Thursday, 29 September 2022
Or we watch television
The ideas we have of things are not fair portraits; they are political caricatures made in the human interest; but in their partial way they may be masterpieces of characterisation and insight. Above all, they are obtained by labour, by investigating what is not given, and by correcting one impression by another, drawn from the same object—a thing impossible in the intuition of essences. They therefore conduce to wisdom, and in their perpetual tentativeness have a cumulative truth.
George Santayana - Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923)
Most of us accept the reality of cumulative abilities. We know we can’t acquire any kind of skill, knowledge or expertise in a single flash of inspiration.
We don’t become better tennis players by watching Roger Federer – not even in our own minds. We don’t acquire much insight by watching television. Our pursuit of truth is cumulative in an analogous manner – we go out there and pursue truth with serious intent or we watch television.
Wider problems in pursuing a cumulative truth as it unfolds step by step are obvious. The media are not interested unless it is an unfolding scandal or something which can be unfolded into a scandal. Political actors are not interested because it isn’t immediate enough. There is no persuasive finality in cumulative truth. Unless charlatans give it that persuasive finality of course.
Yet Santayana was describing how we make thinking worthwhile – the perpetual pursuit of cumulative truth. That’s it – the whole shebang. Cumulative experience of right, wrong, true, false, dubious or promising. Outside of this, thinking really isn’t worthwhile. It isn’t even thinking if it doesn’t attempt to accumulate better over worse.
Unfortunately, not everyone wants thinking to be worthwhile in all circumstances – or so says one result of cumulative truth.