Why Does Philosophy Exist? - Ch. 28 "The Evolution of Deductive Theory" Jose Ortega y Gasset

Ch. 28 - The Historical Origin of Philosophy

In this chapter, Gasset gets into the idea, again, of worldviews. He points out that all action, all human living, only makes sense within a framework of purpose. There has to be some meaning, or story, which gives the boundaries for what we are doing here as human beings. He claims that in the pre-philosophic age that this framework was provided by acted out cultural practices or religious stories. Philosophy, he says, comes in to play when something about those practices or religious belief breaks down and is no longer sufficient for explaining the reality around us. Man then turns to a new form of discerning truth and the meaning of reality, philosophy. Philosophy then exists as a mode of living, as a tool by which to formulate the human story in reality and history ... interestingly, one he claims, that can disappear just as much as it appeared back in Ancient Greece. 

Philosophy is the Formalized Belief Systems of this Era of History 

Gasset begins this chapter by giving a fundamental definition for philosophy as a whole. He says that humans, in discovering ourselves existing in this world, must take on a set of "intellectual attitudes" to guide us and help us interpret our existence in reality. "Philosophy is a system of basic interpretive, and therefore intellectual, attitudes which man adopts in view of what is, for him, the tremendous event of finding himself alive. This life of his includes not only the event of his own existence but also a whole world of other events which are part of his life." Now it is a mistake to consider philosophy solely in the sense of positive affirmations of certain beliefs of dogmas which generate a whole picture of reality. Sure this is part of it, but Gasset also mentions that philosophy can be a form of skepticism. There are those who reject or scrutinize all other beliefs, yet not holding positive beliefs of their own, or so they think. Gasset points out that even such a skepticism is a philosophy and belief system about reality. The dogmatist and the skeptic are really one in the same, both have beliefs and both reject other beliefs. 1
The philosophical pursuit, Gasset says, arises out of a fundamental ignorance about what one is supposed to do with their life. An ignorance which is so deep that we don't even know how to give a context to our actions or purpose in life is unbearable. It is necessary for us to understand what existence is to give us the necessary confidence and meaning to form the way in which we live our lives. "... this primary ignorance, this fundamental not knowing, is a not knowing what to do. This is what forces us to frame for ourselves an idea of things and of ourselves, to find out 'what there is' in reality, so that we may be able, in view of the image which the Universe presents to us as 'being what in truth it is,' to project our conduct with certainty, that is, with sufficient meaning, and to emerge from that primary ignorance." 

If this ignorance extends, though, even to the most basic practical actions, causing "perplexity," or the inability to act at all, then this leaves one open to a type of ideological possession in which another set of ideas moves in to create their framework for them. Gasset points out that to make changes to someone's fundamental set of beliefs, or worldview, will inevitably result in changes to their actions. "...The system of our occupations is secondary to the system of our theories, of our convictions as to what things are; the 'knowing what to do' is founded on 'knowing what is.' With more or less adjustment the system of actions in each stage of human progress is fitted into the system of ideas and oriented by them. A variation of any importance is our opinions has very great repercussions on our actions." To lack a theory of the universe is to lack the ability to fulfill it, to find purpose and happiness. Likewise, someone's experience of acting in the world, and the results of that action, can influence how one theorizes about the nature of the world. 2

Gasset then continues to make an interesting claim. He says that philosophy is not something that is totally natural or "inborn" to man. Rather, he says, it comes about when the practical functionality of the past, or religious beliefs of the past, begin to fail. When man loses his prior belief system, he is lost and must find a new way of acquiring truth. Thus begins the philosophical endeavor. "Doubt with no way in sight is not doubt, it is desperation. Desperation does not lead one to philosophy, but to the death leap. The philosopher does not need to leap because he believes he has a way by which he can proceed, go forward, and arrive at Reality by his own means." In other words, man acts out his beliefs before he is able to fully give logical expression to them. 3

Again, Ortega expresses it beautifully here: "When the philosophic flute begins to sound, it enters, already predetermined, into a symphony which has previously begun and which animates and conditions it. The fist thing is to live; then to philosophize. One philosophizes from within life - in a strange form of being 'within' which ... when a living past already exists and in view of a certain situation to which one has arrived." Philosophy, he claims, is about explaining a stage of history and living that has already passed, and now is breaking down, seeking to be understood in a new form or manner than it had been previously. "That adventitious work of two determined men [Heraclitus and Parmenides] in a specific period of Greek life inaugurated the new human occupation, unknown up to that point which we call by the ridiculous name of 'philosophy.'" 4 

Interestingly, just as Gasset denies that philosophy is something innate to humans, but rather a mode of exploring reality which came about in a particular time and place, he also ends the chapter with the notion that philosophy itself may end as a discipline and give way to some new form of interaction and understanding of reality ... what that is, he doesn't say. 5 [Now, given the time that Gasset was writing, some may suggest that this new mode would be the empirical sciences. But I don't think that he was exactly meaning this because in his other works he clearly argues that science is incomplete and cannot take the place of philosophy. It could be that Gasset is then referring to a new type of philosophy, possibly the Existentialism that he is pioneering.] 
1 - Ortega y Gasset, Jose. The Idea of Principle in Leibnitz and the Evolution of Deductive Theory. W.W. Norton Company Inc. (New York, 1971). Pg. 271
2 - 272
3 - 273
4 - 274
5 - 275