José Ortega y Gasset Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Ortega’s books, journalism, and lectures commanded attention throughout Europe. His renown helped to bring Spain out of a long period of cultural isolation, and his thought contributed greatly to his country’s intellectual reawakening.

Early Life

José Ortega y Gasset was born in Madrid, Spain, on May 9, 1883. His father, José Ortega y Munilla, was a novelist and had formerly been editor of El Imparcial, a leading Madrid newspaper founded by his grandfather. He was first taught by private tutors. Subsequently, like so many European intellectuals before him, he was schooled by Jesuits, at the College of Miraflores del Pala in Málaga. He later studied at the University of Madrid and at the universities of Leipzig, Berlin, and Marburg in Germany. In 1904, he received a doctorate in philosophy and literature from the University of Madrid, and in the German years that followed he deeply imbibed neo-Kantian philosophy. Ortega was named professor of metaphysics at the University of Madrid in 1910-1911. His association with that institution was to continue until 1936, when he went into self-imposed exile during the Spanish Civil War.

The same year that he received his chair, he founded Faro (beacon), a philosophical review. Shortly thereafter, he founded a second, Europa. These were the first of many periodicals he was to found during his long journalistic career. By roughly the age of thirty, Ortega was well launched upon his multifaceted career as philosopher, journalist, author, educator, and statesman. Having spent the years 1905-1907 at German universities, he had become conversant with northern European ideas. He believed that Spanish thought would tend to be superficial as long as Spain remained cut off from the cultural roots of Europe. In his own journals and in the newspapers, he tirelessly argued for a reintegration. By the time Spain’s intellectual reawakening came to pass, Ortega was famous throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

Life’s Work

For several years, Ortega had been writing on Spanish problems, in his own reviews and in El Imparcial, but it was a speech he made in 1914 that catapulted him into national prominence. The speech, entitled “Old and New Politics” and delivered at the Teatro de la Comedia, denounced the monarchy. Shortly thereafter, the League for Political Education was founded, and Ortega participated in the establishment of its monthly organ, España.

Also in 1914, Ortega published Meditaciones del Quijote (Meditations on Quixote, 1961), which contains the germs of his philosophy. The work contrasts the depth and profundity of German culture with the perceived superficiality of Spanish and Mediterranean culture. At this same time, the German writer Thomas Mann was exploring in fiction the different frames of mind in northern and southern Europe. In 1917, Ortega conducted a lecture tour in Argentina. Upon his return to Spain, he became one of the founders of the liberal newspaper El Sol. The paper was intended to counter the conservatism of El Imparcial, which his father had once edited.

The 1920’s were a period of great literary productivity for Ortega. The title of España invertebrada (1921; Invertebrate Spain, 1937) is a metaphor for the nation’s lack of an intellectual elite that could lead it out of its morass. Many essays that Ortega originally wrote for El Sol appear in this book and in El tema de nuestro tiempo (1923; The Modern Theme, 1931). The latter explores the different concepts of relativity that have influenced the author and states his philosophy more systematically than do his first two books. Also in 1923, Ortega founded yet another magazine: La Revista de Occidente, a literary monthly that soon came to be held in very high regard. It was in this journal that many European writers first appeared in Spanish.

By the end of the decade, Ortega and his fellow philosopher Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo were recognized as the foremost intellectuals in Spain. In 1928, Ortega again traveled in South America, where he was even more popular than Unamuno. His reception there was tremendously enthusiastic, but he soon returned to Spain to participate in the revolution that would...

(The entire section is 1792 words.)