May 092016


Today is the birthday (1883) of José Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher and essayist who is not exactly a household name in the Western world partly because much of his work has not been translated and its tenor is distinctly Spanish. Furthermore, his work tends to be grouped with more mainstream writers, which, I believe, is a mistake.

Ortega y Gasset was born in Madrid where his father was director of the newspaper El Imparcial, founded by his mother’s family. His family was part of Spain’s fin de siècle liberal and educated bourgeoisie which colored Ortega’s life and work. Ortega was educated in various schools and universities around Spain from 1891 to 1904, ending up with a doctorate from the Central University of Madrid (now Complutense University of Madrid). From 1905 to 1907, he continued his studies in Germany at Leipzig, Nuremberg, Cologne, Berlin and, Marburg. On his return to Spain in 1908, he was appointed professor of Psychology, Logic and Ethics at the Escuela Superior del Magisterio de Madrid, and in October 1910 he was appointed to the chair of Metaphysics at Complutense University of Madrid.


In 1917 he became a contributor to the newspaper El Sol, where he published, as a series of essays, his two principal works: España invertebrada (Invertebrate Spain) and La rebelión de las masas (The Revolt of the Masses). The latter made him internationally famous. He founded the Revista de Occidentes in 1923, remaining its director until 1936. This publication promoted translation of (and commentary upon) the most important figures and tendencies in philosophy, including Oswald Spengler, Johan Huizinga, Edmund Husserl, Georg Simmel, Jakob von Uexküll, Heinz Heimsoeth, Franz Brentano, Hans Driesch, Ernst Müller, Alexander Pfänder, and Bertrand Russell.

Ortego was elected deputy for the Province of León in the constituent assembly of the Second Spanish Republic and was the leader of a parliamentary group of intellectuals known as Agrupación al Servicio de la República (“The Group in the Service of the Republic”). Eventually he became disillusioned with politics, and left Spain at the outbreak of the Civil War.  He spent his years of exile in Buenos Aires until moving back to Europe in 1942.  In 1948 he returned to Madrid, where he founded the Institute of Humanities, at which he lectured.


It’s really difficult to peg Ortega’s belief system, not least because his work does not translate well. That fact is undoubtedly true of all continental philosophy. Let’s take his most famous phrase, “yo soy yo y mi circunstancia.” Sure you can translate this as “I am myself and my circumstances” and that gets at a part of what he is trying to convey – but it misses part of it too. Perhaps I can sum up his philosophy, simplistically as always, by saying that Ortega sees the individual (and reality) as the collision of a host of internal and external factors. There is no ‘me’ without things, and things are nothing without me. There is a continual dialectical interaction between the person and his or her “circumstances.”

Ortega wrote that life is at the same time fate and freedom, and that freedom “is being free inside of a given fate. Fate gives us an inexorable repertory of determinate possibilities, that is, it gives us different destinies. We accept fate and within it we choose one destiny.” Within an inexorable fate we must be active and create a “project of life”— not be like those who live a conventional life of customs and given structures and who prefer an unconcerned and imperturbable life because they are afraid of the duty of choosing a life path of their own.


Ortega turned Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” on its head and asserted “I live therefore I think”.  Absolute truth does not exist; only a summation of different perspectives. Ortega coined the term “razón vital” (“living reason” or “reason with life as its foundation”) to refer to a new type of reason that constantly questions in order to create a project of life. I can’t convey much of this agenda in a short post, but here’s a few quotes:

Each species builds up its stock of useful habits by selecting among, and taking advantage of, the innumerable useless actions which a living being performs out of sheer exuberance.

Humanity’s being is made of such strange stuff as to be partly akin to nature and partly not, at once natural and extranatural, a kind of ontological centaur, half immersed in nature, half transcending it.

We are physical emigrants on a pilgrimage of being, and it is accordingly meaningless to set limits to what we are capable of being.

You get the idea. I find Ortega quite inspirational. He decried the 20th century’s blind faith in science as the solution to all ills, and the sole arbiter of reason and truth. I see that, along with a host of other great thinkers, as the deadly inheritance of the Enlightenment followed by the Industrial Revolution. Sure, we can do amazing things now with our technology, but trust in technology and the path of modern science alone is ultimately limiting and (literally) soul destroying.

Madrid is a foodie city of a certain type. Spanish cuisine has been described as “meat and potatoes” but I’m inclined to paraphrase Winnie the Pooh in saying, “yes, but never mind the potatoes.” Spanish food is heavily dominated by protein  — meat first, followed by eggs and cheese. My first meal in Madrid was half a rabbit (head and all) with a few vegetables as an afterthought. I frequented tapas bars in the evenings where meat and egg dishes predominate.


Callos a la Madrileña is a favorite of mine (and of old-school Madrileñas) – ox tripe, chorizo, and blood sausage in a paprika-laced broth. I’ll spare you the recipe. In any case, you need to find it in Madrid in order to get the proper ingredients. Both chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage) come in a wealth of varieties. I used to make it in Buenos Aires, but it had a distinct Argentine tinge. The classic Madrid home cooked dish is cocido Madrileño, akin to pot au feu, bollito misto etc – that is, dump meat and vegetables of choice into a pot and simmer for hours. Recipe here — .


A very popular dish in homes and restaurants in Madrid is huevos rotos, which translates as “broken eggs.” It can be eaten for lunch or dinner, even though it looks like a breakfast dish to Anglos. You’ll need potatoes, meat, and eggs.  The meat is normally local ham (such as jamón Serrano), sliced very thinly, but can also be sliced chorizo or morcilla. Peel and cut the potatoes into strips and shallow fry them in olive oil. Drain and keep them warm on a heated plate. Fry one or two eggs per person in the olive oil, so that the white is firm but the yolk is runny. Lay the ham over the potatoes and place the eggs on top. To eat huevos rotos, break the yolk with a knife or a piece of bread, and let it run over the ham and potatoes.


Frying the perfect egg for huevos rotos is an art that takes practice. You should heat the oil over medium heat only.  Break the egg into the pan, and gently flip some of the oil over the white as it cooks. It’s best if you do one egg at a time and serve them immediately. If the oil is too hot the white will brown and crisp (which you do not want). The white should be cooked through. In the U.S. it is customary to flip the egg (“over easy”), but in Europe they do not do this. The white can be fully cooked if you are careful.