return to religion-online

Whitehead and Santayana

by Timothy T.L.S. Sprigge

Timothy T.L.S. Sprigge is Professor of Logic and Metaphysics, Philosophy Department, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, Eb8 9JX. E-mail: sprigge @tattoo.ed.ac.uk. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 43-55, Vol. 28, Number 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1999. The essay was published in German in Die Gifford Lectures und ihre Deutung, II, edited by Michael Hampe and Helmut Maassen (Suhrkamp, 1991): see review in PS 23/3-4, 197-198. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


George Santayana (1869-1952) and A.N. Whitehead (1861-1947) were almost precisely contemporary philosophers each of whom elaborated a complete metaphysical or ontological system, the affinities and contrasts between which are of considerable interest (I am not distinguishing here between metaphysics and ontology as the terminologies of our two thinkers diverge on this in ways attention to which would only unnecessarily complicate comparison). These certainly represent the most important contributions to traditional metaphysics of their time in English, and arguably in any language.

Both developed their metaphysical systems quite late in their philosophical career, having previously worked in somewhat different veins. Thus Santayana’s earlier work consists in philosophical comment on human life rather than constructive metaphysics or ontology, while Whitehead’s is devoted to the foundations of mathematics and the analysis of scientific concepts. The most important statements of Santayana’s later system are Skepticism and Animal Faith,1923 (SAF), and the four books of Realms of Being (RB); The Realm of Essence, 1927 (RE); The Realm of Matter, 1930 (RM); The Realm of Truth, 1938 (RT); The Realm of Symbols 1940 (RS).

The most important statements of Whitehead’s, in my opinion, are Science and the Modern World, 1925; Process and Reality 1929; Modes of Thought 1933. Of Santayana’s works it is The Realm of Essence, and even more, The Realm of Matter which it is most fruitful to compare to the work of Whitehead.

Both Whitehead and Santayana are rightly counted as figures in the history of American philosophy (and more specifically as main figures in the line of outstanding Harvard philosophers) but their relations to America are in striking contrast. While Whitehead found that he could only develop his final system satisfactorily after having left Europe (Britain) for the US.A. in 1924, Santayana found he could only develop his after having left the US.A. for Europe. Santayana was Spanish, but, for somewhat complicated family reasons, lived in the U.S. from the age of nine till he was nearly fifty, leaving it in 1912 to live first in England until after the first world war, and then in Rome. His resignation from the Harvard philosophy department (and total retirement from university life) where he had graduated and taught from 1899 was the source of some distress to American philosophers who had regarded him as one of the leading figures in a distinctively American tradition,

Different as their relations to, and attitudes towards, America were, both philosophers belong to a tradition which is strikingly American and both philosophers have only been adequately appreciated there. Santayana was self-consciously Latin as opposed to Anglo-Saxon, he said that his aim in philosophy has been to say as many un-English things in English as he could, and he wrote a good deal of a somewhat denigratory nature about American life (though he had positive things to say as well) but he admitted that it was as an American philosopher that he was to be counted if he was to be counted at all. In fact, he was more influenced than he evidently realized by William James. This is one link between him and Whitehead who appreciated the extent to which James had anticipated key features of his own process philosophy. In any case, whatever the causes, Whitehead and Santayana form with James, Josiah Royce, C.A. Strong, C.S. Peirce, Charles Hartshorne and others a distinctive philosophical grouping with common concerns distinct from those of British and European philosophers. One striking affinity between all these philosophers, except Peirce, is the central role in their metaphysics played by the notion of "the specious present."

Santayana and Whitehead are among the few philosophers in this century who have elaborated complete metaphysical systems which are distinctively pre-Kantian in style. Both offer large scale systematic accounts of the nature of reality in general, largely dismissing the suggestion that the only world we can know is one whose main structure is determined by the human cognitive system and which, therefore, only exists for us. Thus both reject that centering of the philosophic enterprise upon epistemology so typical of philosophy in recent times. They thereby stand in contrast to the two traditions which have been distinctive of British and European philosophy respectively this century namely those of conceptual analysis and phenomenology. Certainly one of the reasons for the neglect of both thinkers among English language philosophers has been that they have not played the role which Russell and Wittgenstein did in generating so-called analytical philosophy (a philosophical style inimical, upon the whole, to attempts to theorize about the nature of the universe in general. Likewise they are far apart from such metaphysics or ontology as spawned by phenomenology and which, even in its Heideggerian form (contrary as this is to how those soaked in it may be willing to admit), seems more an inquiry into how the world is for us than into its real nature. (Insofar as these traditions now issue in "deconstructionism," Whitehead and Santayana are still further away from them, since both patiently attempt to work out just how things really are.)

In short, both Santayana and Whitehead are realists. Details of their official accounts of truth aside, each basically supposes that there is a world with its own definite character and that thought is true to the extent that it is able to capture something of this character in words or concepts (even if often only in highly symbolic terms).

Likewise each thinker, both in mood and theory is totally opposed to anthropocentrism. Each sees the existence of the human race as just one particular episode in a vast non-human immensity and is hostile to the hubris which would tailor the universe to the human scale. (Santayana, however, thought that Whitehead’s identification of reality with experience risked jeopardizing such naturalism. He may also have thought that Whitehead’s theism belonged with theism in general as a fallacious attempt to humanize the universe; for Santayana, though he saw theistic religion as possessing a type of poetic or symbolic truth, was, at the level of blunt factuality, an atheist.)

I turn now to some of the more technical points of contrast and affinity between our two thinkers.

The question of what it is to be or to exist is central to the thought of each. Whitehead’s approach here is crystallized in his "ontological principle," that "whatever things there are in any sense of ‘existence,’ are derived by abstraction from actual occasions" (PR 73). Thus for Whitehead that which exists or has being in the most fundamental sense is a fully concrete particular individual. There are plenty of other things, but their being is in every case somehow derivative from that of one of these completely concrete bits of reality.

Thus while eternal objects play a major role in Whitehead’s scheme, he denies them independent being. That they are independent of us only goes to show that there must be a God whose apprehension grounds their being. No such principle is accepted by Santayana. He posits essences characterized in terms mostly the same as Whitehead’s eternal objects, but the "pure being" which they possess is not dependant on any home they may find in particular existences. He does, however, carefully distinguish this being from existence. Just two of the four Realms of Being which he distinguishes are existential: the items which form the realms of matter and the realm of spirit both exist, while the being which essences possess in detachment from the existential realms is not properly called "existence." As for truth, Santayana speaks of this as subsisting, holding that it has an intermediate status between pure being and existence as that segment of the realm of essence which is distinguished from the rest by its role as a description of what exists.

Though he denies that their being depends on their occurrence as aspects of the nature of existences, Santayana shares something of Whitehead’s concern to avoid "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness," in general and specifically with reference to essences. It is because he fears that speaking of pure essences as existing will encourage assimilation of their status to that of efficacious particular things that he insists that so long as they stick within their own eternal realm they only have pure being. Santayana and Whitehead often echo each other in what they say about their essences and eternal objects. Thus both appeal to them to explicate the sense of counter-factual suppositions. Moreover, Santayana would agree with Whitehead’s statement that "[an] eternal object is always a potentiality actual entities; but in itself . . . it is neutral as to the facts of its . . . ingression in any particular actual entity of the temporal world" (PR 44). Thus, Whitehead holds that it is the actual occasion which decides which eternal objects it will participate in, so that one must not look to the eternal objects to explain why one enters existence as a character present in some actual occasion rather than another. This is a main theme of Santayana’s too (see, for example, ED 276). The realm of essence is the home of an eternal infinity of qualities and forms which the flux of physical existence (the realm of matter) may or may not actualize from time to time as the character of one of its phases (or which spirit may or may not conceive or imagine from time to time) but there is no dynamism in the realm of essence to determine which shall thus enter the concrete world (see RB 385-386). The essences sit there passively in the realm of essence to be picked out by an activity on the part of the physical flux which they do nothing to explain. In the same spirit Santayana and Whitehead agree in objecting, like Nietzsche, to the idea that change in the natural world is controlled by "laws of nature," viewing the laws rather as simply descriptions of what each unit to which they apply "decides" to do itself (RB 301-302). For Santayana, however, a word like "decides" must be taken as heavily metaphorical here, while for Whitehead it has a more literal sense (at least with respect to conscious actual entities).

However, although their being is rooted in God’s apprehension of them, and only through mediation do they enter into our life and thought, Whitehead gives eternal objects a role as final causes somewhat alien to Santayana. For Whitehead evidently supposes that it is the value which God apprehends an eternal object as possessing, or its suitability for ingression in a particular context, which makes it a lure for action. As against this, Santayana is loath to see matter (which alone is fundamentally efficacious) as genuinely attracted to any particular essence. However, he does hold that the goal towards which physical processes are directing the behavior of an animal finds conscious expression at the level of spirit by its intuition of the goal’s essence under the form of the good. That special essence or form, then, though it exercises no real control over what happens, does have a special role in registering the direction in which some particular portion of the natural world is moving.

The extent to which Santayana and Whitehead are often quite close is disguised by Santayana’s wish to formulate new thought in as traditional a form as possible, and Whitehead’s belief that his ideas require a new terminology. This is particularly illustrated by the difference between their treatment of the vexed notion of "substance."

There are two senses of "substance" which are relevant here. First, there is the notion of an individual or "primary" substance, an ousia in Aristotle’s sense, which retains its individual identity through change and of which universals are predicable, while it itself is predicable of nothing. Second, there is the notion of substance or matter, ulh or upokeimenon, in Aristotle’s sense, as that which in combination with form constitutes such an individual ousia.

Whitehead rejects both notions in the Aristotelian and traditional sense. True, there are on his account, individual substances, namely his actual occasions, and, indeed, they are the only things which exist in the primary sense of "exist," but they are quite unlike those of Aristotle. For (1) they are not continuants which remain the same through change, but pulses of process; (2) they are predicable of each other, so that the proper fundamental description of an actual occasion is not in subject-predicate propositions, where the predicate is a universal, but in terms of the way in which other actual occasions enter into its being; (3) there is no distinction between their form and matter in Aristotle’s sense. Thus the fundamental particulars of the world are events rather than continuants and their inherent nature consists, not in the universals under which they fall, but in the past particulars which enter into their being there to be synthesized in new arrangements.

On the face of it Santayana rejects all three of these departures from the tradition, since (1) he makes no very explicit move from a continuant to an event ontology, (2) regards the inherent nature of an object as a matter of the individual eternal essence which it actualizes and (3) regards the distinction between matter and form as at least a virtually inevitable way of expressing the obscure manner in which one state of things takes over from another (see RB 278-284).

But how great really is the difference between them here? Certainly as regards (1) there may be less difference between them than at first appears. For when Santayana explains what it is for an essence to be exemplified, or for a truth to be about something, he typically talks of their instances or objects as "facts," meaning by this some particular bit of the natural world as it is at a specific time and place (as it is directly if physical or derivatively if mental). Enduring things arise simply because the physical flux goes on exemplifying a certain form in a certain context for a time (see ED 274,279). And when he presents his deepest account of the structure of the natural world he characterizes these facts as "natural moments" or "moments of spirit" (if mental). Thus, after all, the fundamental constituents of the world are for him "events," each actualizing its own essence, together with (as the obscure bond between them is most readily described) the substance which they inherit from their predecessors and pass on to their successors, rather than persisting continuants changing their accidental properties while retaining their essence. So if Santayana is not an "event ontologist" like Whitehead, it is not because he thinks ordinary continuants or "primary substances" are ontologically more basic than events, which he does not, but because he speaks of the derivation of one event from another as the transmission of matter or substance, in the sense of ulh, from one to another. This certainly looks like a commitment to the tradition attacked by (3) but we shall be seeing that it is doubtful how deep the divergence between our two thinkers really goes even on this point.

Where Whitehead and Santayana are strikingly similar is in holding that the spatio-temporal world is ultimately atomic or quantic so that what constitutes the world at any one moment, or a piece of history, is a system of facts, events, natural moments, or actual occasions, whose relations (or perhaps rather possibilities of relations) constitute space and time (as opposed to their being as mere possibilities of relations) rather than are in them as containers (see ED 27). Assuming the reader’s familiarity with Whitehead’s conception of an actual occasion I shall point Out some features of Santayana’s notion of these fundamental units of space-time which are more or less close to this.

A natural moment is an ultimate unit in the flux of existence in which an essence is actualized in an all-at-once fashion. (For Santayana’s treatment of natural moments, see RM chapter V and VII, especially at ED 280-292 and 323-325.) The essence may be complex but if this is so there is no separate actualization of its elements by genuinely distinct units of existence. In contrast stand conventional moments. These are bits of the world which may be considered as units for good human purposes, but which do not possess the unitary character of a natural moment since they are composed of such moments in external relations to one another. A conventional moment does indeed exemplify an essence. But this essence is the truth about it, that is, it is a unit in the realm of essence which does genuine justice to what it is without being exemplified by it in the all-at-once fashion it would be if it were exemplified by a natural moment. Rather, is it a unitary picture of a bit of reality which itself only exists in a piecemeal dispersed fashion (see ED 269-270, and 293-296). This seems to me the clear sense of what Santayana is saying, though some commentators understand him rather differently.

Santayana holds that essences could not be brought into the world of existence at all unless at a certain level there are essences actualized in this all-at-once fashion. Although he does not appeal, like Whitehead, in justification of this atomic view of the ultimate elements of the spatio-temporal world, to Zeno’s paradoxes, the thought is somewhat similar to the latter’s belief that nothing could become unless there is some becoming not composed of more minute becomings. But how do these natural moments stand to each other so that they make up larger units and ultimately a world? Santayana speaks of them as in external relations to each other. His use of the external/internal distinction is different from Whitehead’s. The sense in which these relations between natural moments are external is that they are not simply contrasts and affinities between the essences of the terms, such as hold between them in the pure realm of essence. And it is precisely the holding of such external relations between them which constitutes them as existing things -- without such relations they would simply be their essences (RB 278). For there are no external relations in the realm of essence, only internal relations of two kinds: (1) the contrasts and affinities between essences; (2) the way in which the elements of a complex essence stand together in the unitary pattern which it is. This means that the truth about a complex of natural moments can never quite do justice to it; for the relations between its elements are external, while the truth is an essence in which those relations are indicated by internal relations, in the second sense, between its elements. So even if we knew the literal truth about the ultimate units of the world, and how they stand to each other, there would be something we would not grasp thereby, namely the external relations between natural moments constitutive of all larger "facts" (see ED 218). But can this be grasped at all? Only in a generalized sense of the existential flux which we lose the greater our conceptual clarity. The most we can do is use words suggestive of this fundamental feature of reality which is necessarily opaque to truth and mind (see RB 274). (It is not that truth is mental, but that mind’s access to nature is, at least so far as it becomes clear, through grasp of the truth about it.)

The words Santayana uses here are "substantial inheritance" and "lateral tension," The first is the mode of passage of natural moments into their successors, the second is the mutual pressure on each other of contemporary natural moments which influences what each thus passes into. As regards the former, Santayana suggests that we cannot much improve on the "[t]he classic expedient [which] is to analyze existence into matter and form, the matter being transmissible and serving to connect moment with moment, and to render the later the offspring of the earlier, while the former serves to characterize each moment and give it individuality and limits" (ED 279; see also ED 208 and 282).

Evidently in trying to understand natural moments and how they stand to each other Santayana is concerned with just those issues with which Whitehead is coping in his discussion of the constitution of actual occasions and their influence upon one another. But his answer diverges in two ways: (i) In speaking of "lateral tensions" as having some influence on what each natural moment passes on to later moments, Santayana is in conflict with Whitehead’s view that in its process of becoming an actual occasion is causally quite detached from its contemporaries, and operates privately upon the past occasions which have entered into it in order to produce that over-all character which it will pass on to later occasions. Here there is a real divergence between our thinkers. (ii) In talking of "substantial inheritance" Santayana seems to be using a category of matter which Whitehead rejects. For Santayana, "matter" is the appropriate name for such "substance" as the character possessed by the substance of our actual world (see RB 234). However, it should be realized that Santayana thinks this relation of substantial inheritance (like that of "lateral tension"), as an external one, is simply uncapturable in terms of essence, so that, as real as it is, no truth about it can quite capture its nature. So it is doubtful that Santayana believes in matter in a way which conflicts with Whitehead’s rejection of it. And some of what he says about the taking over of one moment from another sounds quite Whiteheadian. Thus each moment is a "center and self-assertive" by "being a focus of rays gathered into it from external sources and discharged again into eventual effects." (The phrase "natural moment" is not used at this point but the idea, developed more fully shortly after, is implied.) On the other hand, it would seem that for Santayana, Whitehead’s attempt to replace this by the notion of actual occasions prehending each other represents no advance on this. However, granted the difference in their use of "internal," one cannot say that Santayana rejects Whitehead’s view that the relation is internal; he certainly accepts that it is intimate.)

There is much in Santayana’s discussion of these matters which would justify calling him a philosopher of "becoming" Thus he says that the "natural moment exists only in act" as something "essentially transitional" (ED 282). And in explaining, so far as he can, lateral tensions and substantial inheritance, he implies that there is a kind of process within the natural moments which he calls "forward tension" while time for him comes down to the taking over of one set of natural moments by another. But there are two respects in which he remains a philosopher of being. First, there is the independent reality which he ascribes to the realm of essence. He is not too far from Plato in regarding the world of process into which these are dragged from time to time as a second rate reality. Second, and more importantly, Santayana holds that there is an eternal truth about the world as a whole which does not change, and that the distinctions between past, present and future are not ultimate, In the last resort every natural moment is just there eternally in its own position in the total system, and the past is simply what is past from the point of view of some particular moment (see RB 253, 254. 256-257, 264-265). At least as most interpret him, Whitehead rejects this view, though I wonder whether his idea of God does not eventually imply something like it. For if God is an actual entity, and if the elements of an actual entity are only abstractions from its concrete units there must be some level at which the consequent nature of God is complete and everything at all times displayed to God. Be that as it may, Santayana would have little truck with any notion of the "loss of subjective immediacy" and the "objective immortality" of an actual entity (see especially ED 264- 265). So far as moments of spirit go, each is just there in its own position in the universe enjoying its own intuition and intent, and its pastness is something which it only has for other moments of spirit just as it has futurity for others.

Thus the difference between Santayana and Whitehead over the latter’s first and third divergence from the Aristotelian notion of substance listed above is less than might at first appear. How is it with respect to the second way that Whitehead departs from the tradition? Santayana treads a delicate path here. On the one hand he says: "That a thing by its internal being should have reference to something external -- a fact which in the case of knowledge gives so much trouble to logicians -- is so far from being an anomaly or an exception that it is the indispensable condition of existing at all," and he applies this principle to his description of a natural moment as intimately bound up with its antecedents and consequents and with the moments whose lateral pressure helps determine what the consequents shall be. But though he sees neighboring natural moments as deeply involved with each other, he also insists that the possession by each of its own essence or nature is a sharply distinct fact from the possession of its own nature (the same or another) by any other.

It is this latter idea, that the nature of a particular thing consists wholly in the universals which it exemplifies (and therefore cannot contain intrinsic reference to any other particular thing), which Whitehead sees as the ground for taking solipsism seriously. He sees Santayana as a perfect modern example of this tendency (see PR 48 and 158).

Thus for Whitehead solipsism is only a temptation because intellectually we turn our back on that deep connectedness which we always really feel between our present pulse of subjectivity and other actual occasions. Santayana thinks, in contrast, that "a solipsism of the present moment" is, indeed, the logical upshot of commitment to certain canons of rationality and is, in principle, more intelligent than many more qualified skepticisms, which are inferior to it by these criteria and hardly more sustainable psychologically (see SAF chapters VI, VII, XI). However, since no one who addresses others, or takes ordinary steps to look after himself; is such a solipsist, the sensible part is to revise our conception of rationality and associate it with the inevitable credo of animal faith, that is, with the beliefs which we cannot but have as animals coping with the world. True, the belief that we are such animals is itself simply part of this credo but there is no reason why a belief’s genesis, as opposed to its justification, should not lie in what it posits. Moreover, since we really do have these beliefs, we have no justification for describing them as though they were a form of play-acting, as some idealists do, but should insist that the world really is, as Santayana is quite sure that it is, as they characterize it (see SAP chapters XVIII, XIX).

To the extent that Santayana thinks solipsism has its own kind of rationality, this is indeed because he ascribes a certain completeness to a single state of mind, so that what is fully present to it does not absolutely prove that there is anything beyond. Whitehead is right that this would be undercut by his own account of actual occasions, and what he calls their internal relatedness in a sense of "internal" different from Santayana’s). The contrast between Santayana and Whitehead here springs partly from the fact that for Santayana moments of spirit, being non-efficacious, are less intimately related to other events than are physical events.

Actually it is an over-simplification to say that Santayana thinks solipsism of the present moment the logical upshot of rationality as traditionally conceived. Consistently carried out it would lead to a pure intuition of essences enjoying their pure non-existential being (see SAF chapter VII). For Santayana denies that the mind confronts itself or its own acts immediately. Rather it intuits essences, which animal faith interprets as characterizing events in a natural world. If this animal faith is resisted, it is not one’s own mental states with which one is left but pure essences detached from any existential home.

In virtue of this it would appear that Santayana rejects what Whitehead calls the subjectivist principle, both in the traditional form Whitehead rejects, and in the revised form he accepts. For Whitehead thinks that Descartes was right in saying that the primary data for philosophy are not such propositions as "This stone is grey" but rather "my experience of this stone as grey" (PR 159). Where Descartes went wrong was in treating the given subjective facts as concerning the separable character of one’s own subjectivity rather than the presentation of an independent object thereto. It is one’s subjectivity as cognizant of what is independent of it which is therefore basic according to the revised version of the principle.

Santayana would reject the principle in both forms since he holds, as we have just seen, that there is no special immediacy about mind’s knowledge of itself: What is ordinarily, and properly, called "knowledge" is, for Santayana, the intuition of an essence combined with an act of intent directed upon some reality beyond which this essence is taken as a description. If mind could concentrate on itself it might indeed find solipsism tempting, for the ultimate units of reality; including complete mental states or moments of spirit, as we have seen, each have their own distinctive character. But, in fact, mind’s main choice is between the correct, though finally improvable, acceptance of most of the essences it intuits as a description of a world in which mind has no special primacy and a confinement of attention simply to the eternal individuality of the essences immediately present to it.

Santayana thus identifies two aspects of mind or spirit, intuition of essences and intent directed upon things and processes in the natural world, and conceives knowledge as arising from their combination (see ED 350, 663-665 and 726). "Intent" in this sense is sometimes called "animal faith" (though sometimes he uses this expression to refer to those beliefs, arising from a mixture of intuition and intent, which an agent practically engaged with the world around him cannot honestly deny that he holds for true). Whitehead makes the interesting suggestion at one point that if "animal faith" (in the sense of "intent") refers to perception in the mode of causal efficacy then Santayana’s position is virtually the same as his (see PR 52, 81 and 142).

One could hardly accept such an identification as fully true to Santayana’s intentions, yet there is a certain intriguing affinity between Whitehead’s distinction between perception in the mode of presentational immediacy and perception in the mode of causal efficacy and Santayana’s distinction between intuition and intent.

Whitehead thinks of perception in the mode of presentational immediacy as the presentation of clear, obvious sensory data, such as vision most strikingly affords, and which are the basis for the Humean notion of impressions. In contrast stands the more basic perception in the mode of causal efficacy; which "is our general sense of existence, as one item among others in an efficacious external world" and "of derivation from an immediate past, and of passage to an immediate future"; its data "are vague, not to be controlled, heavy with emotion." There truly is a strong affinity here to Santayana’s idea of intent or animal faith as the way in which we turn dumbly to a reality beyond, whose character can only be more exactly specified for us by the essences which we intuit. essences Santayana usually takes as what Whitehead would call "presentationally immediate" as his typical examples. Surely our two philosophers are responding here to the same facts (see, for example, Santayana at RB 216). However, so far as their actual interpretation of these facts goes, they are hardly at one. For Santayana intent is a kind of felt turning to the world and readiness to take intuited essences as describing it intent and intuition are thus aspects of every sort of perception (and thought), not two types of perception. The most one could say is that, in bodily sensation, the essences are less clearly defined than those of the distance senses and the dumb intent more insistent. but there is no such difference, as Whitehead claims, in the certainty of what they convey; each is as capable in principle of a solipsistic interpretation as is the other (but see RB 216).

Although Santayana rejects the subjectivist principle both in its Cartesian and its Whiteheadian form, he is otherwise nearer to Cartesian dualism than is Whitehead.

Whitehead in his attack upon the "bifurcation of nature" declared his opposition to Cartesian dualism. Our minds are a series of actual occasions which, in their general nature, are akin to those which constitute the inner being of the physical world at large. Even if those commentators are right who say that Whitehead is not properly called a panpsychist, he is certainly close to being one. In fact, in spite of his insisting that most actual occasions are unconscious (and that there is much that is unconscious even in that series of actual occasions which constitute our successive mental states), his talk of their experience or feeling of themselves, the influence of their predecessors, and their subjective immediacy seems pointless unless each of them is supposed to feel its own being, in some genuine sense, however dimly, so that there is a truth as to what-it-is-like-being-it. Certainly that raises difficult problems. The supposed structure of actual occasions is far more complex and jam-packed than anything which one can easily persuade oneself that one feels in one’s own being, while to say that this is because much of it is unconscious leaves one’s consciousness as a felt unit of concrete reality standing apart from the totality of the occasion to which it belongs in a manner which threaten the latter’s unity. But however all this may be, it is certainly central to his metaphysics that the natural world is made up of items of the same general sort as our own states of mind and that they share a common type of efficacy.

Santayana’s position is, on the face of it, very different. Moments of spirit (i.e., total states of consciousness) are, for him, like natural moments inasmuch as they are fundamental units of existence in which essences are actualized in an intensive fashion. Otherwise, however, the contrasts outweigh the affinities. The natural moments contain no consciousness of these essences, or of anything else, but they, and the material substance which we must speak of them as passing on from previous to subsequent moments, are the sole efficacious agencies in the world. Moments of spirit, in contrast, are inefficacious expressions of material substance when the natural moments into which it flows are patterned to form goal-pursuing organisms (in the sense, as we might put it now, that they are physically programmed to act in ways which favor the development of a certain specific life cycle). They provide the organism, or, as Santayana puts it, the psyche (this being the power of the organism to develop and protect its form in a manner responsive to the environment) with its consciousness (symbolic rather than literal of what and where it is, and of what it is up to, but play no real part in controlling its behavior. Although this is Santayana’s unambiguous and continually reiterated position, I believe that his notion of a natural moment owes much to this sense of what a moment of spirit is. If so, his thought drifts in a more Whiteheadian direction than suits his official claims. He would reply, however, that mental terms do serve as a useful metaphor for the natural flux but should not be thought of as having literal application to it. He develops this point in particular with reference to "will," e.g. in RS chapters IV and V; see also ED 379.) The distinction between symbolic and literal truth and knowledge is a main theme of Santayana’s; he holds that most of our knowledge is of the former kind but that, in recognizing this, we should never forget that there must be a literal truth thus symbolized.

Santayana’s main reason for his "epiphenomenalism" turns on the claim that moments of spirit, by their very nature, could not be states which an enduring material stuff takes on to be transmitted thereby to further states (see ED 604-605; 366), We cannot examine this reasoning here. I should note, however, that for Santayana the recognition that spirit has no efficacy, far from rendering it pointless, clarifies what it really adds to the world, namely value.

On God, to come to deity finally, there is little but contrast between our philosophers. For Whitehead God is a metaphysical necessity, not as the world’s creator, ex nihilo but as that foundational actual entity which is the home of eternal objects and the medium by which they can become objects of that aspiration on the part of ordinary actual entities which is the moving force of the world. For Santayana neither the pure being of essence, nor the activity of the physical world, with its generation of spirit, calls for such an explanation. Yet Santayana regards religion, of one definite sort or another, as a requisite for a good human life, in either of the two great forms he distinguishes: the life of reason and the spiritual life. Within that context. "God," in his various aspects, serves as a potent and hallowed symbol for various features of reality. On the one hand, it points us towards the highest ideals to which spirit can commit itself, on the other to our dependence on a vast cosmos towards which natural piety is the proper emotion.

 

Notes

1.I have refreshed my mind on the thought of Whitehead before writing this article with the help of Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition by Ivor Leclerc (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and London, 1985). But my knowledge of Whitehead is based on a thorough reading of the relevant works in the past and of most of the commentaries also on discussions with Leemon McHenry.

2. Thus Santayana expressed his own sympathy with Whitehead’s naturalistic turning of his back on the empiricist "way of ideas" of Berkeley, Hume, Mill and Russell, but thought the naturalism was spoilt by Whitehead’s movement to panpsychism. See The Letters of George Santayana edited by Daniel Cory, New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955, at 33); see also Santayana: Th Later Years by Daniel Cory (George Braziller Inc. 1963, at 59 and 83-85).

3. See The Letters of George Santayana (326) for Santayana’s criticism of Whitehead’s unnecessary neologism. Santayana himself avoids calling them "events" since he reserves this term for what he calls "conventional moments" (see RB 293).

4. Are the absolute bases of the credo of animal faith literally or wily symbolically true for Santayana? I think that; while the ordinary person’s grasp of them is completely merged with the symbolic or poetic, the ontological can detect a detachable core of literal truth. See RB 202 - 217, 232-235 (The Realm of Matter, chapters II and III at end.)

5. On this matter see my debate with Angus Kerr-Lawson in "Overheard in Seville" The Bulletin of the Santayana Society, 1(1984).

References (Santayana)

SAF Scepticism and Animal Faith, London: Constable and Company Ltd., 1923.

RB Realms of Being, New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942.


Viewed 7412 times.