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.
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].
 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.
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.
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].
 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.
 [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.
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
(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.
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.