Is George Santayana an American Philosopher?

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ABSTRACT: Max Fisch famously characterized Classic American Philosophy and listed six figures representative of the period: Peirce, James, Royce, Dewey, Santayana, and Whitehead. Santayana’s fit with this group has sometimes seemed dubious, with some commentators describing him as an outsider among the Americans. Yet, others have contended that he was indeed an American philosopher. Santayana himself could seem ambiguous as to whether he thought he belonged among American thinkers, but I want to suggest that ultimately he conceived of his philosophy as distinct from anything he recognized as American philosophy. This contributes to an understanding of his critique of American philosophy, resolves Santayana’s ambiguity on the American question, and offers a conception of philosophy as spiritual freedom. (116 words)


“[M]y intellectual relations and labours still unite me closely to America; and it is as an American writer that I must be counted, if I am counted at all” (PGS, 603).


Max Fisch famously characterized the time between the end of the Civil War and beginning of World War II as a classic period of American philosophy,[1] and he identified six Classic American Philosophers: Peirce, James, Royce, Santayana, Dewey, and Whitehead. Santayana—the Spanish-born Catholic who never became an American citizen—often is considered peculiar among this group. He arrived in the United States in 1872 when he was eight years old, and after a Harvard career as both student and teacher he left in 1912 to live in Europe until his death in 1952. A well-known history of philosophy characterized Santayana as “an alien figure—an outsider whose very presence is puzzling” and who “belongs to no American tradition” (Flower and Murphey 773).[2]

There are some obvious ways in which Santayana stands apart from the Classic American Philosophers. He remarked his irritation with “disingenuous Protestantism” in New England and his discomfort in the presence of William James (LGS 1:212; PP 401-02). He characterized the influences on the expression of his thought as accidental and maintained that no matter when or where he had been born he “should have had the same philosophy” (SAF x). His philosophy seems to elude the fourteen themes or tendencies Fisch traced in the work of the six Classical American Philosophers.[3]

Yet, none of this would have been news to Fisch,[4] who allowed for “what is unique or emphatic in each philosopher” (Fisch 1). He sought not a profile to which each thinker would conform but continuity among the six figures in terms of biography and intellectual influence. However, Santayana’s work may offer deeper reasons for considering him exceptional among his American predecessors and contemporaries and for placing him outside American intellectual life. I want to state what it could mean, in Santayana’s terms, to claim that he does not belong to an American tradition.

In 1911, Santayana delivered his well-known address, “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” and described a philosophy as “a distinct vision of the universe and definite convictions about human destiny” (WD 187). A philosophy articulates the ideals and ends involved in a people’s activities, defining their troubles and directing their hopes. Santayana found no such expression in American intellectual life and instead observed what he christened the genteel tradition.

Santayana saw America as a vibrant nation of expansion, experiment, and technological innovation; but he observed that it took its stated philosophy from other times and places. The genteel tradition, consisting of second-hand philosophies rooted in Kant and Hegel, grew out of transcendental method made into doctrine and Calvinism understood as a philosophical principle. The resulting forms of idealism dominated official philosophy in America, preaching providential order and absolute spirit and declaring reason or duty the ruling principle of a fixed cosmos. In actuality, American life grew out of uncertainty and established new forms of human flourishing. America’s actual ideals remained hidden and unexpressed even as its activities built a new nation; the American intellect was out of step with the American will.[5]

Thinkers who might have escaped the thrall of foreign tradition still had to contend with the temptation of anthropocentrism,[6] which denied the material basis of human life and attributed physical influence to thought, leaving the actual ideals of material activities undisclosed. In Santayana’s view, anthropocentric philosophies shared with idealistic philosophies a deceptive moralism. Both philosophies read human perspectives and preferences, whether formal and logical or romantic and empirical, into the structure of the universe, which inhibited expression and understanding of American life.

If America had no genuine philosophy that expressed its distinct vision, then no one—neither Santayana nor anyone else—could be an American philosopher. Santayana’s portraits of thinkers in America show how he thought each, with one exception, failed to express an American philosophy. Emerson was a Puritan mystic born too late and  “in no sense a prophet for his age or country” (IPR 139). Royce was an exemplar of the genteel tradition whose Calvinism was reflected in the notion “that virtue consisted . . . in holding evil by the throat; so that the world was good because it was a good world to strangle, and if we only managed to do so, the more it deserved strangling the better world it was” (COUS 67). And James, though perhaps free of the genteel tradition, seemed to represent not a cohesive system of values but rather a mood of romantic self-assertion. Santayana thought that the Americanism of James, like that of Emerson, was too idiosyncratic to reflect broader social currents (OS 217).

In contrast, John Dewey represented for Santayana the American tendency to subsume the individual in the social (OS 217). Santayana wrote:

It is only John Dewey who genuinely represents the mind of the vast mass of native, sanguine, enterprising Americans. He alone has formed a philosophical sect and become a dominant academic influence. He inherits the Puritan conscience, grown duly practical, democratic, and positivistic; and he accepts industrial society and scientific technique as the field where true philosophy may be cultivated and tested (BR 130).

But designating Dewey representative of the American mind did not prevent Santayana from making charges similar to those leveled against earlier thinkers.

The key to Santayana’s criticism of Dewey is the notion of the dominance of the foreground” (OS 223). The universe has no foreground or background; such distinctions follow from a particular perspective.  The dominance of the foreground results from favoring some perspective and ignoring what is not agreeable to that perspective thereby abandoning naturalism (OS 223). Pragmatism, claimed Santayana, did this by defining things in narrow terms of immediate use. Concerns in the foreground are emphasized to the neglect of other realities that serve no immediate need.

Santayana thought that the particular concerns in the foreground for Dewey came from the contemporary social emphasis on material activity—business, technology, and exploration. Developments in transportation, communication, and commerce and the expansion of the nation inevitably involved naturalistic assumptions of physical substance and independent existences. In other words, such activities exhibited the instinctive faith of living creatures in objects that they can act on and be affected by. Concern with such activities bequeathed to Dewey his naturalism; but since it was subject to prevailing perspectives on existence and ignorant of that to which contemporary moral life is not sympathetic, such naturalism could be only accidental. Hence, Santayana attacked Dewey’s naturalism as “half-hearted and short-winded” (OS 225), because rather than acknowledge animal faith in independent existences it followed dominant social interests.

In Santayana’s reading, Dewey called the dominant foreground “experience,” understood impersonally or transcendentally as “something romantically absolute” and substituted for an independent nature (OS 226). Santayana regarded immediate experience as “only the dream which accompanies our action” (OS 233-34) but thought Dewey made immediate experience the only reality. This eliminated the distinction between knowledge of objects and objects of knowledge, absorbed nature into thought, and entailed mysticism.

Santayana was not an American philosopher either in the sense of expressing the ideals of American culture or in the sense of subscribing to Dewey’s articulation of them. Santayana’s naturalism, or as he called it, his materialism, compelled him to reject the subjectivism and mysticism he found in American philosophy. But ultimately Santayana’s concern was with spiritual freedom, and he believed that moralism and deception in American philosophy threatened philosophical reflection and spiritual freedom.

For Santayana materialism meant living and moving at the whim of a mindless and irrational process, “a great automatic engine moving out of the past into the future” (PGS 505). He characterized his view as “ordinary perception, sustained in its impulsive trust but criticized in its deliverance” (PGS 505), and he took it to be the presupposition of scientific inquiry and intentional action. It grows out of the faith of all active creatures in material nature, a faith that is redirected and modified in action and reflection.

In criticism, Santayana’s materialism required him “to understand every part of nature from within. . . .  [and] to conceive life, knowledge, and spirit as absolutely natural growths, and not to grudge them their exuberance” (PGS 550). Hence, he acknowledged the legitimacy of Dewey’s perspective. Similarly he acknowledged the right of a society to regard the world as its domain and human consciousness as an instrument of the public good just as any spirit has a right “to regard existence as a strange dream” (OS 239). The materialist critic is then free to distinguish what part of a philosophy expresses material conditions and what part privileges biases and desires. In Dewey’s philosophy, Santayana observed that the expression of material conditions was accidental and the emphasis on experience a manifestation of subjectivism.

In pointing out Dewey’s biased philosophical perspective, Santayana never meant to suggest that criticism could assume a godlike standpoint. He thought critical standards internal to a judge and not themselves chosen critically. Any expression of such standards is more like a confession of natural affections than criticism (PGS 551). But he maintained an important distinction between the limited perspective acknowledged in his criticism and the anthropocentrism or subjectivism he found in American philosophy. Santayana claimed to recognize the limitation of his perspective, while the subjects of his critique seemed to presume the priority of their perspectives over nature.

Santayana maintained that each philosophy is the work of an individual and bears the marks of human temperament and finitude. To the extent that one forgets this, one departs from human orthodoxy. By orthodoxy Santayana understood, “not . . . those orthodoxies which prevail in particular schools or nations” (SAF v), but rather the background of all philosophical systems, “the current imagination and good sense of mankind—something traditional, conventional, incoherent, and largely erroneous, like the assumptions of a man who has never reflected, yet something ingenuous, practically acceptable, fundamentally sound, and capable of correcting its own innocent errors” (OS 95). When a philosophical system emphasizes some favored part of this background and denies other parts, it abandons orthodoxy and becomes heresy. Dewey’s pragmatism, thought Santayana, was heretical in taking an illusion to be fact, namely, in taking immediate experience, the dream that accompanies action, to be reality.

There are two ways to avoid heresy. One is to achieve a “comprehensive synthesis” by engaging in broad speculation without distortion. Santayana explained that “[s]uch a philosophy would be to human orthodoxy what the Fathers of the Church were to the Apostles, or the Doctors to the Fathers” (OS 99). No one has succeeded in this endeavor or is likely to do so. The other method is to confess “that a system of philosophy is a personal work of art which gives a specious unity to some chance vista in the cosmic labyrinth” (OS 100). [7] The philosopher who acknowledged this would “substitute the pursuit of sincerity for the pursuit of omniscience” (OS 100) and would never claim some particular philosophy to be a system of the universe. The mysticism of Emerson, the moralism of Royce, the romanticism of James, and the dominance of the foreground in Dewey all distorted reality without acknowledgement and seemed to Santayana to ignore the material world. Since ideals have a material basis these thinkers could give no honest expression of ideals.

 But Santayana did think an honest American philosophy was possible, as he briefly outlined in a 1904 address. Though he thought it would take centuries, the way to a sincere expression of American ideals was “simply to deepen practical life, to make it express all its possible affinities, all its latent demands” (Lyon 34). This meant recognizing the ground of ideals in material activities rather than taking them from dead tradition, and then being attentive to the direction of present activity. Conceivably Santayana’s objections to American philosophy might disappear in the future, when an honest philosophy would recognize its own limitations, the arbitrariness of its particular values, and the appreciation of ideals in themselves. It would have eliminated the coercive tendencies aimed at those with different backgrounds and ideals, and it could exist harmoniously with other philosophies.[8] But until then Santayana could not forget that his own roots and spiritual resources lay elsewhere.

In the face of the presumption of the universal value of American ideals, Santayana maintained connection to his Spanish heritage.[9] To understand the difference in ideals, which Santayana felt keenly, consider what he wrote about his being uprooted from Spain and his belief that he could not be fruitfully replanted. He described the “blind alley” in which he found himself with regard to religion in New England. In Spain he could have been a Catholic and retained his materialist philosophy with no direct social consequences. But in a Protestant nation, “the freethinking Catholic is in a socially impossible position” (PP 362). The trouble lies in America having subordinated spiritual matters to public and political concerns; so that one’s religious beliefs always have social consequences. Ideals were thought to serve the material realm of social organization rather than liberate the spirit from the pressures of such concerns.[10] In America the social and the moral dominated the spiritual; any opinion was fine only so long as it could be made to serve the people, to uplift and improve them. Contemplation of ideals was bound by duty.

Santayana saw things differently, and he refused, in his words, “to be annexed, to be abolished, or to be grafted onto any plant of a different species” (PP 363). Neither American deception nor American ideals suited him, and he strove to remain free of their influence. Santayana, as one commentator has noted, routinely rejected others’ interpretations and classifications of him, showing expertise in defense against categories and their cultural deployment (Dawidoff 152).  He resisted categorization that would have imposed a closed order on intellectual life, and it seemed classification as an American philosopher presented just such a danger. To subscribe to philosophies that distorted reality would close down intellectual life with insincere categories, inhibiting the expression of material conditions and understanding of world and self. Santayana resisted categorization to preserve the integrity and spiritual freedom that he valued most in philosophy.

The spiritual freedom that comes with sincere philosophy can be understood as the culmination of philosophy in rational art. Rational art, explained Santayana, has two forms: “Art may come to buttress a particular form of life, or it may come to express it” (TPP 189). The arts that buttress a form of life include business, science, and morality. They prepare us for life by establishing the field of activity and revealing the shape of the terrain. Such arts may provide a clear view of the world and secure and perpetuate that world. The expressive arts, such as philosophy, articulate the ideals that represent the ends of our activities. Such expressions go beyond awareness of activities and involve appreciation of consciousness itself, of the ideals, images, and concepts available to consciousness that Santayana called essences. Expressive arts celebrate these arbitrary qualities of activity, these “tender reverberations” of the soul and “overtones of life” (TPP 190). The qualities are arbitrary with respect to material interactions and open a realm of freedom for spirit or a “margin of play,” which Santayana wrote, “might grow broader, if the sustaining nucleus were more firmly established in the world. To the art of working well a civilized race would add the art of playing well” (TPP 190).

The distinction between forms of rational art assumes discrimination of waking intuitions from dreams, natural science from disciplines of the spirit, and powers from ideals. Without such discrimination, reality is miscomprehended, science bogged down in magic, and ideals subordinated to social agendas limiting contemplation. But when powers are discriminated from ideals then the first form of art can be secured and the second pursued for its own sake. Science may become secure and morality rational, while spirit may become free to play and appreciate ideals apart from material compulsions.

Santayana believed America lacked clear awareness of its environment and had not distinguished powers and ideals. Its traditions did not allow for spiritual freedom and play; and one consequence was the denial of unhappiness (WD 200). Since the subjectivism, romanticism, and moralism Santayana observed in America could offer only denial or optimistic uplift in the face of despair; the spirit was left ill prepared for the travails of life. Santayana thought philosophy as honest expression allowed the spirit to acknowledge ideals, and this opened a realm beyond the material for which spirit was better suited.

Henry Samuel Levinson has described philosophy for Santayana as an interruption of social and political engagement, a holiday from social concerns, and a “disintoxication” of the spirit from the values arising from interactions in a particular social or political situation (Levinson 5). The point is not to deny or escape the claims of material life, but rather to recognize the human spiritual capacities that give significance to the losses experienced in material life, to recognize the ideals that give meaning to our animal struggles. Recognition of ideals or essences, which are impotent in the material world, offers not the deception of blind optimism but rather unassailable freedom to the human spirit. To be able to look beyond the demands of business and politics is the practice of philosophy as a spiritual activity.

Levinson has further explained that spiritual disciplines permit a practical irresponsibility that makes possible appreciation of what is alien to one’s cherished values (Levinson 259). Judgment is suspended for the sake of appreciating things or people as they understand themselves, a freedom Santayana found absent in America and in contemporary philosophy. He observed no philosophy of genuine freedom but rather universal systems and philosophies pledged to the public good. In contrast he offered a philosophy that he characterized as “essentially a literary labour, a form of art; and I do not attempt to drive other people to think as I do. Let them be their own poets” (BR 134). In a letter he wrote, “[m]y philosophy is not urgent or ‘militant’: you can manage perfectly without it, but you will find a quiet solidity in it at the end” (LGS 8:127). He presented a philosophy that he thought could be important without being necessary, without coercing one to adopt it.

Consider again Santayana’s place among Classic American Philosophers as defined by Fisch. Santayana freely admitted that he is to be counted as an American if he is to be counted at all.[11] This is not a repudiation of the distinction he drew between his own philosophy and those of his American forbears and contemporaries. He realized that America would influence the world for a long time. He wrote, “the equipment, the machinery, something of the manners developed in America will have to be adopted wherever a lively participation in the movement of affairs is desired” (IW 36). But this need not entail the capitulation of other traditions; American ways might be used to defend “the ancient spirit” as in the installation of the radio-telegraph in Vatican City, with poles “almost as high as the cross of St. Peter’s” (IW 36). Similarly Santayana seemed to suggest that he might be regarded as having taken up the idiom of America, if accidentally and unintentionally, in order to say un-American things.[12]

So, if Santayana is taken seriously as a philosopher, it may be by virtue of his relationship to America and Americans. But he thought that such a classification, and indeed any classification would misrepresent his philosophy. He expressed regret for those readers who “think they must read and classify” his work “to gain a fair view of [his] philosophy. They will feel obliged to distinguish periods, and tendencies and inconsistent positions. But that is all insignificant, extraneous, accidental.”[13] The essential part of his thought, “the living thread, still squirming and ignited,” is not found in “the cold old academic printed stuff.” The essence of his philosophy lies in the activity of spirit, in contemplation of ideals, and the freedom from animal pressures that comes with arresting the immediate in consciousness.

None of this is meant to dismiss Fisch’s categories. But I would suggest careful consideration of their scope and significance. Overemphasis on the role and benefit of such classification can be misleading in tying to gain a fair view of Santayana’s philosophy. His resistance to being classed as an American philosopher invites imagining Santayana as a philosopher apart from accidental connections. What could be gained from such an exercise? An understanding not subordinated to categories foreign to his affections, or an appreciation not subject to values accidental to the essences presented to consciousness. This is not a rejection of categories or the calculating understanding, as one might understand Emerson to advocate; rather it is recognition of the human capacity for spiritual freedom that Santayana thought was obscured in America.




BR                    The Birth of Reason and Other Essays

COUS              Character and Opinion in the United States

IPR                  Interpretations of Poetry and Religion

IW                    The Idler and His Works

LGS                 The Letter of George Santayana (citations include book number and page number separated by a colon. For example, LGS 6:174 refers to page 174 in Book Six of The Letters.)

LR4                  Reason in Art

OS                   Obiter Scripta

PGS                 The Philosophy of George Santayana

PP                   Persons and Places

SAF                 Scepticism and Animal Faith

TPP                 Three Philosophical Poets

WD                  Winds of Doctrine




Ballowe, J. (1969). George Santayana’s America: Essays on Literature and Culture. Urbana, Ill., Chicago, and London: University of Illinois Press.


Dawidoff, R. (1992). The Genteel Tradition and the Sacred Rage. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.


Fisch. M. H. (1996). “General Introduction: The Classic Period in American Philosophy.” Classic American Philosophers. New York: Fordham University Press. 1-40.


Flower, E. and Murphey, M. G. (1977). A History of Philosophy in America, 2 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.


Howgate, G. W. (1961). George Santayana. New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., Inc.


Lamont, C. ed. (1959). Dialogue on George Santayana. New York: Horizon Press.


Levinson, H. S. (1992). Santayana, Pragmatism, and the Spiritual Life. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.


Lyon, R. C. ed. (1968). Santayana on America. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.


McCormick, J. (1987). George Santayana: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


Santayana, G. (1905). Reason in Art, Volume Four of The Life of Reason. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.


————— (1913). Winds of Doctrine. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.


————— (1936). Obiter Scripta. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.


————— (1947). “An Introduction,” Cronos, 1:2, 1.


————— (1953). Three Philosophical Poets. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books.


————— (1955). Character and Opinion in the United States. New York: George Braziller.


————— (1955). Scepticism and Animal Faith. New York: Dover Publications.


————— (1968). The Birth of Reason and Other Essays. New York: Columbia University Press.


————— (1969). The Idler and His Works. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press.


————— (1986). Persons and Places. Vol. 1 of The Works of George Santayana, a criticial edition. H. J. Saatkamp and W. G. Holzberger, eds. Cambridge, Mass., and London: The MIT Press.


————— (1989). Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. Vol. 3 of The Works of George Santayana, a criticial edition. H. J. Saatkamp and W. G. Holzberger, eds. Cambridge, Mass., and London: The MIT Press.


————— (2001-08). The Letters of George Santayana, 8 books. Vol. 5 of The Works of George Santayana, a critical edition. H. J. Saatkamp and W. G. Holzberger, eds. Cambridge, Mass., and London: The MIT Press.


Schilpp, P. A. ed. (1991). The Philosophy of George Santayana. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing Co. (PGS)



[1] According to Fisch, a classic period is marked by three things: first, the expression, definition, and synthesis of philosophical tendencies of a culture; second, the production of canonical texts; and third, a lasting influence (Fisch 1).

[2] Santayana’s first biographer, George Howgate, described him as “a Latin, a poet, an aesthete” (Howgate 52) and “as a spectator, an observer of long residence with us, not as an indigenous part of the society he surveys” (Howgae 272). James Ballowe called him “an anomaly in Boston society.” He wrote that “Santayana was willing to participate in and observe American life. But . . . he could never enter into anything as if it were all that mattered. . . . Santayana preferred to be a sympathetic spectator, a sophisticate in the midst of the barbarians who were engaged in the struggle for success” (Ballowe 10-11).

[3] Fisch acknowledges only four or five of the themes in the work of Santayana.

[4] Those who, like Fisch, have regarded Santayana as part of the American tradition include Harold Larrabee, “George Santayana American Philosopher?” The Sewannee Review, 39 (1931) 209-221; and Baker Brownell, “Santayana, the Man and the Philosopher,” The Philosophy of George Santayana, Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed. (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court) 1951, 31-62.

[5] “Americans as a rule are tough in action, but tender in mind; their own secret philosophy might not have been popular among them, if it had been expressed in brutal materialistic terms” (IW 29)

[6] This double aspect of the genteel tradition is discussed by Richard C. Lyon in his “Introduction” in Santayana on America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968). See especially pages xi-xii.

[7] This personal work of art was not, for Santayana, an anything-goes, release of immediate feeling. It was to be a sincere self-expression, but Santayana remarked that “expression” is an ambiguous term. It can refer to self-manifestation, a blundering and sterile explosion that goes no further than its immediate appearance, or to rational art, which is pregnant and “capable of reproducing in representation the experience from which it sprang” (LR4, 94). Representations change and drift from the author’s intention, but this is limited when there is an independently existing object or external situation that function as a standard (LR4, 96). This is the material world of animal faith, and this is what Santayana believed could keep expressions in check.

[8] “Were that done, we should find ourselves in unexpected and spontaneous harmony with the traditions which we might seem to have disregarded” (Lyon 34).

[9] He acknowledged that he could hardly be designated as anything but an American philosopher given his language and education, but he maintained that “in feeling and in legal allegiance I have always remained a Spaniard” (BR 133-34).

[10] Santayana gave a further example when he characterized the so-called intellectual freedom at Harvard as sharply delimited by duty: One could think anything, as long as one’s beliefs could be justified by their social utility. Regarding philosophy at Harvard University, Santayana wrote:

[a] chief part of that traditional faith was the faith in freedom, in inquiry; and it was necessary, in the very interests of the traditional philosophy, to take account of all that was being said in the world, and to incorporate the spirit of the times in the spirit of the fathers. Accordingly, no single abstract opinion was particularly tabooed at Harvard; granted industry, sobriety, and some semblance of theism, no professor was expected to agree with any other. I believe the authorities would have been well pleased, for the sake of completeness, to have added a Buddhist, a Moslem, and a Catholic scholastic to the philosophical faculty, if only suitable sages could have been found, house-trained, as it were, and able to keep pace with the academic machine and to attract a sufficient number of pupils. But this official freedom was not true freedom, there was no happiness in it. A slight smell of brimstone lingered in the air. You might think what you liked, but you must consecrate your belief or your unbelief to the common task of encouraging everybody and helping everything on. You might almost be an atheist, if you were troubled enough about it. The atmosphere was not that of intelligence nor of science, it was that of duty. (COUS 58-9)

[11]  This seems consistent with a comment by Santayana’s student Horace Kallen that “anybody’s place in the in history of philosophy is a matter of accident” (Lamont 89).

[12] Compare this with his reflection on his writing: “in renouncing everything thing else for the  sake of English letters I might be said to have been guilty, quite unintentionally, of a little strategem, as if I had set out to say plausibly in English as many un-English things as possible” (PGS 7).

[13] George Santayana, “An Introduction,” Cronos, 1:2 (1947), 1.