The Heterogenous "I" - Ch. 4 "Some Lessons in Metaphysics" by Jose Ortega y Gasset

Lesson IV

This is how Gasset Summarizes the chapter: "The three elements of the encounter. Meeting the 'I'. Meeting the circumstances, the surroundings; the temporal and social characteristics of the circumstance. Homogeneous and heterogeneous being there. To live is for me to exist outside myself. Parenthesis on the semantics of existing; active and effective being. New analysis of 'being there'. The immaterial character of circumstance." 

Here's a shorter Facebook summary of the chapter: Jose Ortega y Gasset, as a type of Existentialist philosopher, seeks the metaphysical with the beginning point of human subjectivity. For him, the uniqueness of "The I" of our personal experience cannot be overlooked. In Lesson IV he gives a somewhat technical lecture explaining how human subjectivity stands out in nature, is heterogenous, to the material world around it. We are as strangers in a strange land pursuing the purpose of being human ... something which cannot be found in the physicality of the atoms and matter around us, but in a deeper aspect of being which is goes beyond the physical. 

Here's a little longer explanation before I get into the chapter itself: This chapter is similar to lesson three in that Gasset is now taking the reader into a more technical exposition of the experience of metaphysics by exploring human subjectivity, how the "I" of our identity comes to know itself and to know the world. This method is characteristic of his Existentialist expression of metaphysics. The main essence of his point in this chapter is that human subjectivity is totally unique from the rest of the world. The I that we all live our lives through cannot be reduced to atoms or the movement of elements. Rather, we stand out from the world as heterogeneous to it. We exist as a traveler in a foreign land. Our life is a movement toward the fulfillment of being human but in a realm which is not human, the material realm. Thus, that which is most real, the metaphysical, he seems to hint is that which exists beyond the physical, the realities which exist in the physical but distinct from them (such as mathematics, he mentions). When we as humans interact with the physical world, it is by no means just a dead object. Every object has a layer of meanings as it is significant for my own subjectivity and its human essence. For example, the room in which he gives the lecture is not important to be known as a room of space, walls, and nails. Rather, we interact with that room more fully as the space in which my future is taking place, in which I am learning the meaning of my existence, a place in which I am graded, etc. These are more full realities of what it means to be

The Complete Reflection of Consciousness Between Me and the World
Gasset begins lesson IV by referencing back to the concept of "reflection" that he has been previously talking about. Again, this is similar to St. Thomas' "reditio completa" (the complete return to oneself that happens in the act of knowing). In the act of self reflection we come upon ourselves as an object, we know ourselves as a personal conscious "I" doing the knowing, and then we know ourselves in relation to the things around us. 1 In emphasizing the last point, he says that one must conceive of knowing themselves amidst a horizon of levels of analysis. In other words, I find myself in this situation which is made up of a larger situation, which is still made up of a larger situation, etc. For example, I find myself in a classroom, which makes up a school, which makes up part of a community, and so on. "When man encounters himself, he does not do this in and by himself, apart and alone; on the contrary, he always finds himself within another thing which, in turn, is made up of many other things. He finds himself surrounded, by a circumstance, by a landscape. In the vital idiom of our most common life, we usually, and in general, call this circumstance the world." 2

In another sense, Gasset mentions that we shouldn't think of these three stages of reflection as separate from one another. In knowing that world about me I begin to be able to leave it and turn onto myself as the object of my focus. There is a dynamic interplay between the self and the world which makes up my conscious state of self-reflection. " is always a matter of counting on ourselves and counting on the world, simultaneously and inseparably, giving no priority to either one. Only when it is a matter of awareness, of being conscious of the one or the other, do 'before' and 'after' enter."

Gasset also mentions an idea similar to that of Heidegger's "thrownness." The idea is that life is not something any of us chose. Rather we find ourselves existing, and we are subject to the laws of our existence. We can choose to kill ourselves, but if we choose to live then we live according to the circumstances of life in which we act. "'Living is not entering by choice into a place previously chosen according to one's taste, as one picks a theater to go to after dinner; living is finding oneself suddenly - and not knowing how - projected into ... a world that cannot be exchanged for any other, into the world of today. Our lives begin with the perpetual surprise of existing without any previous consent on our part, as castaways on an unpremeditated globe.'" 

These circumstance which we find ourselves in are also conditioned by the existence of time. What this place that I am currently in now was quite different thousands of years ago, and will be quite different in thousands of years. He says that this very space he was in was a university then, but a forest long ago. Likewise, we also exist within conceptual worldviews which we create. These are intangible human domains that we operate in all the time. For example, the domain of an "academic university." "Moreover, the surroundings are not composed solely of things in the strict sense of the term but also of people. One's surroundings are also made up of human society; the world is also a 'world' in the human sense. One lives in the university world, or the working world, or the world of the elegants." 4 Here, Gasset points out, we can see that words have double meanings. There is the practical and partial ways in which we use them day to day without thinking. Then there is a more complete fuller understanding when we begin to explore them and squeeze the existence out of them. 5 

The Double Meaning of "To Be"
Following on this idea of the double meaning of words (partial and full), he turns to the verb "to be." What does it mean to say something as simple as "I am in this room"? He emphasizes the reality of subjectivity. My subjectivity is not something replicable. No one can experience the unique set of experiences that I experience, regardless of how similar they may be. Every person is ineffable in a way. "He puts forth his, and I put forth mine. I am, then, heterogeneous to every other 'I', however much of an 'I' it may be." 6 Continuing on ... "Well now - and for today, let me suggest it merely in passing - please note the huge philosophic sin that we have committed. 'Homogenous' means of the same genus, that which is thought with the same concept. Heterogenous means that which is thought with another concept. 'I' is the same concept whether applied to me or applied to any of you. Nevertheless, here we come up against the indestructible evidence that in this case, homogeneity of concept implies heterogeneity of being. ... What is interesting now is that you recognize the fact that the 'I' of every one of you in unique. It is simply the 'I' that lives your life, and that life which it lives is lived by no one else, even though all the contents of both lives might be equal." 

[At this point I have to interject, I am not sure what is special about this formulation versus the Aristotelian formulation that all matter is individualized. Every instance of a common form is unique, not just human beings... Maybe Gasset will explain more later.] 

Gasset's ultimate point here is that I, myself, as different than my surroundings. I do not make up a homogenous part of the material world, but I stand out from it. "... my being in the room is a matter of my existing in something other than myself; therefore, it is existing outside of myself, in a strange territory; it is being constitutionally a stranger, in that I do not form a part of that in which I am, I do no have anything to do with it. ... Man is essentially a stranger, an emigrant, an exile."

Considering the Meaning of "To Exist"
Here Gasset goes into a discussion of what it means "to exist." He points out that many people only consider existence on the level of the material existence. But, curiously, mathematical existence and fictional existence do not fit into this category. Rather, existence seems to expand beyond the circumstance that we choose to view it within. "... in the ambit of poetry, the centaur goes galloping with the stolen maiden flung across his shoulders; in that ambit, therefore, there are, there exist, other centaurs. On the other hand, we say that there are none of them in the world because by the term 'world' we apparently understand the ambit of existent things in a special sense. The geometrician asks himself if a definite, specific figure exists - for example, if there is an infinite number, the number greater than all other numbers. Each of these has reference to a certain type of existence: the purely mathematical, the ideal ambit of pure mathematical objects. In contemporary mathematics, a theorem of existence is used which determines just that - whether there is or is not this number or that one. Therefore, existence and existing in the sense of 'there being something' do no more than transfer us to a circumference whose characteristic is decisive for what those words come to mean." 8

Gasset continues on the meaning of existence, now turning to Aristotelian distinctions. He gets into the Ancient and Scholastic distinction between "essence" and "existence." The basic idea is that there is a difference between the "what-ness" or identity of something and the power or force of actually existing. We can know the essence of a thing without it existing as such. "The essence remains without being put in force. Well then, in its primary and strict sense, the existence of something means the execution of achievement of that something. In place of using our word 'existence', Aristotle said, 'taken as work, accomplished' - energia on - and the Scholastics translated that term saying, 'put into action', to be in force, in actuality." Aristotle describes this existence of a thing as its "being at work." "Existence, then, means, sensu stricto, to be effectively, actively, what one is; in short, it is the bringing into force of an essence."

Not only are things "being at work," i.e. they are actually existing, they also are "staying at work." To be requires a continual work of staying in existence. "But in the strict meaning of existing as the becoming effective of a thing, an essence, something does happen to the thing; it continues to be effectively what it is, to be 'making its essence.'" 10 

My Life as a Stranger in a Distant Land
The point that Gasset is trying to get at is that life is the continual working out of what it means to be human, our essence. It is a working out of life as a stranger, an exile, a lost traveler in a distant land, because we are not the same as the material world around us, as a table would be to the room. We are more than dead material. Our life, our subjectivity, is something which must be made to flourish amidst that which is not subjectivity. 11 "We were saying that my being in a room does not mean that I am part of it, because the room and, in general, the surroundings, the world, are all completely heterogenous to me. The surroundings are something other than me, and my being in them is equivalent to my being outside myself, in a strange element." 

[Permit me to pause here and to include a very interesting paragraph which isn't directly related but answers a question about the nature of matter that I have been asking for awhile. "If I say that for me to be in the room is to be outside myself, I have expressed my relationship with this room by means of a term of space, 'outside of'. But it is evident that this space term can have there only a metaphorical meaning. Strictly speaking, only a point in space and the material ascribed to it can be outside of another thing. Space consists precisely in the possibility that some things may be outside other things. Space is the coexistence of points some of which are together and outside of other points. Well now, in the first place, I am not a point in space; therefore, I cannot be outside the other points in space. ... The point of space is not nor can it be outside itself; for the very reason that each one is in itself does it manage to be outside others."

Gasset is referring to the incongruity of the human subjectivity versus the physical material of the world around me. 12 Even if one were to claim that everything is made up of atoms, that is to only look at the world in one aspect or regard, the physical. My world certainly makes up many more aspects to it than the physical movement of elements. "My vital compass is not made up of atoms; even if it were, I would never need to do physics or to learn physics, but in the simple process of living I would encounter atoms without any need to think about my surroundings in order to discover them." 13 Rather, Gasset concludes that for me as a living human with subjectivity, the room that I am in is certainly not the walls or physical space that I take up. Rather, the room exists on many dimensions and in relations to me, some of which are much more important than the physical space. "I assert that if our life now consists of being in a room, this room is not -in its primary and proper reality - a space, nor is it anything material. This will produce in you such stupefaction that we can well leave the development of this extravagant idea for the next lecture." 14

1 - Ortega y Gasset, Jose. Some Lessons in Metaphysics. (New York. Norton & Norton Co, 1961.) Pg. 59
2 - 60
3 - 61
4 - 62
5 - 63
6 - 64
7 - 65, 66
8 - 67
9 - 68
10 - 69
11 - 70
12 - 71
13 - 72
14 - 73