Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Those Who Cannot Remember the Past

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

I don't know how long I'll keep up this series, but the idea of looking at the context of well-known philosophical sentences still seems good after having considered it a while. So I thought I'd start, not with one of my original thirty, but with Dave M's excellent suggestion of Santayana's famous dictum. One sees quite a bit of variation in how it is quoted; but the above formulation is the original, from Santayana's Life of Reason. It's one whose context I didn't know offhand, so it interested me as well.

I. George Santayana

First, let's get some background on Santayana himself. Santayana was born in Madrid in December of 1863 to a diplomatic family. He was christened with the name Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, but he was often called George, due in part to his half-sister Susan. By the time he was about eight years old his family had for various reasons begun to live in Boston, where Santayana lived the next forty years of his life. He attended Harvard and almost immediately joined the faculty there, where he became a very popular teacher. After his retirement from Harvard he went to Europe and never returned to the United States. He died of cancer in 1952 and is buried in Rome. Wallace Stevens, one of his former students, commemorated him in his poem, "To an Old Philosopher in Rome", sometimes considered one of Stevens's best poems.

Much of Santayana's philosophical work, which took part in the Pragmatist movement, is aesthetic in character; he was fascinated by the human imagination and strove to investigate its many ins and outs, and held that one of philosophy's chief purposes was to proclaim and rejoice in those aspects of life that make it worth living. It's rather unfortunate that the above maxim is nearly the only thing anyone ever quotes him for, because he is very quotable. Here are a few quotables from him:

A man's feet should be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world.

Wisdom and happiness consist in having recast natural energies in the furnace of experience.

Only the dead have seen the end of war.

An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world.

There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.

For an idea ever to be fashionable is ominous, since it must afterwards be always old-fashioned.

History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.

Religion is an imaginative echo of things natural and moral.

The life of reason is a heritage and exists only through tradition.

The list could be extended considerably.

II. Life of Reason

The five-volume Life of Reason is one of Santayana's masterworks. On Santayana's view, reason is a sort of vital force combining both judgment and feeling, ideation and instinct. Through reason we take all our impulses and desires and compare them with our ideas and ideals, and we cannot rid ourselves of either one. The life of reason, therefore, requires a certain sort of cultivation of the art of living. This is what he tries to lay out in the Life of Reason volumes: how all our life is built up by the slow, steady mastering of impulse and experience by reflection. William James was somewhat ambivalent about the work. In a letter he wrote:

Santayana's book is a great one, if the inclusion of opposites is a measure of greatness. I think it will probably be reckoned great by posterity. It has no rational foundation, being merely one man's way of viewing things: so much of experience admitted and no more, so much criticism and questioning admitted and no more. He is a paragon of Emersonianism — declare your intuitions, though no other man share them; and the integrity with which he does it is as fine as it is rare. And his naturalism, materialism, Platonism, and atheism form a combination of which the centre of gravity is, I think, very deep. But there is something profoundly alienating in his unsympathetic tone, his "preciousness" and superciliousness. The book is Emerson's first rival and successor, but how different the reader's feeling! The same things in Emerson's mouth would sound entirely different. E. receptive, expansive, as if handling life through a wide funnel with a great indraught; S. as if through a pin-point orifice that emits his cooling spray outward over the universe like a nose-disinfectant from an "atomizer."

I confess that the precise meaning of that last metaphor somewhat eludes me.

III. Remembering the Past

The passage from which the maxim about remembering the past was taken (from volume I of Life of Reason):

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.

The basic idea here, I take it, is not a moral one, but quite simply an observation about human nature. As already noted, on Santayana's view reason is the combination of impulse and reflection, and, in particular, it is reflection's slow exploration or mastery of experience over time. This increasing mastery is slow and gradual, and therefore it requires the retention of past victories. In other words, the point is simply that learning is cumulative. It's not a statement about history, as such, as it is often taken to be; rather, the point is that learning requires remembering what has been learned before.

But Santayana's literary style, for which he was famous even in his own day, has perhaps overreached his intent; the statement about remembering the past is itself very memorable, and once it got out on its own into the vast world, it was inevitable that it would build up a history and a set of associations that it did not have when it was a young observation in the text of Santayana.

IV. Resources

George Santayana at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

George Santayana at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


John Wilkins notes in the comments that the relevant volume of Life of Reason is online. He says of the chapter: "I chased this quote down some time back for my book. The chapter, 'Flux and Constancy' is a not bad attempt to come to terms with the new world view of evolution, cosmic and biological, and the idea that history is constantly blurring the boundaries."