Monday, March 12, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Fifteen

“George Santayana,” pages 92-98

Russell met Santayana in London in 1893, as Bertie was on the precipice of studying philosophy. Santayana’s parents were Spanish, and though himself raised in Boston, he remained closely connected to, even enamored of, Spain. “Whenever his Spanish patriotism was involved, his usual air of detachment disappeared [pages 92-93].” Mediterraneans, according to Santayana, were the world’s philosophers, those best suited for contemplation. But the philosopher Russell did not mind the condescension, “as my patriotic self-confidence was quite equal to his [p. 93].”

Santayana was calm and precise in his habits. As one might guess from his books, he dressed neatly, even in environs where less formality would have been more suitable. Santayana supported the social and political aspects of Catholicism, though he did not accept Catholic religious beliefs. He was not concerned that the general populace accept true doctrines; rather, he wished for them to adopt “some myth to which he could give aesthetic approval [p. 94].” Santayana and his long-time colleague William James could not get on, presumably for differences in their philosophical outlooks.

Russell also did not rate Santayana highly as a philosopher, though respected his talent for shedding light on unfashionable ideas. Russell felt less respect for Santayana’s extreme reactionary ideas. Santayana had much of the medieval scholastic about him. Santayana asserts without argument, or assumes, matters that require argumentation. His writing style leads to an unthinking acceptance on the part of the reader, whose lack of engagement then renders the material completely forgettable.

Nonetheless, a book by Santayana helped Russell to abandon his Moore-inspired view that good and evil are objective concepts. (The book that Russell references, Winds of Doctrine, contains an extensive chapter entitled "The Philosophy of Mr. Bertrand Russell.") Russell also finds much to approve of in Santayana’s literary criticism. Russell shared some of Santayana’s views of American academic culture, though not the frame of mind that accompanied those views. “Aloofness and facile contempt were his defects, and because of them, although he could be admired, he was a person whom it was difficult to love [p. 97].” Russell quotes Santayana on Russell, concerning how Russell’s intensity of focus loses for him the larger context.

Santayana’s reverence for the calm of the past renders him an enemy to real intellectual progress. “It is for this reason that Santayana’s merits are literary rather than philosophical [p. 98].”

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