“IV. Doubts about Self-Consciousness”
Having made his methodological observations, Santayana turns in the next four chapter to exercises in scepticism; he is headed to his own ground zero from which he will then build up his system. In the fourth chapter of Scepticism and Animal Faith, he lays the groundwork for his dismissal of a belief in “self-consciousness,” which he defines as the ability to survey the movement of experience over time. Self-consciousness, Santayana demonstrates, rests on a belief in change. When he debunks faith in change in his next chapter, belief in self-consciousness will be shown to be groundless.
If the philosopher is to begin anywhere, Santayana argues as this chapter opens, he must start with what he first finds and what he finds first is experience. Later he may reason that experience is the spark caused by the interaction of self and environment, but scepticism requires that the spark itself must be his initial point of departure. It is wondrous that we find experience at all, Santayana observes, but equally wondrous is that experience seems to fade and lapse:
The fact of experience, then, is single and, from its own point of view, absolutely unconditioned and groundless, impossible to explain and impossible to exorcise. Yet just as it comes unbidden, so it may fade and lapse of its own accord. It constantly seems to do so; and my hold on existence is not so firm that non-existence does not seem always at hand and, as it were, always something deeper, vaster, and more natural than existence. (24)
This fading and lapsing of experience is pictured in the opening stanzas of Stevens’ corresponding poem, “Lebensweisheitspielerei,”¹ in terms of the setting sun:
Weaker and weaker, the sunlight falls
In the afternoon. The proud and the strong
Those that are left are the unaccomplished,
The finally human,
Natives of a dwindled sphere.
Stevens’ thesaurus-like exercise — weaker, falls, departed, left, finally, dwindled–seems to paint Santayana’s observation that just as experience seems to come, so, too, may it fade and lapse.
The assertion of self-consciousness arises from this observation of change, the philosopher argues. And the notion that change is taking place implies an assertion that we can rise above, as it were, and observe a series of moments that we believe to be taking place either in the world or in ourselves.
Take the first case when we believe change is taking place in the world at large. We see a report of this kind in Stevens’ third stanza in his account of the natives’ feelings as the sun sinks:
Their indigence is an indigence
That is an indigence of the light,
A stellar pallor that hangs on the threads.
The natives’ feelings are seen as something independent of them (“Their indigence is an indigence”) and occurring at large (“a stellar pallor that hangs on threads”). In contemporary terms, we would say this free-standing and mythic “indigence” is the result of projection and hypostasis.
In the second case, change is believed to occur within ourselves. We may believe change has occurred, Santayana says by way of example, when we notice one sentiment give way to another or when feelings “[grow] more articulate or more complex” (26). This occurs in Stevens’ next stanza:
Little by little, the poverty
Of autumnal space becomes
A look, a few words spoken.
The feelings of transience brought on by the setting sun are set aside, as it were, and we turn to modulations wholly within. Gradual changes of an intramental kind give the world a certain “look” and issue as “a few words spoken,” as feelings of indigence “[grow] more articulate or more complex” (to use Santayana’s words).
Self-consciousness, then, rests on the assertion that we can survey the movement of experience: that we can monitor what we feel when change is believed to occur at large, and that we can monitor our feelings as we change from one mental state to another. That is what Stevens says in his last stanza:
Each person completely touches us
With what he is and as he is,
In the stale grandeur of annihilation.
And Stevens’ poem ends with this final turning down, a sublime nadir, “the stale grandeur of annihilation” because, as Santayana observed, this is a feature of human experience:
Yet just as [experience] comes unbidden, so it may fade and lapse of its own accord. It constantly seems to do so; and my hold on existence is not so firm that non-existence does not seem always at hand and, as it were, always something deeper, vaster, and more natural than existence. (24)
- “Lebensweisheitspielerei” is Stevens’ own neologism made from combining the German words for life + wisdom + joking. It might then be understood to mean: wisdom drawn from life, but in a joking way.