Philosophy in Suspicion: Villoro’s Gaos

Jose Gaos’s “existentialism,” or rather, his understanding and appropriation of existentialism, certainly influenced the direction of study for the Hyperion group, for which Gaos served as a mentor and most ardent critic. Gaos’s philosophy of existence begins with the recognition that philosophical metanarratives cannot stand the test of time; in other words, “truths” are never stable and, as history testifies, one truth will supplant another in its course, to the point that “[all philosophers] are right and none of them are” (Ruanova 1982, 19). In this way philosophy itself has proven to be an unreliable source of certainty. As Villoro understands it: “the historicity and relativity of philosophy . . . tosses us into the stubborn inquisition of that which deceives us: philosophy” (1949, 238). In other words, we constantly find ourselves questioning philosophy and in the process affirming its central place in human life; we are condemned to philosophy, just like we are condemned to freedom, and as such we are “condemned to failure.” Those who flee from this sentence need not worry about truth; those who face it, who challenge it, are philosophers. “The philosopher,” continues Villoro, “is the man who stubbornly maintains himself solely in the interrogation, in the always searching and never finding” (238). Thus, Gaos characterizes philosophy as soberbia, or “arrogance,” that “vital urge that manifests itself . . . as mere desire for intellectual superiority” (Valero 2012, 14). Because philosophy itself, with its long history of failures and rewrites, requires such an arrogant commitment from those who pursue it, philosophizing demands withdrawal, a stepping-away from existence. As Villoro puts it, “philosophizing involves the negation of the community and the immersion in the immanence of the subject” (1949, 238). Existence, in this view, is opposed to the rational. Reflection distances one from immediate lived experience, and thus negates community as one goes within oneself in acts of reflection, thereby forgetting the circumstance (the crises and emergencies) that surrounds one.8

Gaos’s existentialism, therefore, stresses the perpetual search for truth, albeit a truth that is not found, or has not been found in the history of this search. Moreover, by pointing out the arrogance required for the philosophical life, it suggests that the philosopher is interested not in the transformative power that such a search and such a life can have on self or community but only in finding this truth for its own sake. What was needed was a conception of the philosophical that undercut the selfishness, or arrogance, inherent to the philosophical life, and retuned thinking to the service of a common purpose—or at least, to the service of transformation and transformative action. “Finally,” writes Villoro, “in January of 1949, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s visit to Mexico contributes . . . to the diffusion of French existentialism” (1949, 241).

The arrival of Merleau-Ponty in Mexico City was, at least for the sake of philosophy, a welcome event. In fact, his arrival was front-page news. Not surprisingly, and quite telling, the photograph of Merleau- Ponty’s deplaning that accompanies the published report pictures the French philosopher flanked by Villoro and Uranga, happily welcoming one of philosophy’s dignitaries (Uranga 1949c). The event of Merleau- Ponty’s visit not only signals the recognition of the Mexican existential project by one of two people whose recognition mattered to the Mexican philosophers (the other being Sartre), but it also vindicates the Mexican existentialist project as an original effort and as a significant contribution to existentialism itself. In fact, according to Uranga, Merleau-Ponty offers to dedicate some issues of Le temps moderne to philosophy in Mexico— something that never materialized, as Merleau-Ponty left the journal just as Hyperion disbanded (in the early 1950s). But what attracted the Mexican thinkers to Merleau-Ponty was not so much his physical presence but rather his philosophy of action, a manner of thinking that could be appropriated and deployed to confront the needs of a community under siege by the oppressive forces of history. Merleau-Ponty encourages, Villoro writes, a “conscious project of self-knowledge that gives us the grounding for a subsequent self-transformation” (1949, 241). Merleau- Ponty’s philosophy affirmed itself in, and regarding, the ambiguity of everyday existence, rather than declaring its failure, as Gaos’s skeptical approach seemed to do. Merleau-Ponty’s existentialism, that is, promised self-transformation and self-knowledge, and with this, the possibility of an authentic community.

In reading Villoro’s existential analyses, one thing becomes clear: his appropriation of existentialism is, indeed, partial. Like Uranga or Macgregor, Villoro does not get tangled up in the minute details of the existentialist argument; rather, he allows a focus and a concern to guide his reading. The enfoque settles on the value of developing and nurturing a situational consciousness, and on the possibilities for liberation and transformation that this consciousness makes possible. Transformation is possible, then, when one comes to terms with past, and present, situations in acts of sublation; transformation is possible when the situation is seen as an embodied situation, requiring communion with and acknowledgment of other situated beings; and transformation is possible when reason is demystified and placed in the service of life. With these transformations a genuine future—one that is not burdened by a totalizing past—becomes possible.

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