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The Essential Santayana: Selected Writings

The Essential Santayana: Selected Writings

by Santayana Edition, Martin A. Coleman


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Although he was born in Spain, George Santayana (1863–1952) became a uniquely American philosopher, critic, poet, and best-selling novelist. Along with his Harvard colleagues William James and Josiah Royce, he is best known as one of the founders of American pragmatism and recognized for his insights into the theory of knowledge, metaphysics, and moral philosophy. The Essential Santayana presents a selection of Santayana's most important and influential literary and philosophical work. Martin A. Coleman's critical introduction sets Santayana into the American philosophical tradition and provides context for contemporary readers, many of whom may be approaching Santayana's writings for the first time. This landmark collection reveals the intellectual and literary diversity of one of American philosophy's most lively minds.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253221056
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/26/2009
Series: American Philosophy
Pages: 704
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Martin A. Coleman is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Associate Editor of the Santayana Edition at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

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The Essential Santayana

Selected Writings

By Martin A. Coleman, The Santayana Edition

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2009 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35348-1



Santayana enjoyed the role of detached observer and outsider. In his autobiography, he wrote "I like to be a stranger ..., it was my destiny; but I wish to be the only stranger. For this reason I have been happiest among people of all nationalities who were not of my own age, class, or family circle; for then I was a single exceptional personage in their world, and they a complete harmonious milieu for me to drop into and live with for a season" (PP, 528).

The preference seems to reflect the estrangement and dislocation that marked Santayana's childhood. Santayana was born in Madrid, Spain, on 16 December 1863, the only child of his mother's second marriage. The first had produced five children, of whom two daughters and one son survived childhood. In 1869 Santayana's mother departed Spain for her first husband's hometown, Boston, Massachusetts, with her two daughters. Her other son had already moved there for schooling. Santayana remained in Spain with his father until 1872, when they joined the family in America. His father returned to Spain the next year, and Santayana was raised by his mother and sister in Boston.

Santayana graduated from the Boston Public Latin School, and in the fall of 1882 he entered Harvard, where he studied philosophy with William James and Josiah Royce. He graduated summa cum laude with his Bachelor of Arts in 1886 and received the Walker Travelling Fellowship to study philosophy in Germany for two years. In 1889 he finished his dissertation, Lotze's System of Philosophy, under the direction of Josiah Royce and received his Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy from Harvard. That fall he began teaching philosophy at Harvard.

Santayana taught at Harvard for twenty-two years and during that time regularly made summer trips to Europe, usually visiting England and Spain. Beginning in the summer of 1904, he used his year of leave from Harvard to travel in Europe, Egypt, present-day Turkey, and the Middle East. He extended his stay abroad a second year by accepting the James Hazen Hyde Lectureship from Harvard, which supported a faculty member for one academic year as he lectured in French universities.

In 1912 Santayana moved to Europe to take up writing full-time. He resigned from Harvard and never returned to the United States. He had no permanent residence in Europe, though during World War I he was forced to reside in England. In 1919 he resumed his travels in Europe and established a pattern of movement he would maintain until 1939 and the outbreak of war in Europe. He usually lived in hotels and traveled with the seasons: he would live in Rome or Nice in the winter, and Paris or Cortina d'Ampezzo in northern Italy in the summer, followed by a visit to family in Spain on his way back south for the winter.

In 1939 Santayana wintered in Venice because his usual hotel in Rome was closed for renovation. He returned to Rome in 1940, and in 1941 after being denied permission to go to Spain he moved into the Clinica della Piccola Compagna di Maria (Clinic of the Little Company of Mary, known popularly as the Blue Nuns for the color of their habits), where he lived during World War II and died in 1952.

While this life of travel and detachment may reflect the early influence of separation and immigration, some have suggested that these influences shaped Santayana's entire philosophy. One commentator speculates that the shock of the move from Spain to Boston instilled in Santayana his lifelong sense of the contingency of the material world and its arbitrary imposition of circumstances on an observing but impotent self (Richard C. Lyon, "Introduction: George Santayana [1863–1952]" in Santayana in America [New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1968], xv). Another argues that his detachment was a strategy for coping with the despair of being abandoned by his mother, whom he portrayed as cold and distant even when she was present (Lois Hughson, "The Uses of Despair: The Source of Creative Energy in George Santayana," American Quarterly 23:5 [1971]: 725–37; PP, 42–43). The authors of a prominent history of American philosophy find it difficult to "repress the conviction that his subsequent pessimism and fatalism about life must have had roots in" the events of his childhood (Elizabeth Flower and Murray G. Murphey, A History of Philosophy in America [New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1977], 774). Santayana's biographer locates "one source of his philosophical scepticism" in the experience of being uprooted from Spain and replaced in New England (GSB, 19).

But Santayana was wary of such explanations; he doubted their accuracy and their relevance for his philosophy. In "A General Confession" he wrote, "I do not assert that [my family background] was actually the origin of my system; in any case its truth would be another question. I propose simply to describe as best I can the influences under which I have lived, and leave it for the reader, if he cares, to consider how far my philosophy may be an expression of them" (ES, 5). For his part Santayana maintained that the influence of his particular circumstances, while certainly affecting his language, mode of expression, and the illustrating facts in his writing, did not influence his philosophy; and he declared that "under whatever sky I had been born, since it is the same sky, I should have had the same philosophy" (ES, 54).

Santayana admitted that his chance circumstances of being a foreign student threw into relief the distinction between spirit and matter. Being unable to unconsciously absorb the outlook of his classmates and neighbors — an outlook Santayana took to be optimistic and egotistical with respect to the material universe — he understood that "[t]he world was My Host; I was a temporary guest in his busy and animated establishment. ... My Host and I could become friends diplomatically; but we were not akin in either our interests or our powers" (ES, 32). But his philosophical formulations of this relationship between spirit and world were intended to be expressions of conditions more than personal, no matter how personally distinctively the style of expression.

The pieces chosen for the first section of The Essential Santayana, "Autobiography," each exhibit the double awareness of "the feeling of being a stranger and an exile by nature as well as by accident" (ES, 32). But each is consistent with Santayana's attempt to situate his life in the universe rather than the universe in his life; hence he wrote that "accidents are accidents only to ignorance; in reality all physical events flow out of one another by a continuous intertwined derivation" (ES, 24). These selections are undeniably philosophical, but what can be discounted as merely personal is left to the reader to decide according to his or her own concerns.

A General Confession

The Philosophy of George Santayana. Edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1940, 3–30.

This three-part autobiographical essay appeared in its present form in The Philosophy of George Santayana, the second volume in The Library of Living Philosophers. The format of the series, which continues today under the editorship of Randall E. Auxier, includes a collection of articles about a particular philosopher, responses by that philosopher, a bibliography of the philosopher's works, and an intellectual autobiography. Santayana's autobiographical essay consists of reworked material from three earlier publications. Part I first appeared as "A Brief History of My Opinions" in Contemporary American Philosophy, volume 2 (edited by George Plimpton Adams and William Pepperell Montague [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930], 237–57). Part II derives from the "Preface" to The Works of George Santayana (Triton Edition, volume 1 [New York: Scribner's, 1936], vii–xi). Part III appeared as the "Preface" to The Works of George Santayana (Triton Edition, volume 7 [New York: Scribner's, 1937], vii–xv). Writing to Schilpp about the title of this selection, Santayana remarked that "it is the phrase used by Catholics when, on great festive occasions, they make review of all their past sins" (LGS, 6:229).


How came a child born in Spain of Spanish parents to be educated in Boston and to write in the English language? The case of my family was unusual. We were not emigrants; none of us ever changed his country, his class, or his religion. But special circumstances had given us hereditary points of attachment in opposite quarters, moral and geographical; and now that we are almost extinct — I mean those of us who had these mixed associations — I may say that we proved remarkably staunch in our complex allegiances, combining them as well as logic allowed, without at heart ever disowning anything. My philosophy in particular may be regarded as a synthesis of these various traditions, or as an attempt to view them from a level from which their several deliverances may be justly understood. I do not assert that such was actually the origin of my system; in any case its truth would be another question. I propose simply to describe as best I can the influences under which I have lived, and leave it for the reader, if he cares, to consider how far my philosophy may be an expression of them.

In the first place, we must go much farther afield than Boston or Spain, into the tropics, almost to the antipodes. Both my father and my mother's father were officials in the Spanish civil service in the Philippine Islands. This was in the 1840's and 1850's, long before my birth; for my parents were not married until later in life, in Spain, when my mother was a widow. But the tradition of the many years which each of them separately had spent in the East was always alive in our household. Those had been, for both, their more romantic and prosperous days. My father had studied the country and the natives, and had written a little book about the Island of Mindanao; he had been three times round the world in the sailing-ships of the period, and had incidentally visited England and the United States, and been immensely impressed by the energy and order prevalent in those nations. His respect for material greatness was profound, yet not unmixed with a secret irony or even repulsion. He had a seasoned and incredulous mind, trained to see other sorts of excellence also: in his boyhood he had worked in the studio of a professional painter of the school of Goya, and had translated the tragedies of Seneca into Spanish verse. His transmarine experiences, therefore, did not rattle, as so often happens, in an empty head. The sea itself, in those days, was still vast and blue, and the lands beyond it full of lessons and wonders. From childhood I have lived in the imaginative presence of interminable ocean spaces, coconut islands, blameless Malays, and immense continents swarming with Chinamen, polished and industrious, obscene and philosophical. It was habitual with me to think of scenes and customs pleasanter than those about me. My own travels have never carried me far from the frontiers of Christendom or of respectability, and chiefly back and forth across the North Atlantic — thirty-eight fussy voyages; but in mind I have always seen these things on an ironical background enormously empty, or breaking out in spots, like Polynesia, into nests of innocent particoloured humanity.

My mother's figure belonged to the same broad and somewhat exotic landscape; she had spent her youth in the same places; but the moral note resounding in her was somewhat different. Her father, José Borrás, of Reus in Catalonia, had been a disciple of Rousseau, an enthusiast and a wanderer: he taught her to revere pure reason and republican virtue and to abhor the vices of a corrupt world. But her own temper was cool and stoical, rather than ardent, and her disdain of corruption had in it a touch of elegance. At Manila, during the time of her first marriage, she had been rather the grand lady, in a style half Creole, half early Victorian. Virtue, beside those tropical seas, might stoop to be indolent. She had given a silver dollar every morning to her native major-domo, with which to provide for the family and the twelve servants, and keep the change for his wages. Meantime she bathed, arranged the flowers, received visits, and did embroidery. It had been a spacious life; and in our narrower circumstances in later years the sense of it never forsook her.

Her first husband, an American merchant established in Manila, had been the ninth child of Nathaniel Russell Sturgis, of Boston (1779–1856).In Boston, accordingly, her three Sturgis children had numerous relations and a little property, and there she had promised their father to bring them up in case of his death. When this occurred, in 1857, she therefore established herself in Boston; and this fact, by a sort of prenatal or pre-established destiny, was the cause of my connection with the Sturgis family, with Boston, and with America.

It was in Madrid in 1862, where my mother had gone on a visit intended to be temporary, that my father and she were married. He had been an old friend of hers and of her first husband's, and was well aware of her settled plan to educate her children in America, and recognized the propriety of that arrangement. Various projects and combinations were mooted: but the matter eventually ended in a separation, friendly, if not altogether pleasant to either party. My mother returned with her Sturgis children to live in the United States and my father and I remained in Spain. Soon, however, this compromise proved unsatisfactory. The education and prospects which my father, in his modest retirement, could offer me in Spain were far from brilliant; and in 1872 he decided to take me to Boston, where, after remaining for one cold winter, he left me in my mother's care and went back to Spain.


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Table of Contents

Chronology of the Life and Work of George Santayana
List of Bibliographical Abbreviations
Introduction: The Essential Santayana

Part 1. Autobiography
A General Confession
My Place, Time, and Ancestry
Epilogue on My Host, the World

Part 2. Skepticism and Ontology
Philosophical Heresy
Preface [Scepticism and Animal Faith]
There Is No First Principle of Criticism
Dogma and Doubt
Wayward Scepticism
Ultimate Scepticism
Nothing Given Exists
The Discovery of Essence
The Watershed of Criticism
Knowledge Is Faith Mediated by Symbols
Belief in Substance
Literary Psychology
The Implied Being of Truth
Comparison with Other Criticisms of Knowledge
Normal Madness
Some Meanings of the Word "Is"
Preface to Realms of Being
Various Approaches to Essence
The Being Proper to Essences
The Scope of Natural Philosophy
Indispensable Properties of Substance
The Psyche
There Are No Necessary Truths
Facts Arbitrary, Logic Ideal
Interplay between Truth and Logic
Dramatic Truth
Moral Truth
Love and Hatred of Truth
Denials of Truth

Part 3. Rational Life in Art, Religion, and Spirituality
The Elements and Function of Poetry
The Birth of Reason
How Religion May Be an Embodiment of Reason
Justification of Art
The Criterion of Taste
Art and Happiness
Ultimate Religion
The Nature of Spirit

Part 4. Ethics and Politics
Prerational Morality
Rational Ethics
Post-rational Morality
Hypostatic Ethics
Public Opinion
Government of the People
Who Are "The People"?
The United States as Leader
Conclusion [Dominations and Powers]

Part 5. Literature, Culture, and Criticism
Sonnet III
To W. P.
Prologue [The Last Puritan]
Epilogue [The Last Puritan]
The Poetry of Barbarism
The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy
English Liberty

What People are Saying About This

Vanderbilt University - John Lachs

Having emerged from the abyss of literary death, Santayana now stands ready to assume his rightful place among the truly important philosophers of the last several hundred years.

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