Spanish, b: 16 December 1863, Madrid, d: 29 September 1952, Rome. Cat: Systematic philosopher. Ints: Metaphysics; epistemology; ethics; aesthetics; politics. Educ: Taken to America 1872; educated at Harvard. Infls: Plato, Aristotle and Spinoza. Appts: Member of Philosophy Department, Harvard, 1889–1912; an inheritance allowed him to relinquish his post in 1912, after which Santayana lived in Europe, based chiefly in Rome, and devoted himself to writing (he retained Spanish nationality all his life but wrote in English).
All published by Scribners (New York) and Constable (London). A collected edition of works up to 1940, the Triton Edition, was published by Scribners (14 volumes). A new complete works is currently being issued by the MIT Press.
Santayana is usually thought of as the author of The Sense of Beauty (1896) and of its central thesis, that beauty is pleasure taken to be a property of an object. It is a quirk of history that the creator of the system of the Realms of Being (1927–40), and of its predecessor The Life of Reason (1905–6), should be best known for a doctrine he does not refer to after his first book. One of the reasons for the comparative neglect of Santayana’s works since his death has undoubtedly been his prose style: a poet, essayist and novelist as well as a philosopher, Santayana preferred to write in a prose which is mellifluous, metaphorical and often beautiful. His reputation as a prose stylist is unassailable, but his work did not find favour with those who believed that philosophy should be written as it was by William James or Russell.
The major work of the early part of Santayana’s career is The Life of Reason (5 volumes), an evaluative survey of human institutions from the standpoint of ethical eudaemonism: happiness is the good for humankind, and is best secured by the harmonization of our various interests by the use of reason. Santayana surveys society, religion, art and science, estimating which, if any, of the forms of these institutions exhibited in history have promoted the rational life, and sketching alternative, ideal forms. These surveys are prefaced in the first volume, Reason in Common Sense, by an account of the birth of reason, the process whereby the immediate flux of experience is ordered by the mind. What emerges is the ‘common-sense’ world picture of a universe of physical objects and minds, with a concomitant development of self-consciousness, and a shift from instinctive action to the deliberate pursuit of ideals. Hence, Santayana says that his subject is progress. He sets out to answer the question: ‘In which of its adventures would the human race, reviewing its whole experience, acknowledge a progress and a gain?’ (Triton Edition, vol. III, p. 13).
The stress on progress and the dynamic reform of institutions gave this work considerable appeal in the USA, where elements of aestheticism and detachment in Santayana’s earlier works had attracted adverse criticism. Interestingly, when free of the Harvard ambience (which he never liked), Santayana developed in the Realms of Being a system in which a refined aestheticism becomes prominent. The compatibility of this system with that of the Life of Reason is a central issue in Santayana studies.
Santayana prefaces the later system with Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923), in which its epistemological basis is set out. If knowledge is that which is beyond all doubt, then the only acceptable epistemology is a solipsism of the present moment. However, it is psychologically impossible to live by such a belief; we have an irresisitible urge (‘animal faith’) to believe in the independence of the external world, and there-fore our worldview contains non-indubitable elements. Further, Santayana distinguishes between existence and being: to exist is to stand in external relations such that these relations are not deducible from the nature of the existent. Being is the ontological status attributable to, for example, definite qualities which do not happen to be part of the existing universe, for example a definite shade of colour. Santayana next proceeds to divide what there is into four irreducibly different categories, the four realms of being: essence, matter, truth and spirit.
An essence is a character or quality which has the ontological status of being, and the being of every essence is exhausted by its definition, not in words, ‘but the character which distinguishes it from every other essence. Every essence is perfectly individual’ (Triton Edition, vol. XIV, p. 19). All essences are universal and eternal, being individual, outside space and time, and standing in no external relations. The totality of all essences is the realm of essence and is infinite. Santayana insists that all essences are equally primary, although whether this can be true of the essence of pure being itself is a moot point. Some essences are manifested in existence; one mode of manifestation is to be imagined by a consciousness; another is embodiment in matter.
Matter is the only active principle among the realms of being. It is external to consciousness, spatial, temporal and mutable: all change and all existence (as distinct from being) is grounded in matter. It is the flux of matter which determines which essences are embodied, and accordingly determines the content of the realm of truth. Spirit (i.e. consciousness) is an epiphenomenon of matter. A central concept in this philosophy of nature is that of a trope, defined as the essence or form of an event. This notion is used by Santayana to define what he calls the psyche. Denying all causal efficacy to spirit, Santayana has to find a material agent to determine the course of life and both body and spirit, and this is the psyche, ‘a system of tropes, inherited or acquired, displayed by living bodies in their growth and behaviour’ (Triton Edition, vol. XIV, p. 324).
Santayana held a correspondence theory of truth: propositions are true if what they assert to be the case is the case, and the sum of all true propositions is the realm of truth. Further, Santayana contends that any fact has a complete description which constitutes the truth about it. Since such a description, however, would include a specification of all the relations of the fact, any complete description of any fact would be infinite. The realm of truth is that segment of the realm of essence which happens to be illustrated in existence.
The fourth realm of being is that of spirit or consciousness. Spirit and body are not two facts incongruously juxtaposed and mysteriously related: they are realizations of the same fact in incomparable realms of being. Spirit is a moral integration and dignity accruing to a body when the latter develops a certain degree of organization and responsiveness to distant things. It is incarnate by nature, not accident, and cannot exist disembodied. Santayana sometimes defines spirit as the inner light of attention, and attention is by definition transitive. An instance of awareness Santayana calls an intuition, and the object given in intuition is an essence. When an essence is taken to be a sign of something in the external world, our knowledge of the object is symbolic. When the essence is intuited for itself, our knowledge is said to be literal. Pure intuition Santayana considers to be the natural function of spirit, to which it tends whenever it can (which is, generally, very rarely). To experience essences in pure intuition is also to experience them aesthetically, and so the spiritual and aesthetic modes of life turn out to be identical.
In many respects, Santayana’s claim for the unity of his earlier and later thought is defensible: many major positions remain un-changed, notably materialism and epiphenomenalism. There is room for a contemplative ethic in both systems, though it is true that it is hardly mentioned in The Life of Reason, whereas it is prominent in The Realms of Being.