It’s a morning much like other mornings. Hilary is ironing something to wear to work. I’m standing in the doorway in my green plaid bathrobe with my hair sticking up like Eraserhead. Outside, the last traces of snow are melting in the shadows of the white spruce in the front yard. Our neighbors left this morning before dawn to visit their parents in St. Louis. At any rate, I presume that’s what all the door-slamming was all about. And in my dream I was defending the artistic excellence of the Yardbirds.
As I stand in the doorway, I glance (without really looking) at a stack of books lying on its side at the end of a wall-mounted shelf right in front of my face, and a title jumps out at me. There it is—History as a System by José Ortega y Gasset—sandwiched between a book of poems by Emily Dickenson and a small hardcover volume of woodcuts by Hans Holbein—The Dance of Death. I extract the book from the stack, being careful not to dislodge other items on the shelf or bring the shelf itself crashing down. And as I examine the contents page it occurs to me that I never did get around to reading the title essay in that collection, though I read one of the other ones, “The Sportive Origins of the State.” Well, today may be the perfect day to reconnect.
Ortega y Gasset is one of those early-twentieth century thinkers who has fallen through the cracks, which is a shame. His interests were broad and his style was casual. Fifty years ago, many of Ortega’s books were not only in print but also widely read, even beyond the confines of Latin America. As is so often the case, his most popular book, The Revolt of the Masses, is not, perhaps, his most important one. Though neither is the book that he himself considered his crowning achievement (the one on Leibnitz), which, I suspect, has been read by almost no one.
But that is one of Ortega’s strengths as a thinker: he was never merely an academic philosopher. He was raised in a family of publishers and he himself worked as a journalist throughout his life. It’s true that he studied in Marburg under Husserl and others, and later established the Department of Metaphysics at the University of Madrid, but he was eager to tackle a wide variety of problems, from modern art to bullfighting, from the purpose of the university to the nature of mysticism. There is so much boyish vigor in his prose that it is little wonder he never produced the sort of weighty, labyrinthine tome that seems to impress philosophy professors. By the same token, he was deeply interested in word origins, but wary of neologisms. In the end, he coined very few of those expressions that can bring a conversation to a reverential halt, because no one in the room is willing to admit that they don’t know what it actually means. The few which he is associated—perspectivism, vital reason—are sound, but not exotic enough to have retained much currency.
Perhaps the trouble is that although Ortega is not a system-builder, he is not quite an aphorist either. A very interesting volume could be worked up of one-liners and pithy paragraphs from his books—but nowadays, who would bother? Most of Ortega’s books were derived from lecture notes, and as a result, they tend to be slightly repetitive and more than a little digressive.
Having read the essay, I can say that “History as a System” runs true to form in that regard. All the same, it offers a very compact point of ingress into Ortega’s thought. And it also gives us a convincing explanation of why Ortega’s reputation as a thinker has withered. In “History as a System” Ortega reveals himself to be a historicist.
I would wager that few people today have the faintest idea what historicism is. We might put it into some sort of perspective by suggesting that as the theory of evolution is to modern biology, and as relativity is to modern physics, so historicism is to modern philosophy. All three movements have their roots in the nineteenth century, and all three consist of an untethering of vital concepts from rigid categories. Darwin freed biology from Aristotelian (and Biblical) notions of unchanging species; Einstein freed physics from Newtonian ideas of unbendable time and space. And historicism freed philosophy of the vain quest of exposing eternal verities by means of abstract reasoning.
I suspect that most philosophers shy away from historicism because it is simply too hard to deal with. The historicist student of ethics, for example, would no longer find it sufficient to consider hypothetical examples, such as: “Now, if I told a little white lie, but with the best of intentions, and my boss found out, and….would it be wrong if I…?” Or, “Is it ethical for me to wait until I’m in a public parking lot to kick the clinkers off the wheel-wells of my car, or am I morally obliged to kick them off in my own driveway?” Such hypothetical cases fall by the wayside as we begin to analyze complex and often nasty historical events—the crossing of the Rubicon, the rise of the Dutch Republic, the bombing of Coventry or Hiroshima, the Final Solution. The end result of such inquiries will not be a tidy formula on the order of the categorical imperative or the Golden Rule. No, will would be a genuine work of thought, of history.
If historicism had really caught on, then existentialism would never have become fashionable. Existentialism is historicism in training wheels. It’s rooted in the awareness that life is fraught with anxiety, due to the fact that we never really know if we’re doing the right thing. But rather than developing an awareness of all the marvelous and difficult things that people have done in spite of this dreadful fact, and perhaps attempting a few themselves, existentialists tend to romance the feeling itself—as if the experience of anxiety were the same thing as doing good—and giving it all manner of literary shading and nuance, from ennui to “the sickness unto death.”
In short, existentialism is romanticism without the brio. Historicism is a romanticism that has matured by taking itself beyond the heroism and pathos of the individual being, toward a deeper grasp of the social and historical dimension of individual endeavor.
Ortega y Gasset was not the most rigorous exponent of historicism. In fact, his name appears with some frequency in the second tier of those existentialist anthologies that were all the rage during my years on campus. But in “History as a System,” he gives us a pretty good idea of what historicism is and why it’s important. Along the way we also get a better idea of Ortega himself.