What Is Philosophy? contains a series of lectures that José Ortega y Gasset gave in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1928 and then in Madrid, Spain, in 1929. The lectures were not a traditional academic course in philosophy introducing the perennial problems in the field but a course that analyzed the very activity of philosophizing. Ortega explains that in the last half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the prestige of philosophy suffered under the “imperialism of physics.” Physics owed its success to its uniting within itself the rigor of mathematical deduction, the confirmability of its findings through observation, and the opportunity of making the world more comfortable through technology. Philosophy could boast of nothing comparable. However, by the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century, philosophy rebounded. One reason for this was the demotion of physics as the paradigm of knowledge. A second reason was a dissatisfaction with the individual sciences, which provide only those parts of reality that come within the province of their methods, unlike philosophy, which offers a total view, being rooted in a vital need to know, or to attain a synoptic vision of, the whole.

The Whole as a System

Philosophy has as its object each thing that exists as an integral part of the whole; it seeks to locate everything in the total scheme of things. Therefore, the object of philosophical knowledge is the whole as a system. The method of philosophical inquiry consists of the principles of autonomy, which stipulates that every truth in the philosophical system must be demonstrable entirely within the system itself, and of pantonomy, which stipulates that the philosopher should seek to grasp the whole by showing what every particular thing is and how it fits into the total scheme of things. What is known to be true must be directly intuited or immediately present in a manner appropriate to itself; therefore, knowledge of sensory objects requires that they be present to the senses and knowledge of concepts requires that they be present to the mind. Philosophy must determine what things have an absolutely certain existence because they are directly intuited. They constitute the basic “data of the universe.”

The physical world with its contents does not qualify as such a datum because, as René Descartes showed, it may be doubted; hence, realism must be rejected. What does qualify as a datum is thought; as Descartes proved, even when doubting one is thinking. Thought, then, “is the only thing in the Universe whose existence cannot be denied, because to deny is to think.” Moreover, thought is unique inasmuch as that at the moment it occurs, it fully manifests itself as it really is; nothing of itself is hidden. All that one knows exists for certain is one’s mind and its ideas; one cannot know that anything outside one’s mind exists for certain. This is the philosophical doctrine of Idealism.


Idealism understands that the external world and its contents are nothing other than ideas in one’s mind; their existence somehow depends on one’s perception of them. Therefore, if one simply closes one’s eyes, the whole visible world instantly vanishes. However, where is the world? One cannot say it is outside one’s mind because one cannot escape one’s mind to see whether the world is really out there independently of one’s thought. Hence, the world must in some sense be contained within one’s mind. However, in saying this, one supposes that the part of one’s mind containing external objects such as chairs and tables takes on their physical properties—so one is reduced to the absurdity of supposing that one’s thought is round or square, has a certain color, and occupies space. If the idealist rejoins by saying that it is not the world itself that is inside the mind, but just an image of it, then one is left again with the untenable position that the world is completely outside the mind and therefore unknowable to it.

Ortega escaped the idealist’s dilemma by suggesting that the world is neither literally inside nor wholly outside one’s mind but is inseparably linked with one’s thinking of it—just as right is linked with left or concave with convex. Thus, to think at all is to think of the world, and to think of the world is simply to think: “The external world does not exist except in my thinking of it, but the external world...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

Life as Fundamental Being

As the basic datum of philosophy, or that which can be intuited with absolute certainty, life is the fundamental being for Ortega. His conception of being is quite unlike the traditional conceptions—the ancient conception of being as a “thing” or the modern conception of it as “innermost subjectivity.” For Ortega, being as living is an intimacy that one has with both the self and things. Unlike the old idea of being as something independent and self-sufficient, Ortega understands it is as mutual need: A person, to be, needs the world, and the world, to be, needs the person. “One’s living” replaces “being” or “existence” as the fundamental term of philosophy; all else is encompassed by one’s life. Ortega’s position supersedes, by absorbing and going beyond, idealism and realism. In affirming life as the basic reality, Ortega equally affirms the reality of both the conscious self (subject) and the world (object) in which the self finds itself. Life is more primordial than either thought or the world. Thinking is but an activity of one’s living self that would cease if one were dead. Moreover, the world is the world one finds oneself in as a living being. There is nothing that can possibly contradict the reality of one’s life because everything else can be doubted and presupposes that life.

Self-Knowledge, Freedom, and Time

More than what is described by biology, life is what one is, what one does, and what happens to one. Its first attribute (category) is self-knowledge, or self-discovery. What is known or discovered is not just the self but also the world that is inseparably linked with it; one is aware of living in the world, of acting within it, and of responding to things in it. Thus, one knows that one is an active agent who is productively occupied with things in the world—”life is preoccupation”; the world is the sphere of one’s activity. One preoccupies oneself with things—making and acting—for the purpose of improving one’s existence. In thinking, for example, one is preoccupied with things insofar as one thinks them and produces truths (philosophy). Those things that preoccupy one exist (in their primary sense) insofar as they exist for one’s purposes; they do not subsist or exist otherwise. However, when they cease to preoccupy, they obtrude themselves in one’s mind as self-subsistent things or as existing apart from one (in their secondary sense). However, even their self-subsistence is one’s concept or abstraction, and abstracting is uniquely a human activity or occupation. Hence, things subsist in themselves by virtue of one’s abstract preoccupation with them and so still exist for one. Through abstraction, one no longer occupies oneself directly with things or immediately experiences them as part of one’s life; one pushes them, and the life they represent, away from one, so to speak, and thereby...

(The entire section is 626 words.)


Additional Reading

Graham, John T. Theory of History in Ortega y Gasset: “The Dawn of Historical Reason.” Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997. This is a clear look at Ortega’s theory of history.

Gray, Rockwell. The Imperative of Modernity: An Intellectual Biography of José Ortega y Gasset. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. An extensive intellectual biography of José Ortega y Gasset that shows the development of his thought in all his major works. It places him in the history of international modernism at the turn of the century and considers his reaction to Spain’s cultural...

(The entire section is 319 words.)