Santayana’s philosophy remains germane to present-day conversations both in the academy and in the broader cultural life of America. In academic philosophy, social criticism, and intellectual history there is a strong and growing interest in Classic American Philosophy. Writers such as Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, Joseph Margolis, John McDermott, Robert Richardson, Cornel West, and Louis Menand. have explored and expanded upon the American philosophical tradition, especially as it is found in the works of Charles S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey.
George Santayana offers an instructive contrast to this American philosophical tradition and the culture out of which it grows, but he does so without departing from the naturalism and respect for science that come close to defining Pragmatism. Indeed, Santayana was early on mistaken for a Pragmatist, though his later cultural criticism, his critical review of Dewey’s Experience and Nature, and his adaptation of Platonic metaphysics made it clear that he was not an instrumentalist with an overriding concern for consequences. In a recent article in The Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, John Lachs contrasts the forward-looking Pragmatists, Peirce, James, and Dewey, with Santayana, who acknowledges with more emphasis the importance of the immediate as opposed to the past or the future. Santayana can write of turning “a speculative eye upon regions distant and serene” with a relish not found in Pragmatists, who are concerned with consequences and progress (Lachs, J., “The Past, the Future and the Immediate” in The Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 39:2, 2003).
Santayana’s philosophy is materialistic and seeks natural explanations when explanation is wanted or required. But none of this entails neglect of art, religion, or spiritual life. There is no attempt in his thought to reduce consciousness or values to the material antecedents from which they proceed. Consistent with his materialism is his belief in objective truth and a reality independent of human thinking or desiring. His defense of independent reality is seen in his sustained criticism of the Immanuel Kant and the German idealistic tradition including Georg Hegel.
Santayana’s philosophy confronts the skepticism that has shadowed science since René Descartes (1596-1650). In his well-known work, Scepticism and Animal Faith, Santayana jettisons the foundation of certainty that motivated Descartes’s philosophical inquiry and demonstrates how knowing depends on animal faith in existence.
According to Santayana, “scepticism is an exercise, not a life; it is a discipline fit to purify the mind of prejudice and render it all the more apt, when the time comes, to believe and to act wisely” (69). Descartes’ skepticism is both too little and too much; that is, his employment of skepticism is too blithe: It does not go far enough and is not consistent enough to determine the genuine implications of skepticism; and it is too sweeping and coarse to detect what really is certain, namely the intuition (or consciousness) of essence. This latter conception is a signature notion in Santayana’s thought. His idea of essence runs through his critique of knowledge, his discussion of ontology, and even his moral pluralism.
But awareness of essence is not knowledge. Knowledge or active belief in existences depends on animal faith. Essences can be only symbols of existences with which the animal organism necessarily interacts. Animal faith is prior to consciousness or intuition of essences and is the only thing that can support the symbolic use of essences for existences. Santayana describes it as an expectation or open-mouthedness; it is physiological and vital.
Though we cannot know the world literally, our animal constitution gives us good reasons to believe the natural world is as we experience it, with neither a pre-established plan nor a full settlement of accounts at the end. Consciousness enables us to imagine a life of reason, that is, a life of harmonized impulses and understanding in spite of our relative impotence in the universal scheme of nature. The values of such a life are not absolute; the life of reason is fit for the one who lives it. One may just as rightly reject it, if reason has no attraction. A rational view, thinks Santayana, acknowledges the plurality of values and the variability of forms of life. Different individuals have different perfections for which to strive, and these perfections or goods are relative; though one’s own good holds absolutely for that individual.