EMILIO URANGA AND MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY
A Purposeful Reading
It is Emilio Uranga (1921-1988) who inaugurates the 1948 lecture series, and in the process provides a prolegomena to any future analysis of the being of Mexican being (it is, presumably, the first lecture of the series to be delivered at IFAL). His lecture on Merleau-Ponty, far from being exegesis, is truly an appropriation. His reading is motivated, in the fullest sense of the word. As he puts it toward the end of the lecture:
In approaching a study of existentialism we have not done so in order to be followers of a trend [dociles a una moda]. Another motive has guided us. Better yet, an effort or a project: the project to utilize, in the future, which we hope would be immanent, its tools or its conceptual repertoire so as to give a description of the Mexican person. More specifically, the value of existentialism to give a foundation to a systematic description of human existence, but not of human existence in the abstract, but of a situated human existence, in a situation, of a human existence framed in a determinate geographical habitat, in a social and cultural frame likewise determined and with a precise historical legacy. (1948,
Straightforwardly, the preoccupation with existentialism will not be without consequence. At this time, in 1948, Uranga foresees a “project” to be realized. This project will be both phenomenological and existential: phenomenological in the sense that it will produce a description of the mode of being of Mexicans, and existential in the sense that it will be in the spirit of existentialism, locating the being to be described, that is, “a situated human existence,” in its cultural, geographical, and historical “habitat.” This existentially motivated phenomenological description of Mexican subjectivity and intersubjectivity will appropriate tools and concepts from the repertoire of existentialism and phenomenology, beginning, as does the lecture series, with Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
In the lecture, and subsequent published essay, Uranga restricts his comments to Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (a work whose translation into Spanish Uranga would publish nine years later, in 1957). He begins by justifying the turn to French existentialism. Uranga then cites the historical influence of France on Mexican mind and culture, suggesting that while the Mexican spirit has, in the past, been enticed to adopt foreign ideas without question, the experiences of the last century (presumably, the failure of positivism, the 1910 Revolution, etc.) have served to engender within it a critical resolve, capable of resisting the urge to succumb to the temptations of the past. “We want to go to France to study her,” Uranga writes, “not so that she may teach us, but as a motive for reflection and consideration” (1948, 220). In other words, reading French philosophy gives us an opportunity to read ourselves while we read it; this reading orients and sharpens our enfoque. According to Ura- nga, reading French existentialism is an occasion for thinking, just like reading Mexican philosophy is, for this reader, such an occasion. Ura- nga stresses this point by invoking Sartre: “Sartre reads Heidegger, and extracts from him a series of theses, and he also reads Husserl and Jaspers, and reacts and contributes” (220, emphasis mine). “Why,” Uranga asks, “can’t that manner of thinking” motivate him?
Before embarking on his “interpretation,” however, Uranga takes a moment to reflect on a certain metaphilosophical question that still preoccupies us today, namely, the question regarding the possibility of a Mexican philosophy. Certain writers, as I point out later (chapters 3 and 5), find the addition of “Mexican” to philosophy as an affront to their efforts at philosophizing; they think that adding “Mexican” somehow degrades philosophy, that what they are doing is filosofia sin mas—simply philosophy, without apology and without prejudice. This reaction—because it is a reaction—has to do with the view that Mexico must continually affirm itself as equal in the pantheon of world cultures. These cultures, particularly Western culture, are thought to insist (in a version of the famous Hegelian argument) that, due to its relatively young history and subservient place in the community of power, Mexico is incapable of philosophizing beyond the immediacy of the given, or beyond the borders of its circumstance, beyond its regions. Uranga admits that this is a “hurtful caricature,” one that paints Mexican philosophers as mere “journalists” reporting on the adventures of thought but unqualified, indeed unprepared, to participate in humanity’s philosophical conversation as equals (1948, 223).
Uranga rejects this caricature on the basis that first, it assumes the absolute validity of philosophy as a detachment and separation from vital reality, and second, it forgets that philosophers are members of communities of readers who in the act of reading appropriate and transform what they appropriate for their own purposes. Mexican philosophy is both committed to its circumstance and, unavoidably, informed by the spirit of philosophy itself in acts of appropriation. Uranga cites Jorge Portilla’s call for the sort of violent strategy that will define the philosophical program: “[The task is] to know and soak up [empaparse] European philosophy, and [then to] philosophize like [Latin] Americans” (1948, 224). In other words, the reason, according to Portilla and Uranga, for confronting the European text is not simply to repeat what has been said and thought but to evoke the philosophical urge, to encourage an upheaval of thought that will show what it is like to philosophize like Americans.