A George Santayana Home Page

The Meaning and Function of Philosophy

Use of moral

Essence / existence
Truth as category

Spirit incarnate
Virtual knowledge
Mind function of body

Superficial will
Human nature
Relativity of morals
Law & government
Reason & spirit
Free will

British philosophy
False steps

©1996-2017 T. P. Davis

From The Letters of George Santayana

Philosophy, after all, is not the foundation of things, but a late and rather ineffective activity of reflecting men.

Letters 1:47 (To Henry Ward Abbot, Berlin, February 5, 1887) [#227 1887]

From The Letters of George Santayana

[Philosophy is] an attempt to express a half-undiscovered reality, just as art is, and that two different renderings, if they are expressive, far from canceling each other add to each other's value. . . . [P]hilosophy seems to me to be its own reward, and its justification lies in the delight and dignity of the art itself.

Letters 1:90 (To William James, Berlin, December 18, 1887) [#228 1887]

From Interpretations of Poetry and Religion

Philosophy and religion are nothing if not ultimate; it is their business to deal with general principles and final aims.

Poetry & Religion at 126 (The Poetry of Barbarism) [#226 1900]

From Reason in Science

Philosophers would do a great discourtesy to estimation if they sought to justify it. It is all other acts that need justification by this one. The good greets us initially in every experience and in every object. Remove from anything its share of excellence and you have made it utterly insignificant, irrelevant to human discourse, and unworthy of even theoretical consideration. Value is the principle of perspective in science, no less than of rightness in life. The hierarchy of goods, the architecture of values, is the subject that concerns man most. Wisdom is the first philosophy, both in time and in authority . . . . The first philosophers were accordingly sages. They were statesmen and poets who knew the world and cast a speculative glance at the heavens, the better to understand the conditions and limits of human happiness. . . . Such was philosophy in the beginning and such is philosophy still.

Science at 216-217 (Prerational Morality) [#229 1906]

From Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe

Faust is, then, no philosophical poem, after an open or deliberate fashion; and yet it offers a solution to the moral problem of existence as truly as do the poems of Lucretius and Dante.

Poets at 141-142 (Goethe's Faust) [#230 1910]

From The Letters of George Santayana

Philosophy is not a science; it might be a life or a means of artistic expression, but it is not likely to be either at an American college.

Letters 2:223 (To Benjamin Apthorp Gould Fuller, Oxford, August 4, 1915) [#231 1915]

From The Letters of George Santayana

If you mean that [Plotinus'] system of the universe is not a map of it, is not scientifically correct or in scale, of course I agree. But it seems to me a very great system, very "good philosophy" . . . . The doctrines of Plotinus are flights in the same direction as the doctrines of Christianity: they are not hypotheses intended to explain facts, but expressions invented for sentiment and aspiration. The world, he feels, is full of the suggestion of beauty and goodness, but of the suggestion only. In fact, it betrays and obliterates everything it tries to express, like an inscription in invisible ink that should become luminous only for a moment. And his question is What does the world say, what does life mean, what is there beyond . . . that might lend significance and a worthy origin and end to this wonderful apparition and to our passionate love and passionate dissatisfaction in its presence? His system is an elaborate answer to this question. It is not a hypothesis but an intention, and such rightness as it has is merely fidelity and fineness in rendering moral experience. Of course all those things he describes do not exist; of course he is not describing this world, he is describing the other world, that is, deciphering the good, just beyond it or above it, which each actual thing suggests. Even this rendering of moral aspiration is arbitrary, because nature really does not aspire to anything, and each living thing aspires to something different, in diverse ways. But this arbitrary aspiration, which Plotinus reads into the world, sincerely expresses his own aspiration and that of his age. That is why I say he is decidedly a "good philosopher." . . . . It seems to me better than Christian theology in this respect, that it isn't mixed up with history, it isn't half Jewish, half worldly. It is the Greek side of Christian theology isolated and made pure; and that is the side of it which seems to me truly spiritual, truly sacrificial and penitentially joyful. That it is terribly superstitious and turns all physics into magic is an integral part of its poetic and expressive virtue. Every passion, every force, must be a devil or an angel, because it is agreed to begin with we are looking for the spirit in things.

Letters 2:364 to 2:365 (To Robert Seymour Bridges, Paris, September 18, 1919) [#233 1919]

From Character and Opinion in the United States

Free reflection about everything is a habit to be imitated, but not a subject to expound; and an original system, if the philosopher has one, is something dark, perilous, untested, and not ripe to be taught, nor is there much danger that any one will learn it. The genuine philosopher—as Royce liked to say, quoting the Upanishads—wanders alone like the rhinoceros.

Character & Opinion at 35-36 (The Academic Environment) [#795 1920]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

All Saint Bernard could mean, then, is that happiness lies in this substitution of an ideal for a natural society, in converse with thoughts rather than with things. . . . To substitute the society of ideas for that of things is simply to live in the mind ; it is to survey the world of existences in its truth and beauty rather than in its personal perspectives, or with practical urgency. It is the sole path to happiness for the intellectual man, because the intellectual man cannot be satisfied with a world of perpetual change, defeat, and imperfection. It is the path trodden by ancient philosophers and modern saints or poets ; not, of course, by modern writers on philosophy (except Spinoza), because these have not been philosophers in the vital sense ; they have practised no spiritual discipline, suffered no change of heart, but lived on exactly like other professors, and exerted themselves to prove the existence of a God favourable to their own desires, instead of searching for the God that happens to exist.

Soliloquies at 120-121 (Society and Solitude) [#239 1921]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

It is not politics that can bring true liberty to the soul; that must be achieved, if at all, by philosophy . . . .

Soliloquies at 184 (The Irony of Liberalism) [#235 1921]

From The Letters of George Santayana

True philosophy, of course, is built on science and is only an extension of science . . . .

Letters 3:8 (To Charles Augustus Strong, Madrid, February 2, 1921) [#234 1921]

From Reason in Common Sense

Moral philosophy is not a science.

Common Sense 2d at xii (Preface to the Second Edition) [#238 1922]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

There has been progress in [the history of philosophy]; if we start with the first birth of intelligence and assume that the end pursued is to understand the world, the progress has been immense.

Soliloquies at 208 (The Progress of Philosophy) [#236 1922]

From The Letters of George Santayana

In philosophy there is always a moral element, a view of life, which will make the scientific element subordinate.

Letters 3:53 (To Charles Augustus Strong, Rome, January 18, 1922) [#237 1922]

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

Philosophy fell into the same snare when in modern times it ceased to be the art of thinking and tried to become that impossible thing, the science of thought. . . . [B]ut I cannot by any possibility make experience or mental discourse at large the object of investigation : it is invisible, it is past, it is nowhere. I can only surmise what it might have been . . . . It is an object of literary psychology. The whole of British and German philosophy is only literature.

Scepticism at 254 (Literary Psychology) [#240 1923]

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

[The systems of psychological philosophers] are the very opposite of philosophy. . . . Far from purging the mind and strengthening it, that it might gain a clearer and more stable vision of the world, these critics have bewildered it . . . .

Scepticism at 304 (Comparison with Other Criticisms of Knowledge) [#241 1923]

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

The business of a philosopher is [ ] to be a good shepherd of his thoughts.

Essence at xv-xvi (Preface to Realms of Being) [#242 1927]

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

By the philosopher [ ] both the homeliest brew and the most meticulous science are only relished as food for the spirit. Even if defeated in the pursuit of truth, the spirit may be victorious in self-expression and self-knowledge; and if a philosopher could be nothing else, he might still be a moralist and a poet.

Essence at xvi (Preface to Realms of Being) [#243 1927]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

Science expresses in human terms our dynamic relation to surrounding reality. Philosophies and religions, where they do not misrepresent these same dynamic relations and do not contradict science, express destiny in moral dimensions, in obviously mythical and poetical images: but how else should these moral truths be expressed at all in a traditional or popular fashion? Religions are the great fairy-tales of the conscience.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 8 (A General Confession) [#247 1930]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

Consequently there is no opposition in my mind between materialism and a Platonic or even Indian discipline of the spirit. The recognition of the material world and of the conditions of existence in it merely enlightens the spirit concerning the source of its troubles and the means to its happiness or deliverance: and it was happiness or deliverance, the supervening supreme expression of human will and imagination, that alone really concerned me. This alone was genuine philosophy: this alone was the life of reason.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 13 (A General Confession) [#248 1930]

From Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy: Five Essays

All philosophies are frail, in that they are products of the human mind, in which everything is essentially reactive, spontaneous, and volatile: but as in passion and in language, so in philosophy, there are certain comparatively steady and hereditary principles, forming a sort of orthodox reason, which is or which may become the current grammar of mankind.

Turns of Thought at 23 (Locke and the Frontiers of Common Sense) [#771 1933]

From Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy: Five Essays

All modern philosophy, in so far as it is a description of experience and not of nature, therefore seems to belong to the sphere of literature, and to be without scientific value.

Turns of Thought at 47 (Locke and the Frontiers of Common Sense) [#770 1933]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

The use of philosophy, and in particular of the discrimination of essence, is to distil the wine out of those trodden grapes, in order that in whatever kind of world we may be living, we may live freely in the spirit.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 532 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#249 1940]

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

[What is spirit naturally fit to do?] This perspective is not psychological or historical, but religious, or rather what the ancients would have called philosophical.

Spirit at 91 (Intuition) [#250 1940]

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

My philosophy neither is nor wishes to be scientific; not even in the sense in which, in temper and method, the Summa of St. Thomas might be called scientific. My philosophy is like that of the ancients a discipline of the mind and heart, a lay religion.

Spirit at 273 (General Review of Realms of Being) [#251 1940]

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

Physics, not metaphysics [logical, moral, or psychological figments turned into substances or powers and placed beneath or behind the material world, to create, govern, or explain it], therefore reveals to us, as far as it goes, the foundations of things; and ontology is a subsequent excursus of the mind, as in non-Euclidean geometry, over all that the facts may suggest to the fancy.

Spirit at 274 (General Review of Realms of Being) [#252 1940]

From Realms of Being

Indeed, my endeavor in putting [my philosophy] into words has been to retreat to the minimum beliefs and radical presuppositions implied in facing a world at all or professing to know anything: beliefs and presuppositions that it is impossible for me to deny honestly, although I may seldom or never have conceived them clearly.

Realms at xxviii (Introduction to One-Volume Edition) [#244 1942]

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

In politics the philosopher is spared many a pitfall that he might walk into in physics and biology; his field is limited to human affairs. He need not trouble himself with truths deeper than conventional truths. He has to consider real events and real forces, which are all physical, even when they have a mental and moral accompaniment. In this sense he is a man of science, with the responsibilities of an inquirer after the truth, and not, in intention, a composer of historical romances. Yet his contact with the facts need not go deeper than the contacts which other people have had with them, or may have on other occasions. In this sense his field coincides with that of the historical novelist or literary psychologist. He is composing a drama as it might have been lived. But there is this difference: that his interest, if he is not a party man, is not chiefly emotional or centred in the episodes of the drama itself, as glorious or pitiful; his interest is philosophical and passes from the picturesque surface of those experiences to the causes and conditions that brought them about.

Dominations at 3 (The Sphere of Politics) [#253 1951]

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

[A]nd what is philosophy, as the governance and appreciation of life, except religion liberated from groundless fear or anxiety, that is to say from superstition, and also from rage at honest illusions?

Dominations at 285 (Militant Religions) [#254 1951]

From The Letters of George Santayana

My book does not pretend to be a mere description, in physics and history; it is philosophical; that is, it selects and compares features in both directions, as they appear from a cosmic point of view. Now my cosmic point of view, from which I seem to myself to discover the origins and mutual relations of these chosen facts and judgements, is naturalistic.

Letters 8:379 (To John W. Yolton, Rome, August 20, 1951) [#255 1951]

From Animal Faith and Spiritual Life

There are three traps that strangle philosophy: the Church, the marriage-bed, and the professor's chair.

Lach's Animal Faith at 168 (Maxims) [#256 1967]

From The Birth of Reason & Other Essays

I cannot understand what satisfaction a philosopher can find in artifices, or in deceiving himself and others. I therefore like to call myself a materialist; but I leave the study and also the worship of matter to others, and my later writings have been devoted to discovering the natural categories of my spontaneous thought, and restating my opinions in those honest terms. It is essentially a literary labour, a form of art; and I do not attempt to drive other people to think as I do. Let them be their own poets.

Cory's Birth of Reason at 134 (Three American Philosophers) [#257 1968]

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

That [ ] systems of philosophy differ from one another is no scandal; they ought to do so, like languages and works of art, provided the facts they report are genuine. The trouble with systems of philosophy is precisely that they pretend to be systems of the universe, not recognising their selective and judicial nature: if they would only abandon that grotesque pretension, and give out that they are works of meditative art and helps to wisdom, they might still show their faces in public; and it would not be hard for an honest historian to discriminate their genius from their errors.

Lachs' Physical Order at 175-176 (Substance) [#258 1969]

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

Literature, like sensation, cannot help [being satisfied with those interesting aspects of the event, and ignoring their origin and dynamic context], and thereby creates a second poetic or dramatic world, very thin, but very manageable to the mind. It is only in science and philosophy that we are called upon to study the mechanisms of the substratum.

Lachs' Physical Order at 274 (Freedom) [#259 1969]

Number of quotations (including supressed): 37

Santayana discussed the inherent divisions of philosophy in the Preface to the first volume of his Triton Edition (later re-printed in The Philosophy of George Santayana, Paul Schilpp, ed.). There he recognized three orthodox schools of philosophy: transcendental reflection, natural philosophy, and morals, and suggested that soundness in morals first required soundness in the philosophies of mind and nature. Phil. of G.S. '40 at 21-23 (A General Confession). Sounding the same theme is his essay, The Progress of Philosophy. There he writes:

Suppose I arrange the works of the essential philosophers—leaving out secondary and transitional systems—in a bookcase of four shelves; on the top shelf (out of reach, since I can't read the language) I will place the Indians; on the next the Greek naturalists; and to remedy the unfortunate paucity of their remains, I will add here those free inquirers of the renaissance, leading to Spinoza, who after two thousand years picked up the thread of scientific speculation; and besides, all modern science: so that this shelf will run over into a whole library of what is not ordinarily called philosophy. On the third shelf I will put Platonism, including Aristotle, the Fathers, the Scholastics, and all honestly Christian theology; and on the last, modern or subjective philosophy in its entirety. I will leave lying on the table, as of doubtful destination, the works of my contemporaries.

Soliloquies '22 at 209 (The Progress of Philosophy). Santayana's summation of the thesis of Dialogues in Limbo in a letter of 1925 to Robert Bridges also pertains to his view of the nature of philosophy. He writes to Bridges:

My Democritus is intended to establish between his "atoms & void" on the one hand and his "normal madness" on the other precisely the same opposition and connection that the Indians established between Brahma and Illusion. I think myself that this is the only right physics or metaphysics: but it is only half of human philosophy. Socrates (who is nothing in physics, or a mere child) is brought in to supply the other half, the self-justification of Illusion, because it is the moral essence and fruit of life: and the "Secret of Aristotle" (which I am much pleased that you take to kindly) is the means of harmonizing the two points of view, and proving them to be not only consistent but indispensable to one another if the nature of things is to be understood at all.

Letters 3:256 (To Robert Seymour Bridges, Paris, August 8, 1925). In another letter to Bridges, Santayana describes the scope of philosophy:

I should therefore agree with you completely if it were understood that you were traversing the life of spirit only, and leaving out all physics and logic: but even then so exclusive an interest in the moral side of things, ignoring their natural basis and ontological surroundings, leads into ambiguities and illusions: the relative becomes absolute and the absolute relative.

Letters 4:137 (To Robert Seymour Bridges, Rome, November 4, 1929). Miscellaneous comments by Santayana about philosophy and philosophizing are gathered here.