A short book on Ortega y Gasset's work and thought is a difficult undertaking if only for one reason: the astonishing range of Ortega's intellectual interests. Ortega is, in the best sense of the word, a versatile writer. True, he has written neither novels nor plays and has almost invariably been loyal to one literary genre: the essay. Within this frame, however, there has been practically no subject upon which he has not touched. Skimming through the 6,000-odd pages of his complete works, we find a staggering variety of writings: philosophical studies, articles on literary criticism, political essays and speeches, landscape descriptions, and historical interpretations. If we glance casually through the index of names appended to the collection of his works, we are no less impressed by the author's versatility; Renan and Einstein, Caesar and Husserl, Kant and Goya, Proust and Ibn Khâldun are only some of the many men, not only occasionally mentioned or quoted, but discussed at some length. Some of the essays are unclassifiable. One, for example, is about the frame of a painting; another is a preface to a still unwritten book. Among the more conventional essays, it is not unusual for the author merely to broach the subject announced; considerable time is spent in preliminary or tangential considerations. As for the topics discussed, they seem to be unbounded. Ortega has written on the fountains in Nürnberg, on the French language, on the Gioconda, on the Russian ballet, on African ethnology and, of course, on history, love and metaphysics. In view of these facts, we may be inclined to believe that Ortega's variety of topics is either a mark of frivolity or an omen of superficiality. But the more carefully we look at the strokes of the brush, the more consistent and organized appears the picture.
This does not mean that Ortega is a system-builder. Nor does he, we hope, pretend to be one. The emphasis that has been placed by both his followers and opponents on his 'system' or on his 'lack of system' is false. Ortega's is certainly no philosophical system in the Hegelian manner. It is true that Ortega himself has made occasional remarks about his 'philosophical system', but the word 'system', like the word 'being' according to Aristotle, has an analogical rather than a univocal meaning. Its meaning in Ortega is not, certainly, the 'strong' one—the meaning a system takes on when it is almost completely formalized. But it is not the 'weak' one either—the meaning it takes on when reduced to a style of writing or to a relatively uniform method of approach. It has a somewhat subtler meaning, depending both on cogency of thoughts and recurrence of themes. If Ortega is said, therefore, to have a 'system', it must be added that it is an open rather than a closed one.
In the present book we shall be primarily concerned with some of the most obvious features of Ortega's 'open system'. We shall, in other words, give a brief and somewhat sketchy account of his philosophy. We assume accordingly that Ortega's work, in spite of its diversity of subjects, its complexity, its 'allusions and elisions', is chiefly of a philosophical nature, with all its elements organized around a core of philosophical assumptions. Now the word 'philosophy' is as ambiguous as the word 'system'. After all, the term 'system' has a commonly accepted, if vague, connotation—you cannot have a system unless you have a certain 'order'—while the term 'philosophy' seems to possess no universally accepted meaning except the one based upon the fact that the most extraordinary variety of human thoughts are usually recorded in books pretending to be philosophical. The student of philosophy has always been a little distressed to learn that Marcus Aurelius and John Stuart Mill are equally to be considered as philosophers. As his familiarity with the history of philosophy increases, so will his distress, for there was a time when practically all human intellectual endeavours, provided they were formulated at a reasonably reflective level, were regarded as philosophical. When classifying the work of an author as philosophy, we must, therefore, be cautious and provide a minimum of clarification of the meaning carried by such an ambiguous word.
Ortega's philosophy is extremely difficult to classify, because he is one of the very few in modern history who has been aware of the problematic character of philosophical activity. We shall clarify this point later, and, for the time being, just say that Ortega's philosophy should not be presented in a pedantic manner.
The first problem Ortega's philosophy raises is the choice of a suitable method of presentation. A number of methods are available, but none of them seems to be altogether satisfactory. If too much attention is focused upon the unity of Ortega's thought, we incur the risk of losing the flavour of its variety. If we insist too much on the diversity of subjects, sight may be lost of the one continuous stream of thought running through all of them. Ortega himself, however, has provided an answer to our problem. He has said that the only way to approach human reality (and possibly human thought) is the narrative way. Accordingly, the right method of explaining Ortega's philosophy would be the biographical one. Now, 'biographical method' is an expression that must be given a precise meaning. It would be a mistake to interpret it in the usual fashion, as if it consisted of a mere enumeration of facts arranged in chronological sequence. In Ortega's sense of the word, 'biography' is almost a technical term, indicating the peculiar 'systematic' structure of human life and human achievements. From this point of view, the use of a biographical method involves a certain understanding of the whole of that reality to which it is applied. We are here confronted, incidentally, with one of the perplexing vicious circles so frequent in philosophy. In order to understand a system of thought we must describe its various stages, but in order to understand each one of the stages we must have a certain idea, however vague, of the whole system. This method is, in fact, the one we commonly use when attempting to understand the significance of a particular human life: the early stages in a person's life help us to understand the later ones, but it is only its later stages that provide us with a basis for the interpretation of the earlier ones; and although these two modes of explanation are not exactly alike, the first concentrating more on the cause-effect relation and the second more on the whole-part relation, we use them simultaneously. They are indeed not really separate methods but part of the same one. It is the method we shall employ throughout the present book.
This biographical method will allow us to discuss now and then certain typically Ortegean topics that a more formal method would rule out of the picture. Furthermore, the biographical method makes it easier to give an adequate, if brief, account of some of the external circumstances that have prompted Ortega's most significant philosophical and literary creations. We shall, however, limit the application of the method to an outline of some fundamental stages or phases in Ortega's intellectual development
The first may be taken to extend from 1902 to 1913, the second from 1914 to 1923, the third from 1924 to 1955. It may prove convenient to attach a name to each phase, even if we recognize that such a label is more a mnemonic device than a defining category.
The first phase we shall label objectivism. Ortega himself has given occasion for adopting such a label if we remember that in a preface (1916) to his volume Persons, Works, Things (Personas, Obras, Cosas) he recognized how onesided his earlier objectivism was and how befitting it would be to emphasize again subjectivism stripped of its nineteenth-century connotations. Although the preface in question was written in 1916, we can easily perceive a change in his book Meditations on Quixote (Meditaciones del Quijote) (1914) and perhaps even earlier. As a matter of fact, some of the intellectual seeds that will bear fruit much later can be traced as early as 1910, and much that will be recognized as typically Ortegean makes its first appearance in two articles published in 1904 and reprinted only in 1946.
The second phase we shall label perspectivism. Some doctrines other than this can, of course, be detected during the period 1914-1923, but the above label provides a convenient designation for the entire phase. A noteworthy difference between the objectivist and the perspectivist stages is that, while the former contains much that will never again recur, the latter is an essential ingredient of the third period. The label arises out of the first essay in The Spectator (El Espectador), but the doctrine of the modi res considerandi set forth in the Meditations may be held as an earlier formulation of it. Perspectivism can be considered from two angles: as a doctrine and as a method. The two combine frequently and the reader is sometimes left in doubt about the role that perspectivism plays in the whole system.
The third phase we shall label ratio-vitalism, a shorthand description used by Ortega himself. It will prove to be Ortega's main achievement in philosophy. We fix 1924 as a beginning date because in that year Ortega's article 'Neither Vitalism nor Rationalism' ('Ni vitalismo ni racionalismo') was published. But we might also go back to 1923, the date of the publication of a major work containing ratio-vitalistic assumptions: The Modern Theme (El tema de nuestro tiempo). Nevertheless, in this book, as if reacting against a widespread contemporary 'idolatry of culture' (the so-called 'culturalism'), Ortega emphasized the theme of life far more than his own doctrine of vital reason would permit. We shall consequently rule this work out of the third period and study it instead as the crowning point of the second. Needless to say, the third period will provide us with most of the themes that have come to be viewed as characteristically Ortegean. It is not only the longest phase in Ortega's life and work, but also the most 'systematic' of all. We shall devote to it, therefore, relatively more space than to any of the others, and we shall interpret the first two in the light of the third. Now the presentation of the third period will gain in clarity if we divide it into a number of themes. These will be: (a) The concept of vital reason; (b) the doctrine of man, and (c) the doctrine of society. Thus unity will be achieved without necessarily eschewing diversity.
To strengthen our account of Ortega's philosophy we have devoted a final chapter to a discussion of two basic philosophical problems. Ortega had been stirred by these problems since the very beginnings of his intellectual career, but he tackled them in a rigorous manner only during the third phase of his philosophical development. Since a substantial portion of his posthumous works is devoted to a detailed treatment of these problems, our final chapter can be considered both as a summary of Ortega's general position in metaphysics and as a brief presentation of the substance of the posthumous works.
The present book is intended for a non-Spanish-speaking public. It will accordingly be impossible to avoid mentioning a few facts that Spanish readers are likely to take for granted. As a result, interpretation will often be accompanied by mere information. On the other hand, certain questions intriguing to the Spanish-speaking public cannot be discussed here. We shall pay little attention, for example, to the problem of whether Ortega's claims of having long since foreshadowed many later philosophical developments in contemporary thought can be substantiated or not. Ortega is probably more original than his detractors proclaim and less original than his adherents preach, but in any case, the achievements of a philosopher must be measured in terms of truth, cogency, precision, economy of thought, etc., rather than exclusively in terms of originality. We shall also ignore the question of whether ideas not playing a central role in Ortega's philosophy are faulty. We can see little purpose in noticing that Ortega's considerations on Debussy's music are contradicted by facts, or in remarking that his interpretation of Quine's statement, 'There must always be undemonstrable mathematical truths', is a misinterpretation. We are not concerned with errors irrelevant to the central themes; some distorted facts or some questionable reasonings may very well be lodged in an interesting and even sound philosophy. We shall indulge in neither bickering nor applause, but try to keep close to the spirit of a famous apothegm: Neither bewail nor ridicule, but understand.