Mixing Memory

Ortega y Gasset On Science

Here are two pretty lengthy passages from two Ortega y Gasset essays, both published in History as a System (one of my favorite books), and translated by Helene Weyl. I’m posting them because I think they’re relevant to our recent discussion on religion and science. Specifically, I think they’re relevant to the attitude towards science that some atheists take. The essays were written in the 1930s (most of them during the Spanish Civil War), but as is often the case with Ortega y Gasset, they’re infused with a prescience that insures that they’re still relevant today, and will continue to be so for some time.

Since both passages are taken out of their original context, I’ll give you a little background. In this first passage, from the essay “The Sportive Origin of the State,” the discussion of science is part of Ortega y Gasset’s justification for his own historical method.

Scientific truth is characterized by its exactness and the certainty of its predictions. But these admirable qualities are contrived by science at the cost of remaining on a plane of secondary problems, leaving intact the ultimate and decisive questions. Of this renunciation it makes its essential virtue, and for it, if for nought else, it deserves praise. Yet science is but a small part of the human mind and organism. Where it stops, man does not stop. If the physicist detains at the point where his method ends, the hand with which he delineates the facts, the human being behind each physicist prolongs the line thus begun and carries it on to its termination, as an eye beholding an arch in ruins will of itself complete the missing airy curve.

It is the task of physics to ascertain for each fact occurring here and now its principle, that is to say the preceding fact that causes it. But this principle in its turn has a principle, and so on down to a first original principle. The physicist refrains from searching for first principles, and he does well. But, as I said, the man lodged in each physicist does not resign himself. Whether he likes it or not, his mind is drawn towards the last enigmatic cause of the universe. And it is natural that it should be thus. For living means dealing with the world, turning to it, acting in it, being occupied with it. That is why man is practically unable, for psychological reasons, to do without all-around knowledge of the world, without an integral idea of the universe. Crude or refined, with our consent or without it, such a trans-scientific picture of the world will settle in the mind of each of us, ruling our lives more effectively than scientific truth.

The past century, resorting to all but force, tried to restrict the human mind within the limits set to exactness. Its violent effort to turn its back on last problems is called agnosticism. But such endeavor seems neither fair nor sensible. That science is incapable of solving in its own way those fundamental questions is no sufficient reason for slighting them, as did the fox with the high-hung grapes, or for calling them myths and urging us to drop them altogether. How can we live turning a deaf ear to the last dramatic questions? Where does the world come from, and whither is it going? Which is the supreme power of the cosmos, what the essential meaning of life? We cannot breathe confined to a realm of secondary and intermediate themes. We need a comprehensive perspective, foreground and background, not a maimed scenery, a horizon stripped of the lure of infinite distances. Without the aid of the cardinal points we are liable to lose our bearings. The assurance that we have found no means of answering last questions is no valid excuse for callousness towards them. The more deeply should we feel, down to the roots of our being, their pressure and their sting. Whose hunger has ever been stilled with the knowledge that he could not eat? Insoluble though they be, these problems will never cease to loom on the vault of night, stirring us with their starry twinkle–the stars, according to Heine, are night’s restless golden thoughts. North and South help us to orient us despite their being not precisely cities to which one can buy a railroad ticket.

We are given no escape from last questions. In one fashion or another they are in us, whether we like it or not. Scientific truth is exact, but it is incomplete and penultimate and of necessity embedded in another ultimate, though inexact, truth which I see no objection in calling myth. Scientific truth floats in a medium of mythology; but science taken as a whole, is it not also a myth, the admirable myth of modern Europe? (p. 13-15)

In case you haven’t read anything by Ortega y Gasset, at this point I should tell you that this limitation of science doesn’t lead Ortega y Gasset to religion, or even theism. It simply leads him to what he sees as, relative to science, an orthogonal methodology, which is designed to get at those last questions. The next passage echoes the sentiments in the first, but with an eye towards the practical implications of the treatment of science as the be-all, end-all of knowledge about the world. This passage comes from the essay “History as a System,” in which he not only argues against scientism, but also idealism or “spiritualism.” It’s the essay in which he makes some of his more famous pronouncements, such as, “Whether he be original or a plagiarist, man is the novelist of himself” (p. 203), “I am free by compulsion, whether I wish to be or not” (p. 203, emphasis in original), and “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is… history. Expressed differently: what nature is to things, history, res gestae, is to man” (p. 217, emphasis in original). I guess you can see where his belief in the necessity of a historical method comes from. Since we’re always in the process of coming to be what we are, the only way to understand us is to look at us historically (whereas science is, as he said in the previous quote, concerned with the here and now, as it has been since Aristotle). Anyway, here’s the passage:

Science is in danger. In saying this I do not think I exaggerate. For this is not to say that Europe collectively has made a radical end of its belief in science, but only that its faith, once living, is in our day become sluggish. This is sufficient to cause science to be in danger and to make it impossible for the scientist to go on living as he has lived till now, sleepwalking at his work, believing that society around him till supports, sustains, and venerates him. What has happened to bring about such a situation? Science today knows with incredible precision much of what is happening on remote stars and galaxies. Science is rightly proud of the fact, and because of it, although with less right, it spreads its peacock feathers at academic gatherings. But meanwhile it has come about that this same science, once a living social faith, is now almost looked down upon bysociety in general. And although this has not happened on Sirius but only on our own planet, it is not, I conceive, bereft of importance. Science cannot be merely science about Sirius; it claims also to be science about man. What then has science, reason, got to say today, with reasonable precision, concerning this so urgent fact that so intimately concerns us? Just nothing. Science has no clear knowledge on the matter. One perceives the enormity of the position, the shame of it. The upshot is that, where great human changes are concerned, science, strictly so called, has got nothing exact to say. The thing is so enormous that it straightaway reveals to us the reason. For it causes us to note that the science, the reason, in which modern man placed his social faith is, speaking strictly, merely physico-mathematical science together with biological science, the latter based directly on the former and benefiting, in its weakness, from the other’s prestige–in short, summing both up together, what is called natural science or reason.

The present position of physical science or reason is in consequence somewhat paradoxical. If there is anything in the repertory of human activities and pursuits that has not proved a failure, it is precisely this science, when one considers it circumscribed within its genuine territory, nature. Within this order and ambit, far from having failed, it has transcended all our hopes. For the first time in history the powers of realization, of achievement, have outsripped those of mere fantasy. Science has achieved things that irresponsible imaginings had never so much as dreamed of. This is so unquestionable that one has difficulty in understanding straightway why man is not today on his knees before science as before some magic power. The fact remains that he is not on his knees; on the contrary, he is beginning to turn his back. He does not deny, he is not unaware of, its marvelous power, its triumph over nature, but he realizes at the same time that nature is only one dimension of human life and that a resounding success with regard to nature does not preclude failure with regard to the totality of our existence. Life at any instant is an inexorable balance, in which “physical reason” (la razón física) for all its partial splendor does not rule out the possibility of a heavy deficit. Even more, the lack of efficiency and failure from the comprehensive point of view, which is final, is such in my opinion that it has contributed to the aggravation of our universal disquiet.

Man thus finds himself, when confronted with physical reason, in a state of mind comparable to that of Christina of Sweden, as described by Leibniz, when, after her abdication, she caused a coin to be struck bearing the effigy of a crown and had these words inscribed in exergue: Non mi bisogna e non me basta. (p. 177-180)

The point of both of these passages is, of course, that science falls short of providing us with a picture of life as full as we need, and in the second, this limitation, combined with the promises of the 19th century (and the 20th, and in many cases, the 21st) that science would provide us with all of the knowledge we could possibly need, is causing people to turn on science. If you wonder whether people are really compelled to ask and at least attempt to answer the questions that lie outside of science’s limits, just watch those of a scientistic bent try, with all their might, to pull science out of its boundaries and use it to answer those questions (watch a Dawkins speech, for example).


  1. #1 Greg
    December 13, 2006

    As a philosopher and humanist, I’m glad you keep posting these things (e.g., the bit of Hegel a few days ago). The stupidity and contempt of the few responses to that last post were very off-putting.

    Richard Feynman reportedly responded with vigorous opposition to the claim that investigation of the physical world might diminish one’s appreciation of its beauty. One might have thought that dispelling the mystery behind how natural things work–understanding them, in other words–would make them seem limited somehow, no longer something special. Feynman disagreed. Rather, understanding these things could in fact them seem more wondrous.

    One might wish that science-fans could have the courage to look at what they claim to revere in the same way. The scientific method produces undeniably superior results within the limits of what it is suited to study (this seems to be Ortega y Gasset’s point). But one isn’t really in a position to appreciate science for what it is if one mystifies it by pretending that it is more than it is. Understanding it within its limits actually values it better and more thoroughly.

  2. #2 Clark Goble
    December 13, 2006

    Thanks for those great quotes. I’ve had people recommend Gasset before but I’ve just never had the time to delve into him. His approach sounds somewhat Peircean.

  3. #3 Clark Goble
    December 13, 2006

    Oh, I guess there was a contact according to this article.

  4. #4 Chris
    December 13, 2006

    Hey, glad you guys like the quotes.

    Clark, Gasset is one of the few philosophers whose works I can read over and over again and never get tired of them, because he’s an excellent writer in addition to being an interesting thinker (I think Camus compared his writing abilities to Nietzsche’s). I had noticed some similarities to William James in his writing, but since I’m not all that familiar with Pierce’s work, I hadn’t really thought about a connection to him. In many ways, Gasset is similar to Heidegger, as well. They were both writing at the same time, and their focus on temporality, facticity, their concern with the nature of technology and our relationship to it, and things like throwness (Gasset doesn’t call it “throwness”) is similar. Here are some representative quotes:

    The past is past not because it happened to others but because it forms part of our present, of what we are in the form of having been, because, in short, it is our past. Life as reality is absolute presence: we cannot say that there is anything unless it be present, of this moment. If, then, there is a past, it must be as something present, something active in us now.


    Existence means, for each of us, the process of realizing, under given conditions, the aspiration we are. We cannot choose the world in which to live. We find ourselves, without our previous consent, embedded in an environment, a here and now. And my environment is made up not only by heaven and earth around me, but by my own body and my soul. I am not my body; I find myself with it, and with it I must live, be it handsome or ugly, weak or sturdy. Neither am I my soul; I find myself with it and must use it for the purpose of living although it may lack will power or memory and not be of much good. Body and soul are things; but I am drama, if anything, an unending struggle to be what I have to be. The aspiration or program I am, impresses its peculiar profile on the world about me, and that world reacts to this impress, accepting or rejecting it.

  5. #5 JJ
    December 17, 2006

    Remarkable quotes… I formally pronounce myself a cretin for not having read Ortega y Gasset, especially given that he wrote in my mother tongue!

    I wonder what PZ has to say regarding these quotes. Apparently, nothing.

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