Imitation or Limitation?

A common urge among Latin American philosophers, particularly in Mexico, concerns the need to rebuff the notion that their philosophy is a mere echo or an unimaginative imitation of European philosophy (we see this in Uranga’s reading, above). This notion has its historical precedent. Leopoldo Zea reports that this was indeed the case during the eighteenth century when Scholasticism was in vogue and to a lesser extent during the nineteenth century with the adoption of Positivism as a social and political ideology (Zea 1952). The idea that philosophy done in Mexico and Latin America can only be imitative has proved stubborn even to this day,6 articulated as it is in the belief that Latin American philosophy, by virtue of colonialism and conquest, is (by historical and linguistic necessity) an offshoot of Western philosophy.7 Not surprisingly, the emergence of existentialism in Mexico was met with similar criticism.

Villoro addresses the issue right away. “Philosophy in (Latin) America is seen, frequently, as a collection of imported doctrines from Europe with little to no connection to the New World. There is nothing more false than this simplistic notion” (1949, 234). Appealing to a shared vision of embodied reason and philosophy’s rootedness, Villoro affirms the view that the encounter with, or the reading of, a philosophical doctrine or philosophical text will always be filtered through that embodiment or that rootedness. He argues that “the rejection or acceptance, the transformation or application, of a foreign doctrine is always conditioned by an attitude that the thinker takes in respect to the reality in which he/ she lives” (234). The attitude one takes toward one’s own reality, in other words, informs our enfoque, that which filters our readings and our overall experience of any “foreign doctrine”—or more generally, of any doctrine that is other to my immediate experience. This qualification is meant both to combat the charge of imitation and also to affirm the notion that no reading will be untouched by the experience of the reader; to paraphrase Portilla once again, one must first drench oneself in those ideas that have captured something fundamental about human existence, which for historical reasons will be European ideas, and then philosophize as Mexicans because that is the only way to proceed. Thus, by “attitude” Villoro has in mind a state of being from which one cannot easily flee; an attitude, in this case, would be a state of being in which one is committed to a version of the world laid out in advance, perhaps implicitly, that demands attention and response. Such commitment will surely influence a reading, as we transform what we read to meet our needs and our emergencies. As Villoro puts it: “In the manifestation of the distinct European philosophies in our American soil, we must consider . . . the project of the thinker, bound [as s/he is] to his or her concrete situation” (1949, 234).

Existentialism is thus appropriated, transformed, and applied in accordance with certain vital needs that the young Mexican philosophers encounter when looking at Mexican history, culture, and society. The road to this acceptance, at that time, went through Heidegger (recalling Uranga’s statement above that, in the beginning, Mexican existentialists were Heideggerian). The reason for this, again, was Jose Gaos, who, in courses given between 1942 and 1947, read and taught Heidegger’s Being and Time, reportedly line by line. For this reason, Villoro recalls, “few academic courses have left their imprint in Mexico as profoundly as those five ‘Heideggerian’ years” (1949, 237). And likewise, few philosophy professors have impacted Mexico as profoundly as Jose Gaos.

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