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Torre de Babel Ediciones




(spanish version)  

RAZÓN VITAL – José Ortega y Gasset’s web page: his thought, complete works, bibliography,
images, brief essays, related sites,  news…


First stage: objectivism
Second stage: perspectivism
Third stage: ratio-vitalism
Principle of autonomy
Principle of «pantonomía» or universalism
Philosophy is a theoretical knowledge
Intuition, method of the philosophy
Modern age: rationalism and idealism
París, 1938
Metaphor of the seal and the wax
Metaphor of the continent and the content
Metaphor of the «joint Gods»
The circumstance
The ultimate reality in the epistemological sense
The ultimate reality in the ontological or metaphysical sense
The notion of life
The categories or attributes of life

1. To live is to know ourselves and to understand ourselves
2. To live is to be in the world
3. Life is fatality and freedom
4. Life is «futurición»

Objectivism or dogmatism and scepticism or subjectivism
The mistake of these theories
Perspectivism, Ortega’s proposal
Life as ultimate Metaphysical reality
The being of the beings as sense
The being of the beings as human construction
Vital reason
Imperatives of the vital reason
Historical reason
The pure and mathematical reason. Its limits
Differences between explaining and understanding
The reason that describes the senses of the human world
Historicist approach


José Ortega y Gasset was born in Madrid in 1883, in a family closely related to the world of culture and media. His maternal grandfathers founded the newspaper «El Imparcial», of which his father was director and in which Ortega began his journalistic collaborations. He studied with the Jesuits, first in Malaga and later in Deusto, receiving finally the master’s degree in Philosophy in the Universidad Central de Madrid. In 1904 he obtained his doctorate in philosophy in the same university with his thesis «Los terrores del año mil. Crítica de una leyenda” (“The terrors of the year thousand; a legend’s critic”).
Although the issue of the stages in the evolution of his thought is controversial, if we accept the most well-known classification, the one made by Ferrater Mora, we have to emphasize his trips to Germany (semester of summer -1905- to Leipzig, semester of winter -1905-1906- to Berlin; semester of winter -1906-1907- to Marburg) as the determining events of the first stage, the objectivism, that lasts until 1914, year in which he published ”Meditaciones del Quijote” (“Meditations on the Quixote”). 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 specializing 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. We should not forget that one of his constant concerns was the situation and destiny of his country, as it is showed in his letters. For this reason, on the moment he returned his purpose was to modernize 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 for copying particular forms of its national life, but for settling down in the country the root of modernity that has given so good fruits in the rest of the continent. Anyway, Spain can contribute with its vitality and its art. Basically, 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 cannot be developed in Spain as yet. First it’s necessary a radical reform in the Spanish soul and in the educative and cultural institutions, particularly in 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.
In 1910 Ortega achieved the chair of Metaphysics in the Universidad Central de Madrid. In 1911 he returned again to Marburg and after this third trip his political restlessness and his eagerness for the renovation of the social world took him to participate in the foundation of the «Liga de Educación Política” (“League for the political Education») (1913), where he pronounced his conference ”Vieja y nueva política” (“Old and new Policy”) (1914). He went on collaborating with «El Imparcial». 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. The conferenceSensación, construcción e intuición” (“Sensation, construction and intuition”) (1913), and the collected articles”Sobre el concepto de sensación” (“On the sensation concept”) (1913) show already the influence of the two philosophical movements that will dominate his thought: Neo-Kantianism and Phenomenology.

      Second stage of his thought (1914-1923). 1914 was an important year because he published”Meditaciones del Quijote” (“Meditations on the Quixote”), the work in which perspectivism really begins. Although anticipated in”Adán en el paraíso” (“Adam in paradise”) (1910), it is in the Meditaciones where he clearly explains the theory of the circumstance and its complement, the perpectivistic doctrine”El tema de nuestro tiempo” (“The subject of our time”) (1923) culminates this stage proposing to overcome rationalism and modernity.
In this phase we find two sets of main ideas. 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. Ortega does not 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.
Other more important ideas rule and 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 set against relativism and dogmatism. Relativism claims it is impossible to reach universal truths. The subjectivity anchor us to the individual and so establish limits to knowledge. Dogmatism claims the notion of perspective is ridiculous because universal truths do really exist. Ortega claims the only way to understand reality is from a concrete circumstance, therefore from a perspective. The world is not material or spiritual, neither is a metaphysical construction such as the Germany idealism says. The world is perspective.
At this stage Ortega published most of the essays and articles contained in the eight volumes of ”El espectador” (“The Spectator”),”España invertebrada” (“Invertebrate Spain”) (1921) and”El tema de nuestro tiempo” (“The subject of our time”) (1923). This last one displays new arguments in favour of perspectivism and vindicates a vital reason. Simultaneously, he went on writing for newspapers and worrying about the cultural and intellectual development of Spain: on 1915 he founded the weekly magazine «España» (“Spain”), on 1917 he collaborated on the foundation of the newspaper «El Sol» (“The Sun”), on 1923 he founded «Revista de Occidente» (“Occidental Magazine”) and the publishing house of the same name which made available to Spanish readers the best essays on philosophy and human sciences published in Europe (particularly in Germany) until the civil war on 1936.

The third stage of his thought receives the name of ratio-vitalism.  (It’s 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 stage lasts from 1924, on which he published”Ni vitalismo ni racionalismo” (“Neither vitalism nor rationalism”), to the end of his life. It would be a mistake to consider that the new ideas of this period replace the previous ones: 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 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 our author founds the overcoming of the abstract rationalism and modernity.
      ”Las Atlántidas” (“The Atlantis”) (1924),”Kant” (1924),”La deshumanización del arte” (“The dehumanization of art”) (1925),”Filosofía pura. Anejo a mi folleto “Kant”” (“Pure Philosophy. Attached to my essay «Kant»” (1929),”La rebelión de las masas” (“The rebellion of the masses”) (1930) (the work that made him famous abroad),”Historia como sistema” (“History as system”) (English edition 1935, Spanish edition 1941),”Ideas y creencias” (“Ideas and beliefs”) (1940), show the fruitfulness of his thought at this time.

His social commitment took him to political commitment: opposition to the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, resignation of his chair at the University after its closing, foundation of the «Agrupación al servicio de la República” “Service Group for the Republic» (1931) and designation as delegate in Constituent Parliament (1931). Civil war on 1936 implied the exile for Ortega, first in Europe (France and Holland) and later in South America, mainly Argentina, and in Portugal. On 1945 he returned to Spain, but he did not recover his chair at the University. On 1948, along with Julián Marías, he founded the «Instituto de Humanidades” (“Institute of Humanities», where he gave different courses, some of them published ”El hombre y la gente” (“Man and people”) (1957). Ortega died in Madrid on October the 18 of 1955.

Other works published after his death:”La idea de principio en Leibniz y la evolución de la teoría deductive”(“The idea of principle in Leibniz and the evolution of deductive theory”) (1958), ”¿Qué es filosofía?”(“What is philosophy?) (1958), ”Meditación de Europa”(“Meditation on Europe”) (1960), ”Una interpretación de la historia universal, en torno a Toynbee”(“An interpretation of Universal History: on Toynbee”) (1960), ”Origen y epílogo de la filosofía”(“Origin and epilogue of philosophy”) (1960), ”Unas lecciones de metafísica”(“Some lessons on Metaphysics”) (1966), ”Sobre la razón histórica”(“On historical reason”) (1979) and ”Investigaciones psicológicas”(“Psychological Investigations”) (1982).

To return to the index «Introduction to the thought of Ortega y Gasset»


We can begin the explanation of Ortega’s thought describing his idea of philosophy. In his work titled ”¿Qué es filosofía?”, (“What is philosophy?”) Ortega defines this discipline as «the radical study of the whole Universe», and presents some main characteristics which clarify this definition.

The first characteristic to emphasize is what we can call the autonomy principle: following Descartes, Ortega claims philosophers cannot borrow the truths conquered by other knowledges; regarding the foundations of philosophical investigation, at least, the philosopher must only admit as true what he himself sees with evidence. This autonomy principle must be assumed as a methodical principle; the philosopher must not accept as truth what he himself has not based, must not lean on given previous truths, nor assume anything («philosophy is a science without suppositions»). This eagerness for the autonomy of philosophy will take Ortega to the search of a datum that displays absolute evidence, of a first and ultimate reality (which, as we will see, will be life) and will lead him to question the most elementary beliefs of the natural and spontaneous attitude that flows from life. Thus philosophy must take distance from the natural opinion («doxa») that arises from life, and so is always paradoxical. The purpose of this method is to find the ultimate reality, the datum, the starting point from which we can begin to think. Philosophy, then, appears as a radical knowledge which leads us to reject everything except what appears with total evidence.

The second characteristic of philosophy is what Ortega calls the principle of “pantonomía” or universalismand again this principle divides philosophy from the natural opinion as well as science: what we usually call sciences (biology, physics, medicine, astronomy, chemistry…) are disciplines interested only on a part of reality; philosophy, on the contrary, does by the whole, by the Universe in general, being this one the sum of «all whatever there is», the set of all things: material things as well as merely thought, imagined or wished. Philosophy appears as a universal knowledge in the sense that it aspires to universalism. Its purpose «Is to reach the whole of the Universe».  It could be objected that the philosopher does also interests himself on ethics, on aesthetics, on the theory of the knowledge, on anthropology, and this disciplines study only a part of reality. Nevertheless, the approach of these disciplines is radically different from science: for example, psychology studies how we acquire knowledge of the world but, in its investigation, it first deals with the processes of our minds, the processes thanks to which we perceive the physical world, for example, and, secondly, isolates this capacity from the whole reality; on the contrary, the philosopher evaluates the human pretension of knowledge and studies the knowledge process regarding the whole totality. It is in this framing of a particular reality regarding the whole that philosophy discovers the sense of things, the meaning and being of them all. And this, for Ortega, means philosophy is what we traditionally identify as ontology: the study of being, of what consists on, and of its main categories.
The philosopher must understand the reality he is studying regarding the whole. Philosophy does not deal with all the aspects of things, is not interested on some particular details, and much less on individualities. On the contrary, philosophy discovers that which is universal on each thing. In order to characterize this dimension of Ortega’s philosophy, he himself uses a paradoxical expression: «the philosopher is also a specialist, a specialist in universes».

Philosophy is a theoretical knowledge: being a knowledge means it is a system of precise concepts based on the exercise of reason and disciplined by logic and its rules (Ortega is against any type of mysticism). Being theoretical means this knowledge does not intend to technically dominate the world or bring concrete rules for transforming or creating objects. Compared with the rest of possible activities in life, philosophy appears as an unpractical discipline, as a purely theoretical disciple opposed to life or, at least, opposed to certain spontaneous disposition of living in a sense we need to explain: philosophy is an activity we can occupy with and, in this sense, is a part of living and even a way of living; but it is a particular way of living: other activities, other ways of living deal with things transforming them, wanting them, hating them, worrying about them. Philosophy, on the contrary, is a theoretical activity, does not deal with any kind of making or transforming; it’s not a practical discipline or a technical knowledge nor displays any rule whose fulfilment allow us to control the world. When philosophy is lived, life is not lived but theorized, contemplated,”and contemplating life means staying outside, putting a definite distance between life and ourselves».  In addition, there is another sense in which philosophy stays away from life: the authentic philosophy must look for the ultimate datum, for the unquestionable datum, and the whole natural things, including other human beings, the outer world, in sum, is doubtful, and so philosophy cannot start off from any of it. On the contrary, our vital beliefs start off from the fact of the existence of the outer world. Therefore, philosophy opposes to our vital beliefs. In this sense, philosophy is opposed to life and so is paradoxical: Ortega calls «doxa» the spontaneous opinion common to all men, the “natural» opinion. Philosophy must look for another opinion or doxa firmer than this one, and so is para-doxical (it goes beyond).
Nevertheless, being unpractical does not mean being unimportant; on the contrary, Ortega gives two reasons why philosophy is an essential and indispensable knowledge: on one hand, philosophy tries to satisfy one of the most important dimensions of human being, that is, the eagerness for knowledge, the search for truth, for the appetite for knowledge is one of the most deep inclinations of human being. In addition, philosophy has what we could call «existential usefulness«: as Ortega frequently says, human being is a lost shipwreck in the ocean of existence, is rooted on the confusion and fragility of the circumstance; therefore, one of his most urgent and indispensable tasks is to locate himself, to find a sense for the things and the data experience offers him, and for that he uses his thought, he practices sciences and philosophy: «it is not simply that it happens to the human being disoriented, being lost in life, on the contrary, it seems human being, human life is confusion, is being lost, and that is why metaphysics exists» (”Unas lecciones de metafísica”, “Some lessons on Metaphysics”). This means thinking has a vital purpose. Theory, pure contemplation arises from the fundamental interest of locating in the world. Philosophy is not someone else’s activity as truth is not a casual desire. Human being, as Ortega says, feeds himself with truth because he needs to know what to rely on. Philosophy arises as the result of the human eagerness for direction, for sense. Anyway, theory does not discover the universe, but build it: «Metaphysics is not a science: is a construction of the world and that, to construct the world with the circumstance, is the human life. The world, the Universe, is not given to the human being as a whole: only the circumstance with its uncountable contents is given. But circumstance is in itself pure problem. However, it is not possible to be in a pure problem… Pure problem is the absolute insecurity that forces us to build security. The interpretation we make of the circumstance, as long as it satisfy us, as long as we believe it, makes us safe, saves us. And as the world or universe is nothing but that interpretation, so the world is the security in which human being manages to be. World is what we are sure of»(”Unas lecciones de metafísica”, “Some lessons on Metaphysics”).

Finally, we cannot finish this brief explanation of Ortega’s idea of philosophy without talking about the method philosophical investigation is due to use. On this issue the influence of Descartes is important, but Edmund Husserl’s, the founder of phenomenology, is still more. Ortega thinks human knowledge rests on very basic principles and is reached by a simple act which he calls intuition. In his work ”¿Qué es filosofía?”(”What it is philosophy?) Ortega says intuition is not something mysterious. With this word we simply mean certain type of experiences: those in which the object presents itself on us. The easiest examples of intuition are those of the sensible level or perception; when we speak about the physical reality without having it ahead or, worse, without ever having it ahead (without ever having perceived the object we are talking about), then our knowledge is not based on sensible evidence, lacks the reliability of intuition. For example, we can think about the colour orange and, while we are doing so, we can see something of this colour, but only if we see it we can say we have an intuition of this colour. As Husserl, Ortega recognizes the importance of positivism: positivism was right claiming nothing is true but what we experience, rejecting what relies on mere concepts and is constructed «on the air». We need restraining ourselves to the positive, the experience, the datum. The problem is the narrow concept of experience positivism defends, which is the consequence of its dependence of empiricism: positivism ended up identifying and reducing experience to what is offered to our senses. Ortega does not identify with the empiric tradition, for which only the sensible intuition, the perception, is possible. He thinks other types of realities can be offered to our minds, so there can be other types of intuition. We should preserve this positivist imperative of loyalty to immediate data, but should not reduce data to sensible data because each type of reality offers itself in a different way:  «… justice and perfect triangle of pure geometry, although clearly appear to us, could never be felt in a sensible sense simply because they are neither scents nor noises nor colours»(”¿Qué es filosofía?”,”What is philosophy? VI). Therefore, Ortega’s motto went: «absolute positivism, as opposed to partial and limited positivism». Each type of reality brings about a different type of intuition: sensible or physical realities bring about sensible intuitions, and no-sensible realities bring about no-sensible intuitions; there are other types of realities that can arise as objects for our knowledge, apart from the sensible ones.
Philosophy is a theoretical knowledge that intends to explain the world and, like every theory, it has its concepts and its premises which should be coherently constructed. But the concepts we construct starting off from the object, the premises we state starting off from these concepts must rely on evidences, and intuition is the experience in which evidence arise. So, as it has been pointed out already, Ortega believes in the intuition or immediate knowledge of the truth in other spheres apart from the sensible one, for instance in the sphere of mathematics or the world of values and, of course, in the sphere of the great subjects of philosophy. Therefore there is an intuition we could call «philosophical intuition«: intuition because it is an act of knowledge, and a privileged act of knowledge as it is the immediate presence of truth, and philosophical because the object of this knowledge is a philosophical one. Philosophy cannot be constructed starting off from mere concepts, cannot be a knowledge based on deduction starting off from the understanding of the meaning of concepts. Philosophy must restrain to the data offered to our experience, must rely on intuitions, therefore on the evidence offered in intuition. The radicalism of philosophy allows us to accept as true only what we see with total evidence on our intuitions. This eagerness for restraining to the object in itself, to reject theoretical constructions and speculations, to care only for the data and to describe them accurately allows us to include Ortega in the philosophical movement called phenomenology.

To return to the index «Introduction to the thought of Ortega and Gasset»


One of Ortega’s constant concerns throughout his work is authenticity. The authenticity is the absolute loyalty of the subject to what he really is. Ortega does not systematically explain how any subject can possibly be what he is not, but he states already in his first works that this circumstance is possible and that it must be vanished from the life of human being: the authentic moral imperative is to be faithful to our own tasks. Already in his youthful correspondence, for example, Ortega talks about the importance of this moral advice regarding his own life and even regarding the high destiny of Spain. His proposal of authenticity does not involve only the sphere of the individual life, but includes also collective life: every individual face the challenge of being faithful to himself, but also society as a whole can betray its destiny or be incoherent. Based on historical and cultural features, each time has a fundamental task and a destiny, a mission. When men forget this task and go on with the spiritual forms of the past they do not live «to the height of the times«. And Ortega thinks our destiny is to surpass the basic principles of modernity which, in the case of Spain, will mean the renovation of the political and social life.

The Modern Age: rationalism and idealism

The Modern Age and the philosophical spirit in which it is based are in crisis. They must be surpassed with new beliefs and new cultural and vital forms. Each time is inspired and organized by certain principles. In the case of Modern Agethe basic principle is subjectivity. Rationalism and idealism are the two philosophical movements that developed this concept of subjectivity. But overcoming rationalism and idealism is not merely a technical task for philosophers, does not jeopardize only the world of philosophy. Overcoming rationalism and idealism means to accept the problem of our time, to accept our destiny. Ortega thought he had found here the solution for the serious problems of the Spain of his time. Not every nation lives to the «height of the times», and this, according to Ortega, is what has happened with the Mediterranean nations, particularly with Spain. Spain has never been totally modern, has never been interested in the principles of modernity. Nevertheless, this handicap can become an advantage for settling in the new times. The principle that inspires and organizes Modern Age is the idea of rationality and subjectivity, and if this principle is surpassed by another more basic idea, we would be before a new time. The nations that have not been integrated in modernity «would have probabilities of resurging in the new time. Perhaps Spain would wake up again to life and history».
These are the basic features of rationalism and idealism:

·       Reason is the fundamental dimension of human being;

·       Reason stands over the particularities of each subject, is not temporary, but stands over time, and therefore is able to tie us to abstract truths, to everlasting truths. Reason stands over every subjective or historical element, and even opposes to life in the extreme versions of rationalism;

·       This universal reason is necessary for the development of philosophy, sciences, moral and policy;

·       The world is a product of reason or, more exactly, a datum that the reason, the subjectivity, finds within itself; the things of the world are just ideas of the conscience.

We find the opposite points of view also in the Modern Age: the opposite of idealism is the typical naive realistic thesis of the Ancient and Medieval thought, and the opposite of rationalism are relativism and irrational vitalism (Nietzsche, for example). Ortega considers none of these are correct, and thinks we need to find a solution to the controversy rationalism/relativism, idealism/realism. And this is only possible deepening in the great discovery of modernity: the subjectivity. We are on the threshold of a new time, thinks Ortega, the idea of subjectivity is already worn out. Modernity is at its very end; and for this reason Ortega frequently says he does not want to be modern, but he feels like a man of the «very XX century». The subject of our time, the task of our time is overcoming modernity, our destiny. «Rejecting idealism is, without doubt, the most serious, radical thing European people can do nowadays. Every other task is superfluous in comparison. Rejecting idealism means leaving not only a vital space, but a vital time: The Modern Age»(”El tema de nuestro tiempo”, “The subject of our time”).

Ortega rejects the idea of a universal reason standing over history and subjectivity, but he does not believe in a radical vitalist attitude as Nietzsche, who emphasized the irrationality of existence. As we will explain latter, Ortega’s «ratio-vitalism» vindicates an idea of reason which is not opposed to life and which he called vital reason. His attitude regarding idealism, nevertheless, is more complex. First he point out the fact that there are two opposed points of view regarding reality in the history of thought: realism and idealism. Realism has been the dominant point of view until modern philosophy, and is still the more popular belief for common people. Its main thesis can be summed up in the following two affirmations: reality is independent of conscience; the subject does not build reality in the act of knowing. This means, for example, that the table I am working on at this moment exists although nobody see it. Moreover, it exists and is, basically, as I perceive it (and not because I do perceive it that way). Trees, animals, mounts and valleys, people, in sum: the Universe as a whole, exists for realism beyond our minds, has its own, independent existence; it existed before anybody perceived, knew, or imagined it, and will go on thus existing although everybody, every being capable of knowledge, disappear. We reach knowledge when we perceive something or when we talk about the outer space as astronomy teaches us, for example, and if our descriptions are correct, it’s simply because they are a reflection of reality. Our minds are passive, they are like a faithful mirror for reality (when we reach truth, of course). Every subjective element masks reality, twist the image reality exhibits for our minds. It’s not a mere coincidence that the metaphor that better describes the relation between reality and our minds is the metaphor of the seal and the wax: in the Ancient Age people used to stamp the seal of their rings on wax when they wanted to certify the authenticity of something; they stamp their images. Likewise, reality stamps an impression on our minds, leaving its track, a representation that reaches knowledge.
Realism seems to be the natural point of view of current people and the spontaneous disposition of our mind. In his work ”Ensimismamiento y alteración” (“Withdrawal and alteration”), Ortega emphasizes two very different attitudes regarding the world and subjectivity: the first one, which is the spontaneous, primary, and more usual, is to take care of the world, to let ourselves be taken by its claims, to stay outside ourselves (alteration). Only later appears the second possibility, which is to leave this disposition and pay attention to ourselves, to our own inner life (withdrawal). The natural attitude is the one of the alteration, and it means we emphasize the importance of things and of the world above the subjectivity. Therefore, there are two traditional philosophical proposals on this issue, but the first and more usual, the spontaneous and more similar to the natural attitude of human being facing the world is realism. Ancient and middle Ages were realistic.

On the other hand, idealism upholds exactly the opposite: reality is a construction of the subjectivity that imagines it, is inseparable of the conscience that knows. This conception appears in the history of philosophy with Descartes, who discovered the subjectivity (although this author is still located on realism). Explaining the origin and genealogy of idealism, Ortega argues there is a theoretical and existential situation that prepares this way of thinking, this turning ourselves towards the subjectivity in Christianity (that, nevertheless, is so little modern). Christianity built up an idea of God very different from the one of the Greek world. Greek world considered its Gods as part of the natural world though, of course, superior. On the contrary, Christianity introduced the idea of a radically different God for the first time in history, the idea of a God opposed to Nature, not present in this world. But if God is not present in this world, how are we going to reach Him? The answer is God is better reflected on us than in the outer physical reality, and so we should turn ourselves to our inner being, retreat to ourselves and focus on our deepest and private inner being. Christianity taught the value of the withdrawal, an indispensable lesson for the discovery of Descartes, the cogito. And it is not a mere coincidence that Augustine of Hippo, the greatest philosopher of the religious withdrawal, as Ortega says, had also upheld some points of view next to Descartes.
In his eagerness to find a doubtless truth, turning to our own minds to find an absolute foundation of knowledge, Descartes discovered the conscience, the world of subjectivity. But turning to our own consciences has its consequences. One of them, and not precisely the less important, is the problematic character that then displays the world as an independent reality, which can end even in its total loss. How are we going to understand what is offered to our minds, to our perception and thought? If our minds are completely different from what we traditionally call physical reality but, nevertheless, we perceive it, then physical reality is just what is contained in our minds, a construction of our consciences; therefore the metaphor of the continent and the content. The conscience or subjectivity is like the container in which the things of the world exist. Idealism emphasizes the roll of the subject and conceives reality like a mere content of conscience. This position is uncomfortable, for it seems we are locked up. We may not forget that Ortega studied with Cohen and Natorp in Marburg, two neokantian philosophers, but latter on he left this way of thinking declaring he felt like living in jail, and he did it precisely for recovering the lost reality. Anyway, this recovery did not lead him back to the naive tradition of realism, simply because it was not possible. Idealism, on the other hand, was equally unacceptable; we better try to hold a balance between the subject and the object, the mind and the world, ourselves and reality. «Leaving idealism is, without doubt, the most serious, radical thing European people can do nowadays. Every other task has no use in comparison. Leaving idealism means leaving not only a space, but a time: the Modern Age.»(”El tema de nuestro tiempo”,”The subject of our time”).

Metaphor of the «joint Gods»
In order to explain his proposal of a new idea of the world that overcomes modernity, Ortega uses the metaphor of the «joint Gods»: in the Ancient Age, people prayed to Gods that were born, lived and died together, Gods that were inseparable one of another and took part in a common destiny. The same happens with reality; reality has two faces, the world and I, the things and the subjectivity, and each one need the other. Neither reality is a mere construction of the subject (which would be the point of view of idealism), nor reality is independent or exists before the subject (which would be the point of view of realism). They are the two opposite and inseparable sides of reality and each one of them need the other to exist. The subject was traditionally subdued to the object while modernity changed rolls and subdued the object to the subject; but neither subject nor object are substantial beings, both depend on the other: «I am the one who sees the world and the world is a sight for me». The absolute truth is the coexistence, the interdependence of me and the world and, therefore, the life. Our traditional concepts tend to twist this radical data because it’s easy to be tempted to consider this coexistence as the separate and independent existence of two substantial beings. Ortega calls for a radical interpretation of this correlative coexistence: reality is not a static substance that exists without us, but the subject is neither an independent substance. The world does not exist by itself, independently of me, nor do I exist apart from the world, having a mere accidental relation with it. The world exists as world only in its essential relation with my subjectivity, and my single subjectivity is so only in my essential relation with the world. The constant world’s changes determine my being, my way of watching it, of loving it, of hating it; but, simultaneously, the constant subjectivity’s changes in feelings, beliefs, perspective, determine the being of the world. As Ortega says, this explanation will only be understood on the moment we replace the static and substantial vision of the being in general by a dynamic, operating and relational vision; by a perspective vision.
The words subject and object, I and the world can be replaced by more easy ones: me and my circumstances. This is one of the deepest thoughts of Ortega, explained in just one sentence: «I am me and my circumstance«: my circumstances are there because I take care of them. The world does not exist independently, but rather in its relation with me, with my interests, preferences and thoughts, with my whole subjectivity, (and this idea comes from the idealism); but neither do I exist without this circumstances, nor could I be what I am without the whole realm of concrete things I depend on for my accomplishment (an idea that comes from realism). Reality is a complex mix of world and subjectivity, both parts are needed, and both are radically gathered.

The circumstance
      We can already find the famous thesis «I am me and my circumstance» in ”Meditaciones del Quijote”, (“Meditations on the Quixote”), 1914. Since then, this sentence comprises and distinguishes Ortega’s philosophy. The word «circumstance», like in the ordinary language, means for Ortega the surroundings, whatever is around something, but Ortega brings this concept a philosophical category, becoming a fundamental notion for life. We can summarize Ortega’s thesis regarding the world and the circumstance as follows:

·       Elements of the circumstance: Ortega is not as clear as we would wish on this point. No doubt, the circumstance is the vital world, the vital surroundings in which a subject is involved, which includes the material world, but also other elements of life (culture, history, society…): not only the material things, but also the people, the society, and the culture are included. Circumstance is the whole world in which a subject is involved. This is the easiest explanation, but in many of his works, Ortega includes the body, the mind or the soul of one’s own. The reason is our body, our own skills, our psychological competences and even our character are something given to us, something which can be an obstacle or an advantage for our vital projects exactly the same as the rest of the things of the world.

·       The world is an offered data in life: the subject discovers himself living in the world, involved in its own world. It is not true that we first discover ourselves and then, later, we discover the world; we discover ourselves as we discover ourselves settled in the world, on the moment we take care of things, of people, of our circumstance. My own being is in a constant process of building as I encounter the world and its claims. The world is what I find before me and surrounding me, that which exists and acts for me.

·       The world is not an independent reality: we cannot possibly accept the traditional realistic thesis for which things exist for themselves and by themselves, independently. The world is not just the Nature nor the Cosmos (the Greek idea of Cosmos), an independent substance or reality in itself. The world is what I perceive, exactly as I perceive it. What takes part in my life is what exists; my world «is what I experience as such». The world is all I take care of. «Its true being is just what it means as the subject of my care. It is not independent by itself aside from my living it, from my acting with it. Its being is functioning: its function in my life is a being for, so that I do this or the other with it.»(”¿Qué es filosofía?”,”What it is philosophy”, XI). The «primary being» of things is its being in relation with life, its usefulness or possibilities of manipulation by me, its being lived. Traditional thought makes the mistake of forgetting this primary being while considering things can exist although I do not take care of them.

From the point of view of me and my life, of our lives, the fundamental category is the one of the future (life is futurición, “making future”), but from the point of view of the circumstance, the temporary category of the past is more important, and still more the present, the now: we decide our future, but to make it we must count on the past, use the present and act on the present. The future that awaits us is not just any future, but “our future», the one that fits with our present, with our now, just as our past is not any past, but the one which belongs to our present. Our past is concentrated in our present, our past as individuals as much as our past as society. It’s our destiny, «our time is our destiny». Ortega’s thesis of the essential character of the circumstance leads us to perspectivism: we can never overcome our circumstance, stand outside the point of view of our time; what we wish, what we think is determined by our circumstance. The attempt to see the world «sub specie aeternitatis» (from the point of view of eternity, which is to say from no point of view) is just a mistake. Ortega offers to see the world «sub specie circumstantiarum» or «sub specie instantis», since all circumstance has a temporary dimension. This means our life as individuals depends not only on our peculiarities as subjects, but also on the surroundings. I and my circumstance are radically joined. Ortega considers this idea his great contribution to philosophy.
The metaphor of the «joint Gods» leads us to another peculiar thesis. Let us see: the autonomy’s principle demands a radical foundation for philosophy and the overcoming of modernity leads us to accept the world and the subjectivity as absolute realities but; where do subjectivity and world, me and my circumstance exist? The foundation is the realm of life.

To return to the index «Introduction to the thought of Ortega y Gasset»


To think about the ultimate reality is to think about the fundamental reality in which every other reality rests. This ultimate reality, as the foundation of all others, can be understood in an epistemological and in an ontological or metaphysical sense. As we can deduce from all above, realism and idealism do not agree regarding this fundamental point; ultimate reality for realism is something outside subjectivity, though realists do not completely agree exactly on what (Nature, God…); for idealism, on the contrary, the ultimate reality is obviously the subjectivity. In his eagerness to overcome both theories, Ortega proposes a new ultimate reality: the correlation between subjectivity and world, between me and my circumstances, that is, life. Life is an indubitable reality (the first truth), and it’s also the first reality, the realm in which every other being receives sense. Let us see:

      Ultimate reality in the epistemological sense: our first reality is our first truth, the truth from which the rest of our knowledge can be deduced; Ortega calls this first reality «radical data » or «fundamental reality», and is the realm of the absolutely certain, doubtless true. Only from absolutely certain fundamental data philosophy can be constructed. Philosophy cannot accept as truth what other sciences say, but neither can accept whatever beliefs of the current, spontaneous life. For example, the existence of an independent world apart from the subject that experiences or lives it; only in this sense philosophy separates itself from life. In his search of the radical data, Ortega uses the Cartesian way: the realm of natural things and other human beings, the outer world, in sum, do not have an obvious existence, so they are not the radical data. Ancient and medieval philosophy, as well as our spontaneous, natural vital belief, counts on the fact of the existence of an outer world, but philosophy cannot start off from this. Only up to this point Ortega agrees with Descartes and the modern thought: subjectivity is the radical data for modernity: the conscious mind, the Cartesian cogito. This is not the radical data for Ortega, nevertheless. The starting point for philosophy, the ultimate and fundamental data is not the existence of a conscience, of me (as thinking substance or individual, but «the jointed existence of me, of a subjectivity, and my world. Neither of them exists without the other. I am not just conscious of myself, but conscious of myself while I am conscious of objects, of the surroundings. I do not think if I do not think anything –therefore, I always find a world in front of me while finding me. I, as subjectivity capable of thinking, find myself as part of a bigger fact, a bigger fact of which the other part is the world. Therefore, the radical and unquestionable data is not my existence as subjectivity, but my coexistence with the world.» (”¿Qué es filosofía?”,”What it is philosophy”, IX). Only the relation between these two inseparable terms is indubitable: somebody who thinks, who realizes, and the thing that somebody realizes of. As Ortega says, the realm in which the subject (subjectivity) as much as the object (world) exist has a humble name in Castilian (and in English): life. The radical data is life.

      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 it’s the ultimate reality from the ontological or metaphysical point of view. This is exactly what Ortega seems to say in some of his works, suggesting more fundamental realities may exist from the point of view of the being (God, «eternity»…). Nevertheless, this is not 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. 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. Life is the being; each individual life is the being. Not only the other beings are shown in each individual being, but they are also decided. Life builds the being (or, more exactly, «builds» the being of the each 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. It saves the essential point of the realistic thesis: the world is neither an illusion, nor just a hallucination or a subjective product. And it saves also the essential idealistic point of the dependency of the world regarding the subjectivity in its positive sense. The overcoming truth is I exist in my world and with my world, and my being means dealing with it, looking at it, thinking of it, loving it, being glad or sad with it, transforming it and suffering it. This new thesis joints, preserves and overcomes ancient and modern points of view: for the Ancient Age “being” meant just «thing», for the Modern Age it meant «subjectivity», «intimacy», for Ortega it means «living» and, therefore, means simultaneously intimacy and outer world. «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. The most difficult equation of mathematics, the most solemn and abstract concept of philosophy, the Universe or God are just what I encounter in my life, what I live. And their radical and primary being is, therefore, being lived by me…»(”¿Qué es filosofía?”,”What is philosophy? IX).

The notion of life
      What should we understand by this concept of life? So far, Ortega refuses to identify life with traditional concepts clearly defined such as the body, the soul or the mind; all these realities arise after living, they are simply better or worse founded constructions we built while living for understanding the world, the consequence of certain kind of interpretation of the reality which appears just within that basic and primary reality. On the other hand, life is not an abstract category either; on the contrary, it is rather the most concrete idea of all because it means the life of everyone, the individual life. We talk about life when we talk about experiencing reality, when we talk about our loving, hating, thinking, remembering, wishing, feeling, imagining,…: life is the whole realm of our “lived experiences” (we should remember Ortega himself introduced this word in Castilian vocabulary, “vivencias”, which comes from the word “vida”, life, and does not mean exactly the same as “experiencias”. This last word is perfectly translated to English by the word “experiencies”). Life is the realm in which everything becomes present, and this «everything» includes the two kinds of reality idealist and realist have dispute about: the world or the circumstance and me or the subjectivity; each one of these two opposites need the other, and both are elements of life (and this thesis is indeed the philosophical contribution Ortega considers necessary for overcoming modernity).
      Ortega has never denied the importance of biological life. Sometimes, even, it seems he upholds a biologist and naturalistic interpretation of life as Nietzsche, declaring, for example, that culture is an activity as biological as «digestion or the locomotion». A general revision of his work, nevertheless, is enough to appreciate that Ortega does not reduce life to biology. Life, human life cannot be reduced to body or soul; on the contrary, it is the radical reality on which other realities are settled (physical world, psychic world, values…) Those other realities exist and have a meaning as long as they become present in life. We cannot identify life with the biological structures and functions science talk about (cells, nervous system, digestion…), nor with the soul religion and philosophical tradition dispute about; not even with the mind, at least not with the mind scientific psychology describes. The body science talks about, the mind psychology talks about and the soul theology refers to are more or less founded constructions, hypothesis. On the contrary, where we find ourselves unsettled is not just a hypothesis, but the true reality of life in an immediate and concrete sense: each one’s life. This is the radical data we find whenever we care.
Life is the whole of our lived experiences (word introduced by Ortega): «is the realm of acts and events that, so to speak, gradually furnish it». Instead of hypothetical realities (body and soul), we find an individual life to live with our own concrete experience of the world, our own concrete feelings, thoughts, sufferings, love, fantasies, wishes. There is nothing more next to us as than life. It cannot be defined as an object because it has no nature nor is a substance in the philosophical sense of the word. It has no nature, it just happens, and it happens to us. Life is continuously making itself.
Neither psychology nor biology can describe this concept of life. Not even traditional philosophy. Only certain kind of philosophy prepared to submit to what is offered to our original experience of life, prepared to catch the immediate reality of life without building hypothesis that goes beyond our intuition, only this kind of philosophy will be able to suitably describe life and its structures. Not by chance some philosophers point out Ortega’s thought can be understood as phenomenological philosophy. This spirit, this eagerness to gather in concepts just the data and nothing else is the main feature of the phenomenological movement; nevertheless, Ortega prefers to call it «philosophy of the vital reason«. Its main task, the overcoming of modernity, is the expression of the destiny of our time. The thesis of life as the ultimate reality is the discovery of our time, and it’s so new we need new concepts to understand it.
Human being does not have a settled nature for Ortega. Nevertheless, some universal features that go beyond the particularity of each concrete life can be fixed; features Ortega talks about in many of his books and accurately describes in two of his main works: ”¿Qué es filosofía?”(”What is philosophy?”) and ”Unas lecciones de metafísica”(“Some lessons on metaphysic”). We can extract the following categories of life from these works:

Categories or attributes of life
       Ortega refuses to use one of the most classical philosophical categories, the concept of substance. Face to face with tradition, Ortega ask us to build a new idea of being (that is, of life). Life is not an object, does not have a settled nature nor is a substance (in opposition to Descartes and his static and substantial vision of the cogito, Ortega argues «human being does not have nature, but history»). Its being is becoming, is happening and planning, must be constructed throughout time. Nevertheless, this refusal to accept an essentialist vision on the human nature does not imply nothing can be said of human being. Although there is nothing such as an immutable human essence, yet there is a general frame in which human being develops. Every life has certain characteristics in common. This general frame, this characteristics of all life and so of all men are called categories of life. Let us see some of most important.

1. To live is to know ourselves and to understand ourselves. «To live is to live ourselves, to feel ourselves living, to know ourselves existing». Material objects do not know themselves, do not feel or know they exist. We do. This knowledge can become explicit, systematic and intellectual. It can even constitute a science (psychology, for example). But Ortega is not thinking about sciences. The knowledge he talks about is elemental: is previous to all concept and theoretical thought, it takes place before any reflection, is rather a spontaneous knowledge, an immediate presence of ourselves in our consciences, an immediate conscience we are living, we are doing whatever or suffering or wanting. It’s to take notice. Our lives would be nothing if we did not notice, «without that conscience, without noticing toothache would never hurt». And while noticing ourselves we notice also the others, we notice people and things surrounding us, we notice the world: «I am aware of me in the world, aware of me and the world». We should remember again that, for Ortega, the first and spontaneous direction of our thought is towards the object. Only later, and sometimes in a preconscious and confused way, we look at ourselves. We notice our world and the consequences of our actions in our world, and while doing it we notice ourselves. This has many consequences in the personal and cultural world, but the main one is our eagerness to understand reality, our appetite of truth: «without men there is no truth, but without truth there are no men”. Ortega defines men as the being that absolutely needs truth. ”El tema de nuestro tiempo” (“The subject of our time”) goes further: «Zoologically, then, we should better classify men as the being that devours truth instead of meat». Life and knowledge needs each other, says Ortega, arguing against the irrational vitalism of Nietzsche, for whom conscience and knowledge are superfluous for the elemental, unconscious and instinctive life he defends.
This first attribute or category of life implies another characteristic of human living: to live is to live our lives. «While perceiving and feeling ourselves living we take possession of ourselves. This immediate presence of my life before my eyes makes me realize my life is only mine, it makes it mine». In order to explain this thesis Ortega gives the example of craziness: crazy people lack this immediate presence of their own life; their lives don’t belong to themselves. Moreover, «strictly speaking, theirs are not really life». Crazy person, not knowing themselves, are alienated, their lives do not belong to themselves. This belonging means nobody can live other people’s life; lives are unchangeable. Only I can live my life and this means, therefore, that I am alone with my life to decide.

2. To live is to live in the world; roll of the circumstance. «To live is to find ourselves in front of the world, with the world, within the world». The world is a fundamental element of life, not just something outside. Human being and world are both inseparable ingredients of life. Ortega talks about several signs which demonstrate the impossibility of dividing world or circumstance from self or subjectivity. To live «is to take care of the things of the world, is to live together with our circumstance». Our life consists on taking care of things, and for that reason depends on us as persons as much as on our world. We have already said the dimension of the world is so basic we even take notice of it in the first place; that’s why realism is the natural and spontaneous disposition of our minds. As we take care of the things of the world which are not me (as we love them, hate them, wish them, think about them, perceive them…), as we live together with a particular circumstance, we are encountering “the other”, the world, and in that encounter we develop ourselves. As demonstrative sign of this spontaneous eagerness for the world Ortega points out the desire, which he considers one of the main lived experiences of life. To wish is go towards the encounter of the other leaving oneself, to take care of the other, to persecute the other, to lose oneself in the other (as in loving, for example, one of the most complex expressions of desire) and therefore is a clear sign of the supremacy of the world in our lives. Desire is “… the vital function that better symbolizes the essence of all the others, a constant mobilization of our being towards something beyond itself: untiring bowman, shooting without rest on exciting targets (”El tema de nuestro tiempo”,”The subject of our time«, III).
The world or circumstance Ortega talks about, the vital ingredient of life, is not only the physical world described by sciences, but also the realm of values, the objects of religion; in sum, «everything that moves us»; whatever «interests us, touch us, threaten us, torment us»; the “world is, strictly, what moves us», whatever reality in which oneself is, whatever reality oneself encounters, determining its existential possibilities, its destiny. Ortega’s concept of circumstance is complex because it is made up with many different aspects: physical world, culture, history, society and even, (according many of his works), body and mind. Almost every time Ortega talks about the circumstance, he ends up speaking about the perspective, and that is because human being is a circumstantial being, a being registered in a space-temporary reality that calls on him and which he cannot ignore. And this is indeed a perspective: the realm of circumstances from which we experience reality. Since we are circumstantial beings, what we think or want is determined by the point of view of our time and our vital surroundings. Finally, and against realism, world and self cannot be divided: the self cannot be understood without the world or circumstance, and neither can the world be understood without the self. The world, the world of each one, the only real world is made up with all those things that move us, and they move us because we are previously arranged by our sensitivity and personality to take care of them and let them move us. The world is inseparable of us. Ortega insists on this inseparability of these two dimensions of life – and, therefore, of the reality -, and indeed considers it his great contribution for overcoming Ancient and Modern philosophy.

3. Life is fatality and freedom. The absolute importance of the circumstance in the life of the human being, the fact that life is always a life in a circumstance to take care of, leads Ortega to think absolute freedom is impossible. The world that calls on us to live, our circumstance (our time, our society, our body and even our personality) are not something we choose; the circumstance we live in determines us, and we cannot change it.  In addition, says Ortega, life is always unexpected, at least regarding the important things. We can choose between certain possibilities and be more or less sure of its consequences, but we cannot choose the basic frame in which our life develops. My circumstance determines the possibilities of my life. Life always finds itself in a circumstance; nobody lives an abstract life in an abstract world; the vital world is always here and now. The circumstance, therefore, is something certain, closed up.
Nevertheless, Ortega is far from standing up for determinism. His thesis of the circumstance does not imply a negative meaning; on the contrary, it would be impossible for us to live and act without the concretion of the circumstance. Only from our here and now we can decide our future, and this fact indeed gives us freedom, because pure indeterminacy would make it impossible. We simply would have nothing to decide, nothing to choose. The fatality in which our life develops is not as extreme as to absolutely determine our behaviour: our lives are not completely fixed, circumstance allows us to choose between certain possibilities and, at the same time, demands an answer. An answer nobody can give for us. Life is not already fixed, we have to constantly decide what we are going to be, what we are going to do. We don’t choose our world, the elemental circumstance in which we live; but this circumstance offers us certain possibilities: «life is freedom within fatality and fatality within freedom». Life is «standing up on our own being». Our life is a problem that nobody, except us, can solve. This necessity to choose, to be responsible for ourselves, happens all the time, not only in conflicts or extreme cases. As a result of this irremediable being in the world and having to choose, life always appears as a problem. This idea of our responsibility leads Ortega to positions very near to the existentialism of Sartre: life acquires an inevitable dramatic character; we are thrown into existence and we are called on to choose and carry on; consequently, we have projects, and the project we must choose has to be faithful to the deepest of our being, to our destiny. We are free to choose it or not, so we are free and responsible. Ortega emphasizes the dramatic character of living, using expressions that Sartre will also use latter on: ”¿Qué es filosofía?(“What it is philosophy), X, offers a metaphor of human life that perfectly anticipates Sartre’s idea of our existence as thrown into being: our being in the world can be seen as if someone transfers us to the scene of a theatre while we are sleeping, awakes us and say: «and now, act»; we must improvise our roll just as we must improvise our life, we don’t have a fixed script. We find ourselves with our life in our hands, and that’s something out of our power to decide. «Life as a whole and on each moment is like a starting pistol shot in a race, a pistol shot we receive on ourselves», «life is given to us or, rather, is thrown to us, we are thrown into it». We cannot choose any project, we must choose the one which fits better with our deeper being and, therefore, with our own destiny; thus, life is freedom but, in addition, it must be authentic.

4. Life is “futurición” (making future). Human being has a paradoxical reality compared with other beings that live in the present and are just what they are: its being consists on what it is going to be instead of on what it is. There are three categories of temporality: past, present and future. Ortega considers the last one, the future, the most important to characterize men: for us, life always consist on taking care of the future, on betting on a project and struggling for its achievement. «First of all living is running into the future. No, it is not the present nor the past what we first live; life is an activity executed forwards, and present and past are only discovered later, in relation to that future. Life is futurición (making future), life is what it is not yet» (”¿Qué es filosofía?”,”What is philosophy? XI). The importance of the future in our lives is so that our present is conditioned to it, because we do what we do just to be what we want to be. On the contrary, the fundamental categories for characterizing the circumstance are the past and, more strictly, the present. Thus, Ortega ends up this lesson XI defending two kinds of temporality: the one of the things or cosmic time, in which only the present exist because the past is not anymore and the future isn’t still; and the time of the living which is, basically, future.  It’s true our lives are anchored in the present, but it’s a peculiar present projected towards future. Ortega gives such importance to this dimension of time, that he even considers past and present only get sense from future. In order to illustrate this point, Ortega gives the example of speaking: when we speak, we do it in the present, but this present is determined by what we are going to say, and, moreover, we have to use the words of our past to say it. My future, then, makes me discover my past while I am trying to make it. My past becomes real while reviving it, and only when I find in my past the meanings to develop my future I discover my present. And all in just a moment; on every instant our lives widen in the three dimensions of our inner real time» (”¿Qué es filosofía”,”What is philosophy?” XI).
As a result of the importance of temporality in our lives, Ortega locates the appetizing and desire dimension of our lives over the knowledge: we first desire, wish, have illusions, and is our eagerness to posses or enjoy those objects of our desire which determines our actions and the way we understand and live our experiences: «our heart, untiring machine to prefer and to scorn, is the support of our personality».

To return to the index «Introduction to the thought of Ortega and Gasset»


”Verdad y perspectiva”(“Truth and perspective”) explains there are two traditionally opposed interpretations of knowledge: objectivism or dogmatism, and scepticism or subjectivism. The first one defends reality exists in itself and knowledge is possible; therefore, objectivism declares there’s only one truth which does not depend upon peculiarities such as the culture or time of the individual who reaches that truth. From this point of view, all influence of the concrete individual or subjectivity leads unavoidably to mistake: knowledge is only possible when truth is not deformed by those particularities. The subject must lack any peculiarity, texture or characteristic, must not be historic, and must be beyond life because life is history, change, peculiarity. Most philosophers have defended this point of view, particularly Plato. Face to face with it subjectivism defends objective knowledge is impossible. The characteristics and peculiarities of the subject make knowledge impossible. Subjectivism is a kind of relativism, ends up denying the possibility of truth, denying the contact between object and subject, the access to the world, and concludes ours is just the knowledge of appearances. Sophists in the Ancient Age and later Nietzsche are the most representative examples.
Nevertheless, objectivism and subjectivism have the same mistaken foundation: both defend the mistaken idea that the subject twist dramatically and unavoidably the truth. Let’s see how they take opposite directions from this common principle: only the individual exists, but his peculiarities determine and deform truth, so truth does not exist (subjectivism, relativism or scepticism, Ortega identifies the three of them at this point); in opposition, objectivist, dogmatist or rationalist (Ortega identifies them for the same reason) defend truth indeed exists, which means there must also exist a supra-individual subject capable of knowledge. For Ortega, the individual point of view is right: it’s the only possible one, the only way to understand the world; on the other hand, reality as such always appears as particular reality. Perspectives are determined by the place each one occupies in the world, and only from these places reality can be understood. Our glance and the Universe, the self and the circumstance are correlative: reality is not an invention, but neither is something independent of our glance nor points of view can be just vanished. Each life brings a peculiar and irreplaceable access to the universe different from the others.
So, Ortega faces two traditional interpretations of truth: on the one hand, objectivism is mistaken because all knowledge is necessarily reached from a point of view; but subjectivism is also mistaken because it still believes in an immutable though unattainable reality. Reality, nevertheless, is multiple and does not exist by itself. There are as much realities as points of view, each one true: truth is that description of the world faithful to a perspective. The only false perspective is the one that claims to be the only one, the one that claims not being based on some point of view.
”El tema de nuestro tiempo”(“The subject of our time”) defends perspectivism arguing the subject is never transparent, identical and unchangeable. Using Ortega’s words, the subject is like a «receiver» capable of catching certain types of reality, but not all. A selection of the information takes place in every knowledge experience: many details (phenomena, facts, truths) are ignored. Vision and audition, says Ortega, are clear examples of this. Given the limitations of our senses, we cannot perceive all the colours. The same happens with the truths: the character of each individual and the spirit of an age are as «sensible organs» which allow certain kind of truths while preventing the reception of others. Insisting on one absolute truth is vain. Each perspective catches a part of reality, therefore the importance of every man and every culture; they are irreplaceable.
Ortega frequently illustrates this thesis with the example of the different sights of a landscape: what the spectator sees, the organization of the objects and its importance depends on his position. It would make no sense to declare one description false; but neither would have sense to declare both false based on its mutual contradiction, because then we will need a third description made on no point of view at all, which would be impossible. Reality is, essentially, multiple, perspective. Knowledge is anchored on a point of view, on a position, just as subjects are by their physiological, psychological, historical and cultural being. The idea of an identical reality seen from all points of view has no sense. There is nothing such as an absolute, objective and independent knowledge, and this is true for the physical world as much as for the more abstract dimensions of reality such as values.
Perspectivism allows Ortega to overcome objectivism and subjectivism, but we need a new idea of reason different from the rationalist one which enables us to gather all the perspectives of reality: the vital reason and the historical reason.
“As reality have an existence outside our minds, it can only reach them multiplying in thousand faces or beams”.
“From the El Escorial, rigorous empire of stone and geometry where I have settled my soul, I see in the first place the curved arm of the Cyclops Guadarrama that extends towards Madrid. The man of Segovia, from his red earth, sees the opposite slope. Would it have sense if we discuss on which of both sights is true? Certainly both are true and, certainly, they are because they are different. If the maternal mountain range were a fiction or an abstraction or a hallucination, our eyes could agree. But reality can only be watched from the point of view that, fatally, everyone occupies in the universe. Both are correlative, and as reality cannot be made up, neither the point of view can be pretended.
Truth, reality, universe, life – as you wish- breaks in innumerable dimensions, in slopes, and each one reaches an individual. If this individual has been faithful to his point of view, if he has resisted the eternal seduction of changing his eye for an imaginary one, what he will see will be a real dimension of the world.

And vice versa: each man, indeed, has a mission regarding true. My eye occupies an irreplaceable position; what it sees no other eyes see. We are irreplaceable, necessary (…). Within humanity each race, within each race each individual is an organ of perception different from all others which reaches pieces of reality unknown to others like a tentacle.

Reality, then, is offered as individual perspectives.»(”El Espectador, !. Verdad y Perspectiva”  “The SpectatorI. Truth and Perspective”).

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The knowledge about the world, how things work, is not something casual or superfluous for human life. Men need to know to guide themselves, to settle themselves in the world and to modify the world to their necessities. Men cannot live without convictions, without an interpretation of the world. In his work ”Ideas y creencias” (“Ideas and beliefs”), Ortega distinguishes two types of convictions or thoughts: ideas and beliefs. Ideas are those explicit thoughts about reality, those descriptions we can examine and value; we felt them like ours, like the product of our thought. They include from the most common thought to the most difficult proposition of science. But the most important convictions for Ortega are the beliefs. The fundamental characteristics of this type of thoughts are:

1.     Both beliefs and ideas are knowledge experiences: they are not feelings nor volitions, but thoughts. Being a belief or an idea depends on its roll on the life of the subject; therefore, the difference is relative, regarding its meaning for the life of each person, regarding the root this thought has in each mind. The same thought can be a belief or an idea: for a boy, the first scientific news about reaching the Moon can be an idea, but later on, living in society, this idea will settle in his mind and become a belief.

2.     Beliefs are not limited to religion, as we usually think: there are religious beliefs, but also scientists, philosophical and common beliefs concerning everyday life (for example, our beliefs about the causal bonds between objects of our daily life).

3.     Unlike the ideas, which can be perfectly and clearly stated, the beliefs cannot always be specifically formulated. This does not mean we are never really conscious of our beliefs; it means, simply, that they work from the bottom of our mind and that we take them as truth and count on them. We count on them while thinking -they are the basic assumptions of our argumentations- and count on them while acting -they are the basic assumptions of our behaviour-. This thesis faces intellectualism, which tend to consider conscious thoughts determine our life. On the contrary, Ortega argues our behaviour depends on our beliefs, which are rarely the object of our conscience. We walk by the street counting on the firmness of the ground, knowing we won’t sink. It seems ridiculous to emphasize such an obvious thing, but it is obvious, says Ortega, by the force of our conviction. Our beliefs are well rooted in our minds although we are not conscious, and the better proof is we count on them. Within beliefs «we live, we move and we are».

4.     We do not usually reach beliefs as a result of a reflection or by the force of rational persuasion; beliefs settle in our minds as inclinations settle in our will: by cultural inheritance, by the pressure of the tradition, by the circumstances. Beliefs are the ideas a society share, ideas which belong to a time or generation and cannot be vanished by specific arguments; they are only vanished by other beliefs.

5.    We identify reality with the world our beliefs offer. «What we usually call real or outer world is not a naked, genuine and fundamental reality whereupon men are, but a human interpretation of that reality and, therefore, a thought. This thought has consolidated on ourselves and has become a belief. To believe in a thought means to believe it is real, therefore, to stop seeing it as a mere thought. But, of course, those beliefs were one day “just thoughts or bright ideas». Ortega considers reality and beliefs are closely related: what is real for us depends on what we believe, on our systematic beliefs. Thus, any reality like, for example, the Earth, means something rather different for a scientist and for a farmer of Homer’s Age. For the first one is just a physical planet, one more of the planetary system, while for the second was a God, an alive being whom he adored and to whom he claimed help. Our beliefs give sense to our lives, to our experiences; they are the ground on which our eagerness and projects are based, the ground from which they arise: «we have ideas, but we live on beliefs».

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Ortega’s philosophy distinguishes two set of thesis regarding the being we should not blur:

·       Regarding the being as fundamental Metaphysical reality: if we agree metaphysic’s object is the study of being, what it consists on or which one is the most important, Ortega’s answer seems definite: to the first question, (what it consists on), he declares the fundamental reality, the ultimate reality in which every other reality is and get sense is life. Life not as an abstract concept nor in its biological sense, but as the set of experiences each one actually live. To the second question (which one or which ones are the fundamental beings), Ortega declares: my life and yours, the life of each one;

·       Regarding the being of the beings: if talking about being means talking about the being of the world, the being of everything, if it means talking about the characteristics of these things, then Ortega’s thesis is complex, but indeed rather different from the ancient or medieval thesis or the spontaneous thought. Ancient and medieval philosophy, as well as spontaneous opinion, is realistic. They consider things are independent of the subject; they exist outside our minds and regardless ourselves. Ortega, nevertheless, approaches idealism in his characterization of the being of the world, considering its being and its sense in a dependant relation with ourselves. In order to understand his ideas on this critic issue we are going to follow the Appendix of “¿Qué es filosofía?” (“What is philosophy?”): «There is no being outside men. For that reason, there is nothing there; rather men have to look for it if they want. In this searching, precisely, being is born». The being of any thing is not a reality hidden behind, a reality that makes sense in spite of its changes and its different appearances; its being is not something that exists in itself and by itself, before its presence in our lives. The being of any thing is its intellectual scheme, scheme that guides us and has always something to do with its meaning for ourselves, with its vital meaning.

The being of the beings as human construction
Let’s analyse this second thesis. Like Nietzsche, Ortega considers the world is originally irrational. It’s not a set of ordered and settled beings. The world immediately offered to our lives before any interpretation and before we give it any sense is evasive, changing, unexpected, hostile, and irrational. Ortega uses the metaphor of the shipwrecked: «To live it is to be shipwrecked between things. We can only take hold of them. But they are fluid, uncertain, and fortuitous. That’s why our relation with them is constituently unsure» (”¿Qué es filosofía?”,”What is philosophy, Appendix, VII). If we were mere spectators there would be no problem, but it’s not the case: our life is never already made because, essentially, being has to build itself. We have to decide on every moment what we are going to do; and for that we need to know how things work. We build a concept, a scheme, an image of each object based on our past experiences, scheme that advances how it will work. So we build an immutable image of the object behind its changing appearance, in sum, we build the being of things, its sense. «When men believe they have found it they know what to expect, so things stop being uncertain, unsure, fluid. The world is not an ocean anymore and men stop being shipwrecked in life. They feel the solid ground under their feet and the universe becomes architecture with its cardinal points, its cosmic order. Then men can surely decide. Then their decisions have a meaning for them and their lives seems a straight walk instead of sinking in chaos» (”¿Qué es filosofía?”,”What is philosophy”, Appendix, VII). The being of things turns up when we try to guide ourselves in the original chaos of life; it turns up because we build it. Hence the usefulness of understanding, which works as: «the arm that catch us to stay afloat: to think is to swim to be save of the chaos. Insisting on the comparison, being is the raft that the shipwrecked build with the materials surrounding him» (”¿Qué es filosofía?”,”What is philosophy? Appendix, VII). Understanding guides us in the original chaos of existence and enables us to build a scheme of the world which turns it from chaos to an ordered cosmos. Ortega identifies these schemes of the world with our convictions. We cannot live without convictions. There is no life without a scheme of the world and a scheme of life itself. The being of the things is indeed the scheme we build of their reality, not a supposed being behind phenomena. It’s a human creation, the answer to a certain vital situation.
Nevertheless, Ortega remarks he is not an idealistic; his philosophy tried to eagerly overcome idealism. He argues our minds don’t build things. On the contrary, things press on us and this is, indeed, what leads us to build them a being. «What we build, then, are not the things, but their being. This light is not my «representation»; on the contrary, as it’s not my idea or representation but an absolute reality, I eagerly try to build its being, its idea or scientific concept studying optics» (”¿Qué es filosofía?”,”What is philosophy? Appendix, VII).

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It doesn’t sound strange that, after proposing a new idea of being, Ortega modifies also the idea of reason. Philosophy has always vindicated a pure reason not influenced by any peculiarity such as the subject or the culture; its pretension was to reach a universal knowledge valid for any time and any man. Nevertheless, perspectivism demands the rejection of such a reason; the fundamental reality, life, can only be suitably understood by the vital reason and the historical reason. Let’s see briefly these two important concepts. 

The vital reason
    The concept of «vital reason» is complex, but Ortega wants to point out, at least, the following ideas:

1.     We cannot reject the exercise of reason: all the different cognitive dimensions of men (reason, understanding, memory, imagination) and the constructions that arise from them (culture, science, philosophy…) are intimately joined to life. Face to face with radical irrationalism, which denies any validity to these cognitive dimensions, Ortega considers they are the instruments life uses to solve different problems. It’s impossible to live without beliefs, only beliefs save us from the original chaos of life. Culture and reason is the raft which save us from the shipwreck of existence; reason is useful for life: «understanding is a vital function, exactly as digestion or blood circulation…» (”El tema de nuestro tiempo”,”The subject of our time”, IV). Culture and reason have a double beam: on one hand, being useful for the subject means they are the expression of the peculiarities of the subject and, therefore, determined by subjective laws but, on the other hand, and unlike other vital functions as digestion, locomotion…, they essentially aspire to universality, to objectivity. The mistake of irrationalism consists on forgetting this fundamental dimension of human life: its eagerness for objectivity, for universality, for truth. The mistake of rationalism is resigning to life, building a subject who has nothing to do with individual, historical reality.

2.      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. ”El tema de nuestro tiempo”, “The subject of our time” points out two types of imperatives which cannot be resigned: in order to get a cultural life and a vital culture we have to combine subjective and objective imperatives:

Some imperatives of the vital reason
sphere of the subject  type of imperative
Cultural Vital
Feeling Beauty Delight
Will Kindness Impulsiveness
Thought Truth Sincerity

Life must enrich itself with our eagerness to reach the ideals of beauty, kindness and truth (cultural ideals) but the world of culture takes its force from something else: life. 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.

3.     The ratio-vitalism, vital reason acknowledges the use of reason to understand the world, but it also acknowledges the irrational dimensions of existence, dimensions Ortega finds not only in life, but also in mathematics (the irrational numbers, for example) or natural sciences (the concept of cause, for example, which is not absolutely justifiable from a rational point of view). Rationalism tried to hide the irrational dimension of the existence.  Ratiovitalism shows the order and relations of things in life do not totally agree with the order and relations of our ideas, our thoughts and our reason.

4.     Finally, «vital reason» or ratio-vitalism, are the titles Ortega proposes for the philosophy of life, which explicit object is the reflection on life and the discovery and explanation of its fundamental categories; therefore the title of his own philosophy. With this title he wanted to distinguish his philosophy from other well-known vitalist movements, particularly from the irrationalism proposed by Nietzsche. Ortega considers it makes no sense to reject human rationality because it is a basic dimension of human life and one of its instruments. The eagerness for truth and objectivity is part of the deepest inclinations of human being, as well as our predisposition to reach these ideals by means of the exercise of reason; in addition, reason allows us to build descriptions of reality which guide us in the existence: systematic beliefs make reality intelligible and allow us to face the shipwreck of existence. This, nevertheless, does not lead us to rationalism, because vital reason, unlike the pure reason of rationalism, is able to gather the peculiarities and claims of life (perspective, individuality, history, eagerness for action and for excellence and embodiment…).

The historical reason
      Vital reason leads invariably 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. Ortega frequently repeats 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 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 also human nature, and even settle the moral and political foundations of a new time which would overcome the limitations of Middle Age. These modern ideals have been partly fulfilled, says Ortega: for example, the illustrated ideal of understanding and dominating physical world has been fulfilled to an unthinkable extent. But 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, 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. The overcoming of modernity, constant concern in Ortega’s philosophy, 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 is 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 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: explaining:

·       We 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 (maybe other facts), and we try to precisely (mathematically) describe how the quantitative modification of the cause leads to a quantitative modification of the effect, discovering, thus, the quantitative laws that determine its succession in time; we use a mathematical description to explain facts. This is what physical-mathematical reason and empirical sciences do, and it is a valid way of understanding in the case of facts and objects, but not in the case of human subjects.

·       We understand something when we catch its meaning and this is the suitable way of understanding or give account of the human world: 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 -a storm, 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. 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.

Ortega says we need a reason able to describe the meaning of human world, a reason which enables us to understand human reality. As it has been pointed out already, pure reason is absolutely incapable of catching the singularity of men, their historical accomplishments. Pure reason is useless in this sense; the mathematical, instrumental reason of empirical sciences can only reach the world of facts, but applied to human world it only turns men and their lives into another fact of the empirical world; therefore, the scientist-technique reason is useless. Ortega proposes the historical reason, and considers is the instrument we must use to understand the meanings of human life. Historical reason must study dimensions of life such as the feelings and projects of the individual or society, the mental categories, beliefs and schemes that each individual, group or culture use to give sense to their life and face the challenge of existence. Since men have no nature, but are what they become throughout history, this type of reason must also use all the interpretative resources historicist approach offers: the analysis of the concrete individuals,(studying their biography), the analysis of the individuals and their relation with their contemporaries (studying the conflicts between generations), as well as the whole spirit of a time; furthermore, it hast to make such analysis trying to discover the «vital program«, the vocation, the «destiny» of the individual, the generation and the time. This interest for discovering other vital perspectives is not a mere historical interest, but it must positively counteract on us, enriching our own perspective by means of the assimilation of those aspects of the life of other cultures that are better developed than ours.
To know about the past is to understand it, not just to explain it, says Ortega, and for that reason it cannot be understood with categories which have nothing to do with life, with reductive categories such as, for example, the historical materialism, which considers economic changes are the motor of the whole history; life, history must be understood with categories related with feelings, beliefs, projects of the individual, group or society. The difference between individuals of different times is not only their beliefs; their sensibilities, their basic mental categories, their mental schemes are also different. The purpose of historical reason is to show “the other” in its difference with us. Here is where historical reason faces what Ortega calls the antinomy of history, the paradox of history: we do not understand a time if we do not understand the meaning of the world within a society lives, if we are not able put ourselves in the perspective of the world in which they lived; but, furthermore, we have our own perspective, our own truths, how are we going to understand other people’s? «Many African tribes practice the ritual of the murder of the king. Such custom seems absurd, but the historian will not have concluded his task if he does not make us glimpse that it is not; that, given a certain psychological scheme, given a certain idea of cosmos, the ritual murder of the king is so «logical», so full of sense, as the parliamentary system. This is the antinomy of the historical view. We have to take distance from the other to understand he is not like us; but, simultaneously,we need to approach him to discover that, however, he is a man like us, and his life has sense.»(”Las Atlántidas,”The Atlantis”).

To return to the index «Introduction to the thought of Ortega and Gasset