Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, October 19, 2015

ORTEGA: On Studying (Questions and Answers)

The Great Books program is based on the simple method of reading a book, asking a few questions, and then discussing those questions with others.  In this selection Jose Ortega y Gasset tells us that “no one can thoroughly understand an answer unless he has understood the question.”  The questions we ask about a reading are just as important as the answers we give.  Here’s an example.  Ortega says subjects like “metaphysics or geometry are here because men created them by brute force…”  Statements like this lead us to formulate questions.  Was geometry “created” by humans or did we “discover” geometric forms that had been there all along?  When we ask questions like these we feel like we’re on a quest for Truth.  But Truth is a slippery subject for Ortega.  He believes “we say that we have discovered a truth when we have found a certain thought that satisfies an intellectual need we have previously felt.  If we do not feel in need of that thought, it will not be a truth for us.”  Really?  Does that mean there’s one truth for me and another truth for you, depending on the “intellectual need” we feel at the time?  Does that mean truth changes every time my intellectual needs change?  Or does truth remain the same regardless of my personal intellectual needs?  These are questions that fall under the branch of philosophy called metaphysics, the study of the nature of reality.

Metaphysics sounds like a field of study best left to scholars.  But Ortega doesn’t think so.  He says “in order to truly understand something, and most of all metaphysics, it is not necessary to have what is called talent or to possess great prior wisdom… what is necessary is to have need of metaphysics.”  And Ortega believes we all need metaphysics.  An obvious question follows.  Why should I study metaphysics?  Because, says Ortega, “one needs precisely what one does not have, what is lacking, what is not existent, and the need, the demand, is that much stronger the less one has…”  Ortega thinks the less I know about metaphysics the more I really need it.  This is a paradox.  If I’m looking for some Truth I don’t already know then how do I know when I’ve found it?  Ortega says “Truth, for the moment, is what quiets an anxiety in our intelligence.”  Truth, at least for the moment, will satisfy the need I have to answer my own question.  But in order for it to be a Truth for me it has to be an answer to my own personal question.  Answering questions for an exam at school doesn’t count.  In Ortega’s opinion exams never lead students to discover their own Truths.  He says “the student is a human being, male or female, on whom life imposes the need to study subjects for which he has felt no immediate, genuine need.”    

In a typical classroom “the typical student is one who does not feel the direct need of a science, nor any real concern with it, and who yet sees himself forced to busy himself with it.”  The typical student studies geometry, for example, not because he’s really interested in learning about forms.  He studies geometry only so he can pass the next geometry test.  Now consider an adult who is long since out of school and well out of reach of weekly exams.  A question has been bothering him.  The question is this.  In a rapidly changing world is there anything at all that’s permanent and stable and enduring?  This is a classic question of metaphysics, the very subject Ortega says we all need to study.  Studying geometry may not give us the definitive metaphysical answer we’re looking for.  But contemplating the eternal nature of triangles is the sort of thing that somehow “quiets an anxiety in our intelligence.”  And Ortega believes it’s important for us to keep formulating these questions for ourselves throughout our lives.  Ortega is concerned that “generation after generation the frightening mass of human knowledge which the student must assimilate piles up.”  The subjects keep piling up and the exams keep getting longer and longer.  Ortega’s antidote is this: ask your own questions, find your own answers.      


Post a Comment

<< Home