George Santayana (1863–1952)

George Santayana (1869–1952) and A. N. Whitehead (1861–1947) were almost precisely contemporary philosophers each of whom developed a complete metaphysical or ontological system, the affinities and contrasts between which are of considerable interest. The two had met in Cambridge, England in 1897 (Letters 1955, 38), but were not in personal contact later. Santayana read PR and MT and spoke of them in correspondence. He thought their solid intellectual content to be spoilt by a certain effort to be “uplifting” (Letters 1955, 326). But their philosophies may be compared in ways which illuminate the thought of each.

Both developed their metaphysical systems quite late in their philosophical career, having previously worked in somewhat different veins. Thus Santayana’s earlier work consists in philosophical comment on human life rather than constructive metaphysics or ontology, while Whitehead’s is devoted to the foundations of mathematics and the analysis of scientific concepts. The most important statements of Santayana’s later system are Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923), and the four books of Realms of BeingThe Realm of Essence (1927), The Realm of Matter (1930), The Realm of Truth (1938) and The Realm of Spirit (1940).

1. Brief Vita

Santayana was born in Madrid but spent his early childhood in Avila. His Spanish mother before marrying his father had been married to an American and after his death believed herself obliged to bring up their two children in America. For this reason when Santayana was seven she left him with his father in Spain and emigrated to Boston with the two children by the earlier marriage. When Santayana was eight his father brought him over to join them there, but himself returned to Spain. Santayana was never an American citizen but stayed in America (he graduated at Harvard and eventually become a professor in the Department of William James and Josiah Royce) until 1911.

Both Whitehead and Santayana are rightly counted as figures in the history of American philosophy but their relations to America are in striking contrast. While Whitehead found that he could only develop his final system satisfactorily after having left Europe in 1924, Santayana, who lived in the U.S. from the age of nine till he was nearly fifty, had to leave America to do so, leaving it in 1912 to live first in England until after the first world war, and then in Rome with an income derived mainly from the royalties on his books. (He visited his relations in Spain from time to time throughout his life.) His resignation from Harvard (and departure from the U.S. for ever) was the source of some distress to American philosophers who had regarded him as one of the leading figures in a distinctively American tradition, .

Baptized a Catholic, Santayana had great sympathy for the poetic richness of the life of the faithful but soon entirely rejected its doctrines (unless in the most metaphorical of senses). His last years were spent in a Convent Nursing home in Rome which has encouraged the false idea that he finally found his home in the bosom of Catholicism. In fact, he resisted attempts to reconvert him quite vigorously. His vision of the world was essentially atheistic but celebrated a spiritual life of “pure intuition” though not more than the life of reason in which a harmony was obtained between all the varied satisfactions available to humankind.

2. Main Categories

For Santayana reality comprised the following four basic sorts of things—essences, matter, spirit, truth. Essences were eternal individuals not unlike Whitehead’s eternal objects and possessed being but did not exist. Matter was the basic stuff which by actualizing essences became individual existing things. Spirit (generated in certain organisms) was the consciousness both of eternal objects and of existing things. Truth was the synthesized essence of the natural world (of existing things) over all.

Spirit took two main forms: (1) pure contemplation of essences; and (2) directedness upon existing things, characterizing them to itself as the actualizations of certain essences. Spirit cannot prove to itself that there exist anything besides the essences which are its only immediate object of awareness, but at the same time, it cannot help believing in the existence of those things which it thus characterizes to itself and acts in relation to. And since Santayana cannot help believing in them himself, he aims to describe the world which his compulsory beliefs reveal to him and because this description mainly concerns the conditions of human life and flourishing it is concerned especially with the field of action. (This is one way in which he relates to pragmatism—but his view of truth, as opposed to useful symbolic thought, was completely unpragmatic.) As thus described and genuinely believed, he recognizes that his consciousness or spirit is produced by the effects of external objects on his organism (or brain) and that the causation of everything physical is itself physical. Thus Spirit witnesses the physical world but does not act on it. Value (positive or negative) pertains not only to the natural world as Spirit envisages it but also to many of the nonexistent things which Spirit imagines. Thus for the truly religious mind it does not matter much whether the objects of his faith really exist or not. His life can be guided by them just as appropriately as possible objects (essences) which he envisages.

The question of what it is to exist is central for both philosophers. Whitehead’s approach is crystallized in his “subjectivist principle.” For Santayana what most fundamentally exists is unconscious matter which gives rise to spirit or consciousness only in certain animal organisms.

Although eternal objects play a major role in Whitehead’s scheme, he denies them independent being. That they are independent of us only goes to show that there must be a God whose apprehension grounds their being. No such principle is accepted by Santayana. He posits essences characterized in terms mostly the same as Whitehead’s eternal objects, but the “pure being” (which he carefully distinguishes from concrete existence) which they possess is not dependent on anything existent. Just two of the four Realms of Being which he distinguishes exist: the items which form the realms of matter and the realm of spirit both exist, while the being which essences possess in detachment from the existential realms is not properly described by the term “existence.” As for truth, Santayana speaks of this as subsisting, holding that it has an intermediate status between pure being and existence as that segment of the realm of essence which is distinguished from the rest by its role as a description of what exists.

Santayana would agree, indeed, with Whitehead’s statement that “[an] eternal object is always a potentiality for actual entities; but in itself […] it is neutral as to the fact of its […] ingression in any particular actual entity of the temporal world” (PR 44). Thus, Whitehead holds that it is the actual occasion which decides which eternal objects it will participate in, so that one must not look to the eternal objects to explain why one enters existence as a character present in some actual occasion rather than another. This is a main theme of Santayana’s too (see e.g. RM 84). The realm of essence is the home of an eternal infinity of qualities and forms which the flux of physical existence (the realm of matter) may or may not actualize from time to time as the character of one of its phases (or which spirit may or may not conceive or imagine from time to time), but there is no dynamism in the realm of essence to determine which shall thus enter the concrete world (see RM 193-94). The essences sit there passively in the realm of essence to be picked out by an activity on the part of the physical flux which they do nothing to explain.

The extent to which Santayana and Whitehead are often quite close is disguised by Santayana’s wish to formulate new thought in as traditional a form as possible, and Whitehead’s belief that his ideas require a new terminology. This is particularly illustrated by the difference between their treatment of the vexed notion of “substance.” There are two senses of “substance” which are relevant here. First, there is the notion of an individual or “primary” substance, an ousia in Aristotle’s sense, which retains its individual identity through change and of which universals are predicable, while it itself is predicable of nothing. Second, there is the notion of, hyle or hypokeimenon, as that which in combination with form constitutes such an individual.

Whitehead rejects both notions in their Aristotelian and traditional senses. True, there are on his account, individual substances, namely his actual occasions, and, indeed, they are the only things which exist in the primary sense of “exist,” but they are quite unlike those of Aristotle. For (1) they are not continuants which remain the same through change, but pulses of process; (2) they are predicable of each other, so that the proper fundamental description of an actual occasion is not in subject-predicate propositions, where the predicate is a universal, but in terms of the way in which other actual occasions enter into its being; and (3) there is no distinction between their form and matter in Aristotle’s sense. Thus the fundamental particulars of the world are events rather than continuants and their inherent nature consists, not in the universals under which they fall, but in the past particulars which enter into their being there to be synthesized in new arrangements.

On the face of it Santayana rejects all three of these departures from the tradition, since (1) he makes no explicit move from a continuant to an event ontology; (2) regards the inherent nature of an object as a matter of the individual eternal essence which it actualizes; and (3) regards the distinction between matter and form as the best we can do to express the obscure manner in which one state of things takes over from another (see RM 86-92).

But how great really is the difference between them here? Certainly as regards (1) there may be less difference between them than at first appears. For when Santayana explains what it is for an essence to be exemplified, or for a truth to be about something, he typically talks of their instances or objects as “facts,” meaning by this some particular bit of the natural world as it is at a specific time and place. Enduring things arise simply because the physical flux goes on exemplifying a certain form in a certain context for a time (see RM 82, 87). And when he presents his deepest account of the structure of the natural world he characterizes these facts as “natural moments” (if physical) or “moments of spirit” (if mental). Thus, after all, the fundamental constituents of the world are for him “events,” each actualizing its own essence, together with (as the obscure bond between them is most readily described) the substance which they inherit from their predecessors and pass on to their successors, rather than persisting continuants changing their accidental properties while retaining their essence. So if Santayana is not an “event ontologist” like Whitehead, it is not because he thinks ordinary continuants or “primary substances” are ontologically more basic than events, which he does not, but because he speaks of the derivation of one event from another as the transmission of matter or substance, in the sense of hyle, from one to another. This certainly looks like a commitment to the tradition attacked by (3) but it is doubtful how deep the divergence between our two thinkers really goes even on this point.

Where Whitehead and Santayana are strikingly similar is in holding that the spatio-temporal world is ultimately atomic or quantic, so that what constitutes the world at any one moment, or a piece of history, is a system of facts, events, natural moments, or actual occasions, whose relations constitute space and time. Thus Santayana holds that essences could not be brought into the world of existence at all unless at a certain level there are essences actualized in this all-at-once fashion. Although he does not, like Whitehead, appeal to Zeno’s paradoxes to justify this atomic view, the thought is somewhat similar to Zeno’s belief that nothing could become unless there is some becoming not composed of more minute becomings. But how do these natural moments stand to each other so that they make up larger units and ultimately a world? Santayana speaks of them as in external relations to each other. His use of the external/internal distinction is different from Whitehead’s. The sense in which these relations between natural moments are external is that they are not simply contrasts and affinities between the essences of the terms, such as hold between them in the pure realm of essence. And it is precisely the holding of such external relations between them which constitutes them as existing things—without such relations they would simply be their essences (see RM 86). For there are no external relations in the realm of essence, only internal relations of two kinds: (1) the contrasts and affinities between essences; and (2) the way in which the elements of a complex essence stand together in the unitary pattern which it is. This means that the truth about a complex of natural moments can never quite do justice to it; for the relations between its elements are external, while the truth is an essence in which those relations are indicated by internal relations, in the second sense, between its elements. So even if we knew the literal truth about the ultimate units of the world, and how they stand to each other, there would be something we would not grasp thereby, namely the external relations between natural moments constitutive of all larger “facts” (see RM 26). But can this be grasped at all? Only in a generalized sense of the existential flux, which we tend to lose sight of the greater our conceptual clarity becomes. (Compare perception in the modes of sensible immediacy with perception in the mode of causal efficacy.) The most we can do is use words suggestive of this fundamental feature of reality which is necessarily opaque to truth and mind.

There is much in Santayana’s discussion of these matters which would justify calling him a philosopher of “becoming” Thus he says that the “natural moment exists only in act” as something “essentially transitional” (see RM 90). But there are two respects in which he remains a philosopher of being. First, there is the independent reality which he ascribes to the realm of essence. He is not too far from Plato in regarding the world of process into which essences are dragged from time to time as a second rate reality. Second, Santayana holds that there is an eternal truth about the world as a whole which does not change. In the last resort every natural moment is just there eternally in its own position in the total system, and the past is simply what is past from the point of view of some particular moment (see RM 61). Thus he rejects Whitehead’s view that the existence of eternal objects consists in God’s eternal prehension.

However, the difference between Santayana and Whitehead over the latter’s first and third divergence from the Aristotelian notion of substance listed above is less than might at first appear. How is it with respect to the second way that Whitehead departs from the tradition? Santayana treads a delicate path here. On the one hand he says: “That a thing by its internal being should have reference to something external—a fact which in the case of knowledge gives so much trouble to logicians—is so far from being an anomaly or an exception that it is the indispensable condition of existing at all,” and he applies this principle to his description of a natural moment as intimately bound up with its antecedents and consequents and with the moments whose lateral pressure helps determine what the consequents shall be. But he also insists that the possession by each of its own essence or nature is a sharply distinct fact from the possession of its own nature (the same or another) by any other.

It is this latter idea—that the nature of a particular thing consists wholly in the universals which it exemplifies (and therefore cannot contain intrinsic reference to any other particular thing)—which Whitehead sees as the ground for taking solipsism seriously. He sees Santayana as a perfect modern example of this tendency (see PR 48, 158).

Santayana thinks, in contrast, that “a solipsism of the present moment” is, indeed, the logical upshot of commitment to certain canons of rationality and is, in principle, more intelligent than many more qualified skepticisms, which are inferior to it by these criteria and hardly more sustainable psychologically (see SAF, Chapters VI, VII, XI). However, since no one who addresses others, or takes ordinary steps to look after himself, is such a solipsist, the sensible part is to revise our conception of rationality and associate it with the inevitable credo of animal faith, that is, with the beliefs which we cannot but have as animals coping with the world. True, the belief that we are such animals is itself simply part of this credo but there is no reason why a belief’s genesis, as opposed to its justification, should not lie in what it posits. Moreover, since we really do have these beliefs, we have no justification for describing them as though they were a form of play-acting, as some idealists do, but should insist that the world really is, as Santayana is quite sure that it is, as they characterize it (see SAF, Chapters XVIII, XIX). Reason is simply the development of this primitive credo by induction which presupposes it and a concern with consistency.

Actually it is an over-simplification to say that Santayana thinks solipsism of the present moment the logical upshot of rationality as traditionally conceived. Consistently carried out it would lead to a pure intuition of essences enjoying their pure non-existential being (see SAF, Chapter VII). For Santayana denies that the mind confronts itself or its own acts immediately. Rather it intuits essences, which animal faith interprets as characterizing events in a natural world. If this animal faith is resisted, it is not one’s own mental states with which one is left but pure essences detached from any existential home.

Santayana rejects what Whitehead calls the subjectivist principle, especially because there is no special immediacy about mind’s knowledge of itself: what is ordinarily, and properly, called “knowledge” is, for Santayana, the intuition of an essence combined with an act of intent directed upon some reality beyond which this essence is taken as a description. (Most often human knowledge is symbolic rather than literal.) If mind could concentrate on itself it might indeed find solipsism tempting, for the ultimate units of reality, including complete mental states or moments of spirit, as we have seen, each have their own distinctive character. But, in fact, mind’s main choice is between the correct, though finally improvable, acceptance of most of the essences it intuits as a description of a world in which mind has no special primacy and a confinement of attention simply to the eternal individuality of the immediately present essences.

Whitehead thinks of perception in the mode of presentational immediacy as the presentation of clear, obvious sensory data, such as vision most strikingly affords, and which are the basis for the Humean notion of impressions. In contrast stands the more basic perception in the mode of causal efficacy; which “is our general sense of existence, as one item among others in an efficacious external world” and “of derivation from an immediate past, and of passage to an immediate future;” its data “are vague, not to be controlled, heavy with emotion.” There truly is a strong affinity here to Santayana’s idea of intent or animal faith as the way in which we turn dumbly to a reality beyond, whose character can only be more exactly specified for us by the essences which we intuit. Santayana usually takes as what Whitehead would call “presentationally immediate” as his typical examples. Surely our two philosophers are responding here to the same facts (see, for example, RM 24). However, so far as their actual interpretation of these facts goes, they are hardly at one. For Santayana intent is a kind of felt turning to the world and readiness to take intuited essences as describing it intent and intuition are thus aspects of every sort of perception (and thought), not two types of perception. The most one could say is that, in bodily sensation, the essences are less clearly defined than those of the distance senses and the dumb intent more insistent. But there is no such difference, as Whitehead claims, in the certainty of what they convey; each is as capable in principle of a solipsistic interpretation as is the other (but see RM 24).

Whitehead in his attack upon the “bifurcation of nature” declared his opposition to Cartesian dualism. Our minds are a series of actual occasions which, in their general nature, are akin to those which constitute the inner being of the physical world at large.

Santayana’s natural moments have some kinship to Whitehead’s actual occasions; thus they are the ultimate building blocks of the world. However, while the material substances which we must speak of them as passing on from previous to subsequent moments, are the sole efficacious agencies in the world. Moments of spirit, in contrast, are inefficacious expressions of material substance when the natural moments into which it flows are patterned to form goal-pursuing organisms. They provide the organism, or, as Santayana puts it, the psyche (this being the power of the organism to develop and protect its form in a manner responsive to the environment) with its consciousness (symbolic rather than literal of what and where it is, and of what it is up to), but play no real part in controlling its behavior. Although this is Santayana’s unambiguous and continually reiterated position, I believe that his notion of a natural moment owes much to this sense of what a moment of spirit is. If so, his thought drifts in a more Whiteheadian direction than suits his official claims. He would reply, however, that mental terms do serve as a useful metaphor for the natural flux but should not be thought of as having literal application to it. He develops this point in particular with reference to “will” (e.g. in RS, Chapters IV and V). The distinction between symbolic and literal truth and knowledge is a main theme of Santayana’s; he holds that most of our knowledge is of the former kind but that, in recognizing this, we should never forget that there must be a literal truth thus symbolized.

On God, finally, there is little but contrast between our philosophers. For Whitehead God is a metaphysical necessity, not as the world’s creator, ex nihilo but as that foundational actual entity which is the home of eternal objects and the medium by which they can become objects of that aspiration on the part of ordinary actual entities which is the moving force of the world. For Santayana neither the pure being of essence, nor the activity of the physical world, with its generation of spirit, calls for such an explanation. Yet Santayana regards religion, of one definite sort or another, as a requisite for a good human life, in either of the two great forms he distinguishes—the life of reason and the spiritual life. Within that context, “God,” in his various aspects, serves as a potent and hallowed symbol for various features of reality. On the one hand, it points us towards the highest ideals to which spirit can commit itself, on the other to our dependence on a vast cosmos towards which natural piety is the proper emotion.

Works Cited and Further Readings

1925. Scepticism and Animal Faith (London, Constable & Co.). Abbreviated as SAF.

1927. The Realm of Essence (London, Constable & Co.).

1930. The Realm of Matter (London, Constable & Co.). Abbreviated as RM.

1938. The Realm of Truth (London, Constable & Co.).

1940. The Realm of Spirit (London, Constable & Co.).

1955. The Letters of George Santayana, edited by Daniel Cory (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons).

The Works of George Santayana. A scholarly edition of the Works of George Santayana is in process of publication by MIT press. So far ten volumes have appeared, which include his correspondence until 1940.

Author Information

T. L. S. Sprigge (1932–2007)
Professor Emeritus, University of Edinburgh

How to Cite this Article

Sprigge, T. L. S., “George Santayana (1863–1952)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.