George Santayana (1863-1952), Spanish and American philosopher, developed a personal form of critical realism that was skeptical, materialistic, and humanistic.
George Santayana was unique among American and European philosophers during his long lifetime. While others strove to make philosophy "scientific" and to apply philosophy and science to society, Santayana proclaimed, "My philosophy neither is nor wishes to be scientific." He rejected the inherited genteel tradition in American thought as well as his contemporaries' pragmatism, idealism, and positivism. He openly disliked the liberal and democratic drift of Western civilization. In his philosophy he strove to combine philosophical materialism and a deep concern for spiritual values. A prolific writer with a graceful style, he also published several volumes of poetry, and his most popular book was a novel, The Last Puritan (1936). He is singular among American philosophers for the special flavor of his thought and for his treatment of religion and art.
As a girl Santayana's mother was taken to the Philippines, where she met and married George Sturgis, a Bostonian. Santayana later observed that this "set the background for my whole life." After being widowed, she tried to settle in Boston with her children but soon returned to Spain and remarried. The only child of this marriage was born in Madrid on Dec. 16, 1863, and christened Jorge Agustin de Santayana. He lived until the age of 9 in Á vila with his father, a lawyer and student of painting, then joined his mother, who was raising the children of her first marriage in Boston. Although he visited his father in Á vila and traveled in Europe frequently, Santayana lived and wrote in America for the next 40 years. As a boy he was quiet, studious, and lonely.
In spite of his connection to the Boston Sturgises and his American education, Santayana never felt fully at home in the United States. Indeed, he never felt fully at home anywhere. Dark-eyed, gentle, unobtrusive, witty, and very detached, he described himself as "a stranger at heart." His philosophy is clearly marked by a sense of detachment. "I have been involuntarily uprooted," he explained without regret. "I accept the intellectual advantages of that position, with its social and moral disqualifications."
Santayana's years at Harvard College, which he attended after Boston Latin School, were generally happy and satisfying. After graduating from Harvard in 1886, he studied philosophy in Germany. He returned to America in 1888 and completed the work for his doctorate in philosophy under the direction of Josiah Royce at Harvard. In 1889 Santayana joined Harvard's department of philosophy, with the apparent intention of retiring as soon as it was financially possible. When he inherited a modest legacy, he resigned his professorship in 1912.
Santayana lived the remainder of his life in Europe, traveling extensively and eventually settling in Italy. He spent his final years in Calvary Hospital, Rome, under the care of the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary. He died on Sept. 26, 1952.
Santayana's true life was intellectual. "My career was not my life," he wrote. "Mine has been a life of reflection." His philosophy reflected the diversity of his own experience. Spanish Catholic by cultural inheritance and personal inclination, Protestant American by education and environment, disengaged by circumstances and temperament, he regarded his philosophy as a synthesis of these traditions. It is not surprising that his philosophy is full of ironies and ambiguities. At the same time, he was consistent in his concerns, if not in his opinions, and in the mood and tone of his philosophy. His primary orientation was spiritual, although not in the conventional sense, and his primary interest was moral, in the broadest sense.
The philosophy of Santayana is characterized by its skepticism, materialism, and humanism. His skepticism is evident throughout his writings: "My matured conclusion has been that no system is to be trusted, not even that of science in any literal or pictorial sense; but all systems may be used and, up to a certain point, trusted as symbols." His materialism or naturalism was "the foundation for all further serious opinions." Unlike that of so many contemporaries, Santayana's materialism depended not on science but on his own experiences and observations, for which he found philosophical confirmation in the works of Democritus, Lucretius, and Spinoza. In addition, in Greek ethics he found a vindication of order and beauty in human institutions and ideas. His systematic reading and thought culminated in the writing of his masterwork, The Life of Reason (5 vols., 1905-1906), which he intended as a critical history of the human imagination. He developed his philosophy further in Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923), which served as an introduction to his philosophical consummation, Realms of Being (4 vols., 1927-1940).
Santayana's materialism, the foundation of his philosophy, was the conviction that matter is the source of everything; he held that there are purely natural or materialistic causes of all the phenomena of existence. Consequently, thought is the product of material organization and process. Throughout The Life of Reason he assumed that the whole life of reason was generated and controlled by the animal life of man in the bosom of nature. One critic has described him as a nondeterministic fatalist who believed that dark, irrational, impersonal powers determined events. The human mind could not affect nature. Santayana wrote, "We are creatures and not creators." This important feature of his thought is clear in his conception of essences, which he defined as the obvious features that distinguish facts from each other. Apart from the events they may figure in, essences have no existence. Ironically, the mind cannot know existence; it can know only essences. This means that there is no necessary relation between what is perceived (or thought) and what exists. Consequently, "The whole life of imagination and knowledge comes from within." It is no wonder that Santayana was thoroughly skeptical about the possibility of attaining genuine knowledge.
It is also no wonder that Santayana believed that the works of the imagination "alone are good; and [that] the rest—the whole real world—is ashes in its mouth." Religion, science, art, philosophy were all works of the imagination. But religion he regarded as "the head and front of everything." In spite of his sympathies, Santayana was not a practicing Catholic and did not believe in the existence of God. He considered religion a work of the imagination: "Religion is valid poetry infused into common life." The truth of religion was irrelevant, for all religions were imaginative, poetic interpretations of experience and ideals, not descriptions of existing things. The value of religion was moral, as was the value of art.
Beauty, to Santayana, was a moral good. He valued the arts precisely because they are illusory. Like religion, he explained, genuine art expresses ideals that are relevant to human conditions. "Of all reason's embodiments," Santayana exulted, "art is … the most splendid and complete." "This is all my message," he wrote by way of summary, "that morality and religion are expressions of human nature; that human nature is a biological growth; and finally that spirit, fascinated and tortured, is involved in the process, and asks to be saved."
Santayana had few disciples, but his philosophy has attracted considerable critical attention since his death. The grace and beauty of his prose and the strength of his intellect partly account for this interest. In addition, in the intellectual climate of the years following World War II his philosophy of disillusion struck a sympathetic chord. Santayana, like others of his generation, found himself confronted with a choice between Catholicism and complete disillusion. He did not hesitate or complain: "I was never afraid of disillusion, and I have chosen it."
Santayana's autobiography, Persons and Places (3 vols., 1944-1953), reveals his personality, character, and some of his key ideas. It is supplemented by his Letters, edited by Daniel Cory (1955). An excellent anthology is Irwin Edman, ed., The Philosophy of Santayana: Selections from All the Works of George Santayana (1936; rev. ed. 1953).
Valuable critical and descriptive essays on his philosophy and Santayana's replies are in Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of George Santayana (1940; 2d ed. 1951). Although there is no full intellectual biography of Santayana, Mossie M. Kirkwood, Santayana: Saint of the Imagination (1961), is a pleasant introduction. Willard E. Arnett, George Santayana (1968), compares Santayana's philosophy with that of his contemporaries.