Xavier Zubiri’s lofty reputation in the Spanish-speaking world, and among Catholic philosophical circles elsewhere, is based primarily on his skill as an essayist—and on his personal presence as a teacher, at least for those who were fortunate enough to attend the courses he taught both as a university professor and as a private citizen. Zubiri’s most important essays are contained in a single volume, Naturaleza, historia, Dios (1944; Nature, History, God). As Zubiri explains in his introduction to the English translation of the book, these essays belong to only one period of his intellectual development. In this period, Zubiri is concerned especially with the question of what philosophy has been and should be. His later thought is based on an understanding of philosophy as metaphysics, that is, an investigation of the fundamental principles of real beings as such and of the human relation to reality; this period culminates in the treatise Sobre la esencia (1962; On Essence) and his trilogy of works on intelligence (1980–83). Zubiri’s essays, then, are especially suited to provoke reflection on the nature of the philosophical enterprise itself.
They succeed thanks to his integration of diverse philosophical and scientific traditions and his conjunction of an accessible style with wide-ranging knowledge and profound reflection.
Zubiri’s ideas and style display an unusually felicitous combination of the Catholic metaphysical tradition with a respect for the existential context of metaphysical thought.
On the one hand, he is thoroughly grounded in medieval philosophy and its ancient sources; on the other hand, his sensitivity to philosophy as an enterprise carried out by human beings in specific personal and historical circumstances is reminiscent of Heidegger or Ortega y Gasset, both of whom were Zubiri’s teachers. The concluding words of “Sócrates y la sabiduría griega” (1940; “Socrates and the Greek Idea of Wisdom”) elegantly express this harmony between historical and philosophical understanding: “The history of philosophy is not culture or philosophic erudition. It is finding oneself with other philosophers in the things about which one philosophizes.” A number of Zubiri’s essays are deft, economical portraits of great philosophers which focus on these thinkers’ concepts of philosophy itself (in addition to the essays in Nature, History, God, see Cinco lecciones de filosofía [1963; Five lessons in philosophy]).
Zubiri brings a fresh approach to time-honored philosophical topics, as in his influential treatment of the problem of God under the rubric of religación, or our essential tie to the source of our own existence. Zubiri also breathes new life into a traditional theme when, in “Nuestra situación intelectual” (1942; “Our Intellectual Situation”), he considers the timehonored, even time-worn scholastic concept of truth as “an agreement of thought with things.” In Zubiri’s hands, this concept becomes an occasion for diagnosing the contemporary intellectual malaise—the “profoundly paradoxical situation” in which, as he claims at the outset of the essay, scientists find themselves today. Zubiri explores the concept of “agreement” systematically but never drily, and closes with phrases worthy of the best existentialist manifestos: “But if, by a supreme effort, man is able to fall back upon himself, he will sense the ultimate questions of existence pass by his unfathomable depth like umbrae silentes [silent shadows].”
Zubiri’s essays manifest a wide range of knowledge acquired in his studies with the outstanding philosophers, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, and linguists of his day.
However, he is particularly wary of confusing philosophy with “a brilliant ‘apprenticeship’ of books or a splendid course of grand lectures”—that is, a mere display of encyclopedic erudition (“Our Intellectual Situation”). The scientific and historical facts Zubiri cites are always in the service of a philosophical problem. Thus, although his essays can accurately be described as dense, theirs is a rich rather than a ponderous density. Rather than arguing at length for a narrow thesis, Zubiri covers a great deal of ground by attacking the fundamental questions and bringing out their relationships. No words go to waste in his essays, but many topics are touched on only briefly, with a reluctant parenthetical note that the problem cannot be addressed adequately at this point.
This style makes his writings suggestive and stimulating.
The richness of Zubiri’s essays does not prevent them from being accessible to beginners. For instance, “¿Qué es saber?” (1935; “What Is Knowledge?”) begins with a humble exampie: “Suppose that we are shown a cup of wine.” Zubiri’s pedagogical experience is illustrated in this essay and others by the skill with which he introduces readers to successively deeper levels of the problem, using phrases such as “here new difficulties arise” and “neither is this sufficient.” His style is also enlivened by wellturned phrases: “science is not a simple addition of truths which man possesses, but rather the unfolding of an understanding possessed by truth” (“Our Intellectual Situation”).
It is Zubiri’s ability to make philosophical questions come alive, and to use his learning to sharpen rather than to blunt the force of these questions, that accounts for the distinctive power of his essays.
Xavier Zubiri Apalátegui. Born 4 December 1898 in San Sebastián. Studied under Ortega y Gasset at the University of Madrid, Ph.D. in philosophy, 1921; University of Louvain;
Gregorian University, Rome, Ph.D. in theology, 1920; studied independently in Europe, including under Husserl and Heidegger, 1928–31; other teachers included the mathematician Zermelo, the physicists Erwin Schrödinger and Louis de Broglie, and the philologist Jaeger. Chair of the history of philosophy, University of Madrid, 1926–36: taught at the Catholic Institute and the Sorbonne, Paris, 1936–39; chair of the history of philosophy, University of Barcelona, 1940–42; taught privately in Barcelona and Madrid, from 1945. Died in Madrid, 21 December 1983.
Essays and Related Prose
Ensayo de una teoría fenomenológica de juicio (doctoral thesis), 1923
Naturaleza, historia, Dios, 1944; as Nature, History, God, translated by Thomas B.Fowler, Jr., 1981
Sobre la esentia, 1961; as On Essence, translated by A.Robert Caponigri, 1980
Cinco lecciones de filosofía, 1963
Inteligenda sentiente, 1980
Siete ensayos de antropología filosófica, 1982
Inteligencia y logos, 1982
Inteligencia y razón, 1983
Other writings: works on philosophy and religion.
Caponigri, A.Robert, Introduction to On Essence by Zubiri, translated by Caponigri, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1980
Ferrater Mora, José, “The Philosophy of Xavier Zubiri,” in European Philosophy Today, edited by George L.Kline, Chicago: Quadrangle, 1965
Homenaje a Xavier Zubiri, Madrid: Moneda y Crédito, 2 vols., 1970
Ramírez, C., The Personalist Metaphysics of Xavier Zubiri (dissertation), Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, 1969
Rovaletti, Maria Lucrecia, editor, Hombre y realidad: Homenaje a Xavier Zubiri (1898– 1983), Buenos Aires: University of Buenos Aires Press, 1985
Wilhelmsen, Frederick D., The Metaphysics of Love, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1962
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