The Imperative of Modernity

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

In The imperative of Modernity: An intellectual Biography of José Ortega y Gasset, Rockwell Gray has produced a sympathetic, incisive, and readable account of the thought of one of the twentieth century’s most neglected and at the same time most interesting intellectual figures, best known in the West as the author of such works as La deshumanizacion del arte (1925; The Dehumanization of Art and Notes on the Novel, 1948) and La rebellion de las masas (1929; The Revolt of the Masses, 1932). The imperative of Modernity fills a major gap in an understanding of twentieth century intellectual history: Up to the publication of this work there has been no standard biography of Ortega in English, and even those biographical works available in Spanish are less comprehensive than this one. A labor of love by an independent scholar, Gray’s book comes complete with an introductory biographical chapter, a bibliographical essay, and extensive but nonpedantic notes.

Gray begins by suggesting that the neglect of Ortega by students of the history of ideas is in part the result of the same forces which helped shape Ortega’s thought, which were produced by the confused state of twentieth century Spanish politics. It was only after the death of Francisco Franco that this period of Spain’s intellectual history was opened to scrutiny. Gray suggests that such neglect may even be related to the national temperament of Spain, whose definition occupied Oretega all his life: “Spaniards have preferred to keep their great men alive in ceremony and in informal memory rather than in intimate literary portraits.” Finally (and partly as a result of all these facts) Ortega’s copious writings have only recently been collected and reprinted in full.

Yet in addition to such practical factors contributing to the neglect of Ortega, Gray acknowledges that one other major reason for such neglect is the tendency on the part of historians of philosophy to see Ortega as “a derivative, popularizing thinker” who drew many of his ideas from the German philosophers whom he had assimilated as a student in Germany in his younger years. This is a more serious charge, and a potentially justified reason for neglect. As a result, Gray is obliged to confront it head-on. Drawing both on his own analysis of Ortega’s works as well as that of other commentators, he concludes that, at least in certain works, Ortega’s philosophical originality was much greater than has frequently been supposed.

As an example he offers one of Ortega’s earliest essays, Meditaciones del Quijote (1914; Meditations on Quixote, 1961). Gray sides with Philip Silver in holding that far from merely echoing his German masters, Ortega had already worked himself free from his too-great dependence on Edmund Husserl, to whom he was in fact implicitly responding. Husserl had held that in order to achieve what he referred to as the “consciousness of” the perceived world, it was necessary to effect a suspension or bracketing—which he called the phenomenological reduction, the “epoche”—of our “natural attitude.” Ortega, in contrast, insisted that “no phenomenological reduction could miraculously remove us from our intimate entanglement” with the world. Or, as he put it somewhat more aphoristically to emphasize the fact that we are inherently involved with our surroundings, “I am myself plus my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I cannot save myself”

Though this disagreement with Husserl may seem an abstruse and a largely technical point, it is in fact central to an understanding of the way Gray perceives Ortega, for it was this rejection of Husserl’s uninvolved “suspension” of natural attitude which produced one of Ortega’s philosophically most interesting concepts, that of Ia razon vital, “living reasoning.” This notion was Ortega’s solution to what he perceived to be the crisis of modern European philosophy. He believed that modern philosophy, which he understood as having begun with Rene’ Descartes, had led to a split between rational or scientific thought and the relativisitic private perception of the individual. Ortega offered Ia razon vital as a “form of thought that would restore to each [of these two manifolds] its proper relation to the other. Reason was always rooted in life.” Gray suggests that this concept, contained in embryo in the early Meditations on Quixote, was developed throughout Ortega’s life, later finding expression in the related concept of Ia razon historica.

Even though he defends Ortega from the charges of being merely a popularizer, Gray readily concedes that “despite great efforts in the later part of his life, Ortega did not become a truly systematic thinker.” This fact in his view at least explains, if it does not justify, the widespread philosophical opinion that Ortega’s work is of less than the highest importance. Gray’s evidence seems to point in any case to a related conclusion, namely that it is precisely because Ortega did not become a systematic thinker that his works have importance today. If Ortega’s most interesting central idea is his rejection of the dichotomy of thought and world (or perhaps of two kinds of thinking: scientific and individual), it makes sense that his written works would themselves be both more fragmentary and more...

(The entire section is 2217 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Library Journal. CXIV, May 1, 1989, p.84.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 13, 1989, p.1113.