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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


(1863 — 1952)



George Santayana was born in Madrid of Spanish parents. The family emigrated to America in 1872. He was educated at the Boston Latin School and Harvard University, gaining his degree in 1886. After two years studying philosophy at Berlin University he returned to Harvard to complete his doctorate under William James. He joined the faculty there in 1889, and was appointed full professor in 1907. On the death of his mother in 1912 he returned to Europe and spent the war years in Oxford. He settled in Rome in 1924, where he died.



[1] Santayana's aesthetics is largely the product of his early period [The Sense of Beauty, The Life of Reason, vol, IV] when he was concerned with grounding the life of the mind in a biological/ evolutionary context and was seeking to give an account of aesthetic experience and judgement in psychological terms. Aesthetic value, manifested in beauty, relates to what he calls intrinsic and objectified pleasure. By this he means that we experience it as belonging to the work of art itself and not to the perceiver [a]. While the experience of beauty is unanalysable, Santayana does distinguish between the materials, form, and expressiveness of a work of art. The materials consist of sensuous elements which can be synthesized by the mind's activity to produce a form or arrangement. But the materials and the form have aesthetic value in themselves. The expressiveness of the work concerns its capacity to produce ideas or images — aesthetic, moral, or intellectual, which add to its value. Santayana regards works of art in general as abstract symbolizations of the environment and human interests, and as expressing man's inner "moral and dramatic" unities and knowledge of life as a whole, thereby increasing his happiness [b]. This can be seen, he says, firstly in the practical and then in the fine arts which develop from them. In so far as experience is the criterion of aesthetic value, Santayana rejects any universal or objective standard, and denies that beauty possesses the quality of 'disinterestedness' [c].

[2] As for religion, Santayana [Life of Reason, vol. III] thinks of this as a poetic transformation of our 'natural' life. He rejects it as an expression of truth. Religion is myth. Its value lies solely in its efficaciousness in organizing our moral lives and in its support for the life of the imagination and of spirituality (as against animal desires). He sees the function of religious discourse as only symbolic — to express moral values and ideals [a]. He also rejects both mystical religions and authoritarian structures.



[3] [The Life of Reason, vol. 1 (Common Sense).] We cannot know reality as it is in itself. Our knowledge must be indirect and representational. Reason works on the data of sense to produce "concretions in experience". These in turn give rise to concepts or "concreteness in discourse". Santayana thinks of these as related 'dialectically'. They are then fashioned and developed by the active imagination — which Santayana sees as integral to the life of reason. In constructing concretions of experience and discourse, consciousness in effect imposes unity and meaning on reality [a]. However Santayana offers no criterion by which the "constructed unities" of our experience can be recognised as factual unities, ideal correspondences with the real (and thereby can belong to our understanding), and not just dramatic and moral unities. This matter clearly raises the problem of scepticism; and he attempts to deal with it in his later work [Scepticism and Animal Faith]. He suggests that if we consider what is immediately presented to us in experience without reference to origin, and disregarding the existence of the external world, the self, and so on, we are left only with 'essences'. But while reason or imagination cannot establish that such essences are substantial and belong in reality to the natural order, therein possessing 'causal efficacy', our "animal faith" points to an external world transcending our immediate experience [b]. The realm of Being or essences — is explored in his metaphysics.



[4] [The Realms of Being.] Santayana distinguishes four Modes of Being. (1) Matter possesses the properties of 'spatial extension' and 'temporal process'. It can be known only through essences [a], but even these are inadequate to reveal it as continuity underlying change. (2) Essence is the primary mode of Being. There are infinitely many 'eternal' essences, their 'being' consisting solely in self-identity with no reference to spatial or temporal location. Taken together they make up the absolute essence of 'Pure Being', which is the common characteristic of all essences [b]. However, not all essences are actually exemplified in matter; so those that are not do not exist in the material mode of Being. (3) Spirit. This is not the physical or behavioural unity of an organism, which Santayana calls the 'psyche'; nor is it the set of mental events. Rather it is "pure transcendental consciousness", whose job is to 'intuit' individual essences without regard to truth, significance, or material existence. The life of intuition, he says, may constitute a unity, and as such it is man's highest good. But it has no cognitive value [c]. (4) Truth is "the sum of all propositions" about what exists, has existed, or might exist among the infinite number of essences. He rejects pragmatic approaches and also the concept of necessary truths; the coincidence of all truth with reality is contingent. Even mathematical truths are considered to be contingent [d].



[5] Santayana asserted [The Sense of Beauty] that morality consists in the avoidance of suffering, pleasure being secured through aesthetic experience. However, he later modified this hedonism recognising the possibility of choice and preference [see The Life of Reason, vol. V; see also Winds of Desire] [a]. Certainly there is a rational morality which is concerned with the genuinely good and requires a careful examination of alternatives and a reconciliation of different satisfactions. (The "pre-rational morality" of individuals whose lives are governed solely by impulse and who have no conception of alternatives is here contrasted with the "post-rational morality" of those who shun the natural world and embrace some religion of salvation.) But even rational morality, which seems to involve acceptance of an ideal standard, is a matter of personal choice and temperamental bias.



[6] [The Life of Reason, vol. II; Dominations and Powers.] Santayana distinguishes two levels of society. Society in a full or genuine sense is that of the mind and is the means whereby the ideal life of reason can be achieved. However, considered at the lower level as the complex of human institutions such as the family or the state, society's function is a practical one; to provide for man's general well-being [a]. Santayana also allows for associations (grounded in, for example, patriotism) beyond the primary ones. He regards these as characterizing 'free' or 'rational' society. But such institutions constitute what we might term the infrastructure of the life of reason.



Santayana's philosophy is marked by its vision and comprehensiveness but at the same time by a certain lack of rigour — features which despite his disavowal might suggest some influence from nineteenth century developments in German philosophy (though he did acknowledge parallels in the work of Husserl). His principal themes are also perhaps those which lay him most open to objections.

(1) In his epistemology his commitment to a representative theory of perception is uncritical. His appeal to a belief based on 'animal faith' would probably fail to answer the arguments of a thorough-going sceptic, particularly as he locates certainty in knowledge of essences. Indeed his metaphysics of realms of being, although illuminating, is characterized by assertion rather than detailed argument or awareness of possible difficulties.

(2) The distinctions Santayana makes in his ethics between pre-rational, rational, and post-rational society are of considerable interest in the context of a philosophy of culture. But while he has moved away from his earlier crude hedonism (grounded in a psychological account of aesthetics), he has not really disengaged himself from a relativism contingent on the bias of individual temperament.

(3) His emphasis on society as the means by which individuals might achieve the 'life of reason' in their apprehension of essences is arguably unbalanced, and has the effect of subordinating the more immediate practical considerations most theories of society are concerned with. His anti-liberal and anti-democratic tendencies have also been viewed unfavourably by many western philosophers today.



Santayana: The Sense of Beauty (1896); Winds of Doctrine (1913); The Life of Reason; or The Phases of Human Progress, 5 vols (1905-06); Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923); Realms of Being, 4 vols (1927-40); Dominations and Powers (1949).


M. K. Munitz, The Moral Philosophy of Santayana.

T. N. Munson, Essential Wisdom of George Santayana.

N. O'Sullivan, Santayana.

T. L. S. Sprigge, Santayana.

Collections of essays

P. A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of Santayana.






Note: There seems to be a general influence of Hegel's thought on Santayana with respect to 'phases' of human progress and dialectic, but the grounding for Santayana is naturalistic rather than idealist; cf. also Dilthey.


[1a; cf. 5a] Aesthetic value in beauty relates to pleasure 'objectified' in works of art






[1b] Works of art symbolizations of environment & human interests (express man's inner 'unities' and knowledge → happiness)    Dewey [4a]


[1c] Standard of aesthetic value experience not objective (not 'disinterestedness')    Kant [9b c]


[2a] Religion as myth: value in organization of lives, and support of imagination/ spirituality; religious discourse symbolizes moral values, ideals






[3a] Reality in itself not knowable; reason works on the sensory data to give (i) 'concretions of experience, (ii) concepts (discourse); dialectic relation between (i) & (ii) through imagination; imposition of unity and meaning by consciousness




[2d 4a]

[1a 3a 2a]



[3b; cf. 4a b] Essences & 'causal efficacy' not knowable as 'real' but scepticism overcome through 'animal faith' Modes of Being:





[3d e]



[4a; cf. 3b] (i) Matter — extended and temporal known by (ii) eternal essences — 'signs' of the external world




[1c 2a]

[1d 1e]



[4b; cf. 3b] (iii) Spirit ('pure transcendental consciousness') intuits essences without regard to truth/ 'material' existence



[3b 5a]

[2c d 3d]


[4c] (iv) Truth: sum of all propositions; rejection of pragmatism, and necessary truths (including maths); truth-reality relation contingent








[5a; cf. 1a]. Morality: avoidance of suffering; aesthetic experience of pleasure; (later) emphasis on choice & preference



[3a 3c]



[6a] Ideal society for the mind; practical considerations at lower level (provision for well-being)



[11d sec. 14]