Outline of “Scepticism and Animal Faith”

Jerry Griswold
9 min readNov 19, 2021

There is no way to discuss the developing argument of Santayana’s work without sacrificing details in the interest of abbreviation. This is not the best technique; as Stevens himself observed when complimenting the philosopher’s writing style, “[Santayana’s pages] do not offer themselves for sensational summary” (OP 187). Nonetheless, a vade mecum might make clear the larger outlines of Santayana’s work and, analogously, the shape of Stevens’ book.

Scepticism and Animal Faith is part of Santayana’s “late” work. It does not share the interest in psychology and the professions which marks “early” works like The Sense of Beauty (1896) and The Life of Reason (1905–1906). Instead, Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923) is concerned with epistemological and ontological issues that are dealt with at length in Realms of Being (1927–1940); in fact, this book is a preface to that later work.

Scepticism and Animal Faith is divided into two parts. In the first part, Santayana employs scepticism to raise doubts about conventional epistemological assumptions. Scepticism pushed to its limits, he concludes, dismisses beliefs in a material world, facts, and existences; the sceptic is ultimately reduced to a solipsism of the present moment where only the intuition of essences is possible. Having cleared the ground in this fashion, Santayana turns in his second part to the dramatic construction of his system of animal faith. These articles of faith are, he argues, the instinctive epistemological assumptions animals make as they live in the world. They are the tenets of reason by which essences are interpreted and combined, and these tenets are incapable of proof and necessarily assumed. In other words, in Scepticism and Animal Faith, Santayana first engages in a disintegrating episode of doubt and afterwards turns to the reconstitution of fundamental epistemological presumptions.

In his Preface Santayana makes some general remarks about his system and in the next three chapters he treats certain methodological issues. He dismisses first the method of arguing from first principles, of backtracking to the discovery of atoms for example, and then reasoning forward; the sceptic, he argues, must begin in media res with what is given (Chapter I). He notes also that scepticism has its limits and cannot be entirely groundless; by way of example, he observes that when the sceptic casts doubt on the statement “If any child knew his father, he would be a wise child,” doubt falls on some point other than the assumption of the existence of fathers and children (Chapter II). And finally, he argues that a sceptic must be thorough and not employ his method surreptitiously to destroy all beliefs except some special one he has reserved for himself (Chapter III).

With these methodological considerations out of the way, Santayana begins his sceptical exercises. If we confine ourselves to what is immediately given and not subject to doubt, he says, we must surrender beliefs in: the self (Chapter IV), the past and the future as well as the notion of change (Chapter V), nature and existence (Chapter VI), and our ideas about them (Chapter VII). Genuine scepticism pushed to its limits ultimately reduces us to a solipsism of the present moment where an external world of facts cannot be said to exist — a conclusion summarized in Santayana’s phrase “nothing given exists.” These sweeping exclusions clear the ground and prepare for Santayana’s discussion of the intuition of essences.

In Chapter VIII, Santayana marshals other authorities to support his sceptical conclusions. He also paints a picture of the complete sceptic as leading a kind of aesthetic life oblivious to everything except the raw and uninterpreted data of his present. These are what Santayana calls “essences” and the sceptic is confined by his method to being a silent witness to them in passive intuition. “Essences” are those pure images or immaterial themes that appear to the sceptic. They differ from Plato’s ideals because they are not superior models, nor do they exercise any influence on their embodiments in existence; an essence is of any kind or value that can be discovered or imagined, and they cannot be said to exist or refer to anything else. An essence is simply that character which makes it different from other essences and tautologically what it is.

Santayana introduces his notion of essences in Chapter IX and makes some observations about its consequences: this concept creates a “logical clarification” because the sceptic is no longer entangled in beliefs but sees only essences; these immaterial themes take the place of facts and lead the sceptic to see the world as he might see a “literary fiction”; and if the sceptic can extirpate anxiety and sustain equanimity, he can see these essences without falling into those complicitous errors his scepticism means to avoid when he implicates his life in what he sees. Santayana notes that the notion of essences is liberating in another way as well: The realm of essences is a limitless warehouse of terms that can be used when the mind is faced with something unfamiliar; essences can be used like words in a vocabulary for description (Chapter X). But Santayana also observes that constant scepticism and a life exclusively limited to the intuition of essences is impractical: there is a need for animal faith (Chapter XI).

In the first part of Scepticism and Animal Faith, then, Santayana employs scepticism to abolish epistemological presumptions in a manner which he feels is more rigorous than that of Descartes and more thorough than transcendental idealists like Hume and Kant. He speaks of his method (of disposing of the dubious in order to settle on the notion of essences) as a “suspending of all conventional categories as well as conventional beliefs; so that not only the material world but all facts and all existences have lost their status, and become simply the themes and topics they are” (292). Nonetheless, sustained scepticism and its exclusive vocation of intuiting essences is impossible in life and so Santayana, using nature as a model of what is natural, begins his acceptances of the articles of animal faith.

Santayana’s scepticism has created a chasm that separates, on the one hand, mind and essences from the existing world of things on the other. This chasm, he insists, cannot be bridged by logic. It can only be crossed by a leap of faith. Having dramatically revoked fundamental epistemological assumptions through his scepticism, Santayana restores them in the second part of his book in his assertions of animal faith.

“Animal faith” is the grammar of reason, the instinctive epistemological presumptions an animal makes and the means by which essences are interpreted and linked. Through it the mind rises out of the passive intuition to which scepticism has confined it and posits the assumptions of conventional thought. The tenets of animal faith must be posited because they are incapable of proof and assumed in the act of proving; they are baseless but useful beliefs. As Santayana constructs his system he methodically posits these tenets an assumption at a time, following what he describes as a “biological order,” accepting beliefs in a) discourse, b) experience, c) substance, and finally d) truth and spirit.

A) The second half of the book begins, then, with belief in discourse. Santayana first accepts belief in identity and duration (the persistence and sameness of an essence through change) which he acknowledges is open to sceptical criticism, like all articles of animal faith, but which is fundamental — without it, he notes, the very words of his book would be mercurial and without consistent meaning (Chapter XII). He moves next to belief in “discourse” (the mind thinking and analyzing) for which he finds evidence not only in progressive thought (like that in mathematics and logic), but in mental flatfootedness (meanderings, non sequiturs, contradictions, and stammering) and error which make thought most evident (Chapter XIII). He is concerned to demonstrate that observation is adventitious to essence and he does so by separating essence from intuition, the pure image from the view of it (Chapter XIV).

B) Santayana next moves to belief in experience. He finds evidence for this belief in shock (which he regards as a radical interruption of interior life and progressive discourse) and argues that this leads to: a belief in the self, the establishment of realism or attention to the external world, and the recognition that the psyche is part of and effected by what it observes (Chapter XV). From this follows a belief in a self more physical than the one implicit in intuition and discourse — a living psyche disturbed by shock (Chapter XVI).

C) Santayana next posits belief in substance which he regards in two ways: as substance per se (a material context) and as nature (in which the rhythmic constancy of matter is emphasized). Strangely enough, Santayana begins his arguments by first accepting belief in memory since in that belief is found a faith in contexts and the possibility of synthetic and transitive thoughts (Chapter XVII). Generically, these kinds of thoughts are what the philosopher styles “knowledge” and in its acquisition (in the natural sciences, for example) he notes a faith in an external world which is believed to exist (Chapter XVIII). This leads in turn to the assertion of belief in substance, a notion he links to the ideas of a world-at-large, the not-self, and existence, as well as the conception of it as a material context; without a belief in substance, he observes, memory would be an illusion and knowledge would not be addressed to anything (Chapter XIX). Santayana also entertains the objections of empiricists and idealists to belief in substance (Chapter XX) and disposes of false notions of substantial being (Chapter XXI).

Belief in nature is a corollary to belief in substance. By “nature” Santayana means to stress that familiar and rhythmic constancy in matter which gives rise to, for example, our ideas of the seasons and the progress of the day. Belief in nature, he explains, is the result of experience and is a faith congruent with the discoveries of knowledge (Chapter XXII). Elaborating on this conception of nature he adds that we are led to believe others also think by noting the artifacts of history and by the extension of the analogical premise that (since they, too, are a part of nature and live under the same sky) they must, like us, think (Chapter XXIII). Literary psychology allows us to surmise what the thoughts of others might be, though it is most speculative in the credence it lends to projections of sameness (Chapter XXIV).

D) In his last chapters Santayana accepts belief in truth and in the spirit. He defines truth as that eternal standard of description derived from the essences actualized in the world, and he argues that its existence must be assumed if logic is to proceed (Chapter XXV). Further, he finds reason to believe in the spirit in its responsiveness to intuitions, its creation of contexts for essences, and in its attention to the external world (Chapter XXVI). In his last chapter (Chapter XXVII), Santayana speaks of his system in comparison to those of other thinkers and of his juxtaposition of doubt and animal faith.

In his book then, Santayana turns from scepticism to animal faith, from the intuition of essences to positing the conventional presumptions of human thought. If scepticism reveals that essences are the words of the mind, animal faith creates the grammar by which they are interpreted and connected. Santayana emphasizes as well that these articles of animal faith are open to doubt but nevertheless must be believed because they are equally assumed in attempts to discredit or prove them. He adds that in his book:

They are presupposed in a biological order, the stratification of the life of reason. In rising out of passive intuition, I pass, by a vital constitutional necessity, to belief in discourse, in experience, in substance, in truth, and in spirit. All these objects may conceivably be illusory. Belief in them, however, is not grounded on a prior probability, but all judgments of probability are grounded on them. The express a rational instinct or instinctive reason, the waxing faith of an animal living in a world which he can observe and sometimes remodel. (308–309)

This is Santayana’s system. But what should be noticed about its “flavor” is its connection with the everyday and the familiar. Throughout Scepticism and Animal Faith Santayana insists that his book is not a scholastic interlude, a game of a philosophic speculation; it would be “dishonest and cowardly” to offer a system like that. Instead, he says:

My criticism is a criticism of myself: I am talking of what I actually believe in my active moments, as a living animals, when I am really believing something. . . . My criticism is not essentially a learned pursuit, though habit may sometimes make my language scholastic; it is not a choice between artificial theories; it is a discipline of my daily thoughts and the account I actually give to myself from moment to moment of my own being and of the world around me. (305)

That Stevens would be drawn to this kind of authenticity is understandable if we recall that he said of philosophic poetry: “It is easy to imagine a poetry of ideas in which the particulars of reality would be the shadows among the poem’s disclosures.” With a system like Santayana’s, so closely linked to fundamental beliefs and actual accounts of life, Stevens could find ideas admirably suited to their illustration in terms of “the particulars of reality.”

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Jerry Griswold

former literature professor (San Diego State, UCSD, UCLA, UConn, NUI Galway) and literary journalist (NYTimes, LATimes, & elsewhere)