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


Decades later, Zea reaffirms his commitment to a conception of philosophy as committed. According to Zea, the insight that Latin America is “beyond history” and “marginalized from the historical process” was instilled in him by the Spanish exile Jose Gaos, who proposed that Latin America, as a whole, could “only participate in history by overcoming its marginalization” (Maciel 1985, 10). A symptom of this marginalization would be the insistence that philosophy, if it is to be anything at all, can only be that which transcends contingency. Overcoming marginalization thus requires the overcoming of the exclusive choice mentioned at the end of the previous section (the double bind), and an insistence on a return to origins, namely, the origins of thinking, of thought, of ideas, which is a return to one’s lived experience.

These origins are not metaphysical or conceptual but material. The origins are history and geography (i.e., circumstance). Zea will always insist, despite his somewhat puzzling, yet popular, suggestion that philosophy in Latin America is “sin mas,” or nothing more than philosophy, on the connection of thought to history (1969). “To separate ideas from their circumstance,” he explains, “is to remove philosophy from its history. For me, history cannot exist without philosophy, nor philosophy without history” (Maciel 1985, 11). This connection precludes a philosophy without particular attributes; that is, history will automatically add these attributes, such as the cultural schizophrenia belonging to a certain people whose experience of the colony left them searching for a stable identity. Attributes such as these will show up in what philosophers think about when they are thinking about “everything,” in the way readers read, in their enfoque.

As we have seen in the case of Mexican existentialism, a concern with the Mexican “situation” or circumstance was ever-present, because that situation or circumstance is recognized to be in crisis, in constant struggle with itself. “Mexico” as a historical, sociopolitical entity is a historical and existential worry, one that defines identity and organizes thinking. Philosophers assume this worry because it is their responsibility as Mexicans. Zea relates in an interview how the North American philosopher Charles Hale chastised him for delving into his own (Zea’s) historical circumstance, into his own “something,” as he attempted to analyze the history of philosophy in Mexico. Hale’s critique was that Zea’s analysis could not possibly be objective. “I find this view utterly unacceptable,” Zea responds. “It would mean that North American scholars could not be objective about their own history” (Maciel 1985, 12).

Indeed, the notion that only someone outside a particular circumstance can be objective about what happens inside that circumstance must mean that European historians have never been objective about European history, or that “American” philosophers have never been objective about “America.” The subtext of Hale’s suggestion, however, is that Mexican culture is historically immature and thus incapable of producing minds with the profundity required to be properly objective. Hale’s paternalism, familiar to thinkers whose point of departure is marginality or peripheral existence, demands objectivity at any cost, even if that means the erasure of difference. The subtext says that one must not speak from the depths of one’s inner turmoil; furthermore, that inner turmoil cannot be spoken by those who suffer it. One must wait to be told what one is suffering and how one suffers it by others who have earned the authority to do so. But as philosophers and, more generally, as persons, even Socrates would agree, the capacity to look at ourselves critically and profoundly is not something that requires permission from an external authority and it is certainly not a capacity that we are willing to sacrifice. As Zea points out, “we are all influenced by our realities and circumstances” (Maciel 1985, 12, emphasis mine), and this means that objectivity of the kind demanded by Hale is, while certainly paternalistic and impractical to those suffering inside their circumstance, at the very least ignorant of the value and power of self-knowledge and self-critique.

Zea suggests that the pressure to achieve objectivity at any cost is a manifestation of what he calls an “imperial passion” (Maciel 1985, 12). I say “suggest” because Zea himself does not explicitly define the imperial passion. He does say, however, that only North Americans (of which Hale is an esteemed representative) seem to want to ignore the influence of their own realities and circumstances by practicing a passionless detachment from them, and expecting others (especially others they see as inferior or subservient) to do the same, an expectation of obedience that can only be described as imperialist. That is, they (North Americans and, we could say, peoples for whom colonialism and imperialism served a great historical and cultural benefit, in other words, the West) aim to cultivate their own version of what is good and right by imposing the specifications for achieving that version that they have convinced themselves involves a detached, passionless perspective. Ironically, the promotion of a passionless approach to the problems of existence, Zea suggests, is motivated by passion (of the imperialist kind, but nonetheless a passion). Thus, this desire for objectivity at any cost turns out to be more than a manifestation of a need to impose values on others; it is the passionate refusal of a passion. Philosophy that emerges from this tension (for instance, the whole of Western/Eurocentric philosophy) is a testament to a passion that refuses itself.

At this point in the oscillation (in the zozobra of the philosophical itself), we notice that the omnipresence of the imperial passion in the universe of thought leads to various reactions among lovers of wisdom. Some, like Zea, recoil at the thought of giving in to the demands for pure, untainted (and alienating) objectivity, while others embrace it, believing that to alter philosophy in any way is to degrade it or annul it.

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