Santayana on The History of Philosophy. Santayana is a good example for us to see at least four different approaches to the history of philosophy: 1) studying the past authors to see what they really claimed and why, 2) using past authors and their ideas as “a quarry or a touchstone for my own thoughts” (PGS 543), 3) contributing to (the history of) philosophy by originally developing selected problems, issues, and ideas that have been circulating through time, and 4) comparing ideas, texts, and worldviews that have been proposed by the great authors.
1) Studying past philosophers to see what they really claimed and why, he considered as most suitable for a university education in philosophy departments, and this was usually conventional. He gave courses on the history of philosophy at Harvard, wrote some works on Plato, Spinoza, Lotze, Dante, Lucretius, translated Aristotle (unpublished) and some others authors (Santayana knew many languages, including the classic), yet he can hardly be described as a historian of philosophy in the first sense of this term, and the main reasons being as follows. When asked, by a well-known American historian of philosophy, B.A.G. Fuller, for his opinion about his (Fuller’s) manuscript of History of Greek Philosophy, Santayana commented: “I see that really you are not writing a history of Greek Philosophy at all, but a review of what the professors — chiefly English or Scottish — now say about it. (…) the first thing to do if you had wished to study the ancients themselves should have been to become a believer in them (…). Plato and Aristotle speak for themselves, if you trust them, and if you want guidance, you have it, within the school and its living traditions, in the Neo Platonists, the Arabians, and the Scholastics” (L 4 254). Santayana did not strive to render past philosophers according to what they factually thought in the contexts that really took place in the past; even his teaching on Plato at Harvard he later called “retrospective politics” (PP 394). Nor did he care what other commentators wrote about the classic figures.
2) Using past philosophers for one’s own aims, was, to employ his words, more appropriate for philosophical sects (as he calls schools of thought) and for individual thinkers having ambitions to create their own systems (cf. PP 392). Here, he used the history of philosophy predominantly as an inspirational source for his own philosophical aims: self-criticism, the pursuit of self-knowledge, and for working on his own philosophy, being aware, however, of “the egotism of that procedure, and the danger of it” (PGS 543) – the danger of misreading the original texts and misinterpreting the past authors. For example, he ignores the historians’ dispute as to who was responsible for putting the name ‘meta’ before ‘physics’ in Aristotle’s book and, contrary to most of them, assumes that Aristotle did it himself, and on purpose – which was to add moralism to his physics -, and he goes on interpreting Aristotle’s metaphysics in light of his idea of Aristotle’s political moralism and intellectualism (PGS 519). Likewise, he wrote a book on German idealism (Egotism in German Philosophy), in which he took his own idea of naturalism as the point of departure for his claim that transcendentalism was a form of egotism; he later honestly admitted that “if taken for a general history or treasury of philosophy in Germany my book becomes indeed incredibly bad” (PGS 551-552). It does not mean that his philosophical work is unsuccessful; he simply wanted to interpret past authors from his viewpoint rather than study theirs.
3) Santayana also practiced the third way of ‘doing’ a history of philosophy, which is contributing to the development of some of its ideas and issues that have been discussed through time. He attempted to continue and develop the materialism of the Greek naturalists and to naturalize or demythologize Platonism, and all this accompanied by his attempts to give proofs to critical realism. Santayana gained some recognition (see below) on these attempts, despite his own claim that, “I never wished to be original, so as to contribute to the growth of science. All I care for is to sift the truth from traditional imagination, without empoverishing the latter” (L 7, 328-329).
4) In a letter to G. H. Palmer, Santayana admitted that he intended to write “a critical history of philosophy, or rather a critical essay on the history of philosophy, on the plan that there is a thread of normal opinion, not unbroken yet traceable, from the Hindus on, and that a great number of heresies have branched off at this or that point, of which it will be interesting to analyse the nature and the plausibility” (L 2, 94). This idea was not realized; however, on another occasion, he wrote Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe as the first volume of Harvard’s studies on comparative literature, in which Lucretius expressed a materialistic viewpoint, Dante theocentric, and Goethe humanistic. Apart from interpreting the philosophies and ideas of these three eminent authors, he compared them in such a way as to show various ways of the possible worldviews that articulate different ways of having a good life. In the preface he admits he is not a scholar or a specialist on these authors in what I describe as the sense 1); however, he claims that “It is only a piece of literary criticism, together with a first broad lesson in the history of philosophy—and, perhaps, in philosophy itself” (TPP, vi).
Comparison. Michel de Montaigne as a classic philosopher of the past and Richard Rorty as one of the most influential contemporaries can be some of those whose styles of interpreting history of philosophy seem to have something in common with Santayana’s understanding of doing a history of philosophy, especially in the second meaning of this term and the third. Montaigne used a history of philosophy to develop his worldview and his attitude, and he was fully aware of this approach: “We can say, Cicero says thus; these were the manners of Plato; these are the very words of Aristotle: but what do we say ourselves? What do we judge? A parrot would say as much as that” (Essays, “Of Pedantry”). Rorty has frequently been accused by his fellow philosophers of an inappropriate reading of many classic figures and systems, and this includes Rorty’s reading of Santayana. James Seaton writes that Rorty’s “attempt to associate his own point of view with that of Santayana (…) distorts Santayana’s actual ideas and thus has the effect of diminishing the significance of Santayana’s true legacy” (Seaton 2014, 66). Indeed, Rorty instrumentalized other philosophers by redescribing the problems they had dealt with to better apply these problems to the present context. In “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres” Rorty describes the history of philosophy understood as the rational reconstruction of the past arguments as anachronic, and demands the history of philosophy be treated in a somewhat similar way as the history of science, where the ideas that have lost their meanings should be ousted by those which seems to provide us with more stimulation nowadays (cf. Rorty 1998, pp. 247nn).
Criticism. Morris Grossman examined Santayana’s studies of Plato, and concluded that Santayana “reveals as much about himself as he does about Plato. He is surely characterizing his own ways of philosophizing and indicating what he regards as the critical properties. As he reads Plato, so would he also be read and evaluated and understood” (Grossman 2014, 213). David Dilworth claims that “Santayana does not adequately explain the consummatory quality of his own text and its essential continuity with those of Anaximenes, Democritus, and other pure materialists in the world traditions” (Dilworth 1989, 139).
Recognition. In A History of Philosophy in America (by E. Flower and M. G. Murphey) we can read that “Santayana’s great virtue to the student of the history of philosophy in America lies in the radical contrast between his work and that of every other American thinker (Flower and Murphey 1977, 774). Michael Eldrigde, in The Backwell Guide to American Philosophy, appreciates Santayana’s “immense knowledge of history of philosophy” (Eldridge 2004, 54). Timothy Sprigge, in his book on Santayana claims that “Santayana was steeped in the history of philosophy, and he did not so much strive for originality as for a total balanced view incorporating what was sensible in each of the main traditional philosophies” (Sprigge 1974/1995, 9). B. A. G. Fuller, in 2 volume History of Philosophy devotes a chapter to Santayana’s thought and stresses the importance of his views on realism. Richard Rorty, in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, writes: “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).
Controversies. Bertrand Russell, when asked why he did not include Santayana in A History of Western Philosophy (apart from some minor remarks), answered that it was because there was “nothing original”: it “all came from Plato and Leibniz” (L 7, 328). Interestingly, Frederick Copleston, in his History of Philosophy, vol. 8, mentions Santayana’s influence on Russells’s ethical views (cf. Copleston 1966/1999, 475). He also describes Santayana in the entry devoted to realism in Britain and America (cf. pp. 391-393), and Routledge History of Philosophy vol, X in entries on naturalism and on the philosophy of art (cf. Routledge 144, 401).
Contribution. K. W. Harrington claims (indirectly referring to what I indicate as point 3) that Santayana’s contribution to a scholarship on Platonism is significant because he proposed the naturalistic interpretation of Plato for the first time in American philosophy (cf. Harrington 1977, 66). Irving Singer claims that Santayana’s “attempt to unify Platonism and naturalism fails as philosophy”; however, “it succeeds as an exciting and uniquely inspirational expression of humanistic imagination”; “In the history of philosophy no one has written about imagination with greater profundity than Santayana” (Singer 2000; x, 199). Dilworth appreciates Santayana on point 4), and recognizes his achievements in the context of practicing a history of philosophy, whose aim is to “enter into intertextual relations with a whole range of world’s philosophies” (Dilworth 1989, 170).
Continuations. Morris Grossman shows his indebtedness to Santayana not only in the very title of his book: Art and Morality: Essays in the Spirit of George Santayana, but also gives methodological vindication to his following Santayana in studies in history of philosophy: “Santayana somewhere wrote that when Peter tells you something about Paul you learn more about Peter than about Paul. The point is clear enough, whether or not we know the textual origins of what Peter said about Paul or what his words actually were. We have all encountered in social situations this kind of duplicity of revelation(…). When I report what Santayana has written, the reader might learn more about me than he does about Santayana (Grossman 2014, p. 8). Irving Singer calls Santayana “the first great aesthetician in the history of American philosophy” (Singer 2000, 198), and admits Santayana’s influence on his career: “In my case, his writings provided the blueprint of an outlook that I had only to modify to suit my own sense of reality” (ibid., 198-199). John Lachs recognizes Santayana’s role in critical realism; Lachs clarifies and develops Santayana’s argumentation on this in “The Proofs of Realism.”
(TPP) Santayana, George (1910). Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
(PGS) Paul Schilpp, editor (1951). Philosophy of George Santayana. Library of Living Philosophers. Open Court.
(PP) Santayana, George (1944-1953/1986). Persons and Places. Fragments of Autobiography. Critical Edition.
Edited by William Holzberger and Herman Saatkamp. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The MIT Press.
(L 2) Santayana, George (2002). Letters of George Santayana, Book Two, 1910-1920. Edited by William G. Holzberger, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The MIT Press.
(L 4) Santayana, George (2003). Letters of George Santayana, Book Four, 1928-1932. Edited by William G. Holzberger, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The MIT Press.
(L 7) Santayana, George (2006). Letters of George Santayana, Book Seven, 1941-1947. Edited by William G. Holzberger, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The MIT Press.
Copleston, Frederick (1966/1999). A History of Philosophy. Vol. 8, Bentham to Russell. Burns&Oates
Dilworth, David (1989). Philosophy in World Perspective. A Comparative Hermeneutic of the Major Theories.
New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Eldridge, Michael (2004). “Santayana: American Naturalism’s Early Role Model,” in: The Backwell Guide to
American Philosophy. Edited by Armen T. Marsoobian and John Ryder. Malden: Backwell Publishing, pp. 54-55.
Flower, Elizabeth and Murphey, Murray, G. (1977). A History of Philosophy in America. Vol. 1. New York:
Fuller, B. A. G. A History of Philosophy (1952). A Revised Edition. New York: Holt.
Grossman, Morris (2014). Art and Morality: Essays in the Spirit of George Santayana.
Harrington, K. W. (1977). “Santayana and Humanists on Plato,” in: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Sep.), pp. 66-81.
Lachs, John (1967/1987). “The Proofs of Realism,” in: Lachs’s Mind and Philosophers, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1987, pp. 89-119.
de Montaigne, Michel (1580). Essays. Numerous editions.
Rorty, Richard (1979). Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Rorty, Richard (1988). “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres,” in: R. Rorty, Truth and Progress. Philosophical Papers, vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 247-273.
Routledge History of Philosophy, vol. X (1997). Edited by John Canfield. London and New York: Routledge.
Seaton, James (2014). “Richard Rorty’s Misleading Use of Santayana,” in: Bulleting of Santayana Society, pp. 63-70.
Singer, Irving (2000). George Santayana, Literary Philosopher. New Heaven and London: Yale University Press.
Sprigge, Timothy L. S. (1974/1995). Santayana. An examination of His Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge.
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