- Santayana, Pragmatism, and the Spiritual Life, and: Charles Sanders Pierce: A Life
What is pragmatism? Two new books—a study of George Santayana and a biography of Charles Sanders Pierce—suggest that this question has a long and illuminating history. In conventional accounts of American philosophy, Santayana figures as a Spanish mystic whose transcendental disposition led him to articulate a philosophy opposed in principle to the empiricist pragmatism sponsored by William James and John Dewey; in Santayana, Pragmatism, and the Spiritual Life, Henry Samuel Levinson argues that Santayana’s work in fact proceeds from a commitment to pragmatist principles, and eventuates in a pragmatism crucially alternative to that which has become canonized. Since 1898—when James gave Charles Sanders Pierce credit for developing pragmatism—it has been widely assumed that Pierce and James conceived that term to mean the same thing; in Charles Sanders Pierce: A Life, Joseph Brent notes that Pierce was in fact increasingly at odds with the interpretation of pragmatism offered by James, and eventually took to distinguishing himself as a “pragmaticist” in order to register his differences. Both studies recall that from its inception pragmatism has been a contested object of interpretation; both studies further suggest that the history of pragmatist thought in this century is governed by a tension that not only accounts for past and present debates over its nature and direction, but also illuminates a certain unfinished business within the culture of which that thought is a part.
The avowed purpose of Levinson’s study is to reveal Santayana as the architect of a pragmatism that in its accommodation of “the life of the spirit” is better able to address “the problems and promise of human finitude” (9) than the mainstream pragmatism developed by Dewey. As Levinson pursues this motive it becomes apparent that it will account at once for the more pedestrian and illuminating moments of his inquiry. On the one hand the desire to include Santayana’s thought within the pragmatist tradition results in readings of the work that resolve too often into the assertion that (as Levinson writes in summary) Santayana “characterized knowledge as nonfoundational inquiry; reason as nontranscendent or immanent criticism; every sort of language as expressive, imaginative, or poetic; every part of existence as contingent or historical; and philosophy as reflection on problems of human finitude rather than as a search for first principles or for the really real” (3). In such moments Santayana emerges as one of the clichés of what might be called re-revisionist history: a respected intellectual of the modern period, spurned by critics of a later period for possessing habits of mind deemed unsound, who appears on closer examination to have possessed precisely those habits of mind now celebrated. On the other hand the desire to characterize the thought of Santayana as better than the thought of mainstream pragmatists like James and Dewey leads Levinson toward illuminating moments of comparative analysis in which the articulation of pragmatist thought in this century reveals a tension that invites further inquiry.
The tension that Levinson’s study focuses is evident in the antinomies by which it is organized: society versus solitude; the tragic versus the comic; self-assertion versus self-negation; philosophy as engagement versus philosophy as critical reflection; religion as ideology versus religion as neutrality; and democracy versus enlightened aristocracy. Each of these antinomies, as elucidated in Levinson’s analysis, evokes on the one hand a sphere of ongoing interpretive dispute (society, tragedy, self-assertion, engagement, ideology, [End Page 169] and democracy), and on the other hand a sphere in which such dispute is ostensibly overcome (solitude, comedy, self-negation, critical reflection, neutrality, and enlightened aristocracy). In other words each illustrative antinomy betrays a common structure whereby the latter term is understood to derive its force from the possibility it evokes of moving beyond the world of interpretive dispute associated with the former. In differentiating the pragmatism of Santayana from the pragmatism...