I looked out my Mississippi motel window and saw what I expected to see: A grove of pines, scattered oaks and golden sage grass in the open spaces. It was old familiar reality.
Or was it? I thought. What if some great cosmic Deceiver is filling my head with false images?
How can I be sure, how can anybody be sure, that the pine grove, oaks and grasses are really there as they appear to be?
Common sense has an answer. I can walk out among the trees and grasses, touch them and maybe bump into a limb or trip over a root. It is hard to doubt a bumped head or stubbed toe.
But common sense covers only common things, and the world is full of strange things beyond its reach, for example, the way things seem to shrink with distance. An optical illusion, but where is the boundary between illusion and reality?
French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) asked the same questions and came up with this answer: I can be sure of only one truth: I think, therefore I am. Everything else he left to “systematic doubt.” Modern European philosophy was built on this famous premise.
But his celebrated premise proved to be a prison. It was like being in a sealed room lined with mirrors. Everywhere you looked you saw only your own reflection, your own mind. There seemed to be no way out. And out to what? The world outside the mind was still anybody’s guess.
For centuries the Who’s Who of European philosophy — Leibniz, Kant, Husserl — remained in Descartes’ sealed room, speculating brilliantly about the elusive “thing-in-itself” outside the mind.
Finally, in 1927, a philosopher escaped this mental confinement and introduced a new way of thinking about reality.
Claiming that the formula, I think, therefore I am, was basic premise of philosophy went too far — or maybe not far enough.
He reasoned simply but solidly that in order to think at all there must be real things to think about. In order to see, I must have before me actual things to see.
Otherwise, I could not think at all, could not see at all and by Descartes own formula, could not be at all.
A new paradigm then emerges: Reality consists not of “things in themselves,” nor of me imprisoned in my mind.
Instead it is I with real things and real people, acting with them, an activity we call living.
He put it this way: “I am I and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself.”
Things and I are both real, as common sense always told us we were, but we are real together, not in isolation.
The thinker who broke the Cartesian paradox was Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955).
He made many other philosophical advances, but for two reasons few European and American philosophers know anything about him.
First, he wrote in Spanish, which hardly any philosophers knew in those times, and second, few of his writings have been translated, and many drably so.
Not that Ortega, as he was called, was an unknown thinker. He wrote The Revolt of the Masses (1927), a sensational international bestseller translated into all major Western languages.
Today his prophetic insights are chilling and more relevant than ever.
Ortega paid a price for his genius. Conservatives, Marxists, radical Republicans, the Press, the Franco government, the universities and powerful Church factions all reviled him.
He spent years in exile, plagued by health and financial problems. But immune to all ideologies, he ignored his enemies, producing to the end works full of truth and beauty.
Ortega taught me many things, among them how better to understand the view from a Mississippi window half a world away.