The Heterodox

The Heterodox


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Truth is Beauty, Beauty is Truth

August 12, 2011 , , , ,

I will venture the assumption that any one reading this essay will readily notice that the title comes from the aphoristic musings of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his fellow English Romantic poets of the nineteenth century. Yet I will not be focusing on them directly for today’s inquiry but instead will investigate our shared exigent human craving for beauty or more to the philosophic point, the Aesthetic. Let me just go on the record in saying that it is absurd to even try let alone actually ignore the ascendant influence of Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) when in consideration of the aesthetic realm and our human need for the exploration of this infinite land. It could be easily asserted that all of Santayana’s philosophy is in some part informed by the aesthetic and this coincides with my own sophistic views. When you realize that all human inquiries which are unanswerable by science fall into the distinct philosophic moieties of the Existential, Ethical, and Aesthetic, you quickly find that these areas of inquiry are all intrinsically bound together. In this way, Santayana was always assertive that philosophy’s utility was in showing the ways of achieving the Platonism of the Good Life, his major predicate being the maintaining of the aesthetic and ethical arenas by reason and astringency. So if this is to be one’s inquiry, then there is no better way to examine these contentions than by exploring the thoughts laid bare in Santayana’s classic treatise on the aesthetic, The Sense of Beauty (1896).

Since aesthetics and their worth in life have perennially been of philosophic interest and inquiry, why is it that Santayana and his thoughts are so important in this regard? The simplest answer would have to be that from the time of Aristotle up to Santayana’s lifetime, there had never been a philosophic inquiry into the aesthetic as a thing-in-itself. Throughout the millennia of occidental philosophy, aesthetics were consistently treated as an exercise in metaphysical contemplation, and nothing more. This is understandable though (or should I say forgivable?) because before modern science’s illuminations, anything to do with the functions of the mind was axiomatically relegated to the metaphysical. This is why even if you do not agree with all of his conclusions, you cannot disregard the revolutionary quality of Santayana’s efforts in stripping away the aesthetic from metaphysics and bringing it into its own distinct philosophical realm. So to best illustrate these contentions, I shall briefly break down the sections of the book while highlighting their insights and their possible shortcomings for your consideration.

The first section of the book is The Nature of Beauty and it is within this part of the book in which Santayana laid down his grundrisse for the rational of aesthetic consideration and to clearly show the relationship between reason and the identifying and experiencing of the beautiful as a psychosomatic sensation. For example, he says: The ideal of rationality is itself as arbitrary, as much dependent on the needs of a finite organization, as any other ideal. Only as ultimately securing tranquility of mind, which the philosopher instinctively pursues, has it for him any necessity.(…)What really demands rationality, what makes it a good and indispensable thing and gives it all its authority, is not its own nature, but our need of it both in safe and economical action and in the pleasures of comprehension. (pg. 14 1955 Dover edition)

He then goes on to correctly identify the ultimate subjective nature of beauty due to its being cognitively propagated by individual perception. It is evident that beauty is a species of value, and what we have said of value in general applies to this particular kind. A first approach to a definition of beauty has therefore been made by the exclusion of all intellectual judgments, all judgments of matter of fact or of relation. (ibid pg.14) The first snag or occlusion in Santayana’s dialectic here is the fact that through out the rest of this chapter he never states how something which is a species of value can ever be contemplated without any kind of intellectual judgement? This incomplete notion reeks of the non sequitir, but let us continue our examination.

The rest of this section goes on into detail about the distinction which must be recognized between moral and aesthetic judgment. I have to admit that Santayana argues these points well, nevertheless I have never been too sure as to why he felt the need to make it so plain that ethical judgement does not contain let alone require an aesthetic evaluation. Perhaps he may have thought it to be rhetorically requisite to clearly delineate all approaches to valuation, I just do not see this as a necessary pre-condition to this kind of examiniation. He regains his equilibrium towards the end of this section though by focusing more on distinguishing impulses of passion from sensations of aesthetic pleasure. He writes: In other pleasures, it is said, we gratify our senses and passion; in the contemplation of beauty we are raised above ourselves, the passions are silenced and we are happy in the recognition of a good that we do not seek to possess. The painter does not look at a spring of water with the eyes of a thirsty man, nor at a beautiful woman with those of a satyr. The difference lies, it is urged, in the impersonality of the enjoyment. But this distinction is one of intensity and delicacy, not of nature, and it seems satisfactory only to the least aesthetic minds. (ibid pg.24)

At the end of this sited passage there is a footnote discussing Schopenhauer’s views on the aesthetic impulse as adumbrated in The World as Will and Idea. I feel (just as Santayana must have, considering the inclusion of a footnote to begin with) that including this footnote helps to better elucidate the point just made:

Schopenhauer, indeed, who makes much of it, was a good critic, but his psychology suffered much from the pessimistic generalities of his system. It concerned him to show that the will was bad, and, as he felt beauty to be a good if not holy thing, he hastened to convince himself that it came from the suppression of the will.(…)So that, apart from Schopenhauer’s mythology, we have even in him the recognition that beauty gives satisfaction to some dim and underlying demand of our nature, just as particular objects give more special and momentary pleasures to our individualized wills.

The last important point from this first section that I wish to share with you actually puts my previous notions into a little more relief. Since most of Santayana’s views in The Sense of Beauty stem from a nascent psychology just beginning to bloom at the end of the nineteenth century, I find it amazing how he correctly stresses the subjective nature of consciousness therefore perception and valuation and that we can never escape this reality or its contingencies. Regarding this he states: If we say that other men should see the beauties we see, it is because we think those beauties “are in the object”, like its colour, proportion, or size. Our judgment appears to us merely the perception and discovery of an external existence, of the real excellence that is without. But this notion is radically absurd and contradictory. Beauty, as we have seen, is a value; it cannot be conceived as an independent existence which affects our senses and which we consequently perceive. It exists in perception, and cannot exist otherwise. A beauty not perceived is a pleasure not felt, and a contradiction. (ibid pg.29) Doesn’t this passage also seem to contradict the earlier notion of aesthetic valuation residing outside of intellectual judgement?

The next section of the book is The Materials of Beauty, and here Santayana explores those qualities of objects that appear to induce perceptions of beauty ipso facto perceptions of pleasure. From here on out through the rest of the book, Santayana explores more closely the ostensible physical processes inherent in our somatic existence which induce feelings and awareness of the aesthetic. The best way to initiate this section is to share one of Santayana’s more poetic moments in the book. In the introductory paragraph he shows us some of his own personal aesthetic notions by use of a wonderfully and skillfully epigrammatic phrase which efficiently sums of the overriding theme of the book, that theme being that Whenever the golden thread of pleasure enters that web of things which our intelligence is always busily spinning, it lends to the visible world that mysterious and subtle charm which we call beauty. (ibid pg.35)

This section’s other main purpose is to connect the established definition of beauty with the forthcoming last two sections of the book which explore the physical perception of what is seen and experienced as beautiful. When discussing the qualities of an object or concept which induces aesthetic pleasures Santayana states: Our pleasures are thus described as the pleasures of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight and may become elements of beauty at the same time as the ideas to which they are attached become elements of objects. There is, however, a remainder of emotion as there is a remainder of sensation; and the importance of this remainder–of the continuum in which lie all particular pleasures and pains–was insisted upon in the beginning. The beauty of the world, indeed, cannot be attributed wholly or mainly to pleasures thus attached to abstracted sensations. It is only the beauty of the materials of things which is drawn from the pleasures of sensation. By far the most important effects are not attributable to these materials, but to their arrangement and their ideal relations.

Arrangement is the key word to have noticed in the last extract as it logically flows into the third section of the book which is simply titled Form. This section is the largest in the book and also is the one that I feel is the most negligible to the aesthetic notions of our epoch. This is mainly due to the fact that modern science, particularly neuroscience, provides us with a much more accurate view of how or brains (as a material object) perceive and process sense data. So Santayana writing from the end of the nineteenth century can obviously be forgiven for this scientific declension. As to the merits of this section, I believe there are two notions worth your consideration. The first is the idea that a considerable amount of sense data that we humans intuit as beautiful arises from an objects symmetry. Some key examples here (or at least for myself) are of the double helix of the DNA molecule and of spiral galaxies. Who can deny the beauty to be found in these forms based purely on their structure? Neuroscience has also confirmed that a large portion of what we perceive as beautiful in a person’s face is also heavily predicated by symmetry. These observations are rather obvious to us today but to the Victorians this would have been a startling concept for an aesthetic theory to portend.

The second valuable insight in this section is the answer Santayana gives to a question that he correctly identifies as a fundamental to any aesthetic investigation. That question is, Can anything be beautiful? It seems like a rather facile question, especially in light of all that we have thus far established about the subjective nature of our perception and consciousness. Yet, how Santayana answers this question is of interest because he rightly asserts that, The temptation, therefore, to say that all things are really equally beautiful arises from an imperfect analysis, by which the operations of the aesthetic consciousness are only partially disintegrated. The dependence of the “degrees” of beauty upon our nature is perceived, while the dependence of its “essence” upon our nature is still ignored. All things are not equally beautiful because the subjective bias that discriminates between them is the cause of their being beautiful at all. The principle of personal preference is the same as that of human taste; real and objective beauty, in contrast to a vagary of individuals, means only an affinity to a more prevalent and lasting susceptibility, a response to a more general and fundamental demand. And the keener discrimination, by which the distance between beautiful and ugly things is increased, far from being a loss of aesthetic insight, is a development of that faculty by the exercise of which beauty comes into the world. (ibid pg.81-2)

The last section of this treatise is titled Expression and it is here the Santayana asserts the final requisite of an aesthetic theory which is based on the idea that much of what we find and identify as beautiful arises from a synthesis of qualities which induce sensation of beauty to begin with. Santayana cements this final assertion by describing how all of consciousness is dependent on a synthesis of sense data for as we now know we are a pattern seeking primate, so this ability to bring together and to form a notion or object of perception makes the craving for beauty and inevitable one for our species:

We must remember that the object is always but a portion of our consciousness: that portion which has enough coherence and articulation to be recognized as permanent and projected into the outer world. But consciousness remains one, in spite of this diversification of its content, and the object is not really independent, but is in constant relation to the rest of the mind, in the midst of which it swims like a bubble on a dark surface of water. The aesthetic effect of objects is always due to the total emotional value of the consciousness in which they exist. We merely attribute this value to the object by a projection which is the ground of the apparent objectivity of beauty. Sometimes this value may be inherent in the process by which the object itself is perceived; then we have sensuous and formal beauty; sometimes the value may be due to the incipient formation of other ideas, which the perception of this object evokes; then we have beauty of expression. (ibid pg.144)

So there we have Santayana’s aesthetic theory laid out. I see this theory as quite useful as a foundation to one’s own aesthetic understanding. Of course you will have to decide for yourself if this is indeed a philosophy which still possesses some utility, the only test of worth for any philosophy. But since I solely focused on the aesthetic portion of Santayana’s philosophy and did not touch too much on his ethics (the other sophic area he is best known for) I will leave you with the thoughts of Professor Willard E. Arnett who wrote a wonderful critique of the Sense of Beauty in 1955. He sums up his analysis with an erudite distillation of Santayana’s total system which I would now like to share with you as it is insightful as well as providing me with an effective closing thought in which to leave you with:

But no one, possibly, since Plato, has recognized as adequately and at the same time emphasized as eloquently as Santayana the spiritual dimension of man and its inevitable presence in any concept or actual occurrence of complete moral fulfillment. No small part of his achievement is that instead of denying or repudiating the concepts and ideals that have been meaningful–though vague and varied–in both religious and philosophical traditions, he has interpreted them in such a way that they become integral and meaningful parts of a coherent naturalism. The distinctions which Santayana draws, though certainly not the only distinctions possible, are such as are appropriate and almost inevitable–at least in the Western religious and philosophical tradition–in any attempt to describe or anticipate man’s total moral experience. Indeed, the spiritual life, the vision of ideals, the aesthetic predilection will be important distinctions in the moral life as long as there are both men-who-see and men-who-do, or as long as any man is at once an observer as well as a doer. (Santayana and the Sense of Beauty pg. 226-7)

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