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The Nature of Perception : George Santayana PDF Print E-mail

21 April  George Santayana  - Lindsay Mell

Lindsay Mell looks at the contribution that George Santayana made on "The Nature of Perception"

George Santayana ‘professed materialism’ as the substance of being, while being was epitomised through the realms of ‘existence’ and ‘essence’. 

The realm of essence was characterised by ‘ideals’ which Santayana considered to be ‘explanatory of intuition’ – intuition thence being the source of ideals, through which ‘the character and identity of changing existence’ could be discerned. [Runes 1955: 1043]

Correspondingly, ‘matter’ is always in ‘flux’, and therefore inherently in a generic state of complexity and tension.

Therefore, consistency and continuity are vital to enable human existence to remain viable, sustainable and coherent in any collective or social context.  Tradition – as perhaps broadly equivalent to what is now considered ‘culture’ in the contemporary sense – enables such a state of human existence: 

‘Life is experimental [basically] …’ [Santayana 1905-6: 108] 

However, ‘experience … enable(s) a tradition to arise, so that the sentiment involved can find a social echo’ [111-112].  

Further, ‘Traditional conceptions, when they are felicitous, may be adopted by the poet, but they must be purified by the moralist and disintegrated by the philosopher’ [179-180] !

Therefore, where such discernment is concerned, for ‘diversity’ to be retained in the context of tradition it would be important to resist ‘duality as a form of contrived polarity’ (April 2004: 2).  Rather, in this context, ‘Paradox prevails’ (36).  ‘Destiny [realised personally], along with a discernible sense of perception of what is providential [or beneficial], will always be vital (3) …’ as will be, ‘Trust and faith in oneself and others (3) …’

Consequently, from such interpretation, which I consider is resonant with Santayana’s analysis:  ‘Perception precedes perspective’ in that it precedes our discernment and interpretation ‘in so much as it is the essence of our distinctive deep awareness and realisation (6) … evident in us through the context of our senses (34) …’

Further:  ‘The idea [as a form of perception which epitomises the ‘ideal’] is a catalyst for meaning and significance’ (42), through which ‘… Each intellectual contribution has its appropriate place’ (42).

However, such broad interpretation and discernment requires a universal paradigm for its holistic relevance and significance to be realised ultimately: ‘… in essence, a greater more acute sensitivity and appreciation – probably also maturity – is required to discern how discernment itself can be applied optimally.  Such discernment emanates from a form of perception which is grounded in the essence of whatever sustains humanity through every dimension of experience and reality’ (October 2004: 2-3).

‘Perception’ basically constitutes ‘realisation and appreciation through spontaneous experience’ (39) from my perspective.  While:  ‘Form in the context of beauty’ implies ‘values, balance and symmetry’ [Santayana 1896: 52].  Moreover,  ‘The consciousness that accompanies this [such] characteristic is the sense of profundity, of mighty significance’ [82].

Many vital qualities ensue from discernment through perception, such as imagination.  Santayana proposes:  ‘Imagination, in a word, generates as well as abstracts; it observes, combines and cancels: but it also dreams [112] … The poet has only to study himself, and the art of expressing his own ideals, to find that he has expressed those of other people [114] … Our practical and intellectual nature is deeply interested in truth [141] … The orientation of mental forms and their reintegration is the life of all imagination [151] … Reality is more fluid and elusive than reason [154] …’

Therefore, from my perspective, ‘sustained balance and equilibrium’ proceed through ‘paradox and equanimity’ (October 2004: 85), while the implied optimal transition ‘from dynamic equilibrium to authentic equanimity’ is a critical prospective phenomenon (37ff).

Correspondingly:  ‘Imagination exists to be cultivated along with sensitivity and insight.’ (October 2005: 3)

This graphic was then presented to explain how I envisaged this phenomenon:

Such a process of imagination as discerned through an essential context of authenticity seems to be cultivated through Santayana’s somewhat autobiographical and only novel, The Last Puritan [1937].

‘Providence may be discerned through an ‘intertwined derivation’ of the ground of being, and thence through meaning and significance’ (October 2005: 3) was how I explained this.

The focus for the primary character in the novel, Oliver, is the quality of ‘romantic equilibrium’, developed and sustained through ‘fortitude’ and ‘faith’ [1937: 77] – so faith and a broad sense of ‘the tapestry’ of life were vital to experience [187].  ‘Facts … flowered into ideas, into harmonies’ [312], and thereby became ‘poetry’ for Oliver [312].

Happiness was an intuitive phenomenon.  While authenticity was vital. 

‘First admit the truth, and then make the best of it.  That’s a man’s work’ [165].  Just as integrity was a crucial element – ‘refine your perceptions’ and ‘purify your motives [199] … how lovely each natural thing could be, if it could be true to itself !’ [278], Oliver observed.

These palpable elements of authenticity and integrity resonate for me with the Eastern aspect of the ‘TAO’, as explained by Lao-Tse, his disciples, and his followers.

Through traditional Tao teaching, the core or source of all being is cited as the element of True Nature.  Thus True Nature forms the essence of each human entity, as much as it constitutes the essence of all existence, thereby to become the source of all personal cultivation.

Personal authenticity and integrity thereby acquires form and quality through the Tao ‘True Nature’.

Given it could be further cited that the human entity actually exists through the Tao, this would serve to substantiate my intrinsic perspective of perception as the essence of our humanity, realised through our senses, yet also through a more intuitive elemental phenomenon, thence to be derived through a common universal source of being.

This graphic was then presented to reveal how I envisaged this process:

Therefore, as a response to some of the particularly robust dynamic dialogue which then proceeded from my presentation, I would concur with the perspective that Santayana’s work resonates with the ‘emotions before reasons’ element of Kahlil Gibran’s prose poetry.  While, Santayana’s primary ‘relevance for today’ is his contribution to exploring the nature of universality, for me.

Santayana may well be considered ‘esoteric’ in his quest, yet it would seem salient for us to avoid encumbering our noble quest for ‘Reason’ as philosophers with too much pragmatism.

Another iconic luminary of the transitionary period between the World Wars, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, cautioned pertinently – ‘The problem is the world is almost reasonable; but not quite.  Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians’ [1920: 282].

Therefore, both ‘intuition’ and ‘reason’ comprise valid facets of ‘existence’.

So we can most optimally ‘deal with perception’ by exploring its source, as recommended through the contribution of Eastern Tao teaching, in my view.  Accordingly, ‘perception precedes perspective’, I maintain.

‘Reason’ clearly derives from ‘experience’ through which we ‘learn’. 

Yet, for me, both ‘instinct’ and ‘intuition’ are vital elements of experiential learning, thereby to be or become integrated through whatever is intrinsic to our humanity and universality – perception, reason and authenticity being among these elements.

The ‘trajectory of reason’, and implicitly perception, being ‘more than’ the material world is explored even by materialists such as Phillip Adams, who extols a deep sense of the numinous and considers a broadly realised form of faith brings integrity to belief.

My ‘parallel perspective of tradition and culture’, cited during my presentation attracted support through its propensity to address the ‘secular world vacuum’ of ‘consumerism’ and popular technology.

Another perspective concurred with ‘the dual nature of reality balanced through the Tao’. 

Correspondingly, I agreed ‘imagination and intuition’ could serve as a ‘bridge’ on the ‘path to Reason’ in this context.

Further support was offered from the perspective that ‘the relevance’ of Santayana’s work ‘may be more than we might think’. 

‘Given most philosophers can’t agree on anything now’, Santayana could be recognised as addressing ‘the problem’ of what is widely accepted as ‘a relativistic reality’.  Santayana was ‘coming from a different direction’ in this, providing ‘a new way of considering how we got to be here’.  ‘There is no substitute for thinking things through and looking for balance’ it was declared, in the face of some criticism of Santayana’s work as being ‘too superficial’.

Yet a further perspective cited the challenge of ‘understanding through language’  ‘Lindsay offers a different definition of perception than we use at present’, it was proposed. 

While, ‘Santayana’s work can [potentially] serve as a bridge between Western and Eastern cultures’, it was observed by this Taiwanese background contributor.

Thank you to all who participated for your excellent responses and lively forthright dialogue ! 

This graphic was then presented to reveal how I envisaged this process:


For those who enquired of the substance of Santayana’s contribution, the following accolades seem pertinent for me:

John Dewey regarded Santayana’s The Life of Reason as: 

‘The most adequate contribution America has yet made, always excepting Emerson, to moral philosophy.’

‘Urbane, historical, free from fanaticism, and the expression of an exceptionally sensitive perception’ was Bertrand Russell’s assessment of The Life of Reason.

‘The air he inhabits is the air genius must climb, and his defects are the defects of supreme quality’ was the superlative testament to Santayana of Archibald MacLeish.

‘His Life of Reason is the only comparative, carefully articulated philosophy of life and civilisation which has been produced on these shores [the United States]’ was how Morris Cohen viewed Santayana’s epic work.

‘Moreover, the Collier endorsement to this publisher’s edition of Reason in Common Sense [Collier 1962], the first volume of Santayana’s The Life of Reason, was stated as follows:  ‘Santayana retraces the crucial first step in the progress of civilisation – the flowering of man’s rational life out of the chaos of primitive feeling.  Eloquent and subtle, eschewing pedantry, he describes how man first comes to recognise his instincts, decipher his experience, control his conduct and realise his ideals …

‘With rare insight and a poetic lucidity that is his hallmark, Santayana traces the awakening of man’s rational life …’

My observation in this context of these admonishments:
‘It could be held that on the basis of such testimonies alone Santayana’s ideas and work surely constitute an emphatic contribution worthy of substantial review.’    

‘In a general way his thinking more than that of other philosophers coincides with mine.  But he has a patronising tone – as of one who saw through himself but didn’t expect others to …’ Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr wrote in 1924. 
The sense of culture and aesthetics extolled by George Santayana is aptly epitomised through the iconic 1936 statement of the Dutch born American artist Willem de Kooning for me:

‘… I am interested in art in its totality. 
I have a greater feeling of belonging to a tradition.’

Quoted in Julia Kristeva’s work Strangers to Ourselves [1991].

Lindsay Mell, April 2009


The quotations presented in this presentation overview broadly emanated from the ‘Equanimity Mate !’ – Ten Years On of The Community Project/ Culture Lab Collaboration which I wrote and submitted to the Addison Road Centre Board of Directors on 24 January 2008, then launched in June 2008.

This volume incorporated an overview of the various seminar paper presentations referring substantially to the work of George Santayana, and quoting from his works, which I had presented in various contexts over previous years to the ‘Equanimity Mate !’ launch event.

For the purposes of this presentation overview, I have provided the original years, and pages from, these my presentations in brackets thus (  ) and thereafter, along with the original publication year of the works from which the Santayana quotes are derived thus [  ] and thereafter.  

The references referred to in this presentation text accordingly appear in association with their year of presentation and/or publication in this reference list as follows.


Chesterton, Gilbert Keith:  The Uses of Diversity – A Book of Essays
     Methuen, London, UK, 1920.


Kristeva, Julia 1991:  Strangers to Ourselves,
     Harvester, New York, USA.      

Mell, Lindsay:   Religion and Contemporary Culture
     Academy of the Word
     ‘State of the World’ Forum
     Occasional Paper 2004/1
     Presented in April 2004,
     Sydney, Australia.

     Discernment and Qualities
     Academy of the Word
     ‘State of the World’ Forum
     Occasional Paper 2004/2
     Presented in October 2004,
     Sydney, Australia.

     Friendship and Sentiment
     Academy of the Word
     ‘State of the World’ Forum
     Occasional Paper 2005/2
     Presented in October 2005,
     Sydney, Australia.   

     ‘Equanimity Mate !’ –
Ten Years On:
The Community Project/ Culture Lab Collaboration
Submission to the Marrickville
Addison Road Centre Board
24 January 2008,
Marrickville, Sydney, Australia.  


Runes, Dagobert (ed) 1955: Treasury of Philosophy
     The Philosophical Library, New York, USA.
     Entry on George Santayana, pp.1042-1053.

Santayana, George:   The Life of Reason
     The Phases of Human Progress
     Constable & Co, London, UK, 1905-6.

     The Sense of Beauty –
Being the outline of aesthetic theory
Dover Publications, New York, USA, 1896.

The Last Puritan
Charles Scribner’s Sons,
New York, USA, 1937.



As further substantiation of George Santayana’s work and his place as a philosopher, I recommend this work contributed by Roger Kimball:

Kimball, Roger 2002: Lives of the Mind – the use and abuse of intelligence
 Ivan R Dee, Chicago, USA.
 ‘George Santayana’ pp. 178-200.

Moreover, as I mentioned during my presentation, the contemporary work of John Ralston Saul rather resembles that of Santayana for me.

Note particularly:

Saul, John Ralston 2001: On Equilibrium
 Penguin, Canada.







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