Santayana on Aesthetics. Santayana was one of the first to teach aesthetics at an American university (the1892-93 course at Harvard, The Sense of Beauty being one of the results). He devoted three books and many papers and chapters on aesthetic themes, yet all his studies served him to create his own position (to be described in Santayana Guide’s Part 10: Aesthetics, Arts, and Literary Figures). His views on aesthetics, as on philosophy in general, stem from his own elaborated system of thought that combines the elements of naturalism, individualism, pragmatism, and Platonism. It is predominantly by means of the categories of his own aesthetics that he provides us with his interpretations in this field as well as on the arts, aesthetic perception, work of art, criticism, on many artists and philosophies of art. Hence, it is difficult to separate Santayana’s views on aesthetics from looking at aesthetics from his own perspective. Interestingly, Santayana was specific on having adumbrated, at least thematically, most of his plots before he developed them in his numerous publications (cf. Ahmore 1966, 25). His thoughts and ideas were implemented also in his own art, which is poetry, literature (he wrote two best-sellers), and criticism.
Santayana claims that aesthetics as such hardly exists, and only for academic reasons is separated from ethics. Aesthetics as a discipline that deals only with aesthetic issues is artificial and futile; instead, it is integrally interconnected with morality, morals, even religion, the socio-political life, and the ways to achieve happiness. He criticized the scientific tendencies within the academy that narrow down aesthetics and philosophy of art to producing theories, studying exclusively aesthetic object and its properties and, in this way, depriving it of its practical dimension and its vividness that animates each individual. This is why he complained, in his letter to William James (1904), while discussing stimulation for aesthetic experience: “one gets so dry in America with no food for the senses, especially if one is obliged to pump up theory every day” (Letters 1:280). Stimulation is crucial here; Santayana does not give us any definition of the beautiful and, instead, he gives us conditions of aesthetic experience in or by means of which the beautiful may appear.
The experiencing human organism is the main source for aesthetic values, the beautiful in the first instance, hence ‘objectified pleasure’ is central for aesthetics: “pure joy when blind is called pleasure, when centered in some sensible image is called beauty” (Santayana (1940/1951, 20). The object is secondary to the experience of pleasure by a subject in a variety of functions that this subject exists: “There has never been any art worthy of notice without a practical basis and occasion, or without some intellectual or religious function” (Santayana 1904/1936, 30). Aesthetics should not focus on the theoretical knowledge about art objects, but on our ability to convert the aesthetic factors into tools that will help us make our lives good and full of aesthetic excitements on everyday basis. Especially, that aesthetics has a strong physiological background, which cannot be ignored; irrational vital impulses within particular human organisms are responsible for the initial process of any aesthetic experience at the most primitive and universal level. For example, such aesthetic phenomena as ‘form,’ ‘symmetry,’ and ‘rhythm’ have a definite physiological reference.
In most cases, the objects, themes, states of affairs that are said to be ‘aesthetic’ become such upon having been objectified, by the particular (group of) individuals, from the point of view of delight, pleasure and similar. At a higher level of aesthetic experience, the particular sensations must be ousted by the totality of vision and the ideal that the projecting individual as if imposes upon the given object. Accordingly, we do not have any one standard of the beautiful; the beautiful is relative to many factors, in the first place on a given individual at different stages of his/her development and on cultural circumstances. The cultural circumstances in which the individual can get masses of stimulations, has also a role. Yet, it is not the very objects that matter but rather the subject’s reaction to them. These reactions, however, do not have exclusively aesthetic character; rather the aesthetic comes from the harmonization of various reactions that are individually synchronized according to a singular vision, ideal, and pleasure. To use Santayana’s own words from “What is Aesthetics?”: “Aesthetic satisfaction thus comes to perfect all other values; they would remain imperfect if beauty did not supervene upon them, but beauty would be absolutely impossible if they did not underlie it” (Santayana 1904/1936, 39).
What can we learn about aesthetics as such from Santayana? Aesthetics is a much broader discipline than just devoted to art theory. In the first place, it is practical not just theoretical; it involves the ways we feel and imagine. Also, it includes the problems of perception, imagination, valuation, cultural circumstances, and a bunch of socio-political issues that stimulate the ways we perceive various art objects and aesthetic themes.
Many commentators compare Santayana’s aesthetics to John Dewey’s aesthetics. Not so many, however, compare these two from their standpoints as to how aesthetics as a discipline should look like. Definitely, Dewey’s view on aesthetic has much more scientific and empirical dimension than Santayana’s. For Dewey, aesthetics is an independent discipline, yet not without a reference to non-aesthetic fields; for instance, its results have a role in a system of education. Santayana had some reservations about formal and specialized university education; instead, he focussed on education as much wider life-long project, which is to activate and constantly develop such potentialities in each of us as: reasoning, understanding, imagination, critical thinking, creativity, harmonizing conflicting interests, self-expression, and enjoyment — aesthetics (in his understanding of this term) being central to the realization of this goal. Both criticized a ‘museum type of art’; Dewey (and Shusterman later on) criticized it’s political dimension saying that the 19th-century type of museum represented the imperial appetite of the given state rather than a collection of the most eminent art object. For Santayana, museums show, more often than not, the second-hand impressions, and the role of art and aesthetic is to stimulate the first-hand impressions in each of us, for instance, finding pleasure in the light of Venice, irrelevantly of the fact if Veronese, or whoever else, was supreme in rendering them (cf. Letters 6, 278).
Numerous authors compare Santayana to other most eminent figures – for example, Elkin Calhoun Willson’s books Shakespeare, Santayana, and the Comic, and Santayana and Keats, Anthony Woodword’s “Santayana and Goethe,” Daniel Pinkas’s “Santayana and Valery,” Jacek Gutorow’s “Wallace Stevens’s Poetic Meditations on Santayana,” among many others – and focus on most crucial aesthetic themes, as M. M. Kirkwood in Santayana: Saint of Imagination.
Santayana interprets aesthetics (ideas, figures) rather than studies it. If one wanted to study aesthetics by means of Santayana’s works, s/he would in fact study Santayana’s own interpretations of the ideas and figures that appear within the field of aesthetics.
Different authors writing books and essays on Santayana’s aesthetics see it in different perspectives. Ashmore’s central point is that Santayana’s aesthetics is more related to moral philosophy than with the fine arts (cf. Ashmore 1966, ix). I. Singer’s (Santayana’s Aesthetics) point was to examine and clarify it from the viewpoint of Santayana’s ontological and epistemological distinctions, especially one between essence and existence. In the context of the contemporary American philosophy, Arnett claims that Santayana was unique in making “art so indicative of the nature and status of all knowledge and understanding or beauty so central among the values of existence” (Arnett 1968, 124). Giuseppe Patella (“Santayana’s Mediterranean Aesthetics”) and, later on, David Dilworth (“Mediterranean Aestheticism, Epicurean Materialism”) characterize Santayana’s central themes as “Mediterranean Aesthetics,” and Matthew Altman (“Santayana’s Troubled Distinction: Aesthetics and Ethics in The Sense of Beauty“) from the viewpoint of the aesthetic values and ethical values. Thomas Alexander (“Santayana’s Unbearable Lightness of Being: Aesthetics as a Prelude to Ontology”) puts imagination as central for philosophy, including ontology, and redescribes Santayana as postmodern.
Santayana’s idea of combining naturalistic aesthetics with Platonic-type of essences evoke various types of criticism. As does his doctrine of essence. For some, he represents contemporary neo-Platonism, for others, he is closer to pragmatist aesthetics, especially its Deweyan version.
Ashmore claims that “Santayana’s accomplishment is unique in that he presents a thoroughgoing naturalism, which likewise preserves human values” (Ashmore 1966, 102). Philip Rice wrote that “To say that aesthetic theory in America reached maturity with The Sense of Beauty is in no way an overstatement. Only John Dewey’s Art as Experience has competed with it in the esteem of philosophical students of aesthetics and has approached its suggestiveness for artists, critics and the public which takes a thoughtful interest in the arts” (Rice 1955, ix). In Arthur Danto’s assessment, Santayana’s aesthetics brings “beauty down to earth” (Danto 1988, xxviii) and gives it a central position in human conduct. Danto refers to Santayana’s claim that “To feel beauty is a better thing than to understand how we… feel it” (ibid.,11). Danto continues that Santayana’s book The Sense of Beauty has “found its way into the thin canon of aesthetics” and gives Santayana “his widest philosophical reputation today” (ibid., xv), and describes it as “so fascinating a work and so ingenious a piece of philosophy (ibid., xviii). Where does Danto see originality in the book? “It is the sense that there must be something more to beauty than pleasure objectified that makes Santayana’s thesis one we spontaneously resist, as too impoverished. But it is the implication that there is not anything more that after all makes the thesis exciting and philosophically original” (ibid., xxv). Its originality lies in justifying the view that ‘aesthetic sense’ is a disposition to positively respond to what is around, as the sense of humour is, rather than a comparatively passive reception of what is around, as in the case of the sense of sight. Danto compares Santayana’s aesthetics’ way of relating to the world as sexual rather than perceptual (cf. ibid., 13-14). Hence, “to exist aesthetically is to praise” (ibid., xxvii).
Irving Singer, in his two books on Santayana’s aesthetics, continues it in various directions, most notably in philosophy of love (George Santayana: Literary Philosopher); the connection between these two being the process of projection of the ideal upon the loved object. In his Santayana’s Aesthetics, he proposes the development of Santayana’s aesthetics yet after having put into question two of Santayana’s basic divides, that is ontological (essence vs. existence) and epistemological (the mediate vs the immediate).
A NOTE: This is the first version of the entry on aesthetics; a more completed version, having more plots, referring to more material, and including more commentators will be provided after the presentation of the entries on art, Dewey, Shakespeare, Keats, imagination, criticism, culture, and others.
(Letters 1) Santayana, George (2001). The Letters of George Santayana. Book One, -1909. Edited by William Holzberger. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The MIT Press.
(Letters 6) Santayana, George (2004). The Letters of George Santayana. Book Six, 1937-1940. Edited by William Holzberger. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The MIT Press.
Santayana, George (1904/1936). Obiter Scripta. Lectures, Essays and Reviews. Edited by Justus Buchler and Benjamin Schwartz. New York and London: Charles Scribner’s.
Santayana, George (1940/1951). The Philosophy of George Santayana. Library of Living Philosophers. Edited by P. A. Schilpp. New York: Tudor Publishing Company.
Arnett, Willard E. (1968). George Santayana. New York: Washington Square Press, Inc.
Ashmore, Jerome (1966). Santayana, Art, and Aesthetics. The Press of Western Reserve University: Cleveland.
Coleman, Martin and Resler, Johanna (2004). “Santayana’s Lectures on Aesthetics,” in: Overheard in Seville: Bulletin of the Santayana Society, No. 22, pp. 22-28.
Danto, Arthur (1988). “Introduction.” in: George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty. Critical Edition. Edited by William Holzberger and Herman Saatkamp. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The MIT Press.
Rice, Philip Blair (1955). “Foreword.” In: George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty. Modern Library Edition. New York, pp. ix-xii.