The impact of Germany on Ortega’s thoughts about his own country can be seen in his first major publication, Meditations on Quixote (1914), a book which, far from merely being a commentary on the famous Spanish novel, serves as a summary of Orteguian thought. Influenced by the biologist Jacob Von Uekull’s idea that a living organism must be studied within its environment in order to be understood, Ortega argued that human life must also be understood through its circumstances: “Circumstantial reality makes up the other half of me as a person: I need it to imagine myself and to be my true self,” he wrote. Social status, historical period, nationality, geographic location, and economic situation are all relevant when it comes to understanding how one sees the world and oneself, since they determine our perspective. This idea is summarized in Ortega’s most famous quote: ‘‘I am I and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself.’’ In just the same way that Ortega ventures out into the world down the Guadarrama river near his hometown, or that the Ancient Egyptians would have ventured out down the Nile, we also venture out into the world from our own places of origin. Regardless of how many new ideas you may open yourself to, and no matter how much they change your way of thinking, it will always be you perceiving them; your past experiences, your childhood, your economic and social status, your nationality, your historical period are vital in defining you as a person.
Whilst strolling through the forest near the El Escorial monastery outside of Madrid, where the family frequently took their summer vacations, Ortega recognised that although the idea of a forest implies a large expanse of woodland, it never actually presents itself as such. Instead, we only ever see a tiny portion of a forest whilst walking through it – only a few of the trees and a couple of paths. As we are led down its narrow, shaded pathways, new sections of the forest gradually reveal themselves as we leave the previous ones behind. It’s important to remember, however, that the entire forest never reveals itself to us. In the same way, philosophers, like anyone else searching for any kind of objective truth, must be aware of their circumstances. To generalise, the particular angle from which you see things inevitably affects the way they look, determining your perspective on reality. But although our situation determines our perspective, we can also improve our perspective, by actively seeking to broaden our viewpoints, and making an effort to gain a better understanding, both of our own circumstances and those of others.
What does this mean for us as individuals?
To answer that question it’s helpful to look at Ortega’s famous phrase in full: “I am I and my circumstance, and if I don’t save it, it cannot save me.” So it’s not just a case that we’re determined by our circumstances, we have some duty towards them. Moreover, as living beings, we find ourselves thrown into the world, where we are surrounded by a set of circumstances that we must deal with. Reason is our cognitive response to this reality, our attempt to make sense of the whole forest beyond the small section we directly perceive. Turning the famous conclusion of René Descartes, “I think therefore I am”, on its head, Ortega instead says, “I live therefore I think” (see What is Philosophy?, 1929, English trans. 1963). He means that our reasoning is a result of our life and its circumstances: it is vital. As a result, we must accept that although for us it seems rational to think A is followed by B, people in a different position may just have legitimately reasoned that B is, in fact, followed by A.
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