Moral Truth or
Empirical Truth about Morality?
Not very long ago, a person wishing to talk seriously about the philosophy of
Santayana would have had to engage in the dialogue of the soul with itself.1
Few professional philosophers knew much about Santayana and it would have
been difficult to find even a couple with enough mastery of Santayana's language to
sustain a conversation about the subtleties of what he meant. Santayana's reputation
was in full decline by the 1930s; after his death, he all but disappeared from the
philosophical scene. His remarkable resurrection in the last few years would have left
no one more surprised than this marvelous sceptic of all resurrections.
The great renewal of interest in this unjustly neglected, unquestionably important
philosopher leaves me in an ambiguous position. On the one hand, I am elated that we
have at last reached the stage where a significant number of us can talk seriously and
in an informed way about the technical details of Santayana's thought. On the other
hand, however, I am concerned that these conversations lead to disagreements among
Unanimity is a great good so long as we don't lose our native accents in the
harmony. If dissent cannot be avoided, it must at least be cushioned by respect for our
opponents. What makes my task so difficult tonight is that the higher the respect, the
more difficult it is to disagree. Over the years I have known him, Henry Levinson has
become an ever more subtle, sensitive and insightful interpreter of Santayana's thought.
My regard for his work is so high that I dissent from his views with great reluctance
and only because so much is at stake.
Levinson defends two important theses. He argues (1) that Santayana is a sort of
pragmatist and (2) that Santayana thinks there are moral truths. I have some problems
with the form in which Levinson casts the first claim and great difficulties with the
substance of the second. Let me first discuss Santayana's pragmatism.
Santayana's ideas stand in intimate and interesting relations to the theories of
James, Dewey, Mead and even Peirce. Depending on what one means by" the term, one
could sensibly argue that the similarities are enough to call Santayana a pragmatist.
There are at least three ways of making this argument. The time-honored philosophical
way is to choose two or three marks of pragmatism, to declare that they constitute the
essence of the view and then to show that Santayana meets these necessary and
Levinson is too sophisticated a thinker to go for this essentialist gambit. Instead,
he asks if the concept of pragmatism might not be elastic enough to accommodate
Santayana. For him, Ideas are not rigid after the manner of staples, but springy and
flexible like rubber bands: if we stretch them a little, we can slip them around yet
another sheaf of documents. We managed to get enough elasticity to include Rorty and
perhaps even Putnam and Quine among the pragmatists; surely, the band will not snap
if we coax it around yet another collection of volumes.
1 This paper was read to the Santayana Society in Atlanta, Georgia on December 28,
1993, in response to the above paper of Henry Levinson.