Topic for #77: Santayana on the Appreciation of Beauty

On 5/16 the regular foursome recorded a discussion of The Sense of Beauty (1896) by George Santayana. What is "the beautiful?" Do we have a "sense" by which we grasp it comparable to what Hume describes as the moral sense?

Listen to the episode.

Where most pre-Humean philosophers considered beauty an objective quality in objects that people then can grasp (think about Plato's equation of the truly beautiful with the good, which can be grasped by someone in the right frame of mind), Hume thought that finding something beautiful was a natural phenomenon comparable to the sense of taste for food and drink. Santayana (who was also very familiar with Kant and Schopenhauer in this area) has a similarly naturalistic approach, but tries harder to be true to the experiences involved and so has a more complex theory.

Santayana was a Spanish-born student at Harvard under William James, who got Santayana to take over his course on Hume and Locke. The second course Santayana taught was aesthetics, as he was pressured to adopt a specialty, and as a poet, this was a natural choice. He wrote the book based on a couple of semesters teaching this course, apparently purely for professional reasons. His interests were considerably wider than aesthetics, and a chief aim of this book is to situation art appreciation in a general picture of epistemology and human nature.

In the first part of the book, Santayana gives his definition for beauty, which he classifies as a species of value. It is "pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing." As for Hume, for Santayana, all values boil down to individual acts of approval: ethical (and aesthetic) systems come when we then distinguish between different circumstances of approval and qualities of the person doing the approving, e.g. the more carefully considered judgments by the the most experienced people end up having precedence. Since no "ought" is derivable from an "is," Santayana believes that ultimate ethical principles are actually approved on aesthetic grounds, meaning that we have an immediate sense of pleasure in contemplating them, and no further justification is available. This doesn't make them arbitrary, as human nature is pretty consistent, and per the above description of how general rules come out of individual acts of approval, the fact that some aberrant perceivers will disagree isn't an objection to basic ethical or aesthetic principles.

What distinguishes judgments of beauty from other pleasures is that we objectify them: we attribute them to the object, when what's really happening is that the judgment is a result of the interaction between the perceiver and the object. Beauty is objective in the sense that this reaction is real, and not something we can control (though we can to some degree put ourselves in a different state such that the reaction will change), and that if we do come at an artwork in a grumpy mood or something such that the reaction doesn't happen, we blame ourselves, not the object. It's subjective in that of course the subject is one part of the interaction. Pretty much, as one might expect from someone so influenced by William James, Santayana's presentation demonstrates that "subjective" and "objective" are not the most useful categories to force onto this matter.

The rest of the book analyzes the apprehension of beauty using three traditional categories: matter, form, and expression. The matter of a work is its raw sensual quality, e.g. its bright colors, its sonic texture, the material a statue is made out of, etc. He thinks that unrefined folks focus their appreciation on this aspect, so, e.g. modern pop music is appealing largely for the sounds it chooses, from the tambre of the vocal and instruments to the clear sound quality to the sound of the bright major chords that make it up.

The form is where beauty really lies for Santayana: in perceiving the relation of the parts to the whole. This is an active process, and he uses the Kantian word "apperception" a lot to talk about how seeing these creations is in part a creative act, or at least takes discernment. He gives the example of a landscape: we think of this as a paradigm case of beauty, but really it's a jumble that we organize in perception, and to perceive it as beautiful, much less to present it in a painting, we have to pick out elements to emphasize and look at their formal relations: the parallelism between the trees, how they stand out to the background, etc. While less reflective folks have to go on vacation to perceive their environment aesthetically, an artistically inclined person understands that any part of our everyday surroundings can be approached in this way.

This is not to say that beauty is everywhere or is entirely a matter of the perceiver's capacity to apperceive in this way. Santayana wants artists to actually go through the effort to create a perfect, understandable form that we can contemplate, and is critical of romantics who create vague, suggestive works and/or gesture towards an "infinite perfection," which he thinks is a contraction in terms. A perceived form can strike us as perfect; perfection is something given to us in perception, and gesturing towards something imperceptible in a religious/mystical sense is an artistic failure. It might spur creativity and imagination among astute spectators, but it doesn't actually display the formal qualities that make a work of art great.

The third element in art that Santayana considers is expression, i.e. when a work connotes or represents some elements extrinsic to itself. So, to return to the modern pop music example, a singer is also appealing because of how he or she comes off in terms of looks and personality: maybe his or her image conveys a dangerous sexiness or something like that. Any time words enter a work of art, of course, there's tons of expression going on (as opposed to in instrumental music, which may nonetheless connote bring to mind previous works or conventionally express emotions, e.g. minor chords are supposed to be sad). While Santayana doesn't want to discount this element, and thinks it has a great deal of effect on how we react to a work, he mostly thinks it's cheap and gimmicky compared to formal elements. So a poorly written movie may still be enjoyable because it uses conventional tropes to play on our emotions and employs attractive actors with pleasant voices and well recorded music, but it would certainly be better if the plot made sense (had a well-crafted form), the dialogue was poetic (well-formed sentences), and if musical and cinematographic effects were used with intelligence and ingenuity (i.e. interacted through interesting formal relations) instead of according to a tired, predictable formula.

Santayana stresses throughout that he's not about figuring out rules which can then be used to judge whether a new work is good nor not. All artistic rules are just attempts to capture what we find great in individual works. Still, he thinks that this analysis will "have a good and purifying effect" (from the Introduction) on our judgments, get us to stop trying to dogmatically impose our tastes on others, yet allow us to safely discount "aberrations of taste." Santayana thinks that if you have a positive aesthetic experience of something, you can't be wrong, as you've made a real connection with it and are picking out something. Still, you may be focusing too much on the associations the work brings to you that it wouldn't to others, or maybe you're too enraptured by the singer's sexy voice or some other part of the matter, and aren't noticing the lack of interesting formal elements in the work. Santayana wants to be pluralistic recognizing what people can appreciate but still insist that some works are superior to others. He still thinks it's better to have a real appreciation of something in kind of a crude way than to pretentiously praise works that you don't actually understand and don't really give you pleasure.

Santayana wasn't crazy about academia and eventually retired from Harvard at 48 to live in Italy and travel around writing books; he refused positions at Oxford and Cambridge. So he qualifies a Partially Examined Lifer. He was a Spaniard but grew up in Boston and is called by the Stanford Encyclopedia the "foremost Hispanic-American philosopher." Whether as a result of this, or his artistic temperament, or his status as an secularist who grew up Catholic, or (probably) a closeted homosexual (this from the Standford Encyclopedia), or just due to his being a philosopher (his idol was Spinoza), he pretty much always felt like an outsider, an alien, and the book gives an interesting framework to think about your own, individual approach to beauty, both as spectator and creator of artworks.

Buy the book or read it online for free.


  1. Profile photo of Tammy says

    Wonderful! Well, I am down to one social site (detox time) and looking forward to focusing on D&R and Eastern Philosophy.

  2. Profile photo of Daniel Cole says

    I think I enjoyed this book more than most of the reading group did, but it was also my first experience with an aesthetics text, so there were a lot of revelations for me. This post has already made some connections I missed, so I’m looking forward to the episode.

    Santayana can certainly turn a phrase. His style was a pleasure throughout the book, which never felt detached or encyclopedic. It had the emphasis of a man with a personal stake in art, poetry particularly I guess. I hope to take a further look at his work at some point.


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