Ortega’s Cogito

| May 15, 2012


I’ve been meaning to comment on Ortega for so long, I’m not sure I recall anymore what exactly it was that I had to say ; ) It’s a good thing I annotated my copies of the readings for this class so carefully; I’ll proceed to reconstruct my comments therefrom. I want to start with the part from What is Philosophy where Ortega’s philosophical ‘scalpel’ slices through Descartes’ celebrated je pense donc je suis:

“For us to say that thought exists, that it is, includes saying that my “I,” my self, exists and has being. Because there is no thought which does not contain as one of its elements a subject who thinks, just as it includes an object which is thought. If, then, thought exists, and in the sense in which it exists, its subject, the self, will have to exist, and so will its object. That sense of existing is what is genuine and new in thought. My thought is what it is for the sake of my thought: I am and I exist insofar as and because I think that I am, and such as I think that I am. This is the new thing which idealism wanted to bring to the world, and that is the true spiritualism; the rest is only magic. But Descartes, who discovered the fact, and who had sufficient intuition of the thing called “thought,” did not give up the cosmic categories, and faced with what he sees, he loses his serenity -that is, faced with a being which consists merely in “seeming,” in pure virtuality, in the dynamism of reflection. Like an ancient, or a Thomist scholastic, he needs to hold onto something more solid, to grasp a cosmic being. And behind that being, he seeks the thought which consists in mere seeming to itself, referring to itself, giving an account of itself -a thing-being, a static entity. Thought ceases to be a reality for him; scarcely had he discovered it as a primary reality when it was converted into a simple manifestation or quality of another reality which is latent and static.” (p.188)

“That latent reality I call the “I,” the self, my real self I do not see, it is not evident to me-therefore I must reach it through a conclusion; in order to affirm the existence of the self I must pass across the bridge of a “hence.” “I think, hence I exist.” Je pense, done je suis. But, who is that “I” which exists? Je ne suis qu’une chose qui pense. Ah, a thing! The “I” is not thought, but a thing of which thought is an attribute, a manifestation, a phenomenon. We have fallen back into the inert being of Greek ontology. In the same phrase, in the same gesture with which Descartes discovers a new world for us, he withdraws it from us and annuls it. He has the intuition, the vision of being for its own sake, but he conceives it in the Greek manner as a being with substance. This duality, this internal contradiction and painful lack of congruence with itself, has been the essence of idealism and modernity, has been Europe itself.” (p.189)

Ortega criticizes Descartes for being insufficiently skeptical. He has doubted everything except for the category Being, which sneakily infiltrates the results of his inquiry with archaic confusion. Thought already implies a being which needs no other introduction; in carrying it across the bridge of the syllogism donc, we end up ensuring not its presence, but its absence; its replacement and occlusion by its vacuous impostor, the thing. This leads him to discuss the error implicit to idealism, which basically consists in its erroneous (but perhaps necessary) focus on the question of which vehicle of being in fact possesses that primary reality supposed to follow logically from the fact of thought: is the mind-self first, or is the world-of-objects first? Cartesian (and then Kantian) idealism takes the former position against the empiricists, who take the latter. A. N. Whitehead, incidentally, identifies this (and contemporaneously with Ortega, more or less) in his lovely Science and the Modern World (1925) as the productive dialectic on which scientific progress depended. Based on his arguments above, Ortega argues that each ‘side’ of this dialectic misses the point. This is how he arrives at his famous position that the world and the self coemerge, or are coimplicated by thought:

“on searching carefully for the basic data of the Universe -which undoubtedly exist in the Universe- and on exaggerating the factor of doubt, I find that there is one primary and fundamental fact which carries its own assurance. This fact is the joint existence of a self, a subjectivity, and of its world. The one does not exist without the other. I acquire no understanding of myself except as I take account of objects, of the surroundings. I do not think unless I think of things -therefore on finding myself I always find a world confronting me. Insofar as subjectivity and thought are concerned, I find myself as part of a dual fact whose other part is a world. Therefore the basic and undeniable fact is not my existence, but my coexistence with the world.” (p.200-201)

Ortega goes on to argue that:

“The tragedy of idealism stems from the fact that having transmuted the world as an alchemist might, into “subject,” into the content of subject, it enclosed this subject within itself; then there was no way of explaining clearly how, if this theatre is only my image and a piece of me, it appears to be so completely different from me. But now we have won through to an entirely different situation; we have stumbled on the fact that that which cannot be doubted is a relation between two inseparable terms. The one who thinks, who acquires understanding, and the other which is understood. The conscious self goes on being the innermost self, but now I become close and intimate not only with my subjectivity, but also with my objectivity, with the world which is clear and simple before me. The conscious self is not a recluse, but on the contrary, is that most strange primary reality assumed in every other reality, which consists in the fact that someone, I, am myself precisely when I am taking account of things, of the world. This is the sovereign peculiarity of the mind which must be accepted, recognized, and beautifully described just as it is, in all its marvelous strangeness. Far from the self being closed, it is par excellence the open being. To see this theatre is to open myself to what I am not.” (p.201-202)

This beautiful paragraph indicates that not only is the self “par excellance the open being”, its termina -the terms ‘subject’ and ‘object’- are not categoreal (Whitehead’s term) ‘containers’, but purely formal bookends on a process of correlative, formative experience. The process of experiencing thus implies the flowing emergence of a spacetime without intrinsic bounds or limits, save those imposed by the context implied in the (visual, tactile, auditory; sensory/expressive) metaphors used to grasp, or gather it. Furthermore, as exhibited by the relative substitutability of the termina (subject/object, inner/outer, time/space, content/form, etc.), the form itself, like the spacetime in and as which it arises, is altogether fractal, or perhaps rather the opposite; not self-similar, but nonself-dissimilar: context-transient. It is crucial to recognize here that the difficulty in explaining this fact -the peculiarly ineffable quality of the most immediate experiential process, which has resulted in so many spilled inkpots and tears of frustration- this impossible difficulty should not be mistaken for an irrelevance or an abstract obscurity. Certainly the abstractions that are produced by philosophers can be obscure (the result of carelessly included, erroneous assumptions, Ortega might argue), but the experience that inspires these abstractions, these productions of language, is nothing if not relevant. As Ortega puts it:

“the first thing that philosophy meets is the fact of a person who philosophizes, who wants to think about the Universe and to that end seeks something which cannot be doubted. But note well that what it finds is not a philosophic theory but the philosopher in the act of philosophizing, that is to say, in the act of living the process of philosophizing, just as this same philosopher might later be found wandering in a fit of melancholy through the streets, dancing in a nightclub, suffering indigestion, or smitten with a passing beauty. That is to say, he finds philosophizing, theorizing, to be a vital act, a vital fact; it is a detail of his life and within his life…” (p.202)

The first question of philosophy then, conceived as a vital act, is always something like, “what’s up?!” This first question then can, as in the case of Descartes, give rise to a kind of metaquestion: the question of how one should approach the first question. This is where philosophy turns into model-building; playing with toys. Ortega would have us distinguish sharply between these two questions. The latter, ‘meta-‘ question is nonsensical, because already the I is there, in the beginning, which is precisely the first question. To engage with this question is neither to do away with it by solving it once and for all, nor to ‘bracket’ it in order to pursue tangentially questions ‘about’ it. Rather, to engage this question is to enter into philosophy proper, conceived as a joyful and virtuous play with life; a constructive, creative, nonviolent existence.

This I from which philosophy begins is not an abstraction, not an idea, but the thinking of the idea, not an object, but the ineffable fact of its experiencing; a connection which contains both the experiencer and the experienced. As such, philosophy cannot be said to exist in the mind. Ortega argues this effectively. On the contrary (and since the mind is effectively part of the body), philosophy must begin (and end) with the body. That this seems to be already obvious, before the first question is posed, is only to agree with Gramsci that philosophy is a natural function. Philosophy is nothing more than the correct relationship between the body and its (recursive) mental function. Of course, again, these two things cannot really be distinguished in the end, because they always interdepend. The distinction can have local, pragmatic value, but can never be made absolute. Funnily enough, the best way to keep it together is to insist on the continual reaffirmation of the distinction, whereas the affirmation of an absolute seems to always end up taking the form of an absolute distinction. This explains how the famous ‘Cartesian dualism’ can actually spring from a disavowal of dualism. Perhaps an integralism (philosophy proper) would require us to affirm dualism, so that we might gain access to unity despite ourselves (as if in parallel with, or orthogonally to, our best efforts) …like a reverse ascendance; we climb the steps backwards. “Looking ahead through the rearview mirror” is how McLuhan put it.

“When idealism trips over the obvious fact that the fundamental and indubitable reality is the fact that I think, and the thing that I think (hence a duality and a correlation), it does not dare to conceive it impartially, but says, “granted that I find these two things -the subject and the object- united and therefore dependent one on the other, I must decide which of the two is independent, which does not need the other, which is the sufficient one.” But we do not find any indubitable basis for the assumption that “being” can mean only “self-sufficient being.” On the contrary, the only indubitable being which we find is the interdependence between things and the self -things are what they are to me, and I am what suffers from things- therefore the indubitable being is for the moment not the sufficient being but the “needy being.” (p.209)

Talk:A-HH4199 3W – Studyplace.