Review: The Sense of Beauty

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The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of Aesthetic TheoryGeorge Santayana. New York: Dover Publications, 1955 (originally published 1896).

Summary: A philosophical discussion of the nature of beauty, grounding it in the pleasure of the perceiver with an object and its associations.

Classically, philosophy has spoken of three transcendentals: Truth (logic), Goodness (ethics), and Beauty (aesthetics). To satisfy the requirements of tenure at Harvard, George Santayana wrote this book, based on lectures, to offer his own outline of an aesthetic theory in what was his first book. Perhaps the most striking move of Santayana was to move beauty from the realm of the transcendental to that of human perception of value in the object perceived. He contrasts physical pleasure, focused on the organ of sensation, with aesthetic sensation, focused on the object from which pleasure arises. He defines beauty as “pleasure objectified.”

He then explores this sense of beauty under three headings: the materials of beauty, form, and expression. The materials of beauty focus on the  various human senses, chiefly sight, hearing, memory and imagination, through which perception and appreciation of objects occur. Form has to do with both external realities that give rise to sensation and their mental representation. He explores aspects of these that produce pleasure including symmetry, uniformity, and multiplicity, and also the idea of “indeterminate” forms such as landscapes that derive their beauty from the perceptive interpretation of the observe. Finally, Santayana explores the nature of expression which means the qualities one associates with an object. This suggests that one’s sense of beauty develops from immediate perception to a deeper perception where past experience, imagination, and other associations shape the kind of aesthetic pleasure one has in the object.

Santayana elaborates each of these elements in a discussion that is highly abstract, that I won’t attempt to outline or summarize here. What troubles me in his treatment, which seems to me a sophisticated way of saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” is the elimination of the transcendent aspects of beauty. For those who sense beyond perceived beauty an author of beauty, Santayana would say this is simply one’s sense experience, and one’s sense of the sublime is simply ecstatic pleasure. There is nothing “beyond” to which beauty points. The sehnsucht or longing that C.S. Lewis writes of in Surprised by Joy when listening to Wagner, or glimpsing a scene in nature, to Santayana signifies nothing more than the interplay between object and sense eventuating in aesthetic pleasure. When Bono says, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” Santayana might reply, “and you never will. All you may find is what you are looking at.”

I find myself wondering how much Santayana’s aesthetic has shaped both the making of and the appreciation of art. How might artists pursue their work differently when they do not compose and paint, write and dance, with the object of “Soli Deo Gloria” and instead see their work as evoking aesthetic pleasure in those who partake of them. How are we changed as we are discouraged, when experiencing what we might call the “transcendent” in a work to think of it as nothing more than a confluence of the material of our senses, the form of a work, and its expressive associations. What happens when wonder is turned inward, rather than upward?

These were some of the questions I was left with on reading Santayana.

One thought on “Review: The Sense of Beauty

  1. Pingback: The Month In Reviews: December 2019 | Bob on Books

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