It occurred to me this morning that there is an ominous parallel between Putin's occupation of the Ukraine and Hitler's of the Sudetenland, and on a similar pretext, namely, the protecting of ethnic Russians/Germans. The Sudetenland was the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia whose annexation by Hitler in 1938 was part of the run-up to the Second World War. But I'm no historian. So let me ascend from these grimy speluncar details into the aether of philosophy.
George Santayana is repeatedly quoted as saying that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Although this may be true individually, I cannot see that it is true collectively. I have learned from my mistakes, and I don't repeat them. But a collection of individuals, with its ever-changing membership, is not an individual. Collectively, whether we remember the past or not we are condemned to repeat it. That is how I would go Santayana one better. Or to put it in less ringing terms:
Collectively, knowledge of the past does little to prevent the recurrence of old mistakes.
One reason for this is that there is no consensus as to what the lessons of history are. What did we Americans learn from Viet Nam? That we should avoid all foreign entanglements? That when we engage militarily we should do so decisively and with overwhelming force and resolve? (E.g, that we should have suppressed dissent at home and used a few tactical nukes against the Viet Cong?) What is the lesson to be learned? What is the mistake to be avoided? Paleocons, neocons (the descendants of old-time liberals) and leftists don't agree on questions like these.
One cannot learn a lesson the content of which is up for grabs.
What did we learn from Hiroshima and Nagasaki? That the wholesale slaughter of noncombatants is sometimes justified and may (as it actually has) usher in a long period of world peace? (There hasn't been a world war in going on 70 years). That this is a case in which the end justified the means? No adherent of just war doctrine would agree that that is the lesson.
Another reason why knowledge of the past is of little help in the present is that, even if there is agreement on some general lesson -- e.g., don't appease dictators -- there is bound to be disagreement as to whether or not the lesson applies in particular circumstances. Is Obama an appeaser? Is Putin a dictator? Is the Ukraine sufficiently like the Sudetenland to justify an action-guiding comparison? Et cetera ad nauseam.
Reflecting on the seeming tautology, 'What exists exists,' Jacques Maritain writes,
This is no tautology, it implies an entire metaphysics. What is posited outside its causes exercises an activity, an energy which is existence itself. To exist is to maintain oneself and to be maintained outside nothingness; esse is an act, a perfection, indeed the final perfection, a splendid flower in which objects affirm themselves. (A Preface to Metaphysics, Sheed and Ward, 1939, pp. 93-94)
This is the sort of writing, florid and French, that drives analytic philosophers crazy and moves them to mockery. But I think Maritain is here expressing an important insight. Let me see if I can explain it with as little reliance as possible on Maritain's Thomistic machinery.
1. A tautology is a logical truth, a truth true in virtue of its logical form alone. Now it certainly does seem that 'What exists exists' is true in virtue of its logical form alone. Write it like this: For any x, if x exists, then x exists. By Universal Instantiation, we get if a exists, then a exists, which is of the form, if p then p, which is equivalent to p or not-p, which is the Law of Excluded Middle.
2. On the other hand, it has been clear for a long time that 'exist(s)' is no ordinary predicate. To say of an item that it exists is not to characterize it or classify it. Existence is not a classificatory concept. It doesn't partition neutral items into two classes, the existent ones and the nonexistent ones. Pace Meinong, there are no nonexistent items. And existence certainly does not partition existing items into two classes, the existing and the nonexisting. When I say of a thing that it exists I am saying that it is not nothing. I am not saying that it is F or G, but that it is. I am pointing to its sheer being or existence.
3. The same goes for 'What exists, exists.' Although it can be used to express a tautology, it can also be used non-tautologically. Used non-tautologically, it does not say that that-which-exists is that-which-exists; it says that that-which-exists exists. In other words, it does not say, tautologically, that beings are beings; it says, non-tautologically, that beings are.
4. Somewhere in The Enneads Plotinus writes, "It is by the One that all being are beings." But there would be no need to drag The One into the picture if 'all beings are beings' is a tautology. Tautologies do not need truth-makers. Plotinus' point, of course, is that it is by the One that all beings are. They are in virtue of the One; their Being derives from the One. Whether or not that it true, we understand what is being said and we understand that 'all beings are being' is not a tautology.
5. Metaphysics targets the existence of that-which-exists, the Being of beings, the esse of entia, das Sein des Seienden. Thus metaphysics presupposes a difference between existence and the existent. But existence is "odious to the logician" as George Santayana once observed. (Scepticism and Animal Faith, Dover, 1955, p. 48, orig. publ. 1923.) And so the logician will try to knock the wind out of the metaphysical sails by trying to accommodate the difference between existence and what exists in some such aseptic fashion as the following:
x exists =df for some y, y = x.
Accordingly, existence is identity-with-something-or-other. 'Exists' as a load-bearing predicate gets replaced by some purely logical machinery: the particular quantifer, a bound variable, the identity sign, and a free variable. Existence for the logician is a 'thin' topic. Thin to the point of being anorexic. It is just logical bones bare of metaphysical meat.
6. Well, why not be a thin theorist? I have written a lot on this topic, so now I will be very brief. While it is of course true that everything that exists is identical to something, namely, itself, this presupposes that the things in question exist in a sense that cannot be captured by the above definition. Another way of putting the point is that the above definition is circular. For it amounts to
x exists =df for some y that exists, y = x.
If I want to know what it is for something to exist, I learn nothing by being told that it is identical to something that exists, although that is of course true.
7. Getting back to Maritain, he is right as against the thin theorists: existence is a metaphysically weighty topic. 'What exists exists' can be given a non-tautological reading. But on the thin theory, it could only amount to the tautological 'What is identical to something is identical to something.' But whether existence is a perfection, or indeed the final perfection, or rather the opposite, as Santayana and Sartre would maintain, is a further question.
8. Unfortunately, no resolute thin theorist will be persuaded by anything I or anyone says to abandon his theory. All my dialectic can do is lead the reader to a point where he either gets it or he doesn't, where he either sees it, or he doesn't. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.
It's a bit like arguments over religion. If you think that religion is nothing but a tissue of childish superstitions, will I ever be able to convince you otherwise? No. For it is not a matter of analytical intelligence, but of insight, or rather, in your case a lack of insight.
Brand Blanshard, On Philosophical Style (Indiana University Press, 1967), pp. 49-50. Originally appeared in 1954. Emphasis added. The most distinguished recent example of imaginative prose in philosophy is certainly George Santayana. Santayana was no man's copy, either in thought or in style. He consistently refused to adopt the prosaic medium in which most of his colleagues were writing. To read him is to be conducted in urbane and almost courtly fashion about the spacious house he occupies, moving noiselessly always on a richly figured carpet of prose. Is it a satisfying experience as one looks back on it? Yes, undoubtedly, if one has been able to surrender to it uncritically. But that, as it happens, is something the philosophical reader is not very likely to do. Philosophy is, in the main, an attempt to establish something by argument, and the reader who reads for philosophy will be impatient to know just what thesis is being urged, and what precisely is the evidence for it. To such a reader Santayana seems to have a divided mind, and his doubleness of intent clogs the intellectual movement. He is, of course, genuinely intent on reaching a philosophic conclusion, but it is as if, on his journey there, he were so much interested also in the flowers that line the wayside that he is perpetually pausing to add one to his buttonhole. The style is not, as philosophic style should be, so transparent a medium that one looks straight through it at the object, forgetting that it is there; it is too much like a window of stained glass which, because of its very richness, diverts attention to itself.
There is no reason why a person should not be a devotee of both truth and beauty; but unless in his writing he is prepared to make one the completely unobtrusive servant of the other, they are sure to get in each other's way. Hence ornament for its own beautiful irrelevant sake must be placed under interdict. Someone has put the matter more compactly: "Style is the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the hat."
It seems to me that far too much Continental philosophy is plagued by the same "divided mind" and "doubleness of intent."
George Santayana (1863-1952), Character and Opinion in the United States (Norton, 1967), p. 171:
His instinct [the American's] is to think well of everybody, and to wish everybody well, but in a spirit of rough comradeship, expecting every man to stand on his own legs and to be helpful in his turn. When he has given his neighbor a chance he thinks he has done enough for him; but he feels it is an absolute duty to do that. It will take some hammering to drive a coddling socialism into America.
Santayana remarks in his Preface that his observations were made over a forty year period prior to January, 1912. Despite all the socialist hammering (and sickling?) that has gone on since then, we are still at some distance from the coddling socialism found elsewhere. American self-reliance may be on her last legs, but she ain't dead yet.
Maybe we can revivify her a bit this November 2nd.
George Santayana, Character and Opinion in the United States (New York: Norton, 1967), p. 35:
So long as philosophy is the free pursuit of wisdom, it arises wherever men of character and penetration, each with his special experience or hobby, looks about them in this world. That philosophers should be professors is an accident, and almost an anomaly. Free reflection about everything is a habit to be imitated, but not a subject to expound; and an original system, if the philosopher has one, is something dark, perilous, untested, and not ripe to be taught, nor is there much danger that anyone will learn it. The genuine philosopher -- as Royce liked to say, quoting the Upanishads -- wanders alone like the rhinoceros.
Is it any wonder that Santayana quit his teaching job at Harvard and spent the rest of his life in retirement in Rome?
The difference between a philosopher and a professor of philosophy is the former lives for what the latter lives from.
From Animal Faith and Spiritual Life, ed. John Lachs, Meredith, 1967, p. 168:
There are three traps that strangle philosophy: the Church, the marriage-bed, and the professor's chair. I escaped from the first in my youth; the second I never entered, and as soon as possible I got out of the third.
Perhaps we could call them the theological trap, the tender trap, and the tenure trap. But are they truly traps? That might be disputed.
Nietzsche might be brought in as a witness concerning the marriage trap, not that he had any experience in the matter. Somewhere in his Nachlass he compares the philosopher burdened by Weib und Kind, Haus und Hof with an astronomer who interposes a piece of filthy glass between eye and telescope. The philosopher's vocation charges him with the answering of the ultimate questions; pressing foreground concerns, however, make it difficult for him to take these questions with the seriousness they deserve, let alone to answer them.
But in another place Nietzsche balances this harsh observation by noting that the man without Haus und Hof, Weib und Kind is like a ship with insufficient ballast: he rides too high on the seas of life and does not pass through her storms with the steadiness of the solid bourgeois weighted down with property and reputation, wife and children. The judgments of such a high-rider on matters local and temporal should not be taken too seriously.