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Unamuno on Philosophers and their Philosophies

Tragic Sense of Life, trans. J.E. Crawford Flitch (Dover: 1954), orig. 1921, pp. 2-3.

In most of the histories of philosophy that I know, philosophic systems are presented to us as if growing out of one another spontaneously, and their authors, the philosophers, appear only as mere pretexts. The inner biography of the philosophers, of the men who philosophized, occupies a secondary place. And yet it is precisely this inner biography that explains for us most things. … Philosophy answers to our need of forming a complete and unitary conception of the world and of life, and as a result of this conception, a feeling which gives birth to an inward attitude and even to outward action. But the fact is that this feeling, instead of being a consequence of this conception, is the cause of it. Our philosophy — that is, our mode of understanding or not understanding the world and life — springs from our feeling towards life itself. And life, like everything affective, has roots in subconscious, perhaps in unconsciousness. ¶ It is not usually our ideas that make us optimists or pessimists, but it is our optimism or our pessimism, of physiological or perhaps pathological origin, as much the one as the other, that makes our ideas. ¶ Man is said to be a reasoning animal. I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal. Perhaps that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason. More often I have seen a cat reason than laugh or weep. Perhaps it weeps or laughs inwardly — but then perhaps, also inwardly, the crab resolves equations of the second degree. ¶ And thus, in a philosopher, what must needs most concern us is the man.

2 thoughts on “Unamuno on Philosophers and their Philosophies

  1. Christopher says:

    I appreciate the author’s treatment of equanimity in all aspects of things sentient: feeling, intellect, perhaps spirituality. There is no doubt that all of life is intertwined such that there is a shared empathy, a true altruism being reciprocated on a number of levels. To slice out the intellectual achievements of man, and show them in a successive stacking through history is only touching on one small aspect of man’s philosophical pursuit — I quite agree with the author on that point. Thus any history of philosophy focusing on the simple construction, deconstruction, reconstruction cycle misses the heart of life that philosophy is meant to address.

    Thank you for posting this quote, Nathan.


  2. nathanjacobson says:

    Hi, Chris. Thanks much for the thoughtful comment. I agree, Unamuno is right that our philosophies are very much expressions of our inner dispositions and life experiences. I have to wonder, though, what he would think of Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals or Paul C. Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless, both of which were written after he passed on. In each case, the authors largely discredit the philosophies of their subjects by retelling their life histories and psychologizing their points of view. Johnson’s portrait of Rousseau, for example — linking his failure as an absentee father to his views of “the state” — is devastating. Perhaps philosophers have mostly steered clear of this approach for fear of committing the genetic fallacy. Nonetheless, in many cases it is impossible to “get” a philosophy without also understanding the biography and cultural milieu of its author. It seems advisable to consider these influences while not dismissing or accepting their ideas merely on that basis. After all, none of us are purely disembodied, ahistorical thinkers, and for Unamuno, that is a very good thing. By the way, I’ve got lots more Unamuno quotes coming.

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