Beginning as an Existentialist Metaphysician - Lesson III - "Some Lessons in Metaphysics" by Jose Ortega y Gasset

Lesson III

"The difference between reparar (to be conscious of) and contar con (to rely on). Revision and correction of what has been set forth. No one can leap away from his own life. 'To make a science' is something that happens in 'our lives'. Life as biography. What is heaven? Evidence and truth. Life brings us many obligations. Reflection: the two 'nows'."

Chapter three certainly delves more deeply into the Existentialist side of Gasset's work. By Existentialist I mean the starting place of the philosophical search as what is meaningful for me as a personal and living subject. Chapter three is a sort of meditation on the self-awareness that is part of living as a human being. Life, he says, comes about in four stages before we get to formal metaphysical theorizing about the nature of things. We first begin in simple consciousness that I exist and am living. The more we live the more we begin to transfer things that are part of our unconscious awareness to our conscious awareness. 

Every time we do this we experience a "now." Reality is always the "now," with the past and future existing implicitly in it. As we do this we begin to universalize our experience by confirming it with others. As this happens we then begin to understand the circumstances in which we live, those circumstances that shape everything about who we are. Next, there is a realization that I must choose how I am going to shape my life with my decisions. I cannot escape life. I cannot escape choosing. Finally, we deal with perplexity as we seek to understand how to shape our lives by these decisions. All of these stages are the beginning of the metaphysical search. The metaphysical search, for Gasset, is always within the context of me as a living individual. I am the one doing the searching, and thus cannot help by relate existence back to my own existence as a human being. 

This chapter is certainly a bit difficult and abstract, but it makes sense within the argument that he is building in this collection of essays. See Lesson I and Lesson II from this book to give this post some context. 

Reality as the "Now" 
Gasset begins Lesson III by reflecting on the idea of "now." Life is not the past or the future. All that exists is a "now," in which the past and future are implicit. "In this sense, life is a single point -the present- which contains all our past and all our future. Therefore, I could assert that our life is what we are doing now." This now can consist in a consciousness of one's actions at the moment, or it can proceed deeper, to a consciousness of one's self in this now. 1 This is to give one's full and conscious attention to the existence of oneself at this moment. "I saw my own self: 'seeing' here means that I took hold of myself, that I grasped myself with complete attention, that I had a full, complete, immediate, and distinct consciousness of myself as I am ...". (This grasping of oneself in the "now" is what Thomas Aquinas would refer to as the "reditio completa" or making a complete redition to oneself in every act of knowing.) Implicit in every act of knowledge is a simultaneous knowledge of ourselves. "How is it that now, when I catch a glimpse of that situation, I find that, in addition to words, I myself was there?" 

Beginning Metaphysics From an Existentialist Perspective
Attention then is to draw an object from the unknown mass of existence and to put boundaries on it as to be able to know it. And so the world falls into two categories for us. One category are those things which we have drawn out and put our attention to, and those which remain out of our attention in the unspecific mass of existence. "I take it before me as man to man, make it a precise and limited end and purpose of my becoming aware; and the other way in which the thing exists for me without my reflecting on it." Of course the mass of existence which is not in our conscious thought is much greater and something we depend on constantly. 3

Gasset proposes a distinction here based on this insight. A "consciousness" (reparar) based on the traditional meaning of that full awareness of a thing, versus a "consciousness" (contar con) as that unconscious dependence on things. This implicit consciousness of things is also valid for oneself. In reflecting on past moments we also begin to discover ourselves in those moments, taking them from the unaware consciousness to the fully aware. Thus there are many truths which we know implicitly though may not realize until someone brings it to full conscious awareness. "We will now see how this happens with all the components of what I call life; when we face them and define them, they appear with an air of obvious truth, an air of 'things we already know' - that is to say, an air of things that were already there in front of us, existing for us - and our definition will do no more than discover for us certain intimate and customary friends  whom we have always had without really knowing it until now." 4 They were hidden in plain sight, so to speak. 

The Four Pre-Metaphysical Stages of Our Experience of Existence 
This is important because of its influence on our notion of truth. Truth is uncovering that which already exists. (This is similar to Aristotle's idea of logical knowledge, that it is implicit in the most general concepts that we have. To learn is to unpack these new truths through logical form and matter.) Now truth is only possible as we are a being which has the ability to seek knowledge of itself. We can do this because we are alive, we live the subjectivity of our experience. 5 "In its deepest and most secret roots, living consists in knowing ourselves and comprehending ourselves, in being aware of ourselves and of what surrounds us, in a form of being that to itself is transparent. ... In short, I ended, my life is evident, by which I meant to say that everything in it and whatever forms part of it exists for me and is transparent to me." 6

This knowing of oneself and life is likewise subject to the dichotomy mentioned above. There is a intellectual and self-aware version of the knowledge of oneself, then there is the implicit and subjective experience of feeling oneself alive. 7 Life is the unfolding of unconscious experience being lifted into the intellectual and fully conscious realm. 8 Our life comes into contact with all things because we have no experience of anything outside of this subjectivity of being human. "...everything with which we have contact, everything that pretends to exist for us, must somehow present itself within our own lives."

And so this chapter is about being at the inception of metaphysics. We begin by just recognizing that I am living my life, bumping up against existence and continually seeking to draw existence into my consciousness. "Let us say, then, that we are in the antechamber of the science of metaphysics in that if we busy ourselves with 'our lives', it is because we stumbled against them as we were about to enter the arcane interior of metaphysics; that is to say, we found life in the antechamber, set ahead of science, since on going to make a science, which is our indisputable situation today, we found that this 'going to make a science' is something that is happening to us in 'our lives.'" 10 

It is in the conscious awareness of our own experience of living that we can then begin to judge what others say about their live, and if they align to begin to form a basis of truths about living that are common to all. This is the first layer of the Existentialist metaphysician, to let one's awareness of the fundamental truths of living become conscious and universalized. 11 This is only the first step in approaching the metaphysical. The next is a understanding of the circumstances in which we are living and how they have shaped and formed us consciously and unconsciously. Third, there is the decisions that one makes with one's life that shape it as well. You have no choice but to shape your life with decisions, just as we have no choice in living. We are thrown into it, and we are forced to make something of it. "I did not give life to myself; on the contrary, I find myself in the midst of it without desiring it, without having been consulted about it, without anyone asking my leave. But what was given to me without consulting me - my life - was not given to me ready-made. When I was given life, what was given to me was the inexorable necessity of having to do something on pain of ceasing to live if I refused; but not even this, because ceasing to live is also doing something, it is killing myself, regardless of the weapon - whether it be a rifle, or merely inanition. Life, then, whether you like it or not, is always a matter of having to do something." 12 Finally, fourth, life is perplexity because there is no set path for which my decisions should take. Rather, I must navigate all the possibilities of how to play my life out. 13
1 - Ortega y Gasset, Jose. Some Lessons in Metaphysics. (New York. W.W. Norton & Co., 1969). Pg. 46.
2 - 47
3 - 48
4 - 49
5 - 50
6 - 51
7 - 52
8 - 53
9 - 54
10 - 55
11 - 56
12 - 57
13 - 58