Monday, August 21, 2017

The Life of Reason, Volume I: Reason in Common Sense by George Santayana

Anything but accessible
George Santayana
Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana enjoyed an immense popularity in the early 20th century (at least as far as philosophers go in the consciousness of the general public). From 1905 to 1906 he published a comprehensive five-volume encapsulation of his philosophical thought entitled The Life of Reason. In the first volume, Reason in Common Sense, Santayana lays out his theory of epistemology, or the philosophy of knowledge. He traces the evolution of human intelligence, both in the species as a whole and in the individual human being, explaining the progression from sensory data to the formation of thoughts and ideas to the development of consciousness. I was interested in reading Santayana because of his fame and acclaim a century ago, but I made the mistake of equating popularity with accessibility. After reading Volume I of The Life of Reason I find it hard to believe anyone outside of philosophical academia could understand Santayana’s writing, much less enjoy it.

Santayana is easiest to comprehend when he’s commenting on other philosophers, whether he’s praising Aristotle and Spinoza or criticizing Plato, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant. Like Aristotle, he is a staunch proponent of empiricism over idealism, and has little patience for mysticism, superstition, or religion, at least when it comes to philosophical reasoning. Nor will he stand for skeptics who assert that empirical thought is unreliable because the limitations of our senses prohibit us from a totally accurate perception of reality. His metaphysics seem to be quite similar to Spinoza’s brand of deterministic materialism, yet he backs off from embracing Spinoza’s pantheism because he doesn’t like its emphasis on man’s insignificance in the universe.

As a layman reading this work a century later, it’s difficult for me to tell what new contributions Santayana brings to the discipline of philosophy above and beyond those who preceded him. I agree with just about everything Santayana has to say, but I don’t agree with the way he says it. Though I’m not a philosophical scholar, I’m far from a novice in the reading of philosophy; yet I found Santayana’s writing to be among the most vague and confusing that I’ve ever encountered. He seems more concerned with crafting lyrical prose than with building a philosophical argument. Most philosophers establish a consistent vocabulary and stick with it, proceeding in a logical manner to build a case towards what they’re trying to say. Santayana eschews a consistent vocabulary because the constant repetition would interrupt the graceful flow of his poetic writing. Each sentence he writes is like an aphorism that can be pulled out of context and admired for its elegance and eloquence, yet this diminishes the coherence of the text as a whole. Rather than a logically structured argument, Volume I reads more like a disconnected series of observations. Even Spinoza’s Ethics is easier to decipher than the convoluted syntax in this book, and Santayana’s prose is more obscure than other overly poetic literary philosophers (or philosophical men of letters) like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Maurice Maeterlinck.

To be fair, of the five branches of philosophy, epistemology is my least favorite, though I did enjoy Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. I chose to read Reason in Common Sense for the obvious reason that it is Volume I of Santayana’s treatise. Perhaps I would find more satisfaction in Volumes II through V, which deal more with ethics, metaphysics, and esthetics—subjects of more personal interest to me. After my tiring slog through Reason in Common Sense, however, I’m unlikely to pursue The Life of Reason any further.

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