A George Santayana Home Page

False Steps in 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

Essence / existence

Royce . . . was too learned and too expert dialectically not to feel that the contrast between essence and existence (which is not a division among existences) is inevitable and axiomatic; and that the neglect of it has led to the worst paradoxes and extravagances of Eleatic, Platonic, German and Indian metaphysics.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 497-498 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#686 1940]

Essence / intuition

The trick of identifying, or not yet distinguishing, intuition and essence, runs through the history of speculation and breeds a thousand misunderstandings.

Truth at 137 (Beyond Truth) [#687 1938]


Nothing comes out of nothing, nothing falls back into nothing, if we consider substance; but everything comes from nothing and falls back into nothing if we consider things—the objects of love and experience.

Poets at 45 (Lucretius) [#689 1910]


The assimilation of all genesis in nature to animal generation, so that like must produce like, has been one of the chief sources of myth in philosophy. It has favoured the groundless prejudice that mind could only arise from mind: whereas mind, being something spiritual and unsubstantial, is a finality or entelechy involved in motion, and incapable of generating anything else.

Cory's Birth of Reason at 72 (Harmony) [#688 1968]

Highest good

He [the romantic pessimist] imagines that what is desired is not this or that—food, children, victory, knowledge, or some other specific goal of a human instinct—but an abstract and perpetual happiness behind all these alternating interests. Of course an abstract and perpetual happiness is impossible, not merely because events are sure to disturb any equilibrium we may think we have established in our lives, but for the far more fundamental reason that we have no abstract and perpetual instinct to satisfy. . . . A highest good to be obtained apart from each and every specific interest is more than unattainable; it is unthinkable. . . . . [T]he highest good of man is the sum and harmony of those specific goods upon which his nature is directed.

Egotism at 110-111 (The Breach with Christianity) [#690 1915]


When Descartes, for example, identified matter with extension, he substituted essence for substance . . . . . . . . When he imagined geometrical figures, indistinguishable in scale, parts, or quality, and bounded by merely ideal lines, nevertheless moving in reference to one another, he was substituting a possible pattern of nature for living nature herself. . . . The only substance remaining in his system—the only being self-existent in all its parts and in actual flux—was accordingly the discourse in which the material world might appear as a picture. Descartes thus became the father of psychologism against his will . . . .

Essence at 159-160 (Comparison with Some Kindred Doctrines) [#691 1927]

Kantian philosophy

In other words, time is an intrinsic and measurable medium only in the realm of matter; in the realm of consciousness time is only a principle of perspective. The Kantian philosophy on this point, and in respect to consciousness, deserves to be taken to heart, consciousness being its chosen field; though it should be banished from our minds in considering those other and deeper realms which it ignored.

Lachs' Physical Order at 142 (Consciousness and Time) [#692 1969]

Knowledge not immediate

It was a false step at which Hobbes halted, which Locke took unsuspectingly and which sent Berkeley and Hume head over heels: the assumption that facts are known immediately.

Soliloquies at 193 (John Bull and His Philosophers) [#693 1919]

Knowledge not immediate

A datum cannot be other than it is, and a fact must be exactly what has happened; but a datum may have any degree of vagueness as the sign or description of a fact.

When empiricism attempts to reduce facts to data, it therefore runs up against this terrible paradox, that every idea must be perfectly clear and every object must be thoroughly well known.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 534-535 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#694 1940]


All this confusion comes of originally supposing that things are graphically copied in sense, and nature in science; a belief founded on the projection of the essences given to spirit, as if the world had been created and were now deployed on the model of human ideas. But the essences given to spirit are forms of imagination and thought: they never were and never will be the essences of things; and it is only by poetic license and conventional symbolism that we are compelled to clothe things in the garb of our sensations and rhetoric. . . . These thoughts and images of ours, with their economy, are not irrelevant to nature, since she produces them at stated junctures; our imagination and logic, as far as they go, are her own logic and imagination, by which here, at least, she finds it possible to possess and to celebrate herself spiritually; they are therefore true enough, and a different logic or a different imagination would probably be no truer. They have the value of signs and are felt to have it; because the spirit which evokes them is incarnate, with transitive and not contemplative interests predominant in it, so that it takes all its visions, when it can, for omens of collateral powers.

Essence at 136-137 (Instances of Essences) [#695 1927]


An animal vision of the universe is, in one sense, never false: it is rooted in the nature of that animal, aroused to consciousness by the circumstances of the moment . . . . It is true enough to be false, and to require correction. For the whole view of mind characteristic of modern philosophy, that mind is a train of self-existent feelings or ideas, is itself false. Mind is spirit; a wakefulness or attention or moral tension aroused in animals by the stress of life: and the prerequisite to the appearance of any feeling or idea is that the animal should be alive and awake, attentive, that is, to what is happening, has happened, or is about to happen: so that it belongs to the essence of discoverable existence, as a contemporary philosophy has it, 'to-be-in-the-world'.

Truth at 50-51 (Conventional Truth) [#696 1938]

Necessity / contingency

In a contingent world necessity is a conspiracy of accidents.

Matter at 99 (The Flux of Existence) [#698 1930]

Necessity / contingency

[I adopt] the view that nothing existent is necessary, but that nature and all events in nature are thoroughly contingent.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 591 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#699 1940]

Necessity / contingency

[D]eterminism itself, if it rules the world, rules it by chance.

Lach's Animal Faith at 142 (Inevitable Contingency of All Facts) [#697 1967]

New Realism

I think I see the first principle of objectivism or new realism somewhat more clearly. It starts with Berkeley—the object of knowledge is the idea in the mind (the sense-datum) and this is the "thing" of common sense and non-metaphysical physics. That is the foundation—a big blunder—and what James adds is only a confusion of that hybrid with a sort of adumbration of essence, for he says that the "Experience" as psychical and as physical is numerically as well as qualitatively one; which could only be true of it as an essence apart from existence. For as existence is distinguished precisely by presence in a non-dialectical context, and the physical context of the datum and the psychical context, James admits, are two, therefore I say the Existences are also, although the essence realized in each may be the same.

Letters 2:91 (To Charles Augustus Strong, Paris, June 19, 1912) [#700 1912]


This presence of essences occasionally to imagination was very accurately called by the Scholastics their objective being, contrasted with the intrinsic or logical being which they had in themselves, and with the formal embodiment which they might have in things; but in the utter confusion of modern philosophy, substances being denied in one breath and imagination in the next, "the objective" has come to mean that which is independent of intent or attention fixed upon it; which is precisely what the objective can never be.

Essence at 129 (Instances of Essences) [#701 1927]

Particular / universal

Suppose, for instance, that I see yellow, that my eyes are open, and that there is a buttercup before me; my intuition (not properly the essence 'yellow' which is the datum) is then called a sensation. If again I see yellow with my eyes closed, the intuition is called an idea or a dream—although often in what is called an idea no yellow appears, but only words. If yet again I see yellow with my eyes open, but there is no buttercup, the intuition is called a hallucination. These various situations are curious, and worth distinguishing in optics and in medical psychology, but for the sceptical scrutiny of experience they make no difference. . . . Again, if I see yellow once, my experience is called a particular impression, and its object, yellow, is supposed to exist and to be a particular too; but if I see yellow again, yellow has mysteriously become a universal, a general idea, and an abstraction.

Scepticism at 91-93 (Some Uses of This Discovery) [#702 1923]

Personal morality / political system

What enabled Socrates and Plato to apply their personal morality in the gross, and to imagine that they had a political system as well as a spiritual one, was a triple oversight on their part. In the first place they thought that scientific knowledge of nature was impossible, or at least irrelevant to the government of life and to the right choice of ideals. In the next place, unlike the Indians, they overlooked the whole non-human creation. Finally they assumed that human nature was single, definite, and invariable. If appearance, tradition, and religious faith enlightened us sufficiently about the universe, if no beings counted except the human, and all human beings were essentially identical with ourselves, then, indeed, the morality of the single soul would cover all public morality: all men, to be good, would need to follow the same precepts, and if all men were good, society would be perfect.

Most of us now see quite clearly how far this is from being the case. The living world is fluid and contradictory, and to assume the uniformity of human nature and the adequacy of private virtue to secure public good opens the door wide to tyranny and to political apathy. The orthodox then profess to know man better a priori than he knows himself by experience; everything that departs from their conventions is set down for a disease, a sin, or a contradiction; and this innate obliquity in man their zeal must hasten to extirpate. No attempt to do justice to life or society is possible on such a basis.

Lach's Animal Faith at 355 (Two Rational Moralists) [#703 1916]

Phases of life

Hence the absence of a need or a passion in one phase of life cannot be taken for an argument that such a need or passion is false or wicked elsewhere. The contrary assumption is the root of much idle censoriousness and injustice in moralists, who are probably old men, and sapless even in youth, all their zeal being about phrases and maxims that run in their heads and desiccate the rest of their spirit.

Truth at 75-76 (Moral Truth) [#704 1938]

Physical time

[F]or physical time is nothing but the deployment of substance, and the essence of this substance is the form which, if free, it would realise in its deployment.

Matter at 71 (Pictorial Space and Sentimental Time) [#705 1930]

Primary and secondary qualities

The notion of essence is also useful in dismissing and handing over to physical science, where it belongs, the mooted question concerning the primary and secondary qualities of matter. . . . [T]he question of primary and secondary qualities, as mooted in modern philosophy, is a false problem. It rests on the presumption that the data of sense can be and should be constituents of the object in nature, or at least exactly like its constituents. . . . [Psychological critics of experience] continue illegitimately to posit the bread, as an animal would, and then, in their human wisdom, proceed to remove from the description of it the colour and the pleasure concerned, as being mere effects on themselves, while they identify the bread itself with the remainder of their description hypostatised: shape, weight, and hardness. . . . Evidently these so-called primary qualities are simply those essences which custom or science continues to use in its description of things. . . .

It is because essences are not discerned that philosophers in so many ways labour the hopeless notion that there is nothing in sense which is not first in things.

Scepticism at 82-84 (Some Uses of This Discovery) [#706 1923]

Realism / nominalism

The psychology of nominalism is undoubtedly right where it insists that every image is particular and every term, in its existential aspect, a flatum vocis; but nominalists should have recognised that images may have any degree of vagueness and generality when measured by a conceptual standard. . . . Functional or logical universality lies in another sphere altogether, being a matter of intent and not of [psychological] existence. When we say that "universals alone exist in the mind" we mean by "mind" something unknown to Berkeley; not a bundle of psychoses nor an angelic substance, but quick intelligence, the faculty of discourse. Predication is an act, understanding a spiritual and transitive operation: its existential basis may well be counted in psychological]y and reduced to a stream of immediate presences; but its meaning can be caught only by another meaning, as life only can exemplify life. Vague or general images are as little universal as sounds are; but a sound better than a flickering abstraction can serve the intellect in its operation of comparison and synthesis. Words are therefore the body of discourse, of which the soul is understanding.

Art at 74-75 (Speech and Signification) [#708 1905]

Realism / nominalism

[The one comprehensive and orthodox solution] is that universal terms or natures exist before the particulars, and in the particulars, and after the particulars: for God, before he made the world . . . had eternally in his mind the notions of a perfect man, horse, etc., after which the particulars were modeled . . . . But universal terms or natures existed also in particulars, since the particulars illustrated them . . . . Nevertheless, the universals existed also after the particulars: for the discursive mind of man . . . could not help noticing and abstracting the common types that often recur; and this ex post facto idea, in the human mind, is a universal term also. To deny any of the three theories, and not to see their consistency, is to miss the medieval point of view, which, in every sense of the word, was Catholic.

Poets at 93-94 (Dante) [#707 1910]

Realism / nominalism

[T]hey may find my view confused, and may ask indignantly whether I am a realist, a conceptualist, or a nominalist. Let me observe in the first place that even among the Scholastics these positions were held exclusively only by partisans and heretics; the orthodox doctrine included and required the three views in their respective places.

My position, then, is simply the orthodox Scholastic one in respect to pure logic, but freed from Platonic cosmology and from any tendency to psychologism.

Essence at 93 note (Implication) [#709 1927]

Realism / nominalism

Another point to which I should be glad to see you return is the "reality" of universals. When an essence or a trope (if I may use my lingo) is exemplified in events, it becomes a part of their essence; but I should hardly say (would you?) that even the whole essence or description of a natural fact was that fact. The universal merely defines the fact, and is true of it; but the fact is more than its essence; it exists by being generated, situated, and sustained in the midst of nature by the flow of substance into that form at that juncture. Otherwise, your universals couldn't define existence, but only themselves.

Letters 4:251 (To Morris Raphael Cohen, Rome, May 31, 1931) [#710 1931]

Realism / nominalism

My philosophy as a whole, and in its form of wisdom, is therefore very different from Berkeley's, although in the matter of nominalism I think I am more radical than he turned out to be in the end. . . . [My essences are] as multitudinous, separate, and "inert" as any nominalist could desire, and functionally they are just words. . . . They are only dramatic elements in the moral life of spirit, who lends them all their momentary deceptiveness, while they possess in themselves only an ideal timeless identity. Words, in every phase of their evolution, have this logical reality and this material non-existence. Plato's Ideas are for me just as "nominal" as any sensuous term.

Letters 8:147 (To Richard Colton Lyon, Rome, March 1, 1949) [#711 1949]

Scholasticism in new terminology

In substance I agree with the Scholastic analysis, but need other terms, so as to state the matter without the Socratic-Aristotelian presuppositions in general philosophy which imply a conceptual structure in the world and a limited number of standard genera and species, and universals generally for the intellect to recognize. That is why "intuition", in my statements would take the place of both sense and intellect, in so far as these are actually realized in consciousness; while "intent" would take the place of I don't know exactly what assurance that the object faced not only exists but possesses in itself . . . the qualities given in perception. . . .

At the end [of your article] you seem to be sorry that, having reduced idealism sceptically to absurdity, I shouldn't simply go back to the conventions from which the idealists started. Those conventions, as stated by the Scholastics, are contrary to naturalism: that is why they led to idealism as soon as criticism was applied to them. I have tried to profit by that experience and to state commonsense belief with more circumspection, so as not to be forced to abandon them by the treacherous elements of grammar and moralism which the Socratic School introduced into philosophy.

Letters 5:316 to 5:317 (To Daniel MacGhie Cory, Rome, April 1, 1936) [#712 1936]

Sensation / thought

Sensation and thought (between which there is no essential difference) . . . .

Scepticism at 102 (The Watershed of Criticism) [#713 1923]

Sensation / thought

The whole distinction between sense-data, percepts, and concepts is psychological and historical.

Lachs' Physical Order at 98 (Essences Not Abstractions) [#714 1969]

Subject / object-predicate

It might seem for a moment as if this pressing actuality of experience implied a relation between subject and object, so that an indescribable being called the ego or self was given with and involved in any actual fact. This analysis, however, is merely grammatical, and if pressed issues in mythical notions.

Scepticism at 22 (Doubts About Self-Consciousness) [#716 1923]

Subject / object-predicate

[Russell asserts] that substance is a notion derived from syntax, the implication being that grammar is the only source of that notion, and that the structure of language is not based on the structure of things. I suppose human discriminations are indeed no index to the total contents of the universe or its total form, or to the infinitesimal texture of matter. Only human reactions to gross objects on the human scale are likely to be transcribed into human grammar. Such reactions might suggest the distinction and connection between subject and predicate; because an object like an apple, known to be one by its movements under manipulation, may be indicated by several different sensations of sight, smell, and taste; indications which language then treats as attributes of the apple. But this grammatical usage is very far from being the sole occasion for the category of substance. Objects suffer transformation, and there is a notorious continuity and limitation in the quantity, quality, and force of their variations. So much grain yields so much flour, and of such a kind; this flour yields so much bread; this bread keeps alive so much muscle and blood, and so many eyes capable of looking and seeing coloured patches. The matter or energy which can suffer these mutations and insure their continuity is their common substance.

Cory's Birth of Reason at 127-128 (Bertrand Russell's Searchlight) [#717 1936]

Subject / object-predicate

But neither in respect to substance nor to essence has this argument [that the notion of substance rests on the grammatical dualism of subject and predicate] any value in my eyes. Substances and essences alike become subjects (or in modern parlance become objects) whenever a mind happens to think of them; and essences become predicates when they are assigned to some substance or to some more complex essence as a formal feature, or as a quality accruing to them in relation to something else. . . . Nor has grammar, to my mind, anything to do with the origin or necessity of this category [of substance]. Its obvious origin and justification lie in the fact of transformation.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 586 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#718 1940]


Initially, as the recognition of a single overpowering automatic process within us as well as without, materialism coincides with pantheism . . . . Divergence begins with the ways of acting attributed to this single force. The more minute, repeated, and constant the tropes discovered, the more materialistic or mechanical our dynamic monism will seem to grow; but I think there has been unnecessary rhetorical heat in the traditional quarrels on this subject. The entire history and destiny of the universe, if they could be surveyed, would in any case remain what they are, and contingent. They would make a total dramatic impression which imagination might regard as the moral reason (not the antecedent cause) of the whole reality. In the same way, imagination might regard particular parts of the process, such as human choices or human works of art, as justified (not produced) by the rightness or beauty or intention discernible in them. Teleology would thus be a sympathetic moral method of appreciating mechanism, and not an alternative natural process.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 509-510 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#719 1940]


The empirical relations which an opinion, by the action it comports, may have in the world have nothing to do with its truth. If an "idea" is useful, it is useful, not true; and if an idea is beautiful or comforting, it is not therefore true, but comforting only or beautiful; and if an idea, perhaps an illusion, is harmonious with another idea, the two are harmonious, and both together may be a worse illusion than each of them was separately. Nor would perfect coherence in ideas, in the longest of dreams, make the dream true; although if it contained intelligent mutual descriptions of one part of it by another part, those parts would indeed report a part of the truth about one another. Yet the total truth about that dream, as some parts of it might perhaps perceive, would be that it was a dream and all sheer illusion. To reduce truth to coherence is to deny truth, and to usurp the name for a certain comfort and self-complacency in mere thinking.

Truth at 42-43 (Radiation of Truth) [#720 1938]

Number of quotations (including supressed): 35

According to Daniel Cory, late in his life Santayana began putting aside notes for yet another book to be entitled, On the False Steps of Philosophy, and that he delivered a partial manuscript to Cory in the fall before his death. Cory published that material as the final essay of The Birth of Reason & Other Essays by George Santayana (Daniel Cory, ed., Columbia University Press, New York, NY 1968). That short and incomplete essay is here supplemented by other quotations on the false steps of philosophy, and on other perennial philosophical issues discussed in Santayana's works.