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Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.4 (2001) 603-604
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Irving Singer. George Santayana, Literary Philosopher. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Pp. xiii + 217. Cloth, $25.00.
In a prefatory comment, Irving Singer affirms that George Santayana, Literary Philosopher is "an introduction to the part of Santayana's philosophy that has meant the most to me" (xii). The locus of this personal interest, he goes on to say, is in the "humanistic relevance" of Santayana's work. Singer's fruitful reflections on Santayana's literary genius, as well as the great philosopher's depth of critical insight with regard to aesthetics, literature, and love, all testify to this humanistic interest.
Singer's examinations of Santayana's critical and fictional works are as accessible as they are interesting, a characteristic which alone recommends the book for readers interested in gaining an introductory understanding. Equally important however is the fact that Singer's reflections lend themselves to a much larger academic audience as well. Santayana's work is revealed, correctly, to be not only relevant to the philosophical community, but to contain contributional elements that are of interest to criticism in both literature and art.
This does not mean that Singer avoids criticizing Santayana's philosophy. To the contrary, he levels a key criticism that begs response. Singer believes Santayana is incapable of accounting for interpersonal love. According to Singer, Santayana's deficiency in this regard is due to his belief that "[other] individuals are merely the vehicle [End Page 603] to some cherished ideal" (124). More specifically, Singer holds that Santayana's account of the realization of interpersonal love is restricted by an unnecessary dualism: the gratification of material desires (like Freud), and the distanced contemplation of an ideal (like Plato).
This familiar dualism might be referred to as the "desire-renunciation" formula Santayana employs throughout his work in an attempt to pay equal respect to the material ground, and the contrasting ideal groundlessness of all things. For Santayana, the oscillation between desire and renunciation is so obviously reflected in individual aspirations, and in the general course of every human life that, for the philosopher, the task is not to attempt to justify one or the other, but to reconcile them. For Singer however, Santayana ultimately fails in this attempt: "...[Santayana's] attempt to unify Platonism and naturalism fails as philosophy..." (x). He charges that the structure of Santayana's philosophy "fails to show us how people can overcome the split between matter and spirit." Thus, Singer's divergence from Santayana derives from an overall rejection of the philosophical soundness of his work (favoring its humanistic appeal), and from his feeling that Santayana's philosophy never achieves the reconciliation it sets out as its goal. But these charges are unjust, and they seem to arise from an insufficient account of Santayana's doctrine of essence as it relates to his understanding of love.
For Singer, "persons" rather than essences (or ideals) are the irreducible themes of human interest: "...loving is not the same as desiring. We desire things or persons for what they can give us, for satisfactions we hope they will provide. In loving anyone, however, we take an interest in that person, as a person and not just as a vehicle to something else" (91). But the implicit charge of this claim, namely, that Santayana's preference for essences as the irreducible themes of human interest results in the view that humans are incapable of loving persons-qua-persons (but only qua-essences), is simply wrong; and, importantly, reflective of a misunderstanding of Santayana's doctrine of essence.
Santayana is consistent in his affirmation that in youth, when the demand to act is acute, it is sane to cry and to beat one's fists against the world, while with time and experience, such heated displays become tragic and even unbecoming. The same is true for Santayana with respect to love. It is wisdom reflective of the love of all things to laugh (ironically) at what was in youth an irremediable demand for the love of particular...