Ortega’s importance in the history of twentieth-century Spain is that between 1910 and 1930 he molded a new bourgeois political consciousness. As a result, bourgeois intellectuals of the left and some of the right, as well, articulated their political ideas within a conceptual universe largely created by Ortega. That the intellectual life of Madrid revolved around Ortega (and Madrid was Ortega’s much more than Vienna was Wittgenstein’s) leaps off the newspaper pages of that period. Why that should be so is not explained in the books under review, although Gray’s biographical format is more successful.
In dealing with Ortega’s political philosophy and influence, these books lack both the drama and incisiveness of Robert Wohl’s The Generation of 1914, for, as Wohl demonstrates, Ortega’s naming of that generation struck a resonant note across all of Europe, as young intellectuals struggled to oppose what they regarded as the decadence of inherited political and cultural forms. As Juan Marichal has noted recently, those who heard Ortega’s famous speech on “old and new politics” (“vieja y nueva política” ) felt themselves to be part of an enterprise of renewal. Gray is effective in demonstrating the biographical logic of the development of Ortega’s philosophy. He came of age as a philosopher just as the dictator Primo de Rivera shut down the University of Madrid, forcing Ortega to hold his famous course “¿Qué es la filosofía?” in a theater and to admit the general public. His lectures on the mission of the university came directly after Primo’s resignation and served as a kind of prelude to the Second Republic. His own key projections into public life seemed to give body to his generational theory of history, which allowed him to sense the “level of the time,” to read its Zeitgeist, and to turn it into a program of political action.
Gray is at his best when expounding Ortega’s ambivalence toward social and political change in Spain, a prophet of modern culture caught “in the anxious stance of hailing without really welcoming the corrosive modernist attack on earlier traditions” (159). He embraced Freud and stimulated the reception of Freudian psychology in Spain even while rejecting the doctrine itself. He explained that to be anti-Freudian would associate him with “mean-looking people,” namely doctrinaire reactionary Catholics who rejected all new ideas and were his political enemies.
As an existentialist philosopher Ortega spent his entire career laboring in the shadow of the Germans, in particular Heidegger, whose talent for formal philosophical discourse he lacked (which is why the postwar weekly humor magazine, La Codorniz, in a play on the title of Emperor Charles I/V of Spain/Germany, referred to Ortega as “the first philosopher of Spain, fifth of Germany”). Dobson’s treatment of Ortega’s philosophy is dry, but admirably concise, and he is more successful than Gray in getting at the essence of “perspectivism,” in which truth and reality are positional rather than absolute. Although he plots the evolution of Ortega’s existential and historicized concept of reality in the 1920s and 1930s with clarity, Dobson does not adequately draw out the parallelisms between perspectivism and special relativity that Ortega himself was effusive in pointing out to, and in, the press on the occasion of Einstein’s visit to Madrid in 1923.
Finally, Gray handles Ortega’s long and ambivalent relationship with Latin Americans and their culture effectively (pp. 177-183, in particular). As a kind of self-appointed ambassador of Spanish cum European culture Ortega was generally condescending toward local culture during his years of exile in Argentina, although he had a limited influence on some Argentinian intellectuals such as Eduardo Mallea and Ezequiel Martínez Estrada. His ambivalent relationship with Victoria Ocampo turned on Ortega’s regressive views on women, strongly colored by Gregorio Marañón’s biologized views of sex roles, which Ocampo regarded as patronizing.