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

The Passion Dialectic. On Rootedness, Fervors, and Appropriations

The study of philosophy should not be pushed too much into detail.

—Plato (1871, 487)

Passion is essential to poetry, to literature, and, some would insist, to politics. Philosophy, on the other hand, must be free of passion; in fact, it must deny passion altogether; it must deny feelings and emotions, sentiments, or anything else that can be traced to the living, contingent, and accidental being that dare speak it. Richard Rorty characterizes this difference perfectly when he says that “the quarrel between poetry and philosophy [lies in] the tension between an effort to achieve self-creation by the recognition of contingency and an effort to achieve universality by the transcendence of contingency” (1989, 25). Under such characterization Mexican existentialists are poets and not philosophers, since their efforts are directed at recognizing and appropriating contingency for the benefit of self and community (see chapter 1). This would also mean that “philosophers” such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein are not philosophers either, since, Rorty says, “they have tried to avoid anything that smacks of philosophy as contemplation, as the attempt to see life steadily and see it whole, in order to insist on the sheer contingency of individual existence” (26). But humanity’s consensus is that Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein are philosophers and that what they do is philosophy, which should mean that Uranga, Zea, and those hiperiones who “avoid anything that smacks of philosophy as contemplation” in order to put it in the service of their contingent situation are philosophers as well, and what they do is philosophy. However, instead of their canonization in philosophy’s grand narrative, Mexican philosophers have been relegated to anonymity and marginalization as a result of “philosophically” approaching the concrete situation of Mexican existence as they did, namely, in its particularity (or, with Plato in Gorgias, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, they “pushed” philosophy “into detail”).

But, alas, the lure of the passion that refuses itself (philosophy qua rigorous contemplation of transcendence and universality) is too strong. The same philosophers who at one moment proclaim the situational nature of philosophy reveal philosophy as emerging from contingent existence, and thus, tainted by life experience, are inevitably swayed1 to return to philosophy its rightful role as the “attempt to see life steadily and see it whole.” This movement to-and-fro of the philosophical is characteristic of the history of philosophy in mid-twentieth-century Mexico. I am not talking about indecisiveness before a choice of what philosophy should be but rather a hesitation to commit in the radical, and vital, way in which commitment itself is supposed to be assumed—a commitment described by the likes of Leopoldo Zea, for example.

In what follows, I will propose that what gives Mexican philosophy, as here understood, a distinctive flavor emerges from an internal struggle regarding its identity. Not surprisingly, philosophy’s internal struggle reflects that of Mexican culture itself: a culture “generally”2 defined by mestizaje, zozobra, or the oscillation between being and non-being, the Spanish and the indigenous, by contingency; a culture pulled in opposing directions by the cult of death (e.g., la Santa Muerte) and the cult of salvation (la Virgen de Guadalupe), and by a history of either submission to others (the colonial period) or outright violence against itself (the Revolution of 1910 or the narco culture of today). In philosophy, this internal struggle is reflected in certain commitments to the nature and role of philosophy: for instance, a commitment to objectivity versus subjectivity, universality versus particularity, the possible versus the actual, abstract versus concrete circumstance, existentialism versus conceptual analysis, and so on.

In order to highlight this perceived tension, I will proceed in a somewhat dialectical fashion. I will begin with Emilio Uranga’s existentialist account of contingency, or the manner in which Mexicans experience this contingency, namely, as “zozobra,” defined as a state of incessant swinging to-and-fro between possibilities of existence in which Mexicans, according to Uranga, find themselves. As well as manifesting itself in particular approaches to life and world, my claim is that zozobra can also be grasped as an oscillation between preferences regarding the philosophical that, I insist, are characteristically Mexican—zozobra, that is, grounds and justifies the differing conceptions of philosophy that Mexican philosophers are prone to advocate at different times. Along with Uranga, Leopoldo Zea’s philosophy represents one movement of this oscillation, as I show how he conceives philosophy as rooted, circumstantial, and committed to the spirit of a people.3 This commitment is challenged, however, by what Zea calls “the imperial passion,” which convinces philosophers, in the next swing of the existential pendulum, to deny the circumstantial basis for philosophy. I next examine the move in the 1950s to return philosophy to its privileged position as a “transcendence of contingency”—a move defended, ironically, by Uranga, Villoro, and Guerra, the core of the existentialist movement of the late 1940s; the task here is to illustrate the influence and pull of the imperial passion. Next, I look at Carlos Pereda’s suggestion that when philosophy particularizes itself the way in which it did during the existentialist moment in Mexico, it is merely suffering from a “subaltern fervor.” Pereda thinks that philosophy must not particularize itself in such a manner and that it must, instead, be a reflection on “everything.” Pereda’s critique is an extension of that leveled against el Grupo Hiperion by an earlier critic, Abelardo Villegas, who notices the contradictions in the existentialist project. Finally, in what we could think of as the return of the first pendular movement, I reconsider the value of Zea’s original insight regarding the priority of circumstance together with his subsequent hesitation (manifested as an insistence on philosophy sin mas). For the sake of argument, and to conclude, I appeal to Jacques Derrida’s observations regarding the nature and future of philosophy, and suggest that there, in Zea’s and Hiperion’s readings and appropriations, is where philosophy truly achieves itself as philosophy for all.

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