The Nature of Philosophy from an Existentialist - Ch. 2 of "What is Philosophy?" by Jose Ortega y Gasset

Chapter 2 - What is Philosophy? - Philosophy Contracts and Expands. The Drama of the Generations. The Imperial Triumph of Physics. Pragmatism. 

Three Central Questions of this Chapter

In Chapter two, Gasset takes up three fundamental questions surrounding the central question of the book, "What is Philosophy?", though the chapter focuses on the third. First, we are again addressing the question, "What is Philosophy," but in a way it is also the question, amidst all the types of people in human experience, why are there philosophers?Second, philosophy, though dealing with technical questions and ideas, must present itself with clarity and must address the fundamental and most practical question, what is "daily life?" What is the "day-by-day quality in life." Third, what happens to philosophical questions as time passes between successive generations which are made more and more unintelligible to one another as technological and other societal factors change? In so many words, does the rapidity of social and technological change between generations present a danger in that the core philosophical values may be suddenly lost?

The Idea of History as the Dynamic Between the Coeval Generations

Gasset starts by mentioning that the last 60 years of the 19th Century were anti-rational and anti-philosophic, as much as it is possible to try to stamp philosophy out of the Western mind. Now, though, in the 20th Century philosophy has returned, and in full force. Why?

Why do generations change from one another, why do they not remain static? There must be something latent in the birth of a new generation which is different. Then when that new difference is called forth by someone, rises up in the people of the new generation toward a wide scale change. This idea or definition of "generation" then brings up the reality that at any given time on earth there will be three such generations coexisting, the young, middle aged, and old. There are three different versions of the same reality which take place and unfold. "But this idea injects a sudden energy and a dramatic drive into the fact, as elemental as it is unexplored, that et every moment of history there exists not one generation but three: the young, the mature, the old. This means that every historical actuality, every 'today' involves - strictly speaking - three different actualities, three different todays." The differences in the generations and the way they view reality gives birth to the drama of the day. What may look simple when thinking of a date in time, is actually very complex in it has three fundamentally different aspects and points of view through which to view it. This is what Gasset terms "history's essential anachronism." He also distinguishes between "contemporary" (living at the same time) and "coeval" (being of the same generation). It is the struggle between the three coevals made up as contemporaries that moves history along. He gives the image of three caravans of people moving along together and interacting and which begin to realize that their mode of being is indelibly written on their being and that they are not the other generations.

There are a few "geniuses" though who are able to be reborn several times throughout their life and partake of several generations. It takes effort, perseverance, and fight to continue to adapt and not to be dragged back into the past and become "gradually archaic." But there is a certain resentment that can creep up on the mature man when he sees his youth and vigor fade into the past.

Culture in Crisis

What happens though when the view of society from the perspective of the generations becoming so diverse and different that a shared culture is not passed on? Crisis..."Ordinarily the difference between sons and fathers is small, so that what predominates is the common nucleus in which they coincide, and the sons can see themselves as continuing and perfecting the type of life which their fathers led. But at times the distance between them is enormous; the new generation finds hardly any community of interest with the past. Then one speaks of a crisis in history." Ortega claims that this is what has happened in the 20th Century, and from his perspective at the midway point of the 20th Century the rapid transformation, and all that it entails, is still happening and would scare the people of his time if he divulged more.

Exultation of Physics

One of the ways in which philosophy was lost, but then returned, has to do with the rise and power of Physics as a scientific discipline. Ortega mentions three aspects of Physics that gave to it a power which put it above every other discipline for awhile. (1) It dealt by harnessing math and mathematical certainty, (2) It dealt with real world phenomena, and (3) it was applied to serve man's practical needs and develop new technologies for man's life. Thus, from this the Industrial Revolution was born and the upper and middle classes became inexorably addicted. Ortega coins the terms the "imperialism of physics."

But as we exalted technology aimed at bodily health and pleasure, we at the same time began to realize its shallowness and it lack of deeper meaning on life. One cannot judgment the greatness of an age on the bodily comforts available. "...for nor sooner do we see that this form of supremacy makes practical utility appear to be a norm of truth than we cease to be content. We begin to realize that this skill in dominating matter and making it conform to our wishes, this enthusiasm for comfort is, if one makes of it a principle, as open to argument as any other. Alerted by this suspicion, we begin to see that comfort is merely a subjective predilection, or to put it bluntly, a capricious desire which Western peoples have exercised for two hundred years, but which does not in itself reveal any superiority of character."
Gasset predicts that this will increase in the future where man will seek to protect his comforts, although lacking a vigor for life, and avoid that which is uncomfortable. "... what human condition it is that carries with it this devotion to the comfortable and the convenient..." A whole philosophy has been made around this, both that of Scientific Positivism (he mentioned Comte and Boltzmann) and Pragmatism. Both of these consider truth to be practical and technological success. We have upheld the dignity and worship of Physics and its practitioners so much that we have begun to see its dark side. "Good fortune, favor on the part of the social atmosphere about us, is likely to life us above ourselves, to make us petulant and aggressive. This happened to the physicists; and therefore the intellectual life of Europe has for almost a hundred years suffered from what one might call the 'terrorism of the laboratories.'"

Daily Life and the Return of the Philosopher

Returning to the question about what "daily life" is. Ortega mentions two fundamental aspects of the European man, the "vita contemplativa and vita activa." It is always and perennially drawn between the two. With the recent days being slanted towards the active life because the philosopher has felt ashamed that his discipline isn't that of the Physicist. The genuinely philosophical and perennial questions are not scientific ones, and so philosophy has been reduced to either a meditation about science or to epistemology. There are philosophers, then, to go back to the original question, because not all of life's questions can be answered by the scientific method or by Physics.