Scepticism and Animal Faith Essay - Critical Essays

George Santayana

Critical Evaluation

SCEPTICISM AND ANIMAL FAITH was written as an introduction to a system of philosophy, a system later made explicit in Santayana’s four-volume THE REALMS OF BEING: THE REALM OF ESSENCE (1927), THE REALM OF MATTER (1930), THE REALM OF TRUTH (1938), THE REALM OF SPIRIT (1940). Despite the fact that the author believed that his ideas needed the extended treatment he gave them in these volumes, the introductory work remains the clearest, most concise, and most representative of Santayana’s works. Almost every important contribution which the author made to philosophy can be found here; and the advantage of this single work is that the reader can gain a synoptic vision of the relations of the ideas to each other, something he might fail to achieve if he centered his attention initially upon one of the volumes of THE REALMS OF BEING or THE LIFE OF REASON (1905-1906).

Santayana’s principal thesis is that knowledge is faith “mediated by symbols.” The symbols of human discourse, when man is talking to himself about the world of facts, are the elements in his experience: sensations, images, feelings, and the like. “The images in sense are parts of discourse, not parts of nature: they are the babble of our innocent organs under the stimulus of things,” writes Santayana. Since we cannot be certain that the given elements, the essences, are signs of physical objects affecting us as physical organisms, there is a sense in which we cannot be said to be free of the possibility of error. Nevertheless, as animals, as active beings, we find ourselves compelled to take our experiences as the experiences of a living organism in the process of being shocked and stimulated by the world. Our belief in a nature of change is made possible by our interpretation of the given—the data, the essences—but it cannot be justified by the given; hence, it is animal faith.

To prepare himself for the statement that all knowledge is the faith that certain given elements are signs of things and events, Santayana develops a thorough skepticism which ends with the cryptic statement that “Nothing given exists.” To understand the meaning and ground of this claim it is necessary to understand Santayana’s conception of the given—his theory of essences.

It is difficult to make all the proper qualifications in a brief description, but if one begins by supposing that essences are characteristics of actual and possible things, whether physical, psychical, mathematical, or whatever, a beginning has been made. If a person were to have two or three sense experiences of precisely the same sort—three sense images of a certain shade of yellow, for example—that shade of yellow would be an essence that had been given to him in sense experience. Even if he had not had the experience, he could have had it; the essence is a character his experience might come to have. Essences, then, are universals, not particulars; they are characteristics which may or may not be the characteristics of existing things.

It makes sense to say of a particular thing that it is, or was, or shall be; but we cannot sensibly talk that way about the characteristics of things. Considered in themselves, as they must be, essences are immutable, eternal, never vague, and neither good nor bad. In Santayana’s terms, the realm of essence “is simply the unwritten catalogue, prosaic and infinite, of all the characters possessed by such things as happen to exist, together with the characters which all different things would possess if they existed.”

If this definition of essence is kept clearly in mind, if an essence is simply a character but not necessarily the character of anything, then it becomes clear that if essences are given—and they are—then nothing given exists. If we are correct in our suppositions, then, whenever an essence is given, it is given to a self; i.e., someone has an experience, and...

(The entire section is 1622 words.)