Absurd Being

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Jose Ortega y Gasset 1883-1955

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Jose Ortega y Gasset

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The Man

Jose Ortega y Gasset was born in Madrid, Spain on the 9th of May, 1883. His father worked as the editor of a prominent liberal newspaper, El Imparcial, founded by his mother’s father. Ortega attended a Jesuit school between 1891 and 1897. After receiving his bachillerato (a qualification roughly equivalent to a university entrance type exam), he enrolled in the Jesuit University of Deusto where he studied philosophy, letters and law. In the middle of 1898 he transferred to the Central University of Madrid where he earned his licenciatura in philosophy and letters in June 1902 and his doctorate in 1904.

Ortega’s first trip to Germany was in 1905 and saw him stay at the University of Leipzig for eight months where he studied classical philology and philosophy. After returning to Madrid, he was granted a state stipend to continue his studies in Germany for another year. He first went to the University of Berlin and for the last six months of his second stay went to the University of Marburg where he began his more serious philosophical studies under the Neo-Kantian philosophers Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp. This final stay solidified the philosophical training Ortega had been looking for.

In 1908, Ortega returned to Madrid where he became actively involved in the politics of the time which was principally concerned with the direction Spain was to take in the 20th century. Ortega argued that Spain’s future would best be served by expanding into and including European thought rather than a more introverted stance; “Europeanization” over “Hispanization”.

In 1910, Ortega received the chair of professor of metaphysics at the University of Madrid, a position he would occupy for the next twenty four years. He married his fiancée, Rosa Spottorno y Topete, in 1910 and she gave birth to their first son, Miguel German (his name a testament to the importance of Germany for Ortega), in 1911.

Until around 1932, Ortega was very influential in Spanish politics and wrote many philosophical, cultural and political essays and articles for both literary journals and newspapers, such as El Sol. He also founded a monthly journal, Revista de Occidente (Review of the West), in 1923, which became one of Europe’s most renowned intellectual journals. His most famous book, The Revolt of the Masses, was published as a series of newspaper articles in 1930 and instantly made him internationally famous.

Ortega left Spain in 1936 with his wife, three children and brother when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Over the next nine years, until the end of the Second World War, Ortega lived in France, Holland, Argentina and Portugal. Between 1940 and 1942, he lectured at the University of Buenos Aires.

In 1945, Ortega finally returned to Spain although his reception in many political quarters was decidedly cool. Some of his fellow Republicans, who remained in exile, saw him as something of a traitor while the supporters of Franco back in Spain were equally suspicious of him. As a result, he was prevented from republishing the Revista de Occidente and although his position as professor of metaphysics was officially restored, he would never teach at the university again. In 1948, Ortega founded El Instituto de Humanidades (The Institute of Humanities) with a former student where he lectured successfully until the government, which was continually interfering with its activities, eventually succeeded in shutting it down after just two years.

Ortega spent the last six years of his life avoiding the government by speaking and writing overseas, giving lectures in the United States in 1949 and in Germany and Switzerland from 1950 to 1951. It was only in 1951 that he would meet Martin Heidegger, the man his philosophy most closely resembles. It was apparently pleasant and neither pushed the issue of originality, despite it surely having been the elephant in the room given the similarities between the philosophical thoughts of the two men.

Diagnosed with cancer of the stomach and liver, Ortega gave his last lecture in May, 1955 at Venice. He returned to Spain where he died at his home in Madrid on Oct 18.

The Timeline

1883: Born May 9 in Madrid

1891: Attended a Jesuit school in Malaga

1897: Enrolled in the University of Deusto to study philosophy, letters and law

1898: Transferred to the Central University of Madrid.

1902: Earned his licenciatura from the Central University of Madrid in philosophy and letters

1904: Completed his doctorate at the Central University of Madrid

1905: First trip to Germany where he studied at the University of Leipzig for eight months

1906: Second trip to Germany.

          First six months at the University of Berlin; second six months at the University of Marburg.

1910: Secured the chair of professor of metaphysics at the University of Madrid

          Married Rosa Spottorno y Topete

1911: Had his first (of three) children, his son, Miguel German

1923: Founded the monthly journal, Revista de Occidente (Review of the West)

1930: Wrote The Revolt of the Masses which was published as a series of newspaper articles

1936: Left Spain for France during the early phases of the Spanish Civil War

1940: Lectured at the University of Buenos Aires for two years

1945: Returned to Spain

1948: Founded El Instituto de Humanidades (The Institute of Humanities) with a former student

1951: Met Martin Heidegger in Germany

1955: Died of cancer on October 18 in Madrid

The Philosophy

Ortega is an existentialist. His thought falls squarely in the phenomenological tradition and attempts to characterise human existence as a vital, lived experience in direct contrast with the sterile, objective picture painted by the sciences. There are clear references in Ortega’s work to past thinkers in this tradition, particularly Husserl (the grandfather of phenomenology), but it is impossible to discuss Ortega’s philosophy without noticing the striking parallels between it and the thought of Heidegger. It has never been clear how much of Ortega’s thought was developed independently to that of Heidegger and he made few direct references or acknowledgements to the German in his writing/lectures. However, in my opinion, it would be an example of synchronicity bordering on the miraculous to assume, especially given Ortega’s immense respect for and close contact with, German philosophy, that his thought was not significantly influenced by Heidegger.


Philosophy, for Ortega, is a discipline distinct from other disciplines because, unlike every other subject, it doesn’t parcel off a section of the whole from the outset with which it will concern itself exclusively. Physics is the study of matter, mathematics the study of number. These subjects have partitioned off the rest of the world so that they can concentrate on their chosen field. In other words, they begin with something known. They know the boundaries of their respective disciplines and what their subject is. Philosophy, on the other hand, takes as its object “everything there is”, and this means that right from the outset philosophy is presented with a problem, namely, deciphering what its object of study actually is.

Since the object of philosophy is “everything there is” or “the Universe” and since we don’t know what that is, the first task for philosophy is to find a starting point. We have no idea what such a point will look like but, since it will form the base for our future philosophising, we do know that it will have two specific features. It will possess autonomy and pantonomy. Autonomy means that our starting point will include no presuppositions. It will be absolutely certain and completely self-contained. Pantonomy means that it will be universal; applicable to everything in existence.

That is what philosophy is. The next two sections will pick up this thread and see where philosophising takes us; i.e. what this fundamental datum of the universe that philosophy starts from is.

Realism / Idealism / My Life

The ancient Greeks supplied us with the realist picture of the universe in which the external world, full of things independent of us, is primary. This would find ultimate expression in 17th and 18th century empiricism which treated external objects as the source of all our inner thoughts/experiences and therefore the primary reality, and modern science which tends to regard the inner world of consciousness (when it bothers to think about it at all) as a grand illusion because, in the words of the 5th century BCE pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus, things are “by convention sweet, by convention bitter; by convention hot, by convention cold… but in reality atoms and void.”

Descartes, in the 17th century, gave us the opposite worldview, idealism. In his search for an indubitable truth on which to found science, he came to notice that everything in the realist position (i.e. everything external) can actually be doubted. I could be dreaming or be being deceived by an evil, all-powerful daemon, for instance, but what I can’t doubt is my doubt itself; i.e. the thought, ‘I doubt’ is an absolutely certain starting point.

Descartes made an error though. He went beyond this certain datum to infer a subjective, substantive “I” having the thought. In doing this, thought lost its import and became a mere attribute of some ‘thing’.

Ortega resists the temptation to infer a substantive mind and analyses the thought which Descartes found and which cannot be doubted. When he does this, he discovers that thought is never static; rather, it is always active and constantly operating in reference to itself. He also notes that thought necessarily includes two poles, a subject (the self) and an object (the thing thought about). In Ortega’s words:

[I]f thought exists, ipso facto, I who think and the world about which I think also exist… the one exists with the other, having no possible separation between them. I am not a substantial being nor is the world, but we both are in active correlation; I am that which sees the world and the world is that which is seen by me. I exist for the world, and the world exists for me… The basic and undeniable fact is not my existence, but my coexistence with the world.

What Ortega does is to effectively transcend realism and idealism, preserving what is best in both. This new outlook he calls, “my life” and it is our fundamental datum of the Universe, the starting point from which we can define and understand it.

My Life

So, what is “my life”? A biological or evolutionary explanation clearly won’t suffice here because those are things that occur within “my life”. They already presuppose “my life”. It is worth noting that Ortega isn’t claiming that “my life” is the highest or supreme reality, only that it is “the root of all other realities” because all other realities (perspectives or worldviews) can only present themselves within its confines.

Ortega defines this fundamental datum thus:

1. We know our lives. Now, in this case “know” doesn’t mean anything like ‘intellectual’ knowing. The idea can best be captured by thinking of your life as an immediate presence to you. It is something you experience in a completely direct and unmediated fashion giving things that happen in your life that unique sense of ‘mineness’.

2. We always find ourselves amid a world. This captures the idea outlined above that every subject needs an object but also that that subject (“I”) and object (“the world”) arise concurrently. We don’t find ourselves first and then discover a world on top – the two are more tightly bound than that.

3. “My life” is solitude. This doesn’t mean solipsism. We have already seen that life requires an external world. We are alone because of the first point; “my life” is mine and no one else can ever know or truly understand the things that happen in it.

4. Life is untransferrable. It is mine and only I can live it.

5. “My life” is something I have been immersed in without my consent. This life is not something I elected to have but now that I have it, I must deal with it.

6. At every stage in life we are surrounded by possibilities we must choose from. Although, at least from what I have read, Ortega doesn’t directly engage in the freewill/determinism debate, this point is clearly meant as a refutation of the latter.

7. We live our lives but they are not given to us pre-made. Rather, in living them, we are also constructing them. Ortega calls this “raising oneself by the boot straps, upholding one’s own being.” This makes human life something unique. It also makes life a permanent burden we can never escape. The reason we don’t usually feel this burden is because we have become habitualised to it. The habit of living dulls the fact that life isn’t a passive possession we can just sit back and enjoy the use of; rather, it is something we must continually create.

8. “My life” is founded on a temporal element, specifically towards the future. Living is a constant process of deciding what we are going to do; in other words, it is not what it is but what it is going to be.

In the sole reference to Heidegger in the three books I read by Ortega, he quotes the German existentialist as saying that “life is concern”, that is, concern with the world. Ortega rephrases this by saying that “life is preoccupation”. Like Heidegger, he feels that life is a matter of constantly being occupied with the world but in order to capture the futural direction in which life is lived (another point central to Heidegger), he thinks the word “preoccupied” (as in “occupying ourselves in anticipation”) is more appropriate.

Here, we have traced out the meaning of “my life” which is composed of two interwoven dimensions – the individual and the world. We must now turn to look at what these two terms are.


In Man and People Ortega briefly outlines how, what we would probably these days call, human ‘consciousness’ may have arisen (with a few significant gaps, of course). Initially, we were no different from animals. We lived by instinct, reacted to the external world and were completely dominated by our environments.

Over thousands of years we somehow (one of those gaps) gained the ability to retreat inwards and contemplate. When we returned from this contemplation and directed our focus to the external world once more, we were slightly more able to resist and impose a measure of control over it. From this point on, we enter something like a feedback loop; our enhanced control of the world allowing us more time for inner contemplation, leading to even better control over the world, and so on. Eventually, this inner activity generated the robust sense of self we currently have.

The World

Primarily, before things in the world are discovered, analysed and finally understood (by science, for example), they exist for us as components of our lives. In this way, the world around us is always primordially (a Heideggarian term, not an Ortegan one) referenced to us. For example, the earth is what holds me up or that which I have to climb over. It is only later, once we make an issue out of it that earth becomes matter composed of atoms.

Ortega gives a fairly standard phenomenological account of our surroundings by way of four “structural laws”:

1. Some of the external world is present to us at the moment but most of it is latent or hidden. Despite this hiddenness, we can nevertheless be reasonably confident that certain things in the world currently beyond our perception exist. Ortega calls these things “compresent”. An example is an apple. Whenever we look at the sphere of an apple we only ever see one half of it. The other half is hidden or compresent.

2. Things always appear for us on a background of other things. This gives the world three planes; the foreground (the thing), the middle distance (the ground), and the far distance (the compresent which is beyond our perception). Because the ground appears as the limit of our perception, Ortega calls it the horizon.

3. The world is always encountered from here; that is, from a definite perspective. The here is made possible by another thing which appears in the world; my body. There is no such thing as perspective-less perception.

4. The fact that the world is always first a being for entails that things in it always appear with what Ortega calls serviceability. The word, “serviceability” just captures the way things appear for doing certain things. The important point here is that serviceability is the way things originally appear for us. A hammer (a Heideggerian example) appears as a tool for hammering before it appears as a hunk of wood and metal. In other words, we engage with things in the world primarily as meaningful for us, not as chunks of matter which we then give meaning to. Individual things in the world never appear on their own but always in an architecture of serviceability which Ortega calls pragmatic fields.

Other People

Contrary to what is typically believed, Ortega asserts that the first human we encounter is not ourselves; rather, it is other people. Not only is it the case that before we are aware of ourselves as selves do we discover other people, but we can only discover our ‘selves’ through other people. It is our interactions with others that reveal to us who we are. This gives new meaning to Aristotle’s phrase, man is a social animal. We aren’t social because we crave other people but because without them I can’t even be a ‘me’. This doesn’t happen through them teaching me about my self; rather, their mere existence before me as something that is not me, that resists me, that therefore negates my being, reveals to me that I am not them, that I am a separate part of the universe, that I am me.

This also grounds Ortega’s Sartrean belief (it is difficult to know how much, or even if, Ortega was influenced by Sartre although since he refers to Simone de Beauvoir in Man and People, he must have read at least some of the Frenchman) that our engagements with others are best characterised as “strife”. This isn’t a pessimistic statement; rather, it reflects the truth that the Other is fundamentally and essentially not-me, that is, that he negates me. Of course, we do enjoy harmony in many of our relations with others but this harmony is only won through “countless impacts and collisions against the others”.

In addition to knowing ourselves first through other people, we also first come to know the world (my environment) through them. We never encounter the world ‘objectively’, that is, free from value judgements; rather, our understanding of the world is from the very beginning overlaid and infused with opinions, values, prejudices, biases, etc., which we don’t make; in short, it is humanised. This humanising of the world is neither good nor bad, but it is inauthentic.

Ortega acknowledges that other humans appear to us as if they possess an inwardness not unlike our own but also cautions that this inwardness is, of necessity, forever unknowable by us. It is a permanent compresent feature of our environment. He thus roots our co-existence with other people, not in intellect or rationality but in the fact that they, unlike plants or minerals and only present in animals to a lesser degree, are capable of responding to me as much as I respond to them.

The fact that the Other is always hidden from me makes him or her dangerous. She is dangerous because she is not a fixed thing (just as I am not a fixed, determined thing), her ‘essence’ settled once and for all, but also because her inwardness is forever transcendent (beyond my experience). In a real sense, I can never truly know the Other. Of course, I can come to know any one particular Other more intimately and the more I do so, the more he becomes You to me, that is, the more he becomes a unique individual human. However, his freedom and permanent compresence will always render him dangerous in the sense outlined here.


Society earns a somewhat negative tint in Ortega’s philosophy. First of all, it must be distinguished from relations between individuals, which we looked at above and which Ortega calls the inter-individual. Society is characterised, not by the Other, but by people; that is, a collectivity.

Despite being composed of individual people, the collectivity functions as a monolith that often goes by the name “people”, as in “We do this because it’s what people do.” But who are these people? The are everybody, that is to say, no one in particular. Hence Ortega concludes that society is something human, but it’s a human without a “soul”; that is, a human dehumanised.

One key feature of society is what Ortega calls “usages”. These are customary social actions society forces on us, often without us being aware of them. He lists four features that make up a usage:

1. It is an action, I, an individual human being, execute

2. Although I execute it, it didn’t originate with me; rather, it came to be from outside

3. I don’t execute it of my own spontaneous will, meaning I do it under compulsion

4. I don’t even know why I must perform the action. This makes it meaningless to me, hence irrational

Usages are always slow in becoming established because they must “spread” through a group of people. This means that by the time a usage becomes a usage it has already begun to lose its meaning so even new usages are, in essence, old. Society (as an architecture of usages) is therefore essentially anachronistic.

Another ineradicable feature of societies is the individuals who are anti-social; thieves, murderers, etc. Ortega takes this to mean that society therefore never delivers on what it promises, namely a collective unity, which means it is always defective or “constitutively sick”.

Existence and Essence

When we talk about existence there are two aspects we need to get clear on. The first is the “thing that exists” (or what there is) and the second is the “existing of this thing”. The first, what a thing is, is the thing’s essence. The second, the existence of the thing, lies in its essence being “made effectively”. Thus both horses and centaurs have essences (a list of “ingredients” which make them up or describe them) but only the essence of the horse is ‘made effectively’; that is to say, brought into existence.

With this distinction under our belt we can now look at the essence and existence of mere ‘things’ (tables, chairs, pianos, etc.) as compared to that of humans. For a table to exist in a room means its essence has been made effective in something that has the same essence as it. What Ortega means by this is that a table is essentially a configuration of atoms and the room is the same. Sure the exact configuration of atoms in each is different, but they are essentially reducible to the same basic stuff. The table works its essence out (exists) in something identical to it; hence, its existence (being made effective in a world of atoms) and its essence (a collection of atoms) are the same.

The essence of humans, on the other hand, is fundamentally different from that of the room (or environment) in which it exists. You might object that we are essentially atoms too, and this is true but we are not only atoms. The essence of conscious human beings is not brute atoms but is rather a unique reality that is mine and no one else’s; a thing we have called “my life”. This essence is completely different from the mere atoms that make up the essence of the room. What this means is that human beings work out their essence (make it effective) in something that is fundamentally different to them, something not them. In other words, for human beings, their existence does not coincide with their essence.

Thinking and Being

Thinking has been assumed to be our initial means of engaging with something. Ortega will break with this attitude. In virtually exactly the same way as Sartre does, Ortega divides thought (“consciousness” for Sartre) into two capacities. The first he calls contar con (rely on, depend on) and this is essentially the non-deliberative awareness we have of what we are doing or what is happening around us even when we are not explicitly focusing on it. For example, although you may not be paying explicit attention to your actions while you are driving, on some “preconscious” level you know exactly what you are doing. The other aspect is reparar which is our being explicitly conscious of something. It has been thought that we are primarily reparar conscious but Ortega claims this is wrong. Our normal engagement with the world is primarily and predominately contar con.

Ortega uses light as an example to illustrate what this means for us. Initially we “rely on” or “count on” light (we are aware of it without making it an explicit focus of deliberative thought). In this ambit we have called “my life”, light is that which allows me to read, that which warms me, etc. Of course, since this is all “preconscious”, we can’t formulate the question “what is light?” but if we could, the answer would be something like this. This is our primary engagement with light and it all takes place before conscious reflection. Indeed, at this stage, light is not even a named thing for us, it is completely transparent to us. Another way to put this is that it is nothing, it has no “being”, it is “non-being”.

Then night falls. Suddenly the light disappears. It reveals itself for the first time by its absence. This initial revelation reveals it as something we cannot “rely on” (contar con) and it becomes a problem, a question, for us. It is only now, when the light has gone, that we become explicitly aware (reparar) of it. In fact, our first thought of a thing is always a question, “what is X?” but in order for us to even posit X as a question, we must have been aware of and engaged with it earlier.

Once light has become a question for us, we can then make a study of it and realise that it is a form of electromagnetic radiation, composed of waves of different frequencies, etc. This line of enquiry though, does not answer the question, “what is light?” (we already answered that in our preconscious engagement with it); rather, it answers the question, “what is the being of light?” Enquiry into the being of a thing leads to intellectual knowledge, and while important, it is a secondary feature.


We have seen that life has a tendency to one temporal dimension; the future. Ortega claims this would be impossible if time were just what he calls, “cosmic time”, which is time as we normally live it. Of course, cosmic time is lived in the present and indeed the present is all there is, the future is a not-yet present and the past is a no-longer present. But this contradicts our phenomenological insight that life is lived towards the future.

Here Ortega introduces another concept, “true interior time”, which traces how we actually experience time. We don’t live time the way it passes on a clock (or in the cosmos) which is more an objective, scientific account of time. Rather, every action we take is directed towards the future and it is only through this futural projection that we discover the past and the present.

Consider the act of speech. When I talk I am not conscious of the words my lips are forming or the vocalisations I am making now; rather, I am thinking about what I am going to say. This is the future. The words that I have accumulated and which I therefore now have at my disposal only make sense in light of my past experiences (education, upbringing, study, etc.). Finally, these past experiences have all conditioned and influenced the person I am in the present. So time is discovered in the following way: future à past à present.