The Sense of Beauty

by George Santayana
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Last Updated on September 20, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 784

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.

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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 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.


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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.


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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 that says that values are independent of consciousness and intrinsic to the world (the so-called absolutist position) or that which claims values wholly dependent on and relative to the attitudes of subjects, is incomplete and only part of the story.

Santayana goes on to discuss the difference between moral and aesthetic values. The analogy that he draws is between work and play, between duty and amusement. Morality prepares us for the serious aspects of life: death, disease, passion, and, only against the background of these, the possibility of salvation. To seek pleasure, to enjoy experience—these are but futile pursuits, trivial and potentially dangerous against the stark reality of existence. Actions are looked upon in terms of the consequences they will have in preparing us for our stern lives. There is no time to give oneself to the pleasure of an experience enjoyed for its own sake, which aims at nothing else. This attitude toward the world is akin to the biblical attitude toward work; one must labor by the sweat of one’s brow because of humanity’s first disobedience, which brought death and disease into the world. As the pressures upon a society lessen and it becomes more secure in its struggle with its environment, the seriousness of life lifts and individuals are more likely to take on a holiday air. Play and freedom go together and with them the love of immediate pleasures for their own sake, free from fear and independent of consequences. In the distinction between duty and pleasure, work and play, and constraint and freedom is to be found the difference between moral and aesthetic values.

Beauty as Pleasure

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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.

Substance and Form

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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 the eyes in ways that lead to a graceful and rhythmic completion by the mind (depending to a certain degree, if not entirely, on the figure given) that is pleasing. The muscular movement is not itself smooth, but rather a series of jerks; the visual effect, however, is one of movement full and graceful, combining actual and possible (or perhaps imaginary) rays. The form presented does not automatically produce a pleasing effect. Because of their gross or tiny size, some forms fail to excite the eye and its muscles significantly.

Symmetry is a good example of aesthetic form; where it is an aid to unification, where it helps us to organize, discriminate, and distinguish—in other words, to bring a semblance of harmonic order to a confused or chaotic jumble—the effect is pleasing. Form then may be viewed as the perception of unity in variety. Though a conscious and attentive effort, we are able to bring comprehension to what might otherwise not be understood. In this sense, it is an activity of mind as well as of perception. The elements may stimulate and excite, but it is the mind that synthesizes that has an insight into the order of the elements.

Santayana goes on to discuss various aspects of form that illustrate both its aesthetic value and its dangerous (from an aesthetic point of view) possibilities. There is unity in variety, as noted, but also there is multiplicity in uniformity. The starry skies present a picture of an infinite number of similar bodies. The field that is the sky is peppered by a multiplicity of objects that is overwhelming, yet they do not blend into one, for each retains its individuality. The heavens’ beauty is increased by the very material composing it—the blackness of the heavens glittering with the light of the stars—so that form and substance are blended in perfect union.

It should be noted that multiplicity as an aesthetic component may lead to boredom and disinterest if not properly presented. The attention span of individuals and their ability to synthesize may be brief when the same elements are given repeatedly. Just as sheer variety becomes another name for confusion, so mulitiplicity is synonymous with dullness when presented for its own sake.

Aestheticians have long pondered the question, “Are all things beautiful?” Santayana addresses himself to this question, and it is not difficult, cued as we are by what has been presented of his system so far, to guess what his reply would be. Because the world independent of consciousness and will would be valueless and because what is good (or beautiful) depends on our desires, nothing in principle can be ruled out as a possible object of beauty. One makes a mistake, however, if one concludes from this possibility that everything is equally beautiful. As Santayana states:All things are not equally beautiful because the subjective bias that discriminates between them is the cause of their being beautiful at all. The principle of personal preference is the same as that of human taste; real and objective beauty, in contrast to a vagary of individuals, means only an affinity to a more prevalent and lasting susceptiblity, a response to a more general and fundamental demand. And the keener discrimination, by which the distance between beautiful and ugly things is increased, far from being a loss of aesthetic insight, is a development of that faculty by the exercise of which beauty comes into the world.

The most important aspect of form, and the one which best expresses Santayana’s view, is that in a neutral universe, there are elements that are susceptible to the imaginative activity of our mind. By means of such activity, the world is constructed by reference to ideals into unities from elements that are diverse in themselves. In this activity lies the basis for the life of reason and contemplation and for the discovery of the world of phenomena that we know and the beauty that it has. Although a naturalist in his outlook on value, Santayana comes close to a variety of Kantian idealism in his consideration of the imaginative, synthesizing character of mind by which the world of objects and the beauty therein is constructed.


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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 events of playwright William Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be imagined as reported in a newspaper; in this context, they would hardly constitute that which we would call “beautiful.” Moral and pathetic, perhaps, if written well, but the utility of the journalistic presentation would doubtless preclude any feeling of pleasure. The horror, the pain, the sadness of life would come through; the world of moral value, of duty, of work, and, rather than that of beauty, of play, and of joy would be given to us. However, these events can, when placed in the context of the theater or treated under the brush of the painter or pen of the composer, take on a positive value and thus move, as it were, to a new plane. The moral, negative in itself, may then take on the character of a first-term value and become positive.

In this way, the evil in life is turned into a good; we see in the tragic lesson something to be learned, something that makes us better for it, something that points toward a possible and, we hope, realizable perfection. In the transference of the negative value into something good, we prepare the way for the events to be a source of pleasure. The tragic elements are there, but through their expressiveness they have been made by mind into a thing of beauty. It is in this way that Santayana analyzes the object of beauty into its material, formal, and expressive aspects and prepares the way for an analysis of the Life of Reason through which humanity raises the world that is given, a world of no value, into one in which, ultimately, good is supreme.


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Additional Reading

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.

Cory, Daniel L. Santayana: The Later Years: A Portrait with Letter. New York: George Braziller, 1963. Using letters and personal anecdotes, Cory gives a biographical and intellectual description of the man who was his friend and colleague from 1928 until Santayana’s death.

Hodges, Michael, and John Lachs. Thinking in the Ruins: Wittgenstein and Santayana on Contingency. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000. A comparison of the two quite different philosophers.

Kirby-Smith, H. T. A Philosophical Novelist: George Santayana and the Last Puritan. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997. This work looks at Santayana’s philosophy in literature. Includes index.

Lamont, Corliss, ed. Dialogue on George Santayana. New York: Horizon Press, 1959. This thin volume is a transcript of a conversation about Santayana by friends and scholars, providing biographical detail along with philosophical insights. The editor was a close friend of Santayana.

Levinson, Henry Samuel. Santayana, Pragmatism, and the Spiritual Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. This book situates Santayana as a pragmatist who differs from John Dewey and the mainline pragmatists in that he takes the religious life seriously. Levinson criticizes some contemporary interpretations of Santayana.

McCormick, John. George Santayana: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1987. This biography traces Santayana from his birth in Madrid to his professorship of philosophy in the United States, and then back again to Europe. McCormick quotes extensively from Santayana’s public works and his private letters.

Munson, Thomas N. The Essential Wisdom of George Santayana. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. This critical examination of Santayana’s thought from a neo-Thomist point-of-view attempts to show that he failed at achieving true philosophy. The book is valuable for its bibliography of articles by and about Santayana and its letters from Santayana to the author questioning the book’s thesis.

Schlipp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of George Santayana. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1940, 1951. This serious study surveys all aspects of Santayana’s life and work, with a critical examination of his major themes by eighteen scholars. The volume also contains Santayana’s reply to his critics as well as a bibliography of Santayana’s writings.

Singer, Irving. George Santayana, Literary Philosopher. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. A philosophical study of Santayana.

Sprigge, Timothy L. S. Santayana: An Examination of His Philosophy. 1974. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 1995. This work clarifies the philosophical issues in Santayana’s rich prose to provide an introduction to his thought. The author focuses on Santayana’s treatment of skepticism, but also includes chapters on truth and ethics. It also includes the author’s reflections on contemporary discussions of Santayana’s work. It includes a bibliography of secondary sources on Santayana.

Tejera, V. American Modern, the Path Not Taken: Aesthetics, Metaphysics, and Intellectual History in Classic American Philosophy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996. This work examines several modern philosophers, including Santayana, Justus Buchler, C. H. Peirce, and John Dewey. Includes index.

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