Vital reason and democracy in the work of José Ortega y Gasset

Patrick D Bernardo, Fordham University


The question of how to understand liberal democracy has come to the fore after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Western democracy, as evidenced in several recent academic works, is unsure of its grounding in philosophical thought. Scientific reason, despite making great strides in the conquest of physical nature, seems unable to provide a conclusive foundation for liberal democracy. In my dissertation, I turn to what might seem to be an unlikely source for reflection on the state of democracy in our world: the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. Ortega made the crisis of liberal democracy thematic for his investigation into the world. My dissertation describes Ortega's development of vital reason as a response to the growing challenges to democratic life that Ortega witnessed in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. Building from a basis in Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, Ortega develops a philosophy rooted in the radical experience of the self and circumstances, his “I am I and my circumstances.” From this starting point, Ortega contends that it is possible to interpret reality in what he calls a “meditative” manner, drawing meaning from a dialogic, interpretive attitude toward the world in which the ‘experience of error’ remains fundamental to the pursuit of wisdom. In like manner, Ortega argues, one can use the material provided by the apparent vagaries of human history to found a reflection on the constancy of humanity itself. This dynamic sense of reason enables Ortega to begin to build a new sociology and political philosophy ‘from the ground up.’ This new sociology demonstrates that all societies contain a mass and minority, and that the state must be limited. Responsibility for a free life therefore falls on the shoulders of a democratic, directing elite. Ortega intends to develop a new conception of liberal democracy based upon the democratic noble minority, the new gentleman. Taken as a whole, Ortega's political philosophy contends that liberal democracy can only survive if it begins with a grounded insight into human being as such, and then accepts the limitations required by our hierarchical and limited nature.

Subject Area

Political science|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Bernardo, Patrick D, "Vital reason and democracy in the work of José Ortega y Gasset" (2005). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3182449.