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A Problem Restated

ISSUE:  Summer 1941

Toward a Philosophy of History. By Jose Ortega y Gasset. W. W. Norton and Company. $2.75.

The history of philosophic thought is for the most part a story of the finding of new ways of saying old things. It is necessary to find these new ways, because man’s deepest insights never achieve more than a halting and partial utterance. With our objective knowledge— with science—we can deal by means of explicit and permanent symbols; our metaphysical perceptions, our moral wisdom, must grope for expression in myths and parables whose meaning fades with the passing generations and must be rediscovered and reaffirmed in the language of a new age, Seen in the light of history there are no new problems for the philosopher. Seen in the here and now, their changing faces take on ever new aspects; the ancient answers no longer satisfy, and we turn for counsel to new voices, speaking in tongues we know.

Professor Whitehead has said that if a civilization is to endure it must combine a reverence for its symbols with the ability to change them. The functions of the philosopher and of the historian are here contrasted; the functions of prophet and priest, of creator and conservator. (Is it necessary to point out that the term “philosopher” is not coextensive with “professor of philosophy,” and that many of the latter are actually historians?) The philosopher deals with a new that is not new; we may say equally that the historian deals with an old that is not old; for what we call the historic sense is an awareness of the past as present, the seeing of the world today as a summation. For a philosophy of history, as for a history of philosophy, we must have a merging of the two functions. This is usually hard to achieve, for genuine philosophic insight is apt to go with a deficiency of historical sense. It is precisely because the philosopher cannot discern the meaning in a tradition that he is moved to utterance of his own; he sees his visions not as old truths reborn, but as new creations or revelations. The prophet is a revolutionist at heart; the stale air of tradition suffocates him, and he will have none of it.

Something like this has happened in the case of Jose” Ortega y Gasset’s “Toward a Philosophy of History.” The book consists of five essays, of which the first four fall within the somewhat loose scope of the title. The fifth, on the Argentine state and the Argentinean, is pure padding and dull to boot. The other four bear these titles: “The Sportive Origin of the State,” “The Unity and Diversity of Europe,” “Man the Technician,” and “History as a System.” They are quite readable, but it is hard to summarize their contents, as there is no central thesis around which the thought revolves but only a series of disconnected apercus. Some of these are extremely illuminating and suggestive, but their presentation suffers from the journalistic tricks of the author’s style, A charitable critic would call this style “provocative”; Seflor Ortega is a man of very positive ideas; these are introduced a la Chesterton in the form of paradoxes and with exaggerated emphasis. But Seflor Ortega lacks Chesterton’s mastery; fuse after fuse is touched off, but the paradoxes fail to explode, so that instead of stimulation there is only irritation. More serious than these defects of style is the lack of historical judgment displayed in some of the sweeping generalizations with which he sustains his argument. Some of these are simply silly, as when he says that in the fifteenth century Europe had lost its faith in God; or again, that by the year 1700 or thereabouts faith in reason had been constituted as a “collective belief,” as something socially operative. But as William James has remarked, a philosopher’s vision is more important than the arguments by which he defends it; and through the muddled thought and glib generalizations some such moments of vision emerge, so that the reader who is able to ignore the strident assertiveness of the manner will find some matter to reward him.

But the vision is fitful and clouded by the author’s lack of any genuine historical sense, There is much talk of the past and of our need to know it in order to understand the present. But for Seflor Ortega it is a past of the psychologist and anthropologist, of Sigmund Freud and Sir James Frazer; a past which man carries on his back like a bundle. Of a past of living men who suffered, hoped, or feared as we do today, who faced the same ultimate problems about the meaning of it all, there is hardly a hint. The past is viewed as an inheritance, but not as a tradition. Thus, in “The Sportive Origin of the State” the theory is advanced that civilized life is not the product of economic stress or military urgency, but a sort of by-product of the play-instinct: not something forced on man by a hostile Nature, but a spontaneous crea-, tion of his superabundant energy. The theory is supported by arguments based on rather dubious anthropological evidence and ad hoc etymologies. The idea of superabundant creative energy is put forward as a new idea, but it is in fact very old; and in one form or another its course can be traced like a red thread in the fabric of Western thought from ancient Greece to the present. Those who will may read the story in A. O. Lovejoy’s “Great Chain of Being.” Of this long tradition Seflor Ortega seems quite unaware.

In “The Unity and Diversity of Europe” he plays a well worn Hegelian trick on the ancient problem of the One and the Many, maintaining that the diversity is the unity. In “History as a System,” probably the most important of the essays and certainly the one that conforms most closely to the title of the book, he comes to grips with a fundamental metaphysical problem—the problem of the possibility of knowledge. All life, all that we experience, is change; all knowledge is of permanence. Out of the perpetual flux of a becoming the mind must lay hold on being, must pick out “objects” in their eternal stillness and arrange these in timeless patterns. To trace the story of man’s struggles with this problem is to write a history of metaphysics. The Ideas of Plato, the substances of Aristotle, the soul—these are all so many ways of finding a warrant for a being at the heart of this unceasing flow. In physics, in the world of things, we may ignore the flux by relegating change to the limbo of the contingent and accidental; but in history the old problem re-emerges with a new insistence, for history is change itself. This stone is the stone I picked up yesterday; that it has undergone subtle changes is irrelevant, since these are foreign to my intellectual purposes. But of what use to think of Jones as the man I met yesterday if the really important thing is that he is not the same, that the change produced by one more day of life is what makes him significant? Cresar across the Rubicon is physically the same Caesar who just now stood before it, but for history what a difference!

It need hardly be said that Seflor Ortega does not solve this problem, for it has no solution—none, that is, that can find expression in our symbols. For time and change are utterly simple; the uniqueness of the passing moment has an absolute character that eludes the relativities of our symbolic net, All we can hope to do is to keep alive our awareness of our inadequacy, to avoid what James called “vicious intellec-tualism.” This is no easy thing to do, and Seflor Ortega deserves high praise for the way he does it in this essay, even though he encounters the ancient pitfalls in his attempts to find an answer. “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is . . . history.” Say “a man” or “Jones” instead of “man,” and we may let it go at that.


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