José Ortega y Gasset and Human Systems Science

Arthur Warmoth, Ph.D.

Sonoma State University

Copyright © 2005


The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset was one of the outstanding philosophers of the twentieth century, and one who focused most directly and consistently on issues of social, or human, systems.  This essay will review his philosophical ideas in relation to their usefulness to those systems scientists who are particularly interested in studying those systems properties and dynamics that are unique to human systems.  Human systems differ from animal, vegetable, and mineral systems in their unique capacity for conscious reflection and choice. 

As systems theorists Holling and Gunderson phrase it, “Human and cognitive abilities provide the ability for developing forward expectations that should allow human-dominated systems to respond not just to the present and the past, but to the future as well” (2002, p. 55).  As these authors observe, this complicates the analysis of ecological systems that incorporate human decision-making in their feedback loops.  Human systems are not only self-organizing, they are consciously self-directing.  Human systems science needs to take into account the fact that human systems are both structured, and therefore predictable, and creative (that is what we mean by freedom), and therefore unpredictable.  This creative unpredictability also means that the investigator is necessarily part of the system s/he is investigating.  (This is one of the basic insights of postmodern philosophy.)  

Furthermore, much of the application of human systems science has been on the scale of organizations, large or small, where the critical issues are to design structures in which conscious decision-making can be effective and which facilitate the resolution of intersubjective disagreement and conflict.  However, these undertakings have rarely been grounded in a solid philosophical understanding of the epistemological foundations of the social construction of social reality[1]—that is, of the evolutionary and historical

construction of human systems at all levels of scale.  It is that foundation that Ortega’s philosophy provides.

According to John Graham, Ortega ultimately saw his system as composed of three elements: a philosophy of life, a theory of history, and a sociology (1997, p. xi).  By “sociology,” Ortega meant a fundamental understanding of social phenomena, and his definition of social phenomena is what we would today call human systems.  The study or science of human systems is an approach that looks for common elements in all forms of human social organization.  Thus, it is essentially interdisciplinary, in the sense that it embraces the domains of all of the social sciences:  psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, and history, as well as more recent interdisciplinary innovations such as ethnic and gender studies.

  Therefore, this study will focus primarily on his “sociology, ” which was laid out most systematically in the posthumously published Man and People (1957b).[2]  His “philosophy of life,” which is a phenomenological epistemology that grew out of his studies with Edmund Husserl, will be described to the extent that it is the theoretical foundation for his sociology.  And his “theory of history” will be explored for its suggestive contributions to theory and methodology for the study of human or social institutions in general. 

Another fundamental aspect of Ortega’s work is the extent to which he saw it as embedded in particular circumstances of time, place, and events, which he felt a moral obligation to actively engage.  This historical moment is variously defined as Spain, the Spanish-speaking world, and Europe.  This characteristic of his work also provides a role model for the vocation implied by the study of human systems.

            His best known work, The Revolt of the Masses (1957a), first published in 1930, embodies both his philosophical and the historical commitments.  It was an immediate response to the contemporary crisis in Europe represented by Bolshevism and Fascism, and as such was a challenge to the politics of the day.  But he also described it as a “first skirmish” in a deeper engagement with the philosophical underpinnings of modern (and ultimately postmodern) society.

            However, if we want to understand Ortega’s contribution to the understanding of human systems, it makes most sense to start with his last major work, Man and People, and work backwards.  In Man and People, he offers a systematic account of the social construction of social reality.  This work lays a foundation for a deeper understanding of the structure and dynamics of human systems in general, and it also make it possible to read his earlier works—including his critique of scientific reason, progressivism, and mass psychology; his development of the concept of the generation; and his project for historical reason—with less chance of misinterpretation.


The Phenomenology of Lived Life

            In order to understand what Ortega calls his “sociology,” and what we would call his theory of social or human systems, it is useful to start with some of his basic epistemological concepts: radical reality (radical solitude), choice and the cycle of reflection and action, pragmata and horizons, and presence and compresence.

            Radical Reality (Radical Solitude).  The most basic reality is lived human experience, lived life.  It is in the phenomenologically described ambit of lived life that Ortega proposes to search for the phenomena that can appropriately be called “social.”

Let us set out, then, to discover, in unimpeachable and unmistakable form, facts of such a characteristic complexion that no other denomination than that of “social phenomena” in the strict sense will seem to us to fit them.   There is only one way to accomplish this most rigorous and decisive operation… We must go back to an order of ultimate reality, to an order or area of reality which because it is radical (that is, of the root) admits of no other reality beneath it, or rather, on which all others must necessarily appear because it is the basic reality.


            This radical reality, on the strict contemplation of which we must finally found and assure all our knowledge of anything, is our life, human life.


            Wherever and wherever I speak of “human life,” unless I make a special exception, you must avoid thinking of somebody else’s life; each one of you should refer it to your own life and try to make that present to you.  Human life as radical reality is only the life of each person, is only my life. (1957b, pp. 38-39.  Except for ellipses, all quotations are given with original punctuation.)

This is not necessarily the most sophisticated reality, but it is the root reality within which all other realities appear.

            Calling it “radical reality” does not mean that it is the only reality, nor even the highest, worthiest or most sublime, nor yet the supreme reality, but simply that it is the root of all other realities in the sense that they—any of them—in order to be reality to us must in some sense present, or at least announce themselves, within the shaken confines of our own life.  Hence this radical reality—my life—is so little “egotistic,” so far from “solipsistic,” that in essence it is the open area, the waiting stage, on which any other reality  may manifest itself and celebrate its Pentecost.  God himself, to be God to us, must somehow or other proclaim his existence to us, and that is why he thunders on Sinai, lashes the money-changers in the temple court, and sails on the three-masted frigate of Golgotha.  (1957b, p. 40.)


            Reflection on this ultimately personal character of our knowledge leads to the realization that in an ultimate or radical sense, we our alone with our own experience and knowledge—we live in radical solitude.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the philosopher who chooses to undertake the systematic exploration of radical reality who is most consistently and acutely aware of radical solitude.  Most of us, most of the time, are more aware of the world around us than we are of our existential aloneness.  That is because, at the same time we are thrown into life, we are thrown into a world.

            Now, innumerable attributes can be posited of this strange and dramatic radical reality, our life.  But I shall now single out only the most indispensable one for our theme.


            And it is that life is not something that we have bestowed on our selves; rather, we find it precisely when we find ourselves.  Suddenly and without knowing how or why, without any previous forewarning of it, man[3] sees and finds that he is obliged to have his being in an unpremeditated, unforeseen ambit, in a conjunction of completely definite circumstances. …Provisionally and to make it easier to understand, let us call this unpremeditated and unforeseen ambit, this most definite circumstance in which we always find ourselves in our living—let us call it “world.”  (1957b, pp. 41-42)


Thus we find ourselves alone in a richly populated universe:

The radical solitude of human life, the being of man, does not, then, consist in there really being nothing except himself.  Quite the contrary—there is nothing less than the universe, with all that it contains.  There is, then, an infinity of things but—there it is!—amid them Man in his radical reality is alone—alone with them.  And since among these things there are other human beings, he is alone with them too.  (1957b, p. 49)


            The unique characteristics of specifically human systems lie precisely in the ways in which we live in a world richly populated with other human beings.  Before we turn to those matters, however, we need to lay out some other characteristics of our radical solitude. One of these is the fact we are always faced with the choice of what to do next.

Choice and the Cycle of Reflection and Action.  Unlike rocks, which only have to obey the laws of gravity, or other animals, whose behavior is largely programmed by instincts, human consciousness is faced with the relentless necessity of choosing:

[T]here is no escape: we have something to do or have to be doing something always; for this life that is given to us is not ready-made, but instead every one of us has to make it for himself, each his own.  (1957b, p. 43)


That is why Ortega’s favorite metaphor for the human condition is “shipwreck.”  Human beings find themselves in a universe where they are constantly faced with the necessity of making choices (individual and, as we shall see later, collective choices—the essence of human society is collective choice institutionalized as conventional wisdom) on the basis of insufficient information.  And we must then live with the consequences of those choices.

            One possible choice is simply to do nothing.  Another, however, is to withdraw from action and reflect on one’s options.  Thus another basic characteristic of lived life is its alternation between phases of reflection and engagement.  (Ortega uses the Spanish terms “ensimismamiento” and “alteración,” which have the overtones of ‘going inside oneself’ and ‘actively engaging the other.’)  These phases always exist in relation to each other:  We reflect in order to more effectively engage, and our engagement is more or less effective depending on the quality of our reflection.  The results of our reflection are our theories about the world. 

For Ortega, the vocation of the philosopher is a commitment to the deepest possible level of reflection.  This commitment is shared in varying degrees by intellectuals in general, and ideally by college students.  In fact, Erik Erikson defined the college years as a psychosocial moratorium which society has created to provide young people with an opportunity to reflect deeply on the human condition and one’s own place in it.  However, the majority of people most of the time choose to live by a conventional wisdom that is the result of someone else’s reflection rather than of their own.  Being conventionally labeled an intellectual is no guarantee of immunity from dependence on conventional wisdom, which is always at risk of being adapted to yesterday’s circumstances and ill suited to confront today’s realities.  Ortega makes this clear in The Revolt of the Masses (1957a, pp. 108ff) when he identifies the specialized scientist, not the proletarian worker, as the prototypical mass-man.  Ortega’s sociology is largely a theory about how conventional wisdom is created and maintained.   

            Pragmata and Horizons.  Another fundamental structure of our radical reality is that it includes a world that we strive to interpret and understand in relation to our needs, wants, and desires.

Man, then, finding himself alive, finds himself having to come to terms with what we have called environment, circumstance, or world.  Whether these three words will gradually take on separate meanings for us is something that does not concern us now.  At this moment, they mean the same thing to us, namely the foreign, alien element “outside of himself,” in which man has to work at being.  That world is a great thing, an immense thing, with shadowy frontiers and full to bursting with smaller things, with what we call “things” and commonly distinguish in a broad and rough classification, saying that in the world there are minerals, plants, animals, and men.  What these things are is the concern of the various sciences—for example, biology treats of plants and animals.  But biology, like any other science, is a particular activity with which certain men concern themselves in their lives, that is after they are already living.  Biology and any other science, then, supposes that before its operations begin all these things are already within our view, exist for us.  And this fact that things are for us, originally and primarily in our human life, before we are physicists, minerologists, biologists, and so on, represents what these things are in their radical reality. (1957b, pp. 51-52)


The world appears in the form of things that can be categorized according to the characteristic resistances we experience in relation to them.   On the vital plane, we experience the world first of all in terms of it uses. [4]

            In taking our inventory of the vital world, then, we have come upon that nearest of all things to each of us, our body, and, in collision or friction with it, all other bodies and their localization in perspective and regions.  But their appearing on the inventory in this fashion must not make us forget that, at the same time—hence not before or after, but at the same time—to us, things are instruments or impediments for our life, that their being does not consist in their each being of and in itself, but that they possess only a being for.  Let us be clear in regard to this notion of “being for,” since it expresses the original being of things as “things in life,” concerns and importances.  The concept of a thing undertakes to tell us what a thing is, its being; that being is stated for us or made manifest to us in the thing’s definition.  So far, so good.  Now call to mind the children’s game in which they accost a grownup, and to catch him, ask, “What is a rattle?”  The grownup, not immediately finding words to define a rattle, almost instinctively makes the motion of turning a rattle in his hand, a motion that looks rather ridiculous, whereupon the children laugh.  But the truth is that this motion is like an acted charade whose meaning is something for turning, hence something with which something is to be done.  This is its being for.  And so too if we are asked what a bicycle is, before we answer in words our feet produce an embryonic pedaling motion.  Now, the verbal definition that would afterwards state the being of the rattle, of the bicycle, or of the sky, the mountain, the tree, and so on, will only express in words what those same motions signify, and its content would be, and is, no more than telling us something that man does or undergoes with a thing; hence every concept is the description on a vital episode.


            But here we are not concerned with what things are absolutely—always supposing that things are absolutely.  [Ortega actually indicates in a footnote that he believes that the search for the absolute being of things has been philosophy’s great wild goose chase.-AW]  We are confining ourselves, methodically and strictly, to describing what things are patently (hence, not hypothetically) there, in the ambit of the radical primary reality that is our life; and we find that in that ambit the being of things is not a supposed being in themselves, but their evident being for, their serving us or hindering us, and so we say that the being of things as pragmata, concerns or importances, is not substantiality but serviceability or servitude, which includes its negative form, unserviceability, being a difficulty, a hindrance, a harm to us.  (1957b, pp. 77-79)


Our world is filled with objects that relate pragmatically to our needs and wants. Pragmata are defined by the reactions we experience to our choices and actions. However, these pragmata do not present themselves as a chaotic jumble of choices.   We do not make choices discreetly and in isolation from other choices.  We encounter the world as organized horizons of pragmata.  Every choice is embedded in a network of meanings that implies assessments of the structure of our world and of the opportunities within it.  These meanings include the systematic assessment of the consequences of prior choices and of hierarchies or networks of possible futures that could result from present choices.  These systems of meanings reflect uses or utilities, based on our interests and desires.  They are systems of choice and engagement that appear before us, and they can be categorized based on the types of resistances we experience.  Ortega calls these systems or networks of pragmata “pragmatic fields” (1957b, p. 80) or “horizons” (pp. 89, 90).  In addition to the animal, vegetable, and mineral horizons that make up the world of things, horizons include fields of human activity that may be vocational (hunting, gathering, art, science, engineering, politics, law, psychology), contemplative (religion, philosophy), recreational (sports, entertainment), or interpersonal (love, intimacy, friendship, solidarity), all of which are embodied in the customs and institutions that make up human societies.

            Presence, Compresence.  Our horizon of attention at any given moment is comprised of a limited number of realities that are directly present to our senses and a vast number of realities that we know or assume (explicitly or implicitly) to be present somewhere in the world.  Following Husserl, Ortega defines those realities that are not directly present to our senses as “compresent” (1957b, pp. 63-64).

            Ortega gives the simple example of looking at an apple.  When we look at an apple which is in front of us, we see only one side of it.  However, we know that the other side is also there, is compresent.  We can turn the apple and make the other side visible, at which point the formerly present side is now compresent.  In a similar manner, we can survey the room where we are now.  The room is present to us, and it is filled with objects that are likewise present.  But other rooms and the great outdoors are also compresent; we can make them present by leaving this space and exploring other spaces.  Ultimately, we experience the world and even the entire universe as compresent, not because we have actually explored those spaces, but because we have heard about them from reliable sources and can imagine ourselves doing so.

            An important corollary of this distinction is that, whereas “presence” always implies actuality or immediacy in our lived experience, compresent reality is often assumed or taken for granted and may even be absent from our immediate consciousness.

            Other people, however, present a more complex and even mysterious situation.  We may actually be aware of another’s experience—the joy or agony of the person we are with, for example.  But the reality of this experience is always compresent; it is never directly present in our awareness.  And it is not necessary for the physical body, the outward manifestation of the other’s lived experience, to be present.  We can empathize with the misery of the victims of genocide, although (possibly with the exception of saints) this suffering is less vivid than that of someone who is both in acute pain and physically present to us.

            The critical issue for the understanding of human systems is how to incorporate the compresent consciousness of other human beings in our scientific models.  This domain of the compresent others can be designated the intersubjective domain.[5]  It turns out that this is the domain where human culture and society, including our scientific theories, appear and live.  But how are human societies and theories constructed and institutionalized?  We now turn our attention to that question.


The Appearance of Social Phenomena: Intersubjectivity

            We now come to our central question:  How do social phenomena appear in our individual lives and in the collective history of the evolution of human consciousness?  Human systems are social systems.  We cannot understand social systems without understanding the structure and dynamics of social phenomena.  The phenomenological tradition (primarily European) has generated a large body of insight into this issue.  Some of the most widely known concepts include:  “being-in-the-world,” “being and time” (Heidegger); “the social construction of reality” and “primary and secondary socialization” (Berger & Luckmann); “philosophical hermeneutics” (Gadamer); “communicative competence” (Habermas); “embodiment” (Merleau-Ponty); “being in-itself” and “being for-itself” (Sartre); “the benign indifference of the universe” (Camus) are.  Ortega’s distinctive contribution was to divide the question of the appearance of social phenomena into two parts:

·      How to describe the appearance of other persons in our personal and collective consciousness.

·      How to describe the appearance of social phenomena sensu strictu.

Ortega recognizes the conventional classification of the pragmatic domains of animal, vegetable, mineral, and human.  But he argues that the domain of the human is really two distinctive domains of human experience, or in the technical terminology of phenomenology, of intentionality.  One is the domain of inter-individual relationships.  The other is the impersonal domain of social facts, social in the strict sense that they make society possible.  These are the social behaviors that we do “because people do it,” “that’s the way it is done.”  Ortega refers to this as the domain of “usages” (the word is part of a standard Spanish phrase  “customs and usages”).

His approach to the phenomenology of the inter-individual marks his most explicit disagreement with Husserl (Ortega, 1957b, pp.  121ff) and is in broad outline similar to the descriptions of psychoanalysis[6] and George Herbert Mead (1934).

            Husserl and Ortega agree on the fundamental importance of intersubjective phenomena.  They accept the compresence of the subjective experience of other persons which can never be directly present in consciousness.  However, the essential difference in their interpretation of these phenomena is that Husserl attempts to explain them on the basis of the projection of one’s own subjectivity onto others, while Ortega accepts them as a phenomenological given which only needs to be described.[7] 

            Ortega’s description hinges on the givenness of the world as the object of consciousness.  This givenness or intentionality develops in relation to the pragmatic horizons of need and desire.  In psychoanalytic terms, the infant’s earliest awareness is of the caretaker (“object”) that satisfies its needs for nourishment and bodily contact.  In Ortega’s description, consciousness develops as an awareness of resistance to its needs and wants that leads to the differentiation of pragmatic fields into the categories of mineral, vegetable, and animal, based on the characteristics of the resistance encountered.

The first thing that appears to each of us in his life is other men. Because every "each" is born into a family, which itself never exists in isolation; the idea that the family is the social cell is a mistake that belittles that marvelous human institution the family—and it is marvelous even though it is troublesome, for there is nothing human that is not also troublesome. The living human being, then, is born among men and they are the first thing that he encounters; that is, the world in which he is going to live begins by being "a world composed of men"—in the sense that the word "world" bears when we speak of a "man of the world" or say "one must know the world" or "what will the world say to that?" In our life the human world precedes the animal, vegetable, and mineral world. We see all the rest of the world, as through prison bars, through the world of man into which we are born and in which we live. And since of the things that these men in our immediate environment do most intensely and frequently is to talk to another and to me—by their talk they instill into me the ideas about all things, and so I see the whole world through these accepted ideas. (1957b, pp. 105-106)


            Our experience of otherness is a fundamental characteristic of human awareness virtually from the very beginning.  On this point, psychoanalysis and George Herbert Mead are in agreement.

This means that the appearance of the Other is a fact that always remains as it were hovering in the immediate background of our life, because when we first become aware that we are living, we already find ourselves not only with others and among others, but accustomed to others. Which leads us to formulate this first social theorem: Man is a nativitate open to the other, to the alien being; or, in other words: before each one of us became aware of himself, he had already had the basic experience that there are others who are not “I,” the Others; that is again, Man, being a nativitate open to the other, to the alter who is not himself, is a nativitate, willy-nilly whether he likes it or not, an altruist. But this word and this whole theorem must be understood without adding to them what is not said in them. When it is stated that man is a nativitate, and hence always, open to the Other, that is, disposed in his acts to reckon with the Other as alien and different from himself, it is not stated whether he is open favorably or unfavorably. The statement concerns something previous to good or bad feeling toward the other. Robbing or murdering the other implies being previously open to him neither more nor less than does kissing him or sacrificing oneself for him. (1957b, p. 106)


This openness to otherness precedes our own characterizations of others as good, bad or indifferent.  In this Ortega sees himself as more realistic than both Kant and Husserl, who tended to see the human family in utopian terms.

            But it is precisely this openness to otherness that is the foundation of the social construction of an objective world.  In his description of this, Ortega slides over from developmental phenomenology to hyperbolic caricature, but the point is clear:

If, in the presence of the other, I make a pointing gesture indicating with my forefinger an object in my environment, and I see the other move toward the object, pick it up, and hand it to me, I infer from this that the world that is only mine and the world that is only his seem, nevertheless, to have a common element—the object that, with slight variations—namely, its shape as seen from his point of view and from mine—exists for us both. And as this happens in connection with many things, although sometimes both he and I make mistakes in supposing that we share a common perception of certain objects, and as it happens not only with one other man but with many other men, bit by bit there arises in me the idea of a world beyond mine and his, a presumed, inferred world, common to all.  This is what we call the “objective world,” in contrast to the world of each of us in his primary life. This common or objective world becomes better defined in the course of our conversations, which for the most part deal with things that appear to be approximately common to us. To be sure, every now and again I discover that our agreement about this or that thing was an illusion; some detail in the behavior of others suddenly shows me that I see things, at least some things—quite a number of things—differently; and this annoys me and makes me plunge back into my own exclusive world, into the primary world of my radical solitude.  Yet the proportion of agreements reached is sufficiently high to enable us to understand one another in respect to the main outlines of the world, to render collaboration in the sciences possible, and a laboratory in Germany utilizes observations made in a laboratory in Australia.  In this way we keep building up—for what is involved here is not something patent, but a construction or interpretation—the image of a world that, being neither only mine nor only yours but, in principle, the world of all, will be the world. But this brings to light a great paradox: it is not the unique and objective world that makes it possible for me to co-exist with other men but, on the contrary, it is my sociality or social relation with other men that makes possible the appearance, between them and me, of something like a common and objective world; the world that Kant had called allgemeingültig—“universally valid,” that is, valid for all—thereby referring to human subjects and basing the objectivity or reality of the world on their unanimity. And this is what follows from my earlier remark, when I said that the part of my world that first appears to me is the group of men among whom I am born and begin to live, the family and the society to which my family belongs—that is, a human world through which and influenced by which the rest of the world appears to me. (1957b, pp. 107-109)


Thus the relationship “we” is developmentally and phenomenologically the most basic.

As we together live and are the reality “we”—I and he, that is, the Other—we come to know each other. This means that the Other, until now an undefined man, of whom I only know, from his body, that he is what I call my “like,” my “fellow,” hence someone able to reciprocate to me and with whose conscious response I have to reckon—as I continue to have dealings with him, good or bad, this Other becomes more definite to me and I increasingly distinguish him from the other Others whom I know less well. This greater intensity in dealings implies closeness. When this closeness in mutual dealing and knowing reaches a high point, we call it “intimacy.” The Other becomes close to me and unmistakable to me. He is not just some or any other, indistinguishable from the rest—he is the Other as unique. Then the other is You to me. Note, then, that “You” is not simply a man, but a unique, unmistakable man. (1957b, p. 110, original ellipsis)


We noted man's fundamental altruism, that is, that he is a nativitate open to the other. Next we saw that the Other and I enter into the relation We—within which the other man, the indeterminate individual, becomes defined as a unique individual and is the You, with whom I talk of that distant creature He—the third person. But now I must go on to describe my struggle with the You, in collision with whom I make the most stupendous and dramatic discovery: I discover myself as being I and . , . only I. Contrary to what might be supposed, the first person is the last to appear. (1957b, p. 111, original ellipsis)


Up to this point, we have focused on Ortega’s phenomenology of our awareness of other persons, of “you” as someone else, someone who is actually known or potentially knowable as another distinctive individual personality.

Not long ago we made a great step forward: we observed that there is in each of us a basic altruism that renders us from birth open to the other, to the alter, as such.  This other is Man, for the present the indeterminate man or individual, the undistinguished Other, about whom I know only that he is my “like” in the sense that he is capable of responding to me by his reactions, on a level approximately the same as that of my actions—which did not happen to me with the animal.  This capacity for responding to me to the full scope of my actions, I call cor-responding or reciprocating to me.  But if I do no more than to remain open to the Other, to realize that he is there with his I, his life, and his world, I do nothing to him and this basic altruism is not yet “social relation.”  For that to arise, I have to act or operate on him, in order to provoke a response in him.  Then he and I exist for each other and what either of us does in respect to the other is something that takes place between us.  The relation We is the primary form of social relation or sociality.  Its content does not matter—it can be a kiss or a blow.  We kiss and we hit.  What matters here is the we.  In it, I do not live but co-live.  The reality we or we-ity can be expressed by a more ordinary term—intercourse.  If the intercourse that is the we becomes frequent, continuous, the Other becomes more and more distinct to me in it.  From being any man, my fellow-man in the abstract, the undefined human individual passes through degrees of increasing definition, becomes better and better known to me, humanly closer.  The extreme degree of closeness is what I call “intimacy,” “inwardness.”  When my intercourse with the Other is intimate, he is an individual whom I cannot confuse with any other, for whom I can substitute no other. He is a unique individual.  So, within this ambit of vital reality or co-living, the We, the Other, has become a You.  And since this happens to me not only with one but with a number of other men, I find the human World appearing to me as a horizon of men whose nearest circle to me is full of You's; that is, of those individuals who for me are unique.  Beyond them lie circular zones occupied by men of whom I know less, and so on to the horizon-line of my human environment, the place of the individuals who to me are indeterminate, interchangeable.  Thus the human world opens before me as a perspective of greater or less intimacy, of greater or less individuality or uniqueness, in short, a perspective of close and distant humanity.  (1957b, pp. 146-147)


Those relationships between persons with identifiable personalities Ortega calls “inter-individual.”  But this is only one domain of human relationships (or systems).  There is another level or scale of relationships (systems) for which Ortega would reserve the term “social realities” or “societies,” in contrast to inter-individual relationships.

Our minute analysis of these social relations which, now that we have perceived their most decisive characteristic, we call “inter-individual relations” or co-living, appeared to have exhausted all the realities in our world which can lay claim to the denomination “social.” And this is what has happened to the majority of sociologists, who have not succeeded in even setting foot in genuine sociology because on the very threshold they have confused the social with the inter-individual. With which I seem already to be saying that calling this latter “social relation”—as we have so far done in accordance with common usage and adapting myself to the teaching of the greatest sociologist of recent times, Max Weber—was a sheer error. So now, once again, we must try to learn—and this time clearly—what the social is. But as we shall find, in order to see, indubitably to grasp the full strangeness of the social phenomenon, all the foregoing preparation was absolutely necessary, because the social appears not, as has hitherto been believed and as was far too obvious, when we oppose it to the individual, but when we contrast it with the inter-individual. (1957b, pp. 178-179


Society as an Architecture of Usages

The phenomenology of the human personality as a system, as well as the phenomenology of the family, small group, and organizational systems, has been fairly thoroughly explored by humanistic and transpersonal psychologists.  What Ortega’s concept of “usages” offers is the foundation for a phenomenological approach to understanding large-scale systems; usages are the building blocks of societies, or large scale systems.  Understanding how such systems are constructed and maintained is a key to understanding in practical terms how those systems create social ecologies that adapt to natural ecologies.

I shall be told that, even if the present-day salutation has a certain, if evanescent usefulness, the fact that it is practiced only among acquaintances, whereas we do not practice it with the strangers whom we meet as we pass through the city streets.  Would it not be of more use to us with the latter class than with the former?  Why do we salute those who have been introduced to us, and not those whom we do not know at all, when in the desert or the forest that practice is more or less the opposite, the longest and most meticulous complement being paid to the nameless man who suddenly appears on the horizon?  The reason why these things are as they are is plain.  Precisely because the city is a place in which people who do not know one another live continually together, their meetings and their living together could not be adequately regulated by such a usage as the salutation—which, after all, is merely ornamental and of very slight efficacy.  The salutation remains restricted to circles where the coefficient of danger is lower, to the already well-defined and domestic living together of groups composed of people who are acquainted.  When someone introduces two people to each other, he plays the role of guarantor of their mutual peacefulness and good will.  To regulate the friction between strangers in the city, and particularly in the great city, a more peremptory, forceful, and precise usage had to be created in society; this usage is, in plain terms, the police.  But we cannot discuss this last usage until we have confronted another and more extensive one, which is its foundation—public power or the State.  And this, in turn, can be clearly understood only when we know what the system of intellectual usages that we call “public opinion” is, which in turn owes its existence to that system of verbal usages, the language.  As you see, usages are interconnected and rest upon one another, forming a gigantic architecture.  This gigantic architecture of usages is, precisely, society.   (1957b, pp. 220-221)


The domain of usages is the domain of intersubjectively shared ideas and behaviors that make social life on any scale possible.  Beyond the scale of the tribe or community, where inter-individual relationships are possible, it is the primary form of human relationships. 

Usages are not a function of frequency.  We talk everyday and engage in formal greetings frequently.  But at the other extreme, Ortega cites the example of the Roman ludi saeculares, religious games that occurred once a century (1957b, p. 193).  On the other hand, there are behaviors in which we regularly and more or less voluntarily engage, such as breathing and walking, that are not usages.  In Man and People, Ortega deals with two examples of usage in depth:  the salutation, or handshake, and language.  He also mentions in passing the traffic cop and the State.  His unique contribution is to provide a framework for understanding how society functions as an existential reality in the consciousness of multitudes of living individual humans—which in the living present, the eternal now, is all there is.

            The principal characteristics of usages are as follows:

1.     They are actions that are carried out “mechanically” due to social pressure.  This pressure consists of an anticipation of moral or physical reprisal.

2.     They are actions of which the specific content is unintelligible, irrational.

3.     We experience them as forms of conduct that originate in social pressures outside ourselves and of any other individual self, since they act on others as they do on oneself.  Usages are extraindividual and impersonal realities.  (Paraphrased from the “Abreviatura” in Ortega y Gasset, 1983, p. 16.)

These characteristics are made clearer by consideration of our use of language.  The handshake and institutions such as the law are important classes of usages.  Ortega uses a historical phenomenology of the former as the focus of his initial explication of the topic.  However, language is perhaps the most basic horizon of usage.  Along with art, ritual, and tools, it appears at the earliest stages of the evolution of the human species.  The social pressure requiring the use of specific language is our desire to communicate, the penalty is simply social isolation:  not being understood.  While the content that we intend to communicate is rational, understandable, the reasons we use specific words, phrases, and grammar is not.  This is true even when we reflect on etymology and linguistics, which for most of us is rarely.  We experience our mother tongue as a ubiquitous and essential characteristic of our social environment, and while we hold others responsible for what they say, it is only in rare pedantic contexts that we hold them responsible for how they say it (1957b, p. 221).

In the vast architecture of usages that make up societies or human systems, language is fundamental.  It is the most basic tool of social organization, although imaginal and ritual forms are also important.  And it lies at the heart of our experience of identity, which is always embodied in a social context.  Language is the container for the customary practices and beliefs that constitute the foundation of any social organization from the family to the global economy.

The study of language is a historical enterprise.  Ortega proposes the development of a “theory of saying” (1957b, p. 243) that would explore both what needs or wants to be said and the social and historical context of the effort.  Language has mostly been studied as it exists.  And indeed, the communication of an existing body of beliefs and ideas is its principal burden.  But Ortega is suggesting that it should also be studied in relation to what needs or wants to be said.  (Pp. 243-244.)  Historically, languages have evolved under conditions of relative isolation or “separation.”  This raises some interesting questions about the impact on linguistic and cultural coherence of universal communication technology, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village.”

If sociological studies had been properly conducted, sociologists would have thoroughly studied, both in the past and the present, this influence of separation on collective life in automatically producing "society" with all its attributes or a part of them. If the subject had been pursued, both in the past and the present, we should today have an ample and reasonably clear collection of "case-histories," which could be of greater use to us than we may at first suspect. For example: Present-day means of communication have had the result that, for the first time, it is normal for large numbers of people to travel with the greatest frequency from their own to other countries, including the most distant. This phenomenon, which began to appear some years ago, will in all probability only increase in the years ahead. Together with corporeal transfer, there is the action exercised by the constant presence in the press of whatever occurs in other countries. Now, what effects will all this have on the life of each society?  Because we cannot take it for granted that these effects will necessarily be beneficial, or at least that the speed with which this process is advancing will not bring about serious consequences, even if only temporarily. (1957b, pp. 229-230)


            Usages are human because people are the actors, but they are inhuman because there is no identifiable or responsible human agent.

This contrast enables us to see clearly that whereas saying, or trying to say, is a properly human action, the action of an individual as such, to speak is to practice a usage which, like all usages, is neither born in the person who practices it, nor properly intelligible, nor voluntary, but is imposed on the individual by the collectivity. Hence in speech, which the ancients called nothing less than ratio and logos, we see once again the strange reality that every social fact is: strange, because it is at once human—for men do it, men practice it with full consciousness that they are practicing it—and at the same time inhuman because what they are practicing, the act of speech, is mechanical. But if we trace back the history of every word in a language, of every syntactic construction, we often arrive at what we can, at least relatively, call their origin, and then we see that in its origin—its etymology—the word or the turn of speech was a creation that had meaning for its inventor and for its immediate recipients; hence, that it was a human action, which, by coming into use in the language, became drained of meaning, became a phonograph record, in short, became dehumanized, soulless. (1957b, pp. 258-259)


Usages are what we would now call “programmed” —Ortega uses the analogies of the sound produced by a phonograph record and the movement produced by the mechanisms of an automobile.  This programming is in some sense internal, since we do it willingly. 
And yet we have no clear idea as to why we do it, except that it is more convenient to do it than not to do it.

Although Man and People examines only language and the salutation in depth, it is clear from the list of topics he hoped to add in a second volume had he lived longer that he had a very broad horizon of social phenomena in mind:

In the planned index, the following eight lectures appeared following the lectures transcribed herein:

XIII.—The State

XIV.—State and Law (legislation)

XV.—Law (rights)

XVI.—The forms of Society:  horde, tribe, people



XIX.—“Animal society” and human society


(Translated from Ortega y Gasset, 1983, p. 223)


The defining characteristic of a usage is that it is a voluntary behavior enforced by impersonal social forces.  Usages have the characteristic of being “binding observances” (vigencias), widely accepted and expected practices that make social order possible.   Thus they are positively reinforced by convenience, by the fact that we do not have to give them much thought once we have learned them, and social order is generally useful.  They are also enforced by negative consequences, which may be relatively mild: if we fail to proffer a handshake we may only get a dirty look.  Or they may involve coercive force, as in the exercise of police power.  This leads Ortega to distinguish between weak and strong usages (1957b, p. 215).  Weak usages are those such as a handshake, where the negative consequences are mild, and strong usages are those imposed by force (and thus may be less universally accepted).  The use of language, where the sanction is the inconvenience of not being understood, is presumably somewhere in the middle of the weak-strong continuum.

The process of establishing usages is in essence the process of the social construction of social reality.  Weak usages—customs and traditions—typically evolve slowly over time, although they can be established rapidly as in the area of fashion, where trendsetters regularly introduce new styles.  By the time a weak usage is firmly established, its original rationale may have disappeared in the mists of history.

Does this mean that the new usage possesses much or even a sufficient meaning? Since the social groups in which usages are constituted are composed of a very large number of individuals and since, if the usage is to become established, a large proportion of them must be won over to it and the rest must at least come to know it and obey it—all this means that the formation of a usage is slow. 


From the moment when an individual had the creative (only individuals create), the creative idea of the new usage, to the time when it actually becomes an observed usage, an institution (every usage is an institution), a long time must necessarily pass.  And during the course of this long period that it takes for a usage to become constituted, the creative idea, which when newborn was completely meaningful, by the time it becomes usual, by the time it becomes a social mode, in short, a usage, has already begun to be antiquated, to lose what meaning it had, to be unintelligible. (1957b, p. 211)


Thus the typical course of the evolution of a usage is that it originates as the idea of a creative individual.  (Only individuals have new ideas.)  If it is eventually to become a usage, it must first be taken up by a vital community.  This community may have a social, intellectual, or political character.  Through some combination of perseverance and persuasion, the usage eventually becomes accepted and ultimately taken for granted by a broad enough cross section of society to be called a usage or binding observance.

Strong usages may be imposed more rapidly, but only at the cost of coercive force.  The relative weight of positive or negative public opinion will determine the degree of force necessary to implement a law or public policy.  The legitimate use of force to enforce usages is a unique characteristic of the state, and the ratio of positive to negative public opinion underwriting its laws is the basis of the legitimacy of government.  However, the ability to institutionalize relatively strong usages is a useful definition of power, and there are also other powerful institutions in contemporary society, including economic institutions and mass media.


Intersubjective Domains

It is useful to examine some additional parameters of intersubjectively constructed usages.  This schema is not explicit in Ortega, but it is clearly implied by his analysis.  One fundamental characteristic of usages, as well of inter-individual relationships and of objective science, is that they are systematically intersubjective.















Figure 1.  The Phenomenological Field


Thus, we can define the three basic domains of the phenomenological field:

1.     The Subjective.  This is all of the perceptions and knowledge that belongs to oneself alone.  These may be experiences that are so amorphous or chaotic that we cannot find the words (or other symbolic forms) to communicate them.  Or they may be insights that are so personal that we choose not to communicate them.

2.     The Objective.   This is a special realm within the intrsubjective realm that includes the natural sciences, and it is the realm that has been honed to a fine art by the intellectual life of modern humans (mainly men, actually, and including science, philosophy, and scholarship in general).  Its salient feature is that the facts on which it is based are observable by more than one observer, and all adequately prepared observers report essentially the same observations.

3.     The Intersubjective.  This realm exists within the larger framework of lived life and it is the realm that is created by the human capacity for communication, primarily symbolic communication.  It is the basis for the construction of all human knowledge and the creation of all human relationships and institutions.  It is really remarkable that it has been so little notices in theorizing about social phenomena.

This perspective radically deconstructs the prevailing cliché that views subjectivity and objectivity as opposites.  On the contrary, all social life is intersubjective, and all human systems are dependent upon conscious, or more often unconscious, intersubjective communication and agreement.  This is true of both those systems that Ortega characterizes as inter-individual, in which the other has distinctive characteristics, and the social, the realm of the generalized other. 

Within this nearly all embracing intersubjective domain, usages and ultimately what sociologists describe as institutions, can be classified in terms of whether they mainly represent internalized or externalized ideas.  In either case, they can be characterized as having objective existence.  This is not because they essentially exist in the domain of objectively observable phenomena (the horizon of the natural sciences), but rather because the process of objectification is essential to the social construction of social reality.  As we saw above (p. 12), it is in the experience of the apparent consistency between my experience and my awareness of your compresent experience that leads me to conclude that there is a real world out there.  It is in their steadfast focus on this consistent out-thereness that natural scientists found the basis for constructing practical models of the natural world.  It is by expanding the reach of our shared (or at least coordinated) consistencies that we extend the dominion of culture.  It is this progress that is made possible (not guaranteed) by the human capacity to disengage from the world and retreat into reflection.

Hence, if man enjoys the privilege of temporarily freeing himself from things and the power to enter into himself and there rest, it is because by his effort, his toil, and his ideas, he has succeeded in reacting upon things, in transforming them, and creating around himself a margin of security, which is always limited but always or almost always increasing.  This specifically human creation is technology. … From this inner world he emerges and returns to the outer. …Far from losing his own self in this return to the world, he carries it thither, projects it energetically and masterfully upon things, in other world, he forces the other—the world—little by little to become himself.  Man humanizes the world, injects it, impregnates it with his own ideal substance, and it is possible to imagine that one day or another, in the far depths of time, this terrible outer world will become so saturated with man that our descendants will be able to travel through it as today we mentally travel through our own inner selves; it is possible to imagine that the world, without ceasing to be the world, will one day be changed into something like a materialized soul, and, as in Shakespeare’s Tempest, the winds will blow at the bidding of Ariel, the elf of Ideas.  (1957b, pp. 20-21)


It is useful to distinguish between those institutions that are constructed on the basis of internalized ideas and those that are primarily externalizations.  The former comprise established behavior patterns—customs, traditions, practices—that are based on shared beliefs or assumptions.  The foundation of these beliefs and assumptions is typically established so early in infancy that they operate largely unconsciously.  They may or may not be ecologically adaptive in the context of contemporary environment, but a large corpus of programmed assumptions is essential to the existence of the institutions of an organized society, and from the point of view of the individual, they make ordinary everyday life possible.  However, in the postmodern world in which human inventiveness is speeding up the rate of evolution by orders of magnitude, we would do well to follow Ortega’s injunction to “Live on the alert” (1957b, p. 27).

The latter category—externalized ideas—includes all of the objects created by human societies.  These range from simple tools to the complex architecture of cities, and more recently include the engineering infrastructure of space travel.  It includes cathedrals, which exteriorize a rich communal inner life.  And it includes bombs designed to obliterate the inner and outer life of others, typically after the others have been objectified, a psychological process which effectively denies the existence or validity of that inner life prior to its physical obliteration. 


Domains of Usages

It would require another essay to complete the ambitious catalog of usages that Ortega outlined for a second volume of Man and People (see above, p. 18).  However, there are three major domains that he outlined in sufficient detail to give a sense of the scope and value of the concept:  custom and tradition, cultural history (particularly as this has been embodied in the history of ideas in Europe), and the State (as the embodiment of politics, law, and government.

Customs and Traditions.  The two main examples that Ortega gives, the salutation and language, are examples of customs and traditions that have a long and rich history.  This does not mean that they are not constantly evolving.  But it does mean that their evolution takes the form of a largely unconscious drift that never loses contact with a continuous history.  Language and the salutation are both part of a cultural system of practices that is learned at the earliest stages of lifespan development and which establishes the foundation for social living.

This does not mean that we cannot learn other languages or explore other cultural practices, aesthetics and food preferences, rituals, as so on.  But it does mean that the cultural complex of usages we are born into is the foundation of our personal identity and gives us the basic conceptual tools that allow us to explore other cultural systems, and ideally to expand and enrich our own.

Incrementally evolving usages with long histories remain the foundation of social life.  It is useful to remember that for most of humanity’s evolutionary history—millions of years—that is all there was.  In addition to the traditional practices of daily life, custom and tradition was the basis of religion and ritual, and indeed of all forms of social behavior.  However, with the invention of writing, which made possible the great city-states of Babylon and ancient China, our capacity for externalizing our ideas was greatly increased.  A history of ideas in a more rigorous and formal sense became possible.  With writing, a new tool for the formalization of usages had been invented.  With printing, and in the last century with electronic communications technology, this capability has been expanded by orders of magnitude.

Cultural History; The History of Ideas.  Much of Ortega’s writing, his theory of history (which integrates his philosophy of life and his sociology—see above, p. 2) is a phenomenological exploration of the history of the great ideas that have been the foundation of Western civilization. Two ideas that Ortega explores in greatest depth are the loss of faith in scientific reason (1957b, 1958, 1960, 1961a, 1961b) and the idea of the State (1946, 1957a, 1973, 1974).

Both Husserl and Ortega were concerned about the growing sense in the early twentieth century of the limitations of reason as embodied in the natural sciences, to illuminate the human condition.  As Ortega summed up the situation in 1935,

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 the society around him still 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 by society 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 it?  Just nothing.  Science has no clear knowledge of the matter.  (1961, pp. 177-178)


This does not mean that the natural sciences, physics, chemistry, biology, etc., are obsolete within their legitimate sphere of interest, which is the study of nature.  But it does mean that we have no clear sense of how to mend our broken human systems.  Ortega’s response to this loss of faith in scientific reason was to propose a “historical reason” that was based on the history of human experience “from the inside,” as it was actually lived by participants.  “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is . . . history” (1961, p. 217, original ellipsis).  It is from this perspective that Ortega affirmed on many occasions that life is essentially a drama, a drama in which it is useful for the protagonists (us) to understand their setting as “shipwreck.”

The State; Politics and Law.  As befitting a philosopher who lived through the collapse of the Spanish Republic, the rise of fascism, and the Second World War, Ortega spent a great deal of time reflecting on the phenomenology of politics and government.  One of his central themes was the contemporary hypostatization of “the State” by both fascism and communism.  In spite of his often-stated aspiration for clarity, one gets the sense of a shipwrecked philosopher thrashing about in the wreckage of contemporary politics looking for scraps of salvage that can be used to construct a serviceable raft.  It would take another essay to do justice to the depth, breadth, and complexity of his political theorizing.  However there are a few themes of value to the human systems scientist that can be pointed out.

His core concern was the demonstrated ability of the authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century to impose “strong usages” —cultural practices—swiftly and efficiently through the use of coercive police power.  Confronted with this undeniable fact, Ortega was drawn to the question of the legitimacy of this exercise of power.  While these authoritarian regimes could often lay claim to legal, and even democratic, legitimacy, they did not conform to any reasonable definition of the public good.

This observation opened up two lines of exploration:  the history of the idea of authority in Western civilization, and the role of popular democracy in good government.  These themes led Ortega to explore the roots of European ideas about authority in the Roman Empire (1973) and to advocate authority grounded on historical insight rather than either on inherited personal or class-based power or majoritarian pandering (1957a).  Historical insight requires sophisticated leadership, but this leadership should be ratified by public opinion.  In a sense, this could be said to require sophisticated followership as well.  This is a position that comes out looking a lot like Jeffersonian democracy, in the center of a continuum that runs from Plato’s philosopher king on one end to eighteenth century social contract theory on the other.

In the early twenty-first century, the speed up of history has accelerated to a point perhaps beyond the grasp of even Ortega’s fertile imagination.  Our collective responsibility for the social construction of social reality has become critical.  The appropriate role of government in legislating quality of life has become a matter of urgent public debate.  In this context, the appropriate role for the human systems scientist is to accept and emphasize her/his role as a participant investigator of the structure and dynamics of human systems in the service of informed political will.  As a political actor, the human systems scientist is responsible—in terms of Ortega’s cycle of reflection and action—for reflecting on both the objective facts of social system dynamics and the intersubjective issues of legitimate values.  The appropriate forms of action are engagement in dialogue, conversation, and debate about appropriate strategies for political engagement in the social construction of social reality.


Human Systems Methodology

            From the perspective of the methodology of the human systems sciences, Ortega’s key contribution is to point out the necessity of including the phenomenological assessment of the intersubjective system of attitudes, values, and beliefs that give any human system its coherence.  A corollary of this is that the investigator is necessarily an element or participant in the system s/he is studying.  In assessing this contribution, two key points must be kept in mind.  First, it should be understood that this approach is only one element in the study of human or social systems.  Human systems are not exempt from other theoretical findings generated by other methods within the larger framework of general systems theory.

            Second, it should be remembered that, because of his own historical position, Ortega’s main focus was on the systemic coherence of Western civilization, which he believed needed to become more intellectually and politically self-aware in order to deal with the crises that it was (and still is) facing.  His application of what he called “historical reason” to that project provides a model for the practice of the phenomenological assessment of intersubjective systems.

Science is essentially about predictability.[8]  Ortega’s analysis suggests that there are two bases for prediction in human systems, in addition to those constraints established by physical and biological systems within which all human systems operate.  These are:

·      Objective descriptions of the structure and dynamics of human institutions that have attained the status of objective or objectified—that is universally accepted—reality.

·      Intersubjective or empathic understanding of the choices facing individuals and inter-individual communities operating within a definable historical framework.  (Cf. Ortega, 1961, p. 21f.)

A human systems scientist should be competent in both areas of prediction.

In applying methodological insights derived from Ortega’s project for historical reason, it must be remembered that his focus on macro-integration overlooks what we now see as the ecological and cultural need for a decentralization of political economies as a complement to the globalizing economy  with the concomitant political arrangements needed to deal with global issues.  In Ortega’s own terms, we could argue that, since intellectual creativity is basically a personal activity best supported by inter-individual interaction—that is, by communities—we need to put communities in charge of managing the social and natural ecologies that our technological cleverness is creating.  A basic principle of global policy should be the principle of subsidiarity as defined by the International Forum on Globalization: “[W]hatever decisions and activities can be undertaken at the local level should be.  Only when additional activity is required that cannot be satisfied locally should power and activity move to the next higher level, that of region, nation, and finally the world” (Cavanagh, Mander et al., 2002, p. 60).  This obviously presents a major challenge to rethinking our attitudes, values, and beliefs about politics and government.  It requires a shift away from relying primarily on centralized authority and expertise and toward accepting personal and local responsibility for intellectual engagement and ethical reflection.




Perhaps Ortega’s importance lies not so much in the answers he provides, although those were often brilliant, as in the questions he raises.  Living through and meditating on the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, he identified many of the critical issues we are facing—in forms greatly amplified by the information/communications technology (ICT) revolution—at the turn of the twenty-first century.  Ortega saw the loss of faith in scientific progress, and thus in scientific reason, as well as the rise of fascism.  Today we face the reality of the negative ecological side effects of science and technology and a greatly accelerated rate of historical change.  This speed up of history is accompanied by a breakdown of the historical foundations of moral consensus that is leading to a political resurgence of various fundamentalisms and the emergence of a new, more sophisticated soft-core fascism. 

Both Husserl and Ortega were concerned with the senescence of the scientific objectivism and materialism that grew out of the philosophy of Descartes and the scientific/industrial revolution. Both were preoccupied with the crisis character of European life leading up to the Second World War.  And both believed that a philosophical return to a focus on lived life (immediate experience, phenomena as such, radical reality) was key to the creation of a more humane and civilized society.

Indeed it could be argued that all of the dangerous ideologies of the twentieth century represented metastases of scientific reason.  Nazism was rooted in eugenic pseudoscience, and communism was rooted in a materialistic determinism that justified class warfare and dictatorship in the name of the proletariat.  Capitalism, too, has developed a paradoxical ideological determinism based on the “natural efficiency of free markets,” or free market fundamentalism.  In the early twenty-first century, we find this free market fundamentalism joined in a Faustian compact with Christian fundamentalism to produce a mind-numbing crypto-fascism fueled by the political manipulation of fear.  In large measure this fear results from not knowing how to understand, and therefore how to deal with terrorists tactics inspired by other versions of religious fundamentalism. 

However, where Husserl maintained a romantic or utopian faith in the power of vitalized reason, Ortega’s exploration of the possibility of “historical reason” included a realistic assessment of the moral ambiguity of human societies.

            Ortega saw how greatly orderly society depends on the dead weight of the past.  Social order consists of narratives and paradigms, not just on the codified conclusions of scientific and political/legal reason.  These cultural narratives and paradigms are the mummified remains of once living ideas.  Although not quite naming it, Ortega identified the problem of scale in human history:  large-scale institutions are necessarily inhuman, in the sense that they can only be maintained by a body of no longer living ideas.

As the leading edge of history is accelerated and the virtual universe is enormously expanded by technological innovation and the dynamics of globalization, established paradigms are at ever greater risk of obsolescence. 

In The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega proposed that the democratic political unification of Europe was a project that could serve as a creative response to the intellectual and moral drift of Europe in the early twentieth century.  A century later, that project is underway.  However, it is now becoming apparent that we need a global politics, not only just a continental project.  Although global politics is becoming ecologically necessary, such a politics necessarily requires—as Ortega understood—the objectification of human life in ways that amplify the dehumanization of society.  Therefore, the preservation of human vitality, as well as the need for the effective micromanagement of complex ecosystems, argues for a complementary politics of decentralization.

The challenge for the human systems sciences in the twenty-first century is the construction of a sustainable and just global society in response to the destabilizing dynamics of a process of globalization driven by the ICT revolution.  In order to rise to this challenge, the human systems scientist must be both a humanist, at home in the intersubjective world of the creative imagination, and a scientist, able to master the complexities of those systems that operate in an objective world amenable to objective investigation and modeling.  Russ Ackoff has suggested that the architect is the model for the human systems scientist.  Perhaps the modern filmmaker is another.

            In addition, the human systems scientist must cultivate the humility that comes from knowing that the universe is a system of systems.  It is composed of systems and subsystems, many of which, particularly on planet earth, function in interactive, overlapping, and nested relationships.  Life exists within a framework of physical, chemical, and geological systems.  Human life exists within the framework of biological evolution.  Societies are systems that have evolved within the framework of the evolution of natural ecologies.  All of these systems are so complex that we are necessarily always condemned to making decisions based on insufficient information, and then living with their consequences.

The global integration of communications and economic systems is a new, technology driven, twist on human evolution that is crying out for an adequate political, cultural, and moral response.  This response demands recognition that global systems cannot replace the national, regional, and local systems that have evolved over the millennia of human history.  On the contrary, the health of the global system is dependent on the health of these component systems.  The challenge for the human systems scientist is to promote the development of political and cultural institutions that deal with the management of the multiplicity of systems on which human survival and quality of life depend.  These institutions should be designed to function intelligently at an appropriate scale without usurping the power and legitimacy of other, equally valid and often necessary, cultures and institutions.  This means creating appropriate institutions—treaties, agencies, commissions—that can deal with global ecological and economic issues—global warming, the viability of the oceans, fair and just trade rules—while encouraging the responsible management of regional and local social and ecological systems by regional and local institutions and communities.  After all, as Ortega’s analysis reminds us, for most of humanity, vital life is the life of the community.

The systems sciences as a whole have made much progress in dealing with issues related to the management of ecological systems. The fact that “sustainability” is rapidly replacing “progress” as the political buzzword of the age is a testament to that achievement.  However, this essay is primarily focused on the role of human systems science in politics and public policy.

In general terms, good public policy is a marriage of two major factors:  sound knowledge about systems dynamics and responsible political will.  Knowledge about systems dynamics is primarily the province of science, while responsible political will is about moral leadership.  However, knowledge and the responsible use of knowledge are so intimately related that the human systems scientist cannot responsibly pursue knowledge in an ethical vacuum.  Her/his science must be related to an ethical framework for which s/he is willing to take personal responsibility.

            Politics is a matter of ethical debate about values, as well as a scientific debate about the predictability of outcomes, and that ethical debate needs to be grounded in the kind of empathy that can only be cultivated through the arts and humanities.  Ortega’s epistemology recognizes that the arts offer direct access to human truths that need to be encountered on their own terms and integrated into politics, not interpreted according to dogma.  Although his language in The Revolt of the Masses is easily misinterpreted as elitist, his identification of the professional scientists as the paradigmatic mass-man, as well as his actual position on democratic politics and the history of his political involvements, suggests that his core concern was for the necessity of effective, creative leadership in politics.

            Contemporary societies are organized according to three overlapping and interacting paradigmatic belief systems:

1.     Beliefs about human nature.  These include beliefs about the nature of the world and the nature of knowledge.  These beliefs are typically constructed on the basis of a mix of philosophical, scientific, and theological principles and include propositions about “good and evil” and about “us and them.”

2.     Beliefs about the economic system.  In the modern world, our economic system became our primary tool for managing the interface between human and natural ecologies.  Our economic beliefs include our ideas about money, accounting, and investing.  They also include the debate about growth and progress versus sustainability.

3.     Beliefs about justice and rights.  These beliefs make government and social order in general possible.  They are the basis for our acquiescence in rules and policies, including our submission to the rule of law, and to practices of public and private (corporate) bureaucracies.

Each of these systems can only be understood using “historical reason” as conceived by Ortega as an integration of empathic and objective observation and study.

            Each of these paradigmatic domains is self-organizing and self-modifying according to principles of cultural drift that are punctuated by the interaction of technological innovation and shifting fashions in politics and mass media.  Globalization is primarily the global integration of economic systems, driven by the ICT revolution.  This integration is promoted by, and in the service of, a legal and bureaucratic power structure that privileges its own rights to the concentration of power and assets, and that holds a view of human nature that sees a majority of the human race as expendable and exploitable.

            Under these conditions, positive social evolution will require visionary leadership skilled in both empathy—expressed in narrative and imagery—and sophisticated systems analysis.  It requires citizens capable of exercising multiple intelligences.   It also requires intellectual and educational institutions that promote the development and integration of cultural awareness and historical reason.                                                                   




A Bibliography and Chronology of

Major Works of José Ortega y Gasset Available in English.


Most of Ortega’s writing originated as lectures or newspaper or journal articles.  Ortega was notorious for delaying the publication of finished versions of his many projects.  The Revolt of the Masses (La rebelión de las masas) was a major exception, and was thus for long the only work by which he was known in the English-speaking world.  Many of the versions ultimately translated into English, including Man and People, were published posthumously.


Publication dates are those given in the Obras Completas (12 volumes; Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1946-1983).  A particular work may incorporate elements that were presented in various formats at an earlier date.  However, the order presented here follows the dates given in the Obras Completas, except where an asterisk (*) indicates dates provided in the published English version.


1914                Meditations on Quixote (tr. Evelyn Rugg & Diego Marín).  New York: W. W. Norton, 1961.  (Spanish title: Meditaciones del Quijote.  Obras Completas, vol. I.)


*1915              Psychological Investigations (tr. Jorge Gárcia-Gómez).  New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.  (Spanish title: Investigaciones psicológicas.  Volume edited posthumously by Paulino Garagorri.)


1921                Invertebrate Spain (tr. Mildred Adams).  (Spanish title: España invertibrata. Obras Completas, vol. III.  See Collections.)


1923.               The Modern Theme (tr. James Cleugh). London: C. W. Daniels, 1931; New York: W. W. Norton, 1933.  (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961.)  (Spanish title:  El tema de nuestro tiempo.  Obras Completas, vol. III.)


1925                The Dehumanization of Art & Notes on the Novel (tr. Helene Weyl).  (Spanish title: La deshumanización del arte e ideas sobre la novela.  Obras Completas, vol. III.  See Collections.) 


*1929-31         What Is Knowledge? (tr. Jorge Gárcia-Gómez).  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002.  (Spanish title: ¿Qué es conocimiento?  Volume edited posthumously by Paulino Garagorri; additional material added by the translator.)


1930                The Revolt of the Masses (authorized translation).  New York: W. W. Norton, 1957 (25th Anniversary Edition.). (Spanish title: La rebelión de las masas.  Obras Completas, vol. IV.)


1930                Mission of the University (tr. Howard Lee Nostrand).  New York: W.W. Norton, 1966.  (Spanish title: Misión de la Universidad.  Obras Completas, vol. IV.)


1933                Man and Crisis (tr. Mildred Adams). New York: W. W. Norton, 1958. (Spanish title: En torno a Galileo. Obras Completas, vol. V.)


*1935        History as a System (tr. Helene Weyl).  [Spanish title: Historia como sistema.

1941                This essay was originally published in English in Raymond Klibansky, Ed. Philosophy and History (festschrift for Ernst Cassirer) in 1935. Obras Completas, vol. VI.  See Collections.]


1941          On Love, aspects of a single theme (tr. Toby Talbot).  Cleveland, OH: World/Meridian Books, 1957. (Spanish title: Estudios sobre el amor. Obras Completas, vol. V.)


1960.         An Interpretation of Universal History (tr. Mildred Adams).  New York:  W. W. Norton, 1973.  (Spanish title: Una interpretación de la historia universal.  Obras Completas, vol. IX.)


1957          Man and People (tr. Willard R. Trask).  New York: W. W. Norton, 1957. (Spanish title: El hombre y la gente. Obras Completas, vol. VII.)


1957          What Is Philosophy? (tr. Mildred Adams).  New York: W. W. Norton, 1960.  (Spanish title: ¿Que es la filosofía?  Obras Completas, vol. VII.)


1960          The Origin of Philosophy (tr.                   ).  New York, W. W. Norton, 19??.  (Spanish title: Origen y epílogo de la filosofía.  Obras Completas, vol. VII.)


19??          Some Lessons in Metaphysics (tr. Mildred Adams). New York: W. W. Norton, 1969. (Spanish title: Unas lecciones de metafisica.  Obras Completas,

                        vol.       .)


Collections (edited for publication in English):


Concord and Liberty (tr. Helene Weyl).  New York: W. W. Norton, 1946.


The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture, and Literature (tr. Helene Weyl, Paul Snodgrass & Joseph Frank, Willard R. Trask). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.


History as a System and other Essays Toward a Philosophy of History (tr. Helene Weyl, William C. Atkinson, Eleanor Clark).   New York: W. W. Norton, 1961.  (The English translation was first published in 1941 under the title Toward a Philosophy of History.)


Historical Reason (tr. Philip W. Silver). New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.  (Lectures with this title from 1940 and 1944.)  


Phenomenology and Art (Ed. & tr. Philip W. Silver).  New York: W. W. Norton, 1975.  (Essays range from 1913 to 1946).


Invertebrate Spain (tr. Mildred Adams).  New York: Howard Fertig, 1974.  (Translator’s forward indicates first publication of the English  version in 1937.)




Berger, P. L. & Luckmann, T.  (1967).  The Social Construction of Reality.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor (originally published in 1966 by Doubleday).


Cavanagh, J., Mander, J. et al.  (2002).  Alternatives to Economic Globalization: A Better World is Possible.  San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler. 


Freud, S.  (1975).  Three  Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (tr. James Strachey).  New York: Basic Books (© 1962).


Geertz, C.  (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures.  New York: Basic Books.


Graham, J. T.  (1994).  A Pragmatist Philosophy of Life in Ortega y Gasset.   Columbus, MO: University of Missouri Press.


Graham, J. T.  (1997).  Theory of History in Ortega y Gasset: “The Dawn of Historical Reason.”  Columbus, MO: University of Missouri Press.


Graham, J. T.  (2001).  The Social Thought of Ortega y Gassset: A Systematic Synthesis in Postmodernism and Interdisciplinarity. Columbus, MO: University of Missouri Press.


Holling, C. S. & Gunderson, L. H.   (2002). Resilience and Adaptive Cycles, in  L. H. Gunderson  & . C. S  Holling, Panarchy.  Washington, DC: Island Press.


Mead, G. H.  (1934).  Mind, Self, and Society (C. W. Morris, Ed.).  Chicago: University of Chicago Press (18th impression 1972).


Ortega y Gasset, J.  (1946). Concord and Liberty (tr. Helene Weyl).  New York: W. W. Norton.


Ortega y Gasset, J.  (1957a). The Revolt of the Masses (authorized translation).  New York: W. W. Norton, 1957 (25th Anniversary Edition.).


Ortega y Gasset, J.  (1957b).  Man and People (tr. Willard R. Trask).  New York: W. W. Norton. 1957.


Ortega y Gasset, J.  (1958).  Man and Crisis (tr. Mildred Adams). New York: W. W. Norton.


Ortega y Gasset, J.  (1961a). The Modern Theme (tr. James Cleugh).  New York: Harper Torchbooks.


Ortega y Gasset, J.  (1961b).  History as a System and other Essays Toward a Philosophy of History (tr. Helene Weyl, William C. Atkinson, Eleanor Clark).   New York: W. W. Norton.


Ortega y Gasset, J.  (1973).  An Interpretation of Universal History (tr. Mildred Adams).  New York:  W. W. Norton.


Ortega y Gasset, J.  (1983).  El hombre y la gente (Segunda edición).  Madrid: Espasa-Calpe (Colección Austral No. 1501).


St. Clair, Michael.  (1986).  Object Relations and Self Psychology: An Introduction.  Monterey, CA: Brooks-Cole






[1] Berger and Luckmann coined the phrase “the social construction of reality” in their 1967 book of that title.  However, it is more accurate to refer to the social construction of social reality.  Interpretations of the realities of natural phenomena and ecological  systems are one set of social realities that humans construct.


[2] John Graham’s three volume study (1994, 1997, 2001), which includes a volume on his social philosophy, is an excellent comprehensive review of Ortega’s life and thought.

[3] Ortega was writing during the first half of the twentieth century when it was still acceptable to use the generic “man” to refer to human beings or persons.  The reader will need to make the necessary substitution.  Also, readers are advised to skip his dated reflections on the feminine (1957b, pp. 126-138.)

[4] This line of Ortega’s thought probably owes something to his reading of the pragmatism of William James.

[5] Although the concept of intersubjectivity ties together the various themes of Man and People, Ortega never explicitly uses the term.  This is surprising in view of his critique of Husserl’s explanation of intersubjective phenomena.  Husserl does use the term, although it is not as central to his thinking as it is to mine.

[6] Particularly Sigmund Freud (1975) and the object relations theorists, including Heinz  Kohut and Margaret Mahler (St. Clair, 1986).


[7] Ortega’s approach appears to be more accurate, both because it conforms to psychoanalytic and symbolic interactionist findings, and because it is plausibly supported by anthropological research that correlates the evolution of the human cortex with the development of language and other forms of symbolic communication. Cf. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), pp. 67-68, on cortical evolution during the Pleistocene.  This and the fact that Ortega’s phenomenology uses ordinary language and helpful metaphors, while Husserl and other German and French writers tend to seek precision in esoteric jargon, recommend Ortega as the phenomenologist of choice for human systems scientists.

[8] Control takes us into the arena of choice and responsibility–the arena of ethics–and those social scientists who confabulated control with prediction, for example B. F. Skinner and other behaviorists, did a disservice to both science and politics.