Thinking in the Ruins: Wittgenstein and Santayana on Contingency (review)
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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 15.3 (2001) 251-253

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Book Review

Thinking in the Ruins: Wittgenstein and Santayana on Contingency. The Vanderbilt Library of American Philosophy.

Thinking in the Ruins: Wittgenstein and Santayana on Contingency. Michael Hodges and John Lachs. The Vanderbilt Library of American Philosophy. Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr., ed. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000. Pp. xiii + 129. $29.95 h.c. 0-8265-1341-7.

Anyone acquainted with Wittgenstein's and Santayana's work should be aware of a number of obvious differences between the two philosophers. While both were praised for their literary style, Wittgenstein's compact aphorisms and Santayana's flowing prose were radically different, and while Santayana seemed to unapologetically engage in systematic metaphysics, Wittgenstein's philosophy seems both antisystematic and antimetaphysical. Nevertheless, Hodges and Lachs attempt to argue that while Santayana's and Wittgenstein's "resources, tools, and strategies are different, the philosophical goals they wish to achieve by means of them are remarkably similar" (93).

The opening chapter presents both as responding to the perceived collapse of the "comfortable certainties of Western civilization" (xii) that followed the First World War. The authors contrast Wittgenstein's and Santayana's "conservative" and "ironically accepting" reactions to "the twentieth century's painful discovery of contingency" (3) with "Cartesian," "Neitzschean," "Pragmatist," and "Postmodernist" responses to the problem. The second chapter argues that both Santayana and Wittgenstein think that "persistent and unallayable doubt shows that something has gone wrong in the intellectual enterprise," and that while skepticism cannot be defeated on its own terms, those terms are irrelevant to the actual processes of inquiry. Consequently, "both reject absolute certainty as the standard of cognition and want to return the criteria of knowledge to the looser practices of ordinary life" (32). The authors then take on the formidable task of showing that Santayana's and Wittgenstein's meta-ethical views "are virtually indistinguishable" (47). The negative aspect of Santayana and Wittgenstein's agreement resides in their "rejection of universal claims about the good," while their positive accord shows up in their "belief that moral life and moral values reside in particular social practices" (52). The authors discuss the possibility that such ethical views might lead to a type of complacent conservatism about ethical matters, and argue that [End Page 251] the two still make room for critique, and only deny that it can be "based on neutral or universal principles" (53). The next chapter argues that, when properly understood, Wittgenstein's conception of a "form of life" bears a number of remarkable similarities to Santayana's notion of "animal faith" in that both philosophers agree that the facts of animal life "constitute the final and definitive context of all our practices" (65). Hodges and Lachs then attempts to establish that, though not religious themselves, Santayana and Wittgenstein were among the few who "could understand the power and affirm the self-justifying independence of the religious life" (71), and that each thought that "the role of religious discourse is not to convey factual information but to articulate life-transforming ideals" (81). The book's conclusion focuses primarily on reconciling Santayana's apparent interest in ontology with Wittgenstein's avoidance of the topic. The authors argue that one of the central purposes of Santayana's "ironic ontology" is to "let the air out of the grand metaphysical systems of the past," and that both philosophers believe "ontology is impossible simply because we cannot attain the perspective necessary to take an objective inventory of all there is" (91). In response to this shared belief, Wittgenstein "altogether refuses to take up ontology," while Santayana "displaces it by means of an 'ontology' that undercuts its own objectivity" (91). As with the discussion of skepticism in chapter 2, the authors thus hope to show that Santayana's and Wittgenstein's "differences in strategy guise an identity in ultimate belief" (92).

The book presents a clear and persuasive exposition of both Santayana and Wittgenstein, and even if one is not especially interested in the connection between them, it serves as a good...