Topics Worth Investigating

  1. Ortega distinguishes between the biological nature and the extra-natural aspect of man by describing the latter is the ``well-being'' of human life. Discuss whether or not Ortega would agree that the invented, extra-natural life might result in despair rather than human well-being in some instances since human beings have no external standard by which to judge the effects of their inventions and cannot know the future advantageous or deleterious consequences of those inventions. As Sartre writes, "…[N]o God, no scheme, can adapt the world and its possibilities to my will. When Descartes said, 'Conquer yourself rather than the world, he meant essentially the same thing.'that '… we should act without hope.'"[1]

  2. Ortega raises the question whether man is a type of novelist of his life. Do you think he means this analogy should be taken literally or do you think he intends this analogy to be thought of as a literary metaphor? In what (similar) respects is man the novelist of his life and in what (dissimilar) respects is man not the novelist of his life? Is Ortega's notion of the extra-natural aspect of human life, "man's being the novelist of his life" related to AndrÚ Maurois' insight of objective-subjective dimensions of human existence revealed in this quotation: "It is in this impossibility of attaining to a synthesis of the inner life and the outward that the inferiority of the biographer to the novelist lies?"[2]

  3. First, compare Ortega's description (in 1939) of human life as "nothing but the zeal to undertake a certain project or program of existence…he is such a program to be." with Jean-Paul Sartre's statement (in 1945) that "Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life."[3] Similarly, consider that Ortega writes in this essay, "Man, whether he wants to or not, must make himself," whereas Sartre writes, "Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself."[4]

    Second, both philosophers recognize that choosing not to choose is a choice. In this regard, compare Ortega's characterization of freedom as ...

    I must choose among these possibilities. Therefore I am free. But understand well: I am free by obligation.

    with Sartre's version that ...

    We are alone, with no excuses.…[M]an is condemned to be free.[5]

  4. George Milkowski raises the following question with regard to Ortega's definition of nature and the extra-natural aspect of man:

    Gasset's definition of nature vis a vis man is extremely narrow and therefore his definition of technology as it pertains to man is extremely broad. If we accept his definition of technology as that which is not related to animal nature then all human thought and intellectual endeavors which are products outside of natural needs are technology. Do you feel that such uniquely human characteristics such as language, emotions, psychological characteristics (e.g., the search for beauty, loyalty, human sacrifice, cruelty), religious beliefs also are technology?[6]

    Examine carefully how "unique" are these characteristics of human beings by researching studies in ethology. Do you think there is a difference in degree or a difference in kind with respect to human characteristics and characteristics of other animals? Specifically, address Niko Tinbergen's fourth question concerning the development and function with respect to human behavior: how adaptive function and behavioral development originate.[7] Also, discuss whether or not you think there are any unique characteristics of human beings which in principle could not be acquired by other life forms or whether or not these psychological attributes exist to some extent in other animals also. For example, Charles Darwin writes

    If no organic being excepting man had possessed any mental power, or if his powers had been of a wholly different nature from those of the lower animals, then we should never have been able to convince ourselves that our high faculties had been gradually developed. But it can be shewn that there is no fundamental difference of this kind. ...[T]here is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.[8]

    Anthony Serafini continues, "Recent experiments with chimpanzees and language-learning inform us that Darwin's thinking here was both lucid and profound." [9]

  5. With respect to Milkowski's statement in the previous question that Ortega's definition of technology is extremely broad, discuss whether or not Milkowski's use of the term "technology" adequately reflects Ortega's notion of "tÚcnica" as explicated in this essay or whether Milkowski's use of the term might a instance of equivocation arising from the difficulty of finding a suitable English synonym or paraphrase for "tÚcnica".

  6. Immanuel Kant argues in his Critique of Practical Reason that man uses his reason to meet the needs as well as the well-being of life in accordance with natural instinct. Where human beings achieve a higher purpose is in the use of pure reason to choose the good:

    Man is a being who, as belonging to the world of sense, has wants, and so far his reason has an office which it cannot refuse, namely, to attend to the interest of his sensible nature, and to form practical maxims, even with a view to the happiness of this life, and if possible even to that of a future. But he is not so completely an animal as to be indifferent to what reason says on its own account, and to use it merely as an instrument for the satisfaction of his wants as a sensible being. For the possession of reason would not raise his worth above that of the brutes, if it is to serve him only for the same purpose that instinct serves in them; it would in that case be only particular method which nature had employed to equip man for the same ends for which it has qualified brutes, without qualifying him for any higher purpose. No doubt once this arrangement of nature has been made for him he requires reason in order to take into consideration his weal and woe, but besides this he possesses it for a higher purpose also, namely, not only to take into consideration what is good or evil in itself, about which only pure reason, uninfluenced by any sensible interest, can judge, but also to distinguish this estimate thoroughly from the former and to make it the supreme condition thereof.[10]

    Do you think that Kant would argue man's technical inventiveness is part of attending "to the interest of his sensible nature"? Then it would seen Ortega's extra-natural ideals of well-being, to Kant, would be essentially instinctual since, for Kant, the extra-natural part of human beings is not happiness or attending to the future but the use of pure reason to judge of good and evil. How do you think Ortega would respond to Kant's distinction of two purposes of reason?

  7. Ortega writes in the reading that " Man is the novelist of himself, be he original or a plagiarist." Undoubtedly, he implies here that an individual's project of life involves an Šsthetic dimension of creativity. Similarly, Friedrich Nietzsche indicates something like this Šsthetic notion of self when he wrote, "One thing is needful—'to give style' to one's character— a great and rare art."[11] And, in another place, Nietzsche declaims, "…for only as an aesthetic phenomenon can existence and the world be eternally justified."[12] To what extent do you think Ortega's notion of "vital project" extends beyond Nietzsche's Šstheticism to involve an individual's reconstruction of the circumstances of life?

  8. In the reading, Ortega characterizes Dilthey as "the man to whom we most owe our idea of life." In H.P. Rickman's chapter which arranges Dilthey's final theories of history entitled, "Individual Life and Its Meaning," Dilthey describes how meaningful experience is possible:

    The past lures us mysteriously on to try to understand the web of meaning of its elements. Yet interpretation remains unsatisfactory. We never master what we call chance [sic] the wonderful and dreadful that become significant for our lives always seem to enter through the door of chance[13]

    and continues …

    In the present we feel the positive or negative value of the realities which fill it and, as we look towards the future, the category of purpose arises. We see life as the achieving of over-riding purposes to which all individual purposes are subordinated, that is, as the realizing of a supreme good.[14]

    Explain in some detail how Dilthey's account differs from Ortega's historical dialectic of life's program.

  9. Morris Berman explains the development of the self in Jungian terms:

    Central to Jungian psychology is the concept of "individuation," the process whereby a person discovers and evolves his Self, as opposed to his ego. The ego is a persona, a mask created and demanded by everyday social interaction, and, as such, it constitutes the center of our conscious life, our understanding of ourselves through the eyes of others. The Self, on the other hand, is our true center, our awareness of ourselves without outside interference, and it is developed by bringing the conscious and unconscious parts of our minds into harmony.[15]

    Do you think Ortega's view of the self in his essay could accommodate Jung's conception of self and individuation as life's vital project? Would Berman's description of the ego represent in Ortega's terms man's biological nature rather than that which transcends the natural order of things?

  10. In a passage at the beginning of Ortega's "Meditaciˇn de la tÚcna," a passage not translated in this reading, Ortega explains that the essence of being a human being is his ability to adapt the environment to himself through tÚnica. Interestingly enough, John Postgate points out man is not the only species with the ability to shape the environment:

    The persistence of sulphate-reducing bacteria, for example, throughout geological Šons of time undoubtedly depended on the fact that they grow best in an environment that is lethal to most present-day creatures. Successful evolutionary types not only develop characters which suit them to their environment, thy also modify the environment to suit themselves. The reader may care to reflect that this is as true of man as of microbes.[16]

    What do you think Ortega would say is the essential difference between human beings modifying the environment as their extra-natural character and bacteria modifying the environment in keeping with their biological nature? In light of this example, is the distinction between man's biological nature and his extra-natural nature tenable?

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Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions (New York: Citadel, 1957), 29-30.


Andre Maurois, Aspects of Biography (London: Cambridge University Press, 1929), 167.


Sartre, Existentialism, 32.


Sartre, Existentialism, 15.


Sartre, Existentialism, 23.


George Milkowski, "Thoughts on Technology / Ortega y Gasset" in Robert Blumberg's Technology and Education Seminar: Readings, Spring 1998,, (2 February 2008).


Niko Tinbergen. Zeitschrift fŘr Tierpsychologie, 1963, 20, 410-463.


Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex, (1871; repr., Whitefish, MT: Kessinger's Rare Reprints, 2004), 62.


Anthony Serafini, The Epic History of Biology (New York: Plenum Press, 1993), 222.


Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbot (London: Longmans, Green, 1889), 181.


Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), 290.


Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner, trans. Walter Kaufmann, (New York: Vintage: 1967), sec. 5.. A similar quotation in sec. 24 reads "…seem to be justified" rather than "…be eternally justified. (Emphasis added, Eds.)"


Wilhelm Dilthey, Pattern and Meaning in History, ed. H.P. Rickman, (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 100-101.


Dilthey, Pattern, 103.


Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981), 77.


John Postgate, Microbes and Man, 3rd ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 256.