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Home arrow Economics arrow Contingency and commitment : Mexican existentialism and the place of philosophy


Existentialism has fetishized contingency. The revelation that contingency is everywhere at play serves as a justification for irresponsibility, since in a world without an underlying or supervening order everything is allowed and no one is held accountable. When personal action is thought not to cohere with a higher will (a social, cultural, or divine will), then personal action will tend to nothingness and infertility. Portilla is not comfortable with this conclusion. To accept it is to accept the disorder of a meaningless world. For this reason, the Sartrean lessons hold no promise for personal or social fulfillment, as it deprives life of the value of seriousness and wisdom. As Portilla sees it, while the thesis of “absolute contingency” is justified by an actual encounter between finite beings and their world and is thus true as far as that finite being is concerned, the “hypothesis” that denies a higher, divine order is unfounded, since a finite being is incapable of justifying it for himself or others and is thus a hypothesis ungrounded on any experience of the world.

Looking forward to Portilla’s Fenomenologia del relajo (first published in 1966 as Fenomenologia del relajo y otros ensayos), one can begin to see that the relajiento, he who suspends seriousness and annihilates values, is a child of Sartre’s world. Portilla’s criticism of the relajiento is thus a criticism of Sartre and the call for surrender to uncertainty that his worldview suggests. In the Fenomenologia Portilla asks us to resist relajo through moderate forms of seriousness and adherence to vital values, although he does not tell us what those values are (see Portilla [1966] 1984; Sanchez 2012). The point is that the recognition of contingency should not lead one into despair, that the nausea should not be allowed to hold. The terror of contingency, that is, is surpassable, and reason itself is the key to its overcoming.

Portilla’s reading of Nausea and “Existentialism Is a Humanism” reveals the absolute primacy of contingency in human existence. His reaction to Sartre’s thoughts regarding the consequences of accepting contingency as fact (namely, the consequence that leads to the erasure of divine providence), however, is not a reaction to the text itself. Portilla approaches the text already certain that it is not the case that the “essential thing is contingency” (Sartre 1964, 176). This is not to say that he denies the fact of contingency; he, like most of us, understands that necessity and certainty, stability and substance, are something like Kantian “ideas of reason,” things for which we hope or desire but cannot attain in our experience. However, our constant contact with contingency has led to an irrational fetishism of contingency that raises contingency to the level of essence. But for Portilla, “the essential thing” is itself not contingent; if it is essential, then it is necessary.

Rather than refusing it, others will appropriate the Sartrean notion of contingency. Emilio Uranga will go on to say, in his celebrated Analisis del ser del mexicano (1952), that “accidentality” is the mode of being of the human being, that, while historically, some races or cultures have thought of themselves as substantial or necessary, and in so doing have justified conquest and oppression of the nonsubstantial or nonnecessary other, their apparent nonaccidentality or substantiality has been merely a spectacle, a guise itself created by arrogance or ignorance in the course of life. Unlike Sartre, then, Uranga will suggest that necessity has been, historically, assumed for the sake of power, rather than for the sake of fear (as in Sartre), and that the only way to combat that power is to assume contingency for the same reason: power.

Portilla does not want the philosophical arguments for contingency to lead to a wholesale revolt against seriousness and order. In this way, his reading of Nausea occasions a critique of unbridled, absolute freedom without boundaries. Of course, we do not get this critique directly from the text of the lecture, but it can be read therein as a hesitation to confront Sartre’s atheism and the existential observation that in the modern world nothing is stable and, lamentably, nothing is sacred.

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