Why We Like What We Like: Poet and Philosopher George Santayana on the Formation and Confirmation of Our Standards and Sensibilities

With uncommon insight into these joint fomentations of heart and mind, the terrific Spanish-American thinker, author, poet, and author George Santayana (December 16, 1863– September 26, 1952) takes up the question of how our perceptiveness are formed in a portion of Reason in Art– the 4th volume, nestled in between Reason in Religion and Reason in Science, of his five-volume 1906 masterwork The Life of Reason; or, the Phases of Human Progress (public domain|public library).

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George Santayana, 1880sConsidering the formative facilities of our contexts and our standards, our likes and dislikes, our ethical and aesthetic judgments– that colossal compass of perceptiveness we call “taste,” by which we orient ourselves to the world, for we just ever orient by our nays and yeas– Santayana writes:

Taste is formed in those minutes when aesthetic feeling is unique and enormous; preferences then grown mindful, judgments then put into words, will verbal reverberate through calmer hours; they will constitute bias, practices of apperception, secret standards for all other charms. A period of life in which such intuitions have been regular might generate ideals and tastes sufficient for the rest of our days. Youth in these matters governs maturity, and while males may establish their early impressions more methodically and find confirmations of them in various quarters, they will rarely take a look at the world afresh or utilize new classifications in understanding it. Half our requirements come from our first masters, and the other half from our very first enjoys. Never ever being so deeply stirred again, we remain persuaded that no items save those we then found can have a true sublimity.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from an uncommon 1913 edition of Whitmans Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print) In consonance with the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchells observation that “whatever our degree of pals may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” and with an eye to our criteria for beauty– which apply to appeal in the broad Robinson Jeffers sense of not just visual charm but intellectual and ethical charm– Santayana adds:

More than a century later on, The Life of Reason remains an intellectual lavishment. Enhance this specific piece with Joseph Brodsky on how to develop your taste in reading, W. I. B. Beveridge on the growing of scientific taste, and Wordsworth on the artists duty of elevating taste.

It might be some eloquent appreciations checked out in a book, or some preference revealed by a gifted buddy, that might have exposed unsuspected beauties in art or nature; and after that, since our own understanding was certainly inferior and vicarious in volume to that which our coach possessed, we shall take his judgments for our criterion, since they were the source and prototype of all our own. Hence the volume and intensity of some gratitudes, particularly when absolutely nothing of the kind has actually preceded, makes them reliable over our subsequent judgments. On those warm minutes hang all our cold organized viewpoints; and while the latter fill our days and form our professions it is just the former that are alive and vital.

Taste is formed in those moments when visual feeling is unique and massive; choices then grown conscious, judgments then put into words, will verbal reverberate through calmer hours; they will make up bias, practices of apperception, secret requirements for all other appeals. Half our standards come from our first masters, and the other half from our very first loves. On those warm moments hang all our cold methodical opinions; and while the latter fill our days and form our careers it is only the previous that are important and alive.