Sunday, May 22, 2011

Santayana and Life in the Middle

Judgment Day not having taken place as predicted (yet again), I'm free to continue my musings without being interrupted by the reign of the Antichrist or whatever it is that is supposed to happen after the elect are "raptured" (I take it for granted I will not be among them).  I've been reading Santayana again.  He intrigues me.

He probably writes better than any philosopher who writes or has written in English--he certainly writes better than any I've read, and I've read a few.  Reading him is therefore a delight, and it may be that this in itself makes him attractive as a thinker.  But what I find particularly interesting is that though he was ultimately committed to naturalism, much like Dewey and others of the pragmatists, he seems to have managed somehow to combine it with aspects of thought which one might describe as spiritual and artistic which are not normally associated with naturalism as such.

Santayana seems to have had little patience with metaphysics, particularly as he matured as a thinker, and as a critic of the "Quest for Certainty" he seems at times much more severe than Dewey (or perhaps I should say more sardonic--Santayana was a witty man, and his wit was ironic and sardonic; Dewey surprises me sometimes with his wit, but is at all times in his writings extremely earnest).  We are animals, says Santayana, and we know things as animals know things.  We are not apart from life, we know and we act as creatures in the middle of life.

And yet having minds, we have imaginations, and it seems that he found in our imaginations something which he found lacking in pragmatism and other philosophical "schools" of his time, like positivism and its offspring.  Humans are not merely tool-users and problem-solvers to Santayana.  He had a kind of aristocratic distaste for the pursuit of wealth, for the more materialistic aspects of American culture in particular.  He sees in religion and art expressions of human imagination which are themselves natural in the sense of being consequences of existing as human animals.

Naturalism seems reasonable.  It's difficult even to conceive of the supernatural, if we're honest with ourselves.  Humans refer to supernatural beings which seem to have characteristics, desires, intentions we are familiar with only through our existence in and participation in nature.  We may claim to believe in a transcendent being, but cannot really conceive of what it would be like to exist "outside of nature" as nature, or at least a small part of it, is all we know.

Is it possible to accept naturalism and yet still accept the spiritual, even the religious?  Some seem to have done so--the Stoics, Spinoza, and Santayana as well, I think.  But they have done so in ways foreign to those accepted by those considered religious typically, in the West at least.  Which is to their credit, I think. 


  1. I too am a pragmatist with a weakness for Santayana. Maybe we should form a support group.

    His book The Sense of Beauty (1896) wqas the first major work on aesthetics written in the US, and one with which anyone working in that field should still wrestle, I think.

    Consider the phrase "pleasure objectified." Like some of Santayana's other phrases, it is perhaps too often quoted and too seldom contemplated.

    It means, firstly, that "objectified" is not the same as "objective." It is not quite the same as "subjective" either, although "objectified" is a subset of "subjective."

    Pleasure, after all, is subjective, and beauty is one specific sort of pleasure. But, secondly, of what sort? Some specific pleasures are called beautiful because they are so closely associated with the external object by which they are caused that, by an act of socially acceptable delusion, we attribute them to that object. "The more remote, interwoven, and inextricable the pleasure is, the more objective it will appear" -- is how Santayana at one point puts it.

    A rose scented perfume is not "beautiful," though I may find it pleasant. The perception of the rose itself may give rise to the sense of beauty, because that scent is intermingled with the proximity of flower to thorns, the juxtaposition of red with green, the stubborn particularity of the branching -- all this is interwoven, and no element can be extricated from the whole without loss. So our pleasure in the rose is of the objectified sort. It is ... the sense of beauty.

  2. I'd gladly join a support group, or even a fan club. He is a very interesting thinker, sharing the pragmatic point of view in some respects, but very hard to categorize. An artist himself, I think. Have you read the poem Wallace Stevens wrote about him, "To an Old Philosopher in Rome"? It seems appropriate.