There are at least three ways of studying the work of an author and, in particular, that of a philosopher: the erudite, the critical, and the interpretive.
Those who employ the erudite approach are, or claim to be, impartial. Their mission is to amass (and, whenever necessary, correct) facts and dates, edit texts, unearth documents, sort out epochs and phases, inventory themes and motifs, trace relationships, discover books read, and track down influences. The work of erudition is, of course, necessary; more than that, it is indispensable. Without it one runs the risk of committing pompous falsifications or pronouncing solemn nonsense. Without an existent apparatus of erudition, the honest study of any author is impossible.
Those who employ the critical approach begin by adopting positions from which they usually strike out at the writer being studied. When these positions are purely external to, or have little to do with, the system of thought that is their target, they obtain success as showy as it is useless. One can criticize Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Hegel with considerable success particularly if one has the good fortune to have been born much later than they. When the positions adopted by the critics are purely internal, their success is equally notable though less spectacular. To achieve their ends they have only to lay bare the internal contradictions of a system and show that the conclusions would have been otherwise if the author had been faithful to his premises.
Neither of these two variations on the critical approach seems to me acceptable. The first is based upon a falsification; the second, upon pedantry. There is, however, a third variety of the critical approach which is much more respectable. This is the criticism of another system of philosophy using one's own philosophy as a point of reference—if, of course, this latter is fully evolved, mature, and not simply a series of more or less arbitrary opinions. And even then one's own philosophy should in some way be related to the philosophy to be criticized.
Those who employ the interpretive approach begin by sympathizing with the author studied. Yet "sympathizing with the author" does not mean identification with all his opinions or the appropriation of all his feelings. If this were to occur, interpretation would be impossible, and the only result would be repetition or, at best, summary. "Sympathizing with the author" primarily means getting inside his work, bringing his attitudes to light, scrutinizing his suppositions, and, above all, understanding his intentions. All this can be carried out in a style of thought different from that of the author being studied. But one must never give way to the temptation of falsifying the author's thought. The sympathy of which I speak is not, therefore, that of adherence, but of comprehension.
My book does not use the erudite approach. It does not pretend to, for much of this work has already been accomplished. Although much is still to be done in the study of Unamuno's themes and motifs, in the analysis of his modes of expression, in the investigation of his changes and crises, we already possess a sufficient body of carefully edited texts and of studies on specific aspects of Unamuno's work so that any future study of him may now rest upon a solid foundation of erudition. Furthermore, although Unamuno said and wrote many things, all of them can be reduced to a relatively small nucleus of preoccupations that tormented him all his life and make his philosophy, in spite of its apparent diffuseness, a singularly well-mortised whole. Nor is my book critical in either of our first two acceptations of that term. I neither adopt external positions in order to refute Unamuno's ideas, nor try to expose his internal contradictions. I might, I hope, have set out my own philosophy and considered Unamuno's in the light of it, but I suspect that the reader is more interested in Unamuno's thought than in mine.
For these reasons, I have used the interpretive approach. This approach is all the more suitable since Unamuno was one of those philosophers with whom there is the danger of being unjust if he is measured by alien standards—standards that lead one all too readily into making the author think and say what would never have occurred to him. I have decided to measure Unamuno by his own standards, even though, by so doing, I have forsworn certain techniques that are particularly congenial to me. It seemed the reader would arrive at a better understanding of Unamuno's personality and thought if I made an effort to expound and interpret them "Unamunianly." And this book would not be faithful to Unamuno if it did not contain a certain amount of disquietude and tension.
It has often been said that Unamuno was an existentialist thinker, or at least one of the forerunners of existentialist philosophy. To the extent that labels and tags aid in the understanding of an author—and even help to make him more widely known—I see nothing wrong with agreeing to such a description. After all, Unamuno's philosophy is nearer to the existentialist or existential philosophies than to any others. Nevertheless, he cannot be adequately understood by merely affiliating him with a philosophical movement. Unamuno evolved a mode of thought into which various important philosophical movements entered in a conflicting way without this conflict ever being finally resolved. Thus, for example, Unamuno was not simply an irrationalist. But neither was he a rationalist. As I try to prove in this book, both irrationalism and rationalism were equal ingredients of his philosophy. The same might be said of other philosophical movements or trends and, therefore, of existentialism. Yet Unamuno was no less an essentialist than he was an existentialist. How reason and faith, essence and existence, heart and head, and even peace and conflict, harmonized and struggled with each other is primarily what I have undertaken to demonstrate in this book.