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Feyza Kizilkaya (19.06.2020, contribution elaborated within the Seminar "A Journey through Philosophy and Information" facilitated by J.M.Díaz at the Hochschule München)

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The following article deals with the ontological quest for reality. Each individual and each collection of individuals apprehend reality from the point of view of their respective perceptions of reality. Therefore the doctrine of „perspectivism, vital and historical reason“ by José Ortega y Gasset, which expounds the proposition that all historical epochs participate in contributing an element of truth to human reality is presented as the main topic.

1. Introduction

José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) was a prolific and distinguished Spanish philosopher in the twentieth century. In the course of his career as philosopher, social theorist, essayist, cultural and aesthetic critic, educator, politician and editor of the influential journal, he has written a variety of essays: philosophical studies, articles on literary criticism, political essays an d speeches, landscape descriptions and historical interpretations.

Among his many books are: „Meditations on Quixote „(1914), „nvertebrate Spain“ (1921), „The Theme of Our Time“ (1923),“ Ideas on the Novel“ (1925), „The Dehumanization of Art“ (1925), What is Philosophy? (1929), The Revolt of the Masses (1930). (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Ortega dissociated himself from any particular school of thought, his philosophy is therefore extremely difficult to classify. Since Ortega explains his philosophy throughout his broad work  the unfortunate Problem of focusing too much attention on Ortega’s thought solely we incur the risk of losing the flavour of the variety.

According to Stanford Encyclopedia, Ortega’s perception of human life as fundamental reality and as a “happening”, his analysis of the ontological distinction between “being” and “authentic being”, his description of the intersubjective interaction of the “I” and “Others” in the social world, his concepts of “generation”, “contemporaries” and “co-evals”, and his ideas of “perspectivism”, “vital” and “historical reason”, all combine to broaden and advance his philosophy of human social and historical realities.

It is clear to say that his philosophy is certainly no philosophical „system“ of the Hegelian type, which means that all reality is capable of being expressed in rational categories according to G. W. F. Hegel. The Spanish writer himself made occasional remarks about his „philosophical system“. If it was said that Ortega had a certain „system“, it must be added, that this is an open one rather than a closed one. Thus it is a matter of fact, that there can’t be a system unless there is a certain „order“. According to Ortega the only way to approach the quest of human reality is the narrative way.

Although the issue of the stages in the evolution of his thought is controversial, if we accept the most well-known classification, made by Ferrater Mora in „Studies in modern European Literature and thought“, we can limit his evolution of thoughts in three stages, that are also considered as the Phases of his life and work.

2. Objectivism

Ortega started his career as a thinker by choosing a literary style and certain media of communication such as magazines that were certainly apt to bring him into the spotlight of the intellectual scene of Spain. In the first years of his career the foremost theme is „objectivism“. His trips to Germany (semester of summer -1905- to Leipzig, semester of winter -1905-1906- to Berlin; semester of winter -1906-1907- to Marburg) has to be emphasised here, as these were the determining events of the first stage „objectivism“

Ortega was always interested in philosophy, but in these first formative years he seemed to doubt about his intellectual and academic future: he thought about specialising in classic philology, but he chose several courses on psychology in Leipzig and studied with the founder of experimental psychology, Wilhelm Wundt. He never left his interest in psychology, and even thought of dedicating his life to it (at the end of his second journey to Germany, on July 1907, he asked for information about a professorship on psychology in an institute of Soria). 

Nevertheless, his most important interests were the philosophical ones, standing out his profound study of Kant in Berlin. After staying in this city, he returned to Madrid for another semester, travelling back to Germany with an aid of the state for the semester of winter (1906-1907), and looking for the best representatives of the Neo-Kantianism thought, Herman Cohen and Paul Natorp, in Marburg. Ortega was more inspired by the spirit of the Neo-Kantianism thought than by its doctrinal contents. He considered this spirit very productive for his vital interests and also for the future of Spain. It also should be mentioned that one of his constant concerns was the situation and destiny of his country. For this reason, on the moment he returned from his purpose was to modernise Spain.

At that time, and according to the spirit of Neo-Kantianism, he valued the reason over the subjectivity and the individuality, and thought the exercise of reason ties us to the realm of the objective, universal truths and science (including philosophy as a science). This is the reason why, in his analysis of the situation of Spain, he connected all its evils with the pernicious influence of Catholicism, subjectivism and personalism. These evils are a consequence of the fact that in Spain, unlike the rest of Europe, modernity has not entered yet. Spain needs to watch Europe, especially Germany, not particularly for copying  forms of its national life, but for settling down the root of modernity  in the country that has given so good fruits in the rest of the continent. Anyway, Spain can contribute with its vitality and its art. Basically, to Ortega Europe means culture, education and science more than technical or economic development. Technology and economic development are the consequences of the theory, of the pure knowledge, and this one couldn’t  be developed in Spain at this time. Therefore his thought was to first radically reform the Spanish soul and the educative and cultural institutions, particularly the Universities, research centres and libraries. As far as the soul of the Spaniards, Ortega demands exactly what he learned from Neo-Kantianism: mental discipline, eagerness for objectivity, and clarity and accuracy exercising the intellect and the will.
Although between 1902 and 1913 he did not published any book, he soon became one of the most outstanding figures of the Spanish and Argentinean cultural world with his frequent articles and essays in literary magazines and press. A sort of Neo-Kantian metaphysics remains in his fundamental philosophical point of view. For instead of positing pure thought as solely real, Ortega replaced Cohen's logic with the notion of “human life”. In other words, Ortega's generalised the view of existence contains human life in place of human logic as the underlying unifying principle of reality. Ortega's major writings were concerned with the idea of life as the “dynamic dialogue between the individual and the world”. He was not concerned -as Cohen was for instance- with assigning to external experience a reality that is contingent upon the principles of logic and mathematical physics. He wrote: “The structure of life is futurition, the most persistent leit motif of my writings, inspired certainly by questions—raised by the logic of Cohen—which are very remote from the vital problem to which I apply it.“ (Obras, IV: 403–4)

3. Perspectivism

The Second stage of his thought lasted between 1914 and 1923. 1914 was an important year, as he published his first book ”Meditaciones del Quijote” (“Meditations on the Quixote”), the work in which „perspectivism“ really begins. He explains very clearly the theory of the „circumstance“ and its complement, the „perspectivistic doctrine“. In this phase two sets of main ideas are found. On one side, regarding the problem of Spain, there is a significant change in his thought; he now conceives it from the wider point of view, of the European crisis. He doesn’t ask for a modern and European Spain anymore , he intends to radically modify European culture. The aim of his intellectual and political eagerness is no longer to achieve modernity, but to overcome it. Rationalism and idealism are the basis of European culture and the reason of its breakdown, so the solution (and the solution of Spain as well) is to surpass them.

Moreover his ideas give its name to this phase of his thought; they are strictly philosophical ideas which answer directly to metaphysical and epistemological questions: „the notion of circumstance" and in consequence, „the notion of perspective“. In his article”Verdad y Perspectiva” (“Truth and Perspective”) (1916), included in the first volume of ”El Espectador” (“The Spectator”), Ortega opposes relativism and dogmatism, because relativism for example claims it is impossible to reach universal truths. The subjectivity anchor us to the individual and therefore establishes limits to knowledge. Dogmatism, on the other hand, claims the notion of perspective is „ridiculous“ because universal truths do really exist.

According to Ortega, the only way to understand reality is from a concrete „circumstance“, therefore from a perspective. In his eyes the world is not material or spiritual, neither it is a metaphysical construction as it is claimed by the German idealism. The world is perspective. This means that the varying perceptions of reality are all legitimate and account for the postulate that different individuals interpret the same “horizon” differently so that “every life is a point of view directed upon the universe”,as he writes. The “perspectivist” postulate of the Spanish Philosopher thus promised to perform the function of unifying reality. From the assumption that “perspective” comprises both “one of the component parts of reality and its organising element”, and he goes on to insist that “all knowledge is knowledge from a definite point of view”. There can exist, in Ortega’s  modernist philosophical analysis of the modern mind, no reality independent of perspective. In his later work „the modern theme“  published in 1931 he clarifies that no reality „possesses in itself, independently of the post of view which it is observed, a physiognomy of its own“ (p. 89-90). Instead, „reality happens to be, like a landscape, possessed of an infinite number of perspectives, all equally veracious and authentic“ (p. 91-92). Hence every truth connects to a place in space and time. In locating truth in space and time, he derived both the mode of perception and the essence of reality. 

4. Ratio-Vitalism

To continue the third stage of his thought named „ratio-vitalism“, which is also the same name Ortega himself gave to his philosophy, along with those of „doctrine of the vital reason“ and „doctrine of the historical reason“. This phase lasts from 1924, on which he published ”Ni vitalismo ni racionalismo” („Neither vitalism nor rationalism”), to the end of his life 1955. Considering that the ideas of this period replace the previous ones would be a mistake. In fact, we could also find some of them in his earlier work „El tema de nuestro tiempo” („The subject of our time”), 1923. 

The two great lines of reflection of Ortega in this period, the ratio-vitalism and the historical reason, are rather an extension and an improvement which pull out the last consequences of his theory of the „circumstance“ and „perspective“. In this stage he basically dedicates all his reflections to one subject: the ultimate reality he had discovered - life - understood not from the biological but more from the experiential and therefore temporary and historical point of view. And this is the reason why he usually talks about history in this period, considering the human being as a „being who lacks nature“, who is history, idea on which the author founds the overcoming of the abstract rationalism and modernity. Among the many books he published in this stage, „Ideas y creencias” (“Ideas and beliefs”) 1940, is one of those which shows the fruitfulness of his thought at this time.

4.1 The concept of vital Reason

Ortega did incorporate the idea of human life into his philosophic viewpoint between 1920 and 1930. As already mentioned, during these years he labeled his own philosophy as “the metaphysics of vital reason” to point out his continuous search for a structure of life that would be transcendent in its relation to every existing reality, and yet itself located within the framework of temporal and spatial reality. Thus the concept of "vital reason" is complex. There are two brands of vitalism that can be distinguished: biological vitalism and philosophical vitalism. Biological vitalism is rather a specific scientific theory and is accordingly to Ortega of little help for the present purpose. In contrast to that, philosophical vitalism can be considered as a method of knowledge and must be carefully examined, because on the one hand it claims to be a doctrine (defended by others, such as pragmatists) according to which reason is a biological process lead by biological laws, like the struggle of life, or the law of economy. On the other hand it purports to be a theory according to which reason is epistemologically helpless and must give way to an intuitive insight which life is capable affording. In this sense „vitalism“ can be called a „method of knowledge“, which is sharply opposed to the rational knowledge. In addition to that it also claims that knowledge has to always have a rational character, but has to regard „life“ as the central philosophical issue.  Vital reason appears to Ortega as a reality, a simple, self-evident reality. As a matter of fact the expression „vital reason“ is tantamount to the expression „life as reason“.

Vital reason teaches us to appreciate life by itself and its characteristic values: the purpose "is to confirm life, which until now was only a naked fact and a chance in cosmos, as a principle and a right" („El tema de nuestro tiempo”, „The subject of our time”, VII). In this work Ortega shows how men have been blind for the values of life: neither the Asian world, with its Buddhist ideal of resignation to desire, nor Christianity, which values better the next life, nor modern culture have suitably appreciated life. Modern Age seems to be the opposite of Christianity, leading religion to expire; but, nevertheless, their attitudes for life are very similar. Modern Age’s great constructions, science, art, moral, philosophy, in sum, Modern Age culture, has not been able to approach life. „Culturalism is Christianity without God. The attributes of this sovereign reality -Kindness, Truth, Beauty- have been developed, disassembled of the divine person, and, once free, have been deified.“ („El tema de nuestro tiempo”, „The subject of our time”, VII). It is necessary to develop a philosophy that makes rationality and life compatible, rationality claims and life claims must be compatible. 

The great mistake of rationalism, which rules thought and culture from Socrates to nowadays, is dividing reason from life. Cultures can become ill, and this happens when they become a mere game of concepts, when they stop enriching themselves with life. It is clear to say that Ortega wants to point out, that we cannot reject the exercise of reason. All the different cognitive dimensions of men - such as reason, understanding memory, imagination - and the constructions that arise from them (culture, science, philosophy, etc.) are intimately joined to life.

4.2 the concept of historical Reason

Vital reason leads directly to „historical reason“ because life is essentially change and history. The purpose of historical reason is to understand human reality from the point of view of its historical construction and of the categories of life. Historical reason can overcome the serious limitations of the pure and mathematical reason of modernity. It is frequently repeated by Ortega that one of the most important mistakes of traditional philosophy is its substantive conception of reality, the idea that every real thing must be static, that changing things, precisely as changeable, are not absolutely real. This conception of reality means, in the case of the human being, the claim of the existence of a human nature, of a fixed, static and essential nucleus, and, therefore, understanding men in similar terms to every other thing of the world (in sum, substantive terms). This conception of being has had many consequences in the history of philosophy and culture, and one of them , for example is the development of a pure and mathematical reason in the Modern Age. Modern philosophers had great expectations on this type of rationality, they thought this reason could dominate and understand the world and human nature at the same time, and even settle the moral and political foundations of a new time which would overcome the limitations of Middle Age. Ortega says, that these modern ideals have been partly fulfilled. An example is the illustrated ideal of understanding and dominating physical world has been completed to an unthinkable extent. Thus it fails on an issue that, perhaps, was still more important for Illustration and Modernity as a whole: understanding human reality and discovering the principles of rational behaviour, the principles that would have lead to a life of responsibility, justice and freedom. In other words, Ortega, exactly as Husserl, thinks the crisis of this rationality is obvious.

 To overcome modernity, is a constant concern in Ortega’s philosophy. He says that it will only be possible if we overcome this concept of reason. And, for him, the reason of this failure is obvious: Modern Age’s concept of reason. It might be suitable for apprehending things, but not human reality. Physical and mathematical sciences can explain the physical world because the hidden philosophy that guides them (the substantive and mathematical conception of reality) really do not spoil its subject of study. The physical world is a world of facts, a world of sequences between facts, of substances, natures. But human world is not like the physical world, men are not just one more thing of the world, do not have a nature, do not have a fixed, static being. Its being is temporality and history.  If we want to understand human world we must bet for a different reason from the traditional one. Ortega does not defend irrationalism: reason is a valid instrument to reach truth, but we must understand this faculty otherwise, as a "historical reason". Ortega distinguishes two ways to understand or give account of reality. The first one is what physical-mathematical reason and empirical sciences do, they explain certain realities when we reach the knowledge of the principles or laws that rule its behaviour. In order to explain a fact, we look for its causes, therefore we try to precisely (mathematically) describe how the quantitative modification of the cause leads to a quantitative modification of the effect, while also discovering the quantitative laws that determine its succession in time; we use a mathematical description to explain facts. This is a valid way of understanding in the case of facts and objects, but not in the case of human subjects. 

The other Way is that we understand something when we catch its meaning and this is the suitable way of understanding or give account of the human world, according to Ortega. Human world is not a world of pure facts, of facts without sense. Human world is a world of sense. The things men do, their values, their art, their policy, their customs, their magical, religious, philosophical, and scientific ideas are constructions with sense. Even the physical world - the sun, for example -, can have a meaning for men: it can be the expression of the wrath of God, or an aesthetic phenomenon, or a necessary event, expression of a rational and ordered Universe, the cosmos. Therefore, the question here is: What means that a human phenomenon, a cultural custom or a social use have sense? It is not easy answering this question but, on a first approach, there is no doubt as far as the answer of Ortega: a human phenomenon has sense because it happens within human life, because it is an element that becomes intelligible in relation with the beliefs, values, feelings, and, basically, projects of the individual, group or community in which it happens.

According to Ortega we need a reason to describe the meaning of human world, a reason which enables to understand human reality. As it has been discussed above, pure and mathematical reason is absolutely incapable of catching the singularity of men and their historical accomplishments. This is why the Philosopher offers the historical reason, as an instrument we must use to understand the meaning of human life. This reason has to study the dimensions of life, such as the feelings, society, mental categories, cultural groups or beliefs ,that give sense to their life and face them with challenges. Since Ortega said, that men have no nature, but are what they become throughout history, the historical reason has to use all resources of historicist approach offers. An example for this is to study their biography, or to study the conflicts between generations, as well as the whole spirit of a certain time. Accordingly to know about the past is to understand it, rather than just explaining it. This is also the reason it can’t be understood with categories, which have nothing to do with life. For instance the past can not be understood by only referring to historical materialism, which considers that economic changes are the whole history. In short, history must be understood with categories related to human life, such as feelings, beliefs, societies or projects of the individual. In Addition to that, the difference between individuals of different times or generations are their basic mental categories or their mental scheme. Therefore it can be clearly said, that the purpose of historical reason is to show „the other“ in its differences within us.  

5. Conclusion

Summing up, ultimate reality in the ontological sense: as the first and doubtless truth from the epistemological point of view, life is the ultimate reality, but maybe we could think it doesn’t mean necessarily that it is the ultimate reality from the ontological or metaphysical point of view. It seems to me that this is what Ortega says in some of his works, he may suggests more fundamental realities that could exist from the point of view of the being. However, this is not exactly Ortega’s thesis. We can easily conclude from the whole of his work that what appears like the first and doubtless true for knowledge becomes the first and doubtless reality for the being itself. For Ortega, life is the fundamental and ultimate reality in the Metaphysical sense. The primary Metaphysical question about the meaning of being has an answer: being means living. In short, each individual life is the being, and it builds the being. For Ortega, this solution preserves and overcomes at the same time the spontaneous disposition of our minds, the traditional thesis of realism and the modern idealism, giving an answer to the destiny of our time: the overcoming of modernity. Accordingly the overcoming truth is: I exist in my world and with my world, and my being means dealing with it, loving it, thinking of it, being glad or sad with it, transforming it and suffering it. Living is the radical way of being: every other thing or way of being exists only in my life, within my life, as a detail of my life and in regard my own life. Within my own life exists the rest of the world, and it only exists as whatever it means to me, as lived by me.


  • José Ferrater Mora (1956): „Ortega y Gasset - an outline of his philosophy“
  • José Ferrater Mora (2003): Three Spanish Philosophers: Unamuno, Ortega, Ferrater Mora
  • Thomas Vargish, Delo E. Mook (1999): „Inside Modernism: Relativity Theory, Cubism, Narrative“
  • Kessel Schwartz (1968): „Introduction to Modern Spainish Literature“ (p. 312-313)
  • David Berry (2008): Journalism, Ethics and Society (p.133, „Truth and Objectivity“)
  • Andrew J. Weigert: „José Ortega y Gasset on understanding human life as ultimate reality and meaning“
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
  • Objectivism: