philosophy's past. To be more specific, I intend to explore Santayana's fraught
relationship qua epistemologist to Descartes, whose role in Scepticism and Animal
Faith is both that of inspiration and of adversary. The better we understand this
philosophical odd couple, the easier it is to appreciate that potent synthesis of old and
new ideas which is Santayana's theory of knowledge. Such, at any rate, is my
contention; and I hope I may persuade a few of you to share it.
Let us begin by noting nine ways in which the epistemological project undertaken
in Scepticism and Animal Faith resembles that undertaken in the Meditations.
1 "Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances," in Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan
(New York: Library of America, 1996), p. 274.
2 Penstes (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), §172.
3 This paper was read to the George Santayana Society during its annual meeting, held in
conjunction with that of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division, in
Philadelphia on December 29,2008.