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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


ORTEGA Y GASSET

(1883 — 1955)

 

ECLECTICISM

(EXISTENTIALISM/ 'RATIO-VITALISM')

José Ortega y Gasset was born in Madrid into an aristocratic family. He was educated by the Jesuits near Málaga, at the University of Madrid, gaining his doctorate in 1904, and at the Universities of Berlin, Leipzig, and Marburg. In 1910 he became professor of philosophy at Madrid, where he remained until the start of the civil war in 1936 when he went into voluntary exile. Throughout this time he was actively involved in politics and journalism. He returned to Spain after the second world war and in 1948 he founded the Instituto de Humanidades.

 

METAPHYSICS

[1] [See especially Meditations on Quixote and 'Truth and Perspective'.] Ortega supposed it to be the job of metaphysics to articulate an ultimate reality from which all being is derived. He rejected the opposition between 'realist' philosophies, which emphasized the primacy of things known by the self, and 'idealist' theories which supposed the individual self to be ontologically prior to other things. Instead he regarded the self and things to be interdependent and as such to constitute the real [a]. "I am I and my circumstance", he wrote [Meditations]. But the self is not a mere passive receptive entity. It is active, a creative manifestation of life — though Ortega does not accept any notion of a 'vital force'. He is also dismissive of abstract reasoning. He tries therefore to blend rationalism with vitalism [b]; hence the name he gives his metaphysics — 'ratio-vitalism'. Man's quest for knowledge, spirituality, fulfilment, and so on, are all therefore comprehended under the general description 'life' or 'vitality'. Later Ortega came to recognise the limitations imposed on individuals by virtue of their being situated in particular socio-cultural contexts — the "historical horizons of human life" [c].

 

KNOWLEDGE

[2] ['Truth and Perspective'.] We cannot have absolute or transcendent knowledge — not least because of our historicity. All our knowledge has to be from some 'perspective' [a], that is, from a particular point of view of an individual life; and all such perspectives are unique, necessary, and equally true. (He therefore called his theory of knowledge 'perspectivism'.).. Nevertheless, he distinguishes the idea of an 'aristocracy of talents' from the 'sensualism of the masses' — who unthinkingly accept the evidence of their own senses or the 'authoritative' findings of science and philosophy [see 'Ideas and Beliefs']. He goes on further to reject all philosophies grounded in sensory data and to argue in favour of an 'idealist logic'. This he sees as the production of 'aristocratic' understanding and creativity which seeks to derive intellectual principles from the understanding [b]. These supposedly primary principles are arbitrary and fundamentally unprovable. The tests of their 'validity' lie solely in their coherence and utility. It is quite mistaken to think of knowledge as an attempt to 'mirror' nature. Rather it has to be seen as an activity which constructs or invents an 'unreal' world. Philosophy and science, to the extent that they are dependent on conventionally agreed principles, are no more than 'mere ideas' to be 'played with' and are always subject to revision in the light of their consequences [c]. Indeed Ortega calls these disciplines "mere exact fantasy".

 

PHILOSOPHY OF MAN/ ETHICS

[3] [Revolt of the Masses, 'Man the Technician', 'History as a System', Man and People.] Man, says Ortega, is different from the other animals in that he is 'alien' to his situation. In his actions, by virtue of his imagination and memory, he modifies and reforms nature, creating in it objects which had not previously existed [a]. These are technical acts which are exclusively human; and through these acts man is enabled to carry out his 'project of existence'. Individual activity is directed towards self-realization. He regards this as an ethical imperative. It is man's mission, he says, to use his freedom to realize his authentic self [b]; and this can be achieved through reasoned choice and commitment to his life project or calling. Even the 'games' of philosophy and science may be suitable for this purpose. He accepts that self-realization must be sought in the social context. But, somewhat pessimistically, he sees human societies as in constant danger of stagnation or even collapse. Whatever the individual can do constitutes culture. In fact Ortega places great emphasis on the individual. He distinguishes relationships between individuals as such, in which they behave responsibly and rationally, and relationships between individuals and the social collective of laws, customs, governments, and so on, which he sees as essentially impersonal or even subhuman but above nature. But while he recognises their usefulness in helping us to regulate our lives and provide opportunities for self-fulfilment he exhorts the individual — as the only source of creativity — to be forever on his guard against the irrational forces of the state [c].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Ortega y Gasset was an original yet eclectic thinker who attempted to reconcile different traditions — idealism and realism, rationalism and 'vitalism'. He is notable also for his emphasis on the individual as an active self, a creative manifestation of life, as against the impersonality of state power; for his acceptance of historicity; and for his 'perspectivism' or constructivist and revisionary theory of knowledge. Many philosophers today would criticize him for his rejection of objectivism and his adoption of coherence and utility as the sole criteria in accordance with which logical axioms and basic principles are to be judged. His dismissal of 'vulgar' or 'plebeian' uncritical reliance on sense experience and authority and his affirmation of an 'aristocracy' of talents 'playing with ideas' are likewise unlikely to find favour with thinkers for whom philosophy is still seen as a quest or truth, knowledge and reality. Nevertheless one should not underrate the seriousness of Ortega's enterprise. As a philosopher who advocated commitment, authenticity, and self-realization in the individual's ethical life he remains particularly relevant to the contemporary human and cultural situation.

 

READING

Ortega y Gasset: [of very many writings) Meditaciones del 'Quijote' (1914) (Meditations on Quixote, trans. E. Ruegg and D. Marin); 'Verdad y perspectiva' (1916) ('Truth and Perspective', translation not located); La rebelión de las masas (1930) (The Revolt of the Masses, trans. J. R. Carey); 'Ideas y creencias' (1940) ('Ideas and Beliefs', trans. J. Garcia-Gomez) — this last is included as an appendix in a translation of ¿Qué es conocimiento? ('What is Knowledge?') by J. Garcia-Gomez); Historia como sistema (1941) (History as a System, trans. H. Weyl; includes 'Man as Technician'); El hombre y la gente (1957) (Man and People, trans. W. Trask). See also his ¿Qué es filosofIa? (1958) (What is Philosophy?, trans. M. Adams).

Studies

F. Alluntis, The Vital and Historical Reasons of J. Ortega.

P. B. Gonzalez, Human Existence as Radical Reality: Ortega y Gasset's Philosophy of Subjectivity

J. T. Graham, A Pragmatist Philosophy of Life in Ortega y Gasset.

J. F. Mora, Ortega y Gasset.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Ortega y Gasset

 

Note: The influence of Kant on Ortega y Gasset was mediated particularly through the neo-Kantianism of Cohen and Natorp at Marburg.

 

[1a] Critique of 'realist' emphasis on things and essences and of idealist primacy of self; reality as interdependence of self and things

   Kant

   Husserl

[2d]

[2a 2b]

 

[1b] Self as creative manifestation of life — theory of 'ratio-vitalism'    Scheler [4d]

 

[1c; cf. 3c] Historical 'horizons'/ sociocultural context as limitation on individuals

   Dilthey

   Scheler

   Heidegger

[1a b]

[1b]

[2i 3d]

 

[2a] Knowledge 'perspectival' not absolute or transcendental

   Kant

   Nietzsche

[2d]

[2c]

 

[2b] Rejection of philosophy grounded in authority or sense; 'idealist' logic — intelligible principles from the understanding

   Plato

   Aristotle

   Aquinas [repre-

   sentative scholastic]

   Descartes

   Kant

[6a 6b 7b]

[8b 16b 17a]

 

[6c]

[1d 2c]

[2c d]

 

[2c] Principles testable by utility and coherence, and revisable; knowledge does not 'mirror' nature only creates 'unreal' world; philosophy as 'play'

   Nietzsche

   Wittgenstein

   Heidegger

   Rorty

[2b c]

[3c]

[1b]

[1a]

 

[3a] Man 'alien' to his situation; modifies nature in actions

   Nietzsche

   Scheler

   Heidegger

[2b]

[4b]

[2h]

 

[3b] Man's 'project' of existence: no human 'essence'; action → self-realization, authentic self (as ethical imperative); self-realization in social context

   Nietzsche

   Heidegger

   Sartre

[4a]

[2b]

[3a 5a]

 

[3c] Culture is what individual does; usefulness of social collective but irrational forces of state dangerous

   Nietzsche

   [On fascism & commun-

   ism— cf. Popper]

[4a]

 

[3c]