Richard Rorty on Santayana. Richard Rorty (1931-2007), one of the leading contemporary American philosophers, is perhaps most famous for his claim that philosophy and literature are just two different types of culture. It means that philosophy is not privileged by having any ‘special’ methods (methodology) thanks to which it has a closer access to the truth about the nature of reality, and philosophers, despite their cognitive ambitions, cannot know much more about the reality and truth than novelists, poets, and dramatists can. His philosophical position is commonly known as ‘neopragmatism’ or as an American version of postmodernism, so much developed in France, Germany, and Italy. In his famous Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty recognized the role of Santayana’s philosophy, putting him close to the biggest names: “On the periphery of the history of modern philosophy, one finds figures who, without forming a ‘tradition,’ resemble each other in their distrust of the notion that man’s essence is to be a knower of essences. Goethe, Kierkegaard, Santayana, William James, Dewey, the latter Wittgenstein, the later Heidegger, are figures of that sort” (Rorty 1979, 367).
Elsewhere Rorty included Santayana into the most prominent thinkers in America: “Once there was a golden age of American philosophy and American pragmatism. This was the time of such intellectual giants as Peirce, James, Royce, Santayana, Dewey, and Mead” (Rorty 1995, 61).
Not only did Rorty mention Santayana in these general contexts but also, at several places, he indicated Santayana’s specific achievements.
Firstly, as one of those who detected a factual shift in Western culture that took place centuries ago. Namely, “literature began to set itself up as a rival to philosophy when people like Cervantes and Shakespeare began to suspect that human beings were, and ought to be, so diverse that there is no point in pretending that they all carry a single truth deep in their bosoms. Santayana pointed to this seismic cultural shift in his essay ‘The Absence of Religion in Shakespeare.’ That essay might equally well have been called ‘The Absence of either Religion or Philosophy in Shakespeare’ or simply ‘The Absence of Truth in Shakespeare'” (Rorty 2007, 93). Indeed, Santayana wrote his essay on Shakespeare (in 1896) intending to show that the world that Shakespeare described was not longer a divinely ordered universe within which humans are just parts of a bigger and structured whole. Instead, he presented remnants of religious institutions in the form of their officers (saints, bishops, cardinals, monks), but “if they have any wisdom, have an earthly one” (Santayana 1957, 148). Additionally, Santayana claims that Shakespeare’s dramas are deprived of philosophy: “Shakespeare, however, is remarkable among the greater poets for being without a philosophy and without a religion. In his drama there is no fixed conception of any forces, natural or moral, dominating and transcending our mortal energies” (Santayana 1957, 163). It is by any means a criticism of Shakespeare but just a statement important for Santayana who demanded “a certain totality in our views” (Santayana 1957, 163). For Rorty, Santayana’s analysis testifies to his (Rorty’s) claim about the emergence of the literary culture that has matured enough nowadays to take the role that philosophy used to have in recent ages.
Secondly, Rorty uses Santayana to interpret his own (Rorty’s) views on the role of Kant and German idealism. With regard to Kant, Rorty says the following: “What Santayana called ‘supernaturalism,’ the confusion of ideals and power, is all that lies behind the Kantian claim that it is not only nicer, but more rational, to include strangers within our moral community than to exclude them. If we agree with Nietzsche and Santayana on this point, however, we do not thereby acquire any reason to turn our backs on the Enlightenment project, as Nietzsche did. Nor do we acquire any reason to be sardonically pessimistic about the chances of this project, in the manner of such admirers of Nietzsche as Santayana, Ortega, Heidegger, Strauss, and Foucault” (Rorty 1998, 182). With regard to German idealism, Rorty claims: “Habermas sees Heidegger and Derrida as belonging to the tradition he calls ‘the philosophy of subjectivity,’ which he traces back to Kant and Hegel. Using my own jargon, I should describe this tradition as one more misguided metaphysical attempt to combine the public and the private. It is an attempt to synthesize activities that it would be better to keep distinct — the effort of an individual thinker to free himself from his predecessors on the one hand, and the collective political enterprise of increasing freedom and equality on the other. The ‘egoism’ that Santayana remarked in German philosophy from Fichte onward was typically combined, until Nietzsche, with an attempt at greater social justice” (Rorty 1998, 308).
Thirdly, Rorty uses other Santayana’s ideas as supportive to his own claims as it is the case with the role of books for the educative purposes rather than for epistemological purposes (that is to find the truth about the reality around us): “There’s a famous remark by George Santayana: those who do not study the past are condemned to repeat it. The more influential old books one reads, the more prudent one becomes, because the sources and histories of contemporary ideas become clearer. There’s a difference between reading these books with the hope of finding profound truths, and reading to figure which fly bottles to stay out of” (Rorty 2006, 79).
Fourthly, Rorty uses Santayana’s attitude, articulated in one of his earliest books, according to which poetry and religions are two different ways of rendering one thing, and puts it into the context of metaphysics and history. Namely, after quoting William James’s Variety of Religious Experience (…Each attitude being a syllable in human natures’ total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely. So ‘a god of battles’ must be allowed to be the god for one kind of person, a god of peace and heaven and home, the god of another.'[James’ VRE, 1985, 384]) Rorty comments: ” If one puts this sort of ultimate pluralism with Santayana’s poetasting conception of the function of metaphysicians, then one can say that the convergence to a single set of metaphysical or religious opinions is about the last thing we want. (…) I think of the course of human history as a long, swelling, increasingly polyphonic poem– a poem that leads up to nothing save itself. When the species is extinct, ‘human nature’s total message’ will not be a set of propositions, but a set of vocabularies — the more, and the more various, the better” (Rorty 1995, 33).
Recognition. Since Richard Rorty has gained influence and reputation his appreciation of Santayana and his discussion about Santayana’s thought elevates Santayana’s position in contemporary philosophy. James Seaton, who generally criticizes Rorty for distorting Santayana’s real views (see Criticism below) confirms this: “Certainly, Rorty’s appreciation of Santayana’s intellectual significance makes a welcome contrast with the neglect Santayana’s philosophy has endured from most professional philosophers in the decades since his death, and Rorty is surely right to see that Santayana’s oeuvre cannot be judged fairly if one assesses it by the usual criteria established – with important honorable exceptions – in American departments of philosophy” (Seaton 2014, 66). Angus Kerr-Lawson pays attention to Santayana’s fragment from The Realm of Truth (p. 127), that adequately renders this type of ideas that were later articulated by Rorty’s neopragmatism, namely: “If nothing be real except experience, nothing can be true except biography. Society then must be conceived as carried out in a literary medium, with no regard to the natural basis of society.” Kerr-Lawson himself comments this quote in this way: “Here we draw very close to Rorty’s well-known position that the community of society is contingent and without a natural basis, that there is no truth apart from human biography, and that philosophy is to be replaced by literature. Nature is not a part of this philosophy, only biography, experience, and literature” (Kerr-Lawson 1995, 14).
Criticism. James Seaton, in his text entitled “Richard Rorty’s Misleading Use of Santayana” criticized Rorty for distortion of Santayana’s views and, this way, diminishing of Santayana’s true legacy (cf. Seaton 2014, 66). Namely, Seaton accuses Rorty of misunderstanding Santayana on three points, that is that Santayana approved of transcendentalism as a method (in fact Santayana criticized transcendental method as a form of egoism); that transcendentalism is equal to highbrow culture; and that Santayana’s analysis of Kant led Santayana to see science as one of many forms of culture (in fact, Santayana respected science more than just a form of culture, nevertheless he saw scientific knowledge as symbolic anyway).
Comparison. For some authors, comparing Rorty to Santayana is interesting irrelevantly of Rorty’s remark on Santayana. Angus Kerr-Lawson compares Rorty and Santayana in one basic dimension. By excluding physics (and ontology) from his philosophy, Rorty sees differently the social philosophy (anthropocentric), methodology (literary) and epistemology (dysfunctional), which makes him very different from Santayana, and, weaker. Kerr-Lawson writes, that from the point of view of Santayana’s philosophy, Rorty’s discussion on contingency and language “is entirely internal to the realm of essence, without the reference to external realities which give to discourse its consequences; it treats language as an idol, and casts aside truth, the psyche which informs human nature, and the physical foundations of society” (Kerr-Lawson 1995, 15). Michael Hodges and John Lachs, in their book Thinking in the Ruins: Wittgenstein and Santayana on Contingency claim that Rorty “has a corresponding source of ironic detachment: the strong poets provides an escape from public world by sketching perspectives from its care and problems fall away” (Lachs and Hodges 13).
Controversy. Rorty uses Santayana at various places to strengthen his own point, something that is criticized by Seaton (see above). One can claim that it is irresponsible to use some views of a given philosopher without the context of his or her whole work and idea. However, Rorty (and some others) is notorious on this way of interpreting other thinkers. He uses, I think on purpose and intentionally, some fragments of the philosophy of these philosophers, say Hegel and Santayana, for the purposes of the contemporary issues and his own seeing these issues.
Continuation. One way of continuing the discussion between Rorty’s and Santayana’s philosophical positions has been suggested by Levinson in his Santayana, Pragmatism, and the Spiritual Life. Comparing the conflicting views on realism in Rorty and Hilary Putnam, Levinson concludes: “Rorty’s pragmatism is realistic and Putnam’s realism is pragmatic and they tend to converge in a position similar to one occupied by Santayana” (Levinson 186). Matthew Flamm, in “Pragmatic Moralism and the Politicization of Philosophy,” gets Santayana into the discussion about Rorty’s politicization of John Dewey’s pragmatism and concludes by suggesting that Santayana’s previous accusation of Dewey’s philosophy of ‘moralism’ or reducing philosophy into the socio-political context, was in this context prophetic.
Contribution. Studying the Rorty-Santayana philosophical relationship can be fruitful for at least one basic reason: the role of philosophy as such in contemporary culture and the role of philosophers in the public and private spheres of life.
A note: This is the first version of the entry on Rorty on Santayana; a more completed version, having more plots, referring to more material, and including more commentators will be provided after the presentation of the entries on pragmatism, neopragmatism, realism, William James, John Dewey, and others.
Flamm, Matthew (2009). “Pragmatic Moralism and the Politicization of Philosophy,” in: Bulletin of the Santayana Society, no. 27, pp. 18-26.
Kerr-Lawson, Angus (1995). “Rorty has no Physics,” in: Bulletin of the Santayana Society, pp. 12-15.
Hodges, Michael and Lachs, John (2000).Thinking in the Ruins: Wittgenstein and Santayana on Contingency. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Levinson, Henry (1992). Santayana, Pragmatism and the Spiritual Life. The University of North Carolina Press.
Rorty, Richard (1979). Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Rorty, Richard (1995). Rorty and Pragmatism. The Philosopher Responds to His Critics. Edited by Herman Saatkamp. Nashville and London: Vanderbilt University Press.
Rorty, Richard (1998). Truth and Progress. Cambridge University Press.
Rorty, Richard (2006). Take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself. Interviews with Richard Rorty. Edited by Eduardo Mendieta. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Rorty, Richard (2007). Philosophy as Cultural Politics. Cambridge University Press.
Seaton, James (2014). “Richard Rorty’s Misleading Use of Santayana,” in: Bulletin of the Santayana Society, pp. 63-70.
Santayana, George (1938). The Realm of Truth. New York: Scribner’s.
Santayana, George (1957). Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. New York: Harper.
A copyright note: The present Santayana: A Philosophical Guide blog material cannot be copied without the author’s permission.