A George Santayana Home Page

The Groundlessness of Existence

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©1996-2017 T. P. Davis

From The Letters of George Santayana

To say that it [the psychical or mind] cannot have arisen because it is different from its basis is equivalent to saying that it is an impossible thing altogether: because its essence is to be a supervening fact that a situation involves, according to the order of nature. This doesn't have to be accepted as an inexplicable coincidence, except in the sense in which all facts and all laws are inexplicable. It is the most natural and plausible thing in the world, as much so as the law of gravity or the generation of children.

Letters 2:335 (To Charles Augustus Strong, Oxford, December 22, 1918) [#362 1918]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

Existence is indeed distinguishable from the platonic essences that are embodied in it precisely by being a conjunction of things mutually irrelevant, a chapter of accidents, a medley improvised here and now for no reason . . . . This world is contingency and absurdity incarnate . . . . The most profound philosophers accordingly deny that any of those things exist which we find existing, and maintain that the only reality is changeless, infinite, and indistinguishable into parts ; and I call them the most profound philosophers in spite of this obvious folly of theirs, because they are led into it by the force of intense reflection, which discloses to them that what exists is unintelligible and has no reason for existing ; and since their moral and religious prejudices do not allow them to say that to be irrational and unintelligible is the character proper to existence, they are driven to the alternative of saying that existence is illusion and that the only reality is something beneath or above existence.

Soliloquies at 142-143 (Carnival) [#363 1921]

From Scepticism and Animal Faith: Introduction to a System of Philosophy

Existence, change, life, appearance, must be understood to be unintelligible : on any other assumption the philosopher might as well tear his hair and go mad at once.

Scepticism at 211 (On Some Objections to Belief in Substance) [#364 1923]

From Scepticism and Animal Faith: Introduction to a System of Philosophy

Fact can never be explained, since only another fact could explain it: therefore the existence of a universe rather than no universe, or of one sort of universe rather than another, must be accepted without demur.

Scepticism at 284 (Discernment of Spirit) [#365 1923]

From The Realm of Essence: Book First of Realms of Being

[T]he life of matter [ ] is indeed not determined exactly to reproduce its previous forms, but tumbles forward to fresh collocations; and the power in it is truly internal—not a compelling magic exercised by any fixed form, energising either out of the past or out of the future, but indeed a potentiality or propensity within the substance concerned, a part of that blind impulse and need to shift which is native to existence; and as this universal dance was groundless in the beginning, so it remains groundless at every stage and in every factor, whether the figures of it be novel or habitual. . . . . At some depth, and in terms not at all on the human scale, nature may very well be mechanical—I shall return to this question in its place; but each factor in that mechanism would remain perfectly spontaneous; for it is not the essence illustrated here that can produce the essence illustrated there. One configuration cannot even suggest another, save to an idle mind playing with the rhymes of appearance; but substance throughout continues groundlessly to shift its groundless arrangement. One inert essence after another is thereby embodied in things—essences inwardly irrelevant, and associated even in thought only when thought has been tamed and canalised by custom. The method of this transformation may contain repetitions, and to that extent it will be mechanical; but it will never become anything but a perpetual genesis of the unwarrantable out of the contingent, mediated by a material continuity impartial towards those complications.

Essence at 80-81 (Implication) [#373 1927]

From The Realm of Essence: Book First of Realms of Being

There is a stock objection to materialism . . . . Matter, it is said, cannot explain the origin of life, of consciousness, or of morals. Matter here means the essence which some philosopher attributes, or is alleged to attribute, to matter; this essence probably suggested itself to the philosopher's imagination after much consideration of the ways of nature; it is a simple, perhaps a merely mathematical term. Now no essence can be the origin of anything: not even of another essence, much less of any fact. . . . The incapacity of the materialist to deduce logically from the terms of his theory—such as extension, atoms, electric charges, energy, or what not—the other variegated terms in which our senses or imagination may picture the world, is therefore a matter of course . . . .

Essence at 140-141 (Essences All Primary) [#374 1927]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

On this second point [starting from the natural world, what was the causa fiendi of immediate experience] I have not seen much new light. I am constrained merely to register as a brute fact the emergence of consciousness in animal bodies. . . . This spiritual fertility in living bodies is the most natural of things. It is unintelligible only as all existence, change, or genesis is unintelligible; but it might be better understood, that is, better assimilated to other natural miracles, if we understood better the life of matter everywhere, and that of its different aggregates.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 17-18 (A General Confession) [#382 1930]

From The Realm of Matter: Book Second of Realms of Being

The universe itself no doubt is groundless and a perpetual miracle; but it is a tame wonder, and terribly self-imitative . . . .

Matter at 32 (Presumable Properties of Substance) [#375 1930]

From The Realm of Matter: Book Second of Realms of Being

For matter, with all existence supported by matter, is unintelligible, if for no other reason, because it changes.

Matter at 57 (Pictorial Space and Sentimental Time) [#376 1930]

From The Realm of Matter: Book Second of Realms of Being

To say that matter, as it truly exists, is inert or incapable of spontaneous motion, organisation, life, or thought, would be flatly to contradict the facts: because the real matter, posited in action, and active in our bodies and in all other instruments of action, evidently possesses and involves all those vital properties.

Matter at 137 (The Psyche) [#377 1930]

From The Realm of Matter: Book Second of Realms of Being

Yet the ontological overflow, the concomitant emergence of consciousness, alone seems to arrest the wonder, not to say the wrath of philosophers; and they are so surprised at it, and so wrathful, that they are inclined to deny it, and to call it impossible. I have not myself such an intrinsic knowledge of matter as to be sure that it cannot do that which it does: nor do I see why the proudest man should be ashamed of the parents who after all produced him. I am not tempted seriously to regard consciousness as the very essence of life or even of being. On the contrary, both my personal experience and the little I know of nature at large absolutely convince me that consciousness is the most highly conditioned of existences, an overtone of psychic strains, mutations, and harmonies; nor does its origin seem more mysterious to me than that of everything else.

Matter at 154-155 (The Psyche) [#378 1930]

From Obiter Scripta: Lectures, Essays and Reviews

[E]xistence is a miracle, and, morally considered, a free gift from moment to moment.

Buchler's Obiter at 284 (Ultimate Religion) [#380 1933]

From The Letters of George Santayana

But in any case, [spiritual freedom] has nothing to do with the physical question of determinism or indeterminism in the genesis of events. Even "moral freedom" has nothing to do with it. Facing the matter afresh, I should say this: Existence being contingent intrinsically, the character of any event cannot be determined logically by that of previous events: every fact then is a part of the original groundless fact of existence. Yet any degree of regularity may be discovered in the ways of nature; and only in the measure in which such regularity exists is any science or prudence possible.

Letters 5:303 (To Daniel MacGhie Cory, Rome, February 24, 1936) [#379 1936]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

Existence is groundless, essentially groundless; for if I thought I saw a ground for it, I should have to look for a ground for that ground, ad infinitum. I must halt content at the quia, at the brute fact.

The world I find myself in is irrational, but it is not mad. It keeps moving in fundamentally constant ways, so that experience of it accumulates and work in it counts. In contrast with it, however, madness is possible in myself; as if, for instance, I insisted on finding a reason for existence, and started a perpetual and maddening vortex in my head. . . .

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 505 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#383 1940]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

[F]or a critic looking for demonstration the deepest presuppositions [of reason] are the most arbitrary. Indeed, nothing can be more arbitrary than existence . . . .

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 517 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#384 1940]

From The Realm of Spirit: Book Fourth of Realms of Being

At the foundation there is one total groundless reality, breaking in upon nothingness with an overwhelming irrational force. . . .

This assault of reality, in the force of whatsoever exists or happens, I call matter or the realm of matter . . . .

Spirit at 291-292 (General Review of Realms of Being) [#381 1940]

From Persons and Places: fragments of autobiography

What we call the laws of nature are hasty generalizations; and even if some of them actually prevailed without exception or alloy, the fact that these laws and not others (or none) were found to be dominant would itself be groundless; so that nothing could be at bottom more arbitrary than what always happens, or more fatal than what happens but once or by absolute chance.

Persons and Places at 4-5 (My Place, Time, and Ancestry) [#385 1944]

From Dominations and Powers: Reflections on Liberty, Society, and Government

That in the heart of matter there was always a germ of spirit seems to me as much a truism as it would be to say that in a grape-seed lies the potentiality of the vine, the vine-leaves, and the grapes that actually grow out of it. "Potentiality" does not signify the pre-existence of eventual things; it signifies only the existence of the conditions which, according to the process of nature, will bring those things about. I smile at the acrobatic logic of Leibnitz, who convinced himself that little feelings and ideas must exist in every minutest particle of cosmic substance. Anaxagoras had reasoned in that way in his qualitative atomism, thinking that metamorphosis must be as impossible in nature as in the realm of essence.

Dominations at 10-11 (The Roots of Spirit in Matter) [#386 1951]

From Animal Faith and Spiritual Life

When all things are possible, what wonder that some things should be actual? (This is my sole deduction of existence from essence.)

Lach's Animal Faith at 164 (Maxims) [#387 1967]

From Physical Order and Moral Liberty: Previously Unpublished Essays of George Santayana

The permanence of substance is itself a perpetual accident, observable only ex post facto. Substance is the very frame or body of contingency.

Lachs' Physical Order at 120-121 (Psychologism) [#563 1969]


Number of quotations (including supressed): 20


Santayana's view that existence is a surd (Matter '30 at 26-27 (Presumable Properties of Substance)) is the theme of this page.



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