Biographical Life and Ratio-Vitalism in the Thought of Ortega Y Gasset

By Gonzalez, Pedro Blas | Philosophy Today, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

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? …

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