Code: TP-32

The Place of Feeling in Santayana’s Epistemology

To speak of the role of human feeling in the reasoning process is nothing new to American philosophy--or even to contemporary philosophy in general--and is being investigated across disciplinary fields outside strictly philosophic ones.  The merit of taking up this issue once again may not, on the surface, be obvious.  However, in the sea of information on and dialogues about the topic it is useful that we remind ourselves of the original contributions of classical American philosophy to the problem; they are not merely relevant to the thought of the present day but have influenced contemporary philosophical and scientific assumptions about what it means to be a human being engaging in the activity of knowledge.  To this end, my paper will focus on the fundamental role of feeling in the epistemology of George Santayana.  Santayana is not, perhaps, the most popular thinker for me to draw on, and he is hardly the first to decry the possibility of a pure intellect, stripped of the obscure and indistinct senses and emotions, as the foundation for certain truth.  However, his strongly naturalistic account of knowledge as animal belief offers a beneficial vantage point on the discussion at hand, for not only does it fully ground knowing in feeling, it provides a materialist framework that is highly consonant with and can therefore philosophically ground contemporary scientific approaches to the issue.

To some extent, many of the renowned American philosophers of the time can be said to have brought the biological sciences into the question of the nature of reason and knowledge.  The work of James, Peirce, and Dewey, as products of their historical moment, bear the stamp of the discoveries of Charles Darwin and the development of his theory of evolution. [1]   The new philosophical focus on the knower as an adaptive biological organism was uniquely situated to discuss the significance of feeling (emotion and sensations) [2] to reason, and so knowledge became understood as a basic animal ability to "make sense" out of its environment.  Reason was thereby understood a biologically dependent adaptation working in concert with the senses rather than a means of extracting oneself from the biases of the body into a realm of pure objectivity.  Peirce, James, and Dewey each talk about how adaptations, habituations, and interest are central, rather than impediments, to reason.  Each of these thinkers uniquely adapted (double entendre intended) evolutionary theory to their philosophies, and a comparative analysis of how this was achieved would admittedly be of great interest, though outside the scope of this paper.  The reason it is especially interesting to examine how Santayana, in particular, appropriates the pervading thought of his day is due to his strong naturalism.  His ontological materialism and epistemological fallibilism accomplish two useful tasks: they most strongly echo the theoretical presuppositions of the natural sciences and therefore translate well across disciplinary boundaries, and they demonstrate how fully grounded in our animal feelings all of our--even highly theoretical--knowledge claims actually are.  As I will show, Santayana demonstrates that two of the most basic assumptions necessary for any kind of knowledge to take place are belief in memory and belief an existing world transcendent to experience.  These assumptions are wholly grounded in the basic animal sense of continuing existence (which also grounds what I will later refer to as a sense of familiarity) punctuated intermittantly by the feeling of shock.

The grounding of Santayana’s epistemology in animal feeling can be most easily seen in the skeptical reduction he performs in Scepticism and Animal Faith.  Here, he engages in a hyperbolic consideration of how we can claim to know anything about what is not immediate and present if all we directly encounter are the visionary data of appearances.  Like Descartes, Santayana begins with a skeptical reduction to a purely present act of intuition before reintroducing substance into philosophical matters.  However, Santayana’s restoration of the world from this skeptical attitude is structured around belief, not logical deduction from first principles.  Much of Scepticism and Animal Faith is a building of belief on belief--from experience, to the self, substance, and nature--and these beliefs are fundamentally grounded in general and pervasive sensations. 

In the chapter "Ultimate Scepticism," where he entertains the possibility of a reduction to a single immediate datum, Santayana finds himself needing to claim that there is something more in this presence than a mere object, and that is the sense of lived existence: "The sense of existence . . . is the strain of life within me, prior to all intution . . .  ." [3]   While this may sound similar to Descartes’s indubitable act of thinking, the distinction between Decartes’s move and Santayana’s is important to retain.  Whereas Descartes believed he logically deduced the clear and evident existence of  the cogito, Santayana doesn’t claim to prove the existence of subjectivity.  He simply means that one’s own basic sensation of being alive is an ever-present feeling that cannot honestly be denied.  It is this somatic foundation on which he begins to build belief in experience and in the reality of independent things.  For example, he pinpoints the most basic evidence that there is something besides ourselves in the sensation of shock: "In brute experience, or shock, I have not only a clear indication, for my ulterior reflection, that I exist, but a most imperious summons at that very moment to believe in my existence" (SAF, 141).  Shock commands an animal belief, not only in one’s own existence, but also that one is affected by something tangible and external to the mind.  We are often said to be shocked out of ourselves or out of our daydreams, and this is exactly the sense in which Santayana means that shock commands belief in a reality transcendent to intuition.  Life would be nothing but a stream of apparitions if our material beings were not shocked and spirit was not commanded to pay attention to something affecting it either from without or from within its own material body (both of which are transcendent to conscious awareness).

However, even before the fundamental belief in experience that shock commands, there is belief in memory, and this is what makes knowledge a possibility.  Without this belief, it would have been impossible to move beyond that dumb--infallible but meaningless--solipsism of pure presence.  Belief in memory is the only possibility of combining moments of intuition into a reliable and meaningful experience and therefore provides the fundamental basis for any cognitive claim.  This belief, too, is grounded in sensation:

[W]hen I call an essence the same, but without distinguishing my two intuitions of it . . . I posit the truth of memory unawares; for this sensation of living on, of having lived up to the present, is a primary memory.   . . . parts of the specious present are interpreted as survivals of a receding present, a present that can never return, but the vision of which I have not wholly lost.  The perspective is not taken to be specious only, but a true memorial of facts past and gone [SAF, 151].

This sensation of a receding present which posits a real and existent past highlights the fact that the act in which memory combines moments of experience is not a literal stringing together of actual past intuitions with present ones.  Memory does not retrieve the past but recreates it: "It is the fancy that comes forward, producing a waking dream, not the memory that sinks back into an old experience" (SAF. 153).  The recreation is provided by that system of habits that he terms the material psyche.  Memory arises out of the depths of the body as the way in which a past experience had habituated itself into that psyche.  William Faulkner, a kindred spirit of Santayana in ways that are relevent to this project, intensifies this point in his distinctive meandering prose when, in Absalom, Absalom!, Rosa Coldfield compares memory to the extending fingers of a wisteria vine:

That is the substance of remembering--sense, sight, smell: the muscles with which we see and hear and feel--not mind, not thought: there is no such thing as memory: the brain recalls just what the muscles grope for: no more, no less: and its resultant sum is usually incorrect and false and worthy only of the name dream. [4]   

This basic habituation of past experience, grafted into our present animal being and sensorially invoked when prompted by a relevant stimulus, is what is called memory.  It is what we--animals that we are--rely on to tell us that we know something about the world as it affects and has affected us; we combine it with an animal faith in a reliable and transcendent materiality so as to gain knowledge, that is, to make predictions regarding our expectations of what the future holds.  Memories are more properly understood as present dreams than as a snapshot collection of the past.  As I will soon show in more detail, knowledge possesses this same non-literal and dreamlike quality.

Given that Santayana believes knowledge to be a practical habit borne by a combination of belief in memory and faith in a substantial existence transcendent to intuition, it remains to be clarified exactly what the nature of this knowledge is.  If knowledge of the material world is not guaranteed by a logical system grounded on necessary first principles, there still needs to defined--due to the incongruity of clearly given objects and irrevocably obscured substance--the nature of the connection between subjective data and material things.  Santayana bridges the apparently insurmountable divide between mind and matter without rendering one a mere facet of the other when he describes animal faith as transitive intelligence, that is, a belief in what is not present (in the sense of being either past, impending, or obscured by the light of intuition): "Knowledge such as animal life requires is something transitive, a form of belief in things absent or eventual or somehow more than the state of the animal knowing them." [5]   Santayana’s distinguishing move here is that knowledge properly involves absence rather than presence; it is, specifically, a kind of access to that which is not immediately available.  The widely accepted notion that the inaccessibility of transcendent objects render them either nonexistent or epistemologically uninteresting is the fault, according to Santayana, of a misunderstanding of what access means for knowledge in the first place.  The claim that the material realm is beyond the reach of the mind derives from the assumption that access to an epistemological object must be direct and that knowledge is equivalent to the immediate intuition of an essence.  Santayana demonstrates, by contrast, that even a connection among essences is transitive, involving a belief in the absent past: "Since intuition of essence is not knowledge, knowledge can never lie in an overt comparison of one datum with another datum given at the same time; even in pure dialectic, the comparison is with a datum believed to have been given formerly" (SAF, 167).  The infallibility of the presently given cannot in and of itself ground or generate knowledge, and this is part of what leads Santayana to assert that the data of awareness cannot themselves be the ultimate object of knowing.  He instead defines a different sort of subject-object relation, one in which spirit treats essence, not as a means of reflecting back on itself, but as a sign of something else entirely.  Knowledge is, by its very nature as belief, an indirect and uncertain route that nonetheless succeeds in providing a way for the mind to reach the transcendent objects of its inquiry. 

One way of understanding how knowledge, based on vital animal feeling, functions as a faithful but non-literal expression of reality is by examining the use of metaphor.  Santayana often speaks generally of knowledge being metaphorical, but we can examine more closely what this might mean by evaluating a more recent analysis of metaphor to see how it might coincide with Santayana’s epistemology.  Several philosophers have considered the ways in which metaphor functions in knowledge--Suzanne Langer and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, to name a few [6] --and I will not pretend here to do justice to the available expertise in this area.  I prefer instead to turn to psychologist Julian Jaynes, as his scientific (that is, material) presuppositions together with his assertions regarding the comprehensive role metaphor plays as the basis of understanding provides a straightforward example of how throughly grounded in metaphor knowledge actually is.

According to Jaynes, metaphors perform two primary and related functions: [7] 1) they make connections between perceived similarities, creating new words, objects, and ideas therefrom; and, 2) they use the connections to make the unfamiliar familiar by making a more well-known thing stand for a less well-known thing.  In performing these functions, metaphor enables language to grow and, Jaynes suggests, increases the possibility of representing--even creating-- more abstract ideas.  Jaynes shows how perceptions of the human body--its parts and its functions--have historically been the basis for linguistic growth by making connections both spatially and over time, thereby increasing the possibilities for expression, assisting in imagining new objects, and even developing abstract concepts out of more concrete experiences.  His point is that our expression, our inventions, and more abstract terms (perhaps even the concepts themselves) may have grown as needed from names for more concretely available sensory and physical experiences. [8]   All of our words and ideas, if they are to be meaningful, ultimately trace back to a familiar lived experience.

In making this point, Jaynes means to do more than analyze the formative role of metaphor in language.  He uses the linguistic phenomenon to claim that knowledge itself is of this metaphorical nature and therefore our understanding of reality is not a bare recording of data but a reconciling of experiences:

[W]hat are we really trying to do when we try to understand anything?  Like children trying to describe nonsense objects, so in trying to understand a thing we are trying to find a metaphor for that thing.  Not just any metaphor, but one with something more familiar and easy to our attention.  Understanding a thing is to arrive at a metaphor for that thing by substituting something more familiar to us.  And the feeling of familiarity is the feeling of understanding. [9]

In equating discovery of a metaphor with the act of understanding, Jaynes is showing that human knowledge deeply involves a biological drive to make one’s environment familiar; it is a means of making oneself "at home" in the world by assimilating new and unfamiliar perceptions into existing habituations of previous experience.  For example, when scientists uncover data that conflict with present assumptions (present metaphors) about how the world works, they search for another available metaphor in order to make that which is incoherent part of an existing coherent schema (they then test its limits, that is, test the extent to which the metaphor is faithful to the new object).  If the new experience cannot easily be connected with something familiar it becomes very difficult to understand.  At bottom, knowledge is a way of making new experiences fit with our expectations, and metaphor aids this by extending a habit of matter, expressed as thought, into new frontiers (or, perhaps, by bringing the new frontier within the existing domain of thought).  Knowing is a biological event that enables an organism to feel familiar with its surroundings.  The use of metaphor is an act of recognition; it represents as a trope similar events in the natural environment and represents as that feeling of familiarity of which Jaynes speaks the fact of a habitual event working within the psyche’s own organization, telling the conscious mind that something similar has been encountered before.  Ideas and the formal principles which combine them may become increasingly complex and abstract, but our explanations are descriptions built on descriptions and ultimately reflect a link made at the material level.  Knowledge is a way of combining disparate data into coherent experience, and metaphor depicts for us the feeling of coherence.

The feeling of familiarity that metphor provides, the recognition of likeness in two unlike things, is utilized nowhere so much as in that--supposedly unemotional--enterprise, science.  The task of science is not to copy the world but to make sense out of it, and this sense-making activity is a creative assimilation of experiences--through the use of metaphor--that gives the knower a sense of unity, that is to say, coherence. The metaphorical nature of scientific truth is likewise pointed out by Jaynes, who notes--in utter sympathy with Santayana’s ontology--that what we consider the "facts of physics" do not literally resemble the actual material world but are accepted because they gel with what we recognize (or accept on familiar authority as recognized):

Generations ago we would understand thunderstorms perhaps as the roaring and rumbling about in battle of superhuman gods.  We would have reduced the racket that follows the streak of lightning to familiar battle sounds, for example.  Similarly today, we reduce the storm to various supposed experiences with friction, sparks, vacuums, and the imagination of bulgeous banks of burly air smashing together to make the noise.  None of these really exist as we picture them.  Our images of these events of physics are as far from the actuality as fighting gods.  Yet they act as the metaphor and they feel familiar and so we say we understand the thunderstorm. [10]

Jaynes’s apparent insouciant dismissal of the validity of scientific truth is actually a very effective way of acknowledging the pragmatic nature of science.  Purported accountings of the exact nature of existence are, in fact, imagined experiences, in other words, fanciful essences; they are metaphors, both in the sense of being non-literal and as a means of reconciling new data with familiar belief.  The goal of explanation is (as Peirce would have said [11] ) to settle the irritating feeling of doubt, to cause a feeling of satisfaction in the knower that this, too, is something she is accustomed to.

Do Jaynes’s words mean to imply that there is basically no difference between mythology and science?  Why not settle for a Homeric explanation of the thunderstorm?  Science is different from mythology and better at solving the problems it confronts, not because it literally grasps the actual make-up of existence, but because it is a different kind of practice that exists for different ends.  It develops the natural habits of knowing into systematic procedures, which restrict wild narrative flights of fancy and so keep the inquiry more "grounded" in animal, material, concerns. While both stories may cause a feeling of familiarity in the knower, science is useful because it recognizes the mechanism of nature, it renders existence into mathematical essences for the purposes of anticipating and regulating how matter behaves.  Science only secondarily aims to report what nature is, more proper to its method, it focuses on what nature does.  As scientist J. Bronowski well states:  "Solid as it seems, there is no such thing as mass; as Newton ruefully found, it cannot be defined.  We experience mass only as the behavior of bodies, and it is a single concept only because they behave consistently." [12]   Science describes the regularity of matter’s behavior as numerical measurements and mathematical equations.  Matter really does behave consistently, or science would not be able to accomplish this.  But, as with any essences, the stories that make up scientific knowledge are interpretations and translations only--the numbers are a translation of matter into mathematical terms, and our explanations of those numerical findings are further interpretive descriptions.

Science facilitates animal faith and extends its purview by supplying our inquiries with tools, both physical and conceptual, that permit access to aspects of existence that would otherwise be out of the range of our perceptual abilities: "In science, analogies and hypotheses, if not microscopes or telescopes, supply ideas of things more immediate or more remote" (SAF, 89).  In this way, even the most abstract concepts of science can be seen to be an extension of our common sense.  Of course, this may sound absurd when one considers how counter to common sense run such mind-boggling theories as those of relativity and quantum physics.  The claim is not, however that all scientific discovery is intuitive; one of the interesting things about science is its capacity to reach conclusions that are counter-intuitive.  The point is, rather, that even the most abstract ideas must originate from that which is perceptually familiar.  We use a material apparatus to bring the minute or the distant within our perceptual range, and when we achieve results that seem to violate our common sense assumptions about how matter behaves--as with the electron microscope’s measurements of subatomic particles--we use another tool, metaphor, to bring the findings within our conceptual range so far as we possibly can.

Immanuel Kant was surely right to point out that the very nature of reason leads it to exceed its own capabilities (though he meant something different by this than I do here).  To feel mastery over its domain, an animal would like to feel that there are no threats, despite the fact that this sensation, so far as it regards existence, is illusory.  Our human abilities to abstract and build on these urges can lead us to seek not merely empirical but ultimate knowledge and to claim that our truths are absolutely necessary and objective.  In actuality, reason and the knowledge it sometimes generates is an organismic activity that animals engage in--to different degrees and in different ways--that help them make their way through the world.  Rather than an "access all areas" ticket to the ultimate truths of the universe, knowledge is a working description--called forth by memory and both reinforced and challenged by experience--that enables the human animal (and, to different extents, other animals) to adjust to its environment.  C.S. Peirce makes a related point in "The Fixation of Belief" that helps to clarify the matter.  The capacity to reason, which humans exalt as the faculty that raises them above the animal kingdom, is most likely simply an adaptive feature of the human organism.  The claim is, in a manner reminiscent of David Hume, that our most basic guiding principles of inference--such as the notion that events have a cause--are either innate or learned habits, nothing more. [13]   Knowledge, or belief, is a compilation of habits--grounded in and reinforced by primary sensations--that disposes us to act in a certain way when the appropriate situation arises. [14]   Belief and the doubts that challenge it are wholly bound up with the practical and emotional interests of animals trying to navigate successfully through their environment; this includes us highly adaptive animals as we approach increasingly remote environments.


[1] .George Santayana, Skepticism and Animal Faith (New York: Dover Publications, 1955), 37.  Hereafter, this text will be cited parenthetically as "SAF."

[2] .I choose the term ‘feeling’ to denote this animal sensation as a combination of emotion and what is usually called sensation.  These two terms were wrongly extracted from each other by faculty psychology and thankfully restored to one another by William James’s psychology of the human organism.  William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).

[3] .George Santayana, Skepticism and Animal Faith (New York: Dover Publications, 1955), 37.  Hereafter, this text will be cited parenthetically as "SAF."

[4] .William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 115.

[5] .George Santayana, Realms of Being (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942), 1.  Hereafter, this text will be cited parenthetically as "RB."

[6] .Two notable works by these authors relevant to the topic are: Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957); and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[7] .The description of a metaphor performing a function may appear incompatible with Santayana’s claims, for a metaphor is an immaterial essence that does not exist and therefore cannot be said to act or to create anything.  However, Jaynes is a biologically-oriented psychologist, and we can consistently understand Jaynes’s point in Santayana’s terms so long as we recognize that science takes the existence of materiality for granted and therefore need not explicitly make the ontological point Santayana has taken great pains to achieve.  Technically, the metaphor reflects in essential terms the functioning of the material psyche when it recognizes similar events in nature, and therefore it does not itself have causal power.  Still, if we keep this adjustment in mind as we read Jaynes, we may thereby gain a useful description of how the psyche links the shock of a new experience to its own existing organization of habits.

[8] .Jaynes, 48-52.

[9] .Ibid., 52.

[10] .Ibid.

[11] .Peirce, "Fixation of Belief," .

[12] . Bronowski, "The Habit of Truth," Science and Human Values, 34.

[13] .Peirce, "Fixation of Belief," 8.

[14] .Ibid, 10.