Martin Heidegger

As has been emphasized, the story of twentieth-century Mexican philosophy is one of earnest attempts to establish a philosophical identity that can either be easily assimilated into the global history of philosophy or that will account for the difference and historical uniqueness of the Mexican experience. The drama surrounding these “genuine attempts” is a story unto itself, but it is one involving intriguing readings, misreadings, and interventions of certain classic texts of “Western” philosophy. But, I must insist, calling these “misreadings” is not to jeopardize the authenticity of Mexican philosophy; on the other hand, these ms-readings are a natural result of the reading act itself (see the introduction to this book), and, as is the case with existentialism, lend Mexican thought the identity that it craves. One such reading or misreading involves one of the most important Mexican philosophers of the twentieth century, who was not a Mexican but a Spaniard, namely, Jose Gaos, and his favorite student, Emilio Uranga.

Jose Gaos exerted a much greater influence on midcentury Mexican thought than I am able to adequately convey in the present work. He was a prolific author, translator, and popular teacher. He famously translated and published Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit in 1951—the first translation into any language of this work; it was an effort of nineteen years.1 It comes as no surprise, then, that Uranga, one of Gaos’s most competent disciples, published a Sein und Zeit-inspired analysis of Mexican existence a year after Gaos’s translation of El ser y el tiempo. Uranga’s Analisis del ser del mexicano, published in 1952, claims to subscribe to Heidegger’s ontological hermeneutic in Being and Time and proposes an analysis of “the being of Mexican being” (“lo mexicano”) inspired by his reading of Heidegger. Uranga finds in Heidegger the method of unconcealment perfectly suited for the project at hand, unconcealing (desvelar) the being of being Mexican, or lo mexicano. Thus, he introduces us to a “Mexican” Dasein, a particular being whose manner of being is such that its being- in-the-world is unlike the being-in-the-world of Europeans.

Under the influence of his reading of Heidegger, Uranga aims to drill through the historical sediment, past colonial representations of Mexicans as inferior or lacking, and to a human essence. Colonial representations, internalized as definitive of Mexican subjectivity, portray “Mexican” being as a (historically, culturally, and intellectually) derivate form of being, or derived from the substantiality and stability of the European colonizers, legislators, and philosophico-religious guardians, and thus derived, found as lacking humanity. Uranga finds in Heidegger’s idea of Dasein’s ownership of its own being the clue to an overcoming of those representations and a recovery of humanity itself. He proposes that to be Mexican is to have a being that belongs particularly to Mexicans and to no one else; moreover, the unique temporality belonging to Mexicans characterizes them (on the whole and in particular) as “accidental,” or contingent (zozobrante). Mexicans, that is, are an instantiation of the essential contingency of human life.

It seems to us that the Mexican as a being, ontologically speaking, serves or functions as the source [generador] of a sense of the human that is communicated to everything that has pretentions to pass itself off as human. It is not about framing Mexicanness [“lo mexicano”], that which particularizes us, as that which is human, but rather the opposite, it is about framing the human in terms of Mexicanness. Mexicanness is the point of reference for the human. That which resembles or differentiates itself from the being of the Mexican is calibrated as human from that point of reference. In ontological terms: all interpretation of human being as a substantial creature seems to us inhuman. (Uranga 1952, 23, emphasis mine)

The point here is not that Mexican being, or being Mexican, or Mexico itself as an intersubjective whole determines the standard of humanity. Uranga’s point is that the being of the Mexican, characterized and assumed as nonsubstantial, or accidental, is precisely the being of humanity. The human being in general is contingent, accidental, fragile (quebra- dizo)—and since this is the way of being of the Mexican, then the Mexican is the being that lives according to its authentic being, in other words, as human. Moreover, this being, as representing the authentically human, is now empowered to refuse its historical marginality and all forms of metaphysical imperialism. Uranga writes: “At the onset of our history we had to suffer a devalorization because we refused to assimilate to European ‘man.’ In that same spirit, today we return that qualification and refuse to recognize as ‘human’ any European construction that situates human ‘dignity’ on substantiality” (1952, 23). In other words, the time has come—a time that this recognition makes possible—to challenge the West’s claim to name and bestow dignity. Once this claim is revoked, this most precious of qualifications, that is, human dignity as the criteria for self-worth, respect, empathy, and loyalty, can be grounded on the vital soil of communities in which the human spirit concretely operates.

The scaffolding for Uranga’s Analisis is history itself. The serendipitous “discovery” of the Americas and the subsequent “accidental” emergence of a Mexican, or mestizo, identity, measured for centuries against the master identities of the criollo or the European self, has given rise to an understanding of Mexican life as precarious and thus as something to be played, like a game or a gamble. Understanding Mexican reality as a synthesis of historical contingencies that could dissolve at any moment characterizes the present as falsifiable, or as a game that could end, a gamble that might not pay out. In this way, Mexican life is understood as a historical experiment—an understanding that is more poetic than philosophical in any Western sense.

But the term “accidentality” (or “contingency”) plays a very restricted role in Heidegger’s brand of existentialism, and it does not apply to the being of human being. Dasein is an abstract category in which human being-in-the-world falls. Nevertheless, according to Heidegger, to be human is to be temporal, to have projects, and to anticipate death. An authentic existence involves understanding our finitude and the limits of our world. Understanding this finitude, or keeping it in sight, must surely involve understanding our contingency or our accidentality. And in Being and Time Heidegger does suggest that the reason why humans have thought of themselves as “substance” in the past has to do with not keeping finitude in sight, with not grasping our fundamental temporality, with allowing this to be covered over or concealed. But Heidegger does not treat contingency, and thus accidentality, as the other end of a binary opposition on one end of which we find substance—at least not when it comes to Dasein, which is where Uranga wants to locate it. In fact, we cannot attribute accidentality, contingency, or substantiality to Dasein as “the entity which each of us is himself” without covering over something significant about its being, namely, that it is unlike those “things” that can be contingent, for instance, equipment, tools, or abstractions (Heidegger 1962, 24-26).

The possibilities of accidentality and contingency for the human being, Heidegger insists, must be “sharply distinguished” from the contingency and accidentality of those nonhuman entities that may or may not be. That is, accidents “be-fall” us; an accident happens to us (it is an event in which we exist), we are not it (1962, 300). In other words, only nonhuman beings can be either accidental or substantial. If Uranga’s analysis is faithful to Heidegger’s, then Uranga would have to conclude that Mexicans are nonhuman beings that are unlike Dasein. But this is counter to what Uranga wants to conclude. In fact, Mexicans are the most human because they recognize themselves as accidental. This suggests that Uranga either violently appropriates the hermeneutic of Dasein or simply uses Heidegger as a jumping-off point to a more creative, and productive, analysis.

I think he was doing both: a violent appropriation for a productive analysis. In fact, Uranga admits that he moves beyond Heidegger by recognizing the accidentality of “Mexican” Dasein. This admission comes at the moment when he expresses his admiration for and camaraderie with Dewey’s “philosophy of contingency” (1952, 70; see next section). While he claims, time and again, that what he calls “accidentality” is an analytic term he finds in Heidegger, it is easy to see, especially by attending to the primary work in question, Being and Time, that Uranga is confusing ontological categories for what Heidegger calls “ontic,” or factual, categories.2 “Accident,” Heidegger tells us, is an attribute of “present-at- hand” beings and not of Dasein. This, and other such misappropriations, leads Antonio Zirion Quijano to question Uranga’s claim that what he is doing is “ontology” or, even, “phenomenology” (2003). This is where Dewey enters the picture. In attributing accidentality to the being of the Mexican, could Uranga be appealing to Dewey’s naturalism without knowing it, or know it but not admit it?

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