Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955)
Philosophy Now|December 2020 / January 2021
Morgan Sloan studies a Spanish philosopher and public intellectual who wanted to use philosophy to help society.
Morgan Sloan

José Ortega y Gasset is considered to be Spain’s most rele-vant twentieth century philosopher, possibly even the most relevant of all time. Far from fitting the stereotypical image of a philosopher, sat in an ivory tower, Ortega y Gasset was engaged with his society and its troubles. In his greatest works, including Meditations on Quixote, Invertebrate Spain, and The Revolt of the Masses, philosophical ideas are applied directly to understanding the issues Spanish and European society faced at the time.

Born on the 9th May 1883 to a wealthy family in Madrid, Ortega’s parents had many connections in Spanish culture and politics. His father, José Ortega Munilla, was the director of Spain’s prestigious liberal newspaper El Imparcial (founded in 1867 by his maternal grandfather). Thanks to these connections, important Spanish cultural and political icons were regular guests at the family home. José’s parents were more than happy to allow him and his siblings to join in with their discussions, so the young philosopher’s mind was cultivated from an early age.

An early tutor was the first to notice Ortega’s genius, reportedly saying he was his most intelligent pupil and claiming that “sometimes I get the impression that he knows the answer before I’ve stated the question.” Ortega went on to attend a Jesuit school in Malaga, which seems to have had a significant impact on his thought, as the experience highlighted the tight grip held by the Catholic Church over Spanish society. Ortega soon became convinced that the radical conservatism of Spain at the time was holding the country back both socially and culturally. This concern is visible throughout Ortega’s career in his work for a social and cultural reformation.

Perspectivism

After completing his doctorate in Madrid, Ortega left Spain in 1905, on the first of many trips to Germany. He spent the year in Leipzig, where he decidedly committed himself to philosophy, thoroughly investigating the work of Immanuel Kant. In 1907 he visited the country again, this time staying in Marburg. He returned to the same city in 1911 as a Professor of Metaphysics while expecting the first of his four children with Rosa Spottorno, to whom he had been married a year earlier.

His eldest son’s name, Miguel Germán, is an indication of the important influence the country had on Ortega. German science and culture, apparently offering a rational, objective attitude both in the individual and in society, seemed to be just what Spain needed to move forwards. But Ortega also believed that ‘Mediterranean vitality’ was an important quality of the people of Spain which they ought not to lose.

The impact of Germany on Ortega’s thoughts about his own country can be seen in his first major publication, Meditations on Quixote (1914), a book which, far from merely being a commentary on the famous Spanish novel, serves as a summary of Orteguian thought. Influenced by the biologist Jacob Von Uekull’s idea that a living organism must be studied within its environment in order to be understood, Ortega argued that human life must also be understood through its circumstances: “Circumstantial reality makes up the other half of me as a person: I need it to imagine myself and to be my true self,” he wrote. Social status, historical period, nationality, geographic location, and economic situation are all relevant when it comes to understanding how one sees the world and oneself, since they determine our perspective. This idea is summarized in Ortega’s most famous quote: ‘‘I am I and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself.’’ In just the same way that Ortega ventures out into the world down the Guadarrama river near his hometown, or that the Ancient Egyptians would have ventured out down the Nile, we also venture out into the world from our own places of origin. Regardless of how many new ideas you may open yourself to, and no matter how much they change your way of thinking, it will always be you perceiving them; your past experiences, your childhood, your economic and social status, your nationality, your historical period are vital in defining you as a person.

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