Ortega y Gasset as a Proto-Environmental Pragmatist

This page consists of a presentation on the relevance of the thought of the Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) to Environmental Pragmatism. The series originated in the form of a set of emails sent to the editors and authors of the book Environmental Pragmatism, edited by Andrew Light (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

I wish to acknowledge the encouragement given to me by John T. Graham, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, whose book, A Pragmatist Philosophy of Life in Ortega y Gasset (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1994) helped me to see the connections between Ortega’s Philosophy of Life,  Pragmatism, and Environmentalism.

Each section includes a brief introduction followed by selected passages from the works of Ortega y Gasset, with explanatory notes [in square brackets] within the text where necessary.

We begin with my interpretation of the famous phrase for which Ortega is best known:

Yo soy yo y mi circumstancia …









8. [Under construction]


This could easily be a translation of Ortega’s most famous dictum: “Yo soy yo y mi circumstancia,” that appears in Ortega’s first book, Meditaciones del Quijote [“Meditations on Quixote”], published in 1914, at the beginning of his career as Spain’s most famous philosopher. A literal translation would be “I am I and my circumstance,” but for the purposes of this presentation, I have chosen the above translation as representing the full meaning of Ortega’s original formulation as it relates to the environmental crisis we are currently facing.

How are we to understand this statement that is generally considered to be, even by Ortega himself, the condensation of his philosophy? If we look at the Spanish version, we see that in the first half of the statement the word “yo” appears twice. This is a deliberate way of calling attention to two differing but easily confused phenomena.

The first “yo” refers to what Ortega later called the basic, fundamental or “radical” reality: “My life, our life, the life of each individual person.” The second “yo” refers to the phenomenon “me,” “my self,” the “individual person” that appears within “my life,” along with another phenomenon that he calls “mi circunstancia,” “my circumstance” or, as I have chosen to translate it for the purposes of this presentation, “my environment,” as I shall subsequently explain.

Now instead of the word “am,” which would be a literal translation of “soy,” I have chosen the phrase “consists of,” which Ortega subsequently used instead of any form of the verb “to be” to indicate the relationship of the parts “my self” and “my environment” to the whole, “my life.”

Finally, instead of translating the word “y” as “and,” I have chosen to translate it as “in relationship to” to indicate the interrelationship(s) between “my self” and “my environment.”

Based on this translation, in due course I hope to be able to fully show you my reasoning and demonstrate that Ortega’s philosophy can serve as the basis for a “Metaphysics of Human Ecology.”

What is not usually mentioned, especially in discussions of Ortega’s metaphysics, is that the statement “Yo soy yo y mi circumstancia,” is only the first half of a sentence that continues: “ . . . y si no la salvo a ella no me salvo yo.” This is a second statement that is fairly straightforwardly translated as “. . . and if I do not save it I do not save my self,” the “yo” here referring to the second “yo” (“my self”) in the first statement, and the “ella“, the feminine form of “it” in Spanish, which is used to refer to “mi circumstancia” (“my circumstance,” also feminine) in the first statement. However, for the purposes of this presentation, I will interpret “it” as referring to my translation of “mi circunstancia” as “my environment.”

In Spanish, as in English, the word “salvo” (“save”) can have the meaning of “rescue”, but here it has a special meaning, which Ortega explains in an earlier passage in the work, where it comes closest to meaning “understanding”.  In a later section of this presentation I hope to show the full implications of what Ortega means by the word “salvo”.

Thus, the complete sentence, “My life consists of my self in relationship to my environment, and if I do not save it I do not save my self,” could be considered to be a condensed statement of Ortega’s total “Environmental Philosophy.”


José Ortega y Gasset was born in Spain in 1883, the son of a newspaper publisher. He received a classical education in a Jesuit school and received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Madrid in 1904. From 1905 to 1908 and again from 1910 to 1912 he studied in Germany, principally under Herman Cohen and Paul Natorp at the University of Marburg. While in Germany, he not only studied the full range of works from the philosophic past, but he also became acquainted with the latest in philosophical thought, including the “Neo-Kantian Idealism” of his teachers,  the “Phenomenology” of Edmund Husserl, and the “Pragmatism” or “Radical Empiricism” of William James. Also, in 1910 he was appointed to the Chair of Metaphysics at the University of Madrid, a position he held until his exile in 1935.

The following passages are from a series of lectures that Ortega gave in 1929 with the title of “What is Philosophy?” In them Ortega for the first time uses the word “radical” in connection with the idea of “my life,” “our life,” the life of every one of us. [Note: I have indicated in brackets where the translator has translated the Spanish word “radical” as “basic” or “fundamental” instead of “radical,” as well as one where the translator has freely deviated from the original Spanish, as indicated. These are just some examples of the numerous times in the translations of Ortega’s work that the word Spanish word “radical” has been translated poorly or mistranslated, resulting in many critics having missed the “radical” connection of his thought to that of William James.]

The Life of Every One of Us

The tragedy of idealism stems from the fact that having transmuted the world as an alchemist might, into “subject,” into the content of subject, it enclosed this subject within itself; then there was no way of explaining clearly how, if this theatre is only my image and a piece of me, it appears to be so completely different from me. But now we have won through to an entirely different situation; we have stumbled on the fact that that which cannot be doubted is a relation between two inseparable terms. The one who thinks, who acquires understanding, and the other which is understood. The conscious self goes on being the innermost self, but now I become close and intimate not only with my subjectivity, but also with my objectivity, with the world which is clear and simple before me. The conscious self is not a recluse, but on the contrary, is that most strange primary reality assumed in every other reality, which consists in the fact that someone, I, am myself precisely when I am taking account of things, of the world. This is the sovereign peculiarity of the mind which must be accepted, recognized, and beautifully described just as it is, in all its marvelous strangeness. Far from the self being closed, it is par excellence the open being. To see this theatre is to open myself to what I am not.

This new situation is not paradoxical; it coincides with the native attitude of the mind, conserves it and recognizes its good sense. But it also does something else; out of the realist thesis which serves as the base for ancient philosophy, it saves that part which is essential; namely, that the external world is not illusion, not hallucination, not a subjective world. And all this the new position achieves by insisting on and purifying the idealist thesis whose decisive affirmation consists in noting that the only thing which indubitably exists is what appears to me to exist. Do you see how the daughter ideas, the truly novel ones, bear in their wombs their mother, the truly old ones, the true and fruitful old ones?

Let us repeat—all surpassing is conserving. It is not true that basically only the conscious self exists, only thinking, only the I. The truth is that I exist with my world and in my world—and I consist in occupying myself with this my world, in seeing it, imagining it, thinking about it, loving it, hating it, being sad or being happy in it and through it, in moving about in it, in transforming it and in suffering from it. Nothing of this could I do if the world did not coexist with me, if it were not confronting me, surrounding me, pressing at me, manifesting itself, creating enthusiasm in me, afflicting me.

But what is this? What have we unwittingly stumbled upon? The basic fact [El hecho radical] of someone who sees and loves and hates and desires a world, and who moves within it, suffers for it, and in it exerts himself—this is what has always, in the humblest and most universal words been called “my life.” What is this? It is simply that the primordial reality, the fact of all facts, the datum for the Universe, that which is given to me is . . . “my life”—not myself alone, not my hermetic conscious self; these things are interpretations, the idealist interpretations. “My life” is given to me, and my life is primarily a finding of myself in the world: nor is there vagueness in this. I am in this very world, the world of now; here in this theatre which is a bit of my vital world, here at this instant, doing what I am doing in it. I am philosophizing.

Abstractions are finished. When I seek the indubitable fact, I do not find the generic thing which is thought, but the highly personal self—I who am thinking of the basic thing, I who am now philosophizing. This is how the first thing that philosophy meets is the fact of a person who philosophizes, who wants to think about the Universe and to that end seeks something which cannot be doubted.

But note well that what it finds is not a philosophic theory but the philosopher in the act of philosophizing, that is to say, in the act of living the process of philosophizing, just as this same philosopher might later be found wandering in a fit of melancholy through the streets, dancing in a nightclub, suffering indigestion, or smitten with a passing beauty. That is to say, he finds philosophizing, theorizing, to be a vital act, a vital fact; it is a detail of his life and within his life, that life which is enormous, gay and sad, hopeful and frightening.

So the first thing that philosophy must do is to define that datum, to define “my life,” “our life,” the life of every one of us. To live is the process of going down to the roots [Vivir es el modo de ser radical, “To live is the radical mode of being”]: Every other thing, every other manner of being I find within my own life, both as a detail of it and with reference to it. In it is all the rest, and all the rest is what it is with regard to that life. The most abstruse mathematical equation, the most abstract and solemn philosophic concept, the very Universe, even God himself, are things that I find in my life, things that I live. And the basic [radical] and primary being of these things, is, therefore, that of being lived by me, and I cannot define what they are in terms of being lived until I find out what it is “to live.”

Biologists use the word “life” in order to designate the phenomena of organic beings. The organic is only one class of things that are found in life, together with another class of things called inorganic. What the philosopher tells us about organisms is important, but it is also evident that when we say we live, and talk about “our life,” the life of every one of us, we give this word a meaning which is more immediate, broader and more decisive. The savage and the ignorant man are not acquainted with biology, yet they have a right to talk of “their lives,” and to have us understand that beneath this term lies an enormous fact, predating all biology, all science, all culture—the magnificent, fundamental, and frightening fact which is assumed and implied by all the other facts. The biologist finds “organic life” within his own life, as a detail of that life: it is one of his vital occupations and nothing more. Biology, like every science, is an activity or a form of going on living. Philosophy is, first of all, philosophizing, and philosophizing is undoubtedly a way of living—as is running, falling in love, playing golf, growing indignant in politics, and being a lady in society. They are all of them forms and ways of living.

Therefore the basic [radical] problem of philosophy is to define that way of being, that primary problem which we call “our life.” Well, now, living is something that no one can do for me—life is not transferable—it is not an abstract concept, it is my most individual being. For the first time philosophy has a point of departure which is not an abstraction.

This is the new landscape which I was announcing, the oldest of all, the one we have always been setting aside, been leaving behind us. In order to begin, philosophy goes behind itself, sees itself as a form of life, which is what it truly and concretely is: in short, it takes shelter in life, submerges itself in life, and for the moment it is meditation on our life. So old a landscape is this which appears so new. So new that it is the enormous discovery of our time. So new is it that none of the concepts of traditional philosophy are of any use in it: that way of being which in living requires new categories, not the categories of the ancient cosmic beings—one tries to escape from them and to find the categories of living, the essence of “our life.”

[From: What is Philosophy?, by José Ortega y Gasset. Translated from the Spanish by Mildred Adams. New York: W. W. Norton, 1960, Lecture 9, pp. 200-204.]

A New Reality and a New Idea of Reality

In the previous chapter [the one from which the preceding passage was taken] we found as a fundamental datum of the Universe (hence a primordial reality) something which is completely new, something very different from the cosmic being with which the ancients started, and also different from the subjective being with which the moderns started.

This statement that we have found a new reality, a new being hitherto unknown, may not convey to all of you the full significance of those words. You think that at most this is a new thing, different from known things, but in the last analysis a “thing,” like all the other things—you assume that this concerns a being or a reality which, though different from other beings and realities already well known, still fits with what the words “being” and “reality” have always meant—in short, that the discovery, however important, is of the same kind as if one were discovering a new animal in zoology, which might be new, but is neither more nor less an animal than those which are already known, so that the concept “animal” still has value for it.

I am very sorry to tell you that what we have been discussing is far more important and decisive that that. We have found a new basic reality [realidad radical; here, for the first time, Ortega uses this expression in his writings], therefore something radically [!] different from what has been known and recognized in philosophy, therefore something for which the traditional concepts of reality and of being do not serve. If, notwithstanding this, we go on using them, it is because until this new reality was discovered, we had no concepts of which we could make use other than the old ones. In order to formulate a new concept we must first have something which is completely novel. The result of this is that the find becomes, not only a new reality, but the beginning of a new idea of being, of a new science of being, of a new philosophy, and in the measure in which this influences life, of a whole new life, a vita nova.”

[From: Ibid., Lecture 10, pp. 205-206.]

The Basic [Radical] Reality Is Our Life

Whenever I have said that we were seeing ourselves to move beyond the boundaries of antiquity and modernity, I have added that we go beyond them only insofar as we conserve them. The spirit, by its very essence, is at once most cruel, most tender, and most generous. In order to live, the spirit must murder its own past, thus denying it, but it cannot do without at the same time reviving the thing it kills and keeping it alive within itself. If it kills once and for all, it could not go on denying that past, and because it denies it, superseding it. If our thought did not re-think the thought of Descartes, and if Descartes did not re-think the thought of Aristotle, ours would be primitive; we would no longer be the heirs of what has gone before, but would have to go back and begin again. To surpass is to inherit and to add to.

When I say that we need new concepts I refer to all that we must add to what already exists—the old concepts endure, but they become subordinate. If we discover a new manner of being which is more fundamental that the old, it is evident that we need a concept of being which was previously unknown—but at the same time our newest concept has the obligation to explain the old one, it must demonstrate that portion of truth which they contained. This we suggested some days ago (there was no time to do more than hint) how the old idea of cosmic being and the substantive self had value for a reality in which the most basic fact of consciousness had not yet been discovered, and later we showed how the concept of the subjective being would be valid if there were not a previous reality which is life itself.

Well then, antiquity and modernity coincide in seeking, under the name of philosophy, a knowledge of the Universe, or whatever there is. But on taking the first step, on seeking the first truth about the universe, the two of them begin to draw apart. The ancient starts off in search of primary reality, understanding by primary that reality which is most important in the structure of the Universe. If this reality is theist, this means that the most important reality, the one which explains the rest, is God; if it is materialist, the most important will be matter; if pantheist, it will be an undifferentiated reality, at once god and matter—natura sive deus. But the modern will hold up all this searching and will dispute it, saying, “It is possible that this reality or that may, in fact, be the most important in the Universe, but even after we have demonstrated this we will be not one step further ahead because you have forgotten to ask yourselves whether that reality which explains all the rest is a reality with full evidence; and more, whether those other less important realities which it explains are realities that exist beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

The first problem of philosophy is not one of finding out which reality in the Universe is the most important, but which one is the most sure, even though it be perhaps the least important, the most humble and insignificant. In short, the primary philosophic problem consists in determining what of the Universe is given to us, the problem of fundamental data [datos radicales]. The ancients never posed this problem formally; hence, whatever their skill in regard to the other questions, their level is below the level of modernity. So we install ourselves on this level, and the only thing we do is to dispute with the moderns about which reality is fundamental [radical] and indubitable. We find that it is not the conscious self, the subject, but life which includes both the subject and the world. In this way we escape from idealism and win to a new level.

But note that we do all this without departing from philosophy’s first problem, that we move exclusively on the plane of what, among all there is, has been given to us. If we believe that this datum is our own life, that of all the Universe what is given to us is only his own life, we do not allow ourselves the slightest opinion on the question as to whether, in addition to what is given us, there are not other realities which, though not given us, are much more important. The problem of that which is given or indubitable is not philosophy but only its doorstep, its preliminary chapter. I want to remind you that this was said in the beginning.

But I do not know whether you have all noted the consequence that this statement carries with it; this is an elemental consequence, so elemental that, strictly speaking, I ought not to voice it, but I fear it should be stated. It is this: if we have recognized that the only indubitable reality is as we have already defined it, nothing else that we may say will ever be able to contradict the attributes which, with all evidence, make up that basic reality. Because all other things of which we speak, different from that primordial thing, are doubtful and secondary, and firm only insofar as they rest on that reality which is beyond doubt.

Suppose, for example, that someone starts from the modern principle and says that the only thing which is beyond doubt is the existence of thought—with this statement he takes his stand on the level that we call modernity. But then he adds: of course in addition there is matter, the matter which physics knows, composed of atoms ruled by certain laws. If by that “in addition there is” he means that what physics says has the some operative rank as the principle of subjectivism, the statement is utterly absurd. This principle says that the indubitable real is nonmaterial and that for it the rules of physics (a science which, like every individual science, occupies itself with secondary and quasi-realities) have no force. This is not to deny the truth of physical laws, but to relegate their operative force to the secondary order of phenomena which they concern; the order of phenomena which they concern; the order of phenomena which do not pretend to be basic. The idealist physicist, that is to say, the modern one, like the idealist philosopher, will have to explain how, if there is no other indubitable reality than thought, which is nonmaterial, one can talk with good sense and truth about material things, about physical laws and so on—but what he cannot do sensibly is to let physics exercise retroactive effects on the definition of that reality which is beyond doubt.

This definition is something not to be touched, and not to be destroyed by what, using it as a point of departure, we will add later. This is the elemental thing which I suspect it would be not inopportune to emphasize.

The new fact, the new fundamental [radical] reality, is “our life,” the life of every one of us. Let anyone try to talk of any other reality as being free from doubt, more primary than this, and you will see that such a thing is impossible. Even thinking is not anterior to living—because thinking is found to be a piece of my life, a particular act in that life. This seeking for an indubitable reality is something that I do because I live and inasmuch as I live—that is to say, it is not isolated and done for its own sake. I seek reality because I am now busying myself with philosophy, and I do this as a first act in philosophizing. And philosophizing is, in turn, a particular form of living which assumes this living—for if I work with philosophy it is because of an earlier desire to know what the Universe is, and this curiosity, in turn, exists because of what I feel as a desire of my life which is restless about itself, and perhaps finds itself lost in itself. In short, whatever reality we set up as primary, we find that it assumes our life to be a fact; the act of giving it place is in itself a vital act, is “living.”

It may seem very surprising that the only indubitable reality should be “living” and not thinking—the idealist “cogito” (which in turn was very surprising in its day), or Aristotle’s “form,” or Plato’s “idea,” each of which in its own moment seemed an intolerable paradox. But what can we do? This is the way it is.

But if it is thus, there is no remedy but to fix the attributes of that new fundamental [radical] reality, and no remedy but to accept them even though they may seem to give the lie to all our pre-existent theories and to all the other science we follow, while recognizing them as true at certain points. In a system of philosophy, we would, then, have to show how, taking the reality of our life as a point of departure, and without contradicting our concept of living at a single point, there are also organic bodies, moral and physical laws, and even theology. But what I say does not include any statement that in addition to that indubitable life of ours—that life which is given to us—there may not perhaps exist the “other life.” What is certain is that that “other life” is, from the point of view of science, problematical, as are organic reality and physical reality—and that, on the other hand, this life of ours, this life of every one of us, is not problematical but indubitable.

Earlier, we began the definition of life in the rapid form which haste demands. You may feel disturbed because what we were saying was something of a platitude. But this means that it was evident, and we are clinging to evidence. Life is not a mystery, but quite the opposite; it is the clearest and most present thing there is, and being so, being purely transparent, we find difficulty in studying it closely. The eye goes beyond it, toward wisdoms that are still problematical, and it is an effort for us to stop it at these immediate evidences.

Thus it is obvious that to live is to find myself in the world. If I should suddenly find myself alone with myself, I would be existing, but that existing would not be living—it would be merely the subjective existence of idealism. But the fact is that I should not find myself alone with myself, for when I explore that self I find it to consist of a person who is occupied with something which is not the self, with other things that show themselves united as if articulated among themselves; these face me in the shape of my surroundings as an enveloping unity of a world where I exist—and I am here not passively, not prone and inert, but under pressure by that world or exalted by it.

The world is what I find confronting and surrounding me when I find myself, the thing that clearly exists for me and acts upon me. The world is not the same as nature, not the same as that cosmos familiar to the ancients, which was an underlying reality subsisting by itself, a reality of which its subjects may know this bit or that, but which reserves to itself its own mystery. The vital, living world has no mystery at all for me, because it consists exclusively of what I observe in it and just as I observe it. Nothing intervenes in my life except what presents itself to me. In short, the world is what is lived, as it is lived. Let us suppose that my world were composed of pure mysteries, of things that were masked and enigmatic, like the world in certain American films. Well then, that fact that they were mysteries, were enigmas, would be evident and transparent to me, would act on me in the shape of mystery and enigma; I would then have to say that the world in which I live is an evident and indubitable mystery, its self is clearly composed of the mysterious; and all this would be as simple as though I said that the world is blue or is yellow.

The primary attribute of this basic reality, which we call “our life” is the fact of existing on one’s own account, of entering into an understanding of oneself, of being transparent to oneself. Only thus is it, and whatever forms part of it, indubitable—and only because it is the uniquely indubitable is it the fundamental reality.

[From: Ibid., Lecture 11, pp. 226-232.]


The first passage [my title] was written by Ortega in 1934, as part of an intended autobiographical preface to a German edition of his works, with the purpose of clarifying the relationship of his thought to that of Husserl, Heidegger, and other German philosophers to whom his work had been compared. It never appeared in Germany during his lifetime. Events in Munich in 1934 so disgusted Ortega that he forbade its publication. The manuscript was among the papers left by Ortega at his death.

It was first published in Spanish in 1958 as Prólogo para alemanes, and was translated into English in 1975 as “Preface for Germans” and published, along with a group of Ortega’s other essays, in Phenomenology and Art (Translated by Philip W. Silver. New York: Norton, 1975), pp. 18-76. This passage appears on pages 61-70 and reveals how he came about formulating his metaphysical principle that “‘My Life’ is the Radical Reality.” [Note: I have indicated in brackets in the first sentence, and at two other places near the end of this passage, the instances where the Spanish word “radical” was translated as “fundamental” instead of “radical.” Also, as in the second paragraph below, I have inserted a few other notes in brackets to help you, the reader.]

[“My Life” versus “Consciousness” as the Radical Reality]

There was always a scandalous ambiguity in idealism because while it held consciousness to be the fundamental [radical] reality, it still had never managed to analyze completely and with the required precision just what consciousness was. You will say that this was an absurd situation, but no one can deny that the history of thought is full of such absurdities. In the final years of the last century Husserl made the heroic decision to endow idealism with what it lacked: rigor, neatness. In grand style he submitted the ledger of idealistic bookkeeping to a careful auditing and imposed a norm of exactness on it. The fruitfulness of this undertaking was immense. Once again it was demonstrated—and despite the frequency we are always surprised—how the great advances in knowledge often come from close attention to small differences and not from important new intuitions. Keppler found the way to his momentous invention by obstinately insisting on the special importance of a minute discrepancy of eight minutes of arc which Tycho’s rigorous calculations had ascribed to the orbit of Mars.

For the first time, then, phenomenology stated with precision the nature of consciousness and its ingredients. [See Husserl’s Logical Investigations, 1901-1902.] But when I undertook a serious study of phenomenology—in 1912—it seemed to me to have committed the same errors on a microscopic scale that the old Idealism had committed on a larger one.

The philosopher sets out in search of an exemplary, primary, and ultimately solid reality, to which he can refer and on which he can found all other realities. In pursuing this end he is suspicious of his own thought. The greatest tribute to a philosopher consists in something that is doubtless very amusing: he is a man who is by nature suspicious of himself. He knows he is naturally deceptive and so becomes his own detective. Thought is the subject positing something. In view of this the philosopher searches for a brief against all subjective positings. This brief must consist of something that he does not posit, but which instead imposes itself on him, of something therefore that posits itself, something “positive” or “given.”

Now then, Husserl thought he had found this primary reality, this positive or given, in pure consciousness. Pure consciousness is an “I” that is aware of everything else. But understand one thing: this “I” does not want, it is only aware of wanting and of what is wanted; it does not feel, but only sees its feeling and the values felt; in short, it does not think in the sense of believing what it thinks, but is reduced to noticing that it thinks and what it thinks. This “I” is, then, a pure and impassive mirror; it is contemplative and nothing more. What it contemplates is not reality, but only a spectacle. The true reality is the contemplation itself; that is, the “I” that contemplates only when contemplating, the act of contemplation itself, and the spectacle contemplated qua spectacle. Just as King Midas turned everything he touched to gold, so the absolute reality that is “pure consciousness” makes unreal all that is given to it and changes it into pure object, in pure aspect. Pure consciousness, “Bewusstsein von,” makes a ghost of the world, transforms it into mere meaning. And since the consistency of meaning is exhausted when it is understood, this reduces reality to pure intelligibility.

This is clear enough, but now we must ask to what extent pure consciousness is really a positive value, a given, something “self-posited” that forces itself upon us. The answer leaves no room for doubt: this pure consciousness, this pure Erlebnis, has to be obtained by a manipulation, by what the philosopher called a “phenomenological reduction.” And this is a serious matter, as serious as what happens to the physicist when he wants to see inside an atom: when the scientist observes the atom he enters it, intervenes and modifies it. Instead of finding a reality he manufactures it. So with the phenomenologist. What he really finds is “primary consciousness,” “unreflective” and “ingenuous,” wherein man believes what he thinks, wants things in fact, and feels his aching tooth without any possible “reduction” [Ha, ha!] of pain other than aspirin or an extraction. The essence of this “primary consciousness,” then, is that nothing is only an object for it, but rather everything is reality. In it, being aware has no contemplative overtones, but is rather an encounter with things, with the world.

Now then, while an act of “primary consciousness” is taking place it is unaware of itself, it does not exist for itself. This means that this “primary consciousness” is not, in fact, consciousness. This concept is an incorrect name for what there is when I purely and simply live, that is, live without subsequent reflection. What exists then is myself and the things of various sorts around me—minerals, people, triangles, ideas; but there is not, in addition and together with this, any “consciousness.” For there to be consciousness I must break off living my experience in the present and, turning back my attention, recall what has just previously happened to me. This memory is nothing more that the retention of what was there before, that is, a real man who happened really to be surrounded by real things. But all this is now a memory and nothing more. In other words, now I find myself in a new situation: now there is a man, the same as before, myself, involved with something that is as much a thing as those previously mentioned, but of a new kind, that is, a memory. This memory recalls a past reality. This past reality is not, of course, real now. The present reality is its recall and this is what we may properly term “consciousness.” Because now there is “consciousness” in the world, just as before there are minerals, people, and triangles. Naturally, however, this new situation which consists in my encounter with the thing “consciousness,” and which is memory or, more generally, “reflection,” is not itself consciousness, but is instead just as ingenuous, primary, and unreflective as the first one. I continue to be a real man who discovers before him, and therefore in the world, the reality “consciousness.”

Once I have this entity, so to speak, in hand, I am free to do all sorts of things: I can observe it, analyze it, describe its consistency. But there is one thing I cannot do: it preserves a previous reality, and I cannot now change the reality that has already been, correct it or “suspend” it. That reality as such is now irrevocable. The only thing that can happen is that, for this or that reason, I come to hold the opinion that the prior reality was a hallucination or some other class of mistake. But this, of course, in no wise undoes the prior reality, does not make it unreal or suspend it. How can we make something unreal that is no longer actual? How can we “suspend” the exercise of a reality that has already taken place, is no longer being performed, and of which there only remains the exercise of the memory that is was performed? That would be like suspending now, in the present, the beginning of the composition of the Edict of Nantes. The effect of this new opinion of mine is simply to really place me in a world where there are “mistaken” realities, that is, in a somewhat more complicated world that the previous one, but no less effective or real than it was. “Reflection”—I repeat—is just as ingenuous a real situation as the “primary” one and equally unreflective with respect to itself. How could this new situation ever claim for itself the ability to bestow a greater degree of reality on what it encounters—a “consciousness”—than on what was encountered in the primary situation: minerals, people, and triangles? [Note: Notice the examples given twice in the preceding paragraph and repeated here, corresponding to the physical (“minerals”), social (“people”) and mental (“triangles,” “ideas”) “things,” the totality of which, along with another “thing,” “consciousness,” in a later paragraph he calls a “landscape of things” or a “set of circumstances.” More on this in later sections.]

The supposed “reflexive consciousness,” designed to find that the true and absolute reality is consciousness and pure experience, is, on the contrary, less basic that the “primary consciousness,” and for two reasons: (1) because it implies the existence of primary consciousness as its own “object” and (2) because, ultimately, it too is an ingenuous and unreflecting “primary consciousness.” Every attempt to dislodge ingenuousness from the universe is in vain. Because, in a word there truly is nothing other than sublime ingenuousness, that is to say, reality. Reality supports and is the world and man. In order for idealism to make sense an “act of consciousness” would have to be able to reflect on itself and not solely on another “act of consciousness.”

The enormous advantage of phenomenology was to have worked out the question in such detail that it became possible to grasp the moment and place where idealism committed its crime of making reality disappear by transforming it into consciousness. It does indeed begin with an “act of primary and ingenuous consciousness.” This is not of itself consciousness, however, but very reality, the toothache hurting, man in truth in the real world. The idealist presupposes reality, starts from it, but then from the vantage point of another reality he classifies the first as mere consciousness. But this is of course no more than an opinion about that unyielding reality, one that leaves it untouched and one which, by the same token, could it but be redirected against the situation of the opining idealist, would paradoxically destroy it. In fact the man convinced that what there is is pure ideality, “pure Erlebnis,” is a real man who must deal with a world beyond himself, one made up, independently, of an enormous thing called “consciousness,” or else of many smaller things called “noemas,” “meanings,” etc. And these are no more and no less things, inter-subjectivities, things to be dealt with, willingly or not, than the stones against which his body stumbles.

If the “consciousness” of which idealism spoke were really something, it would be precisely weltsetzend (that which posits the world), the immediate encounter with reality. This is why it is a self-contradictory concept, since for idealism consciousness means precisely the unreality of the world it posits and encounters.

By suspending the executant powers of “consciousness,” its weltsetzung, the reality of its “content,” phenomenology destroys its fundamental character. “Consciousness” is precisely what cannot be suspended; it is irrevocable. That is why it is reality and not consciousness.

The term “consciousness” ought to be discarded. It was meant to stand for the positive, the given, that which posited itself and was not put there by thought, but it has turned out to mean just the opposite: it is merely a hypothesis, a fortuitous explanation, a construct of our divine fantasy. What there truly and authentically is is not “consciousness” and in it “ideas” of things, but rather a man existing in a landscape[!] of things, in a set of circumstances[!!] that also exists. Naturally, we cannot do without man’s existence, for then things would disappear, but, equally, we need the existence of things, for without them man would disappear. But this unseparability of both elements is falsified if we interpret it unilaterally as things depending on man for their existence—that would be “consciousness.” What there in fact is, what is given, is my coexistence with things, that absolute event—a self in its circumstances[!!!]. The world and I, set before each other, without any chance of fusion or separation, are like the Cabiri and Dioscuri, like all those divine pairs who according to the Greeks and Romans were always born and always died together, and to whom they gave the lovely name of Dii consentes, the “unanimous gods.”

My coexistence with things does not consist in the fact that the paper on which I write and the chair I sit on are objects for me, but rather that before being objects, this paper is for me paper and this chair is for me a chair. Conversely, things would not be what they are if I were not what I am for them, that is, a person who needs to write, to sit down, etc. This coexistence does not mean, then, a static being-together of myself and the world, side by side in a neutral ontological realm; instead, this ontological realm—my existence and that of things—consists of the pure and mutual dynamism of an event. Things happen to me just as I happen to them, and neither has a primary reality other than that determined by this reciprocal event. The category of “absolute event” is the only one, from the viewpoint of traditional ontology, that can begin to characterize the strange and fundamental reality of our life. The old idea of Being which was first interpreted as substance and then activity—power and spirit—has to be further refined, rarefied even more, until it is reduced to pure event. Being is something that happens, a drama. Since all language is of static inspiration, it must be retranslated into the fluid meanings of pure event, and the whole dictionary changed into a calculus of tensions. The smallest static residue will reveal that we are no longer in reality, but have taken for reality what is only a precipitate of our interpretation, a mere idea of ours, an intellectualization.

What must be done is to excise from the word “Erleben” all it intellectualistic, “idealist” residue, all suggestion of mental immanence or consciousness, and leave only its awesome primary meaning according to which something happens absolutely to man; that is, he really exists and not only thinks he does, outside thought, in metaphysical exile from himself, delivered over to the essential foreignness of the Universe. Man is not a res cogitans, but a res dramatica. He does not exist because he thinks, but, on the contrary, thinks because he exists. The “modern” thinker must give himself a kick that will land him in the absolute outside, a feat Baron Münchhausen would envy. When a doctor asked Fontenelle what discomfort he felt at being ninety-nine years old, the acute old fumbler answered: “None, none, except . . . a little difficulty at just being.” That is perhaps the best definition of fundamental [radical] reality, of what there truly is, of Life: being as difficulty.

Thus the idealist philosopher deceives himself when, in setting out after the given and the positive, after what he has not put there himself, he believes he has found it in a pure consciousness that is his own creation and a mere fiction. What remains as perfectly justified is his demand that thought—that great creator of fiction, that tireless positor—be subject to indictment by what is imposed on it, by what posits itself. This is the truly given. But this cannot be anything thought discovers once it has set out in search of a given, or the result of an ad hoc intellectual process meant to eliminate thought itself on a local level. Because the “primary reality” thus encountered will be merely the result of this whole enterprise and its positings, most of which will at best be negative ones. To imagine that by suspending the performance of an “ingenuous consciousness” its positing has been avoided, is to be doubly narrow-minded and to forget that there is a “tolendo ponens” mode. When I imagine I am removing the positing of my earlier “primary consciousness” all I am doing is positing a newly created reality: a chloroformed “suspended consciousness.” Instead one must do the reverse: before setting out in search of what really exists, the fundamental [radical] reality, one should stop, and not move forward, not take another intellectual step, but instead realize that what truly exists is a man in search of simple reality, of what is given. Not something new, already there that requires the maneuver of a “reduction” to be obtained or manufactured, but what was already there when the philosophical thinking began, that is, this selfsame philosophical impulse and all the reasons behind it, all that forces this man to be a philosopher; in short, life in its incoercible, insuperable spontaneity and ingenuousness.

What is “self-positing,” what is imposed on a philosopher’s thought, is all that stands behind him, gives him birth and, thus, what he leaves behind. The philosophical enterprise is both inseparable from what was there before it began and linked dialectically to it; it has its truth in a pre-philosophical realm. The most inveterate mistake has been to think that philosophy must always discover some new reality that only appears under philosophy’s lens, when the character of reality as distinct from thought consists in its already being there beforehand, in its being prior to thought. Thus the great discovery thought must make is that it is essentially secondary, the result of a preexisting, not a “found,” reality; a reality one may even want to avoid.

This was the road that led me to the Idea of Life as the fundamental [radical] reality. The essential steps—the anti-idealist interpretation of phenomenology, my escape from the prison that the concept “consciousness” had been, and the substitution of a simple coexistence of “subject” and “object,” the metaphor of the Dii consentes, etc—were set forth in my university lectures beginning in 1914, but especially in a lesson entitled “The three great metaphors” delivered in Buenos Aires in 1916 and published in excerpts in Argentinean newspapers and magazines. [Note: More on these in later sections.]

Phenomenology’s analysis of consciousness allowed it to correct Idealism and carry it to perfection, a perfection signaling the beginning of a decline, just as the summit beneath our feet is proof that the mountain is now behind us. But a further analytical attempt, this time on phenomenology’s own concept of consciousness led me to discover a breach in it,

e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

The next passage [also my title] is from Man and People, a set of lectures Ortega gave, beginning in 1939, in Buenos Aires, Madrid, Munich and Hamburg, on the principles of a new sociology. They were in the process of being revised and prepared for publication at the time of Ortega’s death in 1955. Here we have a contrast between the thought of Ortega and the “existentialism” of Heidegger, with which it has been compared. In this translation, the Spanish word “radical” is translated directly as “radical,” as in the first paragraph (Ortega’s italics).

[“My Life” versus “Existence” as the Radical Reality]

Let us set out, then, to discover, in unimpeachable and unmistakable form, facts of such a characteristic complexion that no other denomination than that of “social phenomena” in the strict sense will seem to us to fit them. There is only one way to accomplish this most rigorous and decisive operation of finding that a type of facts is a reality or phenomenon that is definitely and determinedly different beyond any possible doubt or error, and hence is irreducible to any other type of facts. We must go back to an order of Ultimate reality, to an order or area of reality which because it is radical (that is, of the root) admits of no other reality beneath it, or rather, on which all others must necessarily appear because it is the basic reality.

This radical reality, on the strict contemplation of which we must finally found and assure all our knowledge of anything, is our life, human life.

Whenever and wherever I speak of “human life,” unless I make a special exception, you must avoid thinking of somebody else’s life; each one of you should refer it to your own life and try to make that present to you. Human life as radical reality is only the life of each person, is only my life. In deference to idiom, I shall sometimes call it “our life,” but you must always understand that by this expression I refer to the life of each individual and not to the life of other people nor to a supposed plural and common life. What we call “other people’s lives”—the life of one’s friend, of one’s sweetheart—is something that appears in the scenario that is my life, the life of each, and hence supposes that life. The life of another, even of one nearest and dearest, is for me mere spectacle, like the tree or the cliff or the wandering cloud. I see it, but I am not it, that is, I do not live it. If the other has a toothache, his face, the shape taken by his contracted muscles, are patent to me, I see the spectacle of someone suffering pain, but his toothache does not pain me, and what I have of it in no way resembles what I have when my own teeth ache. Strictly, my neighbor’s toothache is in the last analysis a supposition, hypothesis, or presumption of my own, it is a presumed pain. My pain, on the contrary, is unquestionable. Properly speaking, we can never be sure that the friend who presents himself us as suffering from [a] toothache is really suffering from [a] toothache. All that is patent to us of his pain is certain external signs, which are not pain but muscular contraction, wandering gaze, the hand to the cheek—that gesture which is so incongruous with what provokes it, for it looks exactly as if the toothache were a bird and we were putting our hand over it to keep it from flying away. Another’s pain is not radical reality, but reality in a sense that is already secondary, derivative, and dubious. What we have of his pain with radical reality is only its aspect, its appearance, the spectacle of it, its signs. This is all of it that is actually patent and unquestionable to us. But the relation between a sign and the thing signified, between an appearance and that which appears in it or simulates it, between an aspect and the thing manifested or “aspected” in it, is always finally questionable and ambiguous. There are those who to gain some private end feign the mise en scène of a toothache to perfection without suffering it. But we shall see that, on the contrary, our own individual life does not tolerate fictions, because when we feign something to ourselves we of course know that we are feigning. And so our intimate fiction never succeeds in fully establishing itself, for being at bottom aware that it is not genuine, we do not succeed in completely deceiving ourselves, we see through the fraud. This inexorable genuineness of our life, the life, I repeat, of each one of us, this genuineness that is evident, indubitable, unquestionable to itself, is my first reason for calling our life “radical reality.”

But there is a second reason. Calling it “radical reality” does not mean that it is the only reality, nor even the highest, worthiest or most sublime, nor yet the supreme reality, but simply that it is the root of all other realities, in the sense that they—any of them—in order to be reality to us must in some way make themselves present, or at least announce themselves, within the shaken confines of our own life. Hence this radical reality—my life—is so little “egoistic,” so far from “solipsistic,” that in essence it is the open area, the waiting stage, on which any other reality may manifest itself and celebrate it Pentecost. God himself, to be God to us, must somehow or other proclaim his existence to us, and that is why he thunders on Sinai, lashes the money-changers in the temple court, and sails on the three-masted frigate of Golgotha.

It follows that no knowledge of anything is sufficient—that is, sufficiently profound or radical—if it does not begin by searching the sphere that is our life to discover and define where and how that thing makes its appearance it, looms, springs up, arises, in short exists in it. For this is the proper meaning of the word exist—a word that originally, I take it, had strong connotations of struggle and belligerence, for it designates the vital situation in which suddenly, as though spring from the ground, an enemy appears among us, shows himself or makes himself apparent energetically blocking our way, that is, resisting us and at the some time affirming himself, making himself firm, before us and against us. Existing includes resisting; so it includes that fact that anything that has existence will affirm itself if we try to suppress it, annihilate it, or consider it unreal. Hence, whatever has existence or arises before us is reality, since reality is everything that, like it or not, we have to reckon with, because, like it or not, it is there, it ex-ists, re-sists. A terminological wrongheadedness that verges on the intolerable has for the past few years seen fit to use the words “exist” and “existence” in an abstruse and unverifiable sense precisely the opposite of that which the age-old word bears and expresses in itself.

Today some writers [i.e., Heidegger] attempt to make the term designate man’s mode of being. But man who is always “I”—that I that each of us is—is the only being that does not exist, but lives or is alive. Precisely all the other things that are not man, not “I,” are the things that exist, because they appear, arise, spring up, resist me, assert themselves in the ambit that is my life. Be this said in passing and in all haste.

[From: Man and People. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1957, pp. 38-41.]

The best introduction in English to the metaphysics of Ortega is: José Ortega y Gasset’s Metaphysical Innovation: A Critique and Overcoming of Idealism, by Antonio Rodríguez Huéscar. Translated and edited by Jorge García Gómez. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. (SUNY Series in Latin American and Iberian Thought and Culture). The first part contains a more detailed account of the relationship between Ortega’s thought and idealism, with a section focusing on a critique of the phenomenological idealism of Husserl. Chapter 4, “The Categories of Life,” is very difficult and I will be referring to parts of it in later sections, so you may want to hold off on reading it for the time being.


The following passages further explain the notion of “consistency” as applied to “my life”.

The first passage is a footnote that appears in essay that Ortega published in 1933-1934 on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of Dilthey’s birth. In this essay Ortega gives credit to Dilthey for having discovered human life as an object of philosophizing. The footnote is attached to the term “historical consistency,” which I will be discussing in a future email. It is included here as an introduction to Ortega’s proposed substitution of the word “consistency” for that of “essence”.

Traditional philosophy distinguishes between the essence and the existence of a thing. But the term “essence” bears various significations, which should be kept apart so as not to impair one another in more complicated cases. The obvious and least assuming signification of essence would be that a thing not only exist but also consists in something. What it consists in I call its consistency in contrast with its existence.

[From: “A Chapter from the History of Ideas—Wilhelm Dilthey and the Idea of Life.” In Concord and Liberty. Translated from the Spanish by Helene Weyl. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1946, p. 167, n. 34.]

The second passage is from the first of two cycles of lectures that Ortega gave with the title “Historical Reason.” This cycle was given in 1940 in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Buenos Aires. The title was supplied by the editor. It was first published in Spanish in 1979 and translated into English in 1984.

First Ortega raises the question of understanding what philosophy “is.” Next Ortega proposes the substitution of the term “consistency” for the term “essence” as a means of referring to the predicative sense of the verb “to be,” while retaining the word “existence” for its existential sense. This is illustrated in connection with several objects: a swan, a centaur, a triangle, and a Percheron (a breed of “real” horses). Finally, Ortega distinguishes the “real existence” of the swan and the Percheron and the “ideal existence” of the triangle and the centaur, and states that in both instances we can discuss their consistency. (More on “real” and “ideal” existence in a later section.)

[Existence and Consistency]

I was invited to give a philosophy course in this Faculty and I assume this obligation in the strictest sense, that is, as demanding a maximum effort on my part. This means I am formally obligated to explain the fundamental problems of philosophy, in the most precise and rigorous form those problems permit and our present understanding allows. This does not necessarily mean that this most rigorous possible form of philosophical explanation will be the one some of you expect; some of you may have certain expectations because you mistakenly think you know what philosophy is. Don’t attribute what I said to vanity or presumption on my part. I don’t mean I am certain I can give such an explanation; I am only giving formal expression to my understanding of my obligation, my contract, which is that I must expound a philosophy that is philosophy.

But this proposition—a philosophy that is philosophy—has a double meaning as do all judgments or sentences employing the verb to be, because this fearsome verb, with its slender shape and inexhaustible content—where the best minds of the last two thousand years have been chipping away like stonecutters at an infinitely rich vein of ore—ha, like the duck-and-rabbit illusion, two basically different meanings that unceasingly exchange places before our eyes, dizzying our understanding.

When we say, “the swan is,” we mean the swan exists, that there are swans. This is the existential meaning of the verb to be. But if we say, “The centaur is a lover of nymphs,” we don’t mean that the centaur exists or that there are centaurs—but only that if centaurs did exist or there are centaurs, inevitably they would be lovers of nymphs; that this characteristic, propensity, or habit belongs to the entity “centaur,” whether they exist or not; that we cannot thing “centaur” and not think it with a human torso and equine flanks, with Pan’s pipes at its lips, and with that insolent desire for nymphs. Rather than saying that there are centaurs, we say they are thus and so, that this is their essence. This is the predicative or essential meaning of to be. But since the word “essence,” an erudite and violent translation of the fresh, ordinary Greek word ousía, reality, comes to us burdened with the weight of two thousand years of philosophical theory, I like to replace it with another more common and vivacious term.

Here we have our first example of a deliberate and by now customary tendency—you will soon see what real and productive reasons there are for it—to replace the vocabulary of an old, dried-up terminology with the most common and, at times, most vernacular, metaphorical, colloquial, and homely of expressions. Until now, in the manner of the scholastics, it was usual to juxtapose the terms “existence” and “essence,” the fact that something is with the way that it is. Instead, I like to say that an object exists or not, and, in addition, that every object has this or that consistency; so that I juxtapose existence and consistency. One could discuss the existence or consistency of any object we might mention. Thus I replace the traditional “essence” with the simpler, more ordinary “consistency.” And we have only to distinguish between two senses of the verb to be—existing and consisting of—to realize there are curious objects that, while not existing in a complete, normal sense, nevertheless have a consistency independent of our wishes and do not depend on our attributing certain properties to them. A mathematical triangle does not really exist; nevertheless, we know the sum of its angles always equals two right angles. This is part of its consistency. Although it is incomprehensible that anything should have qualities, properties, habits and still not exist in the fullest sense of existing, we now must fact the likelihood of there being more tenuous, less “complete” modes of existence than those that pertain with real things, and that inevitably, in however tenuous a sense, triangles must exist. We call this tenuous and problematic mode of existence ideal existence, and today in mathematics one of the most important theorems is the theorem of existence, which says whether a certain number or magnitude exists. Ideal existence is what the scholastics called ens rationis. Suárez, in fact, had an extremely original doctrine about the ens rationis that decisively influenced Leibnitz. (He is the same great [Spanish] Jesuit Suárez with whom our kind director tried to compare me in a flight of benevolence when he first introduced me.) Now, the same must be said of the centaur, although admittedly it does not exist in the way the Percheron does. Since it [the centaur] is at least possessed of the well-known and suggestive consistency created for it in mythology—and, hence, has attributes not dependent on our wishes—the centaur must possess some mode of existence, since with no effort on our part we can evoke a centauric horse from blackest nothingness and have it gallop through an unreal spring breeze, over emerald fields, with its mane and tail flying, in pursuit of white nymphs.

[From: “Historical Reason (Buenos Aires, 1940).” In: Historical Reason, Translated by Philip W. Silver. (New York and London: W. W. Norton & company, 1984), pp. 140-143.]

The third passage is from an earlier lecture in the same lecture series. This section was given the title “What is life as fundamental reality? Purely and exclusively ‘event’,” by the editor, but I have supplied my own title for the purposes of this presentation. It includes an excerpt from another essay by Ortega entitled “Ideas and Beliefs,” with some brief additions.

In this passage, as in previous passages included in other sections, Ortega first states that “one’s life” is “the fundamental reality.” Ortega then repeats his proposal to use the term “consistency” instead of “essence,” and that if we agree that “life is what exists,” then we can proceed to “ascertain its consistency.” He begins to do that by stating in various ways that life— each person’s life—is “purely and exclusively ‘occurrence,’ . . . is made up of countless events . . . is what happens to me.” (For those of you who wish to explore this idea further, I refer you to the book I referred you to in Section 3 above, José Ortega y Gasset’s Metaphysical Innovation, by Rodríguez Huéscar, in Chapter 4, “The Categories of Life,” section 1, entitled “The ‘Absolute Event’,”, pp. 83-87.)

Although the translation is for the most part adequate, I have made one slight change in the first part of the excerpt [noted in brackets]. The translator has rendered the Spanish word “astro” incorrectly as “star,” but it is more correctly translated as “astral body,” which does in fact make more sense and corresponds more directly with what Ortega meant. Note also the use of the terms “radical,” “radicalism” and “radical realities” in the last paragraph before the excerpt.

The excerpt is most interesting to environmental philosophers in that it contrasts “the authentic, primary reality” of the earth that “has no configuration in and of itself,” with the interpretations of the earth as “goddess” or “astral body,” which are “ideas man has formed about it.”

[“My Life” Is (Consists of) Events, Happenings, or Pure Occurrence]

We began with what is usually called—what each one calls—in sorrow and joy, in anguish and hopefulness, one’s life. This is the fundamental reality. It is what we discover to be already there, not in a more or less theoretical, hypothetical way, not as mere supposition, but as what is always there, before any theory; that is, qua being, as what is real.

Now we must discover what “all this” really is—discover the consistency of what exists. According to traditional terminology, we call what something is, its “essence.” However, since all that there is not only exists, but consists of this or that, I prefer the term “consistency.” Whereby the old pair of Scholastic terms, “existence” and “essence” is replaced by the following one, which to my mind is more sprightly and exact: “existence” and “consistency.”

We state that, based on all the evidence, life is what exists, and we propose it as the prototype of existence—just as for antiquity “the world” was the prototype of existence, and as “thought,” consciousness, mind, was the primal reality for the modern era.

But now we must ascertain the consistency of this life. And since the new reality we discovered was something hidden behind the world that thinking thought, and even behind the thinking that thought that world, and since, in consequence, it is a reality prior to all this, an even purer reality, we must make every effort not to employ concepts, in describing or thinking about this reality, that were formulated to think the world and thought—because now we know that the latter notions are secondary, derivative concepts.

What we need, then, is an entirely new philosophy, a whole new repertoire of fundamental—indigenous—concepts. We stand in the presence of a new source of illumination. But it cannot be won too abruptly, because then you and I would not understand one another. We have to take off gradually—as pilots say—from traditional philosophy, from the repertoire of received, familiar, and commonplace concepts; in the meantime we must use those concepts that come closest, that approximate the new reality we have glimpsed.

And so I will begin by saying that life—each person’s life is our focus—in contrast to all other known or supposed realities, is purely and exclusively “occurrence.” Living happens to me. In its turn, life is made up of countless events. (And people say philosophy is so difficult. The definition of life I have just given could have been said in a bar, over drinks, in chatting with a friend.) Life is what happens to me. An expression like that might well be the first words of a tango. (By the way, some day we shall have to speak at length about the words of the tango; there is a subject about which, I dare say, much remains to be said.) Life occurs; it happens-to-me. And our lives are, simply, that first this happens and then that happens. Now we must attempt an adequate conceptualization of just what this something is that is mere happening—that is, occurrence. The problem—and here the tango fails us—is that this something must be understood in a radical way, which is what makes this philosophy. Philosophy is intellectual—radicalism. Because what confronts us is not my being something or, rather, two things: body and soul; or that this thing that I am should be here, among other things, within a large thing called the world—provisionally, the earth—or that here one thing or another happens to me. No! Not at all! There is nothing but this happening-to-me. There is nothing that is not pure occurrence. Which means that living is not my body and soul here on this earth; because body, soul, and earth are not radical realities but ideas we have had, while living, about the nature of the reality that I am and that I inhabit. These ideas may be radical formulations that are original with me, or I may have taken them form my social milieu. That is, perhaps they were first formulated by someone else in another era. The issue that arises at this juncture was treated—I believe with a certain exactness—in my essay “Ideas and Beliefs,” to which I said we would have to refer more than once. Here is part of that essay:

If we are asked what we really walk on, we answer at once that it is the Earth. By this we understand a star [an astral body] of a certain size and constitution, that is, a mass of cosmic matter revolving around the sun with sufficient regularity and precision so that we can count on it. This is our firm belief, and this is why for us it is reality; and because it is reality for us, we automatically count on it, we never question it in our daily lives. But the truth is that if the same question had been asked a man living in the seventh century B.C., his answer would have been quite different. How did he view the earth? It was a goddess, the mother goddess, Demeter. Not a mass of matter but a divine power with its own desires and caprices. This should suffice to warn us that the primary, authentic reality of earth is neither of these things, that the star [astral body] Earth and the goddess Earth are not reality, pure and simple, but two ideas—or perhaps one true idea and one false idea about that reality, two ideas formulated by specific individuals on a given day with great effort. This means that the reality the earth is for us did not simply originate when the Earth did, the latter is not “that” by itself; instead, we owe this name to some man, to many earlier men; and besides, its truth is the result of many difficult decisions. In short, this truth is problematic and open to question; therefore, the Earth as a star [astral body] and the earth as goddess are two theories, two interpretations.

The same point could be made regarding everything, which leads us to the discovery that the reality in which we believe we live, on which we count, and which serves as ultimate reference for all our hopes and fears, is the work and creation of other men and not primary, authentic reality. In order to encounter authentic reality in its sheer nakedness we would have to remove all the layers of today’s and yesterday’s beliefs, all those theories that are nothing but interpretations thought up by man about what he finds, in living, in himself, and in his milieu. Prior to all interpretation, the Earth was not even a thing, because thing is itself a configuration of being, an idea that defines the peculiar way something has of behaving (as distinct, say, from the behavior of a phantom), an idea the mind thought up to explain to itself that primary reality.

If we were properly grateful, we would have realized that what the Earth has been to us—that is, a star [an astral body] or, formerly, a goddess—and what, as theories, as ideas, helped us know how to behave in their regard and lit us be at ease and not live in perpetual fear, all this we owe to the efforts and intelligence of others. Without their intercession we would have the same relationship to the Earth and all around us as did the first men on Earth; that is, we would live in constant fear. We have inherited all their efforts in the form of beliefs, and this is the capital on which we live. The monumental and, at the same time, the essential, elementary discovery the West will make in the coming years, when it recovers from the drunken spell of folly that began in the eighteenth century—and which it is in the process now of regurgitating—is that man is above all an inheritor. And it is this rather that anything else that distinguishes him from e animals. But awareness of being an inheritor means being historically aware. Our lack of a historical awareness that man owes everything to his past is just like the ingratitude of the arrow of which I spoke the other day.

The authentic reality of the earth has no configuration at all, no mode of being; it is pure enigma. Taken thus, in its primary, naked consistency, the earth is only the ground that for the moment supports us without the least assurance it will not give way the next second; it is what has allowed us to escape some danger, but also what, as distance, separates us form a beloved or from our children; it is what sometimes faces us with the bothersome character of being uphill and sometimes with the delightful condition of being downhill. The Earth in itself, stripped of the ideas man has formed about it, is not, then, anything at all, but merely an uncertain repertoire of facilities and difficulties that affect our life.

The oldest interpretation of what the Earth is can be gleaned from the Latin etymology of the word. [Note: The Spanish word for “Earth” is “Tierra“.] Terra apparently derives from tersa, which means dry, that is, solid ground, offering a good footing. In this primitive interpretation of the Earth the latter is defined—as you see—according to what it does for us, as distinct from what happens in its watery alternative. It is in this sense that authentic, primary reality has no configuration in and of itself. This is why it cannot be called ‘world.’ It is an enigma posed to our existence. To live is to be irrevocably immersed in the enigmatic. Man reacts to this primordial, pre-intellectual enigma by activating his intellectual faculties, above all, his imagination. He creates a mathematical world, a physical world, a religious, a moral, a political, and a poetic world, which are all effectively worlds because they each have a configuration and offer a plan, an order. These imaginary worlds are set alongside the enigma of authentic reality, and when they seen a close enough approximation they are accepted. But, of course, they are never confused with reality itself.*

*In culling these paragraphs from Ideas and Beliefs, for presentation in the classroom, Ortega made a few brief additions to the original text. [Ed.]”

[From: Ibid., pp. 69-74.]

5 Life is What We Do and What Happens To Us

The following passage is from one of the lectures that Ortega gave to his students at the University of Madrid in 1933-1934, that were published with the title Some Lessons in Metaphysics. The passage gives you the feel that you are in the classroom and experiencing what it means to be doing philosophy. The separation of the two aspects of my life dealt with here, “what we do” and “what happens to us,” corresponds to the distinction we have made previously between the “I”, “My Self” and “My Circumstance” or ” My Environment,” with a focus on the “interactions” between them. [My title]

[Life is What We Do and What Happens To Us]

[T]he fact is that I must take you as you are, and you are here where, for the moment, orientation is assumed. That orientation is what makes each of you now feel yourself completely ‘found’, not ‘lost’. In fact, each of you now feel[s] yourself here, listening to a lecture on metaphysics. Now this actual and indubitable fact belongs to a thing, or a reality, which is called your life. What is this—your life, our lives, the life of each one of us? It would appear to be something without importance, for science has never busied itself with this. Nevertheless, that reality, so neglected scientifically, proves to have the formidable condition that it contains for each one of us all the rest of the realities, including the reality called science and the one called religion, in that science and religion are only two of the innumerable things that man creates in his own lifetime.

Before metaphysics begins to tell us what the universe is, is it not worth while to stop to survey this earlier and most humble but inescapable fact that metaphysics itself is only what man—you and I—create in our own lives, and that, consequently, this life is something earlier, something antecedent to, whatever metaphysics—or any other science, or religion itself—is going to discover for us?

I do not know whether or not what I call ‘my life’ is important, but it does seem that, important or not, it was here before all the rest, including before God Himself, for all the rest—including God—must be taken as given to us and as being—for me—within my own life.

What, then, is life? Do not search far afield; do not try to recall learned expressions of wisdom. The fundamental truths must be always at hand, for only thus are they fundamental. Those that one must go forth to seek are the ones that are found only in a single place—the particular, localized, provincial truths, the truths in a corner, not the basic ones. Life is what we are and what we do; it is, then, of all things the closest to each one of us. Put a hand on it and it will let itself be grasped like a tame bird.

If, on coming here a moment ago, someone had asked you where you were going, you would have said, ‘We are going to hear a lecture on metaphysics’. And here you are, listening to me. The fact has no importance. Nevertheless, it is what makes up your life. I am sorry for you, but truth obliges me to say that your life now consists of a thing of miniscule importance. But if we are sincere, we will recognize that the greater part of our existence is made up of similar insignificant affairs. We go, we come, we do this or that, we think, we love or we do not love, and so on. From time to time, our lives seem suddenly to take on tension, as if to rear up, to concentrate and become dense. It may be a great sorrow or a great desire that overcomes us; we say that things of great importance are happening to us. But note that in terms of our lives, this variety of emphasis, this experiencing or not experiencing something momentous, is a matter of indifference in that the frenetic and culminating hour is just as much a matter of life (and no more) as is the common business of our habitual moments.

The result, then, is that in this inquiry into life’s pure essence, the first view we get of it appears to us as the sum of what we do, the sum of our activities which, so to speak, furnish it. Life is what we do and what happens to us.

Our method is going to consist in noting the attributes of our lives, one after another, in such order that from the most external we advance toward the most internal, from the periphery of living we narrow down toward its palpitating center. We will then find a successive series of definitions of life, each of which conserves and deepens the preceding ones.

And so the first definition we find is this: to live is what we do and what happens to us, from thinking or dreaming or worrying, to playing the market or winning battles. It is important to me that you recognize that this is not a joke, but a truth as platitudinous as it is basic and unquestionable. I intend to talk to you not of things that are abstruse and far away, but of your life itself, and I begin by saying that, at this moment, your life consists in listening to me. I am sure that you will resist this truth, but there is no alternative because this listening to me is what you are doing now, and it is what now makes up your life.

[From: Some Lessons in Metaphysics, by José Ortega y Gasset. Translated by Mildred Adams. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1969, Lesson II, pp. 34-36.]


The two passages below are from Ortega’s main work of sociology, Man and People, which remained unpublished at the time of his death in 1955. It was first published in 1957 in Spanish as well as in English translation, and represents the closest Ortega came to writing a treatise.

Ortega begins the book by pointing out that all of the classic works on sociology do not start out by attempting to define what “the social” or “society” is. In order to do this, he states that we must first understand what “the personal” or “the individual” is. And so he goes into an explanation of individual human life, our life, “my life” as the “radical reality,” as we saw in Section 2 above, and characterizing it as consisting of “what we do and what happens to us,” as we saw in the last  section.

Next he focuses, as in this first passage, on “deciding what to do” as an essential characteristic of “my life,” as well as introducing us to what he variously calls “ambit” [ámbito], “circumstances” or “circumstance” [circunstancia(s)], “world” [mundo], “universe” [universo], “ambient” [ambiente], and even “here and now” [aquí y ahora].

At this point I should point out that Spanish does not have a word that corresponds directly with the English word “environment”. I have made an inventory of terms that Ortega uses in various passages over the years to refer to what he mainly calls circunstancia [“circumstance”], as in the famous dictum Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” [“I am I and my circumstance”], where we began this presentation. At the end of this section you will find a list of these expressions.*

I should also mention that English-Spanish dictionaries translate the word “environment” into Spanish as “cercanía” [“nearness”], and ambiente” [“ambience”] or “medio ambiente” [“ambient medium”]. So that, in Spain, the department that deals with what we would call the “environment” is called the “Departamento del Medio Ambiente” (“Department of the Ambient Medium”! More about this later.)

In the following passage I have left the translations of the Spanish words as they appear in the English version and, as you will see, for the most part they correctly translate the Spanish words or expressions that I have given in brackets immediately following. The only exception is the last example where the translator gives the plural “circumstances,” instead of the singular “circumstance,” for “la circunstancia,” as indicated.

[My Life as Deciding, Choosing, Preferring What to Do]

[I]nnumerable attributes can be posited of this strange and dramatic radical reality, our life. But I shall now single out only the most indispensable one for our theme.

And it is that life is not something that we have bestowed on ourselves; rather, we find it precisely when we find ourselves. Suddenly and without knowing how or why, without any previous forewarning of it, man sees and finds that he is obliged to have his being in an unpremeditated, unforeseen ambit [ámbito], in a conjunction of completely definite circumstances [circunstancias]. Perhaps it will not be irrelevant to point out that this observation—which is the basis of my philosophical thought—was made, just as I have now made it, in my first book, published in 1914. Provisionally and to make it easier to understand, let us call this unpremeditated and unforeseen ambit [ámbito], this most definite circumstance [circumstancia] in which we always find ourselves in our living—let us call it “world.”[mundo] Now, this world [mundo], in which in living I am obliged to be, allows me a choice. Within it I may choose to be in one place or another. But it is granted to no one to choose the world [mundo] in which he lives; it is always this one, this present world [mundo]. We cannot choose the century of the day or the date when we are to live, nor the universe in which we are to move. To live or to be alive or, what is the same thing, to be a man, does not admit of any preparations or preliminary experiments. Life is fired at us point-blank. I have said it before: where and when we are born, or happen to find ourselves after we are born, there and then, like it or not, we must sink or swim. At this moment, every one of you finds himself submerged in a ambient [ambiente] that is an interval in which he must willy-nilly come to terms with that abstruse element, a lecture in philosophy, with something of which he does not know whether it interests him or not, whether he understands it or not, which is portentously devouring an hour of his life—an irreplaceable hour, for the hours of his life are numbered. This is his circumstance [circunstancia], his here and now [aquí y ahora]. What will he do? For something he must do; either listen to me, or, on the contrary, dismiss me and attend to his own meditations, think of his business or his clients, remember his sweetheart. What will he do? Get up and go, or remain, accepting the fate of spending this hour of his life, which might have been so delightful, in the slaughterhouse of lost hours?

Because, I repeat, there is no escape: we have something to do or have to be doing something always; for this life that is given us is not given us ready-made, but instead every one of us has to make it for himself, occupying it. Such is our occupation. This is not the case with the stone, the plant, the animal. Their being is given them predetermined and decreed. The stone, when it begins to be, is given not only its existence; its behavior is also determined for it beforehand—namely, to be heavy, to gravitate toward the earth’s center. Similarly the animal is given its behavioral repertory, directed by its instincts without any intervention on its part. But man is given the necessity of having always to do something 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 strangest and most confounding thing about this circumstance [circunstancia] or world [mundo] in which we have to live is the fact that within its inexorable circle or horizon it always presents us with a variety of possibilities for action, a variety in the face of which we are obliged to choose and hence to exercise our freedom. The circumstance [circunstancia], I repeat—the here and now in which we are inexorably inscribed and imprisoned—does not at every moment impose on us a single act or activity but various possible act or activities, and cruelly leaves us to our own initiative and inspiration, hence to our own responsibility. In a little while, when you go out into the street, you will have to decide what direction, what route, you will take. And if this happens to you on such a commonplace occasion, much more happens at those solemn moments of life in which the choice to be made is nothing less, for example, than a profession, a career—and career means road and direction. Among the few personal notes that Descartes left at his death there is one, dating from his youth, in which he copied an old line of Ausonius, which in turn reproduces an ancient Pythagorean saying and which runs: Quod vitae sectabor iter? “What way, what road shall I choose for my life?” but life is nothing except man’s being; so that here we have the most extraordinary, extravagant, dramatic, and paradoxical thing about the human condition—namely, that man is the only reality that does not simply consist in being but must choose it own being. For if we analyze the commonplace thing that is going to occur in a little while—the fact that each of us will have to choose and decide the direction of the street he is going to take—you will see that the choice of such a seemingly simple act will be made only with the intervention of the entire choice that you have already made, the choice that at this moment, as you sit here, you carry secretly in your inmost selves, in you most hidden depths: the choice of a type of humanity, of a way of being man, that you seek to realize in your living.

In order not to lose our bearings, let us summarize what has been said so far: Life in the sense of human life, hence in the biographical not the biological sense—if biology is taken to mean the psychosomatic—life is the fact that someone whom we call man, as we could and perhaps should call X (you will soon see why), finds himself having to be in the circumstance [circunstancia] or world [mundo]. But our being as “being in the circumstance” [ser en la circunstancia] is not still and simply passive. To be, that is, to continue being, it has always to be doing something, but what it has to do is not imposed on it or predetermined for it; it has to choose and decide for itself, untransferably, for itself and before itself, upon its own sole responsibility . Nobody can take its place in deciding what it is going to do, for even submitting to another’s will has to be its own decision. This obligation to choose, and hence willy-nilly to be free, to be on its own account and at its own risk, proceeds from the fact that the circumstance [circunstancia] is never one-sided, it always has several, often many sides. In other words, it invites us to different possibilities of action, of being. So we spend our lives saying to ourselves: “on the one hand,” I would do, think, feel, want, decide this, but “on the other hand” . . . Life is many-sided. Every moment and every place opens different roads to us. As the ancient Indian book says: “Wherever a man sets his foot, he treads a hundred paths.” So life is a permanent crossroads, a constant perplexity. This is why I am always saying that to my mind the best title for a book of philosophy is the one borne by a book of Maimonides’: More Nebuchim—”Guide for the Perplexed.”

When we want to describe a situation of the utmost extremity in our life, where circumstances [la circunstancia!] appear to offer us no way out and hence no choice, we Spaniards say that we are “between the Sword and the wall.” Death is certain, there is no escaping it! Could there be less choice? Yet it is clear that the expression invites us to choose between the wall and the sword. Terrifying and proud privilege that man at times enjoys and suffers under—choosing the pattern of his own death: death of a coward or death of a hero, an ugly or a beautiful death!

Escape is possible from every circumstance [circunstancia], even the most extreme. What there is no escaping is having to do what in the last analysis is the most difficult and painful of things—choosing, preferring. How may times have we not told ourselves that we should prefer not to prefer? From which it follows that what is given me when life is given me is simply “things to do.” Life, as we all know only too well, “takes a lot of doing.” And the most important thing is to make sure that what we choose to do in each case is mot just anything, but the thing that has to be done—done here and now—that it is our true vocation, our genuine “thing to do.”

[From: Man and People, by José Ortega y Gasset. Authorized English translation from the Spanish by Willard R. Trask. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., © 1957, Chapter 2. Personal Life, pp. 41-46.]

Now aside from the terminological question of what expression Ortega uses (circumstance, ambience, world, etc.), as a continuation of the previous section, the next passage focuses on the “what we do” part of “my life” and especially on having to decide “what to do.” It is this aspect of “my life” that begins to separate “my self” from “my environment,” as I will now refer to it. “My environment” presents me with various “possibilities for action” or simply “things to do.” And this means that we as human beings are continuously having to decide “what we do.”

The next passage is from further on in the same chapter, where Ortega attempts to further indicate the interrelationships between “my self” and “my environment.” Right away, in the first paragraph, we find the translator using the word “environment” as a translation of one of the Spanish words that I have listed in the note below*, in this case “contorno” (usually translated into English as “surroundings,” “neighborhood,” or, using the French word, “environs“), which Ortega here lists along with “circumstance” [circunstancia] and “world” [mundo] to indicate what he is referring to. Although I stop inserting the Spanish words in brackets, for the rest of the passage Ortega refers alternatively to mainly “world” or sometimes “circumstance,” except for “radical ambit” [ámbito radical], which I have indicated in brackets.

Now in this passage comes a surprise. I will let you discover it as you read along, and discuss it further in the next section. I will mention that at the end, Ortega has a paragraph where he shows the various uses of the verb “hacer,” (“to do or make”). I have included a footnote by the translator from the published translation that attempts to explain the difficulty of translating this verb.

[“My Environment” as “Concerns” or “Importances”]

Man, then, finding himself alive, finds himself having to come to terms with what we have called environment [contorno], circumstance [circunstancia], or world [mundo]. Whether these three words will gradually take on separate meanings for us is something that does not concern us now. At this moment, they mean the same thing to us, namely the foreign, alien element “outside of himself,” in which man has to work at being. That world is a great thing, an immense thing, with shadowy frontiers and full to bursting with smaller things, with what we call “things” and commonly distinguish in a broad and rough classification, saying that in the world there are minerals, plants, animals, and men. What these things are is the concern of the various sciences—for example, biology treats of plants and animals. But biology, like any other science, is a particular activity with which certain men concern themselves in their lives, that is, after they are already living. Biology and any other science, then, supposes that before its operations begin all these things are already within our view, exist for us. And this fact that things are for us, originally and primarily in our human life, before we are physicists, mineralogists, biologists, and so on, represents what these things are in their radical reality. What the sciences afterwards tell us about them may be as plausible, as convincing, as true as you please, but it remains clear that they have drawn all of it, by complicated intellectual methods, from what in the beginning, primordially and with no further ado, things were to us in our living. The Earth may be a planet in a certain solar system belonging to a certain galaxy or nebula, and may be made of atoms, each one of which in its turn contains a multiplicity of things, or quasi-things or guess-what things called electrons, protons, mesons, neutrons, and so on. But none of this knowledge would exist if the earth did not exist before it as a component of our life, as something with which we have to come to terms and hence something that is of import to us, matters to us—that matters to us because it confronts us with certain difficulties and provides us with certain facilities. This means that on this pre-existent and radical plane from which the sciences set out and which they assume, the Earth is none of these things that physics and astronomy tell us it is, but is what firmly holds me up, is terra firma, in contradiction to the sea, in which I sink (the word terra, according to Bréal, comes from tersa, “dry”), it is what I sometimes have laboriously to climb, because it inclines upward, sometimes easily descend because it inclines downward, it is what parts and separates me from the woman I love or forces me to live close to someone whom I loathe, it is what makes some things far from me and others near me, some here and others there and others yonder, and so on and so on. These and many similar attributes are the genuine reality of the earth, just as it appears to me in the radical ambit [ámbito radical] of my life. Please observe that all these attributes—supporting me, making me go up or down hill, making me tire myself in crossing it to where what I need happens to be, separating me from those I love, and so on—all refer to me; so that the Earth in its primordial appearance consists entirely in utilitarian references in respect to me. You will find the same if you take any other example—tree, animal, ocean, river. If we leave out of consideration what they are in reference to us, I mean, their being for some use of ours—as means, instruments or vice versa, as impediment and difficulties for our ends—they are left being nothing. Or, to put it differently: everything that composes, fills, and makes up the world in which man finds himself at birth possesses no independent condition of itself, possesses no being of its own, is nothing in itself—but is simply something for or something against our ends. We ought not to have called them “things,” then, in view of the meaning that the word bears for us today. A “thing” means something that has its own being, independently of me, independently of what it is for man. If this is the case with everything in the circumstance or world, it means that the world in its radical reality is a body of somethings with which I, man, can or just do this or that—that it is a body of means and impediments, facilities and difficulties which, in order to live in any real sense, I encounter. Things are not originally “things,” but something that I try to use or avoid in order to live and to live as well as possible; are, therefore, that with which I occupy myself and by which I am occupied, with which I act and operate, with which I succeed or fail to do what I want to do; in short, they are concerns to which I am constantly attending. And since “to do” and ” to occupy oneself,” “to have concerns” is expressed in Greek by “practice,” praxis—things are radically pragmata and my relation to them is pragmatic. Unfortunately, at least so far as I am aware, our language does not have a word that adequately expresses what the word pragma does. We can only say that a thing, as pragma, is not something that exists by itself and has nothing to do with me. In the world or circumstance of each one of us there is nothing that has nothing to do with us and in turn we have to do with whatever forms part of this same circumstance or world. This is composed exclusively of references to me, and I am remanded to whatever it contains, I depend on it, for better or for worse; everything is favorable or adverse to me, caress or friction, flattery or injury, service or harm. A thing as pragma, then, is something that I manipulate for a particular end, that I deal with or avoid, that I must count upon or discount; it is an instrument or an impediment for: a task, a chattel, a gadget, a deficiency, a failure, an obstacle; in short, it is a concern to be attended to, something that to a greater or less degree is of import for me, that I lack, that I have too much of, hence an importance. I hope, now that I have accumulated all these various expressions, that the difference will begin to be clear if you contrast in your minds the idea of a world of things and the idea of a world of concerns or importances. In a world of things we play no part: it and everything in it is of itself. But in a world of concerns or importances, everything consists solely in its reference to us, everything plays a part in us, that is, everything is of import to us and is only to the extent to which and in the way in which it concerns, is of import to, and affects us.

Such is the radical truth concerning what the world is—because it expresses the world’s “consistency” or that in which it originally consists as element in which we have to live our life. Everything else that the sciences tell us about his world is and was at best a secondary, derivative, hypothetical, and questionable truth—for the simple reason, I repeat, that we begin to practice science after we are already living in the world and hence when for us the world is already this that it is. Science is only one of the countless activities, actions operations that man practices* [hace] in his life.

Man practices [hace] science as he practices [hace] patience, as he attends to [hace] his affairs [hacienda], as he practices [hace] poetry, politics, business, makes [hace] journeys, makes [hace] love, makes believe [hace que hace], marks [hace] time, and above all man conjures up [se hace, literally “makes for himself”] illusions.

All these locutions represent the most ordinary, familiar, colloquial kind of speech. Yet now we see that they are technical terms in a theory of human life. To the shame of philosophers it must be said that they have never seen the radical phenomenon that is our life. They have always turned their backs on it, and it has been the poets and novelists, but above all the “ordinary man,” who has been aware of it with its modes and situations. Hence this series of terms represents a series of titles announcing great philosophical themes on which much would need to be said.

*[This and all the italicized verbs in the following passage are expressed in Spanish by the verb hacer, “to do, to make.” They thus echo and carry on the idea that “we have something to do or have to be doing something always; for this life that is give us not given us ready-made, but instead every one of us has to make it for himself, each his own” (p. 43, above) [Note: See the previous passage, above]. —Translator.]

[From: Ibid., pp. 51-55.]


The following terms were culled from various passages in which Ortega discusses what he generally refers to as “circunstancia,” or “circumstance,” and which I am choosing to call “environment.” In next section, entitled “More on ‘My Environment’ as Concerns or Importances,” I will discuss this terminological and semantic variability and the implications it has for not only understanding Ortega’s thought but also for expanding our notions of what constitutes the “human environment.”

alrededor – surrounding

ambiente – ambience

ámbito – ambit

aquello en que se está – that in which one is

aquí y ahora – the here and now

cercanía – nearness

circunstancia(s) – circumstance(s)

contorno – neighborhood, surroundings, or environs

cosmos -the Greek word for “world”

derredor – surrounding(s)

el absoluto afuera – the absolute outside

environs – the French word “environment”

habitat – the English word “habitat”

lo circunstancial – the circumstantial

lo circundante – the surrounding

lo que no es uno mismo – that which is not oneself

lo otro que no es uno mismo – the other that is not oneself

lo otro que yo – the other than I

lo que acaece – that which befalls

lo que acontece – that which happens

lo que está aconteciendo – that which is happening

lo que me envuelve por todos lados – that which envelops me on all sides

lo que nos rodea – that which surrounds us

lo que se halla cerca – that which is found nearby

lo que se halla fuera de nosotros – that which is found outside of us

medio – medium

medio ambiente – environment (literally “ambient medium”)

milieu – French “medium”

mundo – world

orbe – orbe

otras cosas que yo – other things than I

todo alrededor de mí – everything around me

universo – universe


The topic of this section is one that I had found at first the most difficult to grasp. If you remember, in the first section our starting point was Ortega’s statement in 1914 that “I am I and my circumstance,” or as I have rephrased it: “My Life Consists of My Self in Relation to My Environment.” This email will focus on the second “I” or “My Self.”

One could take one of the expressions that Ortega used to characterize what he meant by “circumstance” and invert it: instead of saying that the “circumstance” is “that which is not oneself” or “the other than I,” and say that the “I” or “My Self” is “that which is not my circumstance” or “the other than my circumstance,” or, in our terms, “that which is not my environment” or “the other than my environment.”

In this section, which includes selections from an essay also dating from 1914, Ortega takes a more positive approach to the definition of the “I” or “My Self,” namely, the “I as Executant.” He then goes on to state that “Everything, from a point of view within itself, is an “I.” This statement, which is a most peculiar conception of the “I,” gives us the first hint as to where we can find an environmental ethic in his thought. For if everything in our environment is an “I” we can no longer treat it as if it were only a “thing.”

The Executant “I”

We can only use or utilize things. And vice versa: things are those points at which our utilitarian activity is inserted. Now then: we can assume a utilitarian pos­ture before all things save one, save before one solitary, one unique thing: our “I.”

Kant reduces morality to his well-known formula: act so as not to use others as means, but as ends of your actions. To make these words, as Kant does, the expression of a norm and a guide in all obligations is the same as declaring that in fact each of us uses his fellow man, that we treat them as we treat things. Kant’s imperative, in its various forms, would have us regard other men as people, not things to he used, not things. And this human status devolves on something when we fulfill the immortal maxim from the Gospel: treat your neighbor as yourself. Making an I myself of something is the only way it can cease being a thing.

But it would seem that we are allowed a choice when confronted by another person, another subject, between treating him as a thing, utilizing him, and treating him as an “I.” Here there is a margin for the arbitrator, a margin that would not be possible if the other human subjects really were “I myself.” The “you” and the “he” are, then, fictitiously “I.” In Kant’s terms we would say that my good will makes you and he into something like other “I’s.”

Earlier we spoke of the “I” as the one thing that we not only do not desire to turn, but that we cannot turn, into a thing. This is to be taken literally.

In order to see it clearly, we ought first to recall the change in meaning of a verb if it is used in the first or the third person present indicative: “I walk,” for ex­ample. The meaning of walk in “I walk” and “he walks” evidently has a primary semblance of identity—otherwise we would not use the same verb stem. Notice that “meaning” means nothing more than “reference to an object”; therefore, “identical meaning” signifies “refer­ence to the same object or reality, to the same aspect of some object or reality.” Now then, if we direct our at­tention with some insistence to precisely that reality to which “I walk” alludes, we cannot help but notice how different it is from that alluded to by “he walks.” His walk is a reality that I perceive with my eyes as happen­ing in space; a series of successive positions of legs over the ground. In the “I walk” the visual image of my feet moving may occur to me; but beyond that, and as if more directly alluded to in those words, I find an invisi­ble reality and one foreign to space—the effort, the thrust, the muscular sensations of tension and resistance. The difference could not be greater. One could say that in the “I walk” I refer to walking “seen” from inside what walking is, and in “he walks” to walking seen as an external result. However, while the relationship of walk­ing seen as an inner event and walking as an external oc­currence is self-evident, immediate, and presents itself to us without any effort on our part, this does not imply the least similarity between its two aspects. What does this peculiar thing “internal effort” or “feeling of resis­tance” have to do with a body changing its position in space? There is, then, an “I walk” that is completely dif­ferent from “they walk.”

Any other example we chose would produce the same observation. However, in cases like that of “walk­ing” it seems the primary, the clearest meaning is the external one. Let us not become involved in finding out why this is so. It is enough if we are aware that, in con­trast, there is a whole class of verbs in which the first and obvious meaning is the one expressed by the first person: “I want, I hate, I feel pain.” Who has ever felt the pain or hate of anyone else? We see only contracted features or piercing eyes. What do these objects of sight have in common with what I find in myself when I feel pain or hate?

With this example, it seems to me, the distance be­tween “I” and everything else becomes clear, whether that thing be an inanimate body or a “you” or a “he.” How, in a general way, might we express this difference between the image or concept of pain and pain as felt, as hurting? Perhaps by noticing that they are mutually exclusive: the image of a pain does not hurt; moreover, it puts pain at a distance, replaces it with its ideal shadow. And vice versa: the pain hurting is the opposite of its image; in the instant that it becomes an image, it stops hurting.

“I” means, then, not this person as distinct from another, nor, even less, people as distinct from things, but rather all things—men, things, situations—inasmuch as they are occurring, being, executing themselves. Each of us is “I” according to this, not for belonging to a privileged zoological species equipped with a project­-making apparatus called consciousness, but more simply because he is something. This red leather box that I have before me is not an “I” because it is only an image I have, and an image is exactly not what is imaged. Image, concept, etc., are always image, concept of . . . , and that of which they are an image is the real being. There is the same difference between a pain that someone tells me about and a pain that I feel as there is between the red that I see and the being red of this red leather box. Being red is for it what hurting is for me. Just as there is an I-John Doe, there is also an I-red, an I-water, and an I-star.

Everything, from a point of view within itself, is an “I.”

Now we see why we cannot assume a utilitarian pos­ture before the “I”: simply because we cannot place ourselves before it, because a state of perfect interpene­tration with anything is indivisible, because it is every­thing viewed from inside.

“I” and My Own I

Everything, from a point of view within itself, is an “I.”

This sentence only serves as a bridge to the exact comprehension of what we are looking for. To be truth­ful, it is inexact.

When I feel pain, when I love or hate, I do not see my pain, nor do I see myself loving or hating. In order for me to see my pain, I have to interrupt being in pain and become an “I” that looks on. This “I” that observes the other one in pain is now the true “I,” the executant one, the present “I.” The “I” in pain, to be exact, was, and is now only an image, a thing or object that “I” have before me.

In this way we reach the last step in our analysis: “I” is not man in opposition to things, and not this subject in opposition to a subject “you” or “he.” “I,” finally, is not that “I myself,” the me ipsum that I think I know when I practice the Delphic saying “Know thyself.” The thing I see appear on the horizon, resting briefly on the lengthened clouds of dawn like a gold amphora, is not the sun but an image of the sun; in the same way, the I that I seem to have so close at hand is only an image of my “I.”

This is not the appropriate place to wage war on the original sin of the modern epoch, which like all original sins was in truth a necessary precondition for not a few virtues and triumphs. I refer to subjectivism, the mental illness of an age that began with the Renaissance, consisting of the supposition that I am what is closest to me—that is, that what is closest to me as an object of knowledge is my reality or “I” as a reality. Fichte, who before and above all else was a man of excess—excess raised to the category of genius—represents the highest intensity of this subjective fever; and a whole era came under his influence; that is, at a certain hour of the morning in all German lecture halls, the world of the “I” was produced like a handkerchief pulled from a coat pocket. After Fichte had initiated the decline of subjectivism, perhaps even now, a new way of thinking having nothing to do with subjectivism has hove into view like the faint outline of a distant coast.

The “I” my fellow citizens call John Doe, and who I am, really holds the same secrets for me as for them. And vice versa: I have no more direct knowledge of other men and things than of myself. Just as the moon shows me only a pale sidereal shoulder, so too with my “I”: it is a passerby, with face hidden, that crosses my consciousness, giving me no more than a glimpse of a back draped in a Spanish cape.

Saying a thing and doing it are very different things, exclaims the common man. And Nietzsche: “It is very easy to think things; it is very difficult to be them.” The distance between saying something and doing it, between thinking something and being something is exactly the same as the distance between thing and I.

[True Inwardness]

So we arrive at the following difficult dilemma: there is nothing we can make an object of cognition, nothing that can exist for us unless it becomes an image, a concept, an idea—unless, that is, it stops being what it is in order to become instead a shadow or outline of itself. With one thing only are we on intimate terms: our individuality, our life, but when this inwardness of ours becomes an image it too ceases to be inwardness. When I said that in “I walk” we referred to walking as seen from within, I was alluding to a relative inwardness; by comparison with the image of a body moving in space, the image of the movement of my sensations and feel­ings is like an inwardness. But true inwardness, or anything in the act of executing itself, stands at an equal distance from our image of the external and our image of the internal.

Inwardness cannot be an object for us, nor for science, nor for practical thought, nor for spontaneous representation. And nevertheless it is the true being of all things, the only sufficient thing and the only thing whose contemplation would completely satisfy us.

[From: “An Essay in Esthetics by Way of a Preface,” by José Ortega y Gasset. In his: Phenomenology and Art. Translated with an introduction by Philip W. Silver. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1975, Sections 2-3 and part of 4, pp. 131-136.]

8. [Under construction]

2 thoughts on “Ortega y Gasset as a Proto-Environmental Pragmatist”

  1. My opinion is that your interpretation of Ortega y Gasset as a “proto-environmental pragmatist” is an unneeded stretch, as concerns both pragmatism and environmentalism. While the former is something to be argued within the confines of the history of philosophy, the latter is an attempt to place Ortega within reach of the “environmentalist movement” that does not work. Ortega’s circunstancia became a metaphysical concept of the greatest importance within his thought, and as such should be left alone. Today it should not be translated as environment just to not confuse it with the usages of the fashionable concept. For a comparison, I remember Wendell Berry’s refusal to be considered a defender of “environmentalism.” Not to speak of Ortega’s (like Unamuno’s) critique of all “isms”.
    I have four doctoral dissertations missing from your very excellent list in the bibliography. If you are alive and functioning I would be glad to send them to you at your convenience.

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