A Smiling Philosophy (Santayana)

Here is one more system of philosophy.  If the reader is tempted to smile, I can assure him that I smile with him, and that my system…differs widely in spirit and pretensions from what usually goes by that name.  In the first place, my system is not mine, nor new.  I am merely attempting to express for the reader the principles to which he appeals when he smiles.  There are convictions in the depth of his soul, beneath all his overt parrot beliefs, on which I would build our friendship.  I have a great respect for orthodoxy; not for those orthodoxies which prevail in particular schools or nations, and which vary from age to age, but for a certain shrewd orthodoxy which the sentiment and practice of laymen maintain everywhere.  I think that common sense, in a rough and dogged way, is technically sounder than the special schools of philosophy, each of which squints and overlooks half the facts and half the difficulties in its eagerness to find in some detail the key to the whole.  I am animated by distrust of all high guesses, and by sympathy with the old prejudices and workaday opinions of mankind:  they are ill expressed, but they are well grounded.  What novelty my version of things may possess is meant simply to obviate occasions for sophistry by giving everyday beliefs a more accurate and circumspect form.  I do not pretend to place myself at the heart of the universe nor at its origin, nor to draw its periphery.  I would lay siege to the truth only as animal exploration and fancy may do so, first from one quarter and then another, expecting the reality to be not simpler than my experience of it, but far more extensive and complex.  I stand in philosophy exactly where I stand in daily life;  I should not be honest otherwise.  I accept the same miraculous witnesses, bow to the same obvious facts, make conjectures no less instinctively, and admit the same encircling ignorance.

I can still remember the profound jolt this passage was to me during my sophomore year of college.  I had somehow embarked on a course of Santayana reading, and even found a professor to aid me (Troy Organ, blessed man!).  I promptly memorized the passage, and although I have forgotten much of it over the years, its brilliant pastiche of Luther’s “Here I stand.  I can do no other”—“I stand in philosophy exactly where I stand in daily life;  I should not be honest otherwise”–I have never forgotten.  (Indeed, one of the singular moments of my recent life is connected with it.  I was standing outside the Harvard Faculty Club, talking with Sean Kelly, and I quoted the line.  It struck my ear strangely, I guess because I realized I was likely standing where Santayana himself had sometimes stood.)  I still don’t know what I make of the contents of the book this passage prefaces–Scepticism and Animal Faith–but I have tried to think in creative fidelity to the passage.  Anyway, the passage bore itself in on me as a compendium of some recent themes on the blog.

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