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JOSE GAOS’S TRANSLATION OF DEWEY’S EXPERIENCE AND NATURE

In his excellent study “Pobres diablos: Jose Gaos, John Dewey y la metafisica made in USA” (2014a, 2014b), Ramon del Castillo exposes the dramatic events surrounding the translation into Spanish of Dewey’s Experience and Nature. The plot of this story is fit for the stage, and I refer the reader to Castillo for its details (2014a). Very generally, Castillo paints a picture of a drama-filled episode in the history of translation involving some of the most interesting personalities in North America. The gist is that beginning in 1945 a concentrated effort was underway to translate John Dewey’s works into Spanish. Under the auspices of the North American Committee for the Translation of John Dewey’s Philos- ophy—a committee made up of several distinguished figures, among them Albert Einstein and Sidney Hook—the effort was launched in Mexico City, and was spearheaded by Nima Alderblum, whose job it was to secure a translator. By all accounts, Alderblum found it morally urgent to broadcast Dewey’s philosophy to all corners of the Hispanic world. In a letter to Dewey, she says: “the introduction of your philosophy to the Latin American world seems to be as much a moral as a political necessity” (quoted in Castillo 2014a, 134). The committee screened several would-be translators for Dewey’s Experience and Nature before settling on Gaos, who was at the time hard at work on translating Heidegger’s Being and Time into Spanish.

The translation of Experience and Nature was straightforward. It is Gaos’s prologue, in which he gives his own interpretation of Dewey, that I suspect had the most impact on the Mexican philosophical community at the time. Having spent the previous two decades in the grips of translating Sein und Zeit, it is not surprising that Heidegger’s would be the philosophy against which other outlooks would be measured. Indeed, Gaos goes on to characterize Dewey as an “existentialist.” Dewey the existentialist, like existentialists before him, “assimilates the notions of history, life, and culture” to a notion of “experience” that “signifies human life in its totality” (Castillo 2014b, 115n5). With Heidegger as the measure, Dewey’s existentialism is judged to be overly reductive, and as such, not very existential—or, that is, not sufficiently Heideggerian: “That is why the ‘existentialism’ which we can attribute to Dewey, in light of his ‘use’ of the concept of ‘existence,’ would have a radically divergent sense from that which is peculiar to existentialism . . . [i.e.,] the more fundamental and representative existentialism of Heidegger: Dewey reduces ‘existence’ to nature, but for Heidegger existence is the irreducible” (quoted in Castillo 2014b, 121). In other words, according to Gaos, Dewey’s suggestion that existence is nature and, moreover, that all being is nature demotes the privilege of “human Dasein,” which is itself reduced to the realm of nature, in other words, the realm of “stones, plants, animals, disease, health, temperature, electricity, and so on” (Campbell 1996, 77). So Dewey is an existentialist who devalues human existence while promoting nature as the privileged site of being. Dasein, in other words, is not the most fundamental reality—it is not more important, Dewey says, than the “integrated system” to which everything belongs (77).

It is clear from the passage cited above that Gaos thinks of Dewey’s “existentialism” as fundamentally different from Heidegger’s—and from his own, that is, personalismo. It is not fundamental but reductive, reducing the tragedy of human existence to a natural order, displacing the drama of the human fear of death and desire for immortality with the hard reality of natural processes. But Gaos, who is well aware that Dewey himself will read his prologue, ends by painting Dewey in a softer light, as less hyperbolic than Heidegger and in tune with a particularly North American spirit. Dewey’s philosophy, Gaos indicates, reflects the precariousness and “primitive state of innocence” of those living “north of the Bravo” (quoted in Castillo 2014b, 117).

And here is the real upshot of Dewey’s observations in Experience and Nature, according to Gaos, namely, that these remain in the realm of the ordinary, the innocent; his philosophy, that is, retains that belief in accident and fragility that is familiar to prephilosophical existence. Or, we could say in the spirit of Gaos’s reading: Dewey’s philosophy retains the optimism of adventure and risk that is the mark of the North American ethos. Opposed to this ethos, “hispanoamericanos” have been “endiabla- dos” or bedeviled into adopting an Old World pathos. The bedeviling of the Mexican spirit by Europe, in other words, is a result of the violence and brutality of a shared history, one that influences their rejection of nature as the source of world constitution and their appropriation of those “diabolical” (Castillo 2014b, 128n17) philosophies of existence, philosophies that locate human beings as creators of their own life—as owners of their own Dasein.3 Ultimately, this contrast suggests that Gaos did not take seriously Dewey’s preoccupation with contingency as reflecting a philosophically mature thinking; Heidegger’s thought, on the other hand, was historically and philosophically settled. But Uranga will take Dewey seriously and accept his “philosophy of contingency” as reflecting something distinctively American. In this context, Uranga’s statement, cited above, that Dewey’s philosophy, “above all,” reflects an American reality begins to make sense.

Ramon del Castillo’s project is to unearth the social, political, and historical motivations behind Gaos’s “misreading,” especially when it comes to Gaos’s apparent insertion of Heidegger into the project of translating and interpreting Dewey. But Castillo reminds us that in “misreading” Dewey, Gaos is somehow actively participating in the rewriting of Experience and Nature and of philosophy. Castillo writes: “Gaos did not misunderstand Dewey, but only offered an extremely ambiguous [equvv- oca] reading. The good thing is that that type of reading is very different than a wrong [equivocada] reading. An ambiguous reading is active, transformative, and not a bad interpretation that distorts the original” (2014b, 115-116). Castillo’s “misreadings” are what I am calling appropriations or violent readings.

While I do not want to suggest that Gaos’s particular “misreading” of Dewey had much or any influence on the manner of appropriation of existentialism in Mexico, or on its direction once appropriated, I do believe that the efforts to translate Dewey, and Gaos’s involvement in this effort at that time, enticed young Mexican philosophers, eager to fulfill philosophy’s transformative promise, into reading, for themselves, the American pragmatist through an existentialist lens. This was especially the case with Uranga. After reading Castillo’s account, I found it impossible not to read traces of Dewey in Uranga’s Analisis—Castillo’s account, that is, had sharpened, informed, and broadened my enfoque.

 
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