study guide
Phil 101: Introduction to Philosophy
Jeremy Anderson, Ph.D.
Man Has No Nature
Written by José Ortega y Gasset in 1941 as part of Historia Como Systema. Translated by H. Weyl, E. Clark, and W. Atkinson.

Transcribed, emended, and with comments and paragraph numbers added by Jeremy Anderson.

[1] The stone is given its existence; it need not fight for being what it is--a stone in the field. Man has to be himself in spite of unfavorable circumstances; that means he has to make his own existence at every single moment. He is given the abstract possibility of existing, but not the reality. This he has to conquer hour after hour. Man must earn his life, not only economically but metaphysically.

[2] And all this for what reason? Obviously--but this is repeating the same thing in other words--because man's being and nature's being do not fully coincide. Because man'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. Dante would have likened him to a boat drawn up on the beach with one end of its keel in the water and the other in the sand. What is natural in him is realized by itself; it presents no problem. That is precisely why man does not consider it his true being. His extranatural part, on the other hand, is not there from the outset and of itself; it is but an aspiration, a project of life. And this we feel to be our true being; we call it our personality, our self. Our extra- and antinatural portion, however, must not be interpreted in terms of any of the older spiritual philosophies. I am not interested now in the so-called spirit (Geist), a pretty confused idea laden with speculative wizardry.

[3] If the reader reflects a little upon the meaning of the entity he calls his life, he will find that it is the attempt to carry out a definite program or project of existence. And his self--each man's self--is nothing but this devised program. All we do we do in the service of this program. Thus man begins by being something that has no reality, neither corporeal nor spiritual; he is a project as such, something which is not yet but aspires to be. One may object that there can be no program without somebody having it, without an idea, a mind, a soul, or whatever it is called. I cannot discuss this thoroughly because it would mean embarking on a course of philosophy. But I will say this: although the project of being a great financier has to be conceived of in an idea, "being" the project is different from holding the idea. In fact, I find no difficulty in thinking this idea but I am very far from being this project.

[4] Here we come upon the formidable and unparalleled character which makes man unique in the universe. We are dealing--and let the disquieting strangeness of the case be well noted--with an entity whose being consists not in what it is already, but in what it is not yet, a being that consists in not-yet-being. Everything else in the world is what it is. An entity whose mode of being consists in what it is already, whose potentiality coincides at once with his reality, we call a "thing." Things are given their being ready-made.

[. . .]

[5] At every moment of my life there open before me diverse possibilities: I can do this or that. If I do this, I shall be A the moment after; if I do that, I shall be B. At the present moment the reader may stop reading me or may go on. And, however slight the importance of this article, according as he does the one or the other the reader will be A or will be B, will have made of himself an A or a B. Man is the entity that makes itself, an entity which traditional ontology has only stumbled upon precisely as its course was drawing to a close, and which it in consequence gave up the attempt to understand: the causa sui [self-caused thing]. With this difference, that the causa sui had only to "exert itself" in being the cause of itself and not in determining what self it was going to cause. It had, to begin with, a self previously determined and invariable, consistent, for example, to infinity.

[6] But man must not only make himself: the weightiest thing he has to do is to determine what he is going to be. He is causa sui to the second power. By a coincidence that is not casual, the doctrine of the living being, when it seeks in tradition for concepts that are still more or less valid, finds only those which the doctrine of the divine being tried to formulate. If the reader has resolved now to go on reading into the next moment, it will be, in the last instance, because doing this is what is most in accordance with the general program he has mapped out for his life, and hence with the man of determination he has resolved to be. This vital program is the ego of each individual, his choice out of diverse possibilities of being which at every instant open before him.

[7] Concerning these possibilities of being the following remarks fall to be made:

[8]  1. That they likewise are not presented to me. I must find them for myself, either on my own or through the medium of those of my fellows with whom my life brings me in contact. I invent projects of being and of doing in the light of circumstance. This alone I come upon, this alone is given me: circumstance. It is too often forgotten that man is impossible without imagination, without the capacity to invent for himself a conception of life, to "ideate" the character he is going to be. Whether he be original or a plagiarist, man is the novelist of himself.

[9]  2. That among these possibilities I must choose. Hence, I am free. But be it well understood, I am free by compulsion, whether I wish to be or not. Freedom is not an activity pursued by an entity that, apart from and previous to such pursuit, is already possessed of a fixed being. To be free means to be lacking in constitutive identity, not to have subscribed to a determined being, to be able to be other than what one was, to be unable to install oneself once and for all in any given being. The only attribute of the fixed stable being in the free being is this constitutive instability.

[10] In order to speak, then, of man's being we must first elaborate a non-Eleatic concept of being, as others have elaborated a non-Euclidean geometry. The time has come for the seed sown by Heraclitus to bring forth its mighty harvest. . . . [Note: The Eleatics were ancient Greek followers of Parmenides, who argued that there is no motion, time, or change, and hence that everything is fixed and unchanging. Heraclitus, on the other hand, was another ancient Greek who argued that everything is constantly changing. Ortega favors Heraclitus's view over Parmenides'. --Jeremy]

[11] Man invents for himself a program of life, a static form of being, that gives a satisfactory answer to the difficulties posed for him by circumstance. He essays this form of life, attempts to realize this imaginary character he has resolved to be. He embarks on the essay full of illusions and prosecutes the experiment with thoroughness. This means that he comes to believe deeply that his character is his real being. But meanwhile the experience has made apparent the shortcomings and limitations of the said program of life. It does not solve all the difficulties, and it creates new ones of its own. When first seen it was full face, with the light shining upon it: hence the illusions, the enthusiasm, the delights believed in store. With the back view its inadequacy is straightway revealed. Man thinks out another program of life. But this second program is drawn up in the light, not only of circumstance, but also of the first. One aims at avoiding in the new project the drawbacks of the old. In the second, therefore, the first is still active; it is preserved in order to be avoided. Inexorably man shrinks from being what he was. On the second project of being, the second thorough experiment, there follows a third, forged in the light of the second and the first, and so on. Man "goes on being" and "unbeing"--living. He goes on accumulating being--the past; he goes on making for himself a being through his dialectical series of experiments. This is a dialectic not of logical but precisely of historical reason--the Realdialektik dreamt of somewhere in his papers by Dilthey, the writer to whom we owe more than to anyone else concerning the idea of life, and who is, to my mind, the most important thinker of the second half of the nineteenth century.

[12] In what does this dialectic that will not tolerate the facile anticipations of logical dialectic consist? This is what we have to find out on the basis of facts. We must know what is this series, what are its stages, and of what nature is the link between one and the next. Such a discovery is what would be called history were history to make this its objective, were it, that is to say, to convert itself into historical reason.

[13] Here, then, awaiting our study, lies man's authentic "being"--stretching the whole length of his past. Man is what has happened to him, what he has done. Other things might have happened to him or have been done by him, but what did in fact happen to him and was done by him, this constitutes a relentless trajectory of experiences that he carries on his back as the vagabond his bundle of all he possesses. Man is a substantial emigrant on a pilgrimage of being, and it is accordingly meaningless to set limits to what he is capable of being. In this initial illimitableness of possibilities that characterizes one who has no nature there stands out only one fixed, pre-established and given line by which he may chart his course, only one limit: the past. The experiments already made with life narrow man's future. If we do not know what he is going to be, we know what he is not going to be. Man lives in view of the past.

[14] Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is--history. Expressed differently: what nature is to things, history, res gestae [things done], is to man.

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