Skip to main content

George Santayana

The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy

a famous/infamous work by George Santayana.

a link: courtesy of Columbia University library. I won't argue with GS in this entry, I'll simply present his complaint against the tradition in question. This complaint was that three very conflicting strands made up this philosophy, which exists by fudging the differences among those strands.

The "genteel tradition" in the US in the late 19th century consisted of one part Calvinist Christianity, one part Darwinian evolution, and one part Hegelian idealism. Darwin was taken as having provided empirical support for the dialectical progression to which Hegel gave world-constituting significance, and both were taken to vindicate the Reformation.

The churches in the Emerson's day, Santayana says, had left any rigorous adherence to Calvinism behind, but they had nothing else on offer philosophically except "a selection or a new emphasis on parts of what Calvinism contained." This unadmitted falling-away from Calvin was the origin of the "mediocrity of the genteel tradition." Though Emerson -- like his great contemporaries, Poe and Hawthorne, personally escaped its mediocrity, "they supplied nothing to supplant it in other minds."

Obviously the components of this compound are very different from one another, and Santayana was repelled in large part by what he saw as a fudging of their differences. But he also opposed two of the three components taken singly. As to Darwinian evolution, the one component he did not oppose, he regarded it as a hypothesis that spoke to biological facts but which has no great significance, metaphysical or moral, for a philosopher.

William James was, in Santayana's view, "tightly swaddled in the genteel tradition" by his father and along with his novelist brother. James was, as it happens, as firmly anti-Hegel as was Santayana, but he did tend to assign great importance to Darwinian theory on the one hand, and to Reformation theology on the other. Santayana credits him with delivering "rude shocks" to the tradition in which he had been reared, and with having burst its bonds "almost entirely." Yet when someone as careful with words as is Santayana uses "almost," it is important that he does.

Santayana observes in this essay, too, that the defenders of the genteel tradition call its adversaries "dualists." No one should be put off by being called a dualist, he says, "The pint would call the quart a dualist, if you tried to pour the quart into him."


Popular posts from this blog

Great Chain of Being

One of the points that Lovejoy makes in the book of that title I mentioned last week is the importance, in the Neo-Platonist conceptions and in the later development of the "chain of being" metaphor, of what he calls the principle of plenitude. This is the underlying notion that everything that can exist must exist, that creation would not be possible at all were it to leave gaps.

The value of this idea for a certain type of theodicy is clear enough.

This caused theological difficulties when these ideas were absorbed into Christianity.  I'll quote a bit of what Lovejoy has to say about those difficulties:

"For that conception, when taken over into Christianity, had to be accommodated to very different principles, drawn from other sources, which forbade its literal interpretation; to carry it through to what seemed to be its necessary implications was to be sure of falling into one theological pitfall or another."

The big pitfalls were: determinism on the on…

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…