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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."


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