Thinking in the Ruins:
Two Overlooked Responses
It might appear that there are no two philosophers whose relation to each other is
of less interest and the investigation of which is less likely to yield substantial
results than that of George Santayana and Ludwig Wittgenstein. This may be the
reason why no significant work has ever been done on this topic. The two seem to be
engaged in radically different projects. They appear to agree neither on their
presuppositions and methods nor in their aims and results. Even their styles are
divergent and their sensibilities incompatible.1
The surprising reality, however, is that there are tantalizing similarities between the
philosophical positions of Santayana and Wittgenstein. In the context of overwhelming
apparent differences, the remarkable extent of these resemblances is adequate by itself
to warrant investigation. But there also are other compelling philosophical reasons for
looking at this relationship.
To understand the differences and the similarities between Santayana and
Wittgenstein better, it is important to take a closer look at the time in which they lived.
In the years between the two world wars, many began to feel that the intellectual,
moral, religious and social traditions that had been in place for a long time were in
ruins. The social structures of Victorian England were crumbling and the progress of
the Industrial Revolution had turned into the horrors of modem warfare. Whereas F.H.
Bradley had been able to write confidently about "My Station and Its Duties," a
generation later Jean Paul Sartre could find nothing but "bad faith** in a life of devotion
to one's social role. The intellectual, moral and religious practices that philosophers
had attempted to justify by showing their ground in some transcending certainty came
to seem arbitrary or suspended in thin air.
The First World War appeared to bring down every tradition. It brought an end
to empires that traced their heritage to the days of Rome. It also leveled the dominant
intellectual tradition that consisted of the search for certainty, a search that had defined
the philosophical project at least from Descartes* day, and on some accounts since
Plato's.2 Philosophers who wrote under the influence of the war thought that, since
human practices were in need of grounding and none could be provided, life was
pervaded by uncertainty. They expressed these feelings of displacement and
homelessness in the thought that nothing anyone had claimed to know could withstand
criticism. Seeing only ruins, they maintained that actions could receive no justification
and lives, cut loose from any foundation, were meaningless. These thinkers saw empty
contingency where necessity and certainty had been; their reaction took the form of
skepticism about knowledge and values, and cynicism about life.
This "modern malaise" has been noted by many, though few have related it to
philosophy. As a result, no one has noticed that the two figures we are concerned with,
1 This paper was read to the Santayana Society at its annual meeting in Boston on
December 27, 1994.
2 See John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (G.P. Putnam's Sons; New York, 1960),