Santayana and Wittgenstein on Scepticism

Luis M. Valdés-Villanueva


At first sight, the attempt to compare the philosophical positions of George Santayana (1863-1952) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) could be considered as something bold, even extravagant. They belong to so different traditions with so divergent methods, aims, styles and sensibilities that they seem “improbable candidates for comparative study”. Of course, this fact reveals itself in the philosophical literature: in the last 60 years, Santayana’s and Wittgenstein’s scholars seem, as a rule, to have ignored each other. However, all rules have exceptions: in The Claim of Reason (1979) Stanley Cavell mentions in passing that Wittgenstein shares with Santayana (and the existentialists) a “knowledge of the depth of contingency” that undermines classical epistemology. More recently (2000) Michael Hodges and John Lachs have published the only book which is focused on the relationship between Wittgenstein’s and Santayana’s thought [Thinking in the Ruins. Wittgenstein and Santayna on Contingency [TR], Vanderbilt University Press]. I think that [TR] is a good book; more than that, I think that it is a very brave book. The comparison between Santayana and Wittgenstein that Hodges and Lachs undertake has undoubtedly a point. Both philosophers share in fact much more than Cavell’s quick remark suggests: similarities between them range from personal biographies to philosophical goals, not to mention their conservatism, their standards of “decency” (Wittgenstein)/ “honesty” (Santayana), or their contempt towards professional philosophers. My contribution will be centred in Santayna’s and Wittgenstein’s treatment of scepticism. What I intend here is a kind of “elucidatory” exercise; I believe that a critical account of the way in which both philosophers deal with the topic will throw presumably new light upon it. In [TR] there is indeed an exposition of Santayna’s and Wittgenstein’s treatments of scepticism. However, I think that Hodges and Lachs overemphasize the similarities and in most cases they are forgetful of the differences. The result is that the final picture we get from their account turns out to be very flat and the important tensions between both accounts have almost disappeared. In fact, Wittgenstein’s and Santayana’s strategies regarding scepticism are completely different. Wittgenstein’s purpose is to prevent sceptical arguments to grow from the very beginning, because he thinks that, once sceptical arguments take hold, the last resort left seems to be a dogmatism of various kinds (this is precisely Wittgenstein’s query against Moore’s common sense). On his part, Santayna starts his Scepticism and Animal Faith with the commitment to give sceptics the benefit of doubting everything they can: “Let me then push scepticism as far as I logically can, and endeavour to clear my mind of illusion, even at the price of intellectual suicide”. When the sceptic arrives to “the solipsism of the present moment” (by the way, an expression coined by Santayna) and, as expected, he commits “intellectual suicide”, the following step in order to recover the ordinary world is to espouse “animal faith”. The temptation here is to accuse Santayana ipso facto of flagrant and unacceptable dogmatism; that is presumably what a Wittgenstenian would be ready to do. However, Santayana’s stance is not so simple. Wittgenstein is able to block the sceptical manoeuvre from the very beginning through his use of the conceptual link between certain Moore-like propositions and the corresponding languagegames. But Santayana allows the sceptic to continue with his questioning because he regards the whole process as speculative, and he cannot admit any “sacrifice of truth to utility”. He is not prepared to accept that sceptic’s arguments could be denied by his ordinary transactions with the world around him. The final result is that Santayana feels himself legitimized to assert: “I am a dogmatist”, “complete scepticism is […] not inconsistent with animal faith”, or “my dogmatism and my scepticism are complementary views of the same fact of natural history”. For him, an important source of misunderstanding is the impression that scepticism means disbelief. “But disbelief is not sceptical; it is belief in the falseness of a previous assertion”. True sceptics merely analyze belief, discovering the risk and the logical uncertainty inherent to it. But they cannot say that “any belief, much less all belief, was wrong”. Santayana’s standpoint could allow us to see Wittgenstein’s reflections on scepticism under a new light. Wittgenstein, like Santayana, is not prepared for embarking in a hasty dismissal of scepticism given its own unbearability vis à vis our ordinary practices. However, unlike Santayana, he does not feel comfortable with the idea of letting the sceptical argument grow, on account of his link between meaning and practice. Santayana’s conception that there is “a wise direction of curiosity upon things” that “cannot be controlled”, is “irresponsible” and, therefore, independent of any practice whatsoever, is simply out of question here. This line of thought (some philosophers would term it a “linguistic acrobatics”) led Wittgenstein to the discovery of several kinds of propositions that, in a particular sense, are fundamental and certain; it is precisely this fact what guarantees that they are not susceptible of knowledge, doubt or justification. If certainties cannot be justified, that only means that they cannot be known either not-known: as Wittgenstein puts it: the concept of knowledge “gets no purchase here”. Presumably, this move paralyses the sceptic and we are left instead with certainty, a fresh starting point that “lies beyond being justified or unjustified; as it were as something animal”. To the question, But are you not a dogmatist in disguise?, Wittgenstein could rightfully answer: “you should remember that certainty is not my safe haven from scepticism; rather, certainty is something ‘internal’ to our practice of making knowledge claims”. Cavell has described Wittgenstein’s manoeuvre against the sceptical stance as a way of “removing its theatricality”. For once the trick is exposed, the sceptical questions appear as Wittgenstein had depicted them in the Tractatus: “as obviously nonsensical, [for] they try to raise doubts where no questions can be asked”. On the contrary, Santayana does not turn up his nose at the prospect of letting grow the sceptical arguments. First of all, his proposal of pushing scepticism as far as one logically can, should not be considered as a kind of academic exercise. It is true that sceptical doubts do not alter the world or the self — they have no practical effect at all — because they proceed only in thought. But he considers, in a kind of Wittgenstenian vein, that the transit through sceptical arguments is a vital process that changes the person who reaches the summit (let’s say, the solipsism of the present moment) and behaves as a true sceptic. Such a person should resist the temptation of acting dishonestly, of stating that all belief is wrong, that we cannot know anything. Whereas Wittgenstein is concerned with the possibility of sceptical doubts or questions, Santayana’s inquiry on scepticism is concerned with sceptical answers. He is always prepared to brand as dishonest any philosophy that “denies all claims to knowledge and […] it itself claims to know”. On the other hand, Santayna proudly claims something apparently contradictory: “I am a dogmatist, yet I have raised my system on a sceptical foundation”. How could we cope with that? It has been claimed that Wittgenstein is performing a “delicate balancing act” when he allows basic certainties and, at the same time, he denies them the status of known propositions. It is at least debatable if one can clearly distinguish Wittgenstein’s answer to scepticism from scepticism itself. At the end, Santayana, with all his different strategy regarding scepticism, shares with Wittgenstein a similar predicament. He calls himself a dogmatist, where “dogmatist” means that he will not rebel against the “physical necessity” of believing. At the same time, he calls himself a sceptic, and this acknowledgment remains merely the confession that he takes seriously that “faith is faith”. He acknowledges that criticism is only “an exercise of reflective fancy”, an exercise to which he is not disposed to renounce. However, he admits that “in dwelling on criticism as if it were more than a subjective perspective or play of logical optics, I should be renouncing all serious philosophy”, something that he is not prepared to do either. The upshot is again a “delicate balancing act”, a compromise between “reflective fancy” and “physical necessity”. It is that the defeat of scepticism? Or it is rather its victory?


20th century philosophy; philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; animal faith; certainty; Santayana George; scepticism; solipsism of the present moment

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