The Philosophical Past as Road Map - Ch. 1 - The Origin of Philosophy by Jose Ortega y Gasset

The Origin of Philosophy is an epilogue to Julian Marias' book on the history of philosophy. Gasset is offering a collection of themes from Marias' that stand out looking at the history of philosophy as a
whole. 1 

The Philosophical Past, Present, and Future - A First Thought

A history of philosophy is not simply a gaze back at the past as a dead letter. That is part of it, but it also is a call to move forward towards a better future. The past and future are not far from one another, only simply separated by the virtual boarder of the present. "In fact, one could practically say that the present is a mere pretext for the existence of the past and of the future, the juncture where both derive meaning." 2 We must move forward taking with us those aspects of philosophical systems which seem to be most true and leaving behind that which has been burned away, as no philosophical system has reached perfection wholesale. Rather we must create new syntheses. This happens when either we analytically draw out implications that are latent and hidden in previous truths, 3 or, as in synthetic thought, a new complication is brought into the equation in dialectical inquiry which leads to a new truth through their connection. 

This is the proper state of man, to continue his search for truth, as he knows that he has never uncovered it all, though the individual man's search may be cut short by his limitations. 5 One can get confused, though, in taking a glance back at the history of philosophy in the variety of contradicting opinions. Does this render truth impossible? Obviously it is indicative of some error, but not totally. It is the systems and doctrines of the past that give rise to some new synthesis of the truth in the future, which it itself will be cannibalized for some newer synthesis to come. 6

Error as "Truth Seeking Aids" - A Second Thought 

In the history of philosophy, then, errors serve as a kind of marker in the ground which prevents others from needlessly going down the same road. Those errors which are understood and collected intosensible guides become something useful. "In this manner, as time moves on, philosophy accumulates in its saddle bag a collection of recognized errors, which ipso facto are transformed into truth-seeking aids." 7 

The Importance of Error in the Dialectical Process of Truth - A Third Thought 

We have become accustomed to the idea that error is the common place state of affairs when it comes to truth. 8 This is a symptom of a common disposition today regarding skepticism. Many think that their "skepticism" is a natural state of being, rather it is simply a naivete that comes from never having asked questions or sought the truth. Real skepticism has to be that which actively has asked the questions and comes to a nonbelief in them. Even the believer has done these things, in a way, with ideas that he rejects. 9 For the Ancient Greeks, the skeptic was one who had studied many things and come to conclusion that there was no ultimate truth. They were feared in that they were smart enough to pull apart the beliefs of others. Thus, they were in reality the opposite of the practical skeptic today, the man who is indifferent to everything. 10 "...the designation [for the Greeks] applied to terrifying men. Terrifying not because they 'didn't believe in anything' - that was their business! - but because they would not allow one to live; they descended upon one and uprooted one's belief in the things that seemed most true, instilling in one's head, as though with gleaming surgical instruments, a series of tight, rigorous, inescapable arguments. 11"

 The Ancient Greek skeptic, even before it was a school, was originally just a tireless seeker, a type of "'sinister hero'" who never stopped seeking beyond everyone else, though could not come to truth. 12 Thus skepticism in its original form was not a state of mind, rather a deficiency on the side of the truths in question. In our own modern day there has been a decline in these type of skeptics, those who would be searching for a unifying metaphysic, even if they didn't find it, and in place we have quieted our minds with technologies and practical techniques. 13 

Only the individual who is in a position to question things with precision and urgency - whether they definitely exist or not - is able to experience genuine belief and disbelief. 14

The one who become lax toward even the search for truth, or that truth exists, then falls into senselessness. But even the authentic skeptic can find some aspect of truth in things. In reality, the history of philosophy isn't a wholesale rejection or failure of past philosophical systems. There is always some aspect of truth within all philosophy. Rather, the future builds upon those aspects of the past that are correct. 15 The following generation benefits from the work of the previous and then pushes them further, absorbing and assimilating them into new syntheses. Errors then, Gasset emphasizes are partial truths. 16 In fact, Gasset compares the history of philosophy to a type of exploration in which people take varying paths through the forest, some leading to dead ends and some leading to truth, but all are necessary. The history of philosophy can be compared to one thinker, who for the last 2,500 years has thought many thoughts. 

A Fourth Thought - The Usefulness of the Philosophical Past

In a way, though, the philosophers of today embody those past 2,500 years and benefit from them. 17 It is not really possible to separate out the problems and schools of philosophy from one another. Rather they are intertwined together. The old philosophies are repurposed and the foundations of the new, and the ideas of the new can be retrospectively seen present in the old. 18 There are certain perennial questions in philosophy that will always be part of a "perpetual dialogue." 

And so the past is not something like a horizontal timeline in which only a small tip reaches the present, rather the past is something more like a tower, holding up the present and continuing to move forward with us. 19 In fact, man has the ability to keep the past alive in himself, in his memory. 20 With the aid of technology, we are more and more "eternalizing" ourselves as we begin to assimilate the past with more accuracy and record and to predict the future with precision. Both the past and the future then are pulled more intensely toward the present moment and assimilated. 21 This process, though, is not without danger and instability. Science is not always a self-evident positive value, and there is no guarantee that humanity will continue in a scientific vain. 


The past, then, constitutes a road map to guide us. If we did away with it and began anew, we would still have to encounter the same obstacles that previous generations have already brought us through. 22 Thus, we must affirm that there are objectively wrong ideas, and then there are incomplete truths, both of which spur us on toward a greater understanding of philosophy and truth. 23


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