Monday, 23 September 2013

George Santayana and John Heil

Neo-Platonism opened vistas into the supernatural, but the avenues of approach which it had chosen and the principle which had given form to its system foredoomed it to failure as a religion. This avenue was dialectic, and this principle the hypostasis of abstractions. Plato had pointed out this path in his genial allegories. He had, by a poetical figure, turned the ideas of reason into the component forces of creation. This was, with him, a method of expression, but being the only method he was inclined to employ, it naturally entangled and occasionally, perhaps, deceived his intelligence; for a poet easily mistakes his inspired tropes for the physiology of Nature. Yet Platonic dogma, even when meant as such, retained the transparency and significance of a myth; philosophy was still a language for the expression of experience, and dialectic a method and not a creed. But the master's counters, current during six centuries of intellectual decadence, had become his disciples' money. Each of his abstractions seemed to them a discovery, each of his metaphors a revelation. The myths of the great dialogues, and, above all, the fanciful machinery of the Timaeus, interpreted with an incredible literalness and naive earnestness, such as only Biblical exegesis can rival, formed the starting point of the new revelation. The method and insight thus obtained were then employed in filling the lacunae of the system and spreading its wings wider and wider, until a prodigious hierarchy of supernatural existences had been invented, from which the natural world was made to depend as a last link and lowest emanation.
(from Santayana’s essay The Poetry of Christian Dogma

An interesting passage in itself but it contains in it the basis of his particular usage of ‘trope’. It departs from its meaning in Rhetoric as a figure of speech particularly one which has become established and characteristic so that the mind naturally flows into its form. This sense of the trope as an attractant, one thinks here of ‘the strange attractant’ of chaos theory, gives rise to the derived meaning of ‘trope’ as used in ontology. In the flux of essences we turn to (tropein/to turn) again and again tropes to organise what would otherwise be chaos.

John Heil in his latest book which I am perusing by Googlepeek - The Universe as we find It in his chapter on Universals expresses great admiration for the philosophical insight of Santayana and he traces the trope concept in its shape shifting progress from him through C.B. Willams and on to David Lewis. If Santayana had not written so well he would be taken more seriously is his assessment of the cause of the neglect of a thinker who was trying to re-direct American thought away from the miasms of idealism as exemplefied by Royce et al. Says Heil:
James, Dewey, Royce, Thoreau, Whitman, even Emerson, native enough by birth and animus, drenched themselves to distraction in the imported liquors of German idealism, of French spiritualism, and even of Indian mysticism.

All very interesting and from what I’ve read clear and jargon free.

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