, ">

“On Miguel De Unamuno's Idea Of Reality”

Some philosophers have given the predicate 'is real' an explicit meaning; indeed, a substantial portion of their work is devoted to a clarification of the meaning of such a predicate. It is relatively easy for those philosophers to know what their conception or idea of reality has been. Thus, we can describe, or at least discuss, what 'is real' had meant to Plato, Aristotle, Hume, or Kant. Some other philosophers, on the other hand, have never given the question "What 'is real' means?" (or, in a more ontological vocabulary: "What is Reality?") an explicit answer. And yet they have also maintained a conception or idea of reality; it only happens that they have never expressed this idea by means of analysis or definition. It is very difficult (although not impossible) for those philosophers to know what they thought, philosophically speaking, that Reality is.

The Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno, belongs to the latter group. He is, indeed, one of the most typical members of it, for he never attempted to enlighten his readers on the meaning (or meanings) he gave the predicate 'is real.' This is, be it said in passing, one of the reasons why he has often been denied the status of philosopher. I consider these reasons to be, in the main, quite unsatisfactory, unless we hold a very definite, and rather narrow, idea of what 'to be a philosopher' means. We may, of course, subscribe to that idea, but then neither Kierkegaard nor Nietzsche should be treated as philosophers. If, as I think, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were philosophers, then Unamuno was also one. Therefore, we are allowed to submit his apparently nonphilosophical ideas and arguments to philosophical clarification. This I plan to do now in respect to the metaphysical (or rather, ontological) question just raised.

Any reader of Unamuno realizes that he fought unceasingly against all abstractions even while proclaiming the need of paying heed to "realities." However, as I said, he never made clear just what he meant by these realities. Philosophers may claim that he even did just the opposite: confused the issue by pointing out that that supreme reality of his—"the man of flesh and blood"—is also a kind of fiction created by a dreamer, at the same time that he considered fictitious characters in novels to be, in a very important sense, "real." It would seem then that the meaning of the predicate 'is real' in Unamuno's thought was either hopelessly ambiguous or unnecessarily unfathomable. There is apparently no rational approach to the problem, so that the only thing to do is to repeat or reformulate some of Unamuno's contradictions and paradoxes.

On a closer inspection of his writings,* however, we find that although Unamuno never attempted to define the meaning of the predicate 'is real,' he was always intent on representing (by means of descriptions and intuitions) the form and substance of "true realities." Furthermore, he refused to admit that any of the metaphysical entities hailed by some philosophers—matter, mind, ideas, values, and so forth—were in any fundamental sense "real." With the help of these descriptions and intuitions we can reconstruct in some degree Unamuno's idea of reality.

I will begin by recapitulating Unamuno's reactions against some of the traditional metaphysical entities.

First of all, Unamuno, refused to admit that pure facts—or only pure facts—are real. Unamuno's reader may be reminded of the sarcastic way in which our writer reacted against what he called the "factology" of positivism. He never tired of making fun of those who, like Paparrigopulos in Niebla, presumed to be able to capture reality by enlisting in the "foresworn legion of stick-toads, hunt-words, guess-dates and drop-counters." Facts being "what they are," they can at most be a very limited aspect of the real. For besides "what something is," there is also "what it means," "what it is worth," and, above all, and so supremely important for Unamuno, "what it wants to be"—or, in a more personal way, "what one wants to be." To be sure, this last trait would seem to apply only to human beings, namely to those beings in which the multiple and, of course, conflicting character of their various components is manifest: the person one is, the person one wants to be, the person others think one to be, the person others want one to be, etc. But the trait in question is to Unamuno more "universal"; things as well as people have "souls," so that their being expresses itself in their will to be or, as Spinoza would say, in their conatus. In order to be real, facts must not be "pure," but "impure." Facts are not indifferent, either to man or to facts themselves; to think otherwise is to assume that facts behave like ideas, and it could be easily seen that what is alive, and, therefore, real in facts is, according to Unamuno, the ideals embodied in them. No more real to Unamuno are the metaphysical entities that philosophers have misused, almost always presenting them in the guise of an absolute.

Since Unamuno insisted so earnestly on the idea that all beings have "souls" and "innards"—although, so to speak, "corporeal souls and innards"— we may suppose that he thought appearances conceal the "true realities," and that the latter are like absolute beings hidden in the core of phenomena. This supposition would prove, however, to be incorrect. Unamuno never defended a substantialist philosophy as against a phenomenolistic philosophy, nor did he ever fight for the latter against the former. For Unamuno there is no thing-in-itself, no metaphysically absolute nature beyond or beneath sensible things. There is nothing that corresponds to Ideas, Substances, Forms. Things-in-themselves are for him far too abstract and remote when compared with the "concrete realities" which we come up against and to which we cling—such realities as "men of flesh and blood," "this character in a novel," "this landscape," "this star in the sky." To a certain extent, if any 'ism' fits Unamuno at all, it is "radical empiricism." For, whenever Unamuno seems about to accept some metaphysical entity—as in the case of Schopenhauerian Will— it is only in order to strike a blow, at once, against all that is abstract in it. Philosophers have often sought "what is most real," but they have always ended by depriving it of reality simpliciter. It is most probable that Unamuno would have subscribed to Goethe's well known verses:

Natur hat weder Kern noch Schale
Alles ist sie mit einemale

("Nature has neither shell nor kernel it is everything at once"), provided that the German poet were ready to include in Nature things that he had originally not thought of including.

Nor is reason—or, if one prefers, Reason—real. The world is not crystal clear or logical. It is not anything transparent, but something resistant and opaque. When Hegel said that the rational is real and the real rational, he was not speaking, Unamuno surmised, as a philosopher, and much less as a "man of flesh and blood"; he spoke as a bureaucrat. To be sure, reason should not be simply discarded; Unamuno has said more than once that "the reprisals of reason" are absolutely necessary, because they bring us into sudden contact with doubt, and without doubt we cannot stumble against reality. But reason in itself is far from being a real entity: it is one of the extremes between which "we move and are." Nor can the irrational in-it-self be real, for analogous reasons, because to say that the world is, at bottom, irrational, or is "the Irrational," is to seek comfort and shun tragedy, that is to say, life. "The Rational" and "The Irrational" are, therefore, only metaphorical hypostases invented by philosophers in order to exercise their spleen—or in order to assuage their desperation.

To these negations others could be added: those already noted will, however, suffice for our purpose. I can now turn to more positive statements about the basic characteristics of reality. Needless to say, we will not find in Unamuno's works "propositions" about the nature of reality. On the other hand, we can find in them numerous descriptions of "what is truly real." These descriptions are distinguishable by our author's preference for certain terms which he systematically used whenever he meant to give the impression that he was face to face with true realities. A "linguistic approach" to the problem—in the rather broad sense of the word 'linguistic'—is, therefore, inescapable; I will now attempt to reconstruct Unamuno's idea of reality on the basis of an examination of his language.

Above all, the innermost is real to Unamuno. Words such as 'innards,' 'the intimate,' 'the pithy,' the bones,' 'the marrow,' 'the mesentery,' 'the hidden,' 'the chasm,' 'the abyss,' 'the bottom,' 'the depth,' 'the unfathomable,' 'the substantial,' 'the soul,' and alike play a fundamental role in Unamuno's thought. These are not, however, terms which purport to designate constitutionally "hidden" realties, and even less "things-in-themselves," since they always refer to that which has a decidedly visible, tangible, and palpable aspect. The identification of the real with something "metaphysical," or with something "within," "beneath," or "beyond" appearances is one thing; the constant "going inward" of the real so often emphasized by Unamuno is another. The innermost is not hidden, nor is it merely on the surface. Strictly speaking, it cannot be said to fall into any of the categories currently used by many philosophers—being as opposed to appearance, reality to its manifestations, noumena to phenomena, etc.— since it possesses a peculiar status: that of manifesting itself according to its intimacy. Or, to put it in another way: the innermost is the "within" of things to the degree that they are deprived of a "without." For this reason, it has two constant characteristics. On the one hand, it is something which moves with a movement similar to that of living creatures—its throbbing, trembling and pulsating can be perceived by all but self-complacent philosophers. This is why the innards of which Unamuno spoke are always presented as "palpitating innards." On the other hand, it is something that never slackens, that flows ceaselessly: the innermost is truly inexhaustible. This is why it can be described by analogy with certain physical processes—jet, source, spring, fountain, which not by chance are names often used in poetic description. Like the physis or "nature" of the pre-Socratics, the innermost flows perennially from its own reservoir. Thus we may conclude that the real is always the intra-real—just as history "intra-history"—provided that we always keep in mind that there is no strict opposition between an intra and an extra, nor even less, a reduction of one to the other. For once the battle has subsided for lack of combatants. If the innermost struggles, as does everything, with itself, it does not do so in the sense that its being opposes its becoming, or vice versa; it does so in a way similar to that in which our intimate being fights with itself. What we call "the true reality" is not matter or spirit, flesh or soul, because it can be, and usually is, both. Only "matter as such" and "spirit as such" are not real; they are mere abstractions, lacking in movement, in flowing and overflowing force, devoid of incessantly palpitating intimacy.

The serious is real and within it the weighty (lo denso). Anything that is swift, lucid, voluble, playful, insinuating, suggestive, allusive, and ironical is alien to Unamuno's cosmos. This does not mean, however, that his is a dull universe, drowned in circumspection and composure; on the contrary, it continually erupts with shouts, imprecations and even altercations. None the less, all this is somehow contained within the tightly packed, firm, dense silence of which the needlework pattern of Unamuno's life was made up. This seriousness and gravity manifests itself in two basic ways. On the one hand, as something possessing a tightly woven, tough texture, hard if not impossible, to break. The real is something vigorous, compact—frequently, coarse and unpleasant—and, as a consequence, just the opposite of anything that is smooth, fine, polished, pretty, flexible, and graceful. On the other hand, the real shows itself as something possessing corporeality or, as Unamuno so often said, "balk"; the tangible is real and, above all, the palpable is real. The models for these characterizations—or descriptions—of the real are obviously certain physical objects—one might almost say, macrophysical ones. But they are also certain sensations whose grossness is not to be confused with roughness. Thus, although predominantly "physical" the traits of the real are not the exclusive attributes of matter; ideals too, in so far as they truly are, instead of dissolving into abstractions, possess, according to Unamuno, this seriousness, gravity, and density that makes them firm, bulky, tangible, and almost corporeal. The difference between matter and mind is irrelevant; the difference between opaqueness and transparency, between seriousness and levity, between density and porosity, straightforwardness and allusiveness, firmness and volubility is what ultimately counts.

The abrupt is real, if 'abrupt' is understood, not as one of the many possible synonyms for 'harsh' and 'uneven,' but as denoting a mode of being characterized by discontinuity. Here the abrupt is, therefore, a kind of "leap." To a certain extent, it may be understood by analogy with the Kierkegaardian notion of Springet (leap, jump), which describes the movement of human existence as opposed to the dialectical process of Being in the Hegelian sense. Like the Kierkegaardian notion, the Unamunian intuition of "leap" is fiercely opposed to either continuity or to mediation. It is as remote from Hegelianism as it is from Leibnizianism. The real does not stretch out on a continuous line; it does not follow the pattern of evolution, either continuous or dialectical. There is no "sufficient reason" for its existence, nor is there any explanation of the course it follows. Instead of "reason" and "explanation" we have here—again, in a Kierkegaardian sense—"decision." This decision presupposes the acceptance of absurdity and paradox. And yet, the obvious analogies between the Kierkegaardian and the Unamunian notions of "leap" must not lead us to the conclusion that their meanings are interchangeable. Kierkegaard thought that the "leap" describes the behavior of human existence in the passage from one stage of life to another, and especially in the passage from the ethical stage to the religious. The Kierkegaardian notion of leap is thus comparable to one of those categories that Heidegger has called "existentials." On the other hand, Unamuno did not explicitly think of the leap as a category, whether existential or cosmic, but confined himself to describing the universe, and above all human beings, as if they were geological faults: layer upon layer without any apparent transition. Furthermore, whereas the leaps leading from one stage to another were conceived by Kierkegaard in such a way that every stage was supposed to be replaced by the ensuing one, we never find in Unamuno the idea, or even the intuition, that once a stage is attained all the preceding ones must be forgotten or dismissed. The model that more or less consciously fosters this image of reality is probably human life, or rather the way Unamuno felt about his own life. He thought of himself, and, by analogy, of his fellow humans as beings made up of a number of layers, none of which ever replaced or concealed the others, for the simple reason that all of them become evident at once, and, as it were, explosively. Therefore, for Unamuno the "authentic" man—and consequently, the "real" man—is not the one who hides behind his social cover, his everyday gestures, and conventional words, but he who reveals himself abruptly in all his contradictory being. And reality itself, for Unamuno, is not a more or less rough background beneath a smooth surface, but at one and the same time the polished and the rugged. It will be seen that here again there is for Unamuno no kernel beneath a shell, but a kernel and a shell cross-sectioned from the moment of birth to the moment of death.

What Unamuno sometimes called "the contradictory," and what is more properly labeled "the constant conflict of opposites," is also real. The real exists in a state of combat, of conflict, of tension—-being at war with an opposite and at war with itself. As it was to Heraclitus, war was to Unamuno "the father of all things." Indeed, war was so fundamental to the latter that, not content with declaring it ever-present, he concluded that it makes war on itself and, furthermore, that it fights continually with its antagonist, peace, giving no quarter. Peace is to be found in the heart of war and vice versa: without war there is no possible peace. The struggle between opposites and of each opposite with itself is not, therefore, the result of a logical contradiction; it is the very core of the tragic dynamism of life. The motor of this interminable movement is a conflict whose ontological nature must always be kept in mind: it derives from the eagerness of each being to remain itself while striving to become what other beings are, and hence longing to cease being what it is. The formal pattern of this struggle is the opposition between the limited and the unlimited. This opposition is revealed everywhere, but it is most obvious in the struggles which Unamuno has most often described: those between fictitious characters and their creators, between what one intends to be and what one is, between man and God.

That which lasts—or, if one prefers, that which is everlasting—is also real. Not, of course, the intemporal and abstractly eternal, but the permanently concrete. This last can be understood in two ways. First, as something whose permanence is being continuously produced or created; true permanence is, Unamuno believes, the result of an effort, of an act of will, of a conatus, to such an extent that there is no fundamental difference between being and wishing to be. Second, as something whose duration is constantly threatened by annihilation; just as war is the guarantee of peace, death—the imminence of death—is the guarantee of life. To last forever is not to go on existing, to continue to be, it is to conquer unceasingly its own being. This explains why for Unamuno to live is primarily "to agonize," namely, to fight against death.

And finally whatever feels or, as Unamuno has written, "whatever suffers, has pity and longs," is real. This has led him to identify reality with consciousness and to even maintain that "the only substantial reality is consciousness." I must warn the readers, however, against the tendency to interpret such a phrase in any idealistic sense. Unamuno was not an idealist or a realist for the simple reason that for him suffering, pitying, and relishing, constitute ways of being real that affect both the consciousness and things. It would then be a mistake to deduce the being of things, whether analogically or metaphorically, from the being of consciousness: "to feel" is, at bottom, "to react"—and to react strongly—with vigor and vehemence. The universe qua "sensitive being" is therefore, a universe qua active being—a universe which changes, transforms itself, struggles to be, and even "despairs" of ever being what it wishes to be. Just as the attribution of bulk and palpableness may be imputed to ideas, so that of consciousness may be applied to things. At any rate, true reality is never passivity. And perhaps what Unamuno calls "consciousness" is nothing but a means of recognizing that only that which stubbornly refuses to cease to be really is.


  • [It] would be cumbersome to quote in this connection from Unamuno's writings. Unamuno's descriptions of "reality" and of realities" appear not only in his more philosophical books (The Tragic Sense of Life, The Agony of Christianity), but also, and above all, in his novels, and in his innumerable essays and newspaper articles. I prefer thus to do away with bibliographical references altogether.

Ferrater Mora, José. “On Miguel De Unamuno's Idea Of Reality.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 21 (June 1961): 514-520.