- A Pragmatist Philosophy of Life in Ortega y Gasset
The work of José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) is vast, varied, and now largely forgotten. The thinker who was identified by E. R. Curtius as one of “the dozen peers of the European intellect,” who was invited to help launch the Aspen Institute in 1949, and who was once nominated for a Nobel prize, has been mainly overlooked by contemporary philosophers and theorists, who have nonetheless followed lines surprisingly close to those sketched out by Ortega. Ortega’s fall from fortune is not difficult to explain. Since his major works read more like essays on heterogeneous subjects than works of philosophy, [End Page 374] he has been shunned by mainstream philosophers, especially those of the analytical persuasion. When treated historically, Ortega’s thought has often been regarded as offering nothing more than an alternative (Spanish) version of Dilthey’s historicism or Heidegger’s existentialism.
John Graham’s work offers new reasons to attend to Ortega as a philosopher. First, Graham meticulously distinguishes the similarities and differences between various moments in Ortega’s thought (“radicalism,” “perspectivism,” “vital reason,” and “historical reason”) and a series of tendencies dominant elsewhere in the early twentieth century, including phenomenology, existentialism, and historicism. Second, and potentially more important, Graham identifies the decisive influence of William James’s pragmatism on Ortega. The claim that Ortega was fundamentally a pragmatist (albeit one who went significantly beyond James) is nuanced by a series of distinctions drawn between pragmatism and positivism, empiricism, and biologism. If there is unity in Ortega’s vast and diverse work, it lies in what Graham identifies in his final chapter as Ortega’s “general theory of life.” This is a philosophy that embraces both the historicism of “historical reason” and the existentialism of la raz diverse.
There are details in this study that will surprise the specialist and the nonspecialist alike. How many today recognize the importance of the philological historicism that Ortega learned from Julio Cejador, or remember that Ortega planned a final project oriented around the philosophy of language, parts of which are indicated in the chapter headings of the posthumously published Man and People (“What People Say”; “Language: Toward a New Linguistics”; “‘Public Opinion,’ ‘Social Observances,’ ‘Public Power’”)? At the same time, Graham devotes many pages to some of Ortega’s least convincing ideas, such as the notion of the biographical ages of man (which attributes a special, but unexplained, significance to the twenty-sixth and fifty-first years of life). Methodologically, Graham fails to justify his historical approach to Ortega’s thought by advancing the claim that it is called for by Ortega’s own biographical method. Indeed, one wonders whether the generally positivist orientation of this book is what Ortega had in mind when stressing the relationship between biography and thought.
Graham views his task in studying Ortega as both historical and analytical. But the author of this work is a historian whose philosophical instincts often lie submerged. His principal energies in the first half of this book are devoted to establishing the relationship between James and Ortega as one of influence and dependence rather than mere coincidence. Only much later does he attempt to show how Ortega might have gone beyond James in exploring the consequences of pragmatism. Since Graham’s principal concern is with the various rubrics under which philosophy in the first half of this century was practiced, rather than with the philosophical issues themselves, numerous questions are left unanswered by this work: what is the relationship between [End Page 375] Ortega’s pragmatism and social and political theory (a dimension of Ortega’s thought stressed by thinkers like Luciano Pellicani)? What is the relationship between pragmatism, the “general philosophy of life,” and the theory of action?
Throughout this study Graham gives evidence of vast reading in the primary and secondary sources in both history and philosophy. The ample bibliography and footnotes will provide future scholars with a valuable reference tool. But it will be up to others...