27 January 2012

Those Who Cannot Remember the Past

I suggested on January 15 that I would return to the issue of what Santayana meant by the sentence of his that is so ubiquitously quoted and misquoted.

I have returned.

The line I've invoked in the title of this entry is usually quoted in order to urge people to study history, especially some particular historical event that the person doing the quoting thinks is pertinent to whatever case he is making. If you are urging a price-stabilization treaty for coffee, and you think the coffee-industry travails of, say, the early 1960s are germane to the case you're making, you may well trot out Santayana to justify the connection. This doesn't actually strengthen your argument, any more than the echo of MacArthur just before this paragraph strengthens the significance of what I'm saying now. But it is (in either case) a way of invoking the name of one or another august historic figure -- men who were already august when the members of what we now call the "greatest generation" were young -- and of stealing for myself a bit of their  presumed authority.

Today's point, though, is that Santayana was not urging us to study history texts, or to listen to our elders when they talk about the good old days, or anything of the sort. He had in mind personal memory, not collective institutional memory.

The line appears on p. 284 of Reason in Common Sense, in a chapter called "Flux and Constancy in Human Nature." The line of thought involved begins on p. 280, where Santayana tells us: "Human nature, in the sense in which it is the transcendental foundation of all science and morals, is a functional unity in each man; it is no general or abstract essence, the average of all men's characters, nor even the complex of the qualities common to all men. It is the entelechy of the living individual, be he typical or singular." This is a startlingly individualist sentiment. Entelechy means, roughly, the actualization-of-the-possible. Reason isn't to be seen in broad terms, but as a functional unity "in each man."

So that the reason that our author discusses in the following paragraphs is that unity, that "entelechy," in any one living individual, and remembering the past is a prerequisite thereof.

As a child grows, he learns things like how his arms and legs work. He finds crawling tiresome and tests the ability of the two legs to support his weight without help from the arms. By some movements he discovers he throws himself off balance and falls. Other movements help him maintain equilibrium and remain standing. He repeats the latter movements and ceases his experiments with the former,and thus as we say "learns to walk."

That is my example of Santayana's meaning here, not his. In fact, the passage is rather dry and sans examples, but Santayana says things like: "Repetition marks some progress on mere continuity, since it preserves form and disregards time and matter,"  (p. 284).

Soon thereafter comes the passage that has motivated this exegesis:

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity."

We are talking, then, in that famous quote, about the "first stage of life" of an individual -- hence my 'first steps' example.  So long as an infant cannot remember the past, he cannot learn new skills. When he can remember, when he becomes "plastic to new habits and suggestions," he starts to avoid unpleasant repetitions like falling down or bumping into hard objects, and the advance to "the plane of manhood" begins in earnest.

Santayana is working here at the intersection of philosophy with what we would call cognitive psychology. It's the sort of thing that his mentor, William James, was getting at with his famous comments about how the "blooming buzzing confusion" of infancy becomes  the ordered experience of the growing child. It is the central concern of latter psychologists like Jean Piaget and  Antonio Damasio.  It is not "learning from history" in the bookish sense usually invoked, but remembering (consciously or simply in one's bones) the past, one's own individual past.

Those who cannot remember this sentence and its meaning are, nonetheless, condemned to keep quoting it.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.