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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Sensation and Perception: Understanding our World

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Oct 3rd 2008

 "Sanity is a madness put to good uses...
Waking life is a dream controlled."
George Santayana, Philosopher, 1863-1952

I recently came across this quotation from George Santayana, the great Spanish-American philosopher. He was actually born and raised in Spain but went to Harvard University where he was educated and taught in the Philosophy Department for several years before moving to Italy, where he lived out his life in a monastary.

There is a long interrelated history between psychology and philosophy. I am old enough to remember a time when the departments of philosophy were subsumed under the departments of psychology at major colleges and universities in the United States. Philosophers have often speculated about the entire human process of consciousness, sensations and perception, asking and giving theories about how we come to know things, process things and give meaning to reality. In fact, these speculations gave rise to the field of psychology in which we try to understand, predict and control behavior.

Santayana was a pragmatist. This means that he looked at life in a realistic and practical way. Basically and in a simplied way, Santayana talked about the fact that we human beings use our ability to reason to organize the world for oursleves. We filter out a lot of information that comes to us in order to know things.

This is what he means when he says "Sanity is madness put to good uses." We try to find ways to control our world and our experience of that world. That is also what he means when he says that "Waking life is a dream controlled." In other words, we respond to things in the world and try to organize and give them meaning. Our dreams may not feel very controlled but waking life is.

The quote is also interesting because it does not separate us into those who are mad and not mad. Rather, the world is mad and we attempt to comprehend the madness. We do not sense everything, or all of the stimuli, that come to us from the world because, if we did, we would be assaulted by chaos. Rather, we have this filtration system that removes or dismisses many things not necessary for us to attend to. Even for those stimuli that do get through to us, such as noise, we don't pay attention to it unless it is especially loud and alarming. Traffic noise is around us in the cities but we pay no mind to it. What does get through the filtration system and causes us to pay attention, we attempt to understand.

Just think about what is happening to the economy in the United States and around the world. Most people are attempting to gain an understanding of why and how this has happened. How and why did some of the biggest investment firms and banks become bankrupt? How and why are major lending institutions refusing to loan money to businesses and homeowners, thereby shutting down the United States economy?

In the same way, why is there a war in Iraq and why was the United States attacked in September of 2001? Ultimately, we use reasoning to comprehend our environment and the things that impinge upon us.

Santayana does not leave out our biological and emotional selves in this process of knowing and controlling. Our impusles and senses unite with our reasoning abilities to give us a clear view of the world. In fact, our reasoning ability helps us gain control over our biological selves so that we can have a real and concrete view of the world.

This is not so different from what we, in psychology and mental health, refer to as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The concept behind CBT is to use and sharpen our reasoning or thinking abilities to become less fearful and depressed by relying on a realistic view of our environment. For example, if I hear about a large airplane crash, I can let myself become fearful of flying or I can remind myself that there is nothing to fear because the number of plane crashes is extremely low in comparison to the number of flights that take place daily around the globe.

So, if it sometimes feels to you that the world is crazy or that you are crazy, think about Santayana and remind yourself that, perhaps, you are just attempting to understand what is going on around you.

What does Santayana's quote mean to you?

Your comments are greatly appreciated.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Pragmatism and Santayana. - Ricardo Mena - Oct 21st 2010

Santayana was not a pragmatist. He was a humanist. Why?

Because pragmatism's conception of truth (what everybody

say is true, democratic truth) was alien to him. His 

"Character and Opinion in the United States" is an illustration.


Santayana's quotes mean this to me: be not romantic, be

wise, that is, be Greek: measure your potentials and

perfect them: happiness by way of Darwinism. Adaptation

to your environment. Do not fight with the world, do not

deny it, but accept it, the world and your limited being.


Use your imagination, dream, have ideals and fight for

them. See essences appearing and disappearing, but 

do not believe them, do not let them fool you.


Aesthetics, imagination, art, philosophy as a way of 

dreaming awake and live in the eternal: to live under

the form of eternity. This is the quote that will resume

what I am saying here:


"Art is good when it betters our conditions of existence."

(Reason in Art).

Interesting quote - Kaudio - Oct 5th 2008

That is an interesting quote.  Personally I thought the quote referred to how arbitrary the criteria are for the labels of sanity or insanity.  So long as individuals commit themselves to tasks society accepts as good and productive then no questions are raised regarding their sanity, insanity, or mental health.  However, the moment one falls out of step with the norm, all of one's attributes may be suspect.  Even the individual who suddenly finds himself out of step with the standards of the norm will begin to doubt reflexively in zero-sum thinking.  People can only be completely sane or completely crazy, but there are no nuances and no considerations of the possibility that one may be mistaken, misunderstood, or both.  It may be that those who are truly insane are living lives completely within the realm of the norm while those who are sane and are misunderstood are considered mad.

Waking life is a dream controlled then refers to how easily the human mind can be influenced by these labels even if they are baseless.  An individual who cannot appreciate the abstract layers that are applied overtop reality out of social convenience will then be subject to the extremes of mundane dreams of the "norm" or horrible nightmares of the not norm.  Rather than allow oneself to be governed by labels applied by others or oneself, a little more time should be invested to think of other possibilities and explanations before automatically dismissing people as crazy, deluded, confused, etc.

But, this quote not only applies to how labels are applied to persons, but to objects and events as well.  The quickness to describe a situation as madness merely excludes all other possible explanations out of ignorance, encouraging people to "write it off" rather than address the sequence of events.  Thus, both sanity and insanity are abstract ideas; the use of these ideas should then be spare and not before some sort of contemplation because, like dreams, they possess power that is shared amongst all things not understood.

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