FROM HESITATION TO CONTRADICTION
The urge to return to the material foundation of thought and to there find its justification is not without its problems. As I show in chapter 1, Ura- nga and Villoro both aim, at the IFAL conferences, to bring philosophy to bear on the crises of the particular situation that is the home of their philosophizing. Likewise, Zea affirms philosophy’s circumstantial nature and insists that commitment to universality does not get us anywhere at all. Does this mean that universality is not desired? In other words, are the Mexican philosophers forsaking universality for the sake of the particular—everything for the sake of something?
Abelardo Villegas (1979) argues that the urge for rootedness that motivates the circumstantial philosophy of los hiperiones leads to contradictions (this is an argument continued by Hurtado 1994). The ideology of circumstantialism, according to Villegas, traps Mexican philosophy in the prison of its own conceptual schemes, making philosophy useless to address the crises it is supposed to address, such as the crises of liberation, transformation, or human flourishing, which require concepts not bound to the circumstance—transcendental, or universal, concepts. To insist on the circumstantial, that is, situational, nature of philosophy “has taken [Mexican existentialists] to a fundamental aporia: the sterility and uselessness of a pure self-contemplation” (Villegas 1979, 180). In other words, philosophers, conscious of themselves as philosophers, find themselves only thinking about a minute, restricted, and isolated portion of the universe with a limited, and restricted, set of conceptual resources. This would certainly appear immediately contradictory to any conception of the philosophical, as presented and understood historically, since philosophy must rise above the squalor of the particular and to the lofty heights of abstract purity. Villegas argues that contradictions arise when these philosophers, conscious of their own “deficiency,” are forced to employ concepts with “universal validity” such as “responsibility and commitment,” which apply not only to Mexicans but to all human beings (180).
There are two critiques here: first, that Mexican existential philosophy is pure self-contemplation and is thus caught in a “fundamental aporia”; and second, that grounding that contemplation on circumstance leads to conceptual contradictions, as they must use universal terms to address particular concerns.
Regarding the first critique, Villegas, of course, is assuming that Mexican existential philosophers (especially those of the Hyperion group) do not desire or care for universality at all. The “aporia” then arises because Mexican philosophers only care about their own thinking, their own crises, and their own destiny. I think this is a false characterization of the circumstantial project in general and of los hiperiones in particular. If Mexican existentialists only desired pure self-contemplation, then why call it a “philosophical” project? They call it a “philosophical” project because they are attempting to join a conversation from which they have been left out; they call it “philosophy” so as to dialogue and commune with the history of philosophy; they call it “Mexican philosophy” so as to assert their difference and their authenticity before an other that resists difference and otherness. Pure self-contemplation does not give itself a name that places it in dialogue with an other contemplation. So there is no aporia.
Regarding the second critique, Villegas’s suggestion, that in appealing to universal concepts like “responsibility and commitment” philosophers contradict their initial circumstantialism, assumes that circumstantialism is a relativism or an absolutism itself. It is not. In fact, the circumstance is a point of departure to the “universal”—moreover, circumstantialism does not take a position on either relativism or absolutism. The claim is that we must begin with the circumstance and aspire to say meaningful things that help us all, not that our sayings must always remain in the moment of that saying. What Zea suggests above is that committing oneself to universality from the start gets us nowhere. Ortega, whose circumstantial views inform Zea and Gaos, laid the groundwork for such a view, writing in Meditations on Quixote: “Through our circumstance we communicate with the universe” (2000, 41).
Thus, Villegas’s suggestion that philosophers who pledge allegiance to their situational existence contradict themselves when they use concepts, such as “responsibility” or “humanity,” is merely nit-picking, since commitment to the circumstance does not prohibit one from aspiring to those lofty heights of purity and cleanliness. What Zea and the Mexican existentialists of the IFAL conferences recognized was that this aspiration could not fulfill itself on principle, since an aspect of their makeup would always accompany their thoughts; said differently, and somewhat brusquely, some element of our life experience will always dirty the clearest of our ideas. Ultimately, I do not think that Villegas’s critique succeeds in demolishing the ambitions of a thinking that seeks its philosophical credentials in the circumstance of its own emergence.
The charge that Zea’s and Hyperion’s project was doomed because, as Villegas puts it, “we cannot speak without essences” (1979, 214) seems like a shot in the dark. Of course one cannot speak without essences! And neither can we read without them or live without them. As Mer- leau-Ponty writes in his preface to Phenomenology of Perception: “our existence is too tightly caught in the world in order to know itself as such at the moment when it is thrown into the world. . . . Our existence needs the field of ideality in order to know and conquer its facticity” (2013, xxviii). Similarly, Uranga and Zea must conduct their philosophical business using the currency of ideality if what they say is to mean anything at all, for themselves or for us (as future readers). This does not take away from their project of self-understanding; all it does is offend philosophical purists who find using such currency the sole business of abstract thinking. But even if we grant that an appeal to essences is the proprietary right of a universal philosophy uprooted and detached from concrete circumstance, I agree with Wolfgang Iser, who in conversation with Derrida says, “a universal is not something free-floating; basically, it has to fulfill a function. It is invoked when something has to be assessed. . . . Thus it becomes entangled in a particular situation which may split a universal into those features that are relevant for the purpose” (Derrida 2002, 49). Thus, even the universalist use of universals is suspect. We cannot speak without essences, but then essences cannot be spoken without a life purpose that, as Iser notes, will split them to fit the need, or the crisis in which an entangled subject may find herself.