The secret of philosophy by Eugeni D'Ors


Eugenio D'Ors (1882-1954) was schooled at home due to poor health. Later he studied law in Barcelona. He moved to Madrid for his doctorate and in 1906 began to write Glosses for La Veu de Catalunya, under the pseudonym Xènius. He later accepted a position in Paris for the same newspaper. On his return to Barcelona in 1911 he was appointed as secretary general of the Instituto de Estudios Catalanes.

He was in Paris during the Civil War and on his return in 1937 he joined the Falange. He was accepted into the Real Academia Española and to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. 

In Catalonia D'Ors saw the rise of the Modernist movement at the beginning of the century but he proposed a modernisation which he coined as Noucentisme. It rejected the individualism and naturalism of Modernism and adopted traditional Catalan aesthetics which were inspired by ruralism and the folklore of classical art. He believed that art was the most effective way of understanding human existence and, when extended to Catalan nationalism, Noucentisme became a political movement.

D'Ors considered the fin de siecle literary movement as decadent:

"Fou el temps de decadentisme i de la sensualitat malalta..."

("It was a decadent time of sickly sensuality...")

As a classicist D'Ors interpreted these tendencies as a rejection of reason and order, typical of Romanticism. Sensitivity and individualism imply a belief in spontaneity and the noble savage myth which he believed engendered anarchism in politics, a prevalent political movement in Barcelona at the end of the century.

Eugenio D'Ors main philosophical influence was rooted in the pragmatism of William James, whom he had met in Paris. However, D'Ors proposed a synthesis of the reason-life opposition of the pragmatists. This entailed the aesthetic aspect of human action which cannot be reduced to simple utilitarianism. 

Pragmatism, for some, was a new theory of truth which defended a meeting between truth and utility. For others it was a scientific theory capable of clarifying meaning through action. D'Ors seemed to opt for the former interpretation, though he nuanced it later.

In his first philosophy book La filosofía del hombre que trabaja y juega (1914) D'Ors wrote:

"El intelectualismo al que aspiramos es post-pragmático, y tiene en cuenta el pragmatismo."

("The intellectualism we aspire to is post-pragmatic, and takes pragmatism into account.")

This new intellectualism was "noucentisme" which takes aesthetics into account and was the intellectual, political and aesthetic renewal he intended for Catalonia. This fresh approach had a new vocabulary among which was el seny, meaning practical wisdom, which integrated pragmatism into the intellectualist tradition.

D'Ors accepted action as a criterion of truth, recognising the utilitarian aspect in science, but refused to accept action only in these terms. He argues that when scientific methodology and results are considered there remains something other than action, something aesthetic, neither necessary nor gratuitous. These remains are the fruit of curiosity which, over and above necessity, invents and proposes new possibilities.

Another influence on D'Ors was the vitalist philosophy of Ludwig Klages (1872-1956). Both authors develop the tripartite structure of the human: body, soul, spirit. However, the authors diverge on the functions of each part. In his search for synthesis D'Ors viewed the spirit as the area of culture and thought and the task of philosophy was to raise life to its level; Klages believed that the sprit killed life and soul and that life should rebel against reason and spirit.

D'Ors considered intelligence above reason, that is, not discursive, conceptual and abstract, but formal, concrete and intuitively figurative. Klages and D'Ors coincided on this point: to know is to see. 

In his book on the philosophy of history, La Ciencia de la Cultura, D'Ors established the eon as the fundamental element in his philosophy. He defined it as "una idea que tiene una biografía" (an idea which has a biography"). Eons are constant structures in history and they are repetitive. The imperial eon reappeared in Alexander the Great, Rome, Charlemagne and Napoleon. The 'Classical' and 'Romantic' eons succeed each other, rhythmically, in cultural history. Klages also subscribed to the idea of rhythm in history: industrial civilisation is dominated by the morbid principle of cadence; rhythm, as the symbol of wholeness in the origins of the natural world, degenerated into arrhythmias under the influence of techniques and was replaced by the cold principle of mechanical engineering. 

The opposition between Klages and D'Ors is representative of the two eons: Classical (D'Ors) versus Romantic (Klages). The Romantic impulse is towards spontaneity and naturality, subjectivity against objectivity, feeling opposed to reason, rebellion versus the establishment. In classicism it is hierarchy that predominates. Life is subordinated to reason and abstract reasoning to intelligence (the synthesis of reason, experience and intuition).


El secreto de la filosofía (1947) is the main work of Eugeni d'Ors and is a synthesis of his thought. It consists of 12 lessons which the author gave in Barcelona, Córdoba(Argentina) and Geneva between 1917 and 1923. It is introduced by a discussion of the notion of philosophy and divided into three parts: a theory of ideas, a theory of principles and a theory of knowledge. Each part is followed up by a dialogue and a summary in 500 words of the author's philosophy.

The Theory of Ideas maintains that philosophy has traditionally been divided between intuition (Scheler's vitalism), and abstraction (Husserl's reason). D'Ors is searching for a synthesis to bind them and suggests a dialectical solution through a discursive methodology. He presents intuition as coming from a spark of inspiration in a dialogue, an insight; abstraction comes from preparatory study. He borrows the Greek concept of logos, which the Romans translated as reason. It includes both a knowledge of ideas and figurative intuition. He gives the religious examples of Protestantism with its emphasis on the interior and Catholicism which relies on the exterior, vitalist approach, of symbolism and ritual. 

The Theory of Principles is the distinction between scientific reasoning and intelligence which he describes as the Greek nous (philosophy). It is subdivided into another binary couple: pure reasoning and practical reasoning, which are summed up in the concept of seny. He describes this synthesis as a keplerian reform which now explains how philosophy is simultaneously pure and practical reasoning involving two centres: reason and life.

The Theory of Knowledge is based on the bergsonian division of spatial and temporal knowledge. D'Ors translates this into spatial-temporal knowledge. Another element of knowledge is the binary legality/curiosity. Legality is conservative knowledge; curiosity is revolutionary knowledge and they are achieved through irony

The secret held by philosophers and scientists is the recognition that thinking always assumes a figurative character, which is a synthesis of perception and concept and which transcends the logic of reason. Reason is also part of our knowing and living, an important part, but incapable of making sense of those aspects which are most essential in our lives: language, art, music, religion and culture. These elements in human life have both a biological and a spiritual dimension. The secret of philosophy is the synthesis of both which will accord them full meaning, following Schopenhauer's distinction between professors of philosophy and philosophers. The professors think that by teaching systems, often dissected and stagnant, they have explained everything; the philosophers know the secret and make it known by word and example.



Reason is held by D'Ors, not as the whole of reality, but as the best of reality, just as culture is not all of history, but the best of history. D'Ors sought to save logic and reason through discussion with contemporary pragmatism and biology. He conceived reason as an antitoxic activity which defends us from exterior influences. 

D'Ors studied under Bergson in Paris and although he adopted his idea of intuition as intellectually visible, he disagreed with its exaggerated formulation. D'Ors insisted that there was a distinction between the intuitive form and the logical form which covered it. He disagreed with Bergson's individualist approach in which the image we form of the world can be superimposed on reality. D'Ors reorganised this by saying that the original intuition was dialogue, not monologue. The author recognised the existence of irrationality, but emphasised that reason should combat it: the Spirit represents Good; Nature symbolises irrationality.

Intellectualism in D'Ors is postpragmatic and he maintained that the basis of philosophy is genuine vision: the choice of metaphor is always determined by contemporary language, which is the only mode of philosophical communication. The author's language is infused with biological terminology, but he maintains a margin of irony which allowed him to escape this trap.


According to D'Ors, philosophising is inescapable for humans since it forms part of living. It is a way of making sense of life by generalising anecdotes to the level of categories.

D'Ors thought that the essence of any reality is its appearance. He aspired to be the Socrates of the 20th. century against the Sophists who diminished philosophy to an ancillary of life, reducing it to the level of low instincts. The author sought to raise life to the level of philosophy by imbuing it with thinking. He rejected both pure contemplation and pure action: the best contemplative is also the best person of action, since life is worthless if not enlightened by thought. 

Distance is the main message of the Orsian Glosses, which he considered the aristotelians and scholastics did not maintain. This paralysed natural research compared with Renaissance idealism which freed the natural sciences thanks to its:

"método riguroso, entre distancia y asepsia, en las poligamias del espíritu."

("rigorous method, between distance and asepsis, in the polygamies of the spirit.")

For D'Ors philosophy is representational thought, something between mathematical abstraction and historical materiality, just as drawing is halfway between numbers and painting. Pictorical thinking, geomerticode, is D'Ors' way of expressing his aesthetic conception in a slightly contrived prose whose intention is to educate while avoiding the tone of the masses, and is often unintentionally hermetical. It aims to harmonise art and science, where everything is mathematical order and at the same time beauty.


According to the author, philosophy should not be dogmatic but energetic and this is achieved through dialogue and irony. Metaphysics must exist in constant alert, open to all stimulants on which it feeds. All thought is an inner dialogue of the conscience with the superconscience. There is also dialogue in allusion and quotes. Intuition arises in discussion and needs previous study. Silence and solitude only produce buglike thoughts, thinking is thinking-with-something (language) and with someone. 

Philosophy has an ironic function that allows a previous position to be included in the thesis. Irony means free spirit, poetry, formulas (against Romantic anarchy), but only partly, accepting corrections, and later, contradictions. Irony recognises that rules are phantoms created by the spirit and it creates a new specter which combats the previous one. 

D'Ors recognises Voltaire's influence in his way of philosophising, especially in the Glosses. The Frenchman's Dictionnaire philosophique portatif offered a model for the transfer individual of thought into epic, which is an intermediary between socratic conversation in the marketplace and publicity in a modern newspaper.

"Reformular a Voltaire contra Voltaire: ese es el objetivo (...) poner el formidable instrumento inventado por el enciclopedista para su obra disolvente al servicio de una causa opuesta: un esfuerzo humano de restauración."

("Reformulate Voltaire against Voltaire: that's the goal (…) put the formidable instrument invented by the encyclopedist for his dissolving work at the service of an opposite cause: a human effort to restore.")

D'Ors' conception of words covers morphology and semantics, but also contains a seed, possibilities and a movement. For the author words go beyond their present sense into poetic, heroic meaningfulness.

Reason and intelligence

Reason is scientific cognition which captures needs; intelligence is philosophical knowledge and it embraces order. Intelligence includes rationality, intuition, sentiments and elements of taste. Orsian philosophy spins like a keplerian eclipse round two centres: theory and action, reason and life, with their dual norms. 

D'Ors substitutes the traditional rationalist laws of sufficient reason and contradiction for those of required function and participation. He also replaces natural law with rhythm and historic law with the eon, a historic constant.

The principle of sufficient reason covered causality and maintained that the cause preceeded the effect, which could not exceed the cause. The first assertion excluded the idea of finality which is a biological requirement; the second declaration is in contradiction with the phenomena of radioactivity. Criticism of the classic principle was initiated by Boutroux, D'Ors' teacher, and his viewpoints have been confirmed by quantum theory. This has led some thinkers to a state of indeterminacy and D'Ors denounced this extreme by adopting the elastic principle of required function which establishes that:

"Todo fenómeno está en relación con otro suceso anterior o posterior".

("every phenomenon is in relationship with another previous, or later, occurrence.")

The cause does not always preceed the effect. The cause which follows is called finality; that which accompanies it, function. The result of this reformulation is that the world cannot be conceived of as a machine:

"El universo no es una máquina. Es una sintaxis."

("The universe is not a machine. It is a syntax.")

It is ruled, not by causality, but by concordance. Just as in a concert the symphonies are infinite before the first notes and when these sound they limit the possibilities.

D'Ors recognised his own limitations by declaring:

"No soy un libro hecho de reflexiones. Soy un hombre con mis contradicciones."

("I am not a book made up of reflections. I am a man with my contradictions.")

The author's philosophy sought synthesis and inclusion. Reality is not synthesis, but rather fissure, contradiction, an abyss with no bridges. That is why philosophy distances itself from reality, through intelligence.

Theory of knowledge.

D'Ors sought synthesis in his epistemology. He recognised that knowledge is composed of abstractions in Logic and of intuitions in Phenomenology, but he wanted to fuse both approaches in his philosophy, since he refused to accept that any real knowledge could be reduced either to pure abstraction or pure intuition. The synthesis is irony, neither pure logic, nor abstraction, but disclosure of truth (aletheia).

As regards intuition D'Ors shared with Poincaré the inspiration that later Gödel converted into his theories of incompleteness: the technical language of algorithms cannot reach strictly scientific levels. The author also rejected philosophy as phenomenology since philosophy is built with concepts which are inherent to lexic, and syntax. He adds that pure conscience cannot be a real substance without the reference to the world which it represents. This would be a facile cancellation of the problem of correspondence between phenomenon and noumenon or sensations and abstractions which are true simply because they exist. He believed that the phenomenon, more than a substantive entity, as Phenomenology wrongly asserted, was a convention.

Philosophy and religion

Religion is metaphysics in images and its important basis is faith; philosophy can extract the rationality from religion. For D'Ors religion was primarily a meditation on the precedence of the Revelation. However, he also held to a certain maniqueism, possibly influenced by Augustine of Hippo, which considered humans as fallen beings, though original sin has not affected reason, but human nature, life. He thought that this had led to an internal strife between reason and living.

He considered Catholicism as the conscience of humanity’s spiritual unity throughout history. He compared Catholic hierarchy, which favours veneration of saints, adoration of God and uses imagery, relics and miracles, to what he viewed as Protestant sectarianism based on abstractions. Further, he affirmed the connection between the Greco-Roman tradition and Catholicism with its roots in the ceremonial uses of culture in Ancient Rome. He contrasted the penchant of Mediterranean cultures to exteriorise their beliefs to the Northern tradition of interiorisation.

D’Ors makes the distinction between a supernatural mysticism and a cosmic one. The former seeks to rise towards the Divine; the latter to fuse with Nature. Mysticism, for D'Ors, is akin to a liberation from time and space:

"Soy un hombre sin recuerdos, porque siento, casi sin interrupción, que en mi espíritu todo es presente."

("I am a man without memories, because I feel, almost without interruption, that in my spirit all is present.")


Noucentisme was a term coined by D'Ors in 1906 to identify the artistic styles of the 1900s following the Italian manner of century names (Quattrocento, Cinquecento). There was also a play on words since nou can mean both 'nine' and 'new', suggesting renewal. D'Ors used the term to underline a reaction against the current style, Modernisme

Modernisme has been defined by Eduard Valentí as a conservative progressivism, which is flawed because it is contradictory. Noucentisme is an attempt to correct this inconsistency. D'Ors used the terms 'tradition', referring to traditional beliefs, and 'stability' which meant the Christian social ethic. They were based on 'arbitration' which sought to break with traditional art to create a Catalan art. D'Ors explained his concept of arbitration in religious terms:

"Los artistas "arbitrarios", enfrente de esta Mitologia artistica habitual, vienen a ser como los Protestantes enfrente del Catolicismo; pero con mas fuerza. Sustituyen la tradición por la invención. Defienden y practican, no solamente el "libre examen personal", sino la libre creación personal."

("The "arbitrary" artists, faced with this habitual artistic Mythology, come to be like the Protestants compared with Catholicism; but more forcefully. They substitute tradition for invention. They defend and practise, not only "free personal examination", but free personal creation.)

The author reacted against what he called this 'realism' which he found chaotic. He organised his thinking around temporality which he approached as a seeking of eternity. This involves separating humanity from its social and historical context and considering it within the search for transcendence, the ideal of the augustinian City. This worldview sets Noucentisme within European aesthetic movements, but D'Ors negation of temporality led him to view artistic expression as a static reality. This resulted in noucentist literature producing no prose narration and even D'Ors novel, La Ben plantada, has little plot and is a static description of a social model, an allegory of the author's Catalan social ideal.

Noucentisme inherited this static outlook from Modernisme and, though opening a receptive door to Europe and establishing maturity in Catalan literature, prevented it from keeping up with European progress. In the 1920s it faded with the bourgeois class it was bound to. 

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