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George Santayana


George Santayana



George Santayana

Spanish philosopher
original name Jorge Augustín Nicolás Ruiz De Santayana

born December 16, 1863, Madrid, Spain
died September 26, 1952, Rome, Italy

Spanish-American philosopher, poet, and humanist who made important contributions to aesthetics, speculative philosophy, and literary criticism. From 1912 he resided in Europe, chiefly in France and Italy.

Early life and career
George Santayana was born in Madrid of Spanish parents. He never relinquished his Spanish citizenship, and, although he was to write in English with subtlety and poise, he did not begin to learn that language until taken to join his mother in Boston in 1872. Santayana was to reside in New England for most of the ensuing 40 years. He went through the Boston Latin School and Harvard College, graduating summa cum laude in 1886. He then spent two years studying philosophy at the University of Berlin before returning to Harvard to complete his doctoral thesis under the pragmatist William James. He joined the faculty of philosophy in 1889, forming with James and the idealist Josiah Royce a brilliant triumvirate of philosophers. Yet his attachment to Europe was strong. He spent his summers in Spain with his father, visited England, and spent his sabbatical leaves abroad: at the University of Cambridge, in Italy and the East, and at the Sorbonne.

At Harvard he began to write. The Sense of Beauty (1896) was an important contribution to aesthetics. The essay, which is concerned with the nature and elements of aesthetic feelings, holds that to judge that anything is beautiful is “virtually to establish an ideal” and that to understand why something is thought to be beautiful enables one to distinguish transitory ideals from those that, springing from more fundamental feelings, are “comparatively permanent and universal.” The vital affinity between aesthetic faculties and moral faculties is illustrated in Santayana’s next book, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), particularly in the discussion of the poetry of Robert Browning, which is a model of its kind.

The Life of Reason (1905–06) was a major theoretical work consisting of five volumes. Conceived in his student days after a reading of G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, it was described by Santayana as “a presumptive biography of the human intellect.” The life of reason, for Santayana as for Hegel, is not restricted to purely intellectual activities, for reason in all of its manifestations is a union of impulse and ideation. It is instinct become reflective and enlightened. The theory is given practical illustration in a series of essays, gathered into two volumes: Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe (1910); and Winds of Doctrine (1913), in which the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley and the philosophies of Henri Bergson, a French evolutionary philosopher, and of Bertrand Russell are trenchantly discussed.

Return to Europe
Santayana was appointed a full Harvard professor in 1907. In 1912, however, while he was in Europe, his mother died, and he sent in his resignation from there. He never returned to America, although several attractive offers were made by Harvard in an attempt to draw him back.

Santayana’s resignation astonished his colleagues, for it came at the height of his career. All of his books were admired and influential, and there seemed to be an intimate connection between them and his teaching. Clearly, he was a gifted teacher: interested in his students, devoid of pedantry, and with a superb capacity for analyzing philosophies and related poetry with lucid sympathy while judging them by standards that remained rational and humane. His resignation, nevertheless, can be seen as inevitable: he disliked the academic straitjacket; he wished to devote himself exclusively to his writing; and he was ill at ease in America. His Latin heritage and allegiance gave to his thinking a striking range and perspective, but the net result was to make him want “to say plausibly in English as many un-English things as possible.” From the strain of doing this, he was thankful to escape.

When World War I began, Santayana was in Oxford, and he settled there for the duration. Though he enjoyed the friendship of several eminent people, the war saddened him, and he led a secluded life. Egotism in German Philosophy appeared in 1916, making clear his strong allegiance to the Allied cause; he also wrote a number of popular essays centring on the English character and countryside. At the end of the war he was offered a life membership in Corpus Christi College, Oxford, but he declined.

Santayana’s system of philosophy
In 1924 he settled permanently in Rome. The atmosphere was congenial to a native-born Roman Catholic who, though evolving into a philosophical materialist for whom the world of spirit was wholly ideal and nonexistent, had always admired the Catholic and classical traditions. Three new books consolidated his reputation as a humanist critic and man of letters, and this side was brought to perfect expression in a novel, The Last Puritan (1935).

The bulk of his energies in the interwar years, however, went into speculative philosophy. Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923) marks an important departure from his earlier philosophy and serves as “a critical introduction” to and résumé of his new system developed in the four-volume Realms of Being (1928, 1930, 1937, 1940), an ontological (nature of being) treatise of great concentration and finish. In these later works Santayana enhanced his stature as a philosopher by achieving greater theoretical precision, depth, and coherence. Scepticism and Animal Faith conveys better than any other volume the essential import of his philosophy. It formulates his theory of immediately apprehended essences and describes the role played by “animal faith” in various forms of knowledge.

In Realms of Being extraordinarily complex problems are elucidated with luminous succinctness: Santayana makes his way with athletic ease through forests in which ontological philosophers like Edmund Husserl or Existentialist ones like Jean-Paul Sartre flounder self-indulgently. “The realm of essence,” in Santayana’s system, is that of the mind’s certain and indubitable knowledge. Essences are universals that have being or reality but do not exist. They include colours, tastes, and odours as well as the ideal objects of thought and imagination. “The realm of matter” is the world of natural objects; belief in it rests—as does all belief concerning existence—on animal faith. Naturalism, the dominant theme of his entire philosophy, appears in his insistence that matter is prior to the other realms.

Such a philosophy enabled Santayana to accept imperturbably another onset of war. He took rooms in a Catholic nursing home and began a three-volume autobiography, Persons and Places (1944, 1945, 1953). When Rome was liberated in 1944, the 80-year-old author found himself visited by an “avalanche” of American admirers. By now he was immersed in Dominations and Powers (1951), an analysis of man in society; and then with heroic tenacity—for he was nearly deaf and half blind—he gave himself to translating Lorenzo de’ Medici’s love poem, “Ambra,” during which he was overtaken by his last illness. He died in September 1952, a few months before his 89th birthday, and was buried, as he had wished, in the Catholic cemetery of Rome in a plot reserved for Spanish nationals.

Norman V. Henfrey



Type of work: Philosophy
Author: George Santayana (1863-1952)
First published: 1923


Scepticism and Animal Faith was written as an introduction to a system of philosophy, a system later made explicit in Santayana's four-volume The Realms of Being: The Realm of Essence (1927), The Realm of Matter (1930), The Realm of Truth (1938), The Realm of Spirit (1940). Despite the fact that the author believed that his ideas needed the extended treatment he gave them in these volumes, the introductory work remains the clearest, most concise, and most representative of Santayana's works. Almost every important contribution which the author made to philosophy can be found here; the advantage of this single work is that the reader can gain a synoptic vision of the relations of the ideas to one another, something he might fail to achieve if he centered his attention initially upon one of the volumes of The Realms of Being or The Life of Reason (1905-1906).
Santayana's principal thesis is that knowledge is faith "mediated by symbols." The symbols of human discourse, when man is talking to himself about the world of facts, are the elements in his experience: sensations, images, feelings, and the like. "The images in sense are parts of discourse, not parts of nature: they are the babble of our innocent organs under the stimulus of things," writes Santayana. Since we cannot be certain that the given elements, the essences, are signs of physical objects affecting us as physical organisms, there is a sense in which we cannot be said to be free of the possibility of error. Nevertheless, as animals, as active beings, we find ourselves compelled to take our experiences as the experiences of a living organism in the process of being shocked and stimulated by the world. Our belief in a nature of change is made possible by our interpretation of the given—the data, the essences—but it cannot be justified by the given: hence it is animal faith.
To prepare himself for the statement that all knowledge is the faith that certain given elements are signs of things and events, Santayana develops a thorough skepticism which ends with the cryptic statement that "Nothing given exists." To understand the meaning and ground of this claim it is necessary to understand Santayana's conception of the given—his theory of essences.
It is difficult to make all the proper qualifications in a brief description, but if one begins by supposing that essences are characteristics of actual and possible things, whether physical, psychical, mathematical, or whatever, a beginning has been made. If a person were to have two or three sense experiences of precisely the same sort— three sense images of a certain shade of yellow, for example—that shade of yellow would be an essence that had been given to him in sense experience. Even if he had not had the experience, he could have had it; the essence is a character his experience might come to have. Essences, then, are universals, not particulars; they are characteristics which may or may not be the characteristics of existing things.
It makes sense to say of a particular thing that it is, or was, or shall be, but we cannot sensibly talk that way about the characteristics of things. Considered in themselves, as they must be, essences are immutable, eternal, never vague, and neither good nor bad. In Santayana's terms, the realm of essence "is simply the unwritten catalogue, prosaic and infinite, of all the characters possessed by such things as they happen to exist, together with the characters which all different things would possess if they existed."
If this definition of essence is kept clearly in mind, if an essence is simply a character but not necessarily the character of anything, then it becomes clear that if essences are given—and they are—then nothing given exists. If we are correct in our suppositions, then, whenever an essence is given, it is given to a self, that is, someone has an experience, and the experience has a certain character, and essence. The self that has experiences exists; the "intuition," that is, the apprehension of the character of the experience, exists; and, if the self is not mistaken in its interpretation of the given, of the "datum," a physical event or object exists as signified by the datum. In conventional language, there are persons, sense experiences, and the objects which give rise to the experiences. But it is improper now, and false, to say that the essence of the experience exists. To say this would violate Santayana's definition of essence and, accordingly, lead to a paradox. For example, if an essence is a character, and if on three occasions the same character were given, then the consequence of saying that on each occasion the essence existed is that the essence will have gone in and out of existence three times. If two persons have the same kind of experience—that is, intuit the same essence—then we would have to say that the essence is in two places at the same time. As long as one remembers that, by definition, an essence is a character considered as a character, it is clearly nonsense to think of essences as existing.
The discovery of essence is the reward of a relentless skepticism. In Santayana's view, we have no final justification for our claims about the existence of external objects, and all of our beliefs about selves and change and memory are open to critical challenge. "Scepticism may ... be carried to the point of denying change and memory, and the reality of all facts," he writes.
But Santayana had no great affection for this ultimate skepticism. In his terms he was a "wayward sceptic," entertaining the notion of an ultimate skepticism only to show that critical challenge of our customary beliefs is possible. It is customary and unavoidable for a human being to suppose that he himself lives and thinks, and Santayana's rejoinder is "That he does so is true; but to establish that truth he must appeal to animal faith."
In order to discuss the human being in his response to the data of experience Santayana introduces his special senses of the terms "spirit," "psyche," and "intuition." Intuition is the apprehension of essence; the spirit is the cool contemplator, that which intuits; and psyche is the self that acts, has preferences, takes data as signs. Of course, when we begin to use these terms as descriptive of facts, we are expressing our own animal faith; when we say that the spirit confronts essences and that the psyche acts accordingly, taking the essences as signs of a physical world, we are saying what the ultimate skeptic cannot allow—but we are animals, and the psyche has other business than philosophy.
There is something appealing and liberating in Santayana's conception of animal faith. No one could be more careful than he in examining and challenging the pretensions of the pretenders to knowledge and wisdom: the paradox that knowledge is animal faith reveals that what we call "knowledge" is merely unwarranted, but stubborn, animal conviction. That same paradox brings out the positive side of Santayana's philosophy: as animals taking data as signs we make sense out of what would otherwise be a static complex of essences and give order both to our world and ourselves.
In the description of the consequences of animal faith in action, Santayana considered first the belief in discourse, which arises once one has given up "passive intuition." From the belief in discourse one passes to belief "in experience, in substance, in truth, and in spirit."
This progression of beliefs is a natural one, and the description of the life of reason in various areas was undertaken by Santayana in his earlier five-volume work The Life of Reason. The Realms of Being naturally followed Scepticism and Animal Faith as a careful elaboration of the terms "essence," "matter," "truth," and "spirit."
Unlike many philosophers, Santayana had self-confidence enough to know the limits of his inquiry. He did not pretend to be able to discover what the physicist, for example, can discover by acting on his scientific animal faith. Once we pass from the intuitive contemplation of essences to the recognition of the human use of data as signs, we soon come to the discovery of our assumptions of an experiencing self coming up against substance—the presumed cause of the data. The philosopher can clarify the idea of substance, explaining that it is extended, in space and time, with a structure, and so forth; and he can go on to identify substance with such homely examples as "the wood of this tree . . . the wind . . . the flesh and the bones of the man." But he need not, and Santayana does not, try to do what the physicist and the chemist do in their specialized ways.
By this practice, then, Santayana fulfilled the promise of his introduction to Scepticism and Animal Faith, in which he said: "Here is one more system of philosophy. If the reader is tempted to smile, I can assure him that I smile with him. ... I am merely trying to express for the reader the principles to which he appeals when he smiles."
In this book, as in all his others, Santayana presents his ideas by means of a beautifully articulated, poetic style. Even if his vision of knowledge as animal faith had no value, this work would endure as the most fascinating portrayal of the realm of essence which has yet appeared in literature. That this moving survey of the timeless, changeless realm of essence should have come from a naturalistic philosopher is one of those pleasant paradoxes to which we turn with classic delight after coming from Scepticism and Animal Faith.



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