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“Expatriate guardian of a heritage”

Syracuse, N.Y. The world’s greatest living Spanish philosopher wears a black leather jacket, smokes Russian cigarettes, owns more than 200 films and likes to mention Philadelphia in his essays. This past week, he climbed into his Volkswagen Rabbit and drove all the way here to enjoy a Syracuse University symposium in his honor.

All the way, that is, from that well-known Spanish community of Villanova, Pa.

A life molded by decades of exile from Franco’s Spain, obviously, has its pros and cons. By now, it is just a simple fact that José Ferrater Mora, the lean, 70-year old inheritor of the mantle of such great Spanish intellectuals as Miguel de Unamuno and José Ortega y Gasset, considers his home the Main Line—not Madrid.

“Here, I am, perhaps a nobody, or a very little thing,” says Ferrater, as Spaniards refer to him, of his lack of celebrity in the United States. “And there, in the Spanish-speaking world, perhaps, I am not so important.”

“You have to take what he says with a grain of salt,” interjects his wife, Priscilla Cohn, a philosophy professor at Pennsylvania State University at Ogontz and editor of a collection of essays on her husband. In places like Argentina, Mexico or Spain, she says, “we’re besieged by reporters from papers, television and radio.”

For more than 30 years, since coming to Bryn Mawr College in 1949, this dark-haired, El Greco-ish suburbanite has been the expatriate guardian of his country’s philosophical heritage, shaping and enriching it with painstaking scholarship.

“I don’t like to work at all,” the Barcelona native protested unconvincingly at the Syracuse “Homage to a Humanist” symposium. “I really like to lie on the beach.”

But if anyone believed that, it was only because they envisioned him curled up on his beach blanket with a week’s worth of texts.

His Diccionario de filosofía, a four-volume work of nearly 4,000 pages compiled entirely by the author and first published in 1941, has gone through four versions, six editions and best seller-dom in Spain, and has become the standard work in the field throughout the Spanish-speaking world. His Lógica matemática (1955) co-authorized with Temple University. Professor Hughes Leblanc, helped introduce symbolic logic into Spanish-speaking countries.

Several major works of his have established him as a systematic thinker in his own right. And as evidenced by Transparencies, a 1981 volume of essays in his honor, Ferrater’s lucid, undogmatic style has won respect from Marxists, logicians and literary sorts alike.

He has also ranged far beyond philosophy. A student of film, he has made more than 10 short movies in the past 15 years and published some of his “script-descriptions” in a book, Cine sin filosfías (“Movies without Philosophy”). His first novel, Claudia, mi Claudia, (1982) a philosophical thriller about a man who scrutinizes the world on TV screens from his basement, sold well in Spain. One of his ex-Bryn Mawr students, the writer Renata Adler, has shown it to Alfred A. Knopf boss Robert Gottlieb. Could Claudia turn out to be next year’s Spanish The Name of the Rose, the best-seller by philosopher Umberto Eco?

“Catalonia is proud of Ferrater Mora,” declared Prof. Jaime Ferran, director of Syracuse University Centro de Estudios Hispanicos, as about 100 students and faculty settled into their seats in Maxwell Hall here.

“As a matter of fact,” he continued, “this is one of the common grounds between Catalans and the rest of the Spanish people. Because Catalans feel that Ferrater Mora is our leading philosopher. And the rest of the Spanish people also consider him the best philosopher of modern Spain.”

The symposium speakers called attention to some reasons why. His studies of Ortega and Unamuno, said Prof. Demetrios Basdekis of the State University of New York in Oneonta, have provided “splendid” ground work for subsequent scholars. Prof. Helen Reed praised his 1963 book about Catalonia, Europe and Spain for profoundly mining the elements of irony, moderation, continuity and seny, (a kind of wise common sense) that mark the Catalan character.

The Spanish poet and literary scholar, German Bleiberg described Claudia, mi Claudia as evocative of the “climate of Kafka.” Cornell’s Ciriaco Moron Arroyo remarked that, “it would be difficult to come up with language more clear to explain Ferrater than the language he uses himself.”

“Well, you are maybe tired of listening to this collection of lies,” joked Ferrater afterwards. “But I have to tell you, I am not tired at all.”

His one-liners cued students to what his colleagues already knew. A fellow who sprinkled references to Monty Python and Princess Daisy, whose collection of video games includes Pac-Man and Dragster, was no run-of-the-mill superscholar. Ferrater’s grand position in Spanish culture seems to rest in part on his ability to absorb American and European culture without forgetting the special concern of the Spaniard.

The Villanova home he shares with Cohn, eight cats and a rabbit suggests a happy mingling of scholar and software nut. “Let’s say 9,125,” he replies, asked the number of books in his spectacular garage-turned-library, with shelves up to 20 feet high. On a mezzanine sit an Olympia word processor, a radio Shack TRS-80 personal computer, another computer, video-cassette recorder, computer games and those hundreds of movies. “They have very little to do with one another,” says Mora about his film and philosophy.

This year Ferrater has been busier on the philosophical side. The year 1983 is the 100th anniversary of Ortega, whose book, The Revolt of the Masses made him nearly as popular as Jean-Paul Sartre for a time. Almost every Spanish department in the country has organized something this year, remarks Cohn, who says even her husband now thinks enough is enough. “He thinks it makes Spain look ridiculous,” she says, “because it’s as if Spain has only one philosopher.”

Asked about Spanish philosophy directly, Ferrater agrees that Unamuno and Ortega are properly cited here as the two major modern figures of Spanish humanism, but acknowledges that Spanish thought generally gets short shrift compared to its French and German equivalents. Ferrater attributes Spain’s weak cultural position here to a combination of just desserts, public relations and academic sociology.

“It is true,” he says, “that compared to France, or Germany, or the United States or England, Spanish philosophical production hasn’t been abundant. But there are two things—production and public relations. And the two things are equally important.”

Ferrater once described his own work as “integrationism”—an attempt to unite scientific and humanistic strains in philosophy. Over the years, he has become more analytically oriented, concerned with precise statements and arguments.

“I seem to see both sides of a question,” Ferrater says. “And I am careful enough to point out the weaknesses of both sides.”

Given his tough-minded views, Ferrater does not attract doting disciples. Still, before his retirement two years ago, some students from Spanish countries did come to study with him. Doubtless others will be inspired by his ability to maintain his Spanish roots despite three decades here.

Maybe they’ll talk about Ferrater in the same playful, yet respectful way that he discusses Ortega’s fierce commitment to Spanish culture.

“He was not the kind of person,” quips Ferrater, “who would come to New York and forget Spanish.”

Carlin Romano
Philadelphia Inquirer Oct 15. 1983
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