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“José Ferrater Mora: On a Radical Form of Thinking”

In my book on the philosophical thought of Ortega Y Gasset (Ortega y Gasset: An Outline of His Philosophy, New Haven: Yale University, 1957), I refrained from talking directly or systematically about two very fundamental aspects of his work: his idea about Being and his basic form of thinking. In Ortega's published works there had been, of course, marvelous suggestions touching upon these points. But it was still too soon to comment on them fully: one had to wait for the publication of the two or three major works that Ortega had been promising his readers, especially his philosophically minded ones, for years.

In the Spanish version of the above-mentioned book (Ortega y Gasset: Etapas de una filosofía, Barcelona: Editorial Seix Barral, S. A., 1958), I introduced a new section entitled "The Idea of Being." By this time it was possible for me to speak, even if very briefly, of this problem, because too extremely revealing texts had been added to those already known: one a work which, although based on lectures given in 1929, was not published until almost thirty years later (¿Que es filosofía? Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1957); and the other an essay in which, apropos of Leibniz, Ortega went thoroughly into a series of great metaphysical questions ("Del optimismo en Leibniz," Freudengabe fur Ernst Robert Curtius zum 14, April, 1956; reprinted in La idea de principio en Leibniz, pp. 405-35). However, even all this was insufficient to enable one to elucidate properly either of the two aspects of Ortega's thought that I mentioned at the beginning.

Fortunately, we now possess for the purpose a much more solid support: the work of Ortega entitled La idea de principio en Leibniz y la evolución de la teoría deductiva ("The Notion of Principle in Leibniz and the Evolution of Deductive Theory"; Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1958), published, three years after the philosopher's death, in the series Posthumous Works. Although some of the other Posthumous Works that have been announced promise to contain abundant philosophical material, it is doubtful that they will be of such capital importance regarding the aspects in question as the one I have just mentioned. Those who are thoroughly acquainted with the unedited papers left by Ortega agree that, from a philosophical point of view, this is his major work. We can use it then, without hesitation, as the basis of our analysis. For reasons of space, however, we shall limit our analysis to only one of the two aspects: the study of Ortega's characteristic form of thinking. This form of thinking had already been frequently manifested in the course of the philosopher's previous work, right from his first writings, but I do not believe it excessive to state that only in La idea de principio en Leibniz does it come to full blossom. This is not surprising, for it is usually the major works of philosophers that best reveal to us not only the content but also the structure of their thought. Ortega, happily, has been no exception in this respect.

In what follows, I propose to examine La idea de principio en Leibniz for the manner of thought that shines through. A previous familiarity with the work on the part of the reader may help make my analysis clearer. Being aware, however, that some of the readers of these pages still may not have seen Ortega's, I shall first consider the "external" appearance of the work. In any case, the "external" form and the "internal" form—which is the one with which I shall be principally concerned—are tightly imbricated in Ortega; indeed, both are basic aspects of his characteristic way of thinking.

Ortega's book, despite its length—four hundred closely packed pages, excluding the appendixes—is not finished. In a certain sense, it is hardly begun. Of the three long parts—or "chapters"—which, seemingly, were to compose the book, only the first one borders on achieving its goal. And as if that were not enough, this first, not totally complete, part keeps the reader constantly stirred up. The first impression of continual battering is not really warded off by the tenuous historical thread, which goes from Euclid and Aristotle to Descartes, passing though the Scholastics and then returning to the Stoics. The quick reaction of the unsuspecting reader, or of one little accustomed to Ortega's 'mental fashion,' is predictable: "This book is not only incomplete," the hypothetical reader will probably say, "it is also formless. A mass of reflections, analyses, quotes, insults, and heaven knows what."

Such a reaction would be unjustified. Rather, it would be acceptable only if the reader set out with no more than a conventional notion regarding what a book, and especially a philosophical book, ought to be. The truth is that philosophical books—creative philosophical books, that is—resemble novels, at least in one respect: they shy away from any form imposed from without. Such books take on any form, on one condition: that the form exactly fit the content. Ortega's book is "physically" incomplete. It is like this for the same simple reason that prevented the author from finishing so many books: the attraction Ortega felt for innumerable tangential themes, owing to the constant ebullition of his mind. But is it also a formless book? I think not. And this is for two reasons.

In the first place, the form of thought characteristic of Ortega throughout all his books is that very one of which he was always fully aware and which he described more than once (including in the work under discussion) when he said, "I've been gradually encircling, as the Hebrews did in order to take Jericho" (La idea de principio en Leibniz, Chapter 30, p. 349). (From now on I shall not refer to the various places in the book where the themes taken up in this essay are discussed. Given Ortega's form of thought and technique of spiral approach, certain themes are touched upon practically throughout the whole book. Should the reader be interested, it would be better to invite him to familiarize himself with the entire work.) The form of mind peculiar to Ortega comes from a readiness to see as many perspectives as possible until one reaches one's destination, "the besieged citadel." To put it less metaphorically, it is a question of looking at the desired reality from as many points of view as are necessary in order to find the adequate point of view—which may turn out to be the sum of all of them.

In the second place, Ortega's thought functions like a steam shovel, and it is a question of digging little by little, but endlessly, until coming upon, in the subsoil depths, what he calls again and again the "roots"—the unnoticed principles—which are then brought out into the open air to show what they are capable of.

When one takes into account these two ways of mental approach, Ortega's book no longer appears like a formless, careless mass of reflections, but exactly like the contrary: the natural, and almost inevitable, consequence of a certain form of thought. We cannot, for many reasons, call the latter 'dialectical.' Let us call it, then, to go along with our philosopher's nature, 'perspectivist.' The perspectives gradually multiply and, at the same time, become deeper. They also gradually take on a hierarchical arrangement. To get hold of a clue is not easy. But it is not impossible. And when we definitely come upon it, we notice that the shortest route was not, after all a straight line. (This is an all too obvious platitude in philosophy, but one that should be recalled from time to time.)

A thorough study of the external form of Ortega's book would tell a great deal about his thought. It will have to be left for another occasion, however, or for more perspicacious commentators. Now it is time to say a few words about our principal theme: the internal form. This is equivalent to discussing the Ortegan way of thinking, which, as we shall see, is a 'radical' one.

For anyone who, like Ortega in the book under discussion and in some of his previous writings, is interested in various ways of thinking—the Euclidean, the Aristotelian, the Euclidean-Aristotelian, the Aristotelian-Scholastic, the Stoic, the Cartesian, the existentialist, and, of course, the Leibnizian—the question properly enough arises: What is the author's own way of thinking?

Above all, Ortega thinks in such a way as to make the entire philosophical tradition, including the modern one—and consequently, the complete history of philosophy—look like a relatively closed and "concluded" unit. Ortega's book is not, then, just a study of Leibniz and of what made Leibniz's philosophy possible. It is not even only a study of the essential moments in the history of philosophical thought. It is a thorough attack on the question of philosophy itself—on the nature, essence, or condition of philosophy—in regard to its place in our situation, or as Ortega writes, at our "level": As a consequence of this, it is a revision of the fundamental moments in our philosophical past. But we must not think, because of this, that we have before us a "merely historical" book, despite the abundant and constant references to the past. We are faced with a book that is fully and decidedly systematic—the most systematic of all those produced by our philosopher. In this book there becomes apparent Ortega's thought on the fundamental philosophical problem: that of philosophy itself as a way—historical, besides—of thinking.

To understand this thoroughly we must resist being led astray by certain of the author's statements. At one point he writes, for example, that the 'substance' of his study is no other than "to underline in the most energetic fashion the fact that (in the traditional way of thinking, that is, in the Aristotelian and Scholastic way) knowledge needs many other principles." In another place he says plainly that what he has attempted to do in La idea de principio en Leibniz is to make it clear that whereas for the Aristotelian (and, in general, traditional) way of thinking, "thinking is making evident," for the Leibnizian (and, in general, modern) way of thinking, "thinking is proving." To this dual task he dedicates, it is true, a considerable part of his book. But it seems to me that it would be overlooking its importance to suppose that the axis of his work is constituted by the aforesaid two aims. These are in no way merely incidental, but their value consists in that, through them, one can grasp the author's own way of thinking. One can see what he considers philosophy ought always to be, as a form of thought incomparably more profound and radical than all the other forms man has forged since the day he found himself obliged to think in order to keep afloat in the vast, insecure ocean of reality.

I have just used the word radical. It is the most fundamental, significant, and revealing of all the words used by Ortega throughout his book—and even throughout all his writings. Again and again, Ortega confesses to being—in theory—a "radical." But this is not out of mere whimsey. It is because he suspects that philosophy and radicalism are one and the same thing. In philosophy, he tells us, one must always go "further"—a "further" that ends up being a 'nearer,' since in philosophy one does not ascend to peaks, but, rather, descends to abysses—to principles and suppositions; in short, to "roots." Such radicalism cannot be carried out, however, according to the fancy of the philosopher. The philosopher does not live—or he should not live—in the rarified universe of pure ideas, which is the only "place" where one can do whatever he feels like, but only because what he may do will not matter. The philosopher lives in his time; his radicalism is, then, that of his own age. He cannot go further down than the depth levels reached by other philosophers permit him to. That is why philosophy is always historical—and not only, as it is often said, because it is in history.

The latter explanation is trivial and hardly informative. Neither is philosophy always historical because philosophical findings are relative and, therefore, scarcely trustworthy. This view is less trivial, and erroneous, besides, because it supposes that there are no "philosophical truths." And of course there are none if one expects them to be absolute. Philosophy is historical precisely for the opposite reason from what the skeptic believes: because it gradually leaves behind half-truths, unnoticed suppositions that are becoming explicit—and, so, insufficient—platitudes that were in their day paradoxes, and "commonplaces" that began by being the insights of a genius. This is why Ortega felt the need to state the problem of philosophy against tradition, against all tradition. In one way or another, Ortega rejects all philosophy that once was. But only in so far as it is an inherited, or 'received,' philosophy; that is, accepted without further ado, along with all its platitudes. On the other hand, philosophy from the past is not merely "received" when one can raise its veils, one by one, to see what is hidden under them. For what we then discover is the final level reached by all the other philosophers together; this is the only way of finding the suitable level, the really present-day style of philosophizing.

What is the "level" of philosophy today, according to Ortega? And since our author claims, and not without reason, to have put his foot on that level, what is the idea that Ortega himself has about philosophizing?

Some people have believed that the present-day level is represented by existentialism—as, in anther time, others believed it was represented by Neo-Kantianism. All kinds of philosophers have "gargled," as Ortega says, with various extremely questionable ideas—as, for example, the idea that man is, in the final analysis, Nothing, or that he consists in wondering about Being. Without knowing it, they have behaved like mere receptors—at times, as in the case of Heidegger, like 'receptors of genius.' But they have not taken into consideration several basic things, among them the following:

  1. Philosophy is an interpretation—or a "system of interpretations"—adopted by man in the face of certain vital situations.

  2. Being is not something that is simply here, given to man from time immemorial, something about which he must, whether he wants to or not, say something, but a human invention, an hypothesis that man has forged for himself in order to be able to handle the world and himself, once those other hypotheses that are beliefs have failed him.

  3. Man's life cannot be reduced to anguish, or dread, or being unto death, or concern, but neither can it be reduced to generosity, vital impetus, gaiety, or joviality. Life is many sided, and it possesses—or can possess—infinite "tastes."

  4. Philosophy may have fulfilled its cycle—its historical cycle—and may be becoming something which we can continue calling 'philosophy,' if we insist, but which will probably be another very different way of thinking.

The four previous ideas are closely related. All of them are fundamental. But not to an equal degree: the fourth and last is the most fundamental of all, because it is the way we have to react—philosophically—in the face of our seemingly unphilosophical situation.

Now, philosophy is primarily a way of thinking within which are lodged other ways of thinking, which are its schools, systems, orientations, movements. The philosophers of the past, and even many in the present, have not managed to rid themselves of more than one or several of these subsidiary ways of thinking; so, they have been able to confront other philosophers, but not philosophy as such. The level of thinking of our time demands more: beating the living daylights out of the way of thinking 'philosophy.' With this, one is doing something more than investigating an intellectual manner of behaving in the face of what is; one is getting to the heart of the matter, to the phenomenon "human life"—which is for Ortega, as every one of his readers knows, the 'radical fact.'

Paradoxically, a philosopher becomes the more authentic as he demands of philosophy insistently and even angrily its own credentials. In one way or another, this is what all the creative philosophers in the past have done. This is what Georg Simmel was probably alluding to when he wrote that "philosophy is the first of its problems." About this, Dithey must have meditated untiringly when he endlessly shuffled philosophies and concluded, with melancholy, that there could no longer be any others than those that had been. Now, whereas many people have thought that asking philosophy for its credentials is equivalent to making it relative or trivial, Ortega concludes that it is the only way of taking it seriously, really seriously, for the credentials do not turn out to be flawless simply by alleging that philosophy has done this or that, or that perhaps it has done nothing good so far but will soon appear in its true light, once hygienic measures are adopted and they get the so-called philosophers out of the universities. Rigorously speaking, philosophy is, Ortega points out, a permanent failure. But a decent failure, because, to tell the truth, philosophy never pretended to triumph, that is, to find solutions. It pretended to do so only when it became less philosophical, more "scholastic," more "trite," and when it forgot that what constitutes philosophy is, properly speaking, its being an attempt—that is, an inquiry. Still better: an inquiry formulated with full knowledge that it may very well end in doubt. A radical inquiry, then, which is not even soothed by the answer.

Here is, it seems to me, the most profound stratum of Ortega's radicalism, of his radical form of thinking. That is why I do not believe, may I say in passing, that, despite the many insinuations of our author, philosophy will be succeeded by something different from itself, by a kind of "ultraphilosophy" representing another way of inquiring, another way of  "thinking." There may be other ways of thinking—although not many, and none so thorough as the philosophical way. Philosophy acknowledges its impotency in obtaining an answer to its questions. But instead of resigning, of "going over to the enemy camp"—to religion, art, or science—it persists. In fact, it cannot resign, because there is no place to send its resignation.

Ortega's way of thinking cannot, then, be reduced to the way of thinking of a certain school. It is not a question of method. It is a form—the radically thinking form—of living. That is why Ortega admits, apparently in a paradoxical way, that whereas the philosopher has to gamble his life on philosophy, he must not commit himself to any one philosophy. If this idea were carried to its final consequences, it would result in a very interesting difference between philosophy and philosophies. In fact, it would result in a fundamental opposition between the two. No philosophy would be authentic except in so far as it was none of the philosophies—none, certainly, of the philosophies that have been, but also, perhaps, of all possible philosophies. Whatever one may think of this digging of Ortega's in the subsoil of philosophy, it seems to me beyond all doubt that it is a truly "radical" operation.

Translated by Constance Mazlish

Ferrater Mora, José. “José Ferrater Mora: On a Radical Form of Thinking.” The Texas Quarterly (Spring 1961): 32-38.
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