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

What I refer to as the internal struggle characterizing Mexican philosophy can be traced to an external expectation of what philosophy is. Before this expectation, Mexican philosophers hesitate. In the temporality of that hesitation, philosophers either rush to meet the criteria that the “is” demands and has historically demanded, or they pursue a path of resistance, where the “is” is challenged, and instead of philosophy demanding something of the philosopher, the philosopher demands something of philosophy itself. The second of these options, however, traps one in a double bind. Demanding something of philosophy will require appropriation of existential insights arrived at by someone from a different historical and cultural situation (for instance, Mexican thinkers reading Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on embodiment). But when this takes place, philosophical pronouncements resulting from this appropriation are chastised as derivative. When appropriation is lacking, and the thinker refuses to go outside his own sphere of ownness, the thinking is accused of being unphilosophical. There is no way out of this double bind. There is only avoidance: that is, one must not hesitate.

But hesitation before the demands of philosophy is unavoidable, especially for subjects for whom philosophy represents the highest achievement of Western culture and against whom this achievement was utilized as a tool of subjugation, a tool branded with the insignia of conquest and imperialism. Consequently, hesitation before the demands of philosophy has led to a perceived lack of a philosophical tradition belonging to those subjects, dwelling as they are in historical spaces formed by Western power, namely, Mexico and elsewhere in the “underdeveloped world.”5

The Mexican philosopher Carlos Pereda (2006) has recently diagnosed what he calls the problem of “invisibility” in Latin American philosophy. He bears down on three “internal causes” that explain why philosophers in Latin American and Mexico have hesitated before philosophy, or why Mexican and Latin American philosophy has not confidently affirmed itself as philosophy; and why Mexican and Latin American philosophy has not received the attention it so desperately craves. These three causes are “subaltern fervor,” “craving for novelty,” and “national enthusiasm” (2006, 193). All are, says Pereda, “vices of our arrogant reason, results of our colonial heredity” (193). All three vices, he argues, are present in Mexican philosophy and contribute to that tension between, on the one hand, the desire for universality in philosophy and, on the other, the insistence on rootedness, circumstance, or, as he terms it, regionalism (200n7). The results of these inherited vices of colonial heredity are manifested in the stifling of the philosophical project in Mexico (and Latin America) and are, in large part, responsible for the unresolved tensions regarding what philosophy ought to be and how it ought to do. Pereda offers a way out of “our arrogant reason”—the way out has to do with emulating the style and purpose of the Latin American “essay”—but not before declaring the greater portion of existing philosophical thought and the most productive moments in the history of that thought victims of these vices.

Relating to our present theme, it is worth noting that according to Pereda’s account, Mexican philosophers who became “impassioned existentialists” were merely suffering from the “subaltern fervor” that affected “impressionable youth” of the time, who then went on to endlessly repeat its “formulas” without question (2006, 193-194). However, and against Pereda, I emphasize that these impassioned existentialists did more than mimic the French school; their readings aimed to go beyond what was given in the text through acts of, sometimes, violent appropriation. In other words, while some readings were certainly lax or passive and hinted at mimicry (e.g., Guerra’s reading of Sartre during the 1948 IFAL lectures), those we have considered were not, and were aimed, rather, at liberation and self-knowledge (such as Zea’s, or los hiperiones Uranga’s and Villoro’s).

Pereda’s indictment of the impassioned existentialists can be narrowed down to his own views on what philosophy ought to be, namely, a rootless, unbounded, detached “delving into everything” that owes nothing to anyone, not even Europe or Eurocentrism (2006, 201n10). According to this account, attachment of the Mexican existentialist to “Mexican,” “existentialism,” and Europe (France or Germany) betrays philosophy on all counts.

But the notion that philosophy is, as Pereda says, a “delving into everything” seems to suffer from a performative shortcoming, namely, that in delving into everything one must delve into something. Not to mention that “everything” seems even more abstract than saying that philosophy is a transcendence of contingency. Indeed, delving into everything assumes the possibility, and necessity, of a God’s-eye view. But perhaps all that Pereda means is that philosophy ought not to concern itself with somethings, and that philosophers ought not to be so ready to jump on philosophy bandwagons when they come rolling by. Again, I do not think that this is what Mexican existentialists were doing at all. The real issue, I want to insist, is that there is a palpable tension here, one that swings the passions either to the side of those who see philosophy as “delving into everything and nothing” and those that see it as always “delving into something.”

 
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