PHILOSOPHY AND THE IMPERIAL PASSION

A Philosophy of Uneasiness

The narrative of zozobra, whereby Mexicans are understood through the concepts of accidentality, contingency, and oscillation, justifies the appeal to a philosophical articulation of human existence that emphasizes concreteness and circumstance, or that devalues objectivity and universality as alienating of real human concerns. Thus, for instance, Uranga’s existentialism maintains that human existence is circumstantial, and as such determined in its freedom and its choices by a horizon of concrete, yet contingent, possibilities. Such an approach to the philosophical suggests that the purpose of philosophy is to reflect on one’s own situational existence—and all that that implies—so as to achieve a genuine and authentic recognition of its history, its failings, and its future; if its determinations are found to be detrimental to the practice of freedom and human flourishing, philosophy would then prescribe change through certain acts of intervention, revaluation, and transformation.

Given that conception of the philosophical life, the job description for a philosopher, bounded by possibilities and entrenched in a circumstance, would include the following:

The philosopher occupies a very determined place. He/she is surrounded by technology, concrete people, and indivisibly tied to a very specific past. This is called facticity. From this standpoint, the philosopher plans transformations, confronts the situation with an “ideal” that does not yet exist, but which serves to illuminate, in detail, the world to be changed. Ideas are not made but for certain facticities or situations. There are no situations in general nor ideals in general, but only . . . particular ideals related to particular situations. . . . The philosopher who does not attend to his/her circumstance, and who does not propose a solution or ideal for that circumstance, cannot rest easy. Our philosophy is thus uneasy, or has been uneasy. (Uranga 2013a, 168, emphasis mine)

The “uneasiness” of philosophy reflects back to the uneasiness of spirit, of zozobra, in which a distinctive disquiet motivates transformative action. In this way, Mexican existentialism is also, and simultaneously, a circumstantial philosophy, a philosophy of facticity, a pragmatic/revolutionary philosophy, and a philosophy of commitment.

Leopoldo Zea is perhaps the most uneasy of our philosophers, if only for his unwavering advocacy of a philosophical narrative that does not shun circumstance (the poetic in Rorty). In “Philosophy as Commitment,” a lecture given at a Hyperion-sponsored conference in 1948 (it is not clear if it was part of the IFAL conferences), Zea insists that philosophy ought to be a reflection on, a clarification of, and a response to that contingent element of human existence that defines one’s factical identity—culture, history, social circumstance, and so on. He credits the French existentialists with promoting this approach but reminds us that the appropriation of it and application to the Mexican circumstance must be fitting and original. After all, Zea writes, “Sartre’s situation is not our situation” (1952, 34).

In order to make the case that philosophy is not only a reflection on universals, on necessity and possibility, or, again, a transcendence of contingency, Zea suggests that the meaningful in the philosophical will be that which speaks to our own existential predicaments; the philosophical revelation of the eternal and the transcendental is, one could say, the unsayable and, thus, the inapplicable or the useless. Moreover, conceiving philosophy as fitting, as useful, as a reflection on our own contingent situation reflects an awareness of ourselves that is historical and original. Zea writes:

The not wanting to take consciousness of our situation explains, in part, why we have not been able to achieve a philosophy that is properly ours, as other great peoples have done. To what should our philosophy have responded? What type of individual or what type of culture would it have rescued? What would have been the situation in which a philosophy would emerge? What would our philosophers philosophize about? One could answer: philosophy is universal and the philosopher can only commit to the eternal and universal. But answering in this way is not to answer at all.

Committing to the universal and eternal, without specifying at least one commitment, is not committing to anything. This is merely a subterfuge, a comfortable way to elude responsibilities.

We can speak comfortably about the universality of the good, of value, of knowledge, etc., without implying an assumption of any commitment at all. (1952, 33)

So if it is to have value, philosophy must have a localized point of emergence, or a specified commitment, one rooted in a specific situation. Here, we read Zea privileging the local at the expense of the universal. In fact, to think of philosophy as a dogmatic concern with universals is “immoral” in the Sartrean sense, as it is to evade world-related responsibilities. A philosophy in the traditional sense, Zea maintains, is a philosophy of nothingness, since it says nothing and it commits to nothing; it is, ultimately, a “voice in the desert” (1952, 35).

Zea doubles down on this stance in 1951. Delivered at another Hyperion-sponsored event, Zea’s “Dialectic of Mexican Consciousness” is a Hegelian account of that combat for recognition that Mexican culture has been engaged in beginning with the conquest and colonization of Mexico by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. Everything significant to human existence and human dignity is waged in this battle, and history reveals that Mexico has been on the losing end for most of it. We can see the signs of defeat in the privilege enjoyed by Anglo-European races and Eurocentric thought, in the way in which these races and this thought promote themselves to the level of substance and essence, of arbitrators and measures of all that is good, decent, and rational. “What ought to be accidental,” writes Zea, “is elevated to the category of archetype” (1952, 194). Broadcasting of the archetype to the defeated and subjugated is the right and privilege of the victors in the historical struggle. The defeated, in turn, now demoted to less than human, to less than rational, must consume the archetype and order their lives according to its dictates. This is a transcendent imperialism that cuts across differences and goes to the heart of the spirit of a people. As Zea puts it: “Whatever does not fit [encaje] within the frame of comprehension of those that consider themselves privileged must be eliminated, or, at least, adapted to the terms of that comprehension” (195).4

This applies especially to thought. “The points of view of the Western man,” writes Zea, “are given as the points of view of Universal man, that is, as the only points of view of man, if he desires the right to be called as such” (1952, 196). Said differently, internal to the Western perspective are the limiting conditions of the nonhuman, namely, whatever is other to the archetype. “Everything that [western humanity] is, its culture, its history and its existence are, simply, the highest expression of humanity; whatever does not resemble that expression is relegated to the space of the subhuman, to barbarity” (196). In philosophy, barbarity appears in the form of concepts not organic to the Western paradigm, such as zozobra or “the being of the Mexican.”

If philosophy is an expression of the Western confidence in its own authority, then any insistence on the circumstantial nature of philosophy is already a revolt against the archetype and a reconceptualization of philosophy itself. In other words, insistence on the affirmation of circumstance is already resistance to the hegemony of the colonizing power; but more than that, it is to take a stand and demand recognition of an existence and a worldview that does not fit, in some sort of idealistic isomorphic way, the proposed archetype. For instance, when Mexican philosophers propose “Mexicanness” as an existential (and ontological) category, it is done in full awareness that it might not pass inspection by philosophy’s regulating authorities; however, it is done nonetheless, as an expression of subjectivity or, at least, as a demand for recognition. “Mexicanness,” writes Zea, “far from indicating a diluting of the human comes to be its concrete expression. As concrete as the [European] that prejudices this world with categories proper to its own circumstance. The circumstantial, far from diluting, evidences that foundation common to all humanity” (1952, 202). On Zea’s reading, then, the circumstantial approach to existence and philosophy that articulates it is the only humanizing approach, the only truly inclusive approach; in a world replete with perspectives, it embraces difference and accounts for similarity. While a philosophical commitment to universality is a commitment to nothing, a philosophical commitment to circumstance is a commitment to truths that matter to us, in the here and now.

Ultimately, the existentialist affirmations of contingency, accidentally, and the primacy of the Mexican circumstance run the risk of censure, as the Western archetype (empowered by imperialist urges) calls thought back to itself. Philosophers are faced with the dilemma (the so-called double bind) of adopting the archetype and in the process making their philosophical commitments irrelevant or affirming those commitments and in the process giving up the right to philosophy.

 
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