Philosophy
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[The following passage is from George Santayana, by Newton P. Stallknecht, 1971]

The reasoning by which we live is not to be divorced from the common sense that presides over our daily behaviour. As Santayana had insisted in his earlier writings, reason is to be defined as “instinct enlightened by reflection,” and the primitive beliefs that guide our conduct are instinctive in nature. These beliefs are as indispensable to our conscious life as breathing is to our bodily existence. Without them, we would be overwhelmed by the restless multiplicity of sensation and feeling that constitutes the raw material of our stream of consciousness. This flux of sheer sensibility does not yield us a picture of things and events until we subject many of its fleeting elements to a scheme of interpretation, until we recognize them as symbols indicating the presence of enduring objects in a world of objects spatially related to our own bodies. We do not derive this interpretation from experience, since without such interpretation we have no experience worth the name, only a whirl of sensation and feeling. Without the initial aid of instinctive interpretation our awareness would lack the continuity even of a dream and conscious selfhood, as we come to know it, would be impossible.

These primordial beliefs are practical in function rather than strictly representative. Their value lies in their contributing toward our survival, not in their grasping the nature or penetrating the structure of things. They support certain attitudes of alertness that further our safety and well-being, and in doing so they give our first dim sense of ourselves and of our world, compromising what Santayana has called the “original articles of the animal creed.” Here we find such effective, although inarticulate, beliefs as that things seen may be edible—or dangerous; things lost or sought may be found. These beliefs or attitudes involve others more fundamental: that there is a world or arena of possible action spread out in space wherein we as moving organism may operate, that there is a future relevant to these operations that may offer us threats or attractive incentives, and that seeming accidents may have concealed causes. Such assumptions, made without deliberation, constitute what Santayana calls “animal faith,” about which our perception of things and our knowledge of the world has gradually taken shape. These assumptions are supported, even encouraged and reinforced, by experience, but they are by no means self-evident propositions in their own right or what Descartes would call “clear and distinct ideas.” They are taken for granted in action rather than established by argument or intuitive insight. Nature, or the “realm of matter,” in which as living organisms we find a place, enters our thinking as the realm of possible action. The patterns of time and space, enduring substance and causal efficacy, about which our idea of nature is built many well be no more than useful rules of thumb, in themselves gross oversimplifications of reality. Yet these schemes of interpretation, however imperfect, bring our thinking into a rough and ready contact with the world around us, and they contribute to our sense of our own existence. We think of ourselves as caught up in the goings-on of nature to which we must adapt our behaviour if we are to survive. Animal faith carries with it a sense of our dependence upon things that we can only partially control, that at once support and threaten our existence.

Such being its origin, our knowledge, even when refined by the mathematics of science, must remain tentative. One of the chief functions of philosophy is to remind us of the shallowness of our understanding of things and the massive background of our ignorance. Absolute truth lies quite beyond our reach and the very idea of truth brings upon us a sense of humility.

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