José Ortega y Gasset

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José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883 - October 18, 1955) was a Spanish philosopher and humanist who greatly influenced the cultural and literary renaissance of Spain in the twentieth century. He was a professor at the University of Madrid and founder of several publications, including the magazine Revista de Occidente, which promoted translation of and commentary upon the key figures and tendencies in contemporary philosophy. One of Ortega’s best-known works, The Revolt of the Masses (1930), described the rise to power and action of the “masses” in society, while tracing the genesis of the “mass-man” and analyzing his constitution. Ortega was critical of the primitivism and barbarism which he perceived in the “mass-man,” and recommended that social leadership should be placed in the hands of a minority of intellectually cultivated and independent-minded individuals.

As part of his own “project of life,” Ortega acted on his convictions, resigning his post as professor at the University of Madrid in protest against the military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera; becoming a Republican when he felt that the monarchy could no longer hold Spain together; and going into voluntary exile during the Spanish Civil War rather than align himself with Franco.


José Ortega y Gasset' was born in Madrid, Spain on May 9, 1883. Ortega was first schooled by the Jesuit Fathers of San Estanislao in Miraflores del Palo, Málaga (1891-1897). He attended the University of Deusto, Bilbao (1897-1898) and the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at the Complutense University of Madrid (1898-1904), receiving a doctorate in philosophy. From 1905 to 1907, he continued his studies in Germany at Leipzig, Nuremberg, Cologne, Berlin and, above all Marburg. At Marburg, he was influenced by the neo-Kantianism of Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp, among others. In 1908 he founded the journal Faro.

Upon his return to Spain (1909) Ortega was named numerary professor of Psychology, Logic and Ethics at the Escuela Superior del Magisterio de Madrid, and in October 1910 he was granted the Chair (Cátedra) in Metaphysics of the Complutense University, empty since the death of Nicolás Salmerón. Ortega married Rosa Spottorno Topete in 1910; they had three children. In 1914 Ortega was elected to the Royal Spanish Academy of Moral and Political Sciences.

Ortega shared his generation’s preoccupation with the problems of Spain, and in 1915 he founded the periodical España. In 1917 he became a co-founder and contributor to the newspaper El Sol, where he published as a series of essays his two principal works: España invertebrada (Invertebrate Spain); and La rebelión de las masas (The Revolt of the Masses), which made him internationally famous. He founded the Revista de Occidente in 1923, remaining its director until 1936. This publication promoted translation of and commentary upon the most important figures and tendencies in contemporary philosophy, including Oswald Spengler, Johan Huizinga, Edmund Husserl, Georg Simmel, Jakob von Uexküll, Heinz Heimsoeth, Franz Brentano, Hans Driesch, Ernst Müller, Alexander Pfänder, and Bertrand Russell.

Ortega was a cofounder of the League of Political Education, and with Ramón Pérez de Ayala and Gregorio Marañón, he founded Group at the Service of the Republic in 1931. A political liberal, Ortega resigned his post as professor in protest against the military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1923-1930). He grew convinced that the monarchy could no longer unite the Spaniards, and became a Republican. After 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. After one year as an elected representative to the parliament, Ortega, disillusioned, withdrew from politics and remained silent about Spanish politics for the rest of his life. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), he was a voluntary exile in Europe and Argentina, and in 1941 he became Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Marcos, Lima. At the end of World War II he returned to Spain and founded the Institute of Humanities in Madrid in 1948, but it closed after two years because of lack of support. He lectured frequently in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. Ortega died in Madrid on October 18, 1955.


The Revolt of the Masses

The essence of Ortega’s philosophy was that it was not merely an intellectual exercise but addressed the political and social problems, such as the rise of fascism, which affected Europe, and particularly Spain, at that time. Ortega’s most famous work, The Revolt of the Masses, was published in 1930, with an English translation authorized two years later. The work described the rise to power and action of the “masses” in society, while tracing the genesis of the “mass-man” and analyzing his constitution. Ortega's ideas combined some elements of other 'mass society' theorists such as Karl Mannheim, Erich Fromm and Hannah Arendt.

Ortega was critical of the primitivism and barbarism which he perceived in the “mass-man” and frequently contrasted the “noble life” with the “common life.” Ortega’s “masses” did not pertain to any particular social class; his target was a particular type of educated bourgeouis European, the “senorito satisfecho,” (satisfied little prince), who believes he is an expert in everything and attempts to impose his narrow expertise on the world around him, contemptuous of the “ignorance” of others. Ortega viewed this attitude as a negative influence on the progress of human civilization, and recommended that social leadership should be placed in the hands of a minority of intellectually cultivated and independent-minded individuals.


Ortega took up the ideas of early twentieth-century German philosophers and developed them in response to the social and political crises of his own era. He termed his philosophy “vital reason(ratiovitalism) and proposed that every person had a responsibility to exercise reason in an effort to deal creatively with the problems surrounding him. He considered the fundamental reality to be the life of the individual, and substituted reason in response to life for absolute reason, and truth viewed from the perspective of each individual for absolute truth.

His ideas developed first as a response to Spanish decadence; later he concerned himself with the rise of fascism and with cultural issues such as abstract art and the popular revolt against high moral and intellectual standards. He did not believe that philosophy could be detached from the study of history.


Ortega y Gasset claimed that philosophy has a critical duty to lay siege to existing beliefs in order to promote new ideas and to explain reality. In order to accomplish this task the philosopher must leave behind prejudices and previous beliefs and investigate the essential reality of the universe. Ortega proposed that philosophy must, as Hegel proposed, overcome both the lack of idealism (in which reality gravitated around the ego) and ancient-medieval realism (which he viewed as an undeveloped point of view in which the subject is located outside the world), in order to focus in the only truthful reality, life itself. He suggested that there is no “me” without “things” and that “things” are nothing without “me.” I as a human being can not be detached from my circumstances (the world). This led Ortega to pronounce his famous maxim "Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia" ("I am myself and my circumstance") which became the core of his philosophy. For Ortega, as for Husserl, the Cartesian cogito ergo sum was insufficient to explain reality; he proposed instead a system where life is the sum of the ego and circumstance. This circunstancia is oppressive; therefore, there is a continual dialectical exchange of forces between the person and his or her circumstances and, as a result, life is a drama that exists between necessity and freedom.

Since each person’s life and circumstances are unique, each individual has a unique perspective on truth. Ortega wrote that life is at the same time fate and freedom, and that freedom “is being free inside of a given fate. Fate gives us an inexorable repertory of determinate possibilities, that is, it gives us different destinies. We accept fate and within it we choose one destiny.” Within this inescapable fate we must therefore be active, decide and create a “project of life.” We should not be like those who live a conventional life according to customs and accepted social structures, who prefer an unconcerned and imperturbable life because they are afraid of the duty of choosing a “project.”


Centering his philosophical system around the reality of everyday life, Ortega y Gasset went beyond Descartes' cogito ergo sum and asserted "I live therefore I think." He developed a Nietzsche-inspired perspectivism, by adding a non-relativistic character in which absolute truth does exist and would be obtained by the sum of all perspectives of all lives, since for each human being life takes a concrete form and life itself is a true radical reality from which any philosophical system must derive. Ortega coined the terms "razón vital" ("vital reason" or "reason with life as its foundation") to refer to a new type of reason that constantly defends the life from which it has emerged; and "raciovitalismo", a theory that knowledge originates in the radical reality of life, one of whose essential components is reason itself. This system of thought, which he introduced in History as System, escaped from Nietzsche's vitalism in which life responded to impulses; for Ortega, reason is crucial to life, and is necessary to create and develop the “project of life.”

Razón Histórica

For Ortega y Gasset, vital reason was also “historical reason” (Razón Histórica) because individuals and societies were not detached from their past. In order to understand a reality we must understand, as Dilthey pointed out, its history. In Ortega’s words, humans have “no nature, but history,” and reason should not focus on what is (static) but what becomes (dynamic).


Ortega y Gasset had a powerful influence not only because of the philosophical themes of his works, but also because his literary style made him accessible to the general public.

Among the philosophers strongly influenced by Ortega y Gasset were Manuel García Morente, Joaquín Xirau, Xavier Zubiri, José Gaos, Luis Recaséns Siches, Manuel Granell, Francisco Ayala, María Zambrano, Pedro Laín Entralgo, José Luis López-Aranguren, Julián Marías, and Paulino Garagorri.

Ortega y Gasset also influenced existentialism, especially the work of Martin Heidegger, as he often pointed out.

Excerpts from The Revolt of the Masses

There is one fact which, whether for good or ill, is of utmost importance in the public life of Europe at its present moment. The fact is the accession of the masses to complete social power. As the masses, by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest general crisis that can afflict peoples, nations and civilization.

Minorities are individual or groups of individuals especially qualified. The masses are the collection of people not specially qualified.

Strictly speaking, the mass, as a psychological fact, can be defined without waiting for individuals to appear in mass formation. In the presence of one individual we can decide whether he is "mass" or not. The mass is all that which sets no value on itself—good or ill—based on specific grounds, but which feels itself "just like everybody," and nevertheless is not concerned about it; is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else.

The mass believes that it has the right to impose and to give force of law to motions born in the café. I doubt whether there have been other periods of history in which the multitude has come to govern more directly than in our own.

The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. As they say in the United States: "to be different is to be indecent." The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated.

It is illusory to imagine that the mass-man of to-day will be able to control, by himself, the process of civilization. I say process, and not progress. The simple process of preserving our present civilization is supremely complex, and demands incalculably subtle powers. Ill-fitted to direct it is this average man who has learned to use much of the machinery of civilization, but who is characterized by root-ignorance of the very principles of that civilization.

The command over the public life exercised today by the intellectually vulgar is perhaps the factor of the present situation which is most novel, least assimilable to anything in the past. At least in European history up to the present, the vulgar had never believed itself to have "ideas" on things. It had beliefs, traditions, experiences, proverbs, mental habits, but it never imagine itself in possession of theoretical opinions on what things are or ought to be. To-day, on the other hand, the average man has the most mathematical "ideas" on all that happens or ought to happen in the universe. Hence he has lost the use of his hearing. Why should he listen if he has within him all that is necessary? There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life, in which he does not intervene, blind and deaf as he is, imposing his "opinions."

But,is this not an advantage? Is it not a sign of immense progress that the masses should have "ideas," that is to say, should be cultured? By no means. The "ideas" of the average man are not genuine ideas, nor is their possession culture. Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game imposed by it. It is no use speaking of ideas when there is no acceptance of a higher authority to regulate them, a series of standards to which it is possible to appeal in a discussion. These standards are the principles on which culture rests. I am not concerned with the form they take. What I affirm is that there is no culture where there are no standards to which our fellow-man can have recourse. There is no culture where there are no principles of legality to which to appeal. There is no culture where there is no acceptance of certain final intellectual positions to which a dispute may be referred. There is no culture where economic relations are not subject to a regulating principle to protect interests involved. There is no culture where aesthetic controversy does not recognize the necessity of justifying the work of art.

When all these things are lacking there is no culture; there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism. And let us not deceive ourselves, this is what is beginning to appear in Europe under the progressive rebellion of the masses. The traveler knows that in the territory there are no ruling principles to which it is possible to appeal. Properly speaking, there are no barbarian standards. Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.

Under Fascism there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions. This is the new thing: the right not to be reasonable, the "reason of unreason." Here I see the most palpable manifestation of the new mentality of the masses, due to their having decided to rule society without the capacity for doing so. In their political conduct the structure of the new mentality is revealed in the rawest, most convincing manner. The average man finds himself with "ideas" in his head, but he lacks the faculty of ideation. He has no conception even of the rare atmosphere in which ideals live. He wishes to have opinions, but is unwilling to accept the conditions and presuppositions that underlie all opinion. Hence his ideas are in effect nothing more than appetites in words.

To have an idea means believing one is in possession of the reasons for having it, and consequently means believing that there is such a thing as reason, a world of intelligible truths. To have ideas, to form opinions, is identical with appealing to such an authority, submitting oneself to it, accepting its code and its decisions, and therefore believing that the highest form of intercommunication is the dialogue in which the reasons for our ideas are discussed. But the mass-man would feel himself lost if he accepted discussion, and instinctively repudiates the obligation of accepting that supreme authority lying outside himself. Hence the "new thing" in Europe is "to have done with discussions," and detestation is expressed for all forms of intercommunication, which imply acceptance of objective standards, ranging from conversation to Parliament, and taking in science. This means that there is a renunciation of the common life of barbarism. All the normal processes are suppressed in order to arrive directly at the imposition of what is desired. The hermeticism of the soul which, as we have seen before, urges the mass to intervene in the whole of public life.

List of works

Much of Ortega y Gasset's work consists of lecture courses published years after they were given, often posthumously. This list attempts to list works in chronological order by when they were written, rather than when they were published.

  • Meditaciones del Quijote (Meditations on Don Quixote, 1914)
  • Vieja y nueva política (Old and new politics, 1914)
  • Investigaciones psicológicas (Psychological Investigations, course given 1915-1916|16 and published in 1982)
  • Personas, Obras, Cosas (People, Works, Things, articles and essays written 1904-1912: "Ernest Renan," "Adán en el Paraíso"—"Adam in Paradise," "La pedagogía social como programa político"—"Pedagogy as a political program," "Problemas culturales"—"Cultural problems," etc., published 1916)
  • El Espectador (The Spectator, 8 volumes published 1916-1934)
  • España Invertebrada (Invertebrate Spain, 1921)
  • El tema de nuestro tiempo (The theme of our time, 1923)
  • Las Atlántidas (The Atlantides, 1924)
  • La deshumanización del Arte e Ideas sobre la novela (The Dehumanization of art and Ideas about the Novel, 1925)
  • Espíritu de la letra (The spirit of the letter 1927)
  • Mirabeau o el político (Mirabeau or politics, 1928-1929)
  • ¿Qué es filosofía? (What is philosophy? 1928-1929, course published posthumously in 1957)
  • Immanuel Kant (1929-1931)
  • ¿Qué es conocimiento? (What is knowledge? Published in 1984, covering three courses taught in 1929, 1930, and 1931, entitled, respectively: "Vida como ejecución (El ser ejecutivo)"—"Life as execution (The Executive Being)," "Sobre la realidad radical"—"On radical reality" and "¿Qué es la vida?"—"What is life?")
  • La rebelión de las masas (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930)
  • Rectificación de la República; La redención de las provincias y la decencia nacional (Rectification of the Republic: Retention of the provinces and national decency, 1931)
  • Goethe desde dentro (Goethe from within, 1932)
  • Unas lecciones de metafísica (Some lessons in metaphysics, course given 1932-1933|33, published 1966)
  • En torno a Galileo (About Galileo Galilei|Galileo, course given 1933-1934|34; portions were published in 1942 under the title "Esquema de las crisis"—"Scheme of the Crisis")
  • Prólogo para alemanes (Prolog for Germans, prologue to the third German edition of El tema de nuestro tiempo. Ortega himself prevented its publication "because of the events of Munich in 1934." It was finally published, in Spanish, in 1958.)
  • History as a system (First published in English in 1935. the Spanish version, Historia como sistema, 1941, adds an essay "El Imperio romano"—"The Roman Empire").
  • Ensimismamiento y alteración. Meditación de la técnica. (This title is not easily translate, because the title uses a neologism and there is a play on words. Literally, it is "Sameness-making and alteration," but it could also be read as "The making of sameness and difference." In either case, the subtitle means "A meditation on technique." 1939)
  • Ideas y Crencias (Ideas and Beliefs: on historical reason, a course taught in 1940 Buenos Aires, published 1979 along with Sobre la razón histórica)
  • Teoría de Andalucía y otros ensayos • Guillermo Dilthey y la Idea de vida (The theory of Andalucia and other essays: Wilhelm Dilthey and the idea of life, 1942)
  • Sobre la razón histórica (On historical reason, course given in Lisbon, 1944, published 1979 along with Ideas y Crencias)
  • Idea del Teatro. Una abreviatura (The idea of theater, a shortened version, lecture given in Lisbon April 1946, and in Madrid, May 1946; published in 1958, La Revista Nacional de educación num. 62 contained the version given in Madrid.)
  • La Idea de principio en Leibniz y la evolución de la teoría deductiva (The Idea of the Beginning in Leibniz and the evolution of deductive reasoning|deductive theory, 1947, published 1958)
  • Una interpretación de la Historia Universal. En torno a Toynbee (An interpretation of Universal History. On Arnold J. Toynbee|Toynbee, 1948, published in 1960)
  • Meditación de Europa (Meditation on Europe), lecture given in Berlin in 1949 with the Latin-language title De Europa meditatio quaedam. Published 1960 together with other previously unpublished works.
  • El hombre y la gente (Man and the populace, course given 1949-1950 at the Institute of the Humanities, published 1957)
  • Papeles sobre Velázquez y Goya (Papers on Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya, 1950)
  • Pasado y porvenir para el hombre actual (Past and future for the man of today, published 1962, brings together a series of lectures given in Germany, Switzerland, and England in the period 1951-1954, published together with a commentary on Plato's Symposium.)
  • Goya (1958)
  • Velázquez (1959)
  • Origen y epílogo de la Filosofía (Origin and epilog to Philosophy, 1960),
  • La caza y los toros (The hunt and the bulls, 1960)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Primary sources

  • Ortega y Gasset, Jose. History As a System. W. W. Norton & Company, 1962. ISBN 9780393001228
  • Ortega y Gasset, Jose. Obras Completas 6 - Ortega y Gassett. Alianza, 2000. ISBN 9788420643069
  • Ortega y Gasset, Jose. Man and Crisis, W. W. Norton & Company, 1922. ISBN 9780393001211
  • Ortega y Gasset, Jose. The Revolt of the Masses. W. W. Norton & Company, 1994. ISBN 9780393310955
  • Ortega y Gasset, Jose. Meditations on Quixote: Translated from the Spanish by Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marin Introduction and Notes by Julian Marias University of Illinois Press, 2000. ISBN 9780252068959
  • Ortega y Gasset, Jose. Man and People. W. W. Norton & Company, 1966. ISBN 9780393001235

Secondary sources

  • Dobson, Andrew. An Introduction to the Politics and Philosophy of José Ortega y Gasset. Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN 9780521360685
  • Marias, Julian and Frances M. Lopez-Morillas. Jose Ortega Y Gasset. University of Oklahoma Press, 1970. ISBN 9780806108797
  • Mora, Jose Ferrater. Ortega y Gasset, an outline of his philosophy. Yale University Press, 1957. ISBN 9789992064740

External links

All links retrieved September 7, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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