A George Santayana Home Page

Virtual Knowledge

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 Introduction and Reason in Common Sense

It was a thing taken for granted in ancient and scholastic philosophy that a being dwelling, like man, in the immediate, whose moments are in flux, needed constructive reason to interpret his experience and paint in his unstable consciousness some symbolic picture of the world. . . . We know that life is a dream, and how should thinking be more?

Common Sense at 29 (Introduction) [#448 1905]

From Obiter Scripta: Lectures, Essays and Reviews

If it be still asked how intent can fix upon a thing at a distance, or of a different nature from the present sense datum and make it its present object, the answer must be, in brief, that sense data are initially signs: and that we may be cognisant of the object signified either antecedently, in consequence of some direct earlier perception (as we know the sound of a printed word from having heard it), or subsequently by merely yielding to the suasion of the symbol and exploring what it points to—as when we raise our eyes on being startled by a sound, or follow a scent, or feel the strong attraction of beauty. That the sign is a sign, and that there is something behind it, is a fact conveyed to us by the concomitant reaction of the rest of our organism to that particular impression. This reaction is not caused by knowledge, it is itself the ground of knowledge. . . . Stupidity is the conscious expression of sluggishness, intelligence that of plasticity. Transitive knowledge simply recognises in a judgment the actual relation in which our living bodies stand to their environment. [I]t makes all the moral difference between animals and vegetables, or even between organic and inorganic bodies . . . .

Buchler's Obiter at 114-115 (Literal and Symbolic Knowledge) [#453 1918]

From Obiter Scripta: Lectures, Essays and Reviews

If appearances, then, have a basis at all, this basis by definition must explain the diversity in the appearances, as well as their common properties or continuity; but it does not follow that the diversity of the substance must resemble that of the phenomena. The latter may be signs, not copies, of their ground, and heterogeneous expressions of it (like a good translation) even when they are adequate.

Buchler's Obiter at 119-120 (Literal and Symbolic Knowledge) [#454 1918]

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

I propose now to consider what objects animal faith requires me to posit, and in what order; without for a moment forgetting that my assurance of their existence is only instinctive, and my description of their nature only symbolic. I may know them by intent, based on bodily reaction; I know them initially as whatever confronts me, whatever it may turn out to be, just as I know the future initially as whatever is coming, without knowing what will come. That something confronts me here, now, and from a specific quarter, is in itself a momentous discovery. The aspect this thing wears, as it first attracts my attention, though it may deceive me in some particulars, can hardly fail to be, in some respects, a telling indication of its nature in its relation to me. Signs identify their objects for discourse, and show us where to look for their undiscovered qualities. Further signs, catching other aspects of the same object, may help me to lay siege to it from all sides; but signs will never lead me into the citadel, and if its inner chambers are ever opened to me, it must be through sympathetic imagination.

Scepticism at 106 (The Watershed of Criticism) [#464 1918]

From The Letters of George Santayana

I suspect that I should agree with your theory of the origin of consciousness. This appears when cognition arises, that is, when a psychic change is used as a sign of something ulterior. "Used as a sign", however, is ambiguous: for the organic change is "used" by the body to lead to some adjustment to the outer object, while the essence appearing to consciousness is "used" by the intellect to reveal that object and to describe it. The first sort of sign is a passive omen, the second a transitive symbol.

Letters 2:310 (To Charles Augustus Strong, Oxford, February 2, 1918) [#449 1918]

From The Letters of George Santayana

The chief divergence of which I am conscious, however, in reading your paper concerns the literalness which you seem to attribute to correct knowledge. . . . The essence given is not the essence affirmed. . . . For this reason signs . . . do not obstruct knowledge of their objects, if we are intelligent. I don"t fail to know the original because the given copy [e.g., a work of art] exists, any more than I fail to know the object because the psychic state exists: I should fail to know the original only if I asserted the essence of the copy, or of the psychic state, and not the essence it suggests, to be the essence of that original. In a word, the datum has to be interpreted, not merely projected and asserted, in order to yield true knowledge.

Letters 2:313 (To Charles Augustus Strong, Oxford, March 26, 1918) [#450 1918]

From The Letters of George Santayana

I can well believe that what you say about "the object being only an excerpt from the real thing" may coincide with what I call knowledge through symbols. As to the notion that a percept may be incorrect in itself, don't you say this of the percept of a bent stick half in the water? Don't you make an explicit point of the error being here one of perception and not of judgment or belief? . . . . Of course, I don't disagree with you as to these facts at all: the question is rather at what level the correctness or incorrectness begins to be added to the innocent apprehension of an essence in our immediate experience different from the essence of the object for which it stands. The mere difference—the symbolic character of the datum—does not seem to involve error: yet if the symbol is explicitly asserted to be literal knowledge it becomes one. Compare religion.

Letters 2:318 (To Charles Augustus Strong, Cambridge, May 8, 1918) [#451 1918]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

And it is very true, whatever desperate efforts empiricism may make to deny it, that every figure crossing the stage of apprehension is a symbol, or may become a symbol ; they all have some occasion and arise out of some deeper commotion in the material world.

Soliloquies at 127 (The World’s A Stage) [#457 1920]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

It will never do for a mind merely to live through its passions or its perceptions ; it must discern recognizable objects, in which to centre its experience and its desires ; it must choose names and signs for them, and these names and symbols, if they are to perform their function in memory and intercourse, must be tightly conventional.

Soliloquies at 134 (The Tragic Mask) [#458 1921]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

The notion that the object of sense [substance] is the very image created in sensation, or is an idea constructed afterwards by the intellect, is an aberration of confused psychologists ; the intellectual construction, like the sensuous image, is and is meant to be only a symbol for the substance, whatever it may be, which confronts the living being when he eats or looks or frames a scientific hypothesis. Natural things, in their undiscovered inner texture, are the only things-in-themselves, and the object of every practical perception is the thing-in-itself, whatever its nature may happen to be.

Soliloquies at 213 (The Progress of Philosophy) [#459 1922]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

The human mind, on the contrary, is the expression of an animal life, swimming hard in the sea of matter. It begins by being the darkest belief and the most helpless discomfort, and it proceeds gradually to relieve this uneasiness and to tincture this blind faith with more and more luminous ideas. Ideas, in the discovery of facts, are only graphic symbols, the existence and locus of the facts thus described being posited in the first place by animal instinct and watchfulness.

Soliloquies at 229-230 (Ideas) [#460 1922]

From Obiter Scripta: Lectures, Essays and Reviews

On the contrary, any experience is incidental to animal life and animal passions, which in turn are incidental to the general flux of substance in the world. Appearances and feelings and consciousness itself are in their nature desultory and unsubstantial, yet not groundless nor altogether mad, because substance creates and sustains them by its steady rhythms, so that they are truly expressive and, when intelligence arises, may become terms and symbols in true knowledge.

Buchler's Obiter at 166 (The Unknowable) [#462 1923]

From Obiter Scripta: Lectures, Essays and Reviews

[A]ll knowledge of fact, by its very privilege of transcending the data, is condemned to be external and symbolic . . . .

Buchler's Obiter at 172 (The Unknowable) [#455 1923]

From Obiter Scripta: Lectures, Essays and Reviews

Human experience is filled full with such appropriate comments on neighboring modes of substance, and with appropriate names and sketches clapped upon events. Amongst these signs and tokens there are some especially venerable symbols, those same ideas already mentioned of matter, of God, of the natural world, of various persons and passions. These venerable symbols are characters attributed to substance and its modes by the human imagination . . . . [S]ubstance may be recognized and named without being at all comprehended . . . as when a child says John, mother, dog. It does not follow that these names, and the sentiment each mutely awakens, are similar to the substance they indicate, or form any part of that substance. . . . I see no necessity that our ideas of matter or of God should be truer than that . . . . If, for instance, in denying that persons exist, a philosopher like Buddha had meant that the idea we commonly form of persons does not rightly describe the substance at work in those places, he might have been more than justified . . . ; but he could hardly have maintained his negation if he had meant that there is no substance of any sort for which the idea of persons is a conventional mask. . . .

Knowledge, then, is not knowledge of appearance, but appearances are knowledge of substance when they are taken for signs of it. . . .

Buchler's Obiter at 181-183 (The Unknowable) [#456 1923]

From Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy: Five Essays

All human discourse is metaphorical, in that our perceptions and thoughts are adventitious signs for their objects, as names are, and by no means copies of what is going on materially in the depths of nature . . . .

Turns of Thought at 93 (A Long Way Round to Nirvana) [#473 1923]

From The Letters of George Santayana

Experience, and success in construction and prediction, can only show that specious time and specious space are fair symbols for whatever forces or process may really be going on in nature. There need be no graphic likeness, no resemblance, between symbols and their objects. A change from Euclidean geometry (a set of ideas or symbols only) might conceivably fit things better. But even if it did, the new geometry would be itself only a new symbol, a new idea, not the constitution of nature itself. If Einstein means that Relativity is the absolute order of nature, he is not a man of science nor a mathematician at all, but only a misguided psychologist, composing the universe out of optical illusions.

Letters 3:142 to 3:143 (To Robert Burnside Potter, Nice, April 3, 1923) [#463 1923]

From The Letters of George Santayana

[F]iction or myth [is] the only possible knowledge of fact.

Letters 3:212 (To Charles Augustus Strong, Cortina d’Ampezzo, August 3, 1924) [#465 1924]

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

The enormity of our childish idealism would prove immediately fatal if we needed to have a true idea of things in order to act properly in their presence. But ideas which are ridiculous as descriptions may be adequate as signals: all animals eat and breed without any notion of calorics or eugenics: hunger and love are moral overtones quite sufficient to express for them their share in the rude economy of nature. The mind is not a fifth wheel to her coach, but her observations on the journey. Conventional psychology is misled by a primitive gnostic theory to the effect that things ought normally to appear to sense in their full and exact nature. Nothing could be further from the fact, or more incongruous with animal life and sensibility.

Essence at 35 (Adventitious Aspects of Essence) [#466 1927]

From The Letters of George Santayana

On the one occasion when I saw and heard [Charles Sanders Pierce], I was struck by his very unacademic personality, and I have always remembered with profit a distinction which he made in his lecture that evening between "index", "sign", and "symbol".

Letters 4:59 (To Charles Hartshorne, Paris, September 1, 1928) [#467 1928]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

Knowledge accordingly always remains a part of imagination in its terms and in its seat; yet by virtue of its origin and intent it becomes a memorial and a guide to the fortunes of man in nature.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 20 (A General Confession) [#481 1930]

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

The same mental facts are manifestations of substance; in their occurrence they are parts of a total natural event which, on its substantial side, belongs to the plane of action. They are therefore significant and relevant to action as signs, being created and controlled by the flux of substance beneath.

Matter at 41-42 (Presumable Properties of Substance) [#468 1930]

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

Yet in fact, on account of its organic seat and material conditions, consciousness is significant. Its every datum is an index, and may become in its eyes a symbol, for its cause.

Matter at 157 (The Psyche) [#469 1930]

From Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy: Five Essays

In the cognisance which an animal may take of his surroundings—and surely all animals take such cognisance—the subjective and moral character of his feelings, on finding himself so surrounded, does not destroy their cognitive value. These feelings, as Locke says, are signs: to take them for signs is the essence of intelligence.

Turns of Thought at 10 (Locke and the Frontiers of Common Sense) [#471 1933]

From Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy: Five Essays

Even that spark of divine intelligence which comes into the animal soul, as Aristotle says, from beyond the gates, comes and is called down by the exigencies of physical life. An animal endowed with locomotion cannot merely feast sensuously on things as they appear, but must react upon them at the first signal, and in so doing must virtually and in intent envisage them as they are in themselves. For it is by virtue of their real constitution and intrinsic energy that they act upon us and suffer change in turn at our hands; so that whatsoever form things may take to our senses and intellect, they take that form by exerting their material powers upon us, and intertwining them in action with our own organisms.

Thus the appearance of things is always, in some measure, a true index to their reality.

Turns of Thought at 36-37 (Locke and the Frontiers of Common Sense) [#472 1933]

From The Letters of George Santayana

[C]ommon-sense knowledge is virtual knowledge, virtually true. This is another word for symbolic and symbolical, but perhaps less mysterious and not so cryptical in sound.

Letters 5:59 (To Daniel MacGhie Cory, Rome, November 13, 1933) [#474 1933]

From The Letters of George Santayana

That Locke, and even more Hume, were twittering on the verge of the discrimination of essence is perfectly obvious. So are all idealists. [There is a book by Father Maloney containing] a phrase of Locke's to the effect that in comparing "hot" and "round", or any such "ideas" and seeing their essential relations, we are comparing "existents". Now that is the position of Loveyjoy, etc, to this day. And of course there is an existent event before us, a commotion in the brain; but that this existent has for its essence the "round" or "hot" which is given to intuition is simply false; and there is no reason, in the order of genesis, why the existent object or cause should have that given essence. But the gnostic presumption comes from starting with experience, or rather with introspection, and assuming that the world must be decked out in those sensuous or verbal or grammatical or moral terms in which we feel the world: which is true of the poetic world, of myth, but not of the physical world, of commerce, surgery, and science.

Letters 5:92 (To Daniel MacGhie Cory, Rome, March 19, 1934) [#475 1934]

From The Letters of George Santayana

I seem to see three distinct strains [in your system]. 1st Conceptual dogmatism . . . both in your demand for intuitive, not merely practical and symbolic knowledge of substance, and in your absolute determinism . . . .

Letters 5:109 (To Charles Augustus Strong, Rome, May 20, 1934) [#476 1934]

From The Letters of George Santayana

But I remember and have often used in my own thoughts, if not in actual writing, a classification he [Charles Sanders Peirce] made that evening of signs into indexes and symbols and images: possibly there was still another distinct category which I don't remember. The index changes with its object but does not resemble it; the symbol resembles the object loosely and by analogy.

Letters 6:80 (To Justus Buchler, Rome, October 15, 1937) [#477 1937]

From The Realm of Truth: Book Third of Realms of Being

Better than idly mirroring nature in mind (if it were possible to do so) is to impose an ideal measure upon fluid things, and this not arbitrarily or insignificantly: for the very dependence of spirit, which might seem to condemn it to futility, renders it an index to deeper realities and an organ of truth. . . . The very existence of fiction endows fiction with a native relevance to truth.

Truth at 36 (Psychological Approaches to Truth) [#478 1938]

From The Realm of Truth: Book Third of Realms of Being

Mind, without copying or limiting truth, naturally and poetically conforms to it.

Truth at 37 margin note (Psychological Approaches to Truth) [#479 1938]

From The Realm of Truth: Book Third of Realms of Being

Our ideas are accordingly only subjective signs, while we think them objective qualities; and the whole warp and woof of our knowledge is rhetorical while we think it physically existent and constitutive of the world.

. . . .

. . . . What is there wrong or paradoxical in the fact that the sensations and reactions of an animal must express directly his own nature, and only indirectly the nature of the forces affecting him? . . . . There is accordingly something urgent about truth in our ideas, and something dangerous and ignominious in their falseness. But such urgency and danger touch not the inner rhetoric of thought, but only its practical symbolism, and the concomitant action. We must not be misled; there is no likelihood and no need that, in a miraculous sense, imagination should be clairvoyant.

Truth at 52-53 (Conventional Truth) [#480 1938]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

My materialism indeed corroborates and justifies my analysis of knowledge, that it is faith mediated by symbols . . . . But this sensibility cannot create within the animal a feeling existentially similar to the material object that provokes that feeling. The feeling can be only a sign, a signal; so that both the transitive indicativeness and the subjective animal status proper to all mind are corollaries of materialism.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 504 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#482 1940]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

Every mental development has some material significance, since it cannot help being an index to its material ground.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 506 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#483 1940]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

We are ignoring [in this argument] that thought goes on in an animal, and that the terms of it are signs for facts surrounding that animal or existing within his body, and that it is only in this capacity, as signs and not as dialectical terms, that essences can convey knowledge.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 513-514 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#484 1940]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

The logic of the word ["father"] can never abolish the history of the action: yet, this odd pretension, that data, which people human intelligence as signs, cannot be signs but only data, is what idealists call criticism.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 515 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#485 1940]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

Meantime on these occasions animals feel the excitement they undergo and imagine the object that excites them. Such feeling and imagination is something private and original to the organism; it is a spiritual event; and it becomes true knowledge, or spiritual dominion over the object, in so far as feelings and images express faithfully the relevant relations between the object and the organism. Such knowledge cannot be literal or exhaustive because it expresses the violently selective and transmuting sensibility of one vital atom in a vast world; yet because it is natural, such knowledge cannot be irrelevant to its occasions, and brings timely tidings of the real world, in appropriate moral perspectives, to each vital atom.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 515-516 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#486 1940]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

[Agnostics] demanded literal knowledge, and they thought, in their surviving image-worship, that science gave them literal knowledge, or if not science, at least history. But knowledge ceases to be knowledge if taken literally; so that what is called agnosticism, say in Kant, far from removing knowledge removes only idolatry, and enables the sceptical mind to purify both its science and its religion by regarding them only as symbols, without destroying their natural and traditional texture. That these natural signs have a real object is the first and truest of all presuppositions; and they reveal this reality to us in the only way in which revelation or knowledge is possible to a mind, namely, by faith mediated by some feeling, image, or concept. We are a part of the reality, but cannot, in body or mind, be or become any other part of it. We can only think the rest and believe in it. Faith is accordingly gnostic. Only the demand for literal knowledge makes knowledge impossible.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 518 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#487 1940]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

For a materialist the mind will be simply sensibility in bodies; things that stimulate that sensibility will be the inevitable objects of pursuit, attention, and passion; but how should the feelings thereby aroused in the organism present the intrinsic character of the surrounding things? Evidently they will transcribe only the effects of those things on the organism; and this in aesthetic, moral, or verbal terms, not in the diffused and complicated form of the physical processes concerned. Mind, for a materialist, will therefore seem necessarily poetical, and data fictions of sense. If you are a materialist in respect to matter you will be an idealist in respect to mind.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 529 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#488 1940]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

Knowledge presupposes faith, a faith that when intelligent perceives that its terms are symbolic.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 532 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#489 1940]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

Berkeley, for instance, was a nominalist and a great enemy of abstract ideas; yet the ideas (images) that he recognised, and the notions (concepts) that he was obliged to admit, were precisely my essences. They were inert, unsubstantial, individual, and perfectly distinct; and they composed the whole "furniture of the mind" and the "divine language" in which spirits spoke to one another. Unfortunately Berkeley began by calling these natural signs the only objects of human knowledge; when evidently the objects signified and partly discovered were the spirits that used those signs and whose wills governed the flow of that language.

. . . . 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) [#490 1940]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

We inevitably assume a sufficient indicative truth in both reports [of opinion by memory and history, and of fact by perception and science], without minding their conventional symbolism and extreme inadequacy. Opinions have to be symbolic and inadequate because they are phases of animal life and not reproductions of their objects. Nature reproduces itself by generation or derivation on the material plane. When it creates feeling and thought it passes to the moral plane of comment and enjoyment.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 539 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#491 1940]

From The Letters of George Santayana

The knowledge we have of the world is a system of ideas; but it is not our psychological life, which is only feeling diversified. It is the function of that life, in its vital alertness, to be the signs of existent objects and of their virtual character in terms of our own possible experience. We live in imagination, which we regard, often virtually with sufficient justification, as knowledge. But it is all theoretical, poetical, vaguely and floatingly sensuous; and it is science, as you say, that refines and consolidates it into literal exact knowledge of the "skeleton" of dynamic nature.

Letters 7:344 (To Daniel MacGhie Cory, Rome, June 14, 1947) [#492 1947]

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

For in [the naturalist's] own system imagination is the sphere of all appearances; and for him too everything sensuous, conceptual, and moral is only a symbol for the natural facts.

. . . .

. . . . So much he may consistently feel and say without transcending the natural sphere, but still taking the imagination only for a system of signs, to be interpreted as effects produced in the animal psyche by the revolutions of matter within and without that animal.

But this is not the end: for images have other properties and other uses for the spirit beside their value as signals relevant to action. . . .

Dominations at 20-21 (Whether Naturalism is Irreligious) [#493 1951]

Number of quotations (including supressed): 45

The following quotations speak to the doctrine that mind is an index to the world in which it arises, its feelings and conceptions serving as signals, signs, or symbols to the fighting animal. As Santayana noted late in his life, "that all ideas, in so far as they convey knowledge, are signs," was a "favourite doctrine" of his. Letters 8:347 (To Max Harold Fisch, Rome, May 4, 1951).