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


Criticisms of the Mexican existentialists came hard and fast—and to some degree, they are still coming. Early in 1949, the Mexican novelist Jose Mancisidor’s article in the prominent newspaper El Nacional, “El existen- tialismo, filosoffa de la evasion” (Existentialism, philosophy of evasion) (April 3, 1949), criticized the cult of irresponsibility that existentialism is sure to encourage. The journalist Enrique Zuniga Mesta likewise published a scathing piece titled “El existencialismo no es autentica filosoffa” (Existentialism is not authentic philosophy) (August 7, 1949), where he rails against its lack of method, and thus its inapplicability. Leopoldo Zea, the elder statesman of el Grupo Hiperion, was quick to respond to Mancisidor and similar critics with “El existencialismo como filosoffa de la responsabilidad” (Existentialism as philosophy of responsibility) (June 5, 1949). There he writes, “Existentialism does not wish to elude reality, it does not evade it, it confronts it, assuming it with all of its consequences” (3). This sentiment, echoed by the rest of los hiperiones, assumes a complex reality made up of individual and collective intentions, history, social structures, and material conditions. Assuming responsibility for this complex reality is no easy task, even for the most capable human being in the best of conditions, which makes criticisms such as Mancisidor’s hard to dismiss, given what these critics must see as Mexico’s traumatic history. But Zea’s optimism, shared by the likes of Uranga and Villoro, is unshakeable: “Each one of us has his situation, his place, determined by our actions and the actions of others. In assuming our situation we assume the responsibility for the acts of those others and of ourselves. Responsibility implies at the same time freedom. We can talk of responsibility only where there is freedom” (3).

More recently, Christopher Dominguez Michael leveled a more scathing critique of the Mexican existentialist period on the occasion of the 1997 reissue of Jorge Portilla’s Fenomenologia del relajo. Referring to the existentialist period (1948-1952), Michael calls it an “embarrassing deception” and laments the intellectual energy wasted and the “suffering of that solemn and miserable project that was . . . our existentialism” (1997, 7). He characterizes el Grupo Hiperion’s urge to appropriate the existentialist project as the urge of an impoverished culture seeking to forge a new reality in an ever-changing geopolitical climate: “[existentialism] was read in the peripheral countries as an instrument to forge an ontological atmosphere [ontosfera] for civilizations [that were] insecure before the abyss of modernity” (7). Michael, falsely on my reading, charges the existentialists with “inventing a national being” that they could then describe—a vicious circle that, he suggests, gets us nowhere. He wonders how “the bellicose militancy of Sartre, the dark silence of Heidegger, and the present absence of Ortega” (7) can lead to any meaningful social or spiritual change. Confusing the concern with the nature of reality and situated existence for a rampant nationalism, Michael accuses the existentialists of having “forgotten that the only imperishable philosophy is the one that liberates itself from nationalism” (8). In other words, the only true philosophy is one that is free from all attachments or existential concerns. But, as Guillermo Hurtado notes, “being Mexican, in the [existentialist sense], is not to have a Mexican nationality, nor belonging to Mexican culture, but to exist in a certain manner” (2006, xxiv). So, although the national culture must factor into the situation that constitutes the condition for the possibility of all philosophical engagement and commitment, just as biography, geography, ideology, and language, these form a manner of existence that, as a whole, is the one for which one must be responsible. However, Michael believes that the existentialists of the 1940s could not see past their own nationalism, charging that “a nationalist angst suffocated them as philosophers” (1997, 8). For this reason, Michael concludes, again prematurely, “a few episodes of our intellectual history have been forgotten with such quickness” (8).

It is my contention, in the chapters that follow, that judgments such as these are grounded on a predilection and prejudice for a certain way of conceiving the philosophical project, one justified on the belief that the Eurocentric conception of what philosophy must be is right and certainly unquestionable.

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