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“Is There a Spanish Philosophy?”

Germans, Frenchmen, Englishmen or Americans have no difficulty understanding when they hear the expressions "German Philosophy," "French Philosophy," "English Philosophy," or "American Philosophy."[1] They have no difficulty, because these expressions seem to possess not only a connotation, but also, and above all, a denotation. Each of them denotes something which has really existed. In some cases, they denote an imposing array of works which everybody agrees to be philosophical. Germans may say: German philosophy is the philosophy of Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, etc., a philosophy which, by the way, seems to be peculiar to the German mind and to reveal some permanent and characteristic features, such as a tendency to bold speculation mixed with an unusual amount of concept-analysis. Frenchmen may say that French philosophy is the philosophy of Descartes, Condillac, Bergson, etc., and also that this philosophy has a characteristic trend; for example, clarity. And so on.

We Spaniards are not so lucky as these civilized peoples. We are not so sure as they are of exactly what we mean when we use the expression "Spanish Philosophy." I suspect that our uncertainty is very fruitful, and that just because we are not sure of the meaning of the expression "Spanish Philosophy," we can state more clearly the problem of the meaning of any "national" philosophy. However, I will not throw myself headlong into the general problem now. I will content myself with saying that the problem is clearer for us Spaniards, precisely because we are not so sure of what we mean when we say "Spanish Philosophy." This does not imply that we are entirely deprived of philosophers. Names such as Lullus, Vives, Suárez, Balmes—to mention only those who appear in dictionaries and general histories of philosophy—are not so inconsiderable as foreigners are inclined to think, although they are not philosophical giants. Menéndez y Pelayo had a wonderful time writing a many-volumed work in which he claimed that Lullus, Vives, and Suárez are not only outstanding figures of modern European philosophy, but even philosophers who anticipated the most cherished trends in this philosophy; for instance, Cartesianism. He published, besides, long lists of works on philosophical and scientific problems written by Spaniards of the XV., XVI., XVII., XVIII., and XIX. centuries, in order to demonstrate that there is not a lack of Spanish philosophy, but rather a lack of information about such philosophy. It would therefore be unfair to suppose that the statement "Spanish Philosophy" may have a connotation, but not a denotation. Nevertheless, not even Menéndez y Pelayo solved the problem. He comforted us, but he did not succeed in convincing us. Spanish philosophy still remained a problem. It is a curious thing that sometimes a problem arises not through the existence, but through the non-existence of the subject. This is one of those cases, perhaps the most acute and the saddest. We began, therefore, to suspect that perhaps the expression "Spanish Philosophy" was not, after all, so meaningful as it seemed, even assuming that there were some instances to prove its reality. And through the problem of Spanish philosophy we began to reconsider the general problem of any "national philosophy."

Let me state the problem as concisely as possible, even if I have to face the danger of doing it too schematically. We say "Spanish Philosophy," and since we are not so sure of ourselves as Germans are of themselves when they say "German Philosophy," because, once again, we cannot so easily resort to an imposing array of philosophers, we are obliged to ask ourselves exactly what this expression means. Now, before we can disclose what it means, we have to answer the question of whether it means something or nothing, that is to say, whether we are talking sense or nonsense.

Those who assume that the expression "Spanish Philosophy" is nonsensical, try to prove their contention by a kind of ostensible definition. They point to the fact that there are no philosophers in Spain, at least in the traditional sense of the word "philosopher." But the traditional sense of this word is based upon a definite description of what it usually means in such countries as England, France, or Germany. They deny any meaning to Spanish philosophy, because this philosophy does not seem to comply with the requirements stated by modern European philosophical thought. In other words, they use a terminology into which it is very difficult to fit the words "Spanish Philosophy." Needless to say, if only philosophy in the traditional sense of the word is philosophy, Spanish philosophy will lie far apart from it and will produce the impression of being both imitative and extravagant.

But if in order to oppose this opinion, we inquire from others what they think of Spanish philosophy, we shall get an answer of a very different, even an opposite character. "All right," they will say, "Spanish philosophy, as diluted in literature and in practical life, does not fit very well into the frame of modern European philosophy. But this means that modern European philosophy is only a part of the total reality called philosophy. For modern European philosophy is, after all, only a rationalistic and intellectualistic interpretation of the whole of philosophy." We Spaniards, these critics argue, do not limit ourselves to rationalistic philosophy, because we believe in a philosophy rooted in the whole of the human being. And in order to demonstrate that not only are we distinguished in this kind of philosophy, but also far ahead of other nations, we avoid mentioning names such as Lullus, Vives, or Suárez and insist upon names such as Cervantes, Gracián, Quevedo, Saint John of the Cross, who, according to Unamuno—undoubtedly the most unrepentant defender of this opinion—have understood man and not nature, existence and not essence. They seem to be in complete agreement with the poet León Felipe, when he says, in a beautiful but quite unscientific way: "The axis of the world is a song and not a law."

My first contention is that both ways of understanding the expression "Spanish Philosophy" are sound if we use in some way the so-called principle of complementarity. They are, therefore, both false and true, not in a contradictory, but simply in a contrary way. I think that the obstacle could be easily removed if we disentangle the confusion which lies in the current use of the word "philosophy." In other words, it is necessary to reformulate the problem by means of an analysis of meanings. In fact, when philosophical problems are entangled in controversial forms, there is no other way of attacking the question except by analyzing the meanings in which the terms are used. Now, I suspect that both parties use the term "philosophy" in two different ways, or apply the same meaning to two different objects.

In order to clear the ground, it is urgent to establish a distinction between the two concepts of philosophy. This does not mean, however, that philosophy itself has to be divided into two different concepts. In fact, and as we shall see thereafter, the distinction is not a distinction between two different contents, because the contents itself is one of the bases for distinction. Let me state the problem clearly.

When we use the word "philosophy" in such phrases as "Spanish Philosophy," we usually do not state clearly what we mean by that term. The same thing happens, of course, when we speak of a philosophy as a system of thoughts closely interrelated, and even determined by a cultural area or by a historical age. This vagueness will not endanger our search when we are interested, as historians, in describing the cultural Leistungen of an epoch. But as soon as we intend to use the term as philosophers, we violate the rule of precision, which is, at least in theory, the aim of all our colleagues. This is not due to the fact that the term lacks meaning, but rather to the fact that it has several meanings. Now, when a term has several meanings, one of them may often conceal the others. We have then the illusion of talking about a definite thing, when in fact we are talking about a whole set of entities. Which then are the different meanings for which we use the same word and which we cover by the same expression?

According to my understanding, there are at least two such meanings. First, when we say "philosophy," we can understand by such a word a series of propositions which we usually call philosophical. Secondly, we refer to philosophy as to a certain human behavior, that is to say, a certain function or mode of being of our existence. Although it is not the moment to explain fully our own opinion about the subject, I cannot fail to declare that both meanings of the word "philosophy" are not, strictly speaking, philosophical realities, that is to say, real foundations of any philosophical system. If you will allow me to use here the scholastic vocabulary, I should venture to say that neither philosophy as a series of propositions, nor philosophy as a human activity are a constitutivum of philosophy itself, but rather two specimens of what Germans used to call, twenty years ago, "limiting-concepts," Grenzbegriffe. It will be convenient to declare once and for all that philosophy cannot be entirely reduced to any of the aforementioned concepts. No philosophy is simply a mode of the human being. No philosophy is a mere system of propositions. The real philosophy, as it exists in fact, is a concrete and ceaseless crossing from one point to another, from one borderline to another. To be exact, we should never be allowed to say that philosophy is either a propositional system or a human activity. The decision-problem, taken formally or existentially, does not fit adequately within our frame. But if philosophy is both an activity and a system of propositions, it is necessary to disclose which is in every case the main tendency of each of the many systems of philosophy and of each of the still more numerous ideas of philosophy. A rigorous distinction is methodologically inescapable. It is the same as the much debated problem of the distinction between organic and inorganic substances. Maybe there is no real difference between these two substances, and you can even translate the biologist's language into the physicist's language. But the fact is that the biologist uses a method different from that of the physicist. Even if philosophy as a unit cannot be really disintegrated, we can assume the possibility of a methodological disruption. This will be especially convenient if it is only at the cost of disruption that we can attain again the primordial unity.

The meaning of the expression "Spanish Philosophy" depends upon the idea of philosophy.

As a system of propositions and, therefore, as a definite contents, I think it is quite difficult to give a sense to the aforementioned expression. When I say "as a system of propositions," I do not mean that philosophy must essentially be a propositional contents endowed with epistemological autonomy. In other words, I do not recommend even the consideration of philosophical propositions as specifically and exclusively philosophical. I even admit it to be more plausible to reduce philosophy to an analysis of all kinds of propositions as such or, if you prefer, to all kinds of statements as statements. This is, of course, Wittgenstein's idea of philosophy in his famous dictum according to which philosophy is not a theory, but an activity (philosophy, some scholastics used to say a long time ago, has only a "formal object"). But the term "activity" does not strictly coincide here with the expressions "philosophy as a mode of human being" or "philosophy as a function of human life." It is concerned exclusively with the assumption that philosophical propositions are not epistemologically autonomous and, therefore, cannot be analyzed as propositions referring to a particular contents—the so-called "philosophical object." When we define philosophy as a propositional system we therefore include in this concept philosophy as a logical clarification of thoughts or as a logical analysis. In all these cases, I am convinced that we cannot qualify philosophical sentences except by such adjectives as true or false. Suppose we are in doubt about this submission of philosophical sentences to the traditional two-valued logic. The contention still holds. If we admit a many-valued logic—and I think we must admit it at least as a device—, philosophical propositions will still fit into a truth-table, that is to say, will not be qualified except as true, or false, or as affected by value. All propositions will have something in common: meaning. And even if we evade meaning in the traditional sense and adhere to a semantic conception of truth, it will be indubitable that some specific sign will be attached to every proposition. As some philosophers admit (although this is highly controversial), even an extensional logic cannot dispense with logical significance as something different from the syntax of language. The philosophical proposition in such a case will be true, false or, if you wish, indeterminate. It will not escape in the least what we could call the "range of significance" in case we prefer not to use repeatedly a word as much abused as 'meaning.' I cannot explain here in detail why I believe that this range of significance depends ultimately upon objectivity. Let us simply state that, from this point of view the meaning of a proposition always remains the same. It is quite another story if we cannot effectively grasp the meaning. Let us suppose that for some reason we cannot attain a sufficient knowledge about the truth, falsehood, etc., of propositions. Even in that case our ignorance will be measured according to the value to which it is referred. We shall not be able to ascribe a truth-value to a definite philosophical proposition, because, for instance, we may not dispose of adequate instruments of measurement. Of course, such measurements must be understood primarily as mental measurements. I am not as sure as some extreme operationalists are that we measure with our hands rather than with our mind. The readings of measurements are themselves a kind of measurement. But in any case, the significance and even the meaning of propositions will depend upon the possibility of taking such measurements. From this point of view, no more but no less, we cannot say that the expression "Spanish Philosophy" has a sense. We could even say that no other "national philosophy"—French, German, English, or American included—has a sense. I am quite aware of the fact that the unit of measurement of the philosophical sentences can be history itself, and that in such a case we could be inclined to think that philosophy is only understandable as history. In other words, it can happen that we select history to measure the objectivity of propositions. But history—or rather, as Germans call it, Geschichtlichkeit— will possess no meaning unless we do not previously fit it into the frame of a more general objectivity, on which depends even the objectivity of the meaning of historical propositions.

If from this angle we deny drastically the meaning of the expression "Spanish Philosophy" and of any "national" philosophy, it is not the same when we view philosophy primordially as a mode of human being, or as a function of human life. In this case, human life appears as the genetic foundation of philosophical knowledge. The peculiar conditions of life become then the peculiar conditions of philosophy. And to be properly understood, philosophy will then require an adjective—Spanish or some other. Now, even in this case we must be careful. Suppose we consent to the idea that philosophy is primordially at least a function of human life. The issue that such a function must be, so to say, the "ultimate horizon" of the meaning of our philosophical propositions will still be very controversial. My personal impression is that it is not. Actually, if we answer affirmatively, that is to say, if we maintain that ultimately philosophy and life are like the function and the argument in a propositional function, we are obliged to assume two hypotheses: first that philosophy is entirely inscribed in the human sphere; second, that all human actions are self-immanent. We cannot enter into such a difficult question now. We shall simply say that if philosophy is reduced to the so-called ultimate horizon of the human life, our concern then will not be to make philosophy, but to live. And if philosophy is entirely diluted in life, I do not see how we could decide at any moment to state formal philosophical questions.

I do not object, of course, to the possibility of assuming such an attitude. But to assume an attitude is quite different from making an assertion—even an assertion about the same attitude. The attitude assumed is entirely inscribed in the frame of life. In return, the assertion, though arising from a living situation, is not situated at the same level as life itself. That explains why an assertion about life has to be based on acquaintance but cannot be formulated except as a description. I use the terms acquaintance and description in a sense very close to the one used by James and even by Russell. In other words, an attitude such as the one described above eradicates any possible assertion, at least in the formal sense of the word. Let us suppose that all human actions are self-immanent. Then, the assertion that all human actions are self-immanent is not self-immanent. If we want to maintain the perfect self-immanency of human actions, we shall be obliged to abstain from making any assertion and must limit ourselves to action. I insist, therefore, that the complete reduction of philosophy to an ultimate horizon of human life is a possible attitude, but not a possible assertion. Therefore, although philosophy as a function of human existence can explain genetically the whole of philosophical propositions, it cannot explain their logical validity.

Now, it is plain that when we use the expression "Spanish Philosophy," we refer, unless we wish our terms to become meaningless, to this second and last concept of philosophy. From this point of view, we shall be able to say that there is a Spanish philosophy. I should say more: only from this point of view will it be permissible to say that there is concretely any philosophy. On this level it is not altogether absurd to say that philosophy appears only as a historical phenomenon. But, once more, this historical conditioning of philosophy, explaining most satisfactorily its genesis and even its significance, cannot explain the logical meaning of its propositions, unless we understand by meaning something which could be more appropriately rendered by terms such as style, form, or mode of expression.

I am quite aware of the fact that in order to validate this contention, other strong arguments would be needed. The thesis will not be clarified enough unless we can demonstrate how a rigorous philosophy is possible without eradicating this philosophy—and, as a general rule, any human thought—from what it is customary to call a world-vision, a Weltanschauung. I have not the slightest intention of asserting that philosophy and Weltanschauung have nothing in common. On the contrary, it seems to me, even assuming a scientificist trend in philosophy, that both have much in common. Now, the relationship between philosophy and Weltanschauung is, in my opinion, very different from the one which it is usual to admit among thinkers of, say, the Diltheyan school. It is probable that, from the genetic point of view, Weltanschauung is one of the bases for philosophy. It is even plausible to assert that Weltanschauung determines the concrete existence of philosophy. But this determination is not a positive, but, so to say, a negative one. Philosophy is determined by a Weltanschauung in the sense that the Weltanschauung is an ambit or a precinct from which philosophy emerges to existence. This fact will make us understand in which sense and to what extent we shall be obliged or not to mention a Weltanschauung in order to explain the background of a philosophy. At least, it will explain to us to what extent a philosophy, even inscribed in a precise Weltanschauung, is not positively determined by this Weltanschauung. Let us use the traditional vocabulary: a Weltanschauung may be something sine qua we would have no philosophy at all. But it is not legitimate to assume that a Weltanschauung is something quamobrem there is a philosophy. The condition for existence is not always a constitutivum of reality.

I have the impression that expressions such as "Spanish Philosophy" or any other "national philosophy" can be explained only from this point of view, that is to say, assuming as true one of the two possible concepts of philosophy. I have the impression also that all confusions which have arisen in this field are due to the fact that philosophy as a propositional system has not been distinguished from philosophy as a mode of human being. In other words, as a propositional system we cannot say that there is a Spanish philosophy. But as a mode of human being, and with the restrictions we have introduced, we can say, not only that the expression "Spanish Philosophy" has a sense, but even that Spanish philosophy is one of the philosophical systems of thought in which the condition of being a function of our existence is fully, and wonderfully, realized.

Nobody has understood this as profoundly as Professor Américo Castro, when he writes in his latest book about Spain and its history, that "the history of Europe could not possibly be understood without Spain [a nation] which has not discovered mathematical theorems nor principles of physics, but which has been something that Europe cannot dispense with." A people which insists upon being rather than upon operating, a people which prefers to be reality rather than become an operator of reality, is, of course, most suited to become the color bearer of philosophy as a mode of human being and the most unrepentant enemy of any philosophy as a mere system of propositions. In this sense we can say that not only is there a Spanish philosophy, but even that the philosophy of Spain can be understood only as a Spanish philosophy. My answer to the problem: "Is there a Spanish philosophy?" would be, then: yes, in one sense; in another, no. Now, it seems to me that if Europeans and Americans could learn a little from us and drop for a moment their well-known tendency to reduce being to understanding and understanding to operating, we could also learn much from them and abstain from too much insisting on transforming reality in accordance with human ideals. I do not propose an eclectic program. I rather insinuate the possibility of an integration which keeps the vitality of the constituent parts. We Spaniards (whatever my personal opinion may be) understand philosophy primarily as a function of human existence. Now, in order to make us understandable, we have to use concepts which, as such, must be submitted to the principles of logical validity—or, if you wish, of logical convention. This will oblige us to drop for a moment our life as a philosophy in order to make an effort to formulate a philosophy of life. It is possible that, as such, it can attain a universal validity. Embodied in definite meanings, our thoughts will not be immanent to life, but—in a very common sense of the word "transcendence"—they will transcend life. Then perhaps we shall get together. Then, perhaps, we shall be Spaniards without ceasing to be Europeans or Americans. Perhaps then you will also become Spaniards in a certain way and will understand that our philosophy is not at all a purely nonsensical way of thinking.

It will be obvious to everybody that my paper has used, in a rather loose way, some of the results of what we could call the Neo-Wittgensteinian method. In fact, I have been guided by a formula as old as man, because it belongs to common-sense, but which some followers of the latest phase of Wittgensteinian philosophical psychoanalysis have recast into the words: "Say it as you like, but be careful… ." or, as John Wisdom has put it: "If you will excuse a suspicion of smartness: Philosophers should be continually trying to say what cannot be said."


  1. In this paper, which was read at a meeting of the Fullerton Club, in Bryn Mawr, I have used some of the ideas contained in my communication to the Third Inter-American Congress of Philosophy (Mexico, 1950) concerning the problem of American philosophy. In fact, it is a rather literal application of those ideas to the present problem.

Ferrater Mora, José. “Is There a Spanish Philosophy?” Hispanic Review 19 (January 1951): 1-10.
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