Interpretation of Universal History

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* Book: An Interpretation of Universal History. José Ortega y Gasset. Norton & Co., 1975



"For Ortega y Gasset, vital reason was also “historical reason” (Razón Histórica) because individuals and societies were not detached from their past. In order to understand a reality we must understand, as Dilthey pointed out, its history. In Ortega’s words, humans have “no nature, but history,” and reason should not focus on what is (static) but what becomes (dynamic)."



"Ortega traces the course of Western civilization backward, searching out what makes a civilization rise or fall and offering a way of looking at our own time. Based on a series of lectures on A. J. Toynbee's A Study of History.

The prospectus that announced the creation of The Institute of the Humanities promised an inaugural course of twelve lectures, to be given by its founder and entitled, “Concerning a New Interpretation of International History. (Exposition and Examination of A. J. Toynbee’s work, A Study of History.)” But the course as given (in 1948-49) went much farther than that announcement, for the “examination” consisted principally of a critique of Toynbee’s work from the point of view of Ortega’s own doctrines, together with the unfolding of his personal ideas about the science of history and the progress of peoples—in particular the Romans—with frequent side excursions, meant to be systematic, into the crisis of the present time. The central theme of these pages becomes “the analysis of life established in illegitimacy . . . of which the two gigantic examples are the declining days of the Roman Empire and the period in which we ourselves are living.” To the modern crisis, Ortega brings a basic analysis and a program of reform for intelligence by which contemporary life might emerge from the confusion it now suffers."


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

"Ortega believed that “philosophy of history” was a misnomer and preferred the term “theory” for his lengthy discussions on history, a topic which has central importance in his thought. He objected to many terms, which adds to the difficulty of classifying him (others include objections to being an ‘existentialist’ and even a ‘philosopher’). Much of Ortega’s theory on history is outlined in Man and People, Man and Crisis, History as a System, An Interpretation of Universal History, and Historical Reason. The use of the term “system” in his philosophical writings on history is at times misleading because what he is referring to is a kind of pattern or trend that can be studied, but it is not a teleological vision on history. History is defined by its systems of beliefs. As outlined in the section on ideas and beliefs, we hold ideas because we consciously think about them, and we are our beliefs because we do not consciously think about them. There are certain beliefs that are fundamental and other secondary beliefs that are derived from those. To study human existence, whether it be of an individual, a society, or a historical age, we must outline what this system of beliefs is, because crises in beliefs, when they are brought to awareness and questioned, are what move history on any level (personal, generational, or societal). This system of beliefs has a hierarchized order that can help us understand our own lives, that of others, today, and of the past—and the more of these comparisons we compile, the more accurate will be the result. Changes in history are due largely to changes in beliefs. Part of this stems from his view that in these moments, some of us also become aware of our inauthentic living brought about by accepting prevailing beliefs without question. The activity of philosophy is part of this questioning.

History is of fundamental importance to all his philosophy. Human beings are historical beings. Knowledge must be considered in its historical context; “what is true is what is true now” (History as a System). This again raises the critique of what we can do without any objective, absolute knowledge (and also places him arguably in the pragmatist camp here). But Ortega responds that while science may not provide insight on the human element, vital historical reason can. He argues that we can best understand the human individual through historical reason, and not through logic or science. One of his most well-known dictums is that “humankind has no nature, only history.” For Ortega, “nature” refers to something that is fixed; for example, a stone can never be anything other than a stone. This is not the case with humankind, as life is “not given to us ready-made”; we do find ourselves suddenly in it, but then “we must make it for ourselves,” as “life is a task,” unique to each individual (History as a System). This “thrownness” in the world is another very existentialist theme (for which some debate exists about the chronology of the development of this philosophy between Ortega and Heidegger, especially considering they personally knew and respected each other). A human being is not a “thing”; rather, a human life is a drama, a happening, because we make ourselves as infinitely plastic beings. “Things” are objects of existence, but they do not live as humans do, and each human does so according to their own personal choices in response to the problems we face in navigating our circumstances. “Before us lie the diverse possibilities of being, but behind us lies what we have been. And what we have been acts negatively on what we can be,” he writes, and again this applies to any level of humanity, whether regarding individuals or states (History as a System). Thus, while we cannot know what someone or some collective entity will be, we can know what someone or some collective entity will not be. Those possibilities of being are challenged by the circumstances we find ourselves in, so, “to comprehend anything human, be it personal or collective, one must tell its history” (History as a System). In a general sense, humans are distinct in our possession of the concept of time; the human awareness of the inevitability of death makes this so.

We cannot speak of “progress” in a positive sense in the variable becoming of a human being, because an a priori affirmation of progress toward the better is an error, as it is something that can only be confirmed a posteriori by historical reason. So, by “progress,” Ortega means simply an “accumulation of being, to store up reality” (History as a System). We have each inherited an accumulation of being, which is what further gives history its systematic quality, as he writes: “History is a system, the system of human experiences linked in a single, inexorable chain. Hence nothing can be truly clear in history until everything is clear” (History as a System). Since the ancient Greek period, history and reason had been largely opposed, and Ortega wants to reverse this—hence his use of the term “historical reason.” He is not referring to something extra-historical, but rather something substantive: the reality of the self that is underlying all, and all that has happened to that self. Nothing should be accepted as mere fact, he argues, as facts are fluid interpretations that are themselves also embedded in a historical context, so we must study how they have come about. Even “nature” is still just humankind’s “transitory interpretation” on the things around us (History as a System). As Nietzsche similarly argued, humankind is differentiated from animals because we have a consciousness of our own history and history in general. But again, the idea here is that the past is not really past; as Ortega argues, if we are to speak of some ‘thing’ it must have a presence; it must be present, so the past is active in the present. History tells us who we are through what we have done—only history can tell us this, not the physical sciences, hence again his call for the importance of “historical reason.” The physical sciences study phenomena that are independent, whereas humans have a consciousness of our historicity that is, therefore, not independent from our being.

Through history we try to comprehend the variations that persists in the human spirit, writes Ortega. These hierarchized variations are produced by a “vital sensitivity,” and those variations that are decisive become so through a generation. The theory of generations is fundamental to understanding Ortega’s philosophy on (not of) history, as he argues that previous philosophies on history had focused too much on either the individual or collective, whereas historical life is a coexistence of the two. For Ortega, a generation is divided into groups of fifteen-year increments. Each generation captures a perspective of universal history and carries with it the perspectives that came prior. For each generation, life has two dimensions: first, what was already lived, and second, spontaneity. History can also be understood like cinematography, and with each generation comes a new scene, but it is a film that has not come to an end. We are all always living within a generation and between generations—this is part of the human condition.

The two generations between the ages of thirty to sixty are of particular influence in the movement of history, as they generally represent the most historical activity, he argues. From the ages of thirty to forty-five we tend to find a stage of gestation, creation, and polemic. In the generational group from ages forty-five to sixty, we tend to find a stage of predominance, power, and authority. The first of these two stages prepares one for the next. But Ortega also posits that all historical actuality is primarily comprised of three “todays,” which we can also think of as the family writ large: child, parent, grandparent. Life is not an ‘is’—it is something we must make; it is a task, and each age is a particular task. This is because historical study is not to be concerned with only individual lives, as every life is submerged in a collective life; this is one circumstance, that we are immersed in a set of collective beliefs that form the “spirit of the time.” This is very peculiar, he argues, because unlike individual beliefs that are personally held, collective beliefs that take the form of the “spirit of the time” are essentially held by the anonymous entity that is “society,” and they have vigor regardless of individual acceptance. From the moment we are born we begin absorbing the beliefs of our time. The realization that we are unavoidably assigned to a certain age group, or spirit of the time, and lifestyle, is a melancholic experience that all ‘sensitive’ (philosophically-minded) individuals eventually have, he posits.

Ortega makes an important distinction between being “coeval” or “coetaneous,” and being “contemporary.” The former refers to being of the same age, and the latter refers to being of the same historical time period. The former is that of one’s generation, which is so critical that he argues those of the same generation but different nations are more similar than those of the same nation but different generations. His methodology for studying history is grounded in projecting the structure of generations onto the past, as it is a generation that produces a crisis in beliefs that then leads to change and new beliefs (discussed above). He also defines a generation as a dynamic compromise between the masses and the individual on which history hinges. Every moment of historical reality is the coexistence of generations. If all contemporaries were coetaneous, history would petrify and innovation would be lost, in part because each generation lives their time differently. Each generation, he writes, represents an essential and untransferable piece of historical time. Moreover, each generation also contains all the previous generations, and as such is a perspective on universal history. We are the summary of the past. History intends to discover what human lives have been like, and by human, he is not referring to body or soul, because individuals are not “things,” we are dramas. Because we are thrown into the world, this drama creates a radical insecurity that makes us feel shipwrecked or headed for shipwreck in life. We form interpretations of the circumstances we find ourselves thrown into and then must constantly make decisions based upon those. But we are not alone, of course; to live is to live together, to coexist. Yet it is precisely that reality of coexistence that makes us feel solitude; hence our attempt to avoid this loneliness through love. Ortega’s theory on history is therefore a combination of existential, phenomenological, and historicist elements."


Human Reality and Historical Reason

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Oliver Holmes (next 3 sections):

History narrates the actions of individuals in society. In the world of physical objects, things change, but in the social world of individuals, events happen. References to historical reality, or to historical time, then, are defined in terms of human motives, actions, and reactions and therefore as unique events. What, then, are historical facts? To Ortega, “all knowledge of facts” as “isolated” data, “is, to be precise, incomprehensible and can be justified only when used in the service of theory”. Our capacity to comprehend the connectedness in the external world is served best “in the synthesis of facts”, for “the unity of facts” is “found not in themselves” but is found “in the mind of an individual” (Obras, I: 316–17). For Ortega, historical reasoning thus has a specific form of narration.

In short, the reasoning, the reason, which sheds light here, consists in a narrative reason. In order to comprehend anything human, be it personal, or collective, it is necessary to tell its history…. Life only returns a small degree of transparency in the presence of historical reason. (Obras, VI: 40)

These statements were based on the recognition that historical time differs from time in nature. Clearly, any natural phenomenon occurs in time. Nevertheless, references to historical reality or to a historical time often have been defined in terms of human motives, actions and reactions. For this reason, historical events have often been characterized as unique events, in contrast to the laws of nature where similar elements meet under similar circumstances. The history of the individual therefore means more than mere change in time. Historical time becomes meaningful through human actions. In connecting historical reasoning to human actions, critical philosophy of history sought to disclose the mind's activity as a tangible process. As with Dilthey, Croce, and later, Collingwood, Ortega in his philosophical orientation was affiliated with the tradition which, by way of contrast with classical British empiricism, portrayed the human mind in active terms; in other words, the Neo-Kantian tradition treated mental activity as creative and self-determining, displaying a constructive role in human experience rather than passively responding in mechanical fashion to the promptings of external stimuli. Kant had already established that all knowledge is a function of the human mind. The mind, by means of its own a priori forms, structures the entire domain of knowledge. This formal extension of the domain of mental activity appealed to Ortega. The particular importance Ortega ascribed to history, and his contention that the mind's character had been radically misinterpreted by empiricist philosophers, reflected the presupposition underlying his portrayal of the individual as an autonomous historical agent. He viewed the empirical, or positivistic, objective of formulating a theory of human nature in accordance with principles drawn from the physical sciences as providing faulty findings. In adopting this position, one assumes that human behavior becomes subject to invariant, universal regularities, and that explanations necessarily consist in subsuming what occurs beneath “a general law of nature”. Against such a view, Ortega argued that human nature involves a continual process of reflective self-transformation which reveals individuals to be continually modifying and reformulating their experiences. In this connection, the notion of a fixed human character, conforming to immutable principles which are valid for all individuals during all historical periods, was unacceptable to him.

To explain reality, Ortega continued, the natural sciences, in their concern with the existence of objects in natural phenomena, aim at discovering the general concepts or the natural laws under which these objects may be subsumed. In order to understand the relationship between human life and reality, therefore, the individual must escape from what he labels, “the terrorism of the laboratory”. Through his various readings of Kant, Ortega learned that the autonomous mind must liberate the self from the enslavement of our empirical existence by nature. To avert compounding the ontological distinctions he thought should be made between a philosophy of physical nature and a philosophy of human nature, Ortega maintained that “man has no nature”. The individual must liberate himself or herself from the shackles of the natural scientists for the latter are too involved with general, abstract concepts of nature, and “man has no nature”. In this sense, according to Ortega, the generalized interpretations of the natural scientists exclude the most essential element of human reality: the life of the individual. In denaturalizing “man”, a question still remains for us: if the individual has no nature, what does he or she have? “Man has history” Ortega replies. “Man lives”, he continues, and, as a “living being”, the individual relates to other “living beings” so that vital, operative factors are set in motion—the “living experience of man”. Ortega's departure from physics and mathematics' universal perspective of reality shows us that his dictum, “man, in word, has no nature; what he has is …history”, completes the alienation of the individual from nature and nature from the individual. This abrupt separation of individual and nature, in addition to his rejection of rational concepts as producing any valid knowledge of reality, reaffirms Ortega's denial of universal, fundamental principles of reality and thus aligns him on the humanistic side of the natural sciences—human sciences dichotomy. What is real and what has history comprises what has been disclosed by human beings. History, therefore, “sensu stricto” constitutes “human history”. For history “is the reality of man. He has no other. Through history he has made himself such as he is”. To Ortega, human life is “not a thing” but “a drama”; human life “is a gerund, not a participle: a faciendum, not a factum”. Finally, as expressed differently by Collingwood: “what nature is to things, history, as res gestae, is to man…. Man finds that he has no nature other than what he has done himself”. For Collingwood, history is the study of “res gestae: actions of human beings done in the past”; and, because it studies human activity, it is the study of purposive activity (Obras, VI: 32–33, 41; Collingwood 1948 [1956: 9]; 1921 [1966:19-20]).

Existential Phenomenology, the Social World and Historical Time

The individual thus lives in an active and disclosing way. The disclosure concerns first and foremost the individual himself or herself. The individual basically understands his or her own being, an understanding which, according Ortega, does not belong to the common life of man in general; rather, it belongs solely to each unique individual (Obras, VI: 25). It is only within his or her own factual existence that the individual can fathom “I am I and my circumstances”. The individuation of the individual's being is that which identifies what he or she may become. If the “circumstances” of the individual connote, for Ortega, any situation toward which an act may be directed by the “I”, then circumstances, for the most part, constitute more a condition, and not a denial, of the individual's freedom of action. That is to say, once it is established that freedom entails choice, a choice must be made with respect to the variety of possibilities which arise out of the “circumstances” of the individual. To create his destiny so that he may become “the novelist of himself”, the individual “must choose among these possibilities”. “Therefore”, Ortega argued, “I am free. But understand it well, I am free by coercion, whether I want to be or not”. The conditions of freedom evolve within given alternatives and freedom of action, and thereby result in the ability to choose and act under whatever confronting circumstances that may arise. Thus, for Ortega, how an individual constitutes himself or herself becomes determined very much by the way in which one allows for the possession of his or her being. The individual has not chosen freely his or her “circumstances;” nevertheless, each can freely take over the responsibility of his or her being and allow it to disclose itself as uniquely his or hers. “Man's destiny, then”, he posited, “is primarily action. We do not live to think, on the contrary: we think in order that we may succeed in surviving” (Obras, VI: 34; 5: 304). For once given his life, man's being or essence becomes an ever-changing reality. As man's essence becomes characterized in conjunction with the conditions of his “circumstances”, individual man is placed into and delivered over to the being which is his and which he has to be. In this manner, the burden of action and decision-making is placed upon the individual as the very essence of one's being consists in an ever-changing reality in the making. One's ability to be this or that being is contingent upon his or her actions, and thus for Ortega, the individual is fundamentally different from animals and stones:

... This life that is given to us is given to us empty, and man has to go on filling it for himself, occupying it. Such is our occupation. This is not the case with the stone, the plant, and the animal. Their being is given already to them predetermined and resolute…But man is given the necessity of having to be doing something always, upon pain of succumbing, yet what he has to do is not present to him from the outset and once and for all. Because the most strange and most confounding thing about this circumstance or world in which we have to live consists in the fact that it always presents to us, within its inexorable circle or horizon, a variety of possibilities for our action, a variety in the face of which we are obliged to choose and, therefore, to exercise our freedom. The circumstance—I repeat—the here and now within which we are inexorably inscribed and imprisoned, does not at each moment impose on us a single act or activity but various possible acts or activities and cruelly leaves us to our own initiative and inspiration, hence to our own responsibility (Obras, VII: 102–03).

Existentialist philosophers are noted for their emphasis on freedom of action and the necessity for the individual to choose what he or she will be; it becomes apparent, from the above statement, that Ortega has absorbed this intellectual tradition into his own philosophy. Clearly, other philosophers have been concerned with the nature of human freedom preceding the philosophical activity in Europe from the late 1920s to the 1950s. However, the central interest which unites Ortega and existential philosophy concerns not only the issue of human freedom, but also an emphasis on the experience and practice of it. This being the case, the essence of man's being takes on a dual characteristic in Ortega's philosophy of human life, the differentiation between the internal trait of the individual—the “I”—and its external manifestation within the environment of physical entities. He views the “I” both as constituting and as being constituted by the tangible reality of the world. Life as the confrontation of the “I” with its environment—environments in which various possibilities exist—places man outside himself. As we observed, “possibility” connotes, for Ortega, that which possesses potential actuality (from the viewpoint of the individual's “circumstances”). From this point of view of the circumstantialities of life, taking into account the “I” as the prime human reality is not sufficient unto itself since the realization of this factor of life spurs the individual into action and thereby confronts him or her with external reality (Obras, V: 72–73). Thus, continual confrontation with his “circumstances” demonstrates the essential factor that prevents the individual from being isolated, locked in his or her ego. The individual must act in life and, under such conditions, the living experience becomes a task and the individual becomes what the potential possibilities of his or her finite being exhibit him or her to be.

The essential finitude of the individual is experienced at the very heart of life itself. “Life is anguish”, he remarked, “and enthusiasm and delight and bitterness and innumerable things”. According to Ortega, at a certain point during his or her experience, the individual may plunge into the mood of anxiety—as if he or she were “between the sword and the wall”—when death becomes imminent. “Death”, he continued, “is certain, there is no escaping it! Could there be less choice?” (Obras, VIII: 297; VII: 104). Ortega perceived the reality and the fact of death as essential in revealing the very essence and contingency of the individual's being, which resembles similar views expressed by Heidegger. For, in the face of “possible death”, to experience life as being also implies an awareness of the possibility of life as not being. The acceptance of death, therefore, as a possible here-and-now discloses the radical—basic—finitude of human life.

The perceptible factual occurrence of death also characterizes human life as an occurrence of time as well as reality. As the individual becomes aware of the reality of death, through experience, his or her finiteness discloses itself essentially in time:

Our vital knowledge of other men and of ourselves is open knowledge that is never stable…. Our vital knowledge is open, floating because the theme for this knowledge, life, Man, is already in itself a being ever open to new possibilities.

... Our past undoubtedly weighs on us; it inclined us to be more this than that in the future, but it does not chain us nor drag us…. Life is change; it is at every new moment becoming something distinct from what it was, therefore, it never becomes definitely itself. Only death, by preventing any new change, changes man into the definitive and immutable himself…from the moment we begin to be, death may intervene into the very substance of our life, collaborate in it, compress it and densify it, may make it urgency imminence and the need of doing our best at every instant. (Obras, VII: 186–87)

This characterization of human life, then, posits the notion that time is in man, for the events in men's lives are related by their position in time. “I am I and my circumstances”, as the starting point of the human condition, also expresses the fact that the living experience of the individual consists of something that takes place temporally as well as spatially. What does “I am I and my circumstances” imply, then, in this sense? Ortega's emphasis on man as a being-that-lives-in-the-world may suggest something like a purpose, an end; however, a specific end was never his intended purpose. The here-and-now of the individual becomes his primary concern. Indeed, he tended to define individuals' “circumstances” in terms of “certain elemental, basic phenomena that involve human society” and that in actual fact imposes themselves from the outside on the historical process that he theoretically followed from within. As the temporality of man is very much a part of the here-and-now, man's being-in-the-making, for Ortega, constitutes a “happening” toward the future. The future is not-here-yet and the past is no-longer-here and these two features tend to permeate the very center of man's being as their positions are related to each other in time. As death relates to the individual's internal finitude, the past and present relate to his or her finitude in its external, temporal manifestation. The present—the here-and-now—becomes understood as that moment during which the past and future are divided. The life of the present moment—when “some men are born and when some men die”—in its very essence “is boxed in”, Ortega averred, “between other lives which came before or which are to come after…” (Obras, V: 35–37). Once an individual becomes aware of himself or herself as a being based on the facts of his or her past (such facts as where one was born or who one's parents were), and also as projected towards the future which he or she chooses, the individual will assume full responsibility for his or her life and choices. Ortega viewed the future as the more important aspect of temporality because it is the “open area” toward which man directs himself and in which man manifests his own being. The individual directs himself or herself toward the future and, accordingly, takes upon himself or herself the inheritance of the past, thereby becoming oriented to his or her actual and present predicament. In short, the present originates from the past so as to engender the future.

Ortega's schematization of the past, present and future is sustained in the unity of a temporality that assumes peculiar features in the experience of the individual's vital dimensions. Through living experiences, “man goes on being and un-being”. Hence, the temporal experience of living is not structured in a one-dimensional progression. Rather, as a continual process of being and not-being, it has to be viewed from the three-dimensional perspective of past, present and future. The individual reflects upon the past as he or she confronts continually the situation of having to make conscious decisions with respect to the present and the future. As we have learned, life, death, free choice, and finitude dwell together in the living experiences of individuals. Man's choice and “destiny”, then, are contemporaneous—embedded in the here-and-now. Accordingly, the contemporaneity of man presupposes the authentic temporality of man:

... The past is the moment of identity in man, the inexorable and fatal. But, for the same reason, if man's only Eleatic being is what he has been, this means that his authentic being, what, in effect, he is—and not merely “has been”—is distinct from the past, and consists precisely and formally in “being what one has not been”, in non-Eleatic being. And since the term “being” is occupied irresistibly by its traditional static signification, one should agree to liberate oneself of it. Man is not, save the he “goes on being” this and that. (Obras, VI: 39)

Authentic being, thus understood, has its essential weight not solely in the past, nor in the future, but in the individual's here-and-now—the present in its reflexive connection with the past. Hence, as an authentic being, man is as contemporary as he is historical, and thereby the historicity of man makes explicit the temporal manifestations of his vital dimensions.

Through the “I” and its “circumstances”, Ortega balanced the principle of individual variety with his philosophy of human life. However, in considering the individual to be a historical being occasioned by his or her temporality, Ortega began to pursue a line of thought that would eventually position him to establish a principle of coherence for the realities of the individual, society and history; this theme would be borne out of the phenomenological thrust of Ortega's philosophy of human society and his theory of generations. For life, as the process of happening and the temporality of the individual, makes implicit the assumption that “man goes on being” and thus has a discernible principle of coherence.

Once human life has been established as the fundamental standpoint of reality, for Ortega,

... we are ipso facto given two terms or factors that are equally primary and, moreover, inseparable: Man, who lives, and the circumstances or world in which man lives.

As a being that lives, the individual relates to other living beings. For Ortega, “all realities must in some way make themselves present, or at least announce themselves within the shaken boundaries of our human life”. Hence, the basic reality of human life constitutes the life of an individual with the lives of other individuals as well as situations that pertain to the confrontation of the individual with the existent realities of physical objects. In accordance with this viewpoint, man—as a being-that-lives-in-the-world—does not perceive the world from the isolation of his ego, for the very essence of his being consists in living in an actively disclosing manner. For Ortega, being-in-the-world has a dual characteristic: as it relates to “I am I”, being-in-the-world functions as being-for-itself; but as it relates to “my circumstances”, being-in-the-world functions as being-for-and-with-others. “Our world”, he explained,

... the world of each one of us, is not totum revolutum, but is organized in “pragmatic fields”. Each thing belongs to one or some of these fields, in which it articulates its being-for with that of others, and so on successively. (Obras, VII: 130)

Through an approach reminiscent of Kant and Husserl, Ortega posited the fact that “all men live in one and the same world”. He continued,

... This is the attitude that we may call the natural, normal and everyday attitude in which we live; and, because of it, because of living with others in a presumed world—hence our world—our living is co-living, living together. (Obras, VII: 152)

Any meaningful interaction with the other “consists in my relation with becoming active, in my acting on him and his on me. In practice, the former usually follows upon the latter”. In this manner, then, the discovery of the body of the other, as an object in reality, becomes a reverse revelation of the “I” and its being. The being which is subsequently revealed to the “I” is revealed as being-for-and-with-others. This component of being-for-itself-and-others is an integral part of being-in-the-world and being-for-itself and, thereby provided Ortega with the phenomenological perspective through which he developed his idea of individuals interacting in human society. He explains:

This means that the appearance of the Other is a fact that always remains as it were at the back of our life, because on becoming aware for the first time that we are living, we already find ourselves, not only with others and among others, but accustomed to others. Which leads us to formulate this first social theorem: Man is a nativitate open to the other, to the alien being; or, in other words: before each one of us became aware of himself, he had already had the basic experience that there are others who are not “I”, the Others; that is to say, again, Man, on being a nativitate open to the other, to the alter who is not himself is a nativitate, like it or not…. Being open to the other, to others, is a permanent and constitutive state of Man, not a definite action in respect to them. … This state is not yet properly a “social relation”, because it is not yet defined in any concrete act. It is simple co-existence, matrix for all possible “social relations”. It is simple presence within the horizon of my life—a presence which is, above all, more compresence of the Other, singular or plural. (Obras, VII: 149–50)

For Ortega, the notion of the social world as a horizon connotes a manner quite similar to that of Husserl, the context in which the experience of human interaction (among “I”, and “We” and “Other”) occurs. The various “I's” constitute the fundamental units of the structure and content of the social world. “Husserl says very well”, Ortega recalled, “the meaning of the term man implies a reciprocal existence of one for the other, hence, a community of men, a society” (Obras, VII: 148). As we saw previously, in describing reality, Ortega postulated the distinction between things (i.e., plants, stones and animals) and man through the fact that things exist and man lives. By dint of his unique individuality, man has an essence that is peculiarly his own, which means that man, for Ortega, is not only split off from nature—plants, stones, minerals and the like. All individual human acts, for him, are directed toward some object and, as such, the actions of the individual are manifested in accord with the nature of the objects toward which they are directed and in accord with their physical, spatial context. If the object is a stone, the individual's actions would be unilateral; if the object is an animal, on the other hand, the individual discovers that his actions would be manifested toward an anticipated reaction by the animal to which they are directed:

... We know that a stone is not aware of our action on it…. But as soon as we begin dealing with an animal, the relation changes…. There is, then, no doubt that, in my relation with the animal, the act of my behavior toward it is not, as it was in the case of the stone, unilateral; rather, my act, before being performed, when I am planning it, already calculates with the probable act of reaction on the animal's part, in such a manner that my act, even in the state of pure project, moves toward the animal but returns to me in an inverted sense, anticipating the animal's reply. (Obras, VII: 133–34)

We find this sort of transcendental reflection—by way of action, responses and reciprocal responses—to be fundamental in the kind of description made by Ortega of the social world. With an animal as an object toward which an individual may direct his or her acts, one finds more of a reciprocal response than occurs with stones and other inanimate objects. Individual man and an animal, according to Ortega, exist-for-each-other but not to the same degree as between man and man, as the latter relate to one another as being-with-and-for-the-other. Yet the question remains: what kind of behavior can be constituted as being social and what are the contingencies implicit in this behavior? The contingency, for Ortega, relates to the fact that social behavior entails interaction between individuals, in contrast to acts between men and animals—for he views human life as the ultimate reality—and this human interaction has to be reciprocal. It is a kind of reciprocity of action that can only arise and occur amongst individual men:

... Does not the word “social” immediately point to a reality consisting in the fact that man conducts himself in confrontation with other beings which, in their turn, conduct themselves with respect to him—therefore, to actions in which, in one way or another, the reciprocity intervenes…in short, to say the same thing in another way, that the two actors mutually respond to each other, that is, they correspond? (Obras, VII: 135–37)

Ortega holds that upon experiencing the others as other men, the “I” understands and relates to them as units that are analogous to the “I” and are inextricably connected, as fundamental units of reality, to their “circumstances” as well. This interaction manifests itself in such a manner that the “I”, for Ortega, apprehends the world-about-the-others and the world-about-the-“I” as one and the same world—from an objective, empirical standpoint—that differs in each individual case only insofar as it affects consciousness differently. For we all perceive reality through our sense-perception, albeit our individual perceptions of this very reality are registered differently. For Ortega, as we have seen, I am the only one who is an “I”. All the other “I's” are similar to objects (in the sense that they are perceived solely as physical organisms) and, once viewed as being “an other person” (that is, a being perceived as possessing both a body and an inwardness, an other “I”), are referred to as the “others”. My own place in this world—in time and space—is related to my “I” and my body. Therefore, when the “ego” (which is my “I”) encounters an “alien ego”, it is essential for it (the “ego”) to transcend itself and thereby make possible meaningful attempts to understand and perceive the existence of other “egos”, or “I's”. The “other”, as “I”, according to Ortega, embodies an “ego” that possesses a similar quality of consciousness, inwardness and solitude: an ego that will be related to as also possessing both primary and secondary qualities and whose fundamental essence and structure will also be encountered as existent within the “I”. Thus, for Ortega, in order to attempt to enter this sphere of the “other's inwardness”, it becomes essential to strive toward attaining the transcendental attitude. “In this sense of radical reality”, he explained,

... “human life” means strictly and exclusively the life of each individual, that is, always and only my life…. If, by chance—I added—appears in this my world something that must also be called “human life” in another sense, neither radical nor primary nor patent, but secondary, derivative and more or less latent and hypothetical… What is decisive in this step and in this appearance is that when my life and everything in it, on being patent to me, on being mine, have immanent character—hence the truism that my life is immanent to itself, that it is all within itself—the indirect presentation, or compresence, of the alien human life startles and confronts me with something transcendent to my own life…. (Obras, VII: 141)

Through the mediacy of a human world, then, the “I” and the other, as collective human lives, communicate. The radical reality of the “I”, as the inwardness of human life, is unique to the individual “I”, and, to the extent possible, relates transcendentally to the “I” of the other. The consciousness of the “I” becomes separated from the consciousness of the other by the very distinction that separates, in the first instance, the “I's” consciousness of its own body, and secondly, the distinction that separates the body of the “I” from the body of the other, and finally, the distinction that separates the other's body from its consciousness. Alternatively, the bodies of the “I” and the other, as existent physical structures in the common world of “human lives”, are necessary “broadcasting centers”, as Ortega calls it, between the consciousness of the “I” and the others. In this connection, the relations between the bodies of the “I” and the other consists of a relation of transcendental exteriority. “What is certainly patent in my life”, he explained,

... is the notification, the signal, that there are other human lives; but since human life in its radicality is only mine, and these will be lives of others like myself, each the life of each, it follows that, because they are others, all their lives will be situated outside of or beyond or trans-mine. Hence they are transcendent. (Obras, VII: 142)

Expressed in this manner, the individual, as a being-who-lives-in-the-world and as a being-for-and-with-others, is an empirically finite being who has to transcend the finitude of his “radical reality”. As we have seen, from the perspective often associated with existential philosophy, Ortega averred that for the individual to transcend the determinacy of his or her being and attain individual consciousness, he or she has to make free choices and decisions. From an ontological point of view, Ortega makes a case, like Husserl, for the necessity of entering the transcendental attitude so that the individual may bring himself closer to an understanding and consciousness of the experience of the “other”. The phenomenological and existential philosophies are thus linked together, for the individual remains an empirical, finite, concrete, and unique being in his particular “circumstances” who has been placed decisively within the spatiotemporal context of the world of his here-and-now. From this perspective, man transcends his “radical reality” in its every detail (Obras, V: 545–47). Although he called into question the “abstract analogical transposition” of Husserl's “transcendental reduction”, Ortega's phenomenological approach to the importance of transcending individual experience—as the fundamentals basis for understanding the very experience of reality—still remains very much within the tradition of Husserl and his students of the phenomenological method: Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. When Ortega presented the ontological ramifications of reality, clearly he considered the human body to be connected to the totality of what he called human life or radical reality and, as such, to be the foundation of its vital structure. More specifically: the body is a body of an individual insofar as it exists in the indissoluble unity of its radical reality. But, he questioned, “what do we mean when we say that an Other is before us, that is, an other like myself, another Man?” His answer,

… I, ego, means for us no more than “human life”, and human life…is properly, originally, and radically only the life of each of us, hence, my life. (Obras, VII: 158–59)

To some, it would appear to be an obvious fact that man is able to understand others in their being and essence, both as alike and other than himself. From a phenomenological standpoint, however, this fact is a problem which is neither obvious nor easy to explain, and it is a problem whose solution was viewed differently by both Ortega and Husserl. For Husserl, the solution to this problem was found in his notion of Einfühlung (“empathy”, or literally, “feeling oneself into another”). Husserl's concept of the Einfühlung in Lebenswelt resembles Hume's idea of “sympathy”, and its philosophical function (as a propensity “to sympathize with others”, and as a “transcendental theory of experiencing someone else”) was to establish, as thoroughly as possible, a way of presenting the “other” to us. (see Hume 1739 [1985: 367–69]). Ortega renounced the supposition inherent in this solution to the problem because the notion of Einfühlung assumes that the “other” is “analogous” to my “I”; it is assumed, for him, that it is a double of my “I” and still does not serve the function of explaining the most difficult question—namely, how is it possible that this “double” of myself continues to appear to me as constituting the other? The main thrust of Ortega's argument is directed against Husserl's formulation of the alter ego as “an analogue” of the ego in Cartesian Meditations. The solution of “an analogical transposition or projection”, therefore proved inadequate for Ortega, and the notion of the “appearance of the Other” became the problem to which he extended his existential-phenomenological position of being-for-itself and being-for-and-with-others. Ortega replaced Husserl's notion of “in [my] every intentionality”, in order to clarify the problem somewhat, with his own idea of “my life as radical reality” (see especially Husserl 1933 [1964: 89–100, 104–11]; ZPI: vol. 14, 3–11, 429–33; vol. 15, 40–50; see also, Scheler 1923 [1954: 6–50]; Obras, VII: 161–63). As man is never a wordless “I”—for, as radical reality his life is being-in-the-world—also he is never an isolated (other-less) “I”. For Ortega, this manifestation of “radical realty” constitutes the fundamental feature of being-for-and-with-others and consequently cannot be explained as an isolated “I” that somehow discovers a way of confronting another equally isolated “I”. Man does not have to find his way to another man for, with the disclosure of his own being as being-for-and-with-others, the being of other “I's” becomes disclosed to him as possessing this identical feature:

...Observe then: being the other does not represent an accident or adventure that may or may not befall Man, but is an original attribute. I, in my solitude, could not call myself by a generic name like “man”. The reality represented by this name appears to me only when there is another being who responds or reciprocates to me. Husserl says very well: “The meaning of the term ‘man’ implies a reciprocal existence of one for the other, hence a community of men, a society”. And conversely: “It is equally clear that men cannot be apprehended unless there are (really or potentially) other men around them”. Hence—I add—to speak of man outside and apart from a society is to say something that is self-contradictory and meaningless…. Man does not appear in solitude—although his ultimate truth is solitude; man appears in sociality as the Other, frequenting the One, as the reciprocator (Obras, VII: 148).

The “I” and the other, then, are constituted by their appearance before each other, in the common world of society, and as each engages in reciprocal interaction. In this connection, Ortega was in basic agreement with Husserl as he attempted to reconcile the realms of “I” and other, solitude and society, by establishing the fact that a referral to the other (on the part of the “I”) is an indispensable condition for the constitution of being-in-the-world.

Thus, in the social world of being-for-and-with-others, an individual directs himself away from the possibilities that may be viewed as being exclusively his own and attempts to broaden his understanding of himself by relating to the common world possibilities of others. The social world in which the individual lives—as one who remains linked with other individuals through manifold relations—becomes a realm that he apprehends and interprets to be meaningful for his possibilities, his “circumstances” and his here-and-now. Adopting this standpoint, Ortega contended that as individuals who are rooted in our radical realities, we must “make an attempt at interpenetration, at de-solitudinizing ourselves…” (Obras, VII: 140). This being the case, as the spatiotemporal dimension of man's radical reality become part and parcel of his here-and-now, the reality of the social world (as the context and mediacy through which groups of individuals interact) is also enmeshed in his here-and-now. Through his own finitude, the individual's temporality revealed itself as the consciousness of the intrasubjective structure of his life. The reality of the social world, conversely, reveals itself to the individual as an intersubjectively structured world which the “I” shared with the others. The spatiotemporal manifestations of this intersubjectivity connect the “I” to the others and, at the same time, sharply differentiate the world of the “I” from the social world of the others. “The first thing”, he explained,

...I fall foul of in my proper and radical world is Other Men, the Other singular and plural, among whom I am born and begin to live. From the beginning, then, I find myself in a human world or society. (Obras, VII: 177)

In the context of social reality, the individual therefore measures his “I” by what constitutes the Others and what they have achieved and failed to achieve in the social world. The experience of the social world by the “I” thereby justifies and corroborates itself (as a being-in-the-world) through the experience of the others with whom the “I” interacts. The possibilities of the individual and his subsequent understanding of himself can be broadened after his encounter with the “others” in the social world that is common to all “I's”. However, Ortega also views the social world as constricting, and not expanding, man's possibilities in several aspects. As an empirically finite being whose radical reality continually confronts the possibility of death, man, for Ortega, can make efforts to transcend the determinacy of his being on making, existentially, free choices and decisions. Conversely, man, as a social and empirically finite being interrelated to other individuals, finds it difficult to transcend and recoil from the process of the reciprocity of human interaction in the context of social reality and, hence, becomes conditioned (by society) to act with a view toward what others have done and are currently doing. Once given this social world that may be interpreted to signify the possible realm of action for all of us (as “all men find themselves among men”), in Ortega's view, the individual must discriminate between what constitutes the possibilities of the others—men in general in the social world—and what constitutes the possibilities inherent in the uniqueness of his own finite being. “What is yours”, he said,

... does not exist for me—your ideas and convictions do not exist for me. I see them as alien and something as opposed to me…. All Yous are such—because they are different from me—and when I say I, I am only a minute portion of the world, the tiny part of it that I now begin accurately to call “I”. (Obras, VII: 178, 189–90)

In this connection, the individual must live neither as an isolated “I” nor as a conformist to the common social world of the others. Rather, the individual must live the existence of a unique “I”. That is to say, the unique individual consists of he who lives in an actively disclosing manner and has the ability both to come out of and to withdraw into the possibilities which are permitted within the realm of the “yous” and “wes” that he confronts in the reality of the social world. “It is in the world of the yous, and by virtue of them”, he exclaimed,

that the thing I am, my I, gradually takes shape for me. I discover myself, then, as one of countless yous, but as different from them all, with gifts and defects of my own, with a unique character and conduct, that together draw my authentic and correct profile for me—hence as another and particular you, as alter tu. (Obras, VII: 196)

At this point of our analysis, it is apparent that the term “social world”, or society, for Ortega, connotes merely the term which is used to describe the phenomenological interaction between individual “I's” both as unique individuals and as social individuals. In other words, the social world entails the realm in which the interactive process of the “I” and its “circumstances” becomes extended to the inclusion of other “I's”. From this perspective, Ortega became concerned with the fundamental patterns of human interaction that underlie the larger context of social reality. The reduction of the whole of what constitutes social reality into its component elements discloses the phenomenological basis of Ortega's analysis of human society. Hence, the social relation of individuals identifies the distinctive unity which is defined by the reciprocal interaction of its unique individual components. As he explained:

… the basic structure that is social relation, in which man moves appearing and defining himself in front of the other man, and from being the pure other, the unknown man, the not-yet-identified individual, becomes the unique individual—the You and I. But now we have become aware of something that is a constituent factor in all that we have called “social relation”…namely, that all these actions of ours and all these reactions of others in which the so-called “social relation” consists, originate in an individual as such, I [myself] for example, and are directed to another individual as such. Therefore, the “social relation”, as it has so far appeared to us, is always explicitly a reality between individuals, a reality formally inter-individual. (Obras, VII: 202–3)"

The Concept of Generation, Temporality, Historical Reason and Critical Philosophy of History

The social world and the conscious process of the individual, however, disclose more than the experiences of other individuals that are directly given in the common, vivid present of the here-and-now. For Ortega, the social world also contains an implicit feature of social reality that remains inexperienced directly (in the broader sense of immediate confrontation) by the individual—in the here-and-now—but becomes contemporaneous with the life of the individual and subsequently may be made available to him as an experience in the future. Hence, the here-and-now of the individual, as an immediate direct experience, extends itself (both as a process of consciousness and as a perceptible factual occurrence in space) into the broader social context of living and interacting as “contemporaries” (Obras, V: 36–42). In this context, the explicit features of the social reality of “contemporaries” reveal the conscious process of a generation of individuals as a temporal process.

The temporality of the lives of individuals (as “contemporaries” and also as what Ortega called “coevals”) is central to the concept of the generation. In this sense, for Ortega, ultimate reality as the reality of human life also signifies the explicit manifestation of time (for time is in man as the events of his life are connected to their placements in time) and thus provides him with the basic structure of his concept of generation and the basis of historic changes. The life of man, as being-in-the-making, is life as a happening, life as a changing structure. With each fleeting moment of the here-and-now, man's inner stream of consciousness of the flow of time relates to the fact that his life changes as he grows older and ages with each reference to the no-longer-here and the not-yet-here. “The most elemental fact of human life”, he said,

is that some men die and others are born—that lives succeed each other. All human life, in its very essence, is enclosed in between other lives which came before or which are to come after—it proceeds out of one life and goes into one which is to follow. Well then, it is on this most fundamental fact that I establish the inevitable necessity of change in the structure of the world…. This is not to say, heedlessly, that the youth of today—that is, his soul and his body—is different from the youth of yesterday; but it is inevitable that his life should have a different framework than that of yesterday.

Well then, this is nothing but to find the reason and the period for historical changes in the fact joined essentially to human life, that this human life always has an age [a period of time]. Life is time—as Dilthey already made us see and Heidegger repeats to us today; and not imaginary cosmic time because imaginary time is infinite, but limited time, time which grows toward an end, which is the true time, the irreparable time. For this reason man has age. Age is man's being always in a certain part of his limited time-span—whether it is to be the beginning of his vital life's time, to be the ascension toward the middle, to be its center, or to be approaching toward its end—or, as one is accustomed to say, whether he is a child, a youth, a mature man, or an old man. (Obras, V: 37)

After having established this principle of change, Ortega's concept of generation becomes the principle through which the no-longer-here, the here-and-now, and the not-yet-here converge in the temporal reality of the social world. Thus, when Ortega referred to one's “life time” as consisting youth, maturity and old age, we are able to discern that: in the first instance, his concept of generation entails a horizontal reference to living individuals as being “contemporaries”; and, secondly, it refers to the vertical differentiation, in age, among youth, maturity and old age—in short, as being “coevals”. Ortega's view of three distinct life times, as manifestations of the concept of generation, resides in his notions of “coevals” (which refers to the interaction of individuals of approximately the same age) and of “contemporaries” (which refers to the interaction between all individuals of whatever age) and their appositeness with regard to time and to space (Obras, V: 37–38). As the active engagement in the social world persists in importance for both the development of the individual and society, the inner dynamics of vital human interaction, for Ortega, are also important insofar as the concept of generation has any significance in illuminating the human condition. Yet we ask ourselves: how do we characterize those individuals who do engage actively in the “circumstances” of their reality but whose social worlds differ from those of other groups of individuals? They may possess the same age as these other groups of individuals and their activities are contemporaneous, but the “vital contact” of one group of individuals who belong to a particular social setting does not necessarily interact with that of another social group, as their social worlds are different in space though not in time. This question takes us into the broader historical implications of Ortega's concept of generation.

The historical nature of human reality and social thought sheds light on Ortega's notion that “there is no spontaneous generation”, for the “series of the generations” function through the continuity of the historical process. Social thought and ideas of individuals reflect “the minds of men” together with the particular generations within which they develop and, if constituted as “coming from” and “going toward”, they become part and parcel of the “happening” of the historical process (Obras, VI: 202–4). As we have seen, man's being-in-the-making, for Ortega, “is in man mere happening, happening to him” and, accordingly, a happening toward the future: the present evolves out of the past and, as the reality exigent to man, veers toward the future (Obras, VI: 37, 40-41). This historical sense of continuity between the minds of men and the succession of generations recalls for us Ortega's assertion that the individual cannot live solely within the isolation of his ego (whether he is a “mass” or a “select” man). Social thought in general, and individuals' ideas in particular, fail to develop and expand within the solipsistic vacuum of the “I” by their very essence. As a being of the social world, the individual and his ideas are influenced by the historical context and the very social world within which they emerged, and, similarly, formed by the past. From this perspective, man, time, thought and society are disclosed in reality as being essentially historical. For Ortega, the individual is not born in some general place and moment; rather, he or she is born in a particular moment in time and at a particular place in space. Human life has a beginning and an end and, on entering the world, man enters a social world that is given to him in conjunction with the historical process of its temporal dimension. As we saw, for Ortega, “man has no nature…what he has is history” for, he says, “man is the entity that makes itself…the causa sui”. (Obras, VI: 33). History, then, provides the process through which the essence of man becomes manifest both as an individual and a social being. As an individual being, man undergoes the stream of consciousness of an internal occurrence as a historical process; as a being-that-lives-in-the-world, man experiences the succession of generations as an external occurrence within the historical process. Ortega posited the “theme of history” and “historical thought” as proceeding “with respect to the human phenomena” through the prisms of these internal and external occurrences. History, through the succession of generations, not only provides us with the basic features of the individual at a particular time and place, but also provides us with “a regulative principle” of coherence for human phenomena. The unity of the past and the present in history, for Ortega, constitutes a reality which becomes identified with the experiences of individuals. Like Croce, Ortega perceived history qua history as being “contemporary” and “living”, whereas mere facts are relegated to the realm of “dead chronicle”. Through the relationship of history to life, he defined history, as contrasted with chronicle, by its vitality and present-mindedness rather than by connectedness as such, though he did acknowledge that those who defined it by the latter quality pursued the correct path. The contemporaneity of history, then, proffers a dynamic process that is ever changing and continuously absorbed by the past. The relations that past events bear to other events and to the present are significant in that they are continually changing and, according to Ortega, the function of the philosopher becomes not only to describe and analyze the past but also to attempt to understand these relations in conjunction with human life. The underlying concept of the individual ultimately determines the critical character of historical interpretations, which results from both a reading of the past and simultaneous self-analysis by the observer. In this critical revival of the past, the contemporary generation achieves a higher historical consciousness of its own being. Internal consciousness of temporal change within the individual coupled with an awareness of the external manifestations of change in the social world of human reality dispose one to see how Ortega's concept of the generation constitutes a concept of historical methodology:

The concept of the generations, converted into a method of historical investigation, consists in nothing more than projecting that structure across the past. Anything other than this is to renounce discovering the authentic reality of human life in every period of time—that is the mission of history. The method of the generations permits us to see that life from within itself, in its actuality. History is virtually to convert that which has already passed into that which is present. For this reason—and not only metaphorically—history is to relive the past. And as living is nothing else but actuality and the present, we have to transmigrate from the actuality and the present which are ours to those of the past, looking at them not from without, not as living experiences which have been, but as those which persist in being (Obras, V: 40). Historical study, thus, constitutes a humanistic enterprise. Currently, history can be our approach to knowledge of the individual and of humanity, and through history we acquire the wealth and wisdom of past cultures. The critical awareness of the potentialities of the individual enables us to act in our own historical time with deeper insights and active commitment. History depends on what the consciousness of the historian brings to it, and therefore, the humanistic aspects of historical consciousness stems from the realization that our lives constitute time. For the “past is past”, Ortega remarked,

not because it happened to others but because it forms part of our present, of what we are in the form of having been: in short, because it is our past. Life as reality is absolute presence: one cannot say that there is anything if it is not present, of this moment. If, then, there is a past, it must be as something present, something active in us now. (Obras, V: 40, 55; 6: 33)

In this connection, Ortega was in accord with Croce's notion that “we know that history is in all of us and that its sources are in our breasts”. According to this notion, the recordings of “chronicle's dead data” of the past fail to register the reality of history and human life, which is the “vital”, living action of the present, and one with the past and the future. History characterizes what we are, instead of something that we possess. Through history we learn who we are by examining what we have done. In view of this position that we are what we have done, history shapes itself in and through ourselves (Obras, VII: 178–79).

Hence historical time carves the essence of individual configurations. For Ortega, “historical reason” perceives and registers the tangible facts of historical reality through the demonstrative process of how the present originated from the past in order to engender the future. By the term “historical reason”, Ortega intended to make a clearer distinction between the “cultural sciences” and the “natural sciences” to namely posit the notion that history has its “autochthonous” reason; history remains in a realm entirely its own. Ortega's notion of history's “autochthonous” reason establishes for history its autonomy from both the abstract concepts of philosophy and the logic of “physico-mathematical reason”. His invocation of history as humanity's appropriate science, and his overt emphasis on the “original, autochthonous” basis of “historical reason”, point to his insistence on the systematic quality of history and on the “transcendent” character of physical and mathematical reason. History becomes autonomous in that history alone consists of the essence of human reality, and historical knowledge provides us with the essential understanding of this human reality. Every concept “claiming to represent human reality”, he explains, “every concept referring to human life, specifically, is a function of historical time” (Obras, VI: 40–41). In conjunction with the historicization of the individual, historical reason became the medium that circumscribed and eventually supplanted physical and mathematical reason as the unitary principle of ultimate reality: human life, and thereby “historical reason” was now viewed as possessing, at once, the principle of diversity and unity. Hence, history was rationalized and reason was historicized, as with the individual:

…Man alienated from himself encounters himself as reality, as history. And, for the first time, he sees himself compelled to occupy himself with his past, not from curiosity nor in order to find normative examples, but because he has no other thing. Things are never done seriously but when, truly, they are absolutely necessary. For this reason, the present hour is the time for history to re-establish itself as historical reason.

Until now history has been contrary to reason. In Greece the two terms “reason” and “history” were opposed. And until now, in effect, hardly anyone has been concerned to search in history for its rational substance…. Hence the expression “historical reason” must be understood in all the rigor of the term. Not an extrahistorical reason which appears to fulfill itself in history but, literally, a substantive reason constituted by what has happened to man, the revelation of reality transcending man's theories and which is himself, the self underlying his theories (Obras, VI: 49–50).

In one of his essays on Hegel, Ortega remarked on the change in European intellectual sensitivity that

the “modern” spirit has experienced in the last years…. The “modern” [spirit] does not believe as naively in the final age any more. (Obras, II: 565–66)

This modern stance epitomized what Ortega had come to understand as one of the distinctive characteristics of modernity: the consciousness of human life's increasing depreciation, and the subsequent reaffirmation of life through the expression of creative freedom. Ortega perceived the early twentieth century as a world emptied of meaning and sought to elude the despair provoked by its meaninglessness. To transform this sense of despair, he affirmed “our life, human life”, as the “radical reality”. Human life thus constitutes constancy and change or, as Ortega proclaimed, “historical reality” (Obras, VII: 99–100; 2: 540–41). Through the discussion of historical reality and historical reason, the ground upon which historical knowledge has been based for Ortega becomes apparent. Speculative philosophies of history, the “owl of Minerva”, began its flight at dusk; for Ortega, and for certain twentieth century philosophers of history, “historical reason” proclaims the dawn of human history.

Individual lives are historical. Where human life has a beginning and an end, in view of Ortega's reading of Hegel, history has neither a first beginning nor a final end. It can only be conceived of as the realization of the potentialities of the individual in historical time. In retracing the individual's struggle to control nature and in reviving the thoughts and conscious life of the past, historical study offers the contemporary generation the challenge of making its own vital decisions on the basis of critical knowledge of the full scope of former human experiences and achievements. History is understood here in its dual meaning as a factual world of phenomena and as discipline concerned with only its relevance of life in the present.

Starting from the premise that consciousness, in the sense of cognitive awareness, always should be consciousness of something, Ortega and modern thinkers have perplexed themselves with questions of what consciousness is in itself and how it is related to the thing, or the facts, which are its objects. It does not appear to be identical with its objects, yet, neither does perception. Historical consciousness constitutes a concern with the past as being relevant to our understanding and apprehending of the human condition. Its key attribute consists of our awareness of ourselves as “being-in-time”. It implies that the temporal ordering of events refers to the very nature of human existence. Historical consciousness thus enables the individual, a civilization and the philosopher of history to expand their experiences beyond their actual historic time frame to absorb the results of events in which they had no part. The study of history thereby opens the horizon to participation in the completeness of human history.

This participation in human history has to be understood as being direct and active. Where the physical scientist perceives phenomena which have a reality independent of the observer, history has the character of being real in the consciousness of the historian. The word “history” means both history as actuality—the res gestae of Ortega and Collingwood—and written history; history as what has happened in the past. Clearly, any attempt to distinguish between historical reality and historical accounts of reality implies the interpreter knowing what constitutes historical reality. The past is present only insofar as it is relived by the historian through sympathy and understanding. The central problems of historical epistemology and methodology revolve around the understanding that an objective knowledge of the past can be attained solely through the subjective experiences of the investigator. Thus to understand an action, or past actions, implies comprehending it as an expression or process of meaning conceptually connected to some underlying pattern of thought or intention, rather than as a completely contingent relation. Moreover, such an underlying pattern presupposes a background structure of established rules or practices of the sort that may prove to be integral to human life and experience as we apprehend them. For to claim, as does Collingwood, that such an account of historical understanding requires the re-enactment of past thinking merely directs attention to the method, admittedly familiar among historians, of imaginatively projecting oneself into another's position for the purpose of arriving at an explanatory hypothesis. Ortega also claims that,

man invents for himself a program of life, a static form of being, that responds satisfactorily to the difficulties planned for him by circumstance. He essays this figure of life, attempts to realize this imaginary character he has resolved to be. He embarks on this essay illusioned and creates, completely, the experience of it…. But on experimenting with it, the limits of this vital program make apparent its insufficiencies. It does not resolve all the difficulties, and it creates new ones (Obras, VI: 41).

The claim was to demonstrate that the explanations historians provide are similar in their structural analysis to those put forward in other areas of investigation in the social sciences; this demonstrates that an explanation of past historical actions, by reference to motivational factors, is possible when presupposing the validity of pertinent cognitive generalizations. Ortega, together with Croce, Dilthey, Collingwood and others who associated with the tradition of historicism, expressed sympathy with those who claimed that the interpretation of human actions raised difficulties for standard empiricist accounts and explanations of the human and social world. For the most part, they were wholly committed to universal human objectives and placed a very high value on the uniqueness of the individual. They were concerned with the philosophical implications of historical knowledge and made attempts to develop systematically the problem of relating presuppositions to the problem of historical knowledge. They sought to identify their specialty, philosophy and the philosophy of history, with historical knowledge. “History”, Ortega averred,

is perfect continuity. Every idea of mine comes from another idea of mine or from the ideas of some other man… [Therefore] historical thinking proceeds with respect to human phenomena—philosophy, law, society, arts and letters, language, religion—the same thing began with the natural sciences, as established in the works of Kepler and Galileo, when they proceeded to bring together empirically the simple facts of material phenomena. (Obras, VI: 167, 184)

Ortega's contribution to this area of study has been to emphasize what he considered the epistemological implications of historical knowledge. In the company of such phenomenologists as Husserl, Heidegger and Scheler, Ortega was challenged to continually emphasize the strict and accurate observation of the various elements of human experience. Ortega was persuaded by the argument that isolated empirical facts, apart from any understanding of their interior meaning, their inner connection to human life and the meaning of the social and historical process were limited, if not futile. In adopting these orientations, philosophers, historians and philosophers of history may learn from philosophical and cultural anthropology that constructive comparisons can be made between understanding what individuals do and understanding what they say. Through this connection the philosopher of history may reconstruct historical time as a form of human understanding and, if so inclined, as the process through which self-analysis may be attempted. As we saw, for Ortega, the interpretation of human actions raises difficulties for standard empiricist accounts of explanation of the human and social world. The results of Ortega's studies in existential phenomenology, historicism and the philosophy of history allured him to the approach of choice and knowledge of the individual and of humanity. This approach advances the notion that, through history, the epistemological break occurs not with the past but with empirical accounts of the past. The philosophical historian's approach and attitudes toward the past, when honed successfully, can result in his or her ability to comprehend and communicate with the past on its own terms. The historical approach thus serves as a communicative link between the past and the present, and the philosopher, in making such communication possible, serves as a mediator between the worlds of the past and present. The historical lines connecting the past and the present also connect temporal reality and the observer. To attain this end, Ortega eventually grounded historical knowledge in a thorough knowledge of the individual. “History”, he explained,

is the systematic science of that radical reality which is my life…. There is no actio in distans. The past is not there, at the date when it happened, but here, in me. The past is I—by which I understand, my life. (Obras, VI: 40–41)

The historical act of reconstructing past human creations and projecting oneself into the thoughts of others makes salient critical philosophy of history's synthetic function of connecting temporal reality and mind through the process and consciousness of time. Through this form of communication with the past and present, the phenomenological aspect of Ortega's thought thereby combines with his existential and historicist perspectives. The synthetic function of these perspectives becomes actualized in individual behavior, in social relations and in history. It is the fusion of these approaches that mark Ortega's contribution to philosophy. “Very deep is the well in the past”, Thomas Mann wrote at the beginning of his novel, Joseph and His Brothers. In bringing human connectedness and meaning to historical time and mind, Ortega's critical philosophy of history has provided a synthesis that serves to prevent the deep well of the past from becoming bottomless."


More information

Works on history:

Historical Reason (Sobre la razón histórica), trans. by Philip W. Silver, New York: W.W. Norton, 1984.

History as a System (Historia Como Sistema, 1935), first published and translated by William C. Atkinson, eds. Raymond Klibansky and Herbert J. Paton, in Philosophy and History:

Toward a Philosophy of History, New York: W.W. Norton, 1941. Republished History as a System and other Essays Toward a Philosophy of History, 1961.