The Sense of Beauty

by George Santayana

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

George Santayana’s first major work was The Sense of Beauty (1896). The book is based on a series of lectures he taught at Harvard University. This was his attempt at systematizing his aesthetic views through the lens of naturalistic psychology.

Santayana starts out by stressing the importance of the sense of beauty in human life. All results of human activity testify to this; the sense of beauty is ubiquitous, and the appearance of even the simplest things in everyday life is important. Nature itself evidences this, because we see examples of perception and of appreciation of beauty therein. But how does this naturalistic approach correlate with aesthetics? The author is not satisfied with contemporary approaches to aesthetic research, considering them a failure.

He divides these current approaches into two major groups. The thinkers belonging to the first group interpret aesthetic facts in the light of their own metaphysical principles, making aesthetics an offshoot of their philosophies. The second group are those artists and critics who venture into the realm of philosophy, summarizing their sense observations as follows:

The problems of nature and morals have attracted the reasoners, and the description and creation of beauty have absorbed the artists; between the two reflection upon aesthetic experience has remained abortive or incoherent.

Santayana considers that aesthetic theory has failed also because of the subjective nature of the phenomenon. We tend to ascribe the attribute of being real to things that exist independently of us. To be sure, the world of perceptions receives its value, if not its reality, from our subjective senses. Purely “emotional” things are considered of no value. This is, according to Santayana, the reason why aesthetics and even ethics fails.

Santayana points to three elements in aesthetics and ethics and to three respective approaches. The first is to develop moral and aesthetic abilities (didactic). The second is to view an act or a work of art through the lens of history (historical). The third method is psychological. This last approach deals with moral and aesthetic judgments as expressions of a person’s inner world.

Santayana’s goal is not only to achieve a theoretical result but also to enter the realm of practice. Again, he thinks that for many aestheticians, practice has been beyond reach:

The writers have generally been audacious metaphysicians and somewhat incompetent critics; they have represented general and obscure principles, suggested by other parts of their philosophy, as the conditions of artistic excellence and the essence of beauty.

Since metaphysical speculation is unproductive and an “evil,” Santayana considers the task of his aesthetics as studying the world of human senses in relation to the phenomenon of the beautiful. The beautiful is, according to the philosopher, the pleasure that we derive when we perceive an object. We project this sense upon the object, and so it becomes the object’s attribute rather than being merely our subjective perception. Santayana deals with the value of Platonism for his aesthetic task:

Platonism is a very refined and beautiful expression of our natural instincts, it embodies conscience and utters our inmost hopes. Platonic philosophers have therefore a natural authority, as standing on heights to which the vulgar cannot attain, but to which they naturally and half-consciously aspire.

The main goal of Santayana’s study is to show an absolute value of the beautiful for humanity. The beautiful and the good, however, are not the eternal, divine ideas of Platonism but rather natural forms of life. Plastic arts, religion, and poetry seek to reproduce and secure the harmony between humanity and nature. The beautiful and the good, aesthetics and ethics, ultimately converge in this noble...

(This entire section contains 784 words.)

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goal of reconciling nature and people:

Nothing but the good of life enters into the texture of the beautiful. What charms us in the comic, what stirs us in the sublime and touches us in the pathetic, is a glimpse of some good; imperfection has value only as an incipient perfection. Could the labours and sufferings of life be reduced, and a better harmony between man and nature be established, nothing would be lost to the arts.

Though beauty defies explanation in words, according to Santayana, the sense of beauty is realized in the harmony between our human experience and nature.

Santayana’s conclusions are unequivocal. He denies the existence of aesthetics as a science, and at the same time as he attaches importance to theory as opposed to lived experience, he seeks to reconcile theory with this experience and build upon it a theory of the beautiful.

The Sense of Beauty expresses an idea that Santayana subsequently developed in his later works—namely, that the sublimest, the most intellectual, and the only justifiable attitude to the world is aesthetic.