THE PASSION THAT REFUSES ITSELF
We can say that the arrival and appropriation of existentialism in Mexico encouraged a conception of philosophy that made sense to those for whom Mexico itself, as life-world, was in existential crisis. In response to the crisis, readings of existentialist texts prejudiced those concepts, ideas, or analyses that could serve as “tools” (Uranga) or “occasions” (Portilla) for a reorientation of individual and communal life. Philosophy itself, as we have seen, was reimagined to serve the needs of the circumstance from which it arose (Mexico). Philosophy was placed in the service of culture, of history, of a particular and specific kind of human existence and a particular and specific circumstance, “lo mexicano.”
However, what I have been suggesting throughout this chapter is that the tendency to reimagine philosophy as other than its archetype can also be attributed to a specifically Mexican sensibility, a manner of being particular to Mexicans, namely, zozobra or the zozobrante character of Mexican life, manifested as a “pendular” duality that defines Mexicans as perpetually oscillating between existential and historical commitments to either the indigenous or the European, or simultaneously both and neither. Or, to put it in terms from the previous section, we can say that the Mexican philosophical sensibility oscillates between the passionate and the passionless. When passionate, it flies in the face of the archetype; when passionless, it flies in the face of the circumstance.
Given this constitutional turmoil, it is not surprising then that once- passionate existential philosophers like Villoro and Uranga would come to deny philosophy as commitment and circumstantial (that Guerra denied this conception of philosophy is not surprising at all, as his lecture on Sartre attests [see chapter 1]). This denial comes a decade after the IFAL conferences, and it takes the form of a critique of Hyperion’s teacher and mentor, Jose Gaos.
Jose Gaos conceived the history of philosophy as a series of failures to arrive at truth. This led to skepticism about what philosophy could achieve. Oswaldo Ruanova summarizes Goas’s skepticism: “Just as the most illustrious thinkers contradict each other . . . and just as ideas lose their validity . . . just as ‘patricides’ abound since Aristotle negated his teacher Plato, readers come to question which among the philosophers has the truth. They all do, and none of them do” (1982, 19). This kind of skepticism gave way to the notion that the truth that matters is not found outside human life but within it, proximal to it, constitutive of it. “If it was not possible to find constancy in philosophy,” Aurelia Valero notes in summary, “then it was necessary to look for it in the subject, in the philosopher” (2012, 11). This meant a return to biography, or better yet, to autobiography and to the person who is its subject. Gaos calls his philosophical approach “personalismo.” Through personalismo Gaos attempts to return philosophy to the realm of the concrete by conceiving the person as the “most fundamental reality” (1947, 212). This means that what is given as “universal” will always merely be universal for us, finite and contingent beings, that truth will be significant only in the realm of a person’s life, and thus, that the search for truth must focus on that life as the fundamental reality. Gaos writes: “The traditional conception of the relation between truth and man, of the grasping and possession of the former by the latter, holds that the authenticity of truth lies in its universal transcendence of all finitude . . . that to apprehend truth man must transcend his finitude. . . . [But] it is necessary to insist that it is precisely as a finite being that truth in its universality is given to man” (212). In other words, philosophy is revelatory, but only of (and for) our finitude and in virtue of our limitations. According to Valero, “we must learn to live under the notion of [as Gaos put it] ‘the individual’s historical solitude in the midst of his own time’” (2012, 11).
The critique of Gaos by his students and mentees represents a moment in the oscillations and hesitations of Mexican philosophers toward the demands of philosophical history. Gaos’s students object to
“personalismo” on the basis that philosophy ought not to be rooted in such precarious foundations, that philosophy deserves more than what Gaos is giving it, namely, a false start. Philosophy of this hue cannot achieve the sort of objectivity desired, namely, transcendent objectivity, and remains trapped within the confines of a finite subject. We see in this criticism of Gaos the turn toward a conception of philosophy that shuns rootedness in circumstance and lived experience and toward a conception of philosophy as ideally situated and concerned only with the universal and the eternal; we see a turn toward an allegiance to pure philosophy, what fulfills the desire of the “imperial passion” mentioned by Zea.
In the introduction to Filosofia y vocacion, her edited collection of “seminar papers” written by Gaos, Guerra, Alejandro Rossi, Uranga, and Villoro, Valero gives us a window into the historical moment when the aforementioned “denial” takes place. The seminar takes place in October 1958 in Mexico City and deals with figures from the history of modern philosophy; Hegel, Husserl, Kant, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Feuerbach are discussed. However, as the seminar gets underway, Jose Gaos steers the discussion toward the nature, function, origin, and limits of philosophy itself. As one of the most important philosophical figures in twentieth- century Mexico, the Spanish exile, we assume, feels entitled to move the discussion along lines that will promote his own philosophical proclivities. There is the suggestion that Gaos expects his students to expand on his definitions and explanations of what philosophy is and what it is not. However, in a dramatic twist, we find that his students have transcended the master and no longer find his theories on the matter sustainable. (As reader and, ultimately, spectator to this back-and-forth, I feel deeply for Gaos, the teacher; I can sense his renunciation as his students resist and critically challenge his personalismo; I can sense his defeat, or, as Valero suggests, the recognition of his irrelevance, or of his tragic failure as teacher and guide.)
A main point of contention between the master and his pupils has to do with what philosophy is not. According to Gaos, as mentioned earlier, philosophy is not revelatory of universal, timeless truths and ideas; at best, what philosophy and its history has revealed is that truths and ideas are never stable and always historically situated and thus susceptible to challenge and change. But the biggest reason for objecting to the master has to do with the lack of objectivity that Gaos’s personalismo seems to imply. Personalismo suggests that “philosophy has found itself incapable of fulfilling its promise” of delivering certainty, truth, and objectivity, and thus, if any “truth” will be found it will be located in the philosopher himself (Valero 2012, 14). The students object to this conclusion, and point out that a return to the subject is a defeat for philosophy, since what personalismo delivers us into is the philosopher’s psychological makeup, his personal desires, arrogance, and fears, which is no place for truth. Philosophy ought to be objective, and the way to achieve objectivity is to remove the philosophical from the passions of subjective life—that is, the way to purity and truth is via restraint, detachment, and distance.
Uranga, having proclaimed years earlier that “el grupo Hiperion can be defined as a dialogue with Gaos” (Valero 2012, 18), where the latter influenced both the questions asked and the answers given, was here particularly critical of his teacher’s stance. Uranga now suggests, as Valero writes, that the “motives of the philosopher have nothing to do with the work” of that philosopher (18). Uranga puts it thus: “Between a philosopher’s ideas and his life there is nothing more than equivocal relations, two worlds that touch each other only accidentally, by a misunderstanding, by a confusion” (Valero 2012, 59). The suggestion here is that philosophy, as a world apart, is free of the contingencies and accidentalities that plague the thinker that thinks it. But more important, the life of the philosopher has “nothing to do” with the philosophy that philosopher reveals. Uranga continues: “There is no bridge between idea and life, and any contact produces a short-circuit and, as a result, darkness” (59). Thus post-Hiperion Uranga would say that zozobra does not influence a philosopher’s thinking.
According to Uranga, then, philosophy is pure contemplation, free, even, of a human echo, or the contamination of a human language. But is this conception of philosophy humanly possible or desirable? Is philosophy without motives something that can be achieved—if achievement itself is a result of human will? Or, is the philosophy that we do achieve condemned to “misunderstandings” or “confusions” and “short-circuits” that will necessarily befall it when it comes into contact with the life of the philosopher? Despite what Uranga says here, in the seminar and to his teacher, I doubt that he can consistently hold philosophy to such high standards. After all, a “Mexican” philosophy is certainly motivated by personal ambitions and driven by crises immediately related to the philosopher. Thus, I take Uranga’s “critique” here as a description of the ways things stand for a being plagued by zozobra and an intimacy with finitude (i.e., “accidentality”). In other words, we want philosophy to be free of us, and thus pure and eternal, but we also know that it speaks through us and to us and that, because of this, it is condemned to suffer our shortcomings and our limitations. Ultimately, Uranga has a more modest (or human) proposal of what philosophy ought to be. It is not personalismo, which locates it in the subject, but, we can say, an inter- personalismo, grounded always already in an intimate intersubjectivity: “Philosophy for me is not a topic for a solitary pursuit but a matter of conversation, of a communication of life-in-common; a web that spreads itself out like a bridge between an I and a you [un yo y un tu]; a secretion erotically fostered by the human relation” (Valero 2012, 65). In this, my violent incursions into the Mexican philosophical mind, I am interpreting Uranga’s somewhat cryptic passage to mean that philosophy is an emanation, floating in the ether of the superstructure but grounded on the interrelations of people, who give birth to it in acts of love for one another and their specific, temporally determined, life-world. So it is not a lonely endeavor, traced to autobiography or individual life; it is a communal struggle meant for all—or at least the “all” that forms that specific human community.
In only this sense, Gaos’s personalismo has it right: the lofty aspirations of philosophy have fallen short, and all we can hope for is what we can give ourselves, namely, philosophy in communion. Nevertheless, Uranga here seems to distance himself from his previous philosophical stance, one in which an “autognosis” of subjective life would reveal the characteristics of Mexican being, and more toward a conception of philosophy where detachment is valued, even if that detachment is not the radical detachment of a Kant or a Plato.
As the seminar progresses and evolves, Luis Villoro questions the notion of philosophy as the product of human, intersubjective eroticism. In other words, Villoro thinks philosophy is completely other to the situated human condition (a blatant denial of his position during the existentialism conferences of 1948). “Philosophy,” he now writes, “consists, in essence, in placing in question, making doubtful, and disconnecting the natural world order to which motives and demands belong” (Valero 2012, 71, emphasis mine). In this sense, Gaos’s personalismo is not philosophy at all, since it goes against the essence of philosophy by doing precisely that which is prohibited by that essence, namely, connecting the world of motives and demands on it.
Villoro’s rejection of personalismo is also a rejection of existentialism and circumstantial philosophizing. It is a return to “pure” philosophy, especially to a presuppositionless philosophy that begins with doubt and ends with truth. In this reading, the crises of human life would be a presupposition and so would history and personal struggle. Ideology, that which informs a life-world, would likewise serve as a prejudice. So philosophy begins in the detachment of doubt. It arises, Villoro suggests, from a letting-go of the demands that we make on it, and allowing it to emerge with its own questions. That is, we cannot demand that it enter our existential space and “save” us. Villoro writes: “Philosophy as a form of life involves the detachment of worldly life purposes and, consequently, a disinterest for demands and those purposes. . . . Philosophy cannot, in essence, fulfill the vital demands of the natural attitude. Everyday life cannot judge philosophy, when the latter consists precisely in judging everyday life” (Valero 2012, 72). Just like that, philosophy flees from the realm of the social and into its own inner sanctum where it cannot be burdened with our worldly crises. If it comes, it comes on its own accord, and not when we want it or need it.
Villoro’s post-Hyperion conception of philosophy situates it in a realm beyond, as something supranatural and, as such, concerned only with objects and events untainted by natural existence. This conception was already at play in the IFAL lectures, as evidenced in Villoro’s unremarkable paper on Gabriel Marcel, mentioned in chapter 1. In that discussion, I suggested that Villoro was already working within a Hus- serlian framework where the Grundfrage was operative. Here, ten years later, the Husserlian influence is much more pronounced. In fact, Vil- loro’s conception of philosophy bears a striking resemblance to Husserl’s, as described by H. L. Van Breda in 1951, where the phenomenological method of philosophy is seen as the only “authentic” mode of philosophy and, consequently, as the only means for an authentic existence. Van Breda describes Husserl’s conception of philosophy (the “phenomenological reduction”) as “the only possible way to escape the inauthentic existence of the natural attitude” (1979, 124) where contingency and accident reside. A philosopher, on this conception, is one who forces the detachment and does so as a matter of duty. Gaos, on this account (as well as the situated philosophical project of el Grupo Hiperion), did not measure up; he was not a (and they were not) philosopher(s). Van Breda concludes: “The philosopher—by definition the man who tries to know the origins of everything given and who is at pains to live an authentic life—ought to exercise the phenomenological reduction, if he does not want to betray his calling. [Philosophy] is thrust on his freedom in a categorical and imperative way” (1979, 125). It is clear that at the time of the 1958 seminar, Uranga and Villoro alike felt the pressures of this calling, the pressure to reign in philosophy and align it with its traditional definition. They felt the calling of the imperial passion.
But perhaps the seminarian that more deeply feels the pressure of his calling is Ricardo Guerra. He seems to suggest, rather straightforwardly, two things: first, that philosophy is not a choice but a “manner of being” that, somehow, chooses one; and second, that it is wholly objective in what it investigates, from whence it arises, and what it reveals. About the first he says: “Philosophy has revealed itself to me, gradually, as a ‘necessity,’ as a ‘manner of living,’ as a ‘manner of being.’ Not as a possibility among others, involving decision and joy, but precisely as ‘what must be done,’ ‘what must not be otherwise,’ ‘what demands the renunciation of . . .’ without yet knowing the value or significance of such a ‘renunciation of . . .’ [“lo que nos exige renunciar a..." sin conocer aun el valor o signifi- cacion de esta “renuncia a..."]” (Valero 2012, 46). Here, Guerra seems to echo Van Breda’s assertion that philosophy is thrust on one’s freedom in a categorical way and that authenticity depends on being its servant. Van Breda’s and Guerra’s suggestion that philosophy elects one as its vehicle, so to speak, sounds deterministic and, to certain ears, oppressive. But it is an oppression that leads to freedom—at least the freedom from living in the deceptions and the unjustified beliefs of the natural attitude. The important thing to notice about Guerra’s characterization of philosophy as an imposition from nowhere is that philosophy becomes impersonal, wholly and completely detached from the circumstance, from origin, and from history. Yes, in this picture, philosophy is pure, but it also becomes vacuous and, as Gaos puts it, “arrogant.”
Naturally, this leads Guerra to promote philosophy as the passion that refuses itself, or the impassioned passion for objectivity and purity: “Philosophy is not a subjective problem, nor is it a personal confession. . . . It is not a will to power [voluntad de poder] nor an instrument or means for something that is not itself. Any relationship with philosophy that is founded on the kind of interest just mentioned can only get us, in the best of cases, nihilism and skepticism” (Valero 2012, 48). In this way, the student reproaches his teacher by suggesting that the teacher’s per- sonalismo cannot get us anywhere except where we, duty-bound philosophers, should not be, namely, as advocates for nihilism and skepticism. So, if philosophy is not subjectively rooted, then its ground must be objective and alien to the “confessional” nature of subjective life. What grounding philosophy (and what comes with it, presumably truth and knowledge and authenticity) in personal existence cannot achieve is universality, ahis- toricality or uprootedness, which is what Guerra, seemingly falling in line with his “calling,” wants this that has thrust itself upon him to be.
My reading now bears witness to a complete swing of the pendulum, to a pronounced moment of zozobra. It swings from Uranga’s Hiperion; from Gaos, Zea, and the insistence on the circumstantial nature of philosophy and the philosophical (on a passion that affirms itself). It swings to post-Hiperion Villoro and Uranga; and to Guerra, who under the spell of a “calling” unflinchingly presumes that philosophy is free of such earthly attachments (earlier I called it a “passion that refuses itself” because this conception of philosophy is certainly passionate, but it desires not to be). At this moment in the oscillation, a Mexican philosopher will surely hesitate before philosophy and doubt his or her place in what Carlos Pereda (2006) calls “the Headquarters of Thought,” where philosophy comes home.