Durant 1926: Skepticism and Animal Faith (Santayana)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 1.2 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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I. GEORGE SANTAYANA

2. Skepticism and Animal Faith

“Here,” says the preface, “is one more system of philosophy. If the reader is tempted to smile, I can assure him that I smile with him. … I am merely attempting to express for the reader the principles to which he appeals when he smiles.” Santayana is modest enough (and this is strange in a philosopher) to believe that other systems than his own are possible. “I do not ask anyone to think in my terms if he prefers others. Let him clean better, if he can, the windows of his soul, that the variety and beauty of the prospect may spread more brightly before him.” 

Santayana is modest enough to believe that other systems than his own are possible. 

In this last and introductory volume he proposes to clear away, first of all, the epistemological cobwebs that have enmeshed and arrested the growth of modern philosophy. Before he delineates the Life of Reason he is willing to discuss, with all the technical paraphernalia dear to the professional epistemologist, the origin, validity and limits of human reason. He knows that the great snare of thought is the uncritical acceptance of traditional assumptions: “criticism surprises the soul in the arms of convention,” he says, unconventionally. He is willing to doubt almost everything: the world comes to us dripping with the qualities of the senses through which it has flowed, and the past comes down to us through a memory treacherously colored with desire. Only one thing seems certain to him, and that is the experience of the moment—this color, this form, this taste, this odor, this quality; these are the “real” world, and their perception constitutes “the discovery of essence.”

The great snare of thought is the uncritical acceptance of traditional assumptions. Only the experience of the moment—this color, this form, this taste, this odor, this quality—is certain.

Idealism is correct, but of no great consequence: it is true that we knew the world only through our ideas; but since the world has behaved, for some thousands of years, substantially as if our combined sensations were true, we may accept this pragmatic sanction without worry for the future. “Animal faith” may be faith in a myth, but the myth is a good myth, since life is better than any syllogism. The fallacy of Hume lay in supposing that by discovering the origin of ideas he had destroyed their validity: “A natural child meant for him an illegitimate one; his philosophy had not yet reached the wisdom of the French lady who asked if all children were not natural.” This effort to be sceptically strict in doubting the veracity of experience has been carried by the Germans to the point of a disease, like a madman forever washing his hands to clean away dirt that is not there. But even these philosophers “who look for the foundations of the universe in their own minds” do not live as if they really believed that things cease to exist when not perceived.

We are not asked to abolish our conception of the natural world, nor even, in our daily life, to cease to believe in it; we are to be idealists only north-northwest, or transcendentally; when the wind is southerly we are to remain realists. … I should be ashamed to countenance opinions which, when not arguing, I did not believe. It would seem to me dishonest and cowardly to militate under other colors than those under which I live. … Therefore no modern writer is altogether a philosopher in my eyes, except Spinoza. … I have frankly taken nature by the hand, accepting as a rule, in my farthest speculation, the animal faith I live by from day to day.

Idealism is correct, but of no great consequence: it is true that we knew the world only through our ideas; but since the world has behaved, for some thousands of years, substantially as if our combined sensations were true, we may accept this pragmatic sanction without worry for the future.

And so Santayana is through with epistemology; and we breathe more easily as we pass on with him to that magnificent reconstruction of Plato and Aristotle which he calls “The Life of Reason.” This epistemological introduction was apparently a necessary baptism for the new philosophy. It is a transitional concession; philosophy still makes its bow in epistemological dress, like the labor leaders who for a time wear silk breeches at the king’s court. Some day, when the middle ages are really over, philosophy will come down from these clouds, and deal with the affairs of men.

Philosophy should come down from these clouds, and deal with the affairs of men.

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