"My Circumstance" Consists of "Concerns," "Importances," or "Pragmata"

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Reply Thu 26 Nov, 2009 09:33 am
The following passage is, again, from Ortega's primary sociological work, Man and People. It begins to explain what he means by the concept of My Circumstance. I have highlighted the terms or expressions that he uses as synonyms for the word "circumstance," such as "environment," "world," and "ambit," even though elsewhere in his work they are disambiguated. (I have also included in an Appendix the various expressions that Ortega uses in his works as synonymous, equivalent, or related to the word "circumstance.")

In a previous thread we discussed Ortega's Conception of "My Life" as "Consisting" of the "Interrelations" between "My Self" and "My Circumstance." Before we go into what Ortega means by "My Self," I will discuss what he means by "My Circumstance."

In the following passage we will see that "My Circumstance" Consists of "Concerns," "Importances," or "Pragmata." You will notice that I have highlighted not only words that are referred to in the title, i.e., "circumstance," "concerns," "importances," and "pragma(ta)," but also some other terms that are related to them, some of which we will discuss in future postings, such as "environment," "world," "matters," "facilities" and "difficulties," "means," "instrument(s)," "impediment(s)," "practices," and "makes."

[CENTER]"My Circumstance" Consists of "Concerns," "Importances," or "Pragmata" [/CENTER]

"Man, then, finding himself alive, finds himself having to come to terms with what we have called environment, circumstance, or world. Whether these three words will gradually take on separate meanings for us is something that does not concern us now. [longknowledge: I will deal with this in a later posting.] At this moment, they mean the same thing to us, namely the foreign, alien element "outside of himself," in which man has to work at being. That world is a great thing, an immense thing, with shadowy frontiers and full to bursting with smaller things, with what we call "things" and commonly distinguish in a broad and rough classification, saying that in the world there are minerals, plants, animals, and men. What these things are is the concern of the various sciences-for example, biology treats of plants and animals. But biology, like any other science, is a particular activity with which certain men concern themselves in their lives, that is, after they are already living. Biology and any other science, then, supposes that before its operations begin all these things are already within our view, exist for us. And this fact that things are for us, originally and primarily in our human life, before we are physicists, mineralogists, biologists, and so on, represents what these things are in their radical reality. What the sciences afterwards tell us about them may be as plausible, as convincing, as true as you please, but it remains clear that they have drawn all of it, by complicated intellectual methods, from what in the beginning, primordially and with no further ado, things were to us in our living.

The Earth may be a planet in a certain solar system belonging to a certain galaxy or nebula, and may be made of atoms, each one of which in its turn contains a multiplicity of things, or quasi-things or guess-what things called electrons, protons, mesons, neutrons, and so on. But none of this knowledge would exist if the earth did not exist before it as a component of our life, as something with which we have to come to terms and hence something that is of importance to us, matters to us-that matters to us because it confronts us with certain difficulties and provides us with certain facilities. This means that on this pre-existent and radical plane from which the sciences set out and which they assume, the Earth is none of these things that physics and astronomy tell us it is, but is what firmly holds me up; is terra firma, in contradiction to the sea, in which I sink (the word terra, according to Boreal, comes from tersa, "dry"); it is what I sometimes have laboriously to climb, because it inclines upward, sometimes easily descend, because it inclines downward; it is what parts and separates me from the woman I love or forces me to live close to someone whom I loathe; it is what makes some things far from me and others near me, some here and others there and others yonder, and so on and so on. These and many similar attributes are the genuine reality of the earth, just as it appears to me in the radical ambit of my life. Please observe that all these attributes-supporting me, making me go up or down hill, making me tire myself in crossing it to where what I need happens to be, separating me from those I love, and so on-all refer to me; so that the Earth in its primordial appearance consists entirely in utilitarian referencesin respect to me.

You will find the same if you take any other example-tree, animal, ocean, river. If we leave out of consideration what they are in reference to us, I mean, their being for some use of ours-as means, instruments or vice versa, as impediment and difficulties for our ends-they are left being nothing. Or, to put it differently: everything that composes, fills, and makes up the world in which man finds himself at birth possesses no independent condition of itself, possesses no being of its own, is nothing in itself-but is simply something for or something against our ends. We ought not to have called them "things," then, in view of the meaning that the word bears for us today. A "thing" means something that has its own being, independently of me, independently of what it is for man. If this is the case with everything in the circumstance or world, it means that the world in its radical reality is a body of somethings with which I, man, can or just do this or that-that it is a body of means and impediments, facilities and difficulties which, in order to live in any real sense, I encounter.

Things are not originally "things," but something that I try to use or avoid in order to live and to live as well as possible; are, therefore, that with which I occupy myself and by which I am occupied, with which I act and operate, with which I succeed or fail to do what I want to do; in short, they are concerns to which I am constantly attending. And since "to do" and " to occupy oneself," "to have concerns" is expressed in Greek by "practice," praxis-things are radically pragmata and my relation to them is pragmatic. Unfortunately, at least so far as I am aware, our language does not have a word that adequately expresses what the word pragma does. We can only say that a thing, as pragma, is not something that exists by itself and has nothing to do with me. In the world or circumstance of each one of us there is nothing that has nothing to do with us and in turn we have to do with whatever forms part of this same circumstance or world. This is composed exclusively of references to me, and I am remanded to whatever it contains, I depend on it, for better or for worse; everything is favorable or adverse to me, caress or friction, flattery or injury, service or harm. A thing as pragma, then, is something that I manipulate for a particular end, that I deal with or avoid, that I must count upon or discount; it is an instrument or an impediment for: a task, a chattel, a gadget, a deficiency, a failure, an obstacle; in short, it is a concern to be attended to, something that to a greater or less degree is of import for me, that I lack, that I have too much of, hence an importance. I hope, now that I have accumulated all these various expressions, that the difference will begin to be clear if you contrast in your minds the idea of a world of things and the idea of a world of concerns or importances. In a world of things we play no part: it and everything in it is of itself. But in a world of concerns or importances, everything consists solely in its reference to us, everything plays a part in us, that is, everything is of import to us and is only to the extent to which and in the way in which it concerns, is of import to, and affects us.

Such is the radical truth concerning what the world is-because it expresses the world's "consistency" or that in which it originally consists as element in which we have to live our life. Everything else that the sciences tell us about his world -is and was at best a secondary, derivative, hypothetical, and questionable truth-for the simple reason, I repeat, that we begin to practice science after we are already living in the world and hence when for us the world is already this that it is. Science is only one of the countless activities, actions operations that man practices [or makes] in his life.

Man practices science as he practices patience, as he attends to his affairs, as he practices poetry, politics, business, makes journeys, makes love, makes believe, marks [makes]. . . time, and above all man conjures [makes] upillusions.
All these locutions represent the most ordinary, familiar, colloquial kind of speech. Yet now we see that they are technical terms in a theory of human life. To the shame of philosophers it must be said that they have never seen the radical phenomenon that is our life. They have always turned their backs on it, and it has been the poets and novelists, but above all the "ordinary man," who has been aware of it with its modes and situations. Hence this series of terms represents a series of titles announcing great philosophical themes on which much would need to be said."

[From: Man and Peoplelongknowledge: I have made some slight changes in paragraphing and punctuation, and some additions in [brackets], to make this passage more comprehensible.]
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -- - - - - - - -

Spanish Terms Used by Ortega for "Circumstance"
(with my translations into English)[/CENTER]

The following terms were culled from various passages in which Ortega discusses what he generally refers to as "circunstancia," or "circumstance."

alrededor - surrounding (literally "all around")
ambiente - ambience
- ambit
- that in which one is
- the here and now
- nearness
circunstancia(s) - circumstance(s)
contorno - neighborhood, surroundings, or environs
cosmos - Greek "world"
derredor - surrounding(s)
el absoluto afuera - the absolute outside
environs - French "environment"
habitat - English "habitat"
lo circunstancial - the circumstantial
lo circundante - what surrounds
lo otro que no es uno mismo - the other that is not oneself
lo otro que yo - the other than I
lo que acaece - that which befalls
- that which is happening/that which happens
lo que me envuelve por todos lados - that which envelops me on all sides
lo que nos rodea - that which surrounds us
lo que se halla cerca - that which is found nearby
lo que se halla fuera de nosotros - that which is found outside of us
medio - medium
medio ambiente - ambient medium (Spanish translation of "environment")
milieu - French "medium"
mundo - world
orbe - orbe
otras cosas que yo - other things than I
- everything around me
universo - universe

In my next posting, entitled "More on 'My Circumstance' Consists of 'Concerns' or 'Importances'," I will discuss this terminological and semantic variability and the implications these terms have not only for understanding Ortega's thought but also for expanding our notions of what constitutes the "human circumstance."
Reply Mon 30 Nov, 2009 09:52 am
[CENTER]More on "'My Circumstance' Consists of 'Concerns' or 'Importances'"[/CENTER]

In the previous post we presented a passage from Ortega that dealt with "my circumstance" as consisting of "concerns," "importances," or "pragmata." In that passage, we found several terms to represent what he meant by "concerns" and "importances," such as "matters," and "practices," and other terms that represent a dichotomy within these, such as "facilities," "means." and "instrument(s)" versus "difficulties," and "impediment(s)."

Here we will continue this theme by including a passage from another work where he discusses this dichotomy in more detail, except that here he uses obstacles instead of difficulties. And then I include an earlier passage from the same work entitled Paradise and Circumstances that further illustrates this theme.
[CENTER]My Circumstance Consists of Facilities and Obstacles[/CENTER]

The fundamental "fact" we have and with which we begin is a set of circumstances, composed at one and the same time of obstacles and facilities. For example, the two segments of those circumstances nearest me are "my body" and "my soul"; for both are no more than special groupings of particular facilities and obstacles.

Thus "my body" proved two years ago that it had a particularly tough heart when the great Parisian surgeon, Dr. Grosset, approached it -"my body"- scalpel in hand, with the intention of slicing open my chest cavity and said to his assistant that he would probably kill me but that he had no choice since if he didn't operate, I would probably die anyway. But my heart survived the operation. This is an example of a facility provided my old friend, the body! But at the same time this body harbors a disastrous liver that has raked me over the coals for the last twenty years; and my nervous system is so sensitive that with the least variation in atmospheric pressure due to a change of temperature in the jungle of Upper Paraguay, I shiver here in Caballito [a city in Argentina where he lived for a time in exile during the Spanish Civil War]. This is an example of an obstacle that the body represents. But it is with this body, in part favorable, in part adverse, my almost friend and nearly my enemy, that I have to live. It has come between me and what I have to do innumerable times; I have stumbled against it and fallen. And there are people who try to persuade me that I am this body of mine! The same thing happens with my soul. It too holds a certain repertoire of facilities and obstacles for me; but I won't speak of either grouping at this time. Out there, beyond this so-called body and this so-called soul, are the so-called animals, vegetables, and minerals; and there are other people; all this deployed in a stage setting, an environment, a landscape. For, as fundamental reality, the earth is simply a landscape or a series of landscapes that I inhabit. [From: "Historical Reason (Buenos Aires, 1940)," in Historical ReasonParadise and Circumstances[/CENTER]

Life, then, is the encounter with something that, vaguely, and with no pretense to exact meaning, I call 'I' existing in circumstances, in an ever-problematic existence, without any certainty about my existing the next moment, yet forced, in order to secure my continued existence, always to be doing something in an element that is not this 'I.' This is why life is not solely 'I.' Iam only one ingredient in my life; the other is my circumstances. One is just as real as the other. This is why I said we had gone beyond all idealism and all solipsism. According to the former thesis, since there is only I and my thoughts, "existence" is "living within the confines of the self." If life were only that! What more could one ask for?

For man, to exist means just what the etymology of the verb suggests: existere, to stand outside oneself;to perforce be in a foreign, negative, hostile element, where neither my ideas, nor my plans, nor my desires are automatically realized, that does not accept me or easily coincide with me. That element in which man must exist is his circumstances. If these circumstances were only made up of difficulties, if they were "absolute difficulty," we couldn't exist, could not mesh with them, and they would annihilate us. If, on the other hand, our circumstances were all facilities, and when I pressed my hand against a wall it gave way, I would never have any feeling or experience of resistance; that is, circumstances would be no more than an extension of myself, and I would be like God.

Man has always been aware that the element in which he must live, his circumstances, is hostile, negative. At least he has always been aware of this with the unconscious "awareness" we called "taking something for granted" [. . .]

One oblique expression of the fact that man is aware of the hostility of his ambience, without direct, formal consciousness of the fact, is symbolized by the fairy wand, and the world it creates where all our desires are automatically realized. With this symbol man communicates to himself, inadvertently, in a reverse image, that his world, his real world is, at least in part, an unfavorable, anti-magic world where most of his desires are not realized. The imagery of the expulsion from Paradise is another symbol of our belief that our actual environment is far from a paradise, which would be one offering no resistance, where everything rushed to fulfill our every desire; environs that seemed in their lack of resistance, no different from ourselves-in short, an environment that belied its name. On the contrary, the world into which man is shoved, on expulsion from Paradise, is composed of obstacles. It is a foreign and negative environment with which man, for the nonce, had no idea how to deal; because it is foreign to him he doesn't know how to behave in its regard. Neither the magic world nor Paradise is an environment; still, man's real circumstances amount to an "anti-Paradise." [Ibid., 84-87]
Next post: "My Circumstance" Consists of a "Repertory of Possibilities" for "Doing"
Reply Tue 1 Dec, 2009 12:09 am
This posting is from the book by Ortega entitled, Some Lessons in Metaphysics, from which I have excerpted a passage in a previous posting. In this passage, which includes only the paragraphs or portions of paragraphs containing words used interchangeably by Ortega to refer to what he principally calls "circumstance," I have highlighted the word "circumstance" and the various other words or terms used by Ortega to refer to it, as well as the other terms that we have used to characterize the radical reality that is my life:

[CENTER]"My Circumstance" Consists of a "Repertory of Possibilities" for "Doing"[/CENTER]

"If we were occupying ourselves with astronomy, our project would be to define the being of the stars, to find out what the stars are. Similarly, the intent of these lessons is to try to define the being of man. Man's being is what is customarily called his life. We are our lives. Now, the life of every one of us consists, for the moment, in finding himself having to exist in a circumstance, an environment, a world, or whatever else you choose to call it. That circumstance, that world, in which, like it or not, we have to live, we cannot choose; but without our leave and without knowing how it happened, we find ourselves tossed into it, shipwrecked in it, and, in order to sustain ourselves, we have no choice but to keep doing something, to come forth, swimming.

The circumstance, the environment, the world into which we have fallen on coming to life and in which we are prisoners and perplexed, is in every case composed of a certain repertory of possibilities, of being able to do this, that, or the other. Faced with this keyboard of possible things to do, we are free to prefer one or another; but the keyboard, as a whole, is fateful. Surrounding circumstances make up the circle of fatality which forms part of that reality which we call life. And, because this is the basic characteristic of our existence, note and remember that this fateful character of our surroundings, of the world in which we live, does not oblige us to do or to be any one single thing. [. . .] Within the destiny marked out by your environment, you are free; even more, you are fatefully free because you have no choice, like it or not, but to select your future within the range and margin that your fateful environment offers you.

Every man-and, of course, every woman-has his or her world, the environment which seems more or less like that of his neighbors but which always contains certain different elements. Most of you who are here are Spaniards, and being a Spaniard means having an environment, a destiny, and a repertory of possibilities which are different from those of an Englishman or a German. But even though we are Spaniards, our surroundings would be very different if we were living in the Spain of the seventeenth century. The world in which we exist perforce is not only a specific 'here', but it also has a definite date. To live is to exist here and now; as I said before, to emerge swimming in the here and now rather than in any imaginary environment. Hence, everyone who does not begin by accepting this world gladly, in all its effective reality, should seem to us idiotic. Face to face with destiny, the only sensible thing that can be done is to accept it. That comes first, and then we would see if we can in any way improve this environment so as to get the best possible out of it. Life is always a place and a date-it is the contrary of utopianism and timelessness-or, what is the same thing, life in itself is historical.

I think that on reaching this point you can see with a certain clarity and a greater precision that statement in which we were defining the problem of life -the life of each one of you- by saying that it consists in the fact that the 'I' which is each of us must exist in a circumstance, in a given set of surroundings within which we must realize ourselves. Note it well-it consists in the fact that I must be I, not within myself, but in the world where, willy-nilly, I find myself, in the world of now, and that my world will be able to offer me, more or less, facilities for realizing myself within it, but that it will always be different and separate from me."

[From Some Lessons in Metaphysics. (Norton, 1970)]

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