Man and His Circumstances: Ortega as Educator
by Robbie McClintock
Chapter XIII — The Reform of Technique
Meditación de la técnica, 1939, Obras V, p. 329.
Technique is the production of the superfluous: it is that today as it was in the paleolithic age. It is, all the same, the means for satisfying human necessities. Now we can accept this formula that yesterday we rejected, for we now know that human necessities are objectively superfluous and that they are only converted into necessities by one who requires well-being and by one for whom living is essentially living well. Here is why the animal is a-technical: it is content with living and with what is objectively necessary for simple existence. From the point of view of simple existence, the animal is insurmountable and in need of no technique. But man is man because for him existing signifies pure and simple well-being; therefore the technician is a nativitate the creator of the superfluous. Man, technique, and well-being are, in the last analysis, synonymous.
XIII — The Reform of Technique
Men became historically creative when they dedicated their excess energies to the fulfillment of an ideal. Human life, the moral life, was a rich, exuberant overflow of the spirit; men could make Europe into an ultranation if they would spontaneously break their established patterns of living, letting their spirit run in new channels. The Europe of which Ortega dreamed was necessary precisely because it was unnecessary. Europe was the path of opportunity; and by pursuing it, the European could remain true to himself, he could ask much of himself. The European had historically been the man of adventure, the person who voluntarily set himself to the performance of unnecessary tasks. Dauntless, audacious, valiant, gritty, enterprising, self-reliant, stout-hearted, venturous: so men would be as they leaped over their national walls and set out for the fun of it in the pursuit of a more distant ideal.
La rebelión de las masas, 1930, Obras IV, pp. 276–8.
Ortega was not sanguine, however, about the likelihood that Europeans would gamely devote themselves to realizing an ideal Europe, for the exuberant spirit was depressed and the reigning cults of efficiency taught men to frown on excess energy. Rarely did men now seem to make public commitments for sportive reasons; instead, they justified every kind of public action solely with utilitarian arguments. Thus the paradox: in the so-called free world everything of public significance is described as a pressing necessity. When most men had sufficient energy to respond only to the expedient, then the noble spirit, the great-souled man who could obligate himself to a transcendent adventure, was not given substantial social power. The spokesmen for compulsion, not creation, seemed to win the allegiance of men; hence, at the close of The Revolt of the Masses Ortega observed that he had arrived at the real problem: a radical insufficiency in European culture allowed men to feel as if life were amoral, as if the pursuit of principles was insignificant in comparison to the push of necessity.
European writers have been less moved than American and English writers by the development of anthropology to absorb the traditional, pedagogical conception of culture into a scientific one. Thus, whereas Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy is good background for studying Ortega's position, Raymond Williams' Culture and Society and T. S. Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture are not particularly useful. The German conception of culture is fundamental to understanding Ortega. In Force and Freedom Jacob Burckhardt pointed out some of the public functions of culture in this sense. For the development and use of the idea by some of Ortega's contemporaries, see Georg Simmel The Conflict in Modern Culture and Other Essays, K. Peter Etzkorn, trans.; Max Scheler, Man's Place in Nature, Hans Meyerhoft trans., and Probleme einer Soziologie des Wissens in Scheler, Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 8; and Eduard Spranger, Cultura y educación. Two historical works are particularly useful: Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind, and Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Gilbert Highet, trans.
Note that Ortega spoke of an insufficiency in European culture. To have done otherwise would have been to take the matter out of the moral realm and to put it in the realm of necessary, material determinants. As Ortega saw it, the sense of amorality did not arise because some pernicious element in "the culture" positively caused men to feel amoral. Historic creation and the moral life were matters of exuberance and sport precisely because they came freely from within and were not fully explained by the causal mechanisms of the external world. Ortega did not think of culture as a natural, objective entity, over and above men, an entity that could act mechanically upon them; instead, he conceived of culture as a repertory of principles that men had created in the fictional world of imagination and that they could use to define their humane possibilities and to direct their real efforts to fulfill these opportunities.
My discussion of the problem of amorality as Ortega saw it owes a great deal to Kant and Nietzsche, as did Ortega. For Kant see particularly the Critique of Practical Reason and the Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals, and in general the Critique of Pure Reason, the method of which is essential to understanding the other two works. For Nietzsche see in particular Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals.
Culture is to character what food is to the body. One continually takes in languages, skills, and ideas, digesting and absorbing them, extracting energy and substance from them, so that one can draw on them in order to act more masterfully in actual situations. Amorality was signified by the behavioral fact that men were not acting exuberantly, sportively, freely, or spontaneously, but were instead acting heavily in a dull response to imagined needs. Hence Ortega inferred that the spiritual diet of the contemporary European had in it certain deficiencies. The deficient diet failed to sustain the person's efforts to cultivate his ethical character; men were unable to nourish their moral sense and they became accustomed to substituting for it the plastic convenience of amorality.b
Much that is said about amorality does not convey a distinct conception of what the phrase signifies. Ortega was not concerned about a doctrine of amorality; if the question was merely doctrinal, countering it would involve the relatively simple matter of advancing a better argument. But amorality was not a doctrine; on the contrary, amorality resulted from a general inability to formulate principles and to act freely with or against them. In important activities men were able to respond only to seeming necessities, whereas formerly they had regulated their conduct in these matters by the imaginative creation of standards and by either free acceptance or free rejection of these guides in action. Amorality was not an ethic of neutrality; men were not amoral by virtue of choosing to control their actions by an absurd principle of amorality. Men became amoral when they became convinced that objective necessities really ruled their deeds and that the maxims that ethically legislate personal conduct were therefore irrelevant to any experience controlled by compulsion. So convinced, men would exempt their actions in these areas from moral rules, believing it impossible to feel either moral or immoral with respect to actions taken out of necessity. In this state of mind, men ceased to act exuberantly, for it did not occur to them that they could nevertheless seek to act, over and against the expedient, in accord with self-set standards.
Abstract statements about amorality should be exemplified with particulars, at least to the scant degree particulars can be given. By and large, men exempt their activities from moral judgment because their decisions seem to pertain less and less to particular, personal deeds and more and more to abstract, impersonal processes. Of course, one can still treat all sorts of questions concerning sexual relations, politics, economics, and social mores as moral problems; morality and immorality will always be, if they exist at all, a part of the realm of freedom, for the possibility of morality and immorality comes into being the instant that one recognizes an obligation as obligatory. But people have increasingly found that purported obligations are mere expressions of personal preference, which have nothing at all obligatory about them, and that the real "obligations" are not those by which a particular person freely determines his conduct, but those that determine the objective working of various psychological, political, economic, and social processes. A notorious example of this switch, in which an essential element of life is being withdrawn from the moral realm and is being viewed with a titillating amorality, is apparent daily: fashion, fiction, and the film show how completely the old moral obligation of chastity is being replaced by an amoral, psychological need for sexual adjustment.
Our purpose is not to decide which set of obligations, the moral or the psychological, best conduces to a healthy man's fulfillment of his erotic potentialities, for that question deserves more than passing discussion and is not essential to our present concern. Here we take sexual adjustment simply as an emblem of the spreading sense of amorality that characterizes our views not only of sex, but equally of politics, economics, social relations, and much else. In each of these matters, men are increasingly unconcerned whether their personal actions follow or violate ethical standards, provided that they find their deeds to be in rough harmony with the objective processes they believe to be at work within and around them. As consequence, this view of life makes the realm of freedom contract and the realm of necessity expand.
This contraction and expansion particularly worried Ortega. The amoral outlook should not disturb because it leads people to violate old pieties more often—it is not at all certain that they do. For instance, whether in fact people who accept a theory of sexual adjustment are more or less promiscuous that those who believe in an ideal of chastity is unclear. What disturbed Ortega was that as men continually deliberated over their acts by reference to the amoral necessities of objective processes~ they cultivated an inertia in their personal character, an inertia that diminished the likelihood of spontaneous, historic innovation. Thus, the great exemplars of heroic love would have been impossible without some ideal of chastity both to accept and to deny; and the political geniuses who gratuitously led man out of his primitive state would have been unimaginable had they always adjusted their vision carefully to the necessities of the moment. Yet, as men experienced important aspects of life as amoral, they abstracted a general proposition from the particulars, and this proposition—that life itself was amoral—dampened their exuberance and suppressed their power to unify Europe spontaneously.
Ibid., p. 278.
In the conviction that life was amoral, Ortega saw one of the most dangerous misapprehensions of his time. "How have men been able to believe in the amorality of life?" Ortega asked incredulously.' By putting this question to people, he hoped to elicit an awareness of how absurd the amoral sense was. Such awareness would help refurbish the European's capacity to envision a significant future, a Kinder/and.
Life as life is lived, Ortega believed, is a continual moral effort, an attempt to achieve, one after another, various things that the person recognized as "good." A man cannot act without being aware of a goal, and when he is in form, the goals of all his acts aggregate into a life project that, he recognizes, is his self-made destiny. This destiny is a demanding regimen. To sustain the great, constant effort that the pursuit of a life project entails, a man needs to believe in its significance; hence, to assure himself of the worth of his work, he resorts to moral reasoning, crude or subtle, naive or sophisticated, as the case may be. To be sure, he could accept his project as a mere preference, a hobby, an amusement, a pastime; in that case his personal life itself becomes a pastime, and in the inevitable moments of trial he will be unlikely to remain true to such an insignificant project. But the widespread sense that life is amoral does not even allow a man this reduced justification, for it makes the personal preference pale to insignificance in comparison with objective necessities.
When inclinations seem overwhelmed by compulsions, the feeling that the whole life is amoral, that it is a series of experiences that are necessary but not obligatory, begins to extract psychic costs. A man's natural desire to dedicate his efforts to a transcendent principle does not simply disappear when he experiences his life as something subject to the impersonal imperatives of objective processes. A sense of commitment does not develop ex post facto as a rational conclusion entertained only after all the objective evidence has been gathered and weighed; on the contrary, a feeling of engagement is the emotional heat generated with every serious action: as such, enthusiasm can be done away with only in the absolute quiescence of death. When the living perceive their lives as amoral, it means that they have repressed their urge for moral commitment; then, like any repressed drive, the ethical sense demands a distorted fulfillment.
In criticizing the absurd sense of amorality, Ortega called into question one of the major distortions by which Europeans clouded their view of their world, shirking their destiny. By merely experiencing life as if it were amoral, men did not succeed in making life amoral; instead, they simply confused their sense of life and introduced into their efforts to shape their character a deceiving distortion for which they would continually attempt to compensate. These compensations were terribly destructive, for they caused neuroses perhaps more serious than those that result from efforts to repress baser drives in the name of false moralisms.
Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground, Ralph E. Matlaw, trans., pp. 8–9.
Sophisticated systems of thought seem to sanction the tendency to objectify oneself and one's world and to treat both as factual phenomena that properly have no personal meaning or value. Dostoevsky, for one, was concerned with this problem; and although his ultimate critical intentions were rather different from Ortega's, his analysis of "hyper-consciousness" is pertinent. In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky showed how excessive objective awareness destroyed the personal will by prompting men to repress their sense of involvement in their activities. When Dostoevsky's hero used positive, objective reason to analyze every personal incident and twinge, be it of his conscience or his liver, he dissipated his motive energies, for he convinced himself that even the most humiliating situations were caused neither by himself nor by other men, but by the universe and its implacable ways. Since all persons were impotent in the face of nature's objective processes, the rage of the hyper-conscious man became all the more unbearable, for he could not help becoming angry, yet he believed that no action of his own would lessen his ire. "I was always . . . to blame for no fault of my own but, so to say, through the laws of nature .... Even if I were magnanimous, I would only have suffered more from the consciousness of all its uselessness. After all, I would probably never have been able to do anything with my magnanimity—neither to forgive, for my assailant may have slapped me because of the laws of nature, and one cannot forgive the laws of nature; nor to forget, for even if it were the laws of nature, it is insulting all the same." In such ways, hyper-consciousness engenders a powerful frustration during the trials of life.
Complicating the matter further is the fact that the underground man was a true hero, for he resisted the ultimate degradation of losing his self-awareness. Most hyper-conscious men, whose sense of personal commitment has been destroyed by their awareness of how objective processes function in all their experience, are likely, in compensation, to be possessed by all sorts of collective urges. Listen to zealots speak on burning causes. When convinced of their personal insignificance, men abdicate and passionately acquiesce to the necessary thrust of history. With this personal abdication and impersonal attachment, hyper-consciousness leads, like various false moralisms, to neurotic attachments by way of unnatural repressions. Owing to the dynamic of this neurosis, the conviction that life was amoral endangered the European future.
When generalized into a complete view of life, the sense of amorality conflicts with the feeling of commitment that is the natural, healthy concomitant of intense activity. As the price of effort, the psyche demands the gratification of involvement, participation, and conviction; each exertion engenders passionate attachments, which in turn occasion moral reflection, for one wishes to know whether the object of one's passion merits the value one is attaching to it. Yet the belief that life is amoral can only be maintained if each conviction is explained away, reduced to a neutral necessity. Passion becomes a trivial matter that no longer occasions serious reflection, for it has no significance in comparison to the majesty of objective forces. The psyche slowly rebels at the repeated withdrawal of spiritual gratification, and it starts to fight back, insisting by subterfuge on a place for value in a world of facts. With this deception, the danger develops. Observing that the hyper-consciousness puts store only in facts and objective laws, the psyche becomes ideological and disguises its commitments in the garb of their opposite, in the favored guise of facts and objective laws. Thus, everybody's pet project is described as one of society's needs, as an imperative of the time, or as an historic inevitability. This psychic practice feeds the debunking urge of the hyper-consciousness; and with the added debunking, the psyche develops ever greater cunning, until it manages to pass off an absurd belief or a destructive self-deception as a scientific truth. At that point a great pent-up desire for commitment and participation is permitted an aseptic, amoral satisfaction. Men fail to recognize that the object of their attachment, which purports to be a scientific truth, is a value-laden, spiritual goal that merits careful evaluation; they perceive it instead as a natural necessity that will come to pass regardless of how it is evaluated. This perception exempts the commitment from moral criticism and doubt; then great energies can be unleashed in the performance of terrible deeds, deeds whose terribleness will be recognized only in the pained stillness of the morning after. Hence, amorality is dangerous because it makes ethical goals, which are actually affirmed by man's overflowing, exuberant energies, appear as natural, inevitable necessities, and these are thus never evaluated in a test of their propriety. Then, all is permitted.
For years in the post-industrial world, hyper-consciousness and a general feeling of amorality have encouraged men to repress their desire to make positive, personal commitments for which they can hold themselves responsible in the court of moral discourse. As a result, they have a strong proclivity to clothe diverse value judgments in the garb of necessity. And, to worsen matters, certain characteristics of contemporary culture make it ever easier for men to ignore the fact that their goals are exuberantly chosen and to believe that these are imposed by objective historical forces. In addition to hyper-consciousness, a chronic lack of clarity in political and social theory has obscured the fact that human goals are freely chosen superfluities and that men should always examine the desirability of these.
With the omnipresence of mass communications and universalization of a superficial education, the danger that the psyche can fabricate a pseudo-scientific goal for the suppressed sense of commitment is significantly increased. Both imprecision and pretension abound.
During his second voyage, Ortega was cautious with respect to both imprecision and pretension. Willing to travel through Europe and the Americas in response to invitations to give lectures and to take part in various conferences, Ortega was reluctant to drum up a following. Even though he was speaking, thinking, and writing about some of the great themes of the time, he hesitated to publish, and one finds in many of his posthumous works a serious caution, a marked effort to be precise with concepts such as the state, law, the nation, the very concepts that can easily become the objects of amoral commitments. This caution cannot be attributed to a withdrawal from the great problems of practical concern, for the visionary aspects of Ortega's later thought were extremely far-reaching. His caution was the antithesis of a reluctance to shake the foundations; it emanated rather from a desire not to win a following among those who would misapprehend his thought and, in doing so, emasculate it. Ortega was careful not to propound an ideology; his aim was to shake the foundations by making massed, ideological commitments intellectually more difficult and by increasing the influence of responsible personal choices in public affairs.
In every field, the popular thinkers—the seers and the leaders —are habitually inarticulate; all vernaculars are suffering the degradation manifested in medieval Latin, and with parallel results: there is much ado about nothing. This is the situation that Ortega sought to avoid; he did not want his books to become badges, nor did he want his words to create a spectral world that men would confuse with their realities.
Norms of diction and grammar are neither to be imitated nor rejected, but to be used, and si non, non. When men become careless in their expression, they create unnecessary concerns that arise, not from the thought they express, but from the inadequacies in their expression of thought. The results of such carelessness can be deadly. This fact makes the standards of grammar and diction more significant than the mere prescripts of pedantic purists. Men who express fine thoughts carelessly can cause destructive misunderstandings. Unwittingly, in a lapse of gram mar or diction, they propagate myths; millions of persons become convinced that the entities populating these myths really exist; and then terrible things happen. Inadequate powers of expression have been a basic cause of superstition;· and superstitions have most often occasioned man's inhumanity to man. And beware: in no period of history have men been more superstitious than in the twentieth century.
Hyper-consciousness and amorality are dangerous qualities because we who enjoy an enlightened education rarely realize how thoroughly superstitious we have become in spite of the matter-of-fact awareness our science supposedly inculcates. The naive sophisticates of our day—who in two centuries of "progress" have not inched beyond Voltaire's scorn for supernatural superstitions— fail to sympathize adequately with those who duped themselves into hunting witches. Men rarely learn from history because they sympathize spontaneously only with the victims and do not realize that in order to learn how not to be a villain, they had best sympathize with the villains of yore. As with witch hunters, well-intentioned men have repeatedly performed terrible deeds because they slipped up in one small matter, committing unawares the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Thanks to Voltaire and others we can see the error of those who thought that witches were real, and we know the sad costs this error incurred. But let us still be humble; we are as human as our superstitious fore-bearers: we too are superstitious, for we too are susceptible to misplacing concretions.
Jacques Barzun appropriately called a book in which he warned against the misuse of racial concepts, Race: A Study in Superstition. Race is a costly example of an abstraction that can lead to untold suffering when people hypostatize it and attribute to it imaginary substantiality. Race is a theoretical construct devised to interpret various phenomena about man; but no matter how well race works as a theoretical construct, there is no possible warrant for asserting that races exist in the flesh and blood world of man: like all abstractions, race is by definition a conceptual fiction and only superstition can make it seem real. We are beginning to understand our proclivity to be superstitious about the concept of race; but racial concepts simply typify a much larger set of concepts upon which we are still prone to misplace concreteness. And as with race in Nazi Germany, these concepts are peculiarly suited to giving the hyper-consciousness an object of emotional attachment or repulsion that does not call into question the myth of amorality.
Psychological, social, political, and economic theorists have created in their speculations many profound conceptions describing the aggregate phenomena of human life. As theories, these conceptions are ingenious, interesting, and often effective; but they do not always remain ethereal theories. Numerous neophytes at such speculations are prone to misplace concreteness. And, in turn, the empiricist with his cult of facts easily forgets that his empiricism is a phenomenalism, an idealism; in his rhetoric, a conceptually postulated force, process, or entity is hypostatized and spoken of as if it were real, substantial, actual. Such slips are easily made. A harmless example is from Newtonian physics: one naturally shortens the circumspect statement that the theory of universal gravitation provides an apparently adequate explanation for the phenomena of falling bodies into the metaphysically rash assertion that gravity makes bodies fall. In making the same linguistic shortcuts a heedless speaker will forsake the cautious proposition that a theory, for instance about the social determinants of knowledge, gives a tenuous but interesting explanation why certain people often think certain thoughts, and he will instead assert the blatant superstition that a man's social origin determines his thoughts. Here myths are in the making.
Weber, Basic Concepts in Sociology, H. P. Secher, trans., p. 43.
Hitler, Mein Kampf, Ralph Manheim, trans., p. 398, italics dropped.
Scholars in every social science have properly hypothesized numerous forces, processes, and entities in their efforts to explain human phenomena; but each hypothesis stands, as in this very phrase, waiting to be hypostatized by slack thinkers. Men have difficulty observing Max Weber's caution that "sociology does not recognize a 'behaving' (acting) collective personality." Such cautions have not been sufficient to make us systematically skeptical of the innumerable assertions that are made daily about the behaving collective personalities that supposedly animate the political, economic, and social realm in which we live. Examples abound; and perhaps the one fraught with the most obvious dangers should be mentioned first. Hitler's Mein Kampf was a mad struggle of active collectivities, and the seeming objective requirements of these entities gave the docile person unlimited license in his conduct towards other persons: "The German Reich as a state must embrace all Germans and has the task, not only of assembling and preserving the most valuable stocks of basic racial elements in this people, but slowly and surely raising them to a dominant position. "
Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, pp. 240–1.
But this example is not a good one insofar as we think of Hitler as a man beyond the pale; Hitler's doctrines have become anathema, yet his way of thinking has become endemic. For instance, despite a completely different ideological commitment, Herbert Marcuse persistently hypostatizes "society" and other collective creatures and makes them the prime movers in man's fate: "man's struggle with Nature is increasingly a struggle with his society, whose powers over the individual become more 'rational' and therefore more necessary than ever before." And, if one finds Marcuse too far towards an extreme, look instead at the rhetoric of spokesmen for the American consensus, which is itself a false object of many superstitions.
Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, p. 557, italics dropped.
Here, the most costly hypostatizations are those made by the very model of a modern Major-General, the national defense planner. As "the Free World" has defended itself over the years from "Communist threats," men have convinced themselves that there exists a complicated system of communication, not between opposing commanders, who are merely impersonal parts in the mechanism of national defense, but between the military monsters themselves. As in the mating rituals of certain birds, this system of communications is based on the relative "national defense postures" of opposing powers, and the planners hope that as "they" adopt a certain posture, "we" can respond with that perfect stance, which will send "them" into an ecstasy of acquiescence; and short of that elusive perfection, "at the minimum, an adequate deterrent for the United States must provide an objective basis for a Soviet calculation that would persuade them that, no matter how skillful or ingenious they were, an attack on the United States would lead to a very high risk if not certainty of large-scale destruction to Soviet civil society and military forces." Public leaders base almost all their policies, not only those of the military, on the presumed behavior of collective personalities; and this condition is both reflected and extended by the way daily papers describe the deeds of men as the affairs of organizations. It is now an unusual headline that describes a human action: instead, "U. S. Proposes ... ," "High Court Hints ... ," "Assembly Votes . . . ," and so on. All of these constructions, the extreme, the sophisticated, the day-to-day, reflect our civic superstitions, and hypostatized abstractions have become central concerns in the discussion of every public issue and in the formulation of every political persuasion.
Man and People, 1939,1957, Willard R. Trask, trans., p. 11.
Ortega found these abstractions portentous for public life. "Today people constantly talk of laws and law, the state, the nation and internationalism, public opinion and public power, good policy and bad, pacifism and jingoism, 'my country' and humanity, social justice and social injustice, collectivism and capitalism, socialization and liberalism, the individual and the collectivity, and so on and so on. And they not only talk, in the press, at their dubs, cafes, and taverns; they also argue. And they not only argue; they also fight for the things that these words designate. And once started fighting, they kill each other—by hundreds, by thousands, by millions."
When men hypostatize concepts concerning their common lives, they incur greater dangers than they do on becoming superstitious about the rest of nature. It is benign to say that gravity makes bodies fall, for little harm could result if a few eccentric literalists decide to stop the fall of certain bodies by incanting magic formulas against gravity, but it is malignant to believe that certain races are of intrinsic value, others of intrinsic depravity, and that the state can raise up the former and suppress the latter, for wanton fatalities resulted when men decided to root out depravity by eliminating its imagined racial cause. We recoil at this particular example, knowing well the horrible costs of Nazi racial superstitions. What we do not appreciate is that this superstition was simply the most dangerous example, to date, of a generic superstition that is still very much with us despite the demise of Nazi ideology. Race typifies an extensive repertory of hypostatized concepts derived from the sciences of man; and the superstitions based on these concepts provide peculiarly effective ruses by which the hyper-consciousness can have its passionate commitments without recognizing life as a moral matter. For this reason, Ortega carefully stressed that ferocity in the name of behaving collectivities was not confined to a single nation, but had become a universal phenomenon in the century of total war.
Note, for instance, how Henry A. Kissinger dismissed a humanitarian plea by George F. Kennan for increased spending to ameliorate racial tension, to improve urban conditions, to perfect popular education, and to lessen ignorance. "But the times do not permit such an order of priorities. We do not have the choice between improving ourselves and dealing with the menaces to our country." Kissinger, The Necessity for Choice, p. 9.
Belief in behaving collective entities confuses a person's conception of action; with such superstitions, the person begins to see himself, not as the responsible actor, but as the agent of a superior force or being. Having hypostatized one or another concept that he frequently uses to interpret the phenomena of civic life, the person begins to think that the active collectivity, of which he is merely a subsidiary part, follows its own course according to its own necessary laws. By reference to this entity—the times, race, class, society, nation, corporation, union, club, party, or what have you—the person can disguise morally dubious goals in the garb of necessity, which makes the moral questioning of his goals seem irrelevant. With the hypostatization of political principles, major activities of life seem to pass from the realm of freedom to the realm of necessity, and in doing so, they cease to be subjects for moral reflection and become objects of scientific investigation.
"There are limits to what we as a union can tolerate. The very last thing any one of us would want is another shutdown. But if that is the only alternative, if necessary, we will have to close the school system down." Albert Shanker, president of the United Federation of Teachers, as quoted in the New York Times, March 25, 1969, p. 43.
Here, then, was the great cultural deficiency that sapped the European strength: men were habituating themselves to reasoning from impersonal necessities. A superior power seemed to impose on men their significant purposes. Dignity was dead. Men could only accept as given and unquestionable one or another collective goal that was laid down by historic necessity. Men thought away their initiative; be it the defense of the nation, the superiority of the race, the power of the union, the supremacy of the party, the growth of the economy, or the overthrow of the exploiters, the person could not question the goal that fate imposed upon him: he could only ask how he could best serve as a means to the necessary end. For years men had been hypostatizing collectivities and projecting into the human realm all manner of imagined necessities; as they accustomed themselves to acting only with derivative purposes, with respect to which they felt neither autonomous nor responsible, they degraded their capacity for historic spontaneity and made the exuberant affirmation of an ideal Europe unlikely.
Ortega's rejection of hypostatized social concepts gained much of its cogency from his ontology and his attempt at a reform of reason, matters that will be taken up in the next chapters. But in addition to his critique of the belief that societies were substantial things, he also sought to undercut the prevalent practice of reasoning from necessities. In this effort, he called into question the thought that the needs of society, or of some other abstract entity, gave justification for any definite course of personal action. He found a particular occasion for his general criticism in the implications for personal action that men derived from modem technology.
Numerous books are coming out on the subject of technology; see for instance Victor C. Ferkiss, Technological Man: The Myth and the Reality. One of the best is still Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization, which, along with Ellul's Technological Society, provides a solid introduction to the humane issues raised by our technical creativity. For the historical development of technology in its socio-economic setting, see the excellent study by David S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change, 1750 to the Present.
That Mephistophelean creature, Technology, has been an extraordinary ally of the hyper-consciousness, inducing men to believe that the necessities of mythical collectivities pre-empt personal purpose. Nearly all grant that Technology is a crafty character, one who is capable of wondrous feats whenever he sets his mind to it. But as with almost every superstition about a hypostatized concept, Technology splits men between the pros and the antis, with both sharing a belief in the veritable existence of Technology, only disagreeing adamantly about the nature and intention of the awesome creature. Thus men disagree over the significance of Technology's accomplishments for the quality of life: some greatly appreciate the comforts that Technology brings, while others worry that, like Faust, they may have sold their souls for the bargains of affluence. This disagreement intensifies when Technology is perceived in union with that other popular divinity, Society: many men strive mightily to meet the imagined needs of "our complex technological society," offering huge sacrifices to Its greater glory, while others rebel hopelessly at what they perceive as an exploitative yet omnipotent god.
Two tales recently reported in the news exemplify the tension: on the one hand, an august commission of Harvard professors pronounced that, verily, technology had advanced human individuality, yet on the other, at the acme of a demonstration, raucous radicals in Montreal destroyed the ultimate technological icon, a multi-million-dollar computer. One suspects that as the conflict between these superstitions sharpens, Technological Society will prove to be, like the god of the Deists, a rather remote being; and when the contending parties clash, He will not be there between them keeping them apart, nor will He even be at a proximate distance to pity the victims and succor the wounded.
To make light of the matter is therapeutic; something darkly comic hides even in tragic superstitions. But despite a comic side, the hypostatization of technology is portentous, for the superstition is integral to whether we conceive of ourselves and other men as ends or as means. Both those who believe that technology is a good thing and those who know it is a bad thing find their goals inherent in that thing: service on the one hand and opposition on the other. Thus, the imagined entity imposes the human end when men believe the entity exists; then the superstitious person considers himself to be a mere means. Unfortunately, although one easily bemoans this mode of thinking, one has difficulty avoiding it, for technology truly seems to be an independent process that follows laws of its own and that imposes its purposes on innumerable human activities. We are all inured to acting at the convenience of various machines, and even the very young have already found themselves required to adapt their habitual patterns of action to the ever novel artifacts of technology.
Technological superstitions do not emanate from man's natural appreciation of the comforts created by ingenious craftsmen. The superstition is not the spiritual consequence of our materialism: even Plato made ample provision in his ideal state for the material softening of life. The hypostatization of technology is the very opposite of a healthy appreciation of the technician, who becomes incidental in the view of the superstitious. In the believer's mind, technology appears as an objective process at work in history, laying down according to its own inner dynamic various imperatives that men must either fulfill as technology prescribes or reject and thus forever alienate the beneficent god. Like the Calvinist, the worshipper of technology begins to believe that if one postulates an active place in creative work for mortal persons, one blasphemes the might of God, implying that he is not omnipotent and that instead he must rely on the help of men in the great work of salvation.
La rebelión de las masas, 1930, Obras IV, pp. 193–200.
Damn the divinity!—with technology, as with any other religion, the human effects are neither better nor worse than the humanity of its worldly representatives. The historic failure of humanistic educators is simply that the·/ have sulked as technicians have become more and more important in education; thus, the humanists, too, have been superstitious about technology and have bemoaned its spread while allowing the office of technician to be filled by anonymous persons. But let us not leap ahead. The hypostatization of technology has dangerous effects on the technician; this fact led Ortega to assert that the technician typified the mass mentality. Something in the technician's art made the hypostatization of it possible, at which point the technician could cease to strive, being content to serve. How does the hypostatization work?
Technique is an attribute of every skill, the two are nearly synonymous; and we usually think of technique, not in the abstract as with technology, but in the particular as it is manifested by definite persons. Thus we compare the painterly techniques of Michelangelo and Titian, the mathematical techniques of Weyl and Einstein, and the nuts-and-bolts techniques of two master mechanics. In addition to such particulars, during recent centuries a rather different "technique of techniques" has developed; this we identify less frequently with the art of individual technicians. On the contrary, the technique of techniques is what seems to make the individual technician insignificant.
Elting E. Morison, "Technological Man," New York Times Book Review, March 30, 1969, p. 1.
In part, the technique of techniques is derived from that venerable myth, the scientific method, which has not been, as critics are showing, the historic method of scientists. The technique of techniques, however, is not used primarily to increase our knowledge, but to perfect worldly action. In essence, practitioners of it follow these steps: for any given operation, or technique, one can rationalize its performance by breaking the total operation into its component steps, eliminating any that are unnecessary studying each of the remaining ones and carefully bringing to bear on the matter all that is known about the materials involved, devising and testing alternative means to perform each step in order to find which means is most efficient, and finally integrating the most efficient, effective components into a rationalized system. Technology is our name for the widespread application of this technique of techniques to the production of goods and services and to the psychological, economic, and political manipulation of various publics. And because the phenomena that technology denotes seem at once to be omnipresent and independent of particular persons, technology is a concept that is easily hypostatized: "it is a system of ideas, techniques, and machines that puts us, in terms of power, about where God is, or used to be. And this system, evolving steadily, progressively displacing nature, tends increasingly to assert itself as the ultimate reality."
When men hypostatize technology, they begin to think of the technique of techniques as an objective process that, having been set in motion in history, will thereafter follow its own course regardless of what particular technicians do. Bacon had pointed out how the reasonable man should ally himself with the necessities of nature, rather than hopelessly opposing them; and ever afterward, technology has been a great fount of reasoning from necessity. Given the goal and the available material, a necessarily "best," most efficient means exists; and when the technique for finding this best means seems itself to have become an established feature of the universe, churning onward in every sphere of endeavor, regardless of our idiosyncratic preferences, then the technician feels himself freed from being responsible for the actual consequences of his art. A necessarily most efficient means for every job seems to exist, and discovery of that most efficient means seems foreordained by the reality of technology, by the universal presence of the process. If one person refuses to apply the technique of techniques to this or that matter, someone else will be found to do it, and perhaps he will make room in the job for even less of a humane residue.
Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, pp. 74–83.
In effect, all is permitted to the technician who finds himself in such an irresponsible subservience to necessity. ln recent years, many have decried this irresponsibility. For instance, Herbert Marcuse has suggested that a feeling of subservience to the inevitable makes the technician lose the age-old sense of sin and guilt and develop "the happy consciousness." The technician considers himself to be a part of a dynamic process, larger than himself, that is essentially good and that therefore justifies the performance of certain questionable acts done to preserve it. The happy consciousness allows technicians not only to think about the unthinkable, but to help perform the unthinkable without a twinge of conscience, for it convinces them that the necessity of thinking and performing these deeds is imposed, if not on themselves, then on others, by the inherent dynamics of the technological process. This state of mind is the euphoria, a rather resigned euphoria, in which men who know better allow themselves to commit atrocities. This euphoria is no different from the political and religious superstitions that have repeatedly possessed men, no different except that in its resignation and distance the technological superstition seems cruelly cold—when death comes unseen and unheard from above, those executed are not even permitted the dignity of looking their executioner in the eye.
Efforts in recent years to debunk their technological superstition have been numerous and diverse. It is difficult, by means of a critique of technology, as such, to avoid the hypostatization, as a careful reading of Marcuse' s One-Dimensional Man, for instance, will show. In it, the myth of technology was left intact and merely given a negative value in place of the normal, positive one. Marcuse believed in the reality of behaving collective personalities; and in the end, he created his own happy consciousness, that of the righteous radical who finds complete justification for every and any deed initiated with the intent of opposing the machinations of that most malevolent reality, Technological Society. Marcuse called in question real abuses with his negations: he and his followers began with a humane intention; but they lack adequate conceptual clarity to break down the widespread hypostatization of technology. It is ironic to seek slavishly a desperate liberation from a non-existent power.
Ellul speaks briefly about his method in his "Foreword to the Revised American Edition" in The Technological Society, John Wilkinson, trans., pp. xxvii–xxxiii. His rejection of counter techniques may be found at Ibid., pp. 425–7, and much more fully in The Political Illusion, Konrad Kellen, trans., esp. pp. 199–240.
As Jacques Ellul has indicated throughout his work, the description of closed technological systems may be helpful if it serves to provoke the individual technician to assert his inward autonomy. Unlike Marcuse, Ellul did not hypostatize the system of techniques he described in Technique: The Engine of the Century, for he developed a description of technological society that men could use to better understand aspects of their actual experience. As a result, Ellul concluded not with a plea for negative thinking, but with a call for autonomous thinking. The attempts to negate a material and political system of applied techniques would, Ellul suggested, lead only to the elaboration of a system of counter techniques; and one can see these building up as professional protesters become more experienced. Ellul has shown the near omnipresence of technique rationalized by technique, and all his work ends, in effect, with a "Hic Rhodus, hic saltus": here is the challenge, find your own way to meet it.
Ellul took a calculated risk in choosing his rather Socratic mode of persuasion: he assumed that most men, on seeing the degree to which the technique of techniques was being used in their day-to-day activities, would seek naturally, spontaneously, to resist, to find concrete ways to lessen their own, personal reliance on such procedures. Thus, although he avoided the hypostatization of technology, Ellul did not provide arguments that might bring the superstitious back to their senses. Those who are already uneasy about the function of techniques in their lives will find that Ellul's phenomenology of technique clarifies their situation; but those who are happily conscious of living in a complex technological society will find Ellul's description a further proof of the seeming fact, a proof inexplicably spiced with strangely anguished rhetoric.
Technology was explicitly the subject of Ortega's "Meditación de Ia técnica," 1939, Obras V, pp. 319–375; "El mito del hombre allende Ia técnica," 1951, Obras IX, pp. 617–624. In the shape of "organization" it was the topic of "Un rasgo de la vida alemana," 1935, Obras V, pp. 184–206; "Individuo y organización," 1953, Obras IX, pp. 677–690. Technology was a subject that Ortega mentioned frequently in many other writings. One can fall into a semantic morass by trying to compare definitions of technology used by different writers. For a useful attempt see Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, pp. 13–22. For a helpful analysis of the differences between the philosophical and the historical modes of theorizing see Leo Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy and Other Studies, especially pp. 17– 27, 52–55, 56–77.
In reflecting on technique, Ortega shared with Ellul the virtue of not succumbing to superstition. But Ortega went much further than Ellul to meet the oblivious believer on his own ground. Ortega's conception of technology differed from those that Ellul dealt with in that Ortega's was meant to be philosophically, not historically correct. Thus, Ortega arrived at his idea of technique by means of reasoned speculation rather than through an historical generalization about techniques already in use. This procedure allowed for unforeseen future development in technical activity, for his conception of the possible was not confined to the class of phenomena that were already actual. As a result, Ortega included wider problems and possibilities within the technician's purview than other critics have. Like Ellul, Ortega presented a phenomenology of technique, but Ortega included the problem of value in his conception of technology; and with this inclusion, Ortega put before the technician a depiction of technical activity that undercut the technological superstition.
For better and for worse, contemporary man was epitomized by the technician, Ortega suggested. Engineering, medicine, law, government, business: all were dominated by the technician, and through his character the technician set the tone that typified these and many other activities. The problems of amorality, of hyper-consciousness; and of the deficiencies in European culture resulted from the behavioral fact, observable in recent decades, that the technicians in all fields were, as a group, phlegmatic concerning possible goals and most imaginative about possible means towards actual goals that happened to be at hand. This state of mind made for the dangerous condition manifested during the twentieth century, especially in Europe and the West: rapid growth without development.
Note how Ortega's discussion, thus, was not concerned with an imagined process, technology, as much as with the substantial man, the technician. On the basis of recent conduct, the technician exemplified all the inertias characteristic of mass man; yet at the same time, this technician represented to Ortega the hope for a European future, for nothing but spiritual inertia prevented the technician from overcoming his subservience to necessity and affirming himself as an exuberant, sportive creature. Here was the irony: no group seemed more impressed by expediency than the technicians, yet no man's mission, when faithfully understood, was less limited by the expedient than that of the technician.
Ortega spoke, to be sure, of technology; but what was crucial to Ortega was not the myth of a technology-in-itself, but the definition of technology by which the living technician guided himself. With this idea the technician delimited his concern; and the one-sidedness of the reigning conception was largely responsible for the weakness of the technician's character. In short, the technician had made himself into a mass man to the degree that he reduced his art to one of its components: the methodical search for the most efficient means to a given end. Uninspired men brought modern technicism into being by using this conception as an operational definition; but merely acting as if it were the essence of technique did not mean that in fact it was. Ortega looked to the ancient past and to Asiatic mystics and found quite different techniques. With this perspective he contrasted to the mean conception of the mass technician a more open definition of technique: namely, the invention and selection of purposes and the means suitable for carrying them out. By including the problem of purpose, as well as that of procedure, within his conception of technology, Ortega found the technician responsible for meeting all the questions of ethics, morality, and value that the contemporary mass man suppressed by adopting whatever goals his immediate surroundings put before him. If Ortega's argument was found persuasive, the apparent transfer of major matters from the realm of freedom to the realm of necessity would be reversed, for men would cease to experience life as an amoral matter if they became aware that even all their technical activities were based on exuberant, ethical commitments.
In "Para dos revistas argentinas," 1924, Obras VIII, pp. 372–6, Ortega discussed the differences he had with pragmatism. It was precisely that utility had nothing to do directly with ideas—actions were useful or harmful depending on whether the ideas that guided the activity were true or false, as well as significant or trivial. Ortega scorned pragmatism as an inferior philosophy. Nevertheless, there are possibilities for comparing Ortega and Dewey and American pragmatism on this question of the instrumentality of knowledge. However, again it would be important to resist the ubiquitous danger of assimilating the whole to one of its parts. "American" pragmatism is not a whole and it would be wrong to draw a direct connection between it and Ortega. Instead, the similarities between them should eventually be explained by showing that both were part of a larger Western intellectual movement. During the nineteenth century faith in a purposive, meaningful universe was undermined by the flood of scientific knowledge. Purpose was expelled from nature, but the human mind rebels at thinking of itself as a meaningless, purposeless interloper in a gratuitous universe. Therefore, during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many philosophers and psychologists tried to salvage the situation by locating purpose in our ways of knowing, which were anterior to our conception of the universe. Ortega and the American pragmatists were both parts of this larger whole.
Meditaciones del Quijote, 1914, Obras 1, pp. 349–354.
"Campos pragmáticos," 1953, 1962, Obras IX, pp. 642–3.
Knowledge had an instrumental function, Ortega contended. He was not a pragmatist if one thinks, as Ortega did, that a pragmatist holds that the truth of a statement depended on its usefulness. For Ortega the truth of something depended on its correspondence with reality, as it had in classical philosophy, but for Ortega the reality to which the truth corresponded was not that of objective, substantial things, but the reality of life as life was lived. With respect to the realities of life, knowledge had more attributes than truth or falsehood. For an omniscient being, truth might be the sole criterion with respect to knowledge. But men were confronted by an infinity of possible objects of knowledge, not all of which they could master; they had therefore to pay attention only to certain matters/ ones they chose to concentrate on. Consequently, it was equally as crucial that what men knew should be useful, important, and valuable, as that it should be true. For example, in Meditations on Quixote Ortega contended that concepts are tools that we use for defining and holding things steady while we act on them. Forty years later he still maintained that proposition: "Our life is nothing more than an inexorable activity with things. On account of this there are actually no 'things' in life. Things—that is, realities that have nothing to do with us, but that are there, by themselves, independent of us —exist only in scientific abstractions. For us everything is some thing with which we must have some use or occupation and with which we will find it necessary, sooner or later, to occupy ourselves." Here was a basis for a thorough critique of all hypostatizations.
A short statement of this is in the section "Acción y contemplación," in Ideas sabre la novela, 1925, Obras III. pp. 403–7. It is so basic in Ortega's outlook that it will be found wherever he wrote about culture, thought, reason, or intelligence; all these had vital functions. Nietzsche took this position when he argued that beliefs that were necessary for life might be false; see The Will to Power, 483, 487, 493, and 497 (cf. Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche, pp. 305–6). Hans Vaihinger developed a similar position in Die Philosophie des Als Ob, especially pp. 1–20. Both Nietzsche and Vaihinger, however, contended merely that the false or fictional was important nevertheless for its instrumentality, for the fact that it guides beneficent action. Ortega's instrumentalism was more fully akin to Socrates when he renounced the study of the natural philosophers because they did not answer the questions that he thought were important; see Phaedo, 96–100. Ortega frequently criticized positivism for being obsessed with finding "Truths" even when they were far too insignificant to be worth the effort.
Ortega should be carefully compared to Dewey on three points: the present one of their respective views of the instrumentality of knowledge, Ortega's use of perspectivism as a means of overcoming the difficulties that led Dewey to criticize all forms of dualism, and their common emphasis on education as the foundation of public affairs. These problems were touched on only obliquely by José Arsenio Torres in his dissertation "Philosophic Reconstruction and Social Reform in John Dewey and José Ortega y Gasset."
Although popular interpretations of pragmatism do not acknowledge it, certainly James and Dewey reasoned in a similar way from the practical to the ethical. For James see The Will to Believe; and for Dewey, Theory of Valuation. The press of progress is making the scientist come around to a similar position. Scientists have realized that there are more possible research problems than there are researchers. To judge wisely which problems will receive effort one must resort to nonscientific ethical and political considerations. See Derek J. de Solla Price, Science Since Babylon, pp. 92– 124; and J. Robert Oppenheimer, "On Science and Culture," Encounter, October 1962, pp. 3–10. For some of the political problems that arise from having to guide scientific inquiry by means of a policy see Science and the Federal Patron by Michael D. Reagan.
In addition to being true, all knowledge should further be instrumental; despite its sportive origin, men nurture knowledge on finding that it has a value for life, on discovering that they can put it to a use. On this point, Ortega agreed with the practical technician: it was to live a lie to spend one's life occupied with something of no vital worth. But if this conviction were taken seriously, the central problem for the technician was to determine which possibilities of inquiry were most significant and richest in vital worth. To estimate the real usefulness of any concern, showing that it served one or another established purpose was not sufficient, for the important question was the comparative value, the significance of a given purpose when weighed against other possible purposes. To make this comparison the technician needed a theory of valuation. Thus, by beginning with the premise of the practical man and by elaborating it, Ortega showed that questions of value were more important for the technician than were problems of rationalizing procedures. No expenditure of resources is more irrational than one to rationalize the performance of activities that have ceased to have vital significance.
Presently, students of science are arriving at a similar view of the situation: confronted by more possible topics of scientific inquiry than there are scientific inquirers, researchers will have to make value judgments between the topics, and the scientist may have to give up his pretension to disinterestedness. Unfortunately, the pretension to disinterestedness opens the scientist to the most dangerous form of interestedness, namely the naive. Many laymen and initiates still believe the myth that scientific and technical advance comes from unexpected inspirations, serendipity, and strokes of genius, which occur happily yet mysteriously from the free play of curiosity in every possible corner of inquiry. Insofar as this myth pertains to the psychology of the individual scientist, it may be accurate; but it has long since lost all plausibility as a description of science as a social activity. We have passed the stage in which intellectual resources were spontaneously attracted to channels of inquiry that were unexpectedly opened by strokes of genius; we are instead at a stage in which particular channels of inquiry are opened and made productive by the decision to pump intellectual resources systematically into them. The problem with the pretension to disinterestedness, to value-free inquiry, is that many are loath to admit that value judgments are being used to direct effort into this channel and not into another, and these judgments are instead irresponsibly disguised as social needs, technical imperatives, or historic inevitabilities.In view of this tendency, what was important to Ortega, and what is still important for the development of a wise system of allocating technical effort, or "human capital" as it is now called,.. was to make it possible to subject the pertinent values to examination. The way to do this was not to advance, first, a system of values by means of which the decisions might be explicitly made. Rather, what was important at the outset was to drive home the fact that such allocations were problems of value and were not amoral expediencies resulting from the imagined needs of society, technology, or any other hypostatization. A hint of Ortega's reasoning is in the phrase, which we encountered above, ''the most necessary is the superfluous." Vital worth had little to do with those mealy-mouthed "necessities" with which weak men are ever wont to hide their value judgments. Necessity did not compel the human will to perform certain acts; on the contrary, the human will selected and defined those supreme values that men called necessities. Hence, necessity being the creature of value judgment, by no appeal to necessity could one exempt oneself from the responsibility to justify one's goals to oneself and others through moral discourse.
Meditación de la técnica, 1939, Obras V, p. 321
Ortega did not mean that responsibility and moral autonomy were inherent in technical activity because it gave rise to an affluence in which numerous choices between alternatives arose. Well-trained consumers are quick to respond diligently to induced needs, as Galbraith and others have shown; but this argument pertains only to certain sectors of certain economies, and does not show that all technical activity involves value-laden superfluities. Ortega based his contentions on fundamentals that would hold even under conditions of subsistence. Nay, his point, in fact, would probably be much more obvious when men were on the brink, for then their will to live, even to live well with regard to seemingly small matters, would be apparent. Thus, what seemed to be the basic necessity; the necessity to live, was not a material requirement that was universally and necessarily sovereign, as laws of gravity seem to be over physical masses. The necessity to live was really a desire to live that, as it was felt by man, was not built into the human physiology. To live "is the necessity created by an act of will." The need to live was a subjective desire that was revealed by acts of trying to stay alive—by our nocturnal loneliness and fear of death and by our daytime fancy for doing deeds of greatness.
See Plato, Crito, 466: "It is not living, but living well which we ought to consider most important," H. N. Fowler, trans.; and Seneca, Epistulae Morales, 90:1: "Who can doubt ... but that life is the gift of the immortal gods, but that living well is the gift of philosophy," R. M. Gummere, trans.
Meditación de la técnica, 1939, Obras V, p. 324.
Ibid., p. 328.
Echoing Plato and Seneca, Ortega further asserted the recurrent truth that defines the importance of philosophy for life: man does not seek merely to live; he seeks to live well? Once a man had made the value judgment that it was worth the effort to live, he had physiologically to fulfill only a scant minimum of objective requirements in order to preserve his life: numerous examples show that man can live in the midst of cold on little food and beneath scant shelter. Hence, the invention of techniques did not serve man"s objective requirements; "technique is not what man does in order to satisfy his needs." Man could live by foraging without technique; but in the course of that life, man intuited better, unnecessary possibilities: if he tended this plant, if he sharpened that stick, if he stoked that fire, he could not only survive, he could have the leisure in the evening to enjoy the warm embers and to feast on baked bread and roasted rabbit. "Man has no desire to be in the world. What he wants is to be in it prosperously. Only this appears necessary to him and all the rest is necessary only insofar as it is a means to well-being. Thus, for man only the objectively superfluous is necessary." The function of technique was to produce the superfluous; therefore the goals of the technicians were always determined not by amoral necessities, but by ethical decisions, by judgments of value.
Ibid., p. 330.
Men erred in thinking that technology was the human analogue to the instincts of animals. Instincts provided for minimum self-preservation; technology provided for the "good life." Instincts were fixed because they were tied to the permanent biological needs of a species. Technology changed continually, not only by progressing towards the more efficient fulfillment of set goals, but more radically by the periodic transformation of its basic goals, which occurred because men shaped it in accord with the conception of the good life that they historically held. "On the one hand the simple life, life in its biological sense, is a fixed magnitude that is defined with each species once and for all; and on the other, the good life, what man calls well-being, is a good that is always moving and endlessly variable." Since man's conception of the good life varied, technology could not rigidify into a fixed or independent pattern without becoming a check upon the further development of human well-being. "Since the repertory of human necessities is a function of [well-being], these turn out to be no less variable; and since technique is the repertory of activities provoked by, originated for, and inspired in the system of these necessities, it is also a protean reality that is in constant mutation. Hence it is vain to study technique as if it is an independent entity or as if it is propelled in a single direction that can be known beforehand."
Ortega suggested that technicians reading his "Meditation on Technique" would become uncomfortable, and well they might, for the implications of his argument were immense. The clean, dust-free world of laboratory facts turned into a derivative structure built upon certain historically conditioned values. Technology ceased to appear as a thing-in-itself dependent on the laws of nature; it was instead the repertory of means by which man tried to create a world in which he could lead a good life, and the particular features of the good life were continually subject to complete change as men formulated and reformulated various conceptions of the good. As with Plato, Ortega found the form of the good to be the determinant principle of every feature of the human world; and also as with Plato, Ortega found that the form of the good was never subject to a final, fixed formulation that would impose upon the human world of flesh and blood, of daily life in an actual community of men, a determined set of unchanging features. In short, nothing was given, nothing except a completely indeterminate existence that had to be given shape by a continuous series of value judgments.
"Vives," 1940, Obras V, p. 495.
Consequently, neither the technician nor anyone else could accept a particular goal as given, for even the concerns that men called their needs depended on how they defined the good towards which they aspired. Although no living man could refrain from aspiring towards one or another conception of the good, the particular formulation of the good to which men aspired was subject to continual change. Here, as in so much of Ortega's thought, the Platonic conception of Eros was important. According to Socrates, the potency of love came from an awareness of not having that which we desired, which meant that technique, man's genius for creation, would not be static. Aspirations were never satisfied, for with every achievement, Eros, man's creative drive, would transfer its effort to some further possibility. Whenever a desired goal was fulfilled, it had to be replaced by another, more excellent object of man's spiritual eroticism. Hence, the happy fulfillment of one's ability to achieve established purposes is never enough; mere fulfillment is rather the mark of decline, for virile man, true man, would want to respond to new and greater purposes. Hence, the technician's satisfied confidence that the familiar needs of industrial democracy could forever provide a clean, amoral guide to European aspirations endangered the European future. Established needs were never secure. Ortega's humanism could not be more complete: "if something in man presents itself as static and immutable, this suffices for us to infer that it pertains to the part of man that is not human."
Meditación de la técnica, 1939, Obras V, p. 334.
Nothing "in technology," as the superstitious might say, required human development to continue along the lines charted in the recent past; and whatever direction human development took in the future would depend, as it had in the past, on the weight of the value judgments that diverse people made about the good life. On the basis of these convictions Ortega rebuked the contemporary technician for spiritual inertia. Engineers were content to be engineers; financiers to be financiers; politicians to be politicians; scholars to be scholars and not men thinking. This inertia would not maintain itself, for the success of European civilization had thrown its traditional categories into crisis; men could not treat unstable vocations as independent entities whose function and direction were already known. No necessary deeds were to be amorally performed by men who have no choice. The materialistic technology, dominant in the recent past, would probably not continue as the most important source of well-being in the near future. Ortega raised the question of the shrinking workweek: "What is the worker going to do with the enormous balance of his time, that empty ambit that remains of his life?" If nothing else, the law of diminishing returns made it imprudent to expect that an ever-increasing power to purchase material goods would continue for long to be the standard of living.
With such reasoning Ortega called upon the specialists to open themselves to all sorts of questions about value that they habitually ignored. Technicians should not prepare to serve only the established purposes; they should entertain purpose in general, the form of the good. If the technician would recognize that his arts dealt with the realm of the superfluous, that is, with well-being and the good life, then they would have to admit that their work was based on value judgments and that it entailed moral commitments. In this way, the myth of amorality would loose force and technicians would be ready to respond to questions of value, knowing that they would want, at least to themselves, to stand by the ethical decisions that underlay their choice to work on one particular problem out of the many upon which they could spend their effort. The simplicity of the specialties was apparent rather than real; their seeming freedom from the complexity of moral uncertainty resulted from the failure to perceive the ethical sources of technical activities.
But as matters stood, specialists showed little awareness of the latent profundities in their concerns. Men of intellect rendered themselves neutral. They made technique responsive only to the established goals of material enrichment. The intellectual institutions prepared a man to do a particular job and provided him with sufficient diversion to keep him functioning efficiently while he performed his deadening labor. Men of culture failed to move the technologist to ask whether the job was worth doing, and they did not provide the average specialist with the cultural capacities that he would need in order to reason about the relative worth of the various jobs that he might perform. Europe had no future in this course. At best, it would rumble on in an eternal present, forever producing more and more of the same.In contrast, Ortega had a vision of a world in which intellect did not leave technique tied to a particular way of life, but freed it to adapt to a variety of goals, material and spiritual. By developing greater cultural sensitivity, the technician would learn not only to solve a given problem, but to select with finesse and intelligence the problem that he wanted to solve. With such an openness to potential goals, the growing tension between enthusiasts and opponents of a materialistic technology could be lessened. Ortega did not believe that technology was inherently materialistic, and he envisaged the possibility of a Europe in which technology did not serve the exclusive materialism that has become equally characteristic of both capitalism and socialism. Technique could serve spiritual goals as well as material; and if men recognized that all forms of technique had an ethical basis, they would be less inclined to suppress one form in order to meet the "needs" of another. A more manifold, variegated European way of life would arise if the technicians would free themselves from the shackles of ignorant single-mindedness, mastering the Geisteswissenschaften as well as the Naturwissenschaften.
Technological superstition was put aside by Ortega. Showing that the problem of value was an integral part of every technique, he linked in the person of the technician the power of both natural knowledge and moral knowledge. This linking opened up all manner of possibilities for the future; but to make good on these possibilities, the technician had to awaken to the fact that in his humanity both powers, the natural and the moral, were combined. Then, the technician could cultivate both sides of his character.
Ortega will fall under the heading of the apocalyptic rebels that Daniel Bell sees as one pole of the contemporary academic view of the post-industrial world, for Ortega was willing to see that world fall apart in a rather profound social transformation based on an ineluctable transvaluation of values. See Bell's "The Scholar Cornered: About The Reforming of General Education," The American Scholar, Summer 1968, pp. 401–6. For the planners' views of such issues see Toward the Year 2000, Daedalus, Summer 1967. The complacency of the practical outlook on technology and related problems is well criticized by John McDermott, "Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals," The New York Review of Books, July 31, 1969. The complacency McDermott castigates is quintessentially exemplified by Irving Kristol, "American Intellectuals and Foreign Policy," Foreign Affairs, July 1967.
But one can already hear the practical planner exclaiming ironically, "Beautiful! Beautiful! But how will we implement our value judgments? How will we engineer consent to policy if we admit our policy is based merely on the vision of the good and not on some implacable necessity, some imperative expediency?"
This question has a serious point. Ortega's position, his critique of all hypostatization, is profoundly subversive, in a spontaneous, diffused way, of the established public order. Precious little agreement now exists about what is expedient, let alone about what is good. The practical planner realizes that a minimum of agreement is essential to the implementation of any policy, and he rightly shudders at the thought of having to secure even a modicum of agreement that this or that policy goal is "good." He points out that reason, itself, is not well adapted to securing such agreement: individuals who enter the public forum raising doubts about the good often end as martyrs to a cause, and whole peoples who become obsessed by the matter lose their power to act decisively in concert. Hence, even many intellectuals believe that, owing to the limitations of reason, explicit concern with the good in public questions is unwise. Instead of harping on questions of principle, they suggest, the intellectual will accomplish most by applying his powers to improving the performance of policy with respect to important particulars.
Two caveats can be entered to this outlook. First, the view of the practical planner is not cogent unless the important public issues are ones that can be dealt with only through the implementation of agreed upon policies. Historically, however, the most significant public developments have not been either initiated or directed through explicit policies; but, quite to the contrary, the ultimate safeguard of the rights and liberties of "we, the people" has been our continual ability to maintain initiative, to steal many a march on those responsible for forming and implementing policy: in short, to act spontaneously. The historic leadership that Ortega hoped the technicians would give did not involve the rationalization of formal policy as much as a spontaneous, diverse break with established goals. In place of the obsession with formal policy, Ortega hoped that diverse men would each concentrate on his own personal self-formation, as a result of which the autonomous, informal activities of Europe would be invigorated, broadened, and deepened.
Second, the practical planner displays in his doubts a rather narrow view of reason. He shares with the technologically superstitious the belief that reason should be confined to the rational analysis of means to a given end. He receives this belief, not from the superstition that the end is really given, but from the fear that reason cannot handle the question of purpose rationally. To avoid stirring up an impossible problem, he takes up whatever purpose seems to come to the fore and concentrates on perfecting it, leaving to the mysteries of fate the task of changing purposes over time. Ortega would agree that all elites, no matter how cultured, were inherently unable to use reason to define the good for all; but such a paternal definition appeals only to the planner's mentality. Each, however, independently uses his rational intelligence to evaluate his own purposes; and Ortega saw a function for a cultured elite, not in telling each man what to think, but in stimulating each to think more incisively. The power of command, which presupposes that the few tell the many how to act, was a political power that intellectuals should avoid. The power to stimulate was a cultural power that every man could exercise by accepting moral responsibility for his acts and entering into moral discourse with his fellow men.
By 1900, many men of culture had developed a powerful rationale for not using their cultural power. They abhorred leadership, even of a protreptic sort, and sought only to serve others because they had lost faith in the rational legitimacy of purpose. They learned to conceive of man as a helpless responder to the chance stimuli of the universe. What appeared to be motives and purposes they knowingly explained to be mere rationalizations of manifold behavioral determinants. Science would soon explain these forces; and many even believed that Marx, Freud, Pavlov, and others had already revealed the essential mechanisms. With this knowledge man could merge himself with nature. He could let nature take her course and cease trying to impose his fallible will upon himself. Science would take the place of history; continuity would supplant change; natural cause would redeem the folly of human choice. Selective, cultural formation of the human animal seemed an insolent, overweening effort to resist the implacable forces of nature. Values were dangerous conceits that perverted the natural man by discouraging him from what came naturally. When the last remnant of culture was eradicated, when the last commitment to a value was renounced, then man would be released from this terrible bondage to himself. He would be freed forever to respond docilely to every law of nature. He would dutifully perform his destined part in the mute, meaningless, behavioral spectacle that the scientist so passionately sought to understand.
Here, then, was another version of amorality. This version was not dependent on the hypostatization of collective concepts; it arose instead with the simple conviction that reason could rightly work only on matters of fact and that all values were as much a matter of prejudice as were those based on myths of race, nation, or class. This view rested on the faith that man's natural urges were healthy, if not good, and that the source of human perversion and self-destruction was frustration over his inability to fulfill his natural urges. Reason, therefore, should not be wasted in futile attempts to evaluate operational purposes. It should be be set to work clearing away the frustrating impediments that stand in the way of whatever intention men happen to entertain. Only when all the infringements have been cleared away can man act in an entirely natural way, a full-fledged citizen of the objective universe.
But did such a natural, neutral object so excite the scientist's concern and solicitude? Should man make himself into a natural creature, oblivious to ethical choice, a purely responsive being for whom morality, purpose, and value are meaningless conceptions? Could man make himself into a celestial mechanism that was, itself, its own watchmaker? Ortega thought not, and he contended that the conception of reason that suggested such a possibility was inadequate.
And to these images they pray, as if one were to talk to one's house, knowing not the nature of gods and heroes.