Quote of the moment: Santayana on science, “timid reappearance in modern times”

November 22, 2008

At its second birth science took a very different form. It left cosmic theories to pantheistic enthusiasts like Giordano Bruno, while in sober laborious circles it confined itself to specific discoveries — the earth’s roundness and motion about the sun, the laws of mechanics, the development and application of algebra, the invention of the calculus, and a hundred other steps forward in various disciplines. It was a patient siege laid to the truth, which was approached blindly and without a general, as by an army of ants; it was not stormed imaginatively as by the ancient Ionians, who had reached at once the notion of nature’s dynamic unity, but had neglected to take possession in detail of the intervening tracts, whence resources might be drawn in order to maintain the main position.

Nevertheless, as discoveries accumulated, they fell insensibly into a system, and philosophers like Descartes and Newton arrived at a general physics. This physics, however, was not yet meant to cover the whole existent world, or to be the genetic account of all things in their system. Descartes excluded from his physics the whole mental and moral world, which became, so far as his science went, an inexplicable addendum. Similarly Newton’s mechanical principles, broad as they were, were conceived by him merely as a parenthesis in theology. Not until the nineteenth century were the observations that had been accumulated given their full value or in fact understood; for Spinoza’s system, though naturalistic in spirit, was still dialectical in form, and had no influence on science and for a long time little even on speculation.

Indeed the conception of a natural order, like the Greek cosmos, which shall include all existences–gods no less than men, if gods actually exist–is one not yet current, although it is implied in every scientific explanation and is favoured by two powerful contemporary movements which, coming from different quarters, are leading men’s minds back to the same ancient and obvious naturalism. One of these movements is the philosophy of evolution, to which Darwin gave such an irresistible impetus. The other is theology itself, where it has been emancipated from authority and has set to work to square men’s conscience with history and experience. This theology has generally passed into speculative idealism, which under another name recognises the universal empire of law and conceives man’s life as an incident in a prodigious natural process, by which his mind and his interests are produced and devoured. This “idealism” is in truth a system of immaterial physics, like that of Pythagoras or Heraclitus. While it works with fantastic and shifting categories, which no plain naturalist would care to use, it has nothing to apply those categories to except what the naturalist or historian may already have discovered and expressed in the categories of common prose. German idealism is a translation of physical evolution into mythical language, which presents the facts now in the guise of a dialectical progression, now in that of a romantic drama. In either case the facts are the same, and just those which positive knowledge has come upon. Thus many who are not brought to naturalism by science are brought to it, quite unwillingly and unawares, by their religious speculations.

George Santayana, Life of Reason; or, The Phases of Human Progress, Vol. 1, Reason in Common Sense; Chapter 1, “Types and Aims of Science.” Dover Publications, New York, 1980; from Charles Scribner & Sons 1905 edition.  This section carries a sidebar with the notation, “Its timid reappearance in modern times.”

(Text provided by the Gutenberg Project, here.)

Santayana on the cover of Time Magazine, 1936.  Copyright by Time, Inc.

Santayana on the cover of Time Magazine, 1936. Copyright by Time, Inc.

Which philosophers have made the cover of Time since Santayana?


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