Santayana's Response to the Metaphysical Excesses in Schopenhaur's Account of Aesthetic Experience

December 2007

In The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer offers an encyclopedic vision of a dichotomized world; half of the world is mere appearance or representation, while the other half consists of things-in-themselves, inner natures, Will. Schopenhauer borrows the language and concepts from his general system of metaphysical duality, most notably the concept of the Platonic Idea, and applies them in an account of aesthetic experience. In The Sense of Beauty, George Santayana takes a decidedly non-metaphysical approach to explaining aesthetic experience, as Santayana thinks that philosophers of art before him “have generally been audacious metaphysicians…[who] have represented general and obscure principles, suggested by other parts of their philosophy, as the conditions of artistic excellence and the essence of beauty” (6). Santayana argues that these obscure metaphysical principles are “vague [expressions] of [our] highly complex emotions” (8), which nonetheless excite our aesthetic susceptibility, but fail to tell us what is beautiful and why. I will frame Santayana’s critical response to Schopenhauer’s metaphysical excesses by first discussing Santayana’s general criticism of the metaphysical or “Platonist” approach to aesthetics. After that, I will summarize Schopenhauer’s general theory and the role Platonic Ideas play in his account of aesthetic experience. Then, I will consider Santayana’s psychological explanations of the origin of Platonic Ideas and their aesthetic function as a response to Schopenhauer’s use of the same. Finally, drawing on these discrepancies, I will argue that Santayana’s concept of Expression provides a better explanation of the immediate and intrinsic quality of aesthetic value, which Schopenhauer only expresses metaphorically in terms of “pure contemplation, absorption in perception, being lost in the object, forgetting all individuality,” etc. (197).

I. Santayana’s General Criticism

Santayana prefaces his aesthetic doctrine with an explanation of why he believes that previous attempts to explain aesthetic experience have been “abortive and incoherent” (4). He attributes the shortcomings of other aesthetic theories to a general distrust of phenomena grounded in human nature, such as imagination and emotion. This distrust results in a hesitancy to incorporate these phenomena into accounts of aesthetic experience, producing theories that are artificially abstracted from human interest. Other theories of aesthetic experience make the mistake of equivocating explanation of beauty with expression of beauty; language that is beautiful or abstract may express aesthetic qualities, but it does not often provide adequate explanation of those qualities.

Santayana argues that previous philosophers have wrongly attempted to lead explanations of aesthetic experience away from the domain of human interest. They do this in an attempt to insulate their theories from matters which they think are too transient, too particular, or too dependent to offer an adequate explanation of objects and laws thought to be independent of human nature:

A circumstance that has also contributed to the absence or to the failure of aesthetic speculation is the subjectivity of the phenomenon with which it deals. Man has a prejudice against himself: anything which is a product of his mind seems to him to be unreal or comparatively insignificant. We are satisfied only when we fancy ourselves surrounded by objects and laws independent of our nature. (4)

In their hasty pursuit of objective laws governing aesthetic experience, other philosophers, Santayana argues, have “neglected the exclusively subjective and human department of imagination and emotion” (4). In practice, we find that it is precisely these subjective faculties which decide the value of experience, and which also have a formative influence on our experience. “Things are interesting because we care about them, and important because we need them” (4), writes Santayana, emphasizing the central role of the subject in deciding the value of experience. The opinion that “unless moral and aesthetic judgments are expressions of objective truth, and not merely expressions of human nature, they stand condemned to hopeless triviality” (4) leads to explanations of aesthetic experience so abstracted from human nature that they lose the propriety their authors sought to preserve.

Santayana’s second general criticism addresses the language used by previous philosophers of art, most notably the language of the Platonists. According to Santayana, Platonic theories of beauty, which describe beauty as a “manifestation of God to the senses,” or as a revealing of Platonic Ideas to the mind, offer “no objective account of the nature and origin of beauty, but [only] the vague expression of…highly complex emotions” (8). Through beautiful metaphors, these theories stimulate the aesthetic function in us, winning our awe and admiration, but Santayana accuses them of failing to elucidate “the conditions and the varieties of…how it comes about that we perceive beauty at all, or have any inkling of [the divinity or perfection expressed by the beautiful]” (8). In other words, these theories meet our demand for aesthetic nourishment and inspiration, but fail to meet our demand for comprehension:

[We] ought not to…accept as an explanation of aesthetic feeling what is in truth only an expression of it… For the expressions of this experience we should go…best of all to the immortal parables of Plato. But…we shall not find any instruction there upon the questions which most press upon us; namely, how an ideal is formed in the mind, how a given object is compared with it, what is the common element in all beautiful things, and what the substance of the absolute ideal in which all ideals tend to be lost; and, finally, how we come to be sensitive to beauty at all, or to value it… So far, then, are we from ignoring the insight of the Platonists, that we hope to explain it, and in a sense to justify it, by showing that it is the natural and sometimes supreme expression of the common principles of our nature. (9)

This passage distills Santayana’s attitude towards Platonic theories of aesthetic experience, and enumerates the consummately expressed but dismally explained components of aesthetic experience that Santayana hopes to bring to light. Santayana hopes to provide natural justifications for the insights of the Platonists. Towards this end, Santayana is concerned with the origin and nature of Platonic Ideas (“ideals”) as mental phenomena, and how these ideals relate to our perceptions of aesthetic value (Arnett 27).

II. Schopenhauer’s General Theory and Use of Platonic Ideas

Schopenhauer begins his theory of the world as will and representation with the recognition that “the world is my representation” (3), providing the example that we know neither the sun nor the earth, but only the vision of the sun and the feeling of the earth. We are similarly aware of our own bodies as representations, but we are also aware of a self, or inner nature, which Schopenhauer refers to as will. When we consider other objects of experience and see that, like ourselves, they posses this outer nature of representation, by analogy with the dual-nature of the self as inner and outer nature, as will and representation, we consider the objects of our experience apart from their representations, and we find that “what still remains over must be, according to its inner nature, the same as what in ourselves we call will” (105). Will is the thing-in-itself; all representations, all objects of experience are phenomena of the will. Schopenhauer also refers to the representation or object as “the objectivity of the will,” or the will made object.

Representations have been conditioned for intelligibility, or lent a knowable form, by the principle of sufficient reason, which is Schopenhauer’s term for the categories of time, space, and causality. The subject’s experience and knowledge must assume the form imposed by the principle of sufficient reason, and because of this, the will, lying outside the province of the principle of sufficient reason (113), cannot be experienced or known directly. In this way, the principle of sufficient reason establishes a rigid barrier between subject and object in which the object remains representation for the subject–its will is inaccessible. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer argues that in order for these objects to be more than “empty phantoms” of space and time, they must have some vicarious meaning; “they must point to something, must be the expression of something, which is not, like themselves, object, representation, something existing merely relatively, namely for a subject… not a representation, but a thing-in-itself” (119). Schopenhauer explains that if we could take the phenomenon, and remove the parts conditioned or explained by the principle of sufficient reason, what is left is the representation closest to the will, the most adequate objectivity of the will. In what is left, we “recognize the inscrutable forces that manifest themselves in all the bodies of nature as identical in kind to what in me is the will, and as differing from it only in degree” (126).

Schopenhauer calls the differing degrees of will “grades of objectivity of the will.” Different genera of objects possess greater and lesser grades of objectified will, and Schopenhauer identifies these different grades as the Platonic Ideas:

There is a higher degree of this objectification in the plant than in the stone, a higher degree in the animal than in the plant; indeed, the will’s passage into visibility, its objectification, has gradations… these grades of the objectification of the will are nothing but Plato’s Ideas. (128)

Just as thought by Plato, these grades are related to individual objects as their eternal forms, or as their prototypes (Schopenhauer 130). When we are confronted with a Platonic Idea, the principle of sufficient reason explodes the Idea into a multiplicity of phenomena, individualized in space, time, and matter (Schopenhauer 134). Schopenhauer also notes that the Platonic Ideas form a hierarchy, with the forces of nature at the bottom and man at the top. Every phenomenon is an expression of the Platonic Idea at a certain level in the hierarchy, and also of Ideas below the phenomenon’s highest Idea: a plant is an expression of The Plant, and of The Vegetable Life, and of the Ideas all the way down to those of inorganic natural forces. A plant is a more beautiful instance of The Plant the greater the proportion its expression of its highest Idea stands in relation to its expression of lower Ideas:

According as the organism succeeds more or less in subduing those natural forces that express the lower grades of the will’s objectivity (the lower Ideas), it becomes the more or less perfect expression of its Idea, in other words, it stands nearer to or farther from the Ideal to which beauty in its species belongs. (Schopenhauer 146)

Quoting Plato, Schopenhauer states that objects of experience are always fleeting, forever coming into existence and quickly perishing. Therefore they have no true being, but rather a being only relative to “the real archetypes of those shadowy outlines, the eternal Ideas, the original forms, of all things, [and only these Ideas] can be described as truly existing” (171). Through the principle of sufficient reason, the one Idea behind each species of phenomenon manifests itself to the subject as a plurality of individuated copies. These copies are created solely for cognition by the subject, and therefore have reality only for that subject (182). However, in exceptional circumstances, Schopenhauer believes we can have immediate, intuitive access to the Idea (173). To achieve this requires a transformation on behalf of the subject, for the subject only knows what is conditioned by the principle of sufficient reason, and the Idea lies outside the purview of this principle (176):

The transition is possible, but to be regarded as only an exception, from the common knowledge of particular things to the knowledge of the Idea [takes place suddenly] by the subject’s ceasing to be merely individual, and being now a pure will-less subject of knowledge. Such a subject of knowledge no longer follows relations in accordance with the principle of sufficient reason… We lose ourselves entirely in this object…we forget our individuality, our will, and continue to exist only as a clear mirror of the object. (178)

Schopenhauer continues ad nauseum with similar descriptions of the subject who no longer knows through the principle of sufficient reason, but has entered a state of pure contemplation of Ideas:

The object also is here nothing but the representation of the subject, so the subject, by passing entirely into the perceived object, has also become the object itself… When the Idea appears, subject and object can no longer be distinguished in it, because the Idea, the adequate objectivity of the will, the real world as representation, arises only when subject and object reciprocally fill and penetrate each other completely. (180)

Schopenhauer calls this mode of pure contemplation of Ideas art or the aesthetic method of consideration; conversely, contemplation that operates by the principle of sufficient reason alone he calls science (184). The artistic genius has a “preeminent ability for such contemplation” (185), and the genius communicates the eternal Ideas apprehended in pure contemplation through the media of sculpture, painting, poetry, or music (184).

Schopenhauer writes that the value of aesthetic experience consists in the annihilation of the subject’s will. This is because Schopenhauer believes that “all willing springs from a lack, from deficiency, and thus from suffering” (196). It follows that in aesthetic experience, where the subject leaves all individuality, all self, all will behind, the subject enters an ascetic state of negative pleasure. This denial of self is characterized by Knox as the subject coming to “abhor the very reality of which his own phenomenal existence is an expression, that is to say, the will to live, the innermost kernel of the world. He must disown his own nature by extinguishing at the source all sensual desire and gratification…by the mortification of the body which is the visible objectivity of the will” (Knox 130). Schopenhauer compares this state to a momentary Nirvana. For Santayana, this state of purely intellectual existence, of the subject as the emotionless, desire less, will-less mirror of the object, is far removed from actual human experience.

III. Santayana’s Psychological Account of the Platonic Idea

Following some general remarks about Santayana’s theory, I will add to Santayana’s general criticism of Platonist theories what Santayana writes specifically about Ideas as conceived by Plato and Schopenhauer. These words motivate Santayana’s psychological account of Ideas. Then, I will discuss Santayana’s psychological explanation of the origin of Platonic Ideas and their aesthetic function as a response to Schopenhauer’s use of the same.

According to Santayana, beauty is experienced either as the affinity of an object with its ideal form, or by the excitement of the senses caused by stimuli of color, sound, or exquisite detail (101). When we experience beauty in the perception of an object, Santayana claims that our perception of beauty is immediate and intrinsic to our experience (16). We therefore easily make the mistake of regarding beauty as a quality belonging to the object (31). For this reason, Santayana borrows language from Schopenhauer and refers to our experience of beauty as one of “objectified pleasure” (33). Furthermore, Santayana argues that this pleasure is positive, for in an ideal existence, devoid of danger, pain, and pity, we can suppose that “the variety of nature and the infinity of art…would fill the leisure of that ideal existence… [as] the elements of our positive happiness” (20).

Santayana argues that explanations of aesthetic experience given in terms of Platonic Ideas are often unscientific because they fail to explain aesthetic phenomena, offering instead “the highest expressions of that activity which they fail to make comprehensible” (7). Schopenhauer’s psychology, Santayana points out, was far too vague to offer an explanation of the significance of those highest expressions (25), and even if the pure contemplation of Platonic Ideas were possible, Ideas alone do not explain why this contemplation would be pleasing (7). Santayana concedes that the question of whether or not there are Ideas, or eternal types, is not settled, but he argues that even if Ideas do exist, either in nature or in the mind of God, our notions of them could bear no resemblance to Ideas as they are (73). For example, Santayana supposes that the Platonic Idea of a tree exists–in fact, he says there is no way to deny this possibility. Even if this were the case, we could have no way of relating our ideas of particular instances of trees to the Idea of a tree. For even if the Platonic myth were true, and we possessed a latent memory of The Tree from before our birth, our ideas of particular trees belong to multiple definite and discrete types, and the Idea of a tree is necessarily infinite and unified (74). Santayana calls this incompatibility “hopeless” (74).

“Very simple, on the other hand, is the explanation of the existence of [the Idea] as a residuum of experience” (74), offers Santayana. Santayana argues that just as our idea of any one particular object is a composite of our various experiences of that object, our idea of a type is the composite of our ideas of the objects of that type. We have a natural tendency to group similar ideas of objects into a representative idea of a type because the mind is incapable of keeping all of these very similar ideas separated; “[the mind] cannot hold clearly so great a multitude of distinctions and relations as would be involved in naming and conceiving separately each grain of sand, or drop of water, each fly or horse or man that we have ever seen” (74). When we first perceive an object, we intuit in its crude form a suggestion of what type of object it is. Through a subconscious process of “apperception,” we attempt to identify the object at hand with a type in order to synthesize our impression with our memory. The ease with which we make this synthesis “determines the value of the object as an example of its class” (72). This notion of apperception provides a psychological foundation for Schopenhauer’s claim that the beauty of an object is proportional to the expression of its highest Idea. What Schopenhauer means by “a plant is more beautiful the more it is an expression of The Plant,” according to Santayana, is that value is added to our experience when the plant at hand is easily identified with the representative idea of its type (71); on the other hand, value is subtracted when there is cognitive dissonance between our impression of the plant and the contribution made by memory. These values are aesthetic because they arise immediately from perception, appearing as qualities belonging to the object (12).

Santayana admits that the formation of types is a “matter of subjective bias” and that we “cannot expect that a type should be the exact average of the examples from which it is drawn” (75). If some subjective interest causes us to pay relatively more attention to a specific part of our percept of an object, this bias will be represented in our idea of that particular object, and therefore in its type. Santayana calls this “the average modified in the direction of pleasure” (76). For example, ask a farmer to describe his idea of a horse, and he will talk about a stockier-than-average beast, with broad shoulders for bearing heavy loads, and wide hooves for working in soft soil. The farmer notices these features most when he sees a horse because they are most relevant to the good of the farmer–successful farming. On the other hand, ask a bandit to describe his idea of a horse, and he will talk about a horse that is taller and leaner than average, so to be fast enough to outrun the Sheriff’s horse. Just as with the farmer, the bandit’s idea of a horse is colored by subjective interest–the good of the bandit is successful banditry, for which the ability to evade capture is a necessary condition. Santayana explains,

The type is still a natural resultant of particular impressions; but the formation of it has been guided by a deep subjective bias in favour of what has delighted the eye… To praise any object for approaching the ideal of its kind is therefore only a roundabout way of specifying its intrinsic merit and expressing its direct effect on our sensibility. If in referring to the ideal we were not thus analyzing the real, the ideal would be an irrelevant and unmeaning thing. We know what the ideal is because we observe what pleases us in the reality… [Ideals] stand for specific satisfactions, or else they stand for nothing at all. (77) Santayana argues that ideals express natural instincts and aspirations, and therefore find their ultimate justification in human nature (Arnett 28). Although the features of horses described by the farmer and bandit may not strike non-farmers or non-bandits as intrinsically valuable or beautiful, Santayana’s concept of Expression will show how these features can become intrinsic and beautiful.

For Santayana, the activity of imagination is much more important philosophically in the formation of ideals than the process which arrives at an ideal by averaging in the direction of pleasure (Arnett 53). “Imagination, in a word, generates as well as abstracts; it observes, combines, and cancels, but it also dreams… [sometimes resulting in] a vision of an unexampled beauty” (112). Santayana calls this idealization wrought by imagination “aesthetic inspiration” (112). The ideal created in this way reaches the zenith of aesthetic value, expressing human interests in a greater degree than any object of experience, or any merely abstracted type (Arnett 54). These ideals are the most beautiful things that we can imagine, and Santayana suggests that there is no fault is considering them to be the most beautiful, for their appeal to man “cannot be increased by any other sort of veracity or being” (Arnett 54). Furthermore, Santayana insists that the independent existence of these ideals is “beyond the possibility of a shadow of evidence” (117).

Schopenhauer objects to ideals formed merely from experience and human interest, insisting that these factors cannot be wholly constitutive of our knowledge of beauty:

Has nature ever produced a human being perfectly beautiful in all of his parts? It has been supposed that the artist must gather the beautiful parts separately distributed among many human beings, and construct a beautiful whole from them; an absurd and meaningless opinion. Once again, it is asked, how is he to know that just these forms and not others are beautiful?… No knowledge of the beautiful is at all possible purely a posteriori and from mere experience. (222)

Santayana’s response to this objection is the key to understanding his psychological explanation of the origin of Platonic Ideas, and to understanding the essential difference between Schopenhauer’s and Santayana’s aesthetic theories. According to Santayana, Schopenhauer has committed an error in speaking of the Idea as what ought to please, rather than as what actually pleases (79). Shortly after claiming that there can be no knowledge of the beautiful based on experience alone, Schopenhauer adds, “[the artist,] by recognizing in the individual thing its Idea he, so to speak, understands nature’s half-spoken words. He expresses clearly what she merely stammers. He impresses on the hard marble the beauty of the form which nature failed to achieve in a thousand attempts” (222). Schopenhauer anthropomorphizes nature, assigning our subjective interests to nature as if to lift them to a more objective and authoritative ground. The notion that nature has interests is naive; the notion that nature fails or succeeds in fulfilling those interests is misguided; but the idea that man succeeds where nature has failed is hubris1. Nature has no forethought, it has no interests, it has no plans. We, on the other hand, do have forethought, and interests, and plans. “Beauty and rightness are relative to our judgment and emotion; they in no sense exist in nature or preside over her… The ideas that nature could be governed by an aspiration towards beauty is…to be rejected as a confusion” (Santayana 98). Santayana makes this distinction, but it is lost in Schopenhauer’s aversion to will.

IV. Santayana’s Concept of Expression

Drawing on the differences in content and approach of Schopenhauer’s and Santayana’s aesthetics, I will argue that Santayana’s concept of Expression provides a better explanation of the immediate and intrinsic quality of aesthetic value. This is because Santayana provides an explanation of the expressiveness of objects in terms of emotion and memory, whereas Schopenhauer only explains this metaphorically as “pure contemplation, absorption in perception, being lost in the object, forgetting all individuality,” etc. (197).

Santayana notes that the human consciousness behaves in a nondeterministic manner. Without distinct images or clear-cut boundaries, our ideas “half emerge for a moment from the dim continuum of vital feeling and diffused sense” (119). In addition to forming ideas and synthesizing them with our experience through apperception, our mind is constantly making associations between the images at the forefront of our consciousness and the traces of ideas which ebb and flow from the greater depths of our psyche. The common emotional tinge is what enables ideas to suggest one another, and what makes them able to be associated (54). These associations “colour the image upon which our attention is fixed” (119), and Santayana calls this effect “expression.” In coloring our experience with half-conscious suggestions of other ideas, expression can heighten the pleasure found in our experience, thus adding to the beauty of the present object. However, if the relation between the object at hand and the idea expressed is “patent and acknowledged” (120), our awareness of the extrinsic value of the association precludes synthesis with our immediate experience. “The value is confined to the images of the memory; they are too clear to let any of that value escape and diffuse itself over the rest of our consciousness, and beautify the objects which we actually behold” (120). On the other hand, if our memory fades and we become less aware of these associations, the expressiveness of the object at hand returns, and the value of the ideas expressed becomes intrinsic to our perception and therefore aesthetic. For example, Santayana explains that ideas of utility are frequently expressed, adding a vague sense of advantage and desirability to objects when we are not actively aware of their practical advantage (129). In this way, the farmer and bandit really do see a beautiful horse, even though others may see a merely practical horse.

Schopenhauer also uses the term “expression,” stating that particular objects are beautiful insofar as they express their highest Idea. By insisting that the subject become aware of this expression by means independent of the principle of sufficient reason, Schopenhauer gives the principle of sufficient reason the same role in aesthetic experience as Santayana gives to memory, stating that our awareness of the Idea cannot depend on an external relation:

By calling an object beautiful, we thereby assert that it is an object of our aesthetic contemplation, and this implies two different things. On the one hand, the sight of the thing makes us objective, that is to say, in contemplating it we are no longer conscious of ourselves as individuals, but as pure, will-less subjects of knowing. On the other hand, we recognize in the object not the individual thing, but an Idea; and this can happen only in so far as our contemplation of the object is not given up to the principle of sufficient reason, does not follow the relation of the object to something outside it. (Schopenhauer 209)

For Schopenhauer, the Idea is “released from time and space” as the object’s “expression, its pure significance, its innermost being, disclosing itself and appealing to me” (210). Santayana provides an explanation for the feelings Schopenhauer here only describes: Santayana states that because expression adds a value of indeterminate origin to our experience of the object, we can only describe the value of expression as an “ineffable attraction” (120). The value of expression is felt immediately and intrinsically, exactly like the aesthetic values of material and form, but the source of this value–the association of the object with its Idea–is hidden from us by clouded memory (123). Schopenhauer’s descriptions of the detachment of the Idea from time and space, and of the Idea disclosing itself, are expressions of confusion about the locality of this value. Again, Santayana accuses a confused Schopenhauer of committing the fallacy of taking what actually pleases, separating it from its roots in human nature, and portraying it as what ought to please (123). By explaining this confusion as a necessary component of the phenomenon of expression, Santayana provides a more complete explanation of the immediate and intrinsic quality of aesthetic value.

Like Schopenhauer, Santayana uses phrases like “absorption in perception” and “being lost in the object,” but Santayana describes these phrases as expressing the feelings of a subject overwhelmed by emotion and imagination. Once again, Santayana offers an explanation of aesthetic experience based in human nature, not based on obscure metaphysical claims made impressive by bottomless profundity. This is consistent with Santayana’s more careful and self-conscious approach to aesthetics, which Santayana summarizes excellently:

When I judge a thing to be beautiful, my judgment means that the thing is beautiful in itself, or…that it should seem so to everybody. The claim to universality is, according to this doctrine, the essence of the aesthetic; what makes the perception of beauty a judgment rather than a sensation. All aesthetic percepts would be impossible, and all criticism arbitrary and subjective, unless we admit a paradoxical universality in our judgment, the philosophical implications of which we may then go on to develope. But we are fortunately not required to enter the labyrinth into which this method leads; there is a much simpler and clearer way of studying such questions, which is to challenge and analyze the assertion before us and seek its basis in human nature. Before this is done, we should run the risk of expanding a natural misconception or inaccuracy of thought into an inveterate and pernicious prejudice by making it the center of an elaborate construction. (26)

Schopenhauer “enters the labyrinth” by attempting to universalize subjective interests in the form of Platonic Ideas. This leads to an “elaborate construction” in which Schopenhauer explains that we can have access to these universal Ideas only through a great transformation in the subject. To avoid this labyrinth, Santayana seeks the basis of this “paradoxical universality” in human nature, showing that our ideals arise from experience and creative imagination, and that objectivity and universality can be explained in terms of emotion and associative consciousness. Santayana has truly demonstrated that “when the superstructures crumble, the common foundation of human sentience and imagination is exposed beneath” (65).

1 Santayana equates Schopenhauer’s error with “idolatry in religion” (79).

Works Cited