The Enduring Value
of Santayana's Philosophy
The Task of Philosophy
That Santayana's style is literary, even poetic, is clearly true. That it is too
literary is a condemnation based on an idea of what philosophy should be.
Such ideas are typically controversial and ill-supported: they belong to the
ultimate presuppositions of a system of thought rather than among its
substantiated results. When someone says, therefore, that a person with whom
he disagrees on a set of identifiable conceptual topics is not really doing
philosophy, we must interpret his comments as an exercise in rhetoric. We all
want to reach for the high ground, which it is easiest to do by denying the
legitimacy of our opponent's enterprise.
Rhetoric apart, however, there is a real disagreement here between
Santayana and his critics. Some philosophers think their task is similar to and
dependent on science: they are to take the results of the scientific endeavor
and, by investigation and reasoning closely akin to it, develop theories of the
greatest generality. Others urge us to abandon all hope for their ancient
discipline: everything of importance will be discovered by science, is already
embodied in ordinary speech or has long been revealed by the Deity. Those
who favor the former view want to make philosophy into a precise and
technical subject, while those committed to the latter busy themselves with
exploding the grand illusions of the generalizes.
Santayana disagreed with both of these groups. He thought all of language
and all knowledge constitute but a tenuous, symbolic grasp of the real. Science
discloses, therefore, neither the literal nor the absolute truth about the world;
Familiarity with it is useful and important, but we must not suppose that it
resolves all the problems of human life and of philosophy. We have also much
to learn from philosophical reflection on science, common sense, religion and
the most general features of reality. Even if, as Santayana clearly believed, the
common sense of mankind embodies in its practices the soundest philosophy,
there is need for discerning thought to raise the tenets of this animal faith to
explicit consciousness, to clarify them, to distinguish them from the arbitrary
dogmas which overlay them in the public mind, and to shape them into a
consistent whole. Since the task of philosophy is to stimulate reflective
thought, its content must be discursively defensible but its language must be
evocative and rich. In this way, it can summon up those essences of great
generality whose contemplation helps to make sense of our life experience.
The following passages are taken from the final chapter of George Santayana, (1988) in the United
States Authors Series; the editors are grateful to Twayne Publishers, a division of G. K, Hall and Co. for
permission to publish these excerpts. Much of this same material was read to the Santayana Society in
New York in December, 1987.