The argument for Santayana’s relevance for contemporary culture is strong. His profound sensitivity to aesthetic, religious, moral, and scientific aspects of culture, along with his two-fold status as Boston-raised Harvard professor and Spanish-born Catholic, gave him a critical insight into American culture. His simultaneous cultural status as insider and outsider allowed him to survive submersion in American cultural conditions he found suffocating largely because he also maintained a lifeline to an alternative tradition, that is, his Spanish and Catholic heritage. Santayana summed up the pernicious aspect of American culture in the phrase “the genteel tradition,” which he understood as a system of ideas that includes a largely unacknowledged Calvinism combined with a dogmatic import from German idealism. Santayana contended that this induces a kind of cultural delusion that keeps America from understanding what it is about, what its real strengths and weaknesses are, and leaves the culture conflicted and confused.
Santayana’s critique speaks to ongoing cultural conflicts between religious beliefs and scientific practices, and moral principles and business practices. In making his critique, and indeed in articulating his philosophical system, Santayana offered a view of the same world that so dismayed Henry Adams; but Santayana’s response to that world, if it is not more hopeful, is certainly more rational than the one given by Adams. Ultimately, the value of Santayana’s thought may lie in its stubborn dissimilarity from deeply-ingrained American sensibilities. Robert Dawidoff writes, “The staying power of Santayana’s analysis results from its irreducible challenge to any American cultural tradition that would co-opt it.” Santayana’s affectionate criticism of American philosophy and culture challenges the tradition to accept what it cannot accept which is to say it challenges it to grow and become more aware of itself.