José Ortega y Gasset’s contribution to philosophy is manifold if one takes into account his wide-ranging essays on literary, cultural and sociological matters. The thinker’s Spanish roots gave him a unique perspective on the historical evolution of Western philosophy from the seventeenth-century onwards. If the great theologians and jurists of the Golden Age, like Francisco de Vitoria and Francesco Suarez, exerted a profound influence on a nascent imperial state, their legacy did not cross the Pyrenees to play a significant part in the rise of the scientific rationalism founded by Descartes.
As Latin, which had been the lingua franca of Medieval philosophy, gave way to national languages like English, French or German, the whole momentum of philosophical discourse shifted from theologically-based issues to the direct observation of nature and the experience of human consciousness. Such was Descartes’ radical programme which liberated philosophy from centuries of ponderous scholastic categories.
In a deeply Catholic country, Ortega’s absence of a declared faith led him to question assumptions long attached to the Spanish intellectual tradition. His illustrious elder contemporary, Miguel Unamuno (1864-1936) dismissed any rational attempt at interpreting the meaning of life and simply urged his readers, faced with the undecipherable ‘tragic sense of life’, to put their faith into divine providence. Having carefully pondered over the pros and cons of objectivism and subjectivism, Ortega, for his part, found a third way in subjective perspectivism encapsulated in his famous line: ‘I am I plus my circumstance’.
There is, here, a parallel with Sartre’s emphasis on our duty to accept any given circumstance thrown at us and turn it into our best advantage, be it in a decisive, conclusive action or, in the case of the prisoner sentenced to death, in an ultimate attitude of revolt and dignity. For the Spanish thinker too, man is lost in a forest of signs which he is forever condemned to interpret in order to move forward.
This vitalist élan, driven by reason and not by instinct or feeling, lies at the heart of his philosophy and metaphorical language is the link between man and the ever changing circumstances which characterise human existence. The origin of myth lies in this primeval necessity to make sense of the world and enable humanity to choose the right directions. ‘Man’, Ortega writes, ‘has no nature but he has a history.’ By positing the historical framework of man’s experience, the Spanish thinker highlights the very limitations of human action and implicitly the power of philosophy itself to give an answer to the perennial question of being as ‘truth remains the most subtle of all utopias.’