Santayana on Values. Although Santayana did not use such phrases as a ‘philosophy of values,’ ‘axiology,’ and ‘value theory,’ almost all his numerous works are full of references to the problem of values. He gives us, in his works, an answer to the question as to what is valuable, how values and the valuable emerge, and what constitutes the processes of evaluation. We can talk, then, about a need to reconstruct his philosophy of values or his theory of values, although he saw the practice of becoming a worthy person doing valuable activities much more important for a philosopher than producing a theory in an academic style; as Arthur Danto commented on the example of the value of ‘beauty’, Santayana “doubtless would have said that it is better to create beauty than to analyze it” (Danto xvi).
Very briefly, Santayana’s theory of values says that values and valuations have a naturalistic, if not biological and physical background, and the things and states of things that are considered as ‘objectively valuable’ become such in the process of ‘objectification’, defined in The Sense of Beauty as “the transformation of an element of sensation into the quality of a thing” (SE 30). This means positing some set of valuable features in a form of an image upon a given thing/object by the agent or agents. For example, ‘beauty’ is “a vital harmony felt and fused into an image under the form of eternity” (AFSL 422). In “The Projection of Values” he gives us the following explanation of the value of ‘health’ and ‘beauty’: “health being a harmony in the spontaneous rhythms of an animal life and beauty a perfection in some object attuned to those rhythms and stimulating them through perception” (AFSL 350). One can talk about the considerable stability of those ‘objectified’ values; however, their further development is possible and needed until the moment of having reached a full completion or perfection. Such an aiming at perfection corresponds to his more general attitude towards practical life, not just to value theory: “What I have yearned for all my life (…) is ‘completion’. If I see a circle half-drawn, I yearn to complete it” (LR x). Also in this quote, we can see that the criteria of ‘completeness’ and ‘perfection’ have at least some features of objectivity or independence from the evaluating agents, as circle is a circle irrespective of some people’s ignorance of geometry. On the other hand, all these ‘objectified’ values are somewhat relative to the interests, demands, and preferences of living beings. Such an attempt to cope with ‘objectivism’ and ‘relativism’ at the same time is one of the main characteristics of his philosophy of values: “As colours, though visible only to creatures with a certain structure of the eye, contain intrinsically no reference to eyeballs or retina, so goods and evils, though created by instincts and interests ingrained in animals, are absolute qualities to intuition” (AFSL 351).
In Santayana’s theory of value, aiming at perfection has a pluralistic form, both in ethics (and this includes social ethics), and aesthetics. He goes against the classic tradition that so frequently referred to the axiological absolutism by saying that some values (truth, the good, the beautiful) have an eternal, unchangeable, and monistic character. Santayana’s pluralism, which at least at some points dovetails with the pluralism of, for example, American pragmatism and its concepts of values, indicates the possibility of having different values (systems of values) as if parallel, side by side, and each of them having internal standards of excellence or perfection. If we take, for example, Santayana’s (reconstructed) specific theory of values, that is to say one that refers to the theory of aesthetic values (beauty in the first instance), we will see that he wants to explain that such an ‘objectification’ is to be had in various works of arts, and this includes artworks that are recognized as such by different aesthetic traditions or, as he prefers to say, orthodoxies. It does not mean, however, that the status of a valuable work of art can be given haphazardly to anything by anyone; for example, he deprived much of the avant-garde’s works of value due to their lack of insight into the natural and vital sources of life on the one hand, and to their lack of a general vision of life on the other.
Although Santayana saw the difference between aesthetics and ethics as artificial or merely academic, we can talk about a specific theory of values in the field of aesthetics (when we consider ‘beauty’ as a value) and ethics (when we consider ‘the good’ as a value) in Santayana. Or, better, we can discuss aesthetic problems from the viewpoint of Santayana’s theory irrelevantly of how much it is connected or merged with ethics and vice versa. For example, the beauty of the art of work, as well as the specificity and structure of the work of art are the issues that are dealt with predominantly in aesthetics and the philosophy of arts, even if some reference to ethical notions, for example: ‘spirituality,’ ‘love,’ ‘egotism,’ ‘pleasure,’ and others is needed.
Recognition. American philosopher Stephen C. Pepper (“Santayana’s Theory of Values”) wrote that Santayana’s “whole philosophy is a theory of value, or rather an attitude distributing values among things” (Pepper, 219). Actually the same was claimed by B. Russell (“The Philosophy of George Santayana”); Santayana, he says, should be read “on account of his view as to what constitutes the good life, and of his standard of values in art and morals”; Russell adds, however, that one should not expect doctrines described in a theoretical language in Santayana (Russell, 453-454). D. Heney (“Santayana on Value: Expressivism, Self-knowledge and Happiness”) describes Santayana’s theory of (moral) values as an expressivist version of non-cognitivism: in Santayana “our moral talk is really just a way of dressing up our preferences as judgments about the word” (Heney 5). A. Danto writes (in his introduction to the critical edition of The Sense of Beauty) that “Santayana is ruthlessly noncognitivist in value theory” (xxiv).
Comparison. Santayana, despite his classic terminology and the scholastic spirit of some of his ideas, does not represent axiological objectivism, which says that given things are valuable independently of the agents that evaluate these things. Such objectivist theories were articulated very frequently in classic philosophy in the past (Pythagorean and Platonist tradition) and in modern philosophy (for example, the Baden School of neo-Kantianism, R. Ingarden’s phenomenological aesthetics). Santayana does not follow this; instead, he says that the objectivity of values comes from, hence is dependent upon, the agents who want to see given things as objectively valuable. However, Santayana does not assume axiological relativism by rejecting objectivism, and this is one of the most crucial points of his theory. Namely, he does not follow the ancient forms of axiological relativism as the one represented by the Sophists nor is his theory similar to the most recent versions of neo-Sophist ideas represented by Richard Rorty’s neopragmatism (at least in some texts). Nor is Santayana’s theory of values similar to J. Dewey’s instrumentalism, in which the term ‘objectivism’, if used at all, can be converted into ‘inter-subjectivity.’ A. Danto writes that Santayana’s idea of ‘objectification’ is “very much a Schopenhauerian term” and Santayana’s book The Sense of Beauty is “Schopenhauer psychologized and naturalized” (Danto xxii-xxiii).
Criticism. Stephen Pepper accuses Santayana of inconsistency and claims that he has two incompatible theories of values; one defining ‘value’ in terms of ‘interest’ and the other by ‘the integration of interests’ (cf. Pepper, 238).
Contribution. For A. Danto, Santayana’s idea was novel in understanding ‘sense’ (and ‘objectification’ of values) as active co-creation of the beautiful, not a passive reception, as it was in, for example, the aesthetics of British Enlightenment.
Continuation. One can think of a possible continuation of Santayana’s philosophy of values in the field of social and political philosophy given Santayana’s numerous texts devoted to what we nowadays could name as ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘cultural relativism.’ He recognized different ‘orthodoxies’ or sundry systems of values that have been generated by various cultural traditions, and he was very careful not to indicate one, or the best among them. This is one of the reasons, why his philosophy has so often been seen as an exemplar of toleration and harmonization of conflicting aspirations; on the other hand, he was a strong critic of such forms of social and political life that assume a form of a promotion of the shallow and temporary consumption of some goods, both economic and conceptual (if we agree to understand ideas as goods). Beth Singer’s The Rational Society. A Critical Study of Santayana’s Social Thought is one of the attempts to interpret Santayana’s theory of values from the point of view of his political naturalism.
A note: This is the first version of the entry on values; 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 axiology, aesthetics, ethics, normativity, deontology, excellence, perfection, objectification, and others.
(AFSL) Santayana, George (1967). Animal Faith and Spiritual Life. Previously Unpublished and Uncollected Writings by George Santayana with Critical Essays on his Thought. Edited by John Lachs. New York: Appleton.
(LR) Santayana, George (1905-1906/1998). The Life of Reason. Amherst: Prometheus Books.
(SE) Santayana George (1896/1988). The Sense of Beauty, Critical Edition. Cambridge, Mass., and London: The MIT Press.
Danto, Arthur (1988). “Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty,” in: George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty, Critical Edition. Cambridge, Mass., and London: The MIT Press, pp. xv-xxviii.
Diana Heney (2012). “Santayana on Value: Expressivism, Self-knowledge and Happiness,” in: Bulletin of Santayana Society, no 30, pp. 4-13.
Pepper, Stephen (1940/1951). “Santayana’s Theory of Values,” in: The Philosophy of George Santayana. Edited by Arthur Schilpp. New York: Tudor, pp. 217-240.
Russell, Bertrand (1940/1951). “The Philosophy of Santayana,” in: The Philosophy of George Santayana. Edited by Arthur Schilpp. New York: Tudor, pp. 251-274.
Singer, Beth (1970). The Rational Society. A Critical Study of Santayana’s Social Thought. Cleveland-London: The Press of Case Western Reserve University.