Ortega Y Gasset, José (1883–1955)

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José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish essayist and philosopher, was born in Madrid of a patrician family. He was educated at a Jesuit college near Málaga and at the University of Madrid, where he received a doctorate in philosophy in 1904. Ortega spent the next five years at German universities in Berlin and Leipzig and at the University of Marburg, where he became a disciple of the neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen. Appointed professor of metaphysics at the University of Madrid in 1910, he taught there until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. During those years he was also active as a journalist and as a politician. In 1923 he founded the Revista de occidente, a review and series of books that was instrumental in bringing Spain into touch with Western, and particularly German, thought. Ortega's work as editor and publisher, as a contribution toward "leveling the Pyrenees" that isolated Spain from contemporary culture, ranks high among his achievements.

Ortega led the republican intellectual opposition under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (19231930), and he played a part in the overthrow of King Alfonso XIII in 1931. Elected deputy for the province of León in the constituent assembly of the second Spanish republic, he was the leader of a parliamentary group of intellectuals known as La agrupación al servicio de la república (In the service of the republic) and was named civil governor of Madrid. This political commitment obliged him to leave Spain at the outbreak of the Civil War, and he spent years of exile in Argentina and western Europe. He settled in Portugal in 1945 and began to make visits to Spain. In 1948 he returned to Madrid, where, with Julián Marías, he founded the Institute of Humanities, at which he lectured. By the time of his death, Ortega was the acknowledged head of the most productive school of thinkers Spain had known for three centuries, and he had placed philosophy in Spain beyond the reach, not of opposition and criticism, but of the centuries-old reproach that it was un-Spanish or antinational and therefore either a foreign affectation or a subversive danger.

Writings and Style

Ortega was a prolific writer. His numerous volumes consist mostly of essays and newspaper or magazine articles of general cultural interest. He wrote fewer strictly philosophical works; his vast influence on Spanish philosophy was exercised chiefly through his teaching.

All of Ortega's works are written in magnificent prose. He wrote in a clear, masculine style, and his mastery of Castilian has seldom been surpassed. On the other hand, he had a tendency to be wordy and to be content with literary brilliance and striking metaphor when argument and explanation were crucial.

Ortega's literary gifts had other, more important consequences. He used them to create a philosophical style and technical vocabulary in a tongue that until then had lacked models for philosophical writing and words for many modern concepts. But his literary virtuosity disarmed criticism in much of the Spanish-speaking world, so that his followers have often confounded philosophy with fine writing and emotional declamation.


Ortega called his philosophy the "metaphysics of vital reason," or "ratio-vitalism." By metaphysics he meant the quest for an ultimate or radical reality in which all else was rooted and from which every particular being derived its measure of reality. He found this ultimate reality in Life, a word that he first used in a biological sense, like the vitalists, but which soon came to mean "my life" and "your life"the career and destiny of an individual in a given society and at a certain point in history. In his first philosophical book, Meditaciones del Quijote (1914), Ortega sought to go beyond the opposition of idealism (which, he claimed, asserted the ontological priority of the self) and realism (which asserted the priority of the things the self knows). He asserted that in truth self and things were constitutive of each other, each needing the other in order to exist. The sole reality was the self-with-things: Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia (I am I and my circumstances). The things around me, he said in the Meditaciones, "are the other half of my personality." The experience-matrix comprising self and things is not simply one of coexistence, because the self acts on things and realizes itself in so doing. This activity is life, the dynamic interaction of mutually dependent self and things in the course of which the self carries out a mission of self-fulfillment.


Ortega called his theory of knowledge "perspectivism." The world can be known only from a specific point of view. There is no possibility of transcending one's relative perspectives through absolute or impartial knowledge. "The definitive being of the world is neither mind nor matter nor any determinate thing but a perspective." Each perspective is unique, irreplaceable, and necessary, and all are equally true: "The only false perspective is the one that claims to be the one and only perspective." Ortega joined perspectivism to his notion of life as comprising the matrix self-with-things in the declaration, "Each life is a point of view on to the universe."

Reason and Life

Although the Meditaciones seemed to place Ortega in the vitalist tradition, he dissociated himself from its antirationalism. Rather, just as he reconciled idealism and realism, he proposed to reconcile rationalism and vitalism. He agreed with the vitalists to "dethrone Reason," to dismiss abstract reason and bring it back to its rightful role as "only a form and function of Life." Yet Ortega stressed so strongly the rationality of the élan vital at the human level and underscored so firmly man's dependence on reason as an instrument for coping with life that he appeared to enthrone reason again beneath a vitalist disguise. He used the terms "Life" and "Vitality" to describe man's restless search for knowledge, understanding, and spiritual satisfaction, which others would have called "intelligence" or "practical reason." In fact, Ortega seemed to identify vitality and reason: Thus, in En torno a Galileo (1933), he wrote, "Living means being forced to reason out our inexorable circumstances." Therefore, ratio-vitalism was more rationalism than vitalism, and Ortega's thought was far removed from the irrationalist, romantic vitalism that flourished after World War I.


Later, when Ortega appeared to have joined the existentialists (or, as he would have said, was joined by them), his insistence on the role of reason in the existential predicament gave his theories a distinctive color and allowed him to pour scorn on the sentimentalism of French existentialism. Ortega's dissociation from vitalism became complete when he took account of "the historical horizons of human life"that is, of the social and cultural conditions of vitality in humankind. He gradually came to prefer the term "historical reason" to "vital reason." Life for Ortega now meant not biological vitality but "one man's life," and the vocation of the self was now conceived as what it must do with thingsa mission of self-realization. This is the language of existentialism, and Ortega spoke it with a rare eloquence.

Man does not have a nature, but a history. Man is no thing, but a drama. His life is something that has to be chosen, made up as he goes along, and a man consists in that choice and invention. Each man is the novelist of himself, and though he may choose between being an original writer and a plagiarist, he cannot escape choosing. He is condemned to be free. Freedom is not an activity exercised by an entity that already possessed a fixed being before and apart from that activity. Being free means being able to be something else than what one is and not being able to settle down once and for all in any determined nature. Unlike all the other things in the universe which have a pre-fixed being given to them, man is the only and almost inconceivable reality that exists without having an irrevocably pre-fixed being. It is not only in economics but also in metaphysics that man must earn his living [ganarse la vida, win his life]. (Historia como sistema )

Each man has one best choice, and this is his imperative vocation or mission. "'Mission' means the awareness that each man has of his most authentic self which he is called upon to realize. The idea of mission is a constitutive ingredient of the human condition. The being of man is at one and the same time natural and extranatural, a sort of ontological centaur" (Obras completas, Vol. V, pp. 209, 334). Ortega's moral theory thus derives directly from his anthropology; and indeed it is difficult, as with other existentialists, to separate his metaphysics from his anthropology and ethics. The moral life is the authentic one, the one that stays faithful to a life project or vocation; the immoral life is to abandon oneself to transient, outside influences, to drift instead of realizing a personal destiny. The choice of one personality out of the various possible personalities engages the whole of a man's reasoning powers and requires perpetual lucidity and concentration. This helps to explain Ortega's emphasis on the rationality of the élan vital at the human level. It is by intelligent reckoning with his circumstances that a man gains his being and becomes himself. Reasoned choice is constitutive of human personality.

Social Theory

Life is always a problem, an insecurity, a "shipwreck," not only for the individual but for societies too. The desperate measures society takes to struggle against perpetual foundering constitute human culture. It was Ortega's social theory, set forth in La rebelión de las masas in 1930 (The Revolt of the Masses, New York, 1931), that first brought him international recognition. Ortega started from the belief that culture is radically insecure and that a constant effort is required to prevent it from lapsing into barbarism and torpor. That effort is beyond most men, who can merely contribute to it by accepting the leadership of a liberal aristocracy, which does most of humanity's works. The fact that men have no essence or fixed nature but each must choose himself implies their inequality. "Because the being of man is not given to him but is a pure imaginary possibility, the human species is of an instability and variability that make it incomparable with animal species. Men are enormously unequal, in spite of what the egalitarians of the last two centuries affirmed and of what old-fashioned folk of this century go on affirming" (Meditación de la técnica, p. 42).

Ortega distinguished interindividual from social relations. In the former, which include love and friendship, individuals behave as rational and responsible persons, whereas in social relationships, which include customs, laws, and the state, we encounter the irrational and impersonal, the imposed and anonymous. The resulting contrast of man and people (El hombre y la gente ), of the individual and the collectivity, betrayed Ortega's aristocratic distrust of democracy and contemporary mass society. There is no collective soul, he said, because "society, the collectivity, is the great soulless one, because it is humanity naturalized, mechanized and as if mineralized." Everything that is social or collective is subhuman, intermediate between genuine humanity and nature; it is a "quasi-nature." Nevertheless, social relationships have their uses; they make other people's behavior predictable, they carry on inherited traditions, and by automatizing part of our lives, they set us free for creation in the important interindividual sphere. These gains of socialization need constant defense, for men's antisocial drives are never vanquished. Society is neither spontaneous nor self-perpetuating. It has to be invented and reinvented by a minority that, however, must be able to procure the cooperation of the masses. The elite is essential to any society; by proposing a project for collective living, it founds the community and then governs and directs it.

The masses are incapable of framing a project, for they live without plan or effort. When they revolt and claim to govern themselves, society is threatened with dissolution. Ortega thought this was happening in twentieth-century democracies, whether totalitarian, communist, or parliamentary. Nationalism was exhausted as a collective project, and the next plan had to be supranational. Ortega favored the "Europeanization of Spain" in a supranational entity governed by an irreligious intellectual elite. Catholicism was to be extirpated, but gradually and cautiously, with a first stage of "liberal religion" leading toward the secular state.

The sensitive intellectual would have as little as possible to do with governing, for it was inevitably degrading. "There is no political health when the government functions without the active cooperation of majorities. Perhaps this is why politics seems to me a second-class occupation" (Invertebrate Spain, p. 201).

Aristocratic Logic

The notion of an aristocracy of talents is the key to Ortega's logic. In Ideas y creencias ("Ideas and Beliefs," in Obras completas, Vol. V, pp. 377489), he claimed that ideas are the personal creation of the thinking minority, while the mass lazily accepts plain commonsense beliefs that in reality are vulgar ruling opinions imposed by "a diffuse authoritarianism." The archetype of mob belief is empiricism, or as Ortega called it, "sensualism." Sensualism is a reliance on the evidence of the senses, on self-evident truisms, on experiments in science or on documents in history. Philosophy since Parmenides has been a reaction against the vulgar prejudice in favor of the senses. "Against the doxa of belief in the senses, philosophy is, constitutionally and not accidentally, paradox " (La idea de principio, p. 285).

These views were developed with remarkable vigor in his unfinished, posthumously published magnum opus, La idea de principio en Leibniz y la evolución de la teoría deductiva (Buenos Aires, 1958; The Idea of Principle in Leibniz and the Evolution of Deductive Theory, New York, 1971). He assailed every form of the belief that principles or axioms can be founded on sensible intuition, taking Aristotle as the first representative of this belief and following its transmission through the Stoics and Scholastics. Such a belief, Ortega declared, is "idiot," "plebeian"; it results from a mental derangement akin to catalepsy, in that it entails sitting bemused before brute reality instead of thinking creatively. The only principles available to us, he held, are posed arbitrarily by the mind. They are assumptions that cannot be proved to the satisfaction of the senses, but "prove themselves" by allowing the deduction of a coherent corpus of propositions. This is the advance of post-Cartesian thought over traditional realism. "Modern philosophy no longer begins with Being but with Thought" (La idea de principio, p. 263). The only proof modern philosophy knows is theoretical use: If axioms or methods give good results, there is no more to be said.

Principles can only come from the understanding itself as it is before and apart from any acquaintance with sensible things. From these purely intellectual principles may be deduced consequences that form a whole world of intellectual determinations, that is, of ideal objects. The activity of knowing used to seem to consist in an effort to reflect, mirror, or copy in our mind the world of real things, but it turns out to be just the opposite, namely, the invention, construction, or fabrication of an unreal world. (La idea de principio, p. 394)

Since he considered this idealist logic a characteristically aristocratic attitude, Ortega thought it significant that Plato and René Descartes, the two men who did most to construct it, were of noble blood. In contrast, the empiricism of Aristotle was popular, vulgar, "demagogic." "It is the criteriology of Sancho Panza. Faith in the senses is a traditional dogma, a public institution established by the irresponsible and anonymous opinion of the People, the collectivity" (La idea de principio, p. 286). Even the principle of contradiction, "that dogma of ontological sensualism," was a mere commonplace of the collective mind, unsupported by reasons and anything but self-evident. Aristotle had failed to prove the principle of contradiction, that A could not both be and not be X, and Immanuel Kant's transcendental deduction of it had no force. Ortega was not seeking to dispense with that principle but to argue that it could not be proven. Logic is a calculus tested by coherence, not an abstraction from sensible experience. Principles are assumptions that are useful for particular purposes.

Philosophy, science, and mathematics are "pure exact fantasy" based on principles that are arbitrary conventions. They are phantasmagoria, not far removed from poetry. They are the creation of an aristocracy of intellect that reveals the characteristics of all aristocracies: playfulness, lack of seriousness, and love of sport and games. Ortega meant quite literally that logic and science were games played according to strict but perfectly gratuitous rules by a minority that seeks to escape the tedium, vulgarity, and deadly seriousness of the world of beliefs. We never really believe in science or philosophy; they remain "mere ideas" to play with, and they are always somewhat spectral and unserious compared with the visceral faith we put into beliefs. Theory, like any fantasy, is by definition always revocable. Therefore, we ought to play at philosophy, jovially and without pathos, with the mock seriousness required to "obey the rules of the game."

See also Aristotle; Descartes, René; Existentialism; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Marías, Julián; Parmenides of Elea; Plato; Rationalism; Realism; Vitalism.


works by ortega

Meditaciones del Quijote. Madrid: Ediciones de la Residencia de Estudiantes, 1914. Translated by E. Rugg and D. Marin as Meditations on Quixote. New York: Norton, 1961.

España invertebrada. Madrid: Calpe, 1922. Translated by M. Adams as Invertebrate Spain. New York: Norton, 1937.

El tema de nuestro tiempo. Madrid: Calpe, 1923. Translated by James Cleugh as The Modern Theme. London: C.W. Daniel, 1931.

La deshumanización del arte. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1925. Translated by W. Trask as The Dehumanizatian of Art. New York, 1956.

En torno a Galileo. Madrid, 1933. Translated by M. Adams as Man and Crisis. New York: Norton, 1958.

Meditación de la técnica. Madrid, 1933.

Estudios sobre el amor. Madrid, 1939. Translated by T. Talbot as On Love. New York: Meridian, 1957.

Del imperio romano. Madrid, 19401941. Translated by H. Weyl as Concord and Liberty. New York: Norton, 1946.

Historia como sistema. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1941. Translated by H. Weyl, E. Clark, and W. Atkinson as Toward a Philosophy of History. New York: Norton, 1941. 2nd ed., History as a System. New York: Norton, 1961.

El hombre y la gente. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1957. Translated by W. Trask as Man and People. New York: Norton, 1959.

Que es filosofia? Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1957. Translated by M. Adams as What Is Philosophy? New York; Norton, 1960.

Obras ineditas. 7 vols. Madrid and Buenos Aires, 19571961. Contains the later and posthumously published works.

The Idea of Principle in Leibniz and the Evolution of Deductive Theory. Translated by Mildred Adams. New York: Norton, 1971.

Obras completas. Vols. 112. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1983.

The Revolt of the Masses. Translated by Anthony Kerrigan; edited by Kenneth Moore. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

works on ortega

Borel, J. Ratson et vie chez Ortega y Casset. Neuchâtel, 1959.

Cascalès, Charles. L'humanisme d'Ortega y Gasset. Paris, 1956.

Ceplecha, C. The Historical Thought of José Ortega y Gasset. New Haven, CT, 1957.

Dobson, Andrew. An Introduction to the Politics and Philosophy of José Ortega y Gasset. New York, 1989.

Donoso, A., and H. C. Raley. José Ortega y Gasset: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources. Bowling Green, OH: Philosophy Documentation Center, 1986.

Guy, Alain. Ortega y Gasset, critique d'Aristote. Paris, 1963.

Holmes, Oliver W. Human Reality and the Social World: Ortega's Philosophy of History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975.

Marías, Julián. La escuela de Madrid. Buenos Aires, 1959.

Marías, Julián. Historia de la filosofia. Madrid, 1941.

Marías, Julián. Ortega, circunstancia y vocación. Madrid, 1960.

Marías, Julián. Ortega y tres antípodas. Buenos Aires, 1950.

Ouimette, Victor. José Ortega y Gasset. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Ramírez, Santiago. La filosofia de Ortega y Gasset. Barcelona, 1958.

Ramírez, Santiago. Un orteguismo católico. Salamanca, 1958.

Ramírez, Santiago. La zona de seguridad. Madrid, 1959.

Rodríguez Huéscar, Antonio. José Ortega y Gasset's Metaphysical Innovation. Trans. and ed. by Jorge García-Gómez. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995.

Silver, Philip W. Ortega as Phenomenologist: The Genesis of "Mediations on Quixote." New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

Weintraub, Karl J. "Ortega y Gassét." In Visions of Culture. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1966.

Neil McInnes (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)