To Charles Augustus Strong
22 Beaumont Street, Oxford
Oxford, England. September 21, 1917
The notes on your paper (which but for the Censor—I hope, you would have already received) seem to me rather discouraging. Some of our prospective collaborators are evidently nominalists of the dull-thing-eating school; but Lovejoy is intelligent, and I imagine his opposition to “essence” is more a matter of bad temper and egotism (the doctrine is not his own!) than of incapacity to distinguish; he speaks of universals and of principles of individuation; and a person who is so scholastic as that is sure to be saved, or at least savable. Essence has made such a row that it almost seems as if I ought to plunge in with my whole exposition of the subject—a large part of my opus magnum. But, apart from the fact that the manuscript is not finished, there are two reasons for holding it back on this occasion: one, that it is impossible, and would seem presumptuous, to press a complete new ontology on a set of more or less mature—I mean aged—colleagues, and the other, that it is not necessary for the immediate subject of realism to distinguish essence very particularly. In my paper on Literal and Symbolic knowledge, for instance, although I use the word essence, I didn’t feel it necessary to explain or defend the concept in order to make my argument persuasive. Of course, fundamental clearness and soundness will not be achieved without it: but this volume is one of local and momentary importance only; it is merely controversial and instrumental. Both your theory and mine are to be set forth elsewhere in their true context and proportions.
There are some points made in those notes with which I am in agreement. “Essence has nothing to do with existence”: “semi-existence” is not an ultimately acceptable phrase. As I told you long ago, I like the frankness and descriptiveness of that phrase: one sees what you mean, and that you are reporting the facts honestly; but these are literary merits, not implying necessarily a correct or ultimate analysis. Essences have not semi-existence when they are given: they, even then, have no existence at all: but the intuition of them exists, and with the intuition (since the animal mind expresses a reaction, a presumption, and therefore projects its data, and takes them for things) there is probably a belief in the existence of an object having the given essence. This object, or essence hypostasized, has an alleged or imputed existence: whether it exists or not is a matter of fact to be decided by further investigation. But what is obvious, patent, indubitable, and really given is not an existence at all: it is an essence; a homeless, dateless, qualitative, self-identical, self-sufficing theme or motif, a universal, in that there is no knowing how often or where it may not recur, how many things it may be predicable of or how many minds may be acquainted with it in the course of infinite time. Examples of essences are: nausea, jealousy, a particular shade of violet, any poem or musical composition, any noise, the multiplication-table, the straight line. These may, with literary propriety, be said to exist or, “as it were, exist”, whenever, and for as long as, they are felt, conceived, or embodied in material things: but in truth it is not they that exist, but the feeling, thought, or thing which in one case intuits, and in the other case embodies them. In the first case they are given, in the latter they are predicable: in neither case do they, in themselves, acquire any hypostatic or real existence.
As to the definition of existence, that is a large question, involving the definition of matter (or psychic substance) and of consciousness.
I approve (as you know) of the use of “object” for whatever is or becomes “correlative to an organism that perceives or desires”.
“Object” is an egotistical and adventitious name given to things, and also to essences. It is proper to them only on occasion of their being noticed by us. Things become objects when somebody thinks of them; they are never objects in themselves. This is the equivocation on which idealism (in the Aesthetik of Kant’s Critique, for instance) is founded, since it is quite true that objects, “as such”, are relative to “subjects”, as such, which in turn are relative to objects “as such”: etc, etc. so that, if you imagine that things, essences, because sometimes called objects, are objects intrinsically, you are able to turn the universe into an “egocentric” whirpool and maze of relations in which all the terms are abstractions from the relations, and nothing exists except thinking, and that doesn’t.
What is true of “object” is equally true of “datum”: and I fear our friends in America are not sure, when they say “datum”, whether they mean that which is, by chance, given, or that whose whole being and existence is to be given. If they mean the latter, the retort would be that there is no such thing. Things and essences, whose being is not to be given, become data.
I am still working, in a desultory fashion, on my second realistic paper, with the excursus on “existence” which has grown out of it: but my mind is rather attracted to other subjects, nearer to the war, on which I am also writing more or less. I have been to Bath, to London, and to Chichester, to stay with the Russells. “Elizabeth” has returned from her Californian garden, and is having a second honeymoon with her wicked Earl. “Bertie” lives with them now in London but he was not at their place in the country when I was there.
I have seen the first American soldiers in Oxford from an aviation camp not far off. Their uniforms seemed tight (they wear stiff white collars) and their smiles excessive, but otherwise they seemed very fit.
From The Letters of George Santayana: Book Two, 1910-1920. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001.
Location of manuscript: Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow NY.