Episode 77: Santayana on the Appreciation of Beauty

On George Santayana's The Sense of Beauty (1896).

What are we saying when we call something "beautiful?" Are we pointing out an objective quality that other people (anyone?) can ferret out, or just essentially saying "yay!" without any logic necessarily behind our exclamation? The poet and philosopher Santayana thought that while aesthetic appreciation is an immediate experience--we don't "infer" the beauty of something by recognizing some natural qualities that it has--we can nonetheless analyze the experience after the fact to uncover a number of grounds on which we might appreciate something. He divides these into areas of matter (e.g. the pretty color or texture), form (the relations between perceived parts), and expression (what external to the work itself does it bring to mind?) and ends up being able to distinguish high art (form-centric) from more savage forms (centered on matter or expression) while distinguishing real appreciation (which can include any of the three elements) from mere pretension (when you don't really have an immediate experience at all but merely recognize that you're supposed to think that this is good).

The regular foursome talk through Santayana's theory with regard to expressionist painting, rock 'n roll, beautiful landscapes, abstract expressionism, and more. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: "Sense of Beauty" by Mark Lint with help from some PEL listeners. Read about it.

Please go to partiallyexaminedlife.com/donate to help support our efforts. A recurring gift will gain you all the benefits of PEL Citizenship. Thanks!


  1. dmf says

    might be interesting at some point to look at Wittgenstein’s similar critique of functionalist reductions in his work against Frazer and Freud (and to look at Freud on sublimation) to see if there is something like a naturalist sense of soul/psyche that isn’t found in most modern evolutionary psychologies but still holds up as realistic.

  2. Profile photo of Tammy says

    Hey, guys, this is a great discussion and I’m enjoying it so much that I’m on my third round without completion!

    Mark, I’m on board with you in regards to music at 32:00 minutes into the podcast and have often thought, waaayyyyy after the fact of posting a song I perhaps should have looked-up all the songs on the album along with lyrics (which I now do) before spontaneity comes back to haunt me!

    There was one occasion while working at a center with children during clean-up I said “turn that up” to a colleague–who is much younger than I, has a degree in music with an understanding of pop song lyric meaning–started laughing and changed the station, privately enlightening me about what the lyrics meant! Still, it was a learning experience I still laugh about it to this day.

    That said, when first reading D&R I thought of The Police’s album Zenyatta Mondatta; the beginning of the song “Voices Inside My Head,” as an acoustic representation of what Difference and Repetition might sound like, while simultaneously responding to a comment re synchronicity AND(talk about multitasking) having fun with my son who likes the song “Canary in a Coalmine.”

    All this to say, I like what you added to the podcast about music and lyrics.

  3. Caleb says

    ‘Cookie Monster’ music fan here, and Avenged Sevenfold has more meaning in its lyrics than most pop celebrities. That and the vocals are beautiful! 😀

    • Tobi says

      But Avenged Sevenfold isn’t exactly the “Cookie Monster” vocal type, even though I agree that metal (even the cookie monster variety) is embedded with more meaning than most pop music.

  4. Profile photo of Tammy says

    I’ve listened for a third time, and I hope to be able to share what perhaps is insight into Santayana’s understanding of the truth(s) found in art. To be sure, I share his thinking of form because, as mentioned in the podcast, he has a Catholic background.

    Form is not something I comprehended in depth until I had a deeper understanding of the difference between sacrament and sacramental in Catholic thinking—a sacrament requires both valid matter and valid form—art can be experienced as both sacrament and sacramental regardless of a person’s religion or non-religion.

    I’m not privatizing a specific philosophy of religion, more hoping to add something from my own studies I came across last summer thinking with Herbert Marcuse (the negative function of art) re music, art, and beauty.

    The original definition of catechism is derived from ecclesiastical Greek, from katēkhizein (see catechize). According to a Wiki (catechism) “A catechism from kata = “down” + echein = “to sound”, literally “to sound down” (into the ears), is a summary or exposition of doctrine, traditionally used in catechesis, or Christian religious teaching of Christian children and adult converts, from New Testament times to the present.[1] Catechisms are doctrinal manuals often in the form of questions followed by answers to be memorized, a format that has been used in non-religious or secular contexts as well.”

    I mention the above because of Mark and Seth fleshing out what validates one person’s experience from another’s. Mark mentioned recognizing a beat or rhythm listening to a piece of music, as recognizing an underling form [paraphrasing] and thought this might add/be of interest to Santayana on the Appreciation of Beauty podcast.

  5. Craig says

    I really enjoyed this podcast. I had never heard of Santayana and will admit that I listened to this episode without first doing the reading, but now I’m going to go back and read up on him some more. His thought is very much in line with many others that I enjoy and look forward to exploring his ideas further. Thanks for introducing him to me.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *