8 OVERHEARD IN SEVILLE
us from participating in whatever even vaguely sensible practices may flourish in our
society, for in the long run and from a cosmic standpoint, all of it matters not at all.
Although we have not exhausted all the possible, or even all the interesting,
responses to contingency, our discussion has shown at least some of the richness of the
landscape. Evaluating such major philosophical movements as pragmatism and
postmodern thought requires that we locate them within just such a rich field of
relevant alternatives. The work of Santayana and the thought of Wittgenstein add
significantly to the profusion of alternatives. Consideration of them is, therefore,
doubly valuable. Beyond their intrinsic importance and interest, they also help us see
currently more popular responses to contingency in proper intellectual context.
MICHAEL HODGES AND JOHN LACHS
Contingency, Philosophy, and Superstition
In their interesting and welcome paper, Hodges and Lachs represent Santayana and
.Wittgenstein to be philosophers of contingency.9 Both thinkers are responding to
a "modern malaise" (1) that "began with Descartes' demand for absolute certainty
and culminated in Nietzsche's withering assessment and ultimate displacement of such
demands in favor of a play of forces understood as the 'will to power'" (3). Conceived
intellectually, this malaise is "the recognition that our values and practices are
thoroughly contingent, that they lack the certainty or tightness or absolute justification
prior generations insisted they could attain" (2).
But where has that sense of contingency come from, and what gives it its peculiar
power to disconcert us? Hodges and Lachs are certainly right to lay part of the blame
at the door of (modern) philosophy itself. The Cartesian metaphysical doubts that were
supposed to lead us to a secure foundation on which to build our edifice of truth have
mostly led to more and more doubts; the rigorously skeptical frame of mind constructed
in the Meditations Is, like many of our contemporary addictions, much harder to get
rid of than to acquire. Epistemological and moral skepticism were by no means
invented at the outset of the modem era, of course, but they certainly were granted a
new lease on life then; and we are now living, as Hodges and Lachs aptly put it, in the
ruins created by their efflorescence.
But why did those skeptical doubts get such a hold on us in the first place?
Hodges and Lachs frequently make it sound as if Wittgenstein and Santayana believe
that modern philosophy simply created out of whole cloth its unanswerable demands
for certainty. Here is a representative quotation: "According to both [Santayana and
This paper was read to the Santayana Society in Boston, Massachusetts on December
27, 1994, in response to the above paper by Michael Hodges and John Lachs. Numerical
references are to the latter.