Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Blanshard on Santayana's Prose Style

Brand Blanshard, On Philosophical Style (Indiana University Press, 1967), pp. 49-50. Originally appeared in 1954. Green indicates my underlining from twenty years ago.

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, no the feather in the hat."


BV: It seems to me that far too much Continental philosophy is plagued by the same "divided mind" and "doubleness of intent."