Biographical Life and Ratio-Vitalism in the Thought of Ortega Y Gasset
Gonzalez, Pedro Blas, Philosophy Today
Jose Ortega y Gasset's (1883-1955) introduction to neo-Kantianism while studying at the University of Marburg from 1906 to 1908 was to serve the young, twenty-three year old Spaniard as a philosophical epiphany.1 Studying with Herman Cohen and Paul Natorp taught Ortega to view self-conscious existence as the ultimate and irreducible form of human life. Also, while at Marburg Ortega learned to critique what he called the common-sense reasoning of naive realism. But most importantly, at Marburg he began his life-long attempt to refute the absolute idealism that was so prevalent at Marburg at the time. From this encounter with neo-Kantianism emerged the major themes that are found in Ortega's work: 1) life as a poetic-existential undertaking, 2) human life as biographical existence, 3) vital reason as the immediate, differentiated ground of historical reason, 4) human existence as drama or narrative, 5) life as quehacer (having-to-do, project), and 6) life as radical-reality. I shall argue in this essay that this intellectual awakening of Ortega following his return to Spain is already quite clear in his first publication, Adam in Paradise, an article that he wrote in 1910. This work serves as an early indication of the existential and phenomenological direction that his work was to take. He would fully develop these themes in his first book, Meditations On Quixote, a work that was published four years later. However, his earliest concerns are with the exploration of human life as that, which owing to its self-conscious nature, surpasses all renditions of man as merely a biological entity. These central themes in Ortega's work are already present in Adam In Paradise.
In these pages I want specifically to develop the theme of what Ortega refers to as biographical life. Biographical life, he argues is both a self-recognition of our subjectivity and also how this becomes manifest as interiority. He proposes this as the distinguishing act of our coming to terms with our individual essence. These developments are equally important in light of his existential questions, which will be taken up by subsequent thinkers such as Heidegger, Sartre, Marcel, and Jaspers, for instance. I have divided this essay into three parts. In part I, "The Discovery of Interiority," I emphasize Ortega's treatment of Adam's discovery of subjectivity as a sort of anthro-existential "first man." In part II, "The Objective World as My Circumstance," further attention is paid to this subjective inward turn, except that now the emphasis is on the external world as part of my existential circumstance. Part III, Yo y Mis Circumstancias, works as a rounding-off of Ortega's concern that while realism must be surpassed, subjectivity as well cannot become self-encapsulated.
Ortega's philosophical task in Adam lit Paradise is essentially an attempt to surpass the idealist thesis but at the same time not to accept realism wholeheartedly. The significance of this project as far as Ortega scholarship is concerned is the realization that this particular concern, which is dominant throughout the entirety of his philosophical writing, is first elaborated in Adam In Paradise, a very early essay.2 It is in this work and not in Meditations On Quixote as is commonly believed, which was written in 1914, where the aforementioned thesis is first espoused. The foundation of this argument, then, is Ortega's notion of the co-existence between man, a biographical-existential entity, and his external circumstances as a broadening of man's perspective. Adam in Paradise is Ortega's discovery of human life as philosophical concern. It is from this work that his idea of life as radical reality evolves. In this work the persona of Adam, though not necessarily that of the Biblical character, serves the role of a dual metaphor. In its first function, Adam can be seen as representing the discovery of what Ortega calls "the primordial reality of the conscious, of subjectivity" (Ortega, What Is Philosophy? 177). In essence, Adam is the quintessential thinker who doubts and who by doing so removes himself from paradise. However, this understanding of Paradise, Ortega argues, is equivalent to a view of the pre-reflective reality of the external world as perceived by the dominant naive realism prior to the pre-Socratics. Realism, thus, according to him is not only naive and innocent, but also always also a primary condition of human consciousness. Yet the second function of Adam as metaphor is to serve as a universal internal principle of self-reflection, one that discovers itself having to make sense of the external world. Adam in Paradise is in fact the discovery of human life as the biographical and thus subjective pole of human life and not merely as biological life. Ortega explains:
When Idealism left the reality of the outside world hanging in suspense and discovered the primordial reality of the conscious, of subjectivity, it lifted philosophy to a new level from which the latter cannot slip back under pain of retrogression in the worst sense of the word. (177)
Furthermore, it is important to realize that this biographical notion of human life according to Ortega is firmly rooted in man's innate, even though, dormant ability to question his own existence. Wonder and awe remove the would-be thinker from the flat, one dimensionality of the external world of realism. By sidestepping the instinct of having to pay allegiance solely to his biological circumstances, e.g., his body, Adam simultaneously begins to lose his innocence. About this rejection of realism Ortega has the following to say:
Ancient realism, which starts from the undoubted existence of cosmic things, is philosophic ingenuousness, the innocence of paradise. All innocence is Paradisiacal. Because the innocent, he who neither doubts, distrusts, or suspects, finds himself in the position of ancient and primitive man surrounded by nature, a cosmic landscape, a garden- and this is Paradise. (178)
The Discovery of Interiority
At the very core of Ortega y Gasset's concept of interiority one initially encounters a perplexing paradox. On one hand, in Meditations on Quixote the reader is to understand the intimacy and immediacy that is biographical human existence as belonging solely to a phenomenon of consciousness, one that is purely inwardly driven or internal in scope. Thus because of this Ortega argues that the essence of man can never be grasped through our faculties of sense alone, given that man's true being-that is, his metaphysical orientation-is never a spatial phenomenon, but rather an inwardly vital one.3 In the prologue to Meditations On Quixote, which he refers to as the preliminary meditation, there appears a warning to the perspective reader about the nature of the questions that he will engage in this work. Amongst these questions he includes the metaphysical importance of silence, literal as well as metaphorical. Silence, he tells us is always a required prerequisite to self-knowledge. Thus silence, when viewed as the result of a monologue, sets the stage for self-contemplation, much the same as interaction with the world allows us to know our physical circumstances. Silence in this instance must be interpreted to mean the prominent condition that allows for contemplation to take place. However, on the other hand, regardless of the importance attributed to silence in Ortega's estimation, silence can never be absolute given that his overall philosophical project refutes any notion of absolutes. But also, we must add that while it remains true that silence enables us to know ourselves, this self-conscious awareness can never occur in a vacuum, but rather within the arena of our circumstances. This being the case, silence, Ortega argues cannot be interpreted to be solely the droning background effect of "nothingness."
Ortega emphasizes man's co-existence with his circumstances in Meditation on Quixote while simultaneously maintaining the view in the preliminary meditation that our body is also part of our circumstance. Meditations on Quixote is a work that attempts to come to terms with the ancient problem of appearance and reality. This was to be a three-part work. However, volumes two and three never materialized. This work has baffled many critics into thinking that Ortega was merely attempting to write literary criticism. But this is not the case. Meditations is a multi-layered work that offers Ortega's existential-phenomenological rendition of reality. He begins the book with a lucid and literary description of the forest that surrounds El Escorial in which the thinker finds himself.4 However the totality of these woods is never encountered as a forest. Instead, it first appears to him as an otherwise incoherent conglomeration of towering oaks and ashes. Here the trees create a blanket over the sky, which keeps out all but the most indirect and stubborn slithers of sunlight. As can be well expected, the silence that engulfs one in such a desolate place is perennial and any wayward visitor quickly finds himself as an alien in his own company. But this is precisely, Ortega points out, the authentic and thus confrontational character of solitude that enables us to listen to our own pulsating heart. When finding ourselves in such circumstances-Ortega calls it threatening-there is then no other recourse but to face this silence and embrace our immediate consciousness of life as an exaltation of our existence. Therefore silence can never be absolute given that one can never be totally alone. There always remains the "murmur of the heart, the subtle action of breathing and the throbbing of the blood in our temples" (57). The parallels to be drawn between this notion of life as interiority and the connection that this engenders to one's physical circumstances warrants some degree of inquiry given that both are equally important as circumstances.
Hence our first point of questioning concerning Ortega's idea of Interiority should be to understand that Ortega's thought, much like that of Descartes, is wholly and intricately dualistic, even though not necessarily by intent. His main concern as a ratio-vitalist thinker is to expose the limits of pure reason and exalt the practical function of vital reason as the latter becomes manifest in human existence. But because Ortega argues that objective reality emanates from self-consciousness, that is, as a fundamental understanding of reality, one undoubtedly arrives at the conclusion that contemplation concerning the primacy of the self must logically take due precedence in his work. Hence the philosophy of Ortega can be characterized as a study of the self as the foundational denominator of reality.
In Section VI of Adam in Paradise he espouses the view that human life is always and foremost a struggle towards individualization. Life is always unique, concrete, personal, and never collective or abstract. From the outset of his awakening to a state of self-consciousness, what Adam discovers is not simply biological life as representative of the complexities of a living organism situated in space and time. Instead, Adam discovers life as problem, that is, biographical life, or life as existential inward possibility. Because of this discovery life for Adam becomes a contemplative question. At this point life becomes a having-to-do (quehacer) with the surrounding world, which up to now was not detached from my life. Reality for Adam during this early stage of discovery is indeed solely rooted in his self-consciousness of his life as a separate entity from the world. Ortega writes:
The reality of life consists, then, not in what it is for him who sees it from without, but in what it is for him who is it from within, for him who is living it and in the measure that he lives it. (Ortega, Obras 30)
This existential discovery that Adam makes is not of the theoretical kind such as a mathematical formula or theorem that is purely speculative in intent. Instead, this existential encounter fundamentally amounts to the discovery of himself as an object of his reflection. This inward glance we call subjectivity. If taken literally, this initial discovery of the self of the "first man," would most probably only interest anthropologists. But when taken as a metaphor for the discovery of self-consciousness, we see that Ortega's interest lies in the uncovering of the necessary conditions for the development of self-contemplation.
The reason that Adam can postulate his life as a fundamental and coherent reality is because of his immediate association with the world in which he finds himself. Thus metaphysics according to Ortega can never be a purely intellectual and superfluous activity that man utilizes to pass the time. Metaphysics is never a luxury but a vital human necessity. Metaphysics is instead the "lived" and central aspect of human life by which man becomes acquainted with his being.5 In Ortega's estimation self-conscious thought develops only after the material circumstances become a problem for us and thus necessitate reflection. Therefore to view metaphysics in this Ortegan context can only mean the act of situating and categorizing human existence amongst an entire spectrum of entities. But this conscious entity "I" recognizes itself at once to be like no other. Self-consciousness, according to Ortega, becomes the matrix of human reality, which is always rooted in our perspective. This can be compared to salvation in a religious context, except that the problems of metaphysics emanate as an existential vital force to be reckoned with from within. Ortega explains, "Metaphysics is not a science; it is the con-struction of the world, and that, constructing a world out of circumstances, is human life" (Quimette, 118).
Individual human life, then, can only be what it is because it is circumstantial. This is what Ortega means by saying that truth is based on our perspective. To be circumstantial is to delineate the immediate and inwardly directed from the external and objectifying. That is, our life is what it is because we are a totality of all the things that we do and all that surround us. This is why in Section XI of Adam in Paradise Ortega implicitly argues that realism must be referred to as idealism because ideas unify and give meaning to the universe. But idealism for Ortega takes on a new meaning, one that is central to human contemplation. Hence from this we are to understand that the true idealist is one who immerses himself in the material world in order to attempt to successfully make sense of his being.
Adam in Paradise, when viewed as a metaphor and not merely as biblical exegesis is Ortega's launching pad, as it were, for concentrating on the problem of human existence. As such, Adam in Paradise can be translated to mean "Adam in a Pre-Reflective State of Consciousness." This state of paradise is no other than man's initial state of being where man is not quite self-conscious of himself as a being situated in a world of objects. Adam as a pre-self-conscious entity is therefore a pre-reflective being.
Adam's awakening to himself raises the question whether indeed "all men by nature have a desire to know," as Aristotle states at the beginning of Book I of his Metaphysics, or is man perhaps coerced to "know" by his circumstances in order to survive? This also brings up the related question whether Adam reflects on his own existence due to an innate existential condition? Moreover, if it is the case that a reflective interiorizing mode exists as an operative innate condition of man, then certainly man is bound to turn inwards regardless of his given particular circumstance. But if it is the case instead that man reflects upon himself due to coercion from external conditions, then reflective thought is not a unique endowment of nature, but rather a tool utilized by man in order to survive. These external conditions may dictate the concrete form that reflection takes. These are all reasonable questions in term of Ortega's philosophical project.
It is within the structure of these material circumstances that Ortega grounds his social ontology. For Ortega, the notion of thinking in a vacuum, that is, outside a specific situation is absurd. Reflective thought must always have a provocation. Hence Adam's existential awakening comes about through what he calls a "mediate necessity." That is, a necessity or impetus to reflect that is born outside of oneself. In one way this mediate necessity directs conscious thought away from itself as its own object of thought. But also, through this engagement with external entities can total absorption in self-refection develop. In fact, the necessary condition that creates the zest or desire for knowledge cannot in and of itself bring about knowledge prior to the outward manifestation of some desired entity. The consequences of this view come to full fruition when Ortega explains that the only manner in which man can contemplate his own existence is by oscillating his reflection between the reality, which constitutes the material world, and what is opposed to it, the self. This is the sequence of reflection that brings about the realization of man's co-existence with the world as reality. But this inherent tension in man's life establishes itself as just one more example of a circumstance. This vital fluctuation constitutes the dialectic of the lived experience and thus the authenticity required of biographical life. He explains:
Apart, I repeat, from the fact that it is not desire which leads to knowledge, but necessity. The desire does not exist unless the thing desired existed earlier, in reality or at least in imagination. That which does not even exist at all cannot provoke desire. (Ortega, Some 18).
If Adam is to awaken at all, it follows that this "awakening" must follow a previous state of existential dormancy. But this notion not only engenders a problematic unsteadiness concerning consciousness; it also gives birth to a dialectical paradox.6
This paradox has to do with the inherent differences between what Ortega has called the biographical versus the biological constitution of man. There is no doubt that Adam has existed as a sentient being prior to his coming to terms with his own existence. Nevertheless, it can be argued that Adam's dormant state of existence has in fact resembled the biological and thus vegetative existence of plant and animal life. This aspect of our questioning does logically entail that Adam cannot effectively engage in philosophical reflection while in this pre-reflective posture of being. At issue here is the question of the psychic states at work preceding the realization of self-conscious reflection. This being the case, one must ask, "What constitutes the life of pre-reflective Adam?" Pre-reflective Adam does not merely co-exist with things, since in order to co-exist, according to Ortega he would have to be aware of his privileged existential position amongst them. Neither can he view his life as problem, since in order to do so he must orient himself reflectively. In other words, if Adam is to orient himself existentially he must first attain a perspective on the world that surpasses that which the senses engender. The role of perspective, then, is to unify and organize reality into a coherent structure.
Perspective allows for differentiation through individualization. In this regard Ortega's thought can be said to resemble Schopenhauer's, for instance, since the dynamic nature of interior dialectic is constantly forcing man toward a separation from the generic.7 Perspective enables man to develop his existential spatial-temporal awareness through the process of individualization. Space, then, is the material vehicle through which the "I" of consciousness can co-exist with external entities. Individual perspective is what enables Ortega to view metaphysics, therefore, as a uniquely human endeavor that attempts to coalesce all human experiences. The method of metaphysics, as is that of art for Ortega is always one that calls for concreteness and individualization.
Perspective is born out of necessity. Furthermore, perspective is born out of a vital reason that is coerced into existence by a vital facticity called life. Adam's dormancy comes to an end as a biological entity when the vital necessity of self-conscious thought realizes itself. Hence, Adam's being-outside-himself, as it were, in his inauthentic pre-reflective stage of being is a necessary prologue to the vitality that biological being can ascend to.
In a manner of speaking, Adam's existential orientation is truly a re-orientation, since what he is doing is tantamount to a discovering and not an inventing of subjectivity. Rather than positing the "I" of consciousness within the pre-existing structure of material reality, Adam instead finds the "I" of consciousness within himself.
The discovery of inferiority is the discovery of the primacy of the self vis-a-vis a superimposed structure (universe) that lies outside of this newly found human reality that has now become manifest as the self. While it is true that a realist theory of human reality makes objective reality the center of the universe, it remains equally true that existential human reality is the starting-point of all philosophical endeavor, given that individual human life as an existentially self-conscious entity is the measure of all logos and coherence. To this end Ortega writes, "metaphysics is sought by man in order to find out his basic orientation" (Ortega, Some 20).
The fundamental difference between self-conscious and pre-reflective Adam is found in what Ortega calls reparar, which is what traditionally has been called "being self-conscious of something," and contar con, which means "to rely on or to be aware of." The gulf between these two definitions is considerable and worth pointing out since they are fundamental to our understanding the difference between mechanical biological living as contar-con and self-conscious existence as reparar. Contar-con can be characterized as being equivalent to walking up a flight of stairs that we at that moment take for granted. Reparar, on the other hand, does not take anything for granted. It is the inward necessity to wonder that begets philosophical questioning. Reparar is equivalent to asking oneself the meaning and worth of one's life, for instance, when confronted with a fatal disease. As fundamental as these two states of mind are to human life, they are not realized or exercised until one is faced with one's external circumstances.8 To this point we will now turn.
The Objective World as My Circumstance
In this section I will concentrate solely on the physical aspect of circumstance, i.e., the external world. Since it is the case that circumstance does not just denote the physical conditions of one's life but also the economic, political, and cultural factors, as well as convictions, beliefs, intuition, etc., a distinction must be made concerning the diverse manifestations of circumstance.
We may begin by stating that at the outset of all life there are crude and self-evident appearances that do not challenge or surpass the appeal of common sense. The world as a vital clump of organic matter orbiting a distant Sun ninety-three million miles away is the essential, and thus the foremost circumstance common to all mankind. This fact allows for the basic universal situation of man.
Pointing out the two fundamental different aspects of circumstance-that it is always material and that it always involves life-will enable us later to understand Ortega's notion of authenticity. In the first place, the outward reality that is the external world is an essentially passive primary reality that appeals to the senses. This is the patent world, or as Ortega refers to it, the mundo patente, which is constituted solely by impressions. Our material circumstances as passive entities in themselves therefore reveal very little about human reality. However this patent reality is unmistakably evident to any sentient being. This "lazy" reality involves us only to the degree that hearing, touching, and seeing are concerned. But this passive "looking" reveals nothing other than a chaotic conglomeration of impressions and not a coherent world. The material circumstance at this level never engages the intellect, strictly speaking. That is, there arise no questions concerning the immediacy of the world in regards to human life, since the world is merely something external to one and does not yet constitute an existential-pole as problem of contemplation for us. Hence the question arises as to how it is possible for a "passive" reality such as the external world to provoke one into reflection? Our task now becomes one of inquiring into how it can be possible to close the gulf between this patent reality and the self-reflection that it brings about, if we are to grant that reflection is born out of vital necessity?
According to Ortega, the reality and profoundness of the world as problem of inquiry is slow to manifest itself and thus cannot reveal any substantial truth at the patent level. In fact, it is only after this initial stage has been surpassed that this profound reality becomes evident. This impressionistic world that first appears to the senses is essentially a world of appearance, a non-engaging conglomeration of brute reality pertaining solely to apparent matters-of-fact. This latent world is merely a "superficial" world without any depth. However, already man's initial material circumstance, biological life places him outside of himself. This world of impressions is also a world of light, color, sound, pain, and pleasure. Therefore, this first level of circumstance becomes the pre-reflective world of nave-realism. But, because Ortega's philosophy never attempts to completely deny material reality, but rather only to exalt the value and purpose of vital-reason, the epistemological split in the nature of these two levels is never accounted for, and therefore exists rather ambiguously throughout his work.
The other fundamental aspect of circumstance is our life itself. Life is the backdrop, the stage for our biographical life. Thus our life is our primary circumstance, or what Ortega calls radical reality. But life at this level is never merely identical to the self-conscious "I." Life as well as the material circumstance exists prior to one's reflecting upon it. The discovery of life is a dual discovery that always consists of finding life within the structure of the material circumstance, in and of itself. Expressed in Cartesian language, we can say that human life always involves a res-extensa and a res-cogitans. Human reality is a constant fluctuation and strain between these two. If we are to understand how "I am I and my circumstances," an understanding of this vital strain is essential.
Ortega's starting-point is his contention that human life is always to be found amongst its circumstances. But circumstance, in turn, even when it is merely thought of as pertaining to objects, is always situational. Thus the "I' which we are, is static, but our life, viewed as circumstance is always situational and in constant flux:
On finding himself alive, man finds himself in a circumstance, a set of surroundings, a world. In this case, the circumstance is this room. My now is my being in a room. (Ortega, Some 77)
It is owing to this situational immediacy, the "now," that Ortega can define life as "that something, which happens to us." Hence the structure of "I am I and my circumstance" is at first misleading. If the objective world is the initial circumstance, as the background of existence (not just merely life) this formula must be understood as follows: "I am something, which is not identical to my life, since life is also part of my circumstance." Thus, I am something! Whatever this something may turn out to be, it ("I") must come to terms with my life as circumstance. Thus I am an existential entity that is manifested in something called my life as a vital reality. Therefore, "I am I" is truly "I am." That is, I exist within my life, which turns out to be an event, yet forming a further circumstance! Hence, the entire formula is transformed into, "I am a self-conscious entity manifesting its existence within a vital reality (life) that is spatially and temporally extended in a greater reality, the physical world." To this problematic we will now turn our attention in greater detail.
Yo y Mis Circumstancias
In this last section we now turn to the understanding of the totality of my circumstances. My external circumstance, which is essentially a landscape or surrounding, is necessary in framing the possibilities that appear in my life. However, as essential to my self-awareness of myself as is my external circumstance, this circumstance is in Ortega's estimation a pantomime of the internal man. Moreover, one always discovers the reality of the world prior to discovering oneself. That is, external circumstances are only a semblance of my inner-reality, and are always known prior to this inner reality that we come to know as "my-self." The main inference in this regard points to the notion that self-reflection can never occur prior to the discovery of the world-as-fact. But let us now ask, "how then can the circumstances be a pantomime of the essence of man, if this idea of circumstance is equally applicable to my body?"
This problem, I believe, occurs in Ortega's thinking due to the fact that while he wants to break free of the neo-Kantian influence he was exposed to as a student at Marburg, he nevertheless, as I have previously mentioned, does not want to embrace naive-realism. Ortega's reluctance to join the idealist camp wholeheartedly springs, as well, from his refusal to posit self-conscious reflection as absolute or to accept the inactivity that he associates with idealism as a viable possibility for man-in-the-world. It is the case, too, that Ortega's thought is essentially a social philosophy, to the same degree as that of Scheler and Dilthey, two of his early influences. Thus he finds it imperative to keep the possibility of man's communication with the world, especially the social world open.
I must also emphasize that Ortega found the Generation of `98, which proceeded his generation of Spanish intellectuals to be ineffective and ill suited to the needs of Spanish thought in Twentieth Century Europe. Ortega's aim as an intellectual leader of Spain was to Europeanize Spanish thought and thus, as he saw it, to bring her up to date with the rest of modern Europe. To this end he writes:
Nothing is so important for us today, in my opinion, as to sharpen our sensitivity to the problem of Spanish culture, that is, to feel Spain as a contradiction. (Ortega, Meditations 105)
This is primarily why Ortega's early essays appeared in the form of newspaper articles in Spain and throughout Latin America. His aim was to feed the Spanish people philosophy in small bits and pieces, and the newspaper offered itself as a viable vehicle for that task. Nevertheless, the consequences of using the newspaper to "educate" as Ortega himself thought possible, also forced him to present his philosophy in what appears to be a limited metaphysical manner. But pragmatism was the prevailing philosophy in philosophical circles, as it was also in the language of the common reader in Spain at that time. Ortega's task, therefore, was to free the common reader from the "security" of his common-sense realism. That is, Ortega understood that to feed German idealism to the common reader was indeed to undermine his own task as educator. His problem was to find a mediator between the idealism that he understood to be natural, intuitive, and a reflective impulse, and the philosophy of action that he subsequently attempted to develop.
It was towards this end that he founded Espana in 1915, El Espectador in 1916, and Revista de Occidente in 1923. These publications were very successful, but the end result was that they were mostly read by those in philosophical circles. Nevertheless it was his hope that some of the ideas contained in these publications would eventually filter down to the benefit of a general populace. It is clear that Ortega's hope in founding these magazines was to attain a higher degree of critical and contemplative environment, where the essence of things was to be placed under a speculative microscope. To this end he reasons:
A long experience in teaching and newspaper publishing has forged a rather unfavorable opinion concerning the philosophical capacity of our people in these modern times. Philosophy can only exist breathing an air called mental rigor, precision, and theory. (Ortega, El Tema 94)
This notion of educating the general public in philosophical contemplation is not without many profound difficulties. The primary difficulty in bringing about the success of this task lies in the very structure of reflection itself, since as Ortega had previously said in Some Lessons in Metaphysics: "metaphysics can only exist for those who need it" (15). By "need it" is meant those who question the status quo of their circumstances. To think metaphysically, in other words, is to dissect and decipher the reality of the world. This option is not open to everyone as is evident in Ortega's definition of metaphysics "as being relevant to individual temperament" (26).
We can see that even though all the connections are not clearly spelled out in detail, perhaps due to the popular format that Ortega uses in order to reach a wider audience, nevertheless for him our external circumstance literally serves as the world of our lives, since we are not our life. My "life" as a vital phenomenon is part of my inner-circumstance, but human reality in its fullest form is always equivalent to the situation in which I find myself. His discourse on the inner workings of the nature of "I" as a point of reflection is probably the weakest point in Ortega's work. His work is somewhat devoid of introspection. However, he makes it clear that man's inner constitution is a combination of my life and my circumstances. The tension that exists between these two poles of my existence generates my knowing my-self as an "I." He explains:
Because man is not identical with his circumstance, but only embedded in it, he is able to rid himself of it in certain moments and retire into his inner self. In these intervals of extra- and supernatural existence, in which he withdraws from attending to his natural needs, he invents and carries out the second set of actions. He lights a fire, he builds a house, he cultivates the field, he designs an automobile. (Ortega, Toward 94)
As such, reality is always immediate and my life is always a combination of my subjective "I" plus the external situation in which I find myself at that precise moment in space and time. Human life when understood as situation or circumstance is never static, but rather dynamic. This is why reality is always the now or immediacy. Reality as situational is always manifested as an uncertain present that is projected toward the future, one that is equally uncertain.10
We have seen Ortega argue that man is not a philosophical entity by nature, but rather that he is coerced into self-conscious reflection by the universe in order to attribute order to it. Of course, someone might object, "but isn't the impetus to question natural to man?" To this Ortega will answer that only those who want to surpass the appearances of the external world can ever become truly self-conscious entities. Only in questioning our circumstances as problematic does man truly orient himself existentially. My circumstances, in Ortega's estimation allow me to situate myself existentially amongst things. Moreover, given that man can never come to know himself reflectively in a vacuum, our awareness of our immediacy to ourselves must always be provoked. Man needs some resistance that frustrates his will in order to come to reflect upon himself historically. This is the friction necessary that allows reflection to occur. This view is the core of Ortega's belief that to understand history we must view it as a narrative that cannot exist without some protagonist. History, then, is foremost a manifestation of vital reason. Viewed as such, history is nothing other than the external rendition of all the intertwined lives that went to make.11
To conclude, let us then reiterate that my circumstances, when constituted of the external world plus my biological life, are a pre-reflective reality that can only become immediate vis-a-vis the interior, intimate "I" that is the true center of man. To exist is always to exist amongst other things that create a situation for us to live in. But to attempt to interpret reality is to find oneself caught in a material web that essentially leads us into finding ourselves as interiority. As Ortega points out, "on finding himself alive, man finds himself in a circumstance, a set of surrounding, a world" (77).
Therefore to say "I am I and my circumstances" is not simply to say that one is limited by one's circumstances as it may first appear. To say I am I and my circumstances is a definition of man that can be interpreted as "man is self-conscious of himself only insofar as he is reflective concerning his surroundings." Thus, the Socratic dictum "know thyself' according to Ortega can never happen immediately, but rather requires a dialectical detour that takes place due to the original fact that man finds himself existing outside himself in the world in the first place. This vital dialectical process of self-orientation culminates in understanding myself as radical-reality.12
6. This concept is at the heart of Ortega's notion of Ensimismamiento (authenticity) which he fully develops some time later in his work Ideas Y Creencias (Ideas and Beliefs) This book proves to be one of Ortega's more "systematic" and existential works. Ideas and Beliefs also serves in helping to understand his idea of subjectivity and objectivity.
7. In this instance what is meant by dialectic is the internal (pre-reflective) mental monologue that takes place within consciousness; thus, befitting the definition offered in Plato's Sophist 26e by the stranger who utters, "Well, thinking and discourse are the same thing, except that what we call thinking is, precisely, the inward dialogue carried on by the mind with itself without spoken sound."
8. A cornerstone of Ortega's work is the principle of individuation. This is perhaps most explicit in his work The Revolt of the Masses. In that work Ortega offers an in-depth analysis of the social-political reality that results from authentic and inauthentic existence, These are respectively 1) noble man and 2) mass man. Cp. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World As Will and Representation, trans. E. F. Payne (New York: Dover, 1966), p. 352: "But the case is otherwise, and a glance into the interior of nature is certainly granted to us, in so far as this is nothing but our own inner being. It is precisely here that nature, having arrived at the highest stage up to which her activity could work, is immediately found in self-consciousness by the light of knowledge."
9. The difference between "to live" and "to exist," has to do with Ortega's notion. of Ensimismamiento (authenticity) and alteration (inauthenticity). But for now it will suffice to say that to live is to live passively amongst things. To exist, on the other hand takes on a self-conscious and thus ontological significance.
10. Ortega's use of Reparar and Contar-con are related to his conception of Ideas (ideas) and Creencias (beliefs). Ideas always pertain to the vitality that is the subject-pole of existence. They are
not intellectual luxuries, but rather life-affirming necessities which allow us to make sense of our individual and existential condition. Beliefs, on the other hand, connote a collective use. They are what Ortega also refers to as vigencias, or social customs. The tension that exists between the two is significant in his work because as a result of this oscillation Ortega argues; there can be a personal and private world.
11. His notion of the "I" of consciousness is rather misleading at first. His well-known formula Yo Soy Yo y Mis Circumstancias (I am I and my circumstances) denotes not only my external circumstances, but also the self-consciousness which locates my identity as a conscious "I" within a wider circumstance. The complexity of this formula is truly understood when we realize that the third component of this formula is that "life" too, is something that "happens" to me. This happenstance that is life can best be understood if we view it as analogous to Schopenhauer's notion of will.
12. See: Historical Reason and Goethe Desde Dentro (Goethe From Within), two key works where Ortega attempts to establish that history is always a biographical-existential enterprise. We may also cite this passage Meditations On Hunting: "Polybius (205?-125 B.C.) was one of the few great minds which the turbid human species has managed to produce.... He is a man of things, in the principal meaning that this word (Latin, res; Greek, pragmata) had for Romans and Greeks; that is to say, that he is a man of "affairs." Consequently he is concerned only with what he calls 11 pragmatic thought"--that is, technical thought-- and he calls his way of "writing history." The historic fact did not interest him because of its factual nature, much less as a pretext, as it was for many of the ancient historians, to compose, while narrating it, a compact tragedy that would excite the readers' viscera. He was interested in the "why" of the fact; his History is a clear precursory example of what I have called historic reason."
1. Ortega never felt totally at ease with any of the varieties of Neo-Kantian philosophy while a student at Marburg. He viewed Neo-Kantian thought as somewhat antiseptic and thus lacking the spontaneity, the drama that he found in human life. Between April and November of 1905 Ortega studied at the University of Leipzig. There, while studying with Wilhelm Wundt he became acquainted with the work of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Humboldt, and Darwin.
2. See: Ortega's essay titled "Concerning the Cosmic Phenomenal Expression: Part 1, Variations Concerning the Flesh," in Some Lessons in Metaphysics, pp. 29-45, where he directly addresses the question "What is man?" ontologically.
3. See Meditations On Quixote, trans. Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marin (New York: W. W. Norton and Company 1961), pp. 13-14, for an explanation of some of the themes that I have pointed out. Julian Marias argues in the introduction to the text. that Ortega's work has always been misunderstood. The fact that the work has not received the critical acclaim that perhaps it deserved was already a major disappointment to Ortega in 1932. The following quotation from Marias is a testimony of Ortega's importance as a thinker. "Towards 1932, when the book had been out for eighteen years-- therefore not with undue impatience-Ortega began to call attention to it modestly. In the prologue to the first edition of his work, he repeated: 'I am myself plus my circumstance,' and he commented: `This expression, which appears in my first book and which sums up my philosophical thought.' After some precise explanations he concluded: `Today they have discovered this truth in Germany and some of my compatriots are now realizing it; but it is an incontrovertible fact that it was first thought in Spanish towards 1914."' In April of the same year (1932), in his article Pidendo un Goethe desde dentro (In Search of Goethe from Within), published in Revista de Occidente, Ortega referred in a note to his relations with Heidegger: "I am indebted but little to this author" and went on to give a detailed account of capital discoveries made in
his own Meditations. As Marian notes, "On occasion, he wrote with restrained melancholy": 'I am surprised that not even those nearest to me have the remotest notion of what I have thought and written. Distracted by my images they have glided over my thoughts .... To find in this note things like those I am putting down may, perhaps, shame a little those young people who were ignorant of them in good faith. If they were acting in bad faith the matter would not be important; the serious thing for them is to discover that they did not know it in good faith, and that, therefore, their own good faith becomes questionable for them.... As I have been silent for many years, so I shall remain again for as many more, after the brief interruption of this note, which simply leads every distracted good faith toward the right track."'
4. "Man reaches his full capacity when he acquires complete consciousness of his circumstances. Through them he communicates with the universe" (Meditations on Quixote, p. 41).
i. "El Monasterio De San Lorenzo de el Escorial" is today the site of one of Spain's greatest art collections. It is situated forty-nine kilometers from Madrid and bordered by the Sierra de Guadarrama and the village of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Ortega found this forest a personal oasis. Furthermore, the forest served for him as the world-at-large. It represents the totality of the universe as an objectifying force of which we only share in as subjects, through our personal self-conscious perspective. Thus the forest "is" never to be simply equated with being the spatial-temporal totality where I find myself because it is always breaking up into a series of "angles," that overlap and which my consciousness can only entertain in isolation. The forest, then, is to reality what the handful of trees in my vicinity are to my to my perspective. Thus any place in which I may subsequently find myself in the forest becomes the center of the universe-the center of reality proper. The individual trees themselves are therefore the culprits of my not seeing the entire forest.
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Pedro Bias Gonzalez
Barry University, Miami, FL 33161-6695…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Biographical Life and Ratio-Vitalism in the Thought of Ortega Y Gasset. Contributors: Gonzalez, Pedro Blas - Author. Journal title: Philosophy Today. Volume: 46. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2002. Page number: 406+. © DePaul University Fall 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.