Saturday, June 15, 2013

Santayana on the Appreciation of Beauty - The Partially Examined Life, #77

George Santayana (1863-1952) was the first and maybe still the foremost Hispanic-American philosopher (as a student he worked under William James at Harvard). His embrace of naturalism and rejection of idealism were the foundation for a spiritual philosophy not based in religion. Here is some brief info on his life from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Philosopher, poet, literary and cultural critic, George Santayana is a principal figure in Classical American Philosophy. His naturalism and emphasis on creative imagination were harbingers of important intellectual turns on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a naturalist before naturalism grew popular; he appreciated multiple perfections before multiculturalism became an issue; he thought of philosophy as literature before it became a theme in American and European scholarly circles; and he managed to naturalize Platonism, update Aristotle, fight off idealisms, and provide a striking and sensitive account of the spiritual life without being a religious believer. His Hispanic heritage, shaded by his sense of being an outsider in America, captures many qualities of American life missed by insiders, and presents views equal to Tocqueville in quality and importance. Beyond philosophy, only Emerson may match his literary production. As a public figure, he appeared on the front cover of Time (3 February 1936), and his autobiography (Persons and Places, 1944) and only novel (The Last Puritan, 1936) were the best-selling books in the United States as Book-of-the-Month Club selections. The novel was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Edmund Wilson ranked Persons and Places among the few first-rate autobiographies, comparing it favorably to Yeats's memoirs, The Education of Henry Adams, and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Remarkably, Santayana achieved this stature in American thought without being an American citizen. He proudly retained his Spanish citizenship throughout his life. Yet, as he readily admitted, it is as an American that his philosophical and literary corpuses are to be judged. 
On The Partially Examined Life podcast, they discuss one of his classic books: The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of Aesthetic Theory (paper) or The Sense of Beauty Being the Outlines of Aesthetic Theory (Kindle, $0.00).

Episode 77: Santayana on the Appreciation of Beauty

Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 1:47:42 — 98.7MB)

On George Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty (1896)

What are we saying when we call something “beautiful?” Are we pointing out an objective quality that other people (anyone?) can ferret out, or just essentially saying “yay!” without any logic necessarily behind our exclamation? The poet and philosopher Santayana thought that while aesthetic appreciation is an immediate experience–we don’t “infer” the beauty of something by recognizing some natural qualities that it has–we can nonetheless analyze the experience after the fact to uncover a number of grounds on which we might appreciate something. He divides these into areas of matter (e.g. the pretty color or texture), form (the relations between perceived parts), and expression (what external to the work itself does it bring to mind?) and ends up being able to distinguish high art (form-centric) from more savage forms (centered on matter or expression) while distinguishing real appreciation (which can include any of the three elements) from mere pretension (when you don’t really have an immediate experience at all but merely recognize that you’re supposed to think that this is good).

The regular foursome talk through Santayana’s theory with regard to expressionist painting, rock ‘n roll, beautiful landscapes, abstract expressionism, and more. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: “Sense of Beauty” by Mark Lint with help from some PEL listeners. Read about it.

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