05 February 2012

Santayana and The Inflexibility of Age

Last week I discussed the passage in Santayana's writing whence we get the cliche about those of "cannot remember the past" or (as it is often misquoted) "cannot learn from history."

In the context of that discussion, I also quoted the philosopher saying this (about the human life cycle): "Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because impractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation."

A friend emailed me a question: must it be thus?  Did Santayana think he was describing an inevitable result of age here, or a statistical likelihood, or something else?

Good question.  I don't think Santayana's text gives us a definitive answer to that. But we might remember his own stress on individuality in this whole passage.  "Human nature," he wrote, "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."

In that context, I think we can take the somewhat later reference to the exhaustion of retentiveness and its terrible consequences as a statement of what is "typical," not an exclusion of the possibility of "singular" individuals who will escape that fate.

Indeed: Santayana was such a singular individual, one who maintained his flexibility to the end. I've been quoting from The Life of Reason, an ambitious multi-volume work he wrote while he was teaching at Harvard, in the early years of the 20th century. Years later, when another man might have settled into the role of defending and elaborating the system expounded there, Santayana essentially started from scratch, in an equally ambitious project, The Realms of Being.  The four volumes of this work came out between 1927 and 1940. Thereafter, Santayana undertook the considerable editorial task of creating a one-volume version of The Realms of Being, which was published in 1942, when he was in his late 70s.

So if he believed he was saying something invariant when he wrote that "repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity, [for the elderly]" he later learned better.

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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.