In José Ortega y Gasset’s The Origin of Philosophy, he remarks about our relationship to the past:
It remained, however, where it was—in the realm of what has been. Embalmed, but finally dead. It was an archeological view. Now, however, we realize that those formed experiences must be continually reconstructed, albeit with the benefit of having been received ready-made. Thus we do not leave them behind, but our present philosophy is in great part the current resuscitation of all the yesterdays of philosophy (29).
I find this passage so eloquent. We reconstruct elements of our experience by being aware of the needs of why we are resuscitating the past for our present. This is Deweyian, but also it is awareness of James’s “conceivable effects,” which have invoked so many wrongful characterizations of nominalism to which James never falls prey. Moreover, this thought hits the Gadamerian tinges too. We philosophize not only because of the intrinsic thinking need, but also in large part because other philosophers have also answered the same pressing questions. Next, our awareness of their earlier efforts often goes silent in our efforts. We are as curious as those who have come before. Our very ability is as Ortega y Gasset says “in great part the current resuscitation of all the yesterdays of philosophy.” The phrase to pay attention to is “in great part.” There is still a tiny part not constituted by the past, but involves us—the very snake of the human.
Such metaphilosophical thoughts regarding our philosophizing often brings doubt that this hermeneutic and pragmatic attention to the past is simply a self-defeating historicism. Such doubters might think we are proffering a view that philosophy should be reduced to literary or historical studies and only be an articulation of various historical periods. Of course, this is a red herring, but since it’s proven so common in my academic life when I talk to varying philosophers outside Continental and American traditions, the fallacious nature and characterization of these claims is never generous. For this reason, I’d like to think alongside Ortega y Gassett this morning and pay attention how he continues. “The historical past is not past simply because it is not now in the present…but because it has passed or happened to other [persons] whom we remember, and consequently it keeps happening to us in our continual repassing or reviewing of it” (30). For Ortega y Gasset, like Gadamer, the historical past happens to those of us in the present. The same needs, the same practical interests drive our very reasons for inquiry in the first place. The need to ask a philosophical question that enlivened the past invigorate me. However, this truism is not simply about philosophy. At its core, all experience is a culmination of the past encompassing the present. As the future cannot be possessed “except in the measure in which we can predict it” (30).
Our knowledge to predict the natural sciences is the answer to the gap of unknowability in the future, and becomes Ortega y Gasset’s model of how we might regard the temporalizing process and limits of experience outlined above. The more we can predict of the future, the more persons will eternalize themselves in the same scientific thinking. To be fair, though, enduring and persisting in the same way is not what he means by self-eternalization. For Ortega y Gasset, self-eternalization means “remembering and foreseeing” such that one is ”not moving from the present, but allowing the past and future to attain the present and occupy it” (31). Philosophy is, then, the reflective practice and awareness of bringing these streams of the past and future to occupy our present-day need, and it falls on us to decide if we think the history of philosophy is a history of errors or affirmation (or some history of errors and/or some affirmations to be more nuanced and less vague).
If we generalize this conception of philosophy to something resembling analytic philosophy whereupon the philosopher is more like a speculative naturalist, then some interesting implications are generated. I’m proposing this terminology because to be quite frank, there are so many varieties now of “analytic philosophy” that the sociological category is almost meaningless except to say, perhaps, a few comments about types. Let me further clarify what I mean by a speculative naturalist.
A speculative naturalist is someone—perhaps like Hume—who is in touch with the predictive power of the sciences, and maybe someone who is well aware of the conceptual limitations of that regional ontology of objects in that science. Thus, the philosopher qua speculative naturalist frees up the conceptual space of a natural science and employs their imagination to speculate about the most likely true picture of what concepts can explore or know but contemporary science cannot. By extension, speculative naturalism is the thesis that our philosophical concepts should be compatible and coextensive with the most informed scientific account of reality. From our contrast above, the speculative naturalist is only aware of bringing the future into present and thereby ignores the fact that history is happening to them at this very moment in the field of experience. The speculative naturalist is not interested in the wisdom of how-we-got-here that conditions and enables the present inquiry. The philosopher qua speculative naturalist regards philosophizing as a temporary responsibility in which the philosopher is asking until scientists can take over from that initial conceptual exploration. In effect, speculative naturalists are denying the very temporal limits of experiencing the very inquiry they are set upon, and by thinking of philosophy as a not-yet science, these philosophers tend to be indifferent of the past and elevate the status of the present in much the same way that a scientist dismisses a failed hypothesis for whatever current hypothesis is working presently.
Such indifference, however, is not wrong in Ortega y Gasset’s eyes. The speculative naturalist is only wrong in being wholly dismissive and thinking that her speculation carries more weight beyond the necessity to see one’s efforts as an extension of history happening to her. Philosophical history can look as if the past is filled with error, or it can be affirmed means that we should be indifferent to the judgment itself. Instead, the past contains some truths and some errors. In this way, Ortega y Gasset sees philosophical history in a dialectic process of getting some aspects right and wrong. We could only make judgments about the errors of philosophy if we had some knowledge of the partial truths gleaned. In his words, “With the realization that the philosophical past is, in reality, indifferent to its aspect of error and to its aspect of truth, we ought in our behavior abandon neither, but to integrate both” (33, italics belong to Ortega y Gassett).
In short, the fact that the speculative naturalist cannot deal with the ongoing temporal nature of inquiry, which results in uncritical dismissal of the past for a privileged look at one’s efforts, generates the problem that philosophy is unaware of its overall dialectical growth. Philosophers only have partial expressions of the truth at any one time, and when philosophers ignore this history, they are prone to an elevated hubris of their present conceptual elaboration as ultimately expressing the whole truth, but certainly – perhaps – the philosopher has only a glimpse of the overwhelming perplexity whence we consider rightly how to reconcile present philosophizing in relation to its historic origins in earlier efforts.
At the center of my synthesized definition of philosophy is, then, the process of growth entailed by the limits of experience, the aims of speculation, and the awareness of this process. These elements must be present in our future efforts. Reality has a process that we experience, and every historical exploration of this process embodies the same growth of philosophy itself, but it would seem that in order to express this process we must turn philosophy towards becoming. All Being is becoming.