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George Santayana.

Born: 1863, Madrid, Spain

Died: 1952, Rome, Italy

Major Works: The Sense of Beauty (1896), The Life of Reason; or the Phases of Human Progress (1905-6), Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923), Realms of Being: The Realm of Essence (1927), The Realm of Matter (1930), The Realm of Truth (1938), The Realm of Spirit (1940), The Last Puritan; a Memoir in the Form of a Novel (1936), Persons and Places: The Background of My Life (1944), Persons and Places, Vol. 2: The Middle Span (1945)

Major Ideas

Beauty is pleasure objectified-pleasure regarded as the quality of an object.

Belief in the existence of anything is incapable of proof.

By animal faith we believe in ourselves and a world of which we are a part.

Knowledge is faith mediated by symbols.

Spirit is a form of life in which values are consciously universalized.

George Santayana was a philosopher with the spirit of a poet; he was at the same time a poet preoccupied with a philosophical view of life; and, finally, he was both at once, something different from being a poetical philosopher or a philosophical poet. He has described himself as a materialist--as one who contents that ours is a universe of matter; his philosophy, then, is a naturalism (as opposed to a supernaturalism). At the same time, he argued that sense experience provides data for judgments about the material world, although the resultant knowledge is possible only through animal faith--the natural impulse to take what is given to us in the course of experience as signs of objects not otherwise knowable. Without faith, only skepticism is rational; with faith (in the existence and character of the material world), belief becomes knowledge. In fact, Santayana has defined knowledge as "faith mediated by symbols" (in Scepticism and Animal Faith).

Most critics attempting to describe Santayana's distinctive style and method as a philosopher make that identification between the philosopher and the poet--that is, they see that identification in Santayana. But Santayana, who also recognized it, thought it to be inevitable: One cannot philosophically present one's view of life without embodying one's ideals in that view and doing so poetically--that is, by way of literature in the world we know and formed by the spirit by which we know it. For Santayana, then, it was not surprising that he was both philosopher and poet at once; what was incomprehensible to him was that it could have been otherwise. (In fact, he argued vigorously against the growing emphasis on logical analysis in philosophy, contending that form abstracted from the total activity of life has no significance.)

The philosopher Irving Singer, a critic of Santayana's aesthetics as expressed in The Sense of Beauty, argues in his book Santayana's Aesthetics that Santayana was not so much preoccupied with the task of defining beauty as he was with expressing the "sense" of beauty, how beauty is realized in the experience of it. And when one appraises Santayana's claim that beauty is "pleasure objectified," Singer's contention becomes credible. (Santayana maintains that human beings have the tendency to suppose that pleasure they have while looking at something is a "quality of the object." In The Sense of Beauty, he writes that "the passage from sensation to perception is gradual, and the path may sometimes be retraced: so it is with beauty and the pleasures of sensation. There is no sharp line between them, but it depends on the degree of objectivity my feelings has attained at the moment whether I say `It pleases me,' or `It is beautiful.") One may find it somewhat illuminating to extend Singer's perceptive comment to the whole of Santayana's philosophy. In composing his philosophy of life (or of the world, or of reality) Santayana, the poet-philosopher, both describes and expresses the "Sense" of life; he eloquently and vividly objectifies in his writings the experience of life, the sense of being an inquisitive and appreciative spirit in a world one grasps only by the irresistible promptings of animal faith.

If there is a philosophy that is distinctively American, it is that of pragmatism and, in particularly, of pragmatism as formed in the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Santayana knew all three (although James, his teacher and then colleague at Harvard, was the only one he knew well); he was enthusiastic about none of them as philosophers (although he respected James and appreciated James's work in psychology), nor were they about him. The opposition was not so much a matter of philosophical conflict as it was of temperamental differences: The pragmatists focused on the practical--the planning and execution of acts, and they only related these matters to the problems of philosophy. Santayana, on the other hand, having abandoned Roman Catholicism (except as an imaginative symbol) and having developed a naturalistic, materialist philosophy in which the existence of blind, unthinking matter is not only admitted but insisted upon, created his morality, his aesthetics, and even, in a sense, his religion from his spirited response to matter. He must have appeared to the pragmatists as antagonistic not only to the pragmatic movement but to the philosophical calling itself.

Santayana was born in Madrid on December 16, 1863, the son of Agustin Ruiz de Santayana, who practiced law and was a Spanish civil servant who had served in the Philippines, and Josefina Borras Sturgis Santayana. (Agustin had met Josefina soon after her marriage to George Sturgis of Boston; he met her again in Madrid after she had became a widow, and they were married.)

Because of difficulties in the marriage and Agustin's interest in securing a proper education for George, it was decided that Agustin would take his son to Boston, and they departed from Avila in 1872; the following year Agustin returned to Spain and George was left with his mother in Boston, to which she had earlier moved with her other children to satisfy her late husband's wish that the three children of their marriage be educated there.

George Santayana attended Boston Latin School and then entered Harvard College in the fall of 1882. He visited his father in Spain at the end of the first year and expressed some doubts about continuing at Harvard, but together they decided it would be best for him to return; he graduated in the class of 1886. He studied for two years at the University of Berlin and then returned to Harvard for graduate work in philosophy, receiving the Ph.D. in 1889. He was invited to join the faculty there, becoming a colleague of his former teachers, William James, George H. Palmer, and Josiah Royce. His first book, The Sense of Beauty, was published in 1896 and his next. The Life of Reason, appeared in 1905-6. He enjoyed association with his students but was not fond of teaching; in fact, he thought that philosophy is more to be practiced than taught. He retired in 1912, having inherited money from his mother, and the remaining years of his life were spent for the most part in Europe--in Spain, France, England, and Italy. His most important works appeared during these latter years. His final years were spent mostly in Rome, and he died at the Convent of the Little Company of Mary (where he was free to study and write) on September 26, 1952.

The Sense of Beauty

In the preface to The Sense of Beauty, Santayana informs us that his book originated in a series of lectures on aesthetics given at Harvard from 1892-95. His principal concern, he notes, is to organize material from various sources (although without acknowledgment) so as to present a clear and sincere account of "those fundamental aesthetic feelings the orderly extension of which yields sanity of judgment and distinction of taste."

Perhaps the most important of the four parts of which the book is composed is the first, "The Nature of Beauty." Here Santayana develops an idea of beauty that is distinctively his own, if not in its fundamental features, at least in its emphasis and its phrasing.

Beauty, he writes, is "value positive, intrinsic, and objectified," and this technical definition is followed by a simpler but substantially equivalent statement: "Beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing."

Since pleasure is a feeling that is good on its own account, if beauty is pleasure, then beauty is a good and, as good on its own account, an "intrinsic good." Pleasure is objectified in the sense that it is, in effect, project to its source: The object that pleases is seen as alive with pleasure; pleasure seems to be an intimate aspect of the object, its very "quality."

Santayana prepares for this somewhat surprising claim--not that beauty is pleasure--by calling to the human tendency to attribute to the objects of perception the qualities of the feelings aroused by such objects. Uncritical minds attribute to nature the feelings that nature provokes; the qualities--distinctive nature--of sense impressions are presumed to belong to the objects that provoke those impressions. Although we would not ordinarily regard pain as the quality of an object that causes pain, we may in the overwhelming delight of a complex aesthetic experience take the pleasure involved in that experience to be, along with the colors or sounds we perceive, a feature of the thing perceived. Thus, Santayana concludes, when the uncritical person says that something is beautiful, what is being attributed to the object is the pleasure that perceiving it occasions. To say that pleasure is "objectified" is to say that pleasure is regarded as somehow belonging to the object said to be "beautiful."

In part2 of the Sense of Beauty, Santayana argues that "all human function may contribute to the sense of beauty." The functioning of the sense organs, for example, contributes to the beauty of colors, for example, contributes to the beauty of colors, sounds, and movements. But there are more complex vital and social functions, and of them none is more powerful than that of love, especially as prompted by sexual instinct. Spontaneous taste begins with the senses, but as experience broadens the interests of perceivers and education enlarges the range of aesthetic objects, taste develops and more satisfying experiences of beauty emerge in response to a variety of aesthetic material.

Santayana then explores the role of form in aesthetic experience, that is, in experience undertaken for the sake of the appreciation afforded by the contemplation of objects. Here the values of symmetry, multiplicity in uniformity, and utility are examined, among others. It is apparent that we are now far from the simple pleasures afforded by immediate sense experience; in attending to form we take delight in order, meaningful relationships, and dramatic structure.

Finally, Santayana deals with expression. Just as one may find objects in the world that are pleasant to perceive, so one may take pleasure in expression--whether in language, music, or other media--that enable us to grasp and appreciate what is not directly present to us and would perhaps, were it not for expression, not be present at all.

Scepticism and Animal Faith

In The Life of Reason; or the Phases of Human Progress (1905-6), Santayana began the intensive exploration of experience that was to occupy him during the remainder of his philosophical and natural life. His book of five volumes was designed to argue that the human mind not only makes sense out of experience but appraises the past by referring to an ideal rooted in natural impulses. Mind and body are one: The life of reason does not operate in a vacuum nor does it proceed by a logic divorced from life; thinking is not so much instrumental as it is the expression of the vital relationships arising out of the human animal's encounter with nature. The ideas developed in The Life of Reason were to receive more precise and illuminating treatment in subsequent books written by Santayana, particularly in Scepticism and Animal Faith and in his survey of the significant aspects of human experience. The realms of Being.

In Scepticism and Animal Faith, Santayana begins his account of the conditions of knowing by arguing that an ultimate skepticism is defensible. There is nothing given (no datum of experience) that carries with it proof of its own existence or of anything else. Accordingly, the belief that there is an external world that affects us cannot be justified by any appeal to data.

"Nothing given exists," argues Santayana in a chapter bearing that title. A "datum" is what is simply given, presumably in experience: what we might describe as a color, a flash of light, an odor--although to assume the truth of any such description is to go beyond the data. "Existence..., not being included in any immediate datum, is a fact always open to doubt," he writes. He concludes: "For all an ultimate scepticism can see, therefore, there may be no facts at all, and perhaps nothing has ever existed." (The argument supporting this conclusion and the development of the skeptical position is brilliantly conceived and persuasively argued.)

Santayana introduces the term "essence" to designate what is given. A datum is an essence, a distinctive character, simply what, as such, is given: "Each essence that appears appears just as it is, because its appearance defines it, and determines the whole being that it is or has." If, for example, while attending to a datum, we were to call it "nausea," we would be going beyond the datum were we at the same time to posit a world, a sea, a ship, ourselves, and all the rest. The datum itself is simply, as an essence, a character, what it is: It carries nothing with it that can serve as evidence for anything, even its own existence (which, as datum, it cannot have).

The word "essence," as Santayana acknowledges, has Platonic overtones. But Santayana's essences have no metaphysical status; they do not dwell in a supernatural realm as the common properties of members of a class; they are nothing but the characters (this color, this sound) presented by data. The "realm of essence," he writes, "is simply the unwritten catalogue, prosaic and infinite, of all characters possessed by such things as happen to exist, together with the characters which all different things would possess if they existed." The problem of empirical knowledge, then, is the problem of determining whether the essences can serve as the signs of anything existing beyond them.

Santayana's conclusion is that we are driven by our animal instincts to posit ourselves and a world that affects us. "The images in sense are parts of discourse, not parts of nature," he writes; "they are the babble of our innocent organs under the stimulus of things; but these spontaneous images...may acquire the function of names; they may became signs... for the things sought or encountered in the world." Driven by our animal instincts to believe in a world of objects, we act accordingly: we reach out, we draw back, we remember, we anticipate. "Knowledge," then, "is true belief grounded in experience...controlled by outer facts"; knowledge is "faith mediated by symbols." The belief in substance and nature is a natural extension of the animal inclination to believe in the object at hand. And the belief in "spirit" also springs from the position of a world, for the spirit is "the light of discrimination that marks in...pure Being differences of essence, of time, of place, of value...."

The Realms of Being

In the preface to Scepticism and Animal Faith, Santayana begins by saying, "Here is one more system of philosophy." But he is quick to point out his is not another fanciful exercise in metaphysics. He intends to appeal to the principles to which every person appeals; he means only to give to "everyday beliefs" and the convictions of "common sense" a "more accurate and circumspect form." He is to write of "Realms of Being," but he means by that term not parts of the universe but, simply, the "kinds or categories of things which I find conspicuously different and worth distinguishing."

The four volumes of The Realms of Being, then, develop with acumen and grace the fundamental ideas already made eloquent in his account of the phoenixlike renewal of animal faith that springs from his brilliantly defended skepticism. There are four "realms" of which he treats: essence, matter, truth, and spirit.

In remarking on his own philosophy, in the preface to The Realms of Being, Santayana indicates his objective of "taking each thing simply for what it is," and he then proceeds to set forth in the simplest possible way certain ideas that are central in his thinking: "...All moralities equally are but expressions of animal life...;...there can be no knowledge save animal faith position external facts, and...natural science is but a human symbol for those facts...."

Since Santayana devotes four volumes to his exploration into the realms of essence, matter, truth, and spirit, no summary that does justice to the details of his account is possible. However, one may at least suggest the meanings of the key terms.

The term "essence" has been discussed above, and it must be acknowledge that Santayana's genius proves itself in the discovery and elucidation of the realm of essence: To have abstracted and conceived characters, whether exemplified or not, and then to have attended to them without any assumptions or presuppositions took a kind of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic restraint of which few philosophic professionals are capable.

By "matter," Santayana means substance that is posited to give significance to significance to experience; substance is external to thought, passes through various phases, and is regarded as "the source of phenomena unsubstantial in themselves..." Matter is what is posited by animal faith; for the animal, sense experience is a sign of something external that in action gives rise to such experience; the world of nature is a material world. Accordingly, "the field of action...is the realm of matter."

Santayana asserts at the outset of The Realm of Truth that he means by "truth" what the term means in ordinary conversation; his use of the term follows that of common sense. He then generalizes: "The truth means the sum of all true propositions, what omniscience would assert, the whole ideal system of qualities and relations which the world has exemplified will exemplify." And he brings out the meanings that common sense affirms: "An opinion is true if what it is talking about is constituted as the opinion asserts it to be constituted....It is a question of identity between a fact asserted and a fact existing." But here, as in the other volumes of The Realms of Being, what is illuminating is the searching account that follows, a sensitive review of the kinds and uses of truth, and concluding passages in which Santayana explains how the spirit goes beyond--but preferably not counter to--truth in the building of moralities and value objectives in general.

In The Realm of Spirit, Santayana distinguishes between the "self" that is the center of experience, in active response to the world of matter, and the "spirit," by which the author means nothing religious or metaphysical but "only that inner light of actuality or attention which floods all life as men actually live it on earth...It is roughly the same thing as feeling or thought; it might be called consciousness...." However, the spirit, although not substance, is active: It deals with what is given in the way of experience.

The account of spirit is consistent with and, in fact, an outgrowth of Santayana's naturalism and materialism, and yet it does justice to the active dimensions of the human adventure. This final volume in The Realms of Being is a drawing together of Santayana's survey of the human condition and, accordingly, of nature; yet it is not ponderous and static analysis. It is a creative account, literary in form and didactic in intent in that it calls attention to the liberating directions in which the spirit can move. The adventure of living and of thinking about living was a single adventure for Santayana.

Further Reading

McCormick, John. George Santayana: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. A thorough, sympathetic, fair, and illuminating biography, intended in part to encourage an honest appraisal of Santayana in the expectation that his greatness as a thinker and writer will come to be recognized, especially by those who will be prompted to read some of Santayana's works.

Munitz, Milton K. The Moral Philosophy of Santayana. New York: Humanities Press, 1958. Munitz distinguishes between Santayana's naturalistic ethics, with its endorsement of humanism, and his creative effort to lead the life of the spirit in its encounter with essence. Munitz argues for Santayana's naturalism with its call for a life in which ideals are so related to desires that are rewarding as to eventuate in happiness.

Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of George Santayana. New York: Tudor, 1940, 1951. One of the distinguished Library of Living Philosophers volumes edited by Schilpp, this volume has the following features: an opening statement by Santayana, partly autobiographical and partly a commentary on his philosophical temper, critical essays by nineteen professional philosophers, both supporters and opponents of Santayana (including Daniel M. Cory, Charles Hartshorne, Stephen C. Pepper, George Boas, Schilpp, and Bertrand Russell, among others), and a fascinating section, "The Philosopher Replies," in this case, an essay over a hundred pages long, entitled "Apologia Pro Menta Sua," in which Santayana comments in turn on the critical essays mentioned above. Includes a bibliography of Santayana's writings from 1880-1951.

Singer, Irving. Santayana's Aesthetics: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957. A competent critic argues that Santayana's "definition" of beauty as objectified pleasure has more to do with the sense of beauty than with beauty itself. He acknowledges Santayana's strengths in aesthetics while regarding Santayana's adherence to a theory of essences as obscuring a number of very important aspects of fine art and beauty. Mcgreal, Ian P.
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Author:McGreal, Ian P.
Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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