George Santayana is one of the few philosophers whose writings have a beauty of style that can be appreciated independently of their philosophical worth. Literary ability should not be taken as a substitute for clarity in presenting ideas; but at his best, Santayana had the fortune of combining both well. In this early work, not only does he present a provocative account of aesthetics in what may be called a “naturalistic” vein, but in addition he gives an insight into the development of his later metaphysics and ontology.
The Sense of Beauty is divided into four parts. In the opening part, Santayana discusses the nature of beauty. He points out that the term “aesthetics” originally meant “perception” and that it was associated, by use, with a particular object of perception and its study, that which we call “the beautiful.” This can be put in a different but related manner if we speak of a perceptual quality that we are to analyze; namely, beauty. Here one should remind oneself of words that make use of the “perception” meaning of “aesthetics”; for example, we use the term “kinaesthesis” to refer to a certain sense that our muscles have, and we speak of “anaesthesis” as the loss of our sensations.
To return to the sort of perceptive activity with which this analysis is to be concerned, it should be pointed out that we are not examining the world of facts considered independently of any observer. Such a world is neutral as far as value is concerned, for it is not good (or evil) for any one. Herein we see a basis for Santayana’s naturalism. The existence of worth or value depends upon the presence of somebody’s consciousness; nature has purpose or growth only in that one values what nature exhibits. Nature is not itself aware of the changes. Because the consciousness that observes must also appreciate if it is to hold patterns of value, there is a nonrational as well as rational basis for our judgment of the world as one in which phenomena are loved or hated. Santayana lays bare his indebtedness to philosophers Baruch Spinoza and David Hume when he proclaims that our preferences regarding the events of the world are ultimately nonrational. Things are good because we prefer them; they are not preferred because they are good.
One should point out, however, that Santayana’s view that values must be separated from facts rests upon a distinction that is false in fact. It is not meaningless to contend that we are creatures who have desires because objects in the world provoke our interests; in this sense, it is as much true that we desire things because they are good as that they are good because we desire them. Either philosophical view, the one...
In defining beauty, Santayana points out that as a pleasure it has certain peculiar characteristics that allow us to distinguish it from other pleasures. Most pleasures that we get from perceiving (in the wide sense of the term) can be distinguished from the object perceived. We usually go through certain actions before the pleasure is felt. In eating, drinking, inhaling, the activity is begun, then pleasure follows. There are certain pleasures that seem to occur in the process of perception itself; when this happens to us, we intuit the pleasure as a quality of the thing perceived. Santayana holds that the very mechanism or structure of the mind by which we perceive various qualities as one homogeneous object also objectifies this type of pleasure, so that it, too, is felt as an integral part of the object. This is the kind of pleasure that is considered to be intrinsic, enjoyable in itself, and, of course, of positive value in the sense that it belongs to the play, holiday, or free class rather than to the moral one. For Santayana, beauty is positive, intrinsic, objectified pleasure, or pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing.
Although some hold that in nature we can find such aesthetically pleasant objects, generally speaking it is to humans and their creations that we look for objects in which we can take some contemplative pleasure. Santayana has a problem, however, in considering beauty as he does; for if we identify those objects as works of art, we then have the problem of tragedy and of painful works of art. We shall later see how he meets this challenge.
In “The Materials of Beauty,” Santayana discusses the substance of beauty—sound, color, and fragrance—as well as other topics concerned with the appeal of our lower senses in relation to the total aesthetic experience. There are those who have argued that the experiences that we must have by direct contact with an object (because of the structure of certain parts of our sensorium) cannot be of the beautiful. The bouquet and taste of wine, the touch of brocade, of marble, or sandalwood, are pleasant yet do not seem to be beautiful. Santayana claims, however, that all contribute to the ultimate experience of beauty in that they teach us to appreciate the pleasant, to delight in things sensuous. Those who find the height of aesthetic experience in objects appealing to the eye and ear through their formal structure must recognize that form and meaning can be presented only in something sensible. To divorce content from a work of art is to present something utterly barren.
In the third part of his work, Santayana analyzes form as a main aspect of beauty. In the previous section, he noted that certain elements presented to the senses charm or please in themselves. We need look no further than the coolness of a summer breeze to explain the pleasure we feel in its company. However, we also encounter a pleasure that, although immediate and intrinsic, is yet puzzling and perhaps mysterious when we come upon it. These pleasures are presented to us as objects that have elements—none of which is particularly pleasing in itself—yet that, because of their arrangement, combination, or pattern, are pleasing. Aestheticians refer to this as the form of the object. To reduce an object to its elements destroys its distinctive, pleasing effect, although without those elements there could not be form.
Santayana turns to the psychology of perception to explain, hypothetically, the pleasure that one derives from form in its various manifestations as well as to indicate why some forms are either boring or incomplete as visual wholes. (He concentrates on visual form and specifically omits auditory form as too technical to analyze in this work, although he indicates that in principle it should be the same.) Briefly, he claims that the visual image is gathered as a series of sensitive points about the center of the retina. These points or spots each have their peculiar quality of sensation and are associated with the muscular tension and relaxation that occurs with the turning of one’s eyes. As the associations are formed, they establish a field that is such that when certain elements (or perhaps a single element) are presented to the eye, the entire field is excited. The excitation produces a semblance of motion; there is a radiation about the points that tends to re-create the associated image, so that the point leads the mind to the possible field. Various geometrical figures affect...
In the final section of The Sense of Beauty, the aesthetic component called “expression” is discussed. In the presence of beautiful objects, the mind is affected by and contributes to both the material and the formal aspects of the aesthetic object. There is an additional feature, however, which, given the object and the mind’s activity, must be mentioned. There is present, both with the immediate perception of the object and after it is no longer perceived, an emotional overtone that colors the sensation and our memory of it. This aura is the result of associations that we have made and that affect our memory as well as our immediate perceptions; this quality we call “the expression of the object.”
Form and substance constitute aesthetic value in the first term, whereas expression is value in the second term. The latter value is found in the associations, the moral values, the history, the accouterments—all of which may go with the presentation of a work of art. These, accompanying the work itself, are raised to the level of beauty, when in themselves they present a joy and sweetness that transcends the utilitarian or functional character that they ordinarily have.
The difficult question that was raised earlier as to the place of tragedy as an aesthetic object in a theory that emphasizes that pleasure is beauty when seen as the quality of a thing can now be answered. It is by expression that tragedy is beautiful. The...
Arnett, Willard E. George Santayana. New York: Twayne, 1968. This brief yet clear introduction concentrates on the basic themes in George Santayana’s thought, especially his aesthetics and his view of spirituality. It also contains a short biography and a bibliography of his works.
Arnett, Willard E. Santayana and the Sense of Beauty. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955. The author probes Santayana’s view of beauty and art, revealing a highly elaborated theory of aesthetics. The work also deals with the place of religion in Santayana’s thought.