Santayana on James: 1891
In 1891, Santayana published his review1 of The Principles of Psychology, and
offered his very favourable reaction to the naturalistic underpinnings of James's
thinking. In later years, Santayana was often to mention these early flirtations
with materialism, in his opinion the most free and original thoughts of James's
career. What delights Santayana in The Principles of Psychology is the insistence
by James that psychological explanations must in the end rest on physiology.
The most striking characteristic of his book is, perhaps, the tendency everywhere to
substitute a physiological for a mental explanation of the phenomena of mind.
Psychical for him is only the result, the product, the total consciousness of the
moment The machinery by which this is produced and explained, the links by
which it is connected with other conscious states, are entirely physical. He will have
no mentality behind the mind. (IW 102)
If anything from his distinguished professor left a permanent mark on the
young Santayana's mind, it was surely this raw sense, in James, for the material
basis of experience, and for the Rausch of existence. James had a "profound
insight into existence in its inmost irrational essence."2
At the same time, Santayana notes in passing the tension between the
materialist tendencies of these ideas, and James's moral position:
But Professor James, to whose religious and metaphysical instincts materialism is
otherwise so repulsive, has here outdone the materialists themselves. He has applied
the principle of the total and immediate dependence of mind on matter to several
fields in which we are still accustomed only to metaphysical or psychological
hypotheses. (IW 103)
Years later, Santayana argues that this tension in James's philosophy did
become resolved, but only when the metaphysical and religious instincts came
to dominate, and to stifle the almost instinctive naturalistic bent of his
thoughts, which had generated those brilliant earlier insights. Had he pursued
this bent, says Santayana, this
would have led him to admit that nature was automatic and mind simply cognitive,
conclusions from which every instinct in him recoiled. He preferred to believe that
mind and matter had independent energies and could lend one another a hand,
matter operating by motion and mind by intention.3
1 Entitled "James on Psychology," this review appeared in Atlantic Monthly 67 (April 1891), pages
552-556. It is reprinted in The Idler and His Works, edited by Daniel Cory, New York: Braziller, 1957,
pages 97-107. Citations from the review are taken from this book, abbreviated as IW.
2 See the above paper on James and Santayana, on pages 27-28, for the complete citation.
s See page 70 of Character and Opinion in the United States, New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.