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José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1956)


Spanish philosopher, essayist, and educator, founder of the magazine Revista de Occidente. Ortega y Gasset's writings range over history, politics, aesthetics and art criticism, as well as the history of philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. As an essayist Ortega was one of the finest of the 20th century in any language. In 1929 he published one of his best known works, The Revolt of the Masses, where he characterized the 20th-century society as dominated by masses of mediocre and indistinguishable individuals. Ortega's ideas converged those of other "mass society" theorists such as Karl Mannheim, Erich Fromm and Hannah Arendt.

"Minorities are individual or groups of individuals especially qualified. The masses are the collection of people not specially qualified." (from The Revolt of the Masses, 1930)

José Ortega y Gasset was born in Madrid, the son of  José Ortega y Munilla and  Dolores Gasset Chinchilla. His father was editor of El Imparcial's literary supplement El Lunes, founded by Eduardo Gasset y Artime, the father of Ortega's mother. Due to her influence, Ortega was enrolled in 1891 in a Jesuit school in Miraflores, Málaga. After graduating, Ortega studied  University of Deusto, Bilbao (1897-98) and University of Madrid (1898-1904), receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1904. Though he first knew no German, he continued his studies in the universities of Berlin, Leipzig and Marburg (1905-07), a center of neo-Kantianism, and worked two years as a professor of at Escuela Superior del Magisterio. At the age of twenty-eight, he was appointed professor of metaphysics at Central University of Madrid. In 1910 Ortega married in 1910 Rosa Spottorno Topete, whom he had met while finishing his doctoral thesis; they had three children.

Ortega was the founder or cofounder of several journals and newspapers, including Faro in 1908, Espãna review (1915-23), El Sol, and Revista de la Occidente (1923-36), which included such contributors as Rafael Alberti, Pio Baroja, Federico García Lorca, and Ramon Pérez de Ayala. In 1914 Ortega was elected to the Royal Spanish Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. He was also a cofounder of League of Political Education. During this period he developed a theory of social change based on education. With Pérez de Ayala and Gregorio Marañón, he established the Agrupación al servicio de la república (Group at the Service of the Republic) in 1931. Its aim was to "mobilize all Spanish intellectuals so as to form a large band of propagandists, and defenders of, the Spanish Republic."

After the outbreak of WWI, Ortega noted that the war "has lasted a year and I think I count myself among those writers who have written least about it." Ortega sympathized with the Entente. A liberal in politics, he opposed Primo de Rivera's dictatorship (1923-30) and resigned from his post as professor in protest against the military dictator, who had closed down the universities as a response to student unrest. Convinced that the monarchy could not any more unite the Spaniards toward a common goal,  he became a Republican. In the 1920's Ortega regarded both Fascism and Communism as violent and illegitimate minority movements that had no future. Upon the fall of Rivera and the abdication of King Alfonso XIII, Ortega sat in the constituent assembly of the Second Republic from 1931 to 1932, and he was deputy for the province of León and Civil Governor of Madrid. One year as an elected representative to the parliament made Ortega disillusioned, he withdrew and kept a pointed silence about Spanish politics from then on.

Ortega's son Miguel was shot at in June 1936 in a Madrid street. By that that time he was a fervent anti-Republican. Unwilling to support either side during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) or hold academic office under Franco, Ortega went with his family  into  voluntary exile in Argentina and Europe. In 1941 he became a professor of philosophy at the University of San Marcos, Lima.

Ortgea wrote with mastery of the language. In 1946 he said in a lecture in Lisbon: "Almost everything is in ruins. . . . Painting is in ruins—its shambles are cubism—; through it, Picasso's pictures look like a house demolished, or like a corner of the Rastro flea market. Music is in ruins—the Stravinsky of these last years exemplifies musical detritus. The economy—national and theoretical—is in ruins. Finally, feminity is ruined."

A much sought-after lecturer, Ortega was frequently invited to speak in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. Most of his writings were originally published in Spain's leading newspapers and journals, or delivered as lectures. In 1949 Ortega was invited by Chancellor R.M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago to Aspen, Colorado, in the celebration of the bicentenary of Goethe's birth. Ortega gave one of the two opening addresses with Albert Schweitzer. His theme was 'Experience of Life.' Ortega was paid $5,000 and travelling expenses. After his visit, the Aspen Institute took the name "Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies."

In 1948 Ortega founded with Julián Marías the Institute of Humanites in Madrid. Partly due to his ill health and lack of support the interdisciplinary institute was closed after two years. "Without me being able to find the cause, motive or pretext, the government has become rougher, not only with us, but with everyone," Ortega lamented in the early 1950s. "Along with this, although perhaps independent of that governmental attitude, the ecclesiastical censorship has been enormously extended in a way that we habe not seen for some time." During the postwar years, Ortega's literary production was uneven—his most ambitious efforts focused on concerns of humanistic education. In 1955 he was diagnosed of having an advanced stomach cancer. Ortega died in Madrid, on October 18, 1955.

"Conversation is the socializing instrument par excellence, and in its style one can see reflected the capacities of a race." (from Invertebrate Spain, 1922)

The Revolt of the Masses presented that society is composed of masses and dominant minorities. "The modern world is a civilized one; its inhabitant is not." Ortega's work echoed the warnings of 19th-century liberals that democracy carried with it the risk of tyranny by the majority. When earlier masses had recognized the superiority of elites, in modern times masses wanted to dominate. Bolshevism and Fascism were symptoms of usurpation of power by the "mass man." The opposite type is the "select man", who lives in the service of ideals. Ortega argued that "mass men" can be detected at every level of society; they live like everyone else, without vision or compelling moral code. The distinction does not correspond "upper" or "lover" classes, but goes between people, who exercise responsibility, judgment, and effort, and myopic scientists, the prototype of learned ignoramus. "The decisive matter is whether we attach out life to one or the other vehicle, to a maximum or a minimum of demands upon ourselves."

Ortega's main literary criticism is in his book La deshumanización del Arte e Ideas sobre la novela (1925, The Dehumanization of Art). He argued that literature is disguised philosophy and was shocked by writers like Pirandello. Artists should be content to be artists and not try to be prophets. The new art was as a flight from reality and from humanity. Ortega's term in the title of the book,"dehumanization," referred to the emergence of the modern painting, which has eliminated the human figure and human metaphors, and the notion that the quality of art is not based primarily on its content but on its form. As a reaction to Ortega's views, Salvador Dalí declared in a 1931 lecture at the Sala Capcir in Barcelona: "At the time when Spain is preparing to incorporate itself into an abominable bourgeois culture, out insults can never be enough for the new organizers of the slavery of the mind. Shit, shit, and more shit to all the Ortega y Gassets, all the Azorins, all the Maraños!" All three mentioned were at the time among the most widely read and admired intellectuals in Spain.

Ortega saw Goethe as an example of an author who was not true to his calling. A writer must have a vision. "A novelist, for instance, who tells me that a character is morose makes me work to imagine a morose person, but he should show me and make me discover that so-and-so is morose without telling me." Philosophically Ortega moved from neo-Kantianism to a form of existentialism that he expounded unsystematically in a pungent, popular style. Ortega's metaphysics began with a critique of both realism and idealism. Neither view is acceptable, prior them is the category of life: "I am not my life. This, which is reality, is made up of me and of things. Things are not me and I am not things: we are mutually transcendent, but both are immanent in that absolute coexistence which is life." (from Unas lecciones de metafisica, 1966) Ortega identified reality with "my life", which is "myself" and "my circumstances" (yo soy yo y mi circumstancia—I am I and my circumstances).

When the writers of the older generation, including Miguel de Unamuno, used such vague concepts as "national spirit" and "national psychology," Ortega emphasized sociology based on science, rational ethics, and aesthetics. Opposing Taine's views of the psychological, geographical, and biological forces behind national character, he once noted that a whole generation of Spanish intellectuals had been "badly educated by Hippolyte Taine." Culture sets problems which each generation must resolve. The "generation" that brings about a change of collective vigencias , the conforming elements of a text or a society, is the basic historical unit. One of Ortega's root metaphors describes life as shipwreck—stressing the human need for action and invention in order to survive. We are in continual danger of catastrophe, and in the struggle our chief asset is reason. "Life is a task," he often stressed. Under the influence of Spengler, he saw that European civilization and Spanish in particular, was falling into decay. The title of one his book, España invertebrada (1921, Invertebrate Spain), referred to his belief that his country lacked a backbone.

In the 1920s and 1930s, under the spell of Ortega y Gasset, Bergson, Spengler, Keyserling and others, a reaction arose among intellectuals against the democratic and social enlightenment. The philosopher's attempt to make the "revolt of the masses" responsible for the alienation and degradation of modern culture, prepared indirectly way for fascism. Politically Ortega favored a form of aristocracy—culture is maintained by an intellectual aristocracy because the revolutions of the masses threaten to destroy the achievements of the elite, doctors and engineers, teachers and businessmen, industrialists and technologists. From the late 1920s Ortega's thought showed the influence of Martin Heidegger, whose major work, Sein und Zeit (1927, Being and Time), was not transparently political but was later interpreted against his Nazi sympathies.

For further reading: Ortega y Gasset: an Outline of His Philosophy by J. Ferrater Mora (1956); El sistema de Ortega y Gasset by C. Morón Arrayo (1968); Ortega y Gasset by A.Guy (1969); Ortega y Gasset: Circumstance and Vocation by Julián Marías (1970); Introducción a Ortega by P. Garagorri (1970); Man and His Circumstances: Ortega as Educator by R. McClintock (1971); Phenomenology and Art: José Ortega y Gasset, ed. P. Silver (1975); José Ortega y Gasset by Victor Quimette (1982); Ortega y Gasset and the Question of Modernity, ed. Patrick H. Dust (1989); An Introduction to the Politics and Philosophy of José Ortega y Gasset by Andrew Dobson (1989); The Imperative of Modernity by Rockwell Gray (1989); José Ortega y Gasset's Metaphysical Innovation by Antonio Rodríguez Huéscar (1995); The Social Thought of Ortega Y Gasset: A Systematic Synthesis in  Postmodernism and Interdisciplinarity by John T. Graham (2001)  

Selected works:

  • Adán en el Paraíso, 1910  [Adam In Paradise]
  • MMeditaciones del Quijote, 1914
    - Meditations on Quixoté (tr. Evelyn Rugg and Diego Martín, 1961)
  • Personas, obras, cosas, 1916
  • El espectador[: colección de ensayos filosóficos y literarios], 1916-34 (8 vols., in 1 vol. 1943)
  • España invertebrada. Bosquejo de algunos pensamientos históricos, 1921 (rev. in 1922 and 1934)
    - Invertebrate Spain (tr. Mildred Adams, 1937)
  • El tema de nuestro tiempo, 1923 (2. ed., 1928)
    - The Modern Theme (tr. James Cleugh, 1931)
  • Ideas sobre la novela, 1925
    - Taiteen irtautuminen inhimillisestä ja Ajatuksia romaanista: kaksi esseetä (suom. Sinikka Kallio-Visapää, 1961)
  • La deshumanización del arte e ideas sobre la novela, 1925
    - The Dehumanization of Art (tr. Helene Weyl, 1948) / The Dehumanization of Art, and Other Writings on Art and Culture (tr. Willard R. Trask, 1956) / Velázquez, Goya and The Dehumanization of Art (tr. Alexis Brown, in Selected Works, 1972)
    - Taiteen irtautuminen inhimillisestä ja Ajatuksia romaanista: kaksi esseetä (suom. Sinikka Kallio-Visapää, 1961)
  • Espíritu de la letra, 1927
  • Mirabeau o el político, 1928-1929
    - Mirabeau: An Essay on the Nature of Statesmanship (tr. 1975)
  • Tríptico, 1927-33 (3 vols.)
  • La rebelión de las masas, 1929
    -The Revolt of the Masses (tr. J.R. Carey, 1932; Anthony Kerrigan, 1986)
    - Massojen kapina (suom. Sinikka Kallio-Visapää, 1952)
  • Misión de la Universidad, 1930
    - Mission of the University, 1944 (translated with an introduction, by Howard Lee Nostrand, 1944; with a new introduction by Clark Kerr, 1992)
  • La redención de las provincias y la decencia nacional, 1931
  • Obras de José Ortega y Gasset, 1932
  • Goethe desde dentro ; el punto de vista en las artes ; el hombre interesante, 1932
  • Mission du bibliothécaire, 1935
    - The Mission of the Librarian (tr. James Lewis and Ray Carpenter, 1961)
  • Estudios sobre el amor, 1939
    - On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (tr. Toby Talbot, 1957)
  • Ensimismamiento y alteración: Meditación de la técnica, 1939
    - History as a System and Other Essays Toward a Philosophy of History (afterword by John William Miller, 1941)
    - Ajatuksia tekniikasta (suom. Antti Immonen, 2006)
  • El libro de las misiones, 1940
  • Mocedades, 1941
  • Esquema de las crisis y otros ensayos, 1942 - Historian kriiseistä ja muita esseitä  (suom. Sinikka Kallio-Visapää, 1956)
  • Teoría de Andalucía y otros ensayos, 1942 (2. ed., 1944)
  • Obras de José Ortega y Gasset, 1943 (3 ed., 2 vols.)
  • El Espectador : de José Ortega y Gasset, 1943
  • Concord and Liberty, 1946 (translated from the Spanish by Helene Weyl)
  • Obras completas, 1946-1969/1946-1983 (11 vols.; 12 vols., 1983)
  • Papeles sobre Velázquez y Goya, 1950
  • En torno a Galileo, 1956
    - Man and Crisis (tr. Mildred Adams, 1958)
  • Velázquez, 1954 (first published in Switzerland in 1943)
  • Meditación de la Técnica, 1957
  • Ensayos escogidos, 1957
  • El hombre y la gente, 1957
    - Man and People (tr. Willard R. Trask, 1957)
  • Idea del teatro. Con un grabado, 1958
  • Kant, Hegel, Dilthey, 1958
  • Meditación del pueblo joven, 1958
  • ¿Qué es filosofía?, 1958
    - What is Philosophy? (tr. Mildred Adams, 1960)
  • La idea de principio en Leibniz y la evolución de la teoría deductiva, 1958
    - The Idea of Principle in Leibniz and the Evolution of Deductive Theory (tr. Mildred Adams, 1971)
  • History as a System and Other Essays, 1961 (afterword by John William Miller)
  • Una interpretación de la Historia Universal, 1960
    - An Interpretation of Universal History (tr. Mildred Adams, 1973)
  • Orígen y epílogo de la filosofía y otros ensayos de filosofía, 1960
    - The Origin of Philosophy (tr. Toby Talbot, 1967)
  • La caza y los toros, 1962
  • Pasado y porvenir para el hombre actual, 1962
  • Misión del bibliotecario: y otros ensayos afines, 1962
  • Niñez y mocedad de Ortega, 1964
  • Notas, 1964 (9. ed.)
  • Sus mejores páginas, 1966 (ed. Manuel Durán)
  • Unas lecciones de metafísica, 1966 (written in 1932-33)
    - Some Lessons in Metaphysics (tr. Mildred Adams, 1969)
  • Meditations on Hunting, 1972 (translated by Howard B. Wescott)
  • Escritos políticos, 1973 (3 vols.)
  • Discursos políticos, 1973 (ed. Paulino Garagorri)
  • Epistolario, 1974
  • Phenomenology and Art, 1975 (translated, with an introd. by Philip W. Silver)
  • Sobre la razón histórica, 1979
    - Historical Reason (tr. Philip W. Silver, 1984)
  • Ensayos, 1978 (ed. Ernesto Livacic Gazzano)
  • El espectador: antología, 1980 (ed. Paulino Garagorri)
  • Ensayos sobre la «Generación del 98» y otros escritores españoles, 1981
  • Misión de la Universidad y Otros Ensayos sobre Educación y Pedagogía, 1981
  • Investigaciones psicológicas, 1982
    - Psychological Investigations (tr. Jorge García-Gómez, 1987)
  • Obras Completas de José Ortega y Gasset, 1983 (12 vols.)
  • ¿Qué es conocimiento?, 1984
    - What Is Knowledge? (tr. Jorge García-Gómez, 2002)
  • Espíritu de la letra, 1985 (ed. Ricardo Senabre)
  • Ortega y Gasset: una educación para la vida: antología, 1986 (ed. Esteban Inciarte)
  • De la política, 1987 (ed. Francisco Alvarez)
  • Epistolario completo Ortega-Unamuno, 1987 (ed. Laureano Robles Carcedo et al.)
  • Meditaciones sobre la literatura y el arte, 1987 (ed. E. Inman Fox)
  • Cartas de un joven español (1891-1908), 1991 (ed. Soledad Ortega)
  • Ortega y Gasset: Antología, 1991 (ed. Pedro Cerezo Galán)
  • Ortega y Gasset, 1992 (ed. James Maharg)
  • Notas de trabajo: epílogo de José Ortega y Gasset, 1994 (ed. José Luis Molinuevo)
  • El sentimiento estético de la vida: Antología, 1995 (ed. José Luis Molinuevo)
  • Textos sobre el 98: antología política (1908-1914), 1998 (ed. Andrés de Blas)
  • La vida alrededor José Ortega Gasset, 1998  (ed. José Luis Molinuevo)
  • La obra de Ortega y Gasset, 2000 (ed. Gregorio Burgueño Alvarez)
  • Obras Selectas, 2000 (foreword by Fernando R. Lafuente)
  • Dos visiones de España, 2005 (foreword by José María Ridao)  
  • Obras completas, 2004-2010 (10 vols.)
  • Escritos de Ortega y Gasset En La Nacion 1923/1952, 2005 (foreword by Natalio R. Botana)
  • Vieja y nueva política: y otros escritos programáticos, 2007 (ed. Pedro Cerezo Galán)
  • Correspondencia inédita: Marañón, Ortega, Unamuno, 2008 (ed. Antonio López Vega)
  • Correspondencia: José Ortega y Gasset, Helene Weyl, 2008 (ed. Gesine Märtens)
  • La idea del teatro y otros escritos sobre teatro, 2008 (ed. Antonio Tordera)

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