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“An Integrationist Philosopher”

We are gathered together here today, invited by Bryn Mawr College, to honour the memory of José Ferrater Mora. For me it is a great satisfaction—and an undeserved distinction—to be here with you, and to be able to talk about the person and the work of the teacher and friend. Everyone present here knows who Ferrater Mora was, and what he meant for us, because we have all had some kind of relation with him: whether as husband, brother or dear friend, respected colleague, admired teacher, well known writer, a famous name. . . 

An act of recollection and homage like this, could only be to the taste of Ferrater himself if it didn't restrict itself to eulogy and panegyric alone, but was also a philosophic reflection. For this reason, it seemed to me that the best homage would be to reflect aloud about the nature of philosophy, and about Ferrater's contribution to the understanding of philosophic activity. For I am sure that the relation each one of us has had with Ferrater Mora is, deep down, much less important than the relation he established with us. And it is a fact that neither would our relation with him mean what it does, nor would this act mean what it does, if we were to forget Ferrater's basic condition: José Ferrater Mora was a philosopher!

"Philosopher!," here is an almost magical word, often surrounded by a halo of prestige and unction. And yet, the philosophers themselves do not agree on what exactly is a philosopher. It seems then, that in philosophy we confront the same feeling of uneasiness Saint Augustine experienced with time; if you didn't ask him what time was, he knew, but if you asked him what time was, he didn't know.[1] And it wasn't that Saint Augustine had any doubt or insecurity about the idea of time. No, the experience Saint Augustine relates is not the experience of his own ignorance or incapacity, but is clearly an experience of philosophical perplexity. For he knew what time was, but at the same time, he knew that there was no explanation that could be considered adequate.

A similar thing is happening now with the concepts of "philosophy" and "philosopher"; we know how to recognize the presence and practice of a philosopher, but on the other hand, we find that there is no completely satisfactory definition of "philosophy." For example, we know that we are not mistaken when we say that José Ferrater Mora exactly fits the term of "philosopher." By this we mean that Ferrater was not only a "teacher of philosophy," but something else. But, what else? It is relatively easy to give a characterization—if only administrative—of "being a teacher of philosophy"; but it does not seem possible, on the other hand, to give the distinctive features of a philosopher. The fact is that, when different people describe these features, they arrive at very different—even contradictory—characterizations of a philosopher. When we realize that, we are puzzled.

(The experience of intellectual perplexity is not an exclusively philosophical experience—similar experiences can be had in other contexts of life—but it is a genuinely philosophical experience. Plato and Aristotle already said that wonder is the beginning of all philosophy.[2] And is not perplexity the unmistakable sign of wonder, of surprise, or, if you wish, of intellectual discomfort? And is not intellectual discomfort also the surest sign of the existence of a philosophical problem? And so we don't have to pursue the rapid elimination of intellectual discomfort, but rather to understand its origin and meaning. Because just as happens with illnesses—which, after all, are physical or psycho-physical discomforts—intellectual perplexities cannot be dealt with in a hurry, or superficially.)

In fact, the perplexity of knowing how to recognize a philosopher, but on the other hand, of not knowing what a philosopher is, is not new. It seems that this perplexity has presented itself again and again, in various forms, throughout the history of thought, when precise definitions of philosophy or philosopher have been sought. Ferrater Mora himself, in his excellent small book La filosofía actual (Philosophy Today), points out the constancy and persistence of what he calls "philosophical dischord,"[3] which is nothing more than an enormous variety of views and positions, often irreconcilable.

Sometimes critics have wanted to resolve the philosophical perplexity by denying the problem: in our case, this was done when it was affirmed—skeptically—that it was impossible to know who was really a philosopher, and therefore everyone was a philosopher, and also when a single and exclusive vision of philosophy was decided on—dogmatically—as against all others, and when an essence of philosophy, established once and for all and universally acceptable was also chosen. It seems, however, that none of these approaches is very adequate to the experienced perplexity: the problem of philosophical dissension is not solved by denying the possibility of the philosopher, or denying the existence of dissension. (This reminds me of a story recounted by Peter Geach: "Littlewood, the Cambridge mathematician, tells a story of a schoolmaster who began stating a problem: 'Suppose y is the number of eggs . . .' 'But, Sir, please Sir, suppose y isn't the number of eggs?'"[4]) To deny the facts of the problem is absurd; but it is still more absurd to believe that this has solved the problem.

If perplexity is the indication of a problem, of an intellectual discomfort, it is because something is wrong, because there is something that does not fit right in our schemes of analysis, or in our understanding of reality. Now, if the problem is that there are different facts that do not fit together properly, it serves no purpose to eliminate some of the elements of the problem. A problem cannot be solved simply by denying its existence or closing our eyes to it. Thus philosophy and philosopher do exist, as does philosophic dissension. These are precisely the facts of our problem. This is precisely the root of our perplexity. To resort to simple and mutually exclusive solutions, of a presumably essential and permanent nature, and of a universal validity, is to resort to philosophical tricks which have a certain tradition, but which do not help much to advance the solution of the perplexities, and do not take enough advantage of them. Why do we have to decide on a single way of doing philosophy and reject all others? When we do that, don't we make unnecessary decisions that help to darken instead of make lighter the "philosophical discord"?

Even more: why do we believe that philosophical dissension is negative, and that it should be suppressed, and yet on the other hand, we do not doubt for a moment that it would be a positive thing to achieve a victory of our own position, with the consequent defeat of others? Can't we think that it is precisely the permanent dissension that has produced a great part of the productiveness, creativity and drive of philosophical activity? Can't it be—somewhat like Heraclitus—that dissension suits philosophy, as the latter thrives precisely on controversy, on diversity, on oppositions and criticism? (Shouldn't we even recognize that the eras of reduced dissension—like the present—are the eras in which philosophy has proved to be less interesting and less stimulating?)

It seems to me that one of the most important aspects of the philosophical legacy of Ferrater Mora—perhaps the most important of all—is exactly this: Ferrater knew by intuition that we must not fall into either scepticism—which is dogmatism upside down, because it also presupposes the ideal of an absolute knowledge—or into the partisan and reductionist tricks of dogmatism. Ferrater, who took reality seriously, knew that perplexity is also an element of our reality. It is in starting from this reality, and not in denying it, that we must begin our philosophical reflection. (Only if we take seriously the philosophical function of perplexity—which is not a mere confusion or psychological disorientation—do we realize that when we are puzzled, we are never at the end of the process of reflection, but we are only at the beginning.)

It is therefore starting from this assumption of perplexity that we can begin to advance in the solution of the problem. In the first place, we establish that—contrary to Socrates' requirement—to know what a thing is does not imply that we have to know how to define it formally. In fact, Socrates himself did not give definitions; he only required that his interlocutors, especially the sophists, give them. In practice, when he wanted to demonstrate that he knew what a thing was, it was enough for Socrates to show that he was capable of distinguishing that thing from other similar ones. (One can have, therefore, a criterion of classification or demarcation that works fairly well, without making use of strict definitions.) Thus, it is not necessary to have a capacious definition of "philosopher" or "philosophy" in order to know what we are taking about when we talk about philosophers and philosophies.

Well then, if a definition isn't necessary, just what is? We must follow the practice of Socrates—to know how to distinguish a philosopher from a non-philosopher and—why not?—to know how to distinguish certain philosophers from others. Starting from these distinctions that we establish, we will make known—and we ourselves can recognize—the conception of philosophy and the philosopher that we are defending. In this line, Ferrater himself tells us that, if we want to understand him, we must pay attention to what be actually does, more than to what he says.

In philosophy, a similar thing occurs to what, according to Einstein, happens in physics: what is important is what is done, and the way of doing it, and not what one says is being done or ought to be done. We hope that in order to understand us well, you pay attention to what we do and also the way we do it. It would be a pity if in such a tricky point you got hold of the wrong end of the stick.[5]

And, elsewhere Ferrater gives the same idea the form of a slogan or aphorism. He says: "Tell me what you do and I'll tell you what it's worth."[6]

Well, then, what does Ferrater do? It seems to me that we can summarize his position if we carry out two complementary reflections: (a) one about what is not done, and (b) another about what is done.

(a) We have seen that, in the face of philosophical dissension, Ferrater rejects, as being excessively simple, both scepticism and dogmatism. Of course, this brings him to reject the proposed ideal of absolute knowledge—with different conclusions—for these two positions. It is obvious that in this way Ferrater renounces the absolute foundation of knowledge, but not all knowledge; that is, he does not renounce knowledge absolutely, but rather absolute knowledge; or if you like, he doesn't renounce all knowledge, but rather the knowledge of all. In contrast to the dogmatist or sceptic, Ferrater defends a fallible and rectifiable knowledge, subject to change, to falsification and error. (On the negative and complementary line, we can understand that Ferrater is also defending an intellectual task that promotes the progress of knowledge, the elaboration and verification of hypotheses, and the search for truth.)

What is clear is that Ferrater renounces any fixed "point of departure," made up of "basic" principles or truths.

"There is no point of departure, if by that we mean a principle or set of principles, that have to serve as a foundation or as a supposed unshakeable basis for all and any propositions admitted as true."[7]

Up to here, we have seen what he doesn't do.

(b) And now we can ask ourselves: how does he expound positively the philosophical dissension that he himself helped to discover and classify in many of his works, and in such an absolutely exemplary manner in his Diccionario de Filosofía (Dictionary of Philosophy)?

Ferrater says that what we have to do is to start from what there is. (Ferrater often used a typical Catalan expression to express how philosophy has to be practiced: he said it had to be practiced "tocant de peus a terra"—with one's feet on the ground. By that he wanted to express not the rejection of sophisticated theory, but rather the rejection of theoretical prejudice, of unjustified apriorism. For him, any scientific reflection or philosophy always had "reality" as the final test of its accuracy, its reliability and truth. What we call "reality" is a complex, but existing set of facts, objects, theories, acts or terms.) In the concrete case that we are examining, "what there is" is—I have said it repeatedly—"philosophical discord," provoked by an enormous number of doctrines and of often irreconcilable philosophical positions.

This is where Ferrater shows himself as particularly brilliant and original: on the one hand, he knows that there is dissension, and not only does he not want to deny it, but he even wants to take advantage of it, he wants to make it productive for philosophy; on the other hand, however, he knows that if his philosophic contribution is to be authentic, it cannot consist only of increasing the dissension and confusion. For that reason, he proposes a kind of philosophy that he calls "integrationism." What does "integrationism" consist of?

The basic feature that characterizes philosophical discord, and, in fact, all philosophical activity, is the existence of dualisms. We remember that any position made up of two elements which are in a certain way independent and mutually irreducible, is duelist. Among others, the dualisms of humanism/scientism, realism/idealism, subjectivism/objectivism, rationalism/empiricism, external/internal, body/soul, matter/spirit, or nature/culture, are well known. These dualisms have always been one of the main causes of philosophical dissension. Ferrater's integrationism is an excellent contribution towards the overcoming of dualisms, and the resolution of the traditionally opposed doctrines or concepts of philosophy. Don't think, however, that Ferrater was proposing a new version of eclecticism, or a renovation of dialectical positions. No, because it isn't a matter of picking elements from here and there to construct a new position—as, in fact, the eclectic does—neither is it a question of defending the claim—as the dialectician does—that, through real opposition of the opposed doctrines or terms, one can reach a new position that integrates and surpasses the preceding confrontation.

We remember that Ferrater does not want to "overcome" dissension by bringing in new doctrine that would only nurture the initial discord, but rather what he wants is to take advantage of the dissension in order to make it clear and useful. What Ferrater asserts, with his integrationism, is that the concepts which make up any dualism do not have to be treated as if they designated an existing reality, but rather that they are only limit-concepts, each of which expresses—in absolute terms—an important but hyperdeveloped aspect of the reality that is to be described. So then, the limit-concepts of any dualism whatsoever do not have to be considered as concepts that designate a philosophic reality, but only as concepts which provide the frame within which the philosophic reflection must move. Dualisms, then, contrary to what has always been believed, do not give us the content of reflection, but only its frame and the opportunity to carry it out. The thought that wishes to grasp the complexity of reality must move within these limits, and in so doing, discovers not only that each limit alone is insufficient, but also that each one acts as a counterbalance to its opposite, and that for this reason, the opposites are points of reference for the understanding of reality.[8]

Even though integrationism is sometimes spoken of as a "philosophy," Ferrater presents it as a "philosophical methodology."[9] He does not, then, set forth a new doctrine, but instead, a new way of doing philosophy. But we could understand even better what this new way of doing philosophy is if we point out two elements of his integrationism: on the one hand it is a process of analysis of concepts, and therefore, it can be said that Ferrater is situated—if in a rather original manner—within the so-called "analytical tradition"; but on the other hand, the integrationism of limit-concepts implies that Ferrater understands reality as a continuum that goes from one extreme to the other of the pair of opposing concepts it examines. (In fact the more mature presentation of this consideration of reality as a continuum—which is never completely smooth or linear—is found in his magnificent book De la materia a la razón [From Matter to Reason].)

What we have said up to now appears to sufficiently demonstrate the importance and originality of Ferrater's philosophical position. He himself asks us to judge him by what he did. Now we can say that what he did is really worthy, of praise and esteem. But our judgment of Ferrater would be incomplete, and so unjust, if it were limited to the consideration of the theoretical aspects of his work separate from his person. Ferrater used to repeat that to understand someone—and, of course, to understand a philosopher—it was important to bear in mind his historical situation, his character, and also chance. This is certainly very true. But it seems to me that it is also true if it is stated in reverse; that is to say, if it is stated that once we know the work of a philosopher, it is easier to understand his historical situation, his character, and perhaps, it is even easier to distinguish the elements of chance that could have left their mark on him.

Can we glean some knowledge of Ferrater's character from what we have said about him up to now? Certainly. For it is not by chance that Ferrater proposes an integrationist methodology. In fact, his own experience of life was as an "integrationist."[10] One cannot understand the enormous work undertaken by Ferrater, and the style of this work, without realizing that Ferrater was a man of vast and wide knowledge, a man dominated by an extraordinary intellectual curiosity and by many different interests; a man with a great sharpness of analysis and with an enviable memory. Besides this, Ferrater was—and for this all of us who were fortunate to be his friends thank him—a man of great tolerance, with a great respect for what was of value in contrary opinions. Here his integrationism was practical. He set himself to do philosophy—just as I have recalled—wanting to "tocar de peus a terra," to have his feet on the ground. And, in fact, he wanted to do this "sense fer sang"—without drawing blood—as he himself liked to say; that is, integrating and not ignoring, making use of and not rejecting or disdaining. We can see that Ferrater's integrationism is a consequence of his interest in different philosophies, but that, at the same time, it also helps to intensify in others an interest in the doctrines. Ferrater's position—contrary to the usual practice of philosophers—does not seek to push aside or absorb other philosophies, but instead, by the fact of examining them and working hard with them, to value them and increase their possibilities.

Perhaps Ferreter's intellectual and vital integrationism is at its most prominent in his work Les formes de la vida catalana (Forms of Catalan Life). In this book, which dates from 1944, Ferrater presents four forms which he finds characteristic of the way of doing and acting of the Catalan people. These four forms are: a) continuity, b) good sense, c) moderation and d) irony. In his last classes which, forty-five years later, he gave as Professor at Girona, Ferrater himself recognized that these four forms could perhaps also be attributed to him. l agree completely with this. It seems to me, that the four forms of Catalan life are also—and perhaps, especially—the four forms of Ferrater's life. Let us look at them briefly:

(a) Continuity, as we have just seen, is a central element of Ferrater's integrationist position, based on the rational analysis of opposing concepts and arguments, which form a continuum. The non-ingenuous but complex character of Ferrater's intellectual and vital continuity appears at its most brilliant in his capacity to integrate the philosophical formation of the European tradition—received in Barcelona, in his youth—and the Anglo-American tradition, which he accepted immediately on his arrival in the United States.

(b) Good sense led Ferrater to cultivate Aristotelian prudence, and therefore, to assume whenever necessary, clear and forceful civic commitments. To Ferrater, neither is real continuum merely theoretical, nor is philosophy a mere academic game; it must be capable of showing its relevance in discussion and in the improvement of human and social relations. Ferrater constantly supported those causes which he considered were more neglected by public authorities and more misunderstood by public opinion.

(c) Moderation caused Ferrater to say—in line with his integrationism—"not too much of anything," and therefore "a little of everything." It is in this way that we have to understand his tendency to cultivate various disciplines (with special emphasis on the physical and biological sciences) and a multiplicity of interests (not only as the author of numerous works of philosophy, but also as a writer of novels, short stories, journalistic articles, and as a photographer and film maker). It is not at all strange that moderation led Ferrater to an intense study of language—of many languages—and to a real passion for the clarity and transparency of ideas.

(d) Irony is absolutely central to Ferrater's thought and way of being. For him there were two ways to practise philosophy: the dogmatic and the ironic. Irony is, therefore, anti-dogmatism, tolerance, critical and self-critical spirit. To be ironic is to know you are fallible and—literally—intranscendent. The classes Ferrater gave in Girona in 1989 were entitled "Ten Lessons of Integrationist Philosophy," but for a time he was tempted to call them "An Open System." Ferrater's constant opening to the future and his refusal to remain in the past, or even to remember it much, become much more understandable from the perspective of his antidogmatic irony.[11]

I am nearing the end of this lecture. l began by saying that we all knew that Ferrater Mora was a philosopher, but perhaps we didn't know what it was to be a philosopher. In concluding, I trust that I have shown that he knew very well how to be a philosopher. Thanks to that we can say that we now know what a philosopher is, at least a kind of philosopher. A deeper reading of Ferrater's work would make us realize not only the productiveness and suggestiveness of his thought, but also the great value of the fact that Ferrater managed to think and say things the way he thought and said them. This, of course, doesn't mean that Ferrater is a trivial writer, or easily imitated. It is rather the opposite. The integrationist project does not spare anything to those who wish to follow it, but it does demand original thought and creativity. It is unlikely that integrationism will eventually form a philosophical school: the schools work better with principles, dogmas and slogans. And the integrationism of Ferrater is not a mechanical or chemical process, but a philosophical procedure, which does not guarantee results but instead marks lines of philosophical conduct.

A famous dictum by Wittgenstein goes like this: "Today, a teacher of philosophy doesn't give food to another because he likes it, but in order to change his taste."[12] The importance and urgency of this task is evident. The superficiality and frivolity of our time needs, more than ever, the teaching of philosophers like Ferrater Mora. That is why we can say that Ferrater Mora has not only been a philosopher—as I stated at the beginning of the lecture—but he goes on being a philosopher. The—proven—truth of this affirmation can encourage us to be optimistic. For if he is still a philosopher, if he is still a teacher, this means that many will still be able to know— through his work—what it is to do philosophy.

As Director of the Chair of the University of Girona which bears the name of José Ferrater Mora, I am very pleased to think that this professorship helps to keep alive the memory of his example, and of his way of doing philosophy. In a fax of 24 April 1989, he told me that the Chair "cannot be compared to any other—whether inside the country or outside—in its newness, efficacy and interest". After its inauguration by Ferrater himself, thinkers of the stature of Paul Ricoeur and Willard Quine have passed through it, and soon will come Noam Chomsky, Ilya Prigogine, Eric Hobsbawm, Mario Bunge and Donald Davidson, among others. I was fortunate enough to prepare all this while Ferrater was still alive. For this reason, I think that all those who loved him can be very happy today: because his thought and example will be remembered through the great work that he has left us, and also through the Chair that is honored with his name.


  1. Confessions, Book XI, chap. XIV.
  2. See Plato, Theaetetus, 155 d: "This feeling is, in fact, very characteristic of a philosopher: the fact of wondering, for the beginning of philosophy is nothing but that." See also Aristotle, Metaphysics, A, 2 (982b 12-13): "For men begin and always have begun to philosophize driven by wonder."
  3. See La filosofía actual (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1969), chap. I, pp. 13-16.
  4. P.T. Geach, Reason and argument (Oxford: Blackwell, 1976.
  5. La filosofía actual, chap. IV, page 113.
  6. Cambio de marcha en filosofía (Shifting Gears in Philosophy), (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1974), page 106.
  7. Fundamentos de filosofía (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1985), page 20.
  8. See Cambio de marcha en filosofía, page 108. For an introduction to integrationist philosophy, see, for example, all of chapter II (pp. 104-111) of this work, or also the entry "Integracionismo" in Volume II of Diccionario de filosofía by Ferrater. On the other hand, Ferrater Mora himself thinks that perhaps the term "integrationism" is "not a very fortunate word; but it is neither better nor worse than others which have been more favored by fortune." Cambio de marcha en filosofía, page 106.
  9. See, for example, El ser y la muerte (Madrd: Alianza Editorial, 1988), page 11.
  10. On this matter, see the indications that Ferrater himself gives in Cambio de marcha en filosofía, page106.
  11. See, for example, Fundamentos de filosofía, X. 4, pp. 200-201, which are the last two pages of the book.
  12. Vermischte Bemerkungen (Frankfurt am Main: Sanitarium, 1977), page, 41.
Terricabras, Josep Maria. “An Integrationist Philosopher.” Man and World 26 (1993)
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