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


Experience and Nature

Uranga’s notion of accidentality carries a lot of weight in his Analisis of Mexicanness. With it, Uranga affirms the limits of human possibility— those limits are finite, but they expand and contract depending on one’s lot in the historical lottery. Europeans fail to see the randomness of their fortune, and so consider their possibilities as infinite and ever expanding; Mexicans, and Americans generally, on the other hand, whose history of conquest, colonialism, and dependence serves as a constant reminder of their accidental fortunes, maintain a realistic, oftentimes paralyzing, view of their limited and contracting possibilities. But, Uranga observes, this recognition of limitation has its upside, namely, it is authentic to the human condition and not delusional and nestled in the bad faith of so-called universal reason. The downside, however, is that delusions of grandeur of Western thought have won out in the historical struggle and now legislate truth and dignity. “The Mexican,” writes Uranga, “does not objectivize himself, but lives in an undefined and nebulous state . . . however, the Spaniard objectifies himself with extreme brutality, calls bread bread, wine wine; he takes hold of himself with security and certainty, while we allow ourselves to dissolve amidst indeterminations” (1952, 74). This power and self-certainty to call wine wine is extended to every other human realm through violence and cruelty (or, we can now say, economic globalization and ideological imperialism) to the detriment of the powerless, or the historically marginal (namely, those deemed inferior by others who baptize and name).

Empowerment lies in the recovery of accidentality as the concrete condition of humankind and the appropriation of the nebulous recognition of indetermination, which allows one to call wine vino and bread pan or bolillo or el bred. “When we say that the ontological origin of the Mexican is the accident, we should not think that in order to obtain the Mexican in his/her concreteness, in ‘flesh and bone,’ we should still add something to this accident. The concrete is the accident itself . . . what we are asking for are . . . the conditions for the possibility in which the Mexican can exist in that mode” (Uranga 1952, 33). Thus, to be accidental is to be epistemologically, morally, aethetically, and existentially committed to uncertainty; it is to know and approach “the world,” Dewey says in Experience and Nature, “as precarious and perilous,” which is what it ordinarily is in its everydayness and most intimate familiarity ([1927] 2012, 42).

I mentioned at the start that the type of metaphysical and epistemological story in which accidentality is the operative concept does not appear in Heidegger, whose fundamental ontology is meant to be uni- versalizable. We do find it in Dewey; and given what we have said about the event of Gaos’s reading of Dewey, it makes sense to think that it is a story passed down through prologues and conversations. And given Uranga’s assertion that he shares with Dewey a particularly American concern that he calls “philosophy of contingency,” we can surmise that Uranga did not think Dewey’s philosophy “innocent” at all—as Gaos insisted. Thus I claim that Uranga’s accidentality should be understood in light of the notion of contingency we find in Dewey, especially in the translated Experience and Nature—a metaphysical notion about our constantly changing, fragile, and unstable existence.

In his prologue, Gaos had correctly observed that Experience and Nature emphasizes the illusory aspect of the notion of “stability,” and permanence. In fact, Dewey has a name for this illusion/delusion: “the philosophic fallacy” ([1927] 2012, 29). He says of this fallacy that “it supplies the formula of the technique by which thinkers have relegated the uncertain and the unfinished to an invidious state of unreal being” (52), a practice he deems a “magical safeguard against the uncertain character of the world” (44). Philosophy, as a universal, timeless, narrative that transcends difference whenever it encounters it, or erases that difference whenever it speaks to it and through it, is such a “magical safeguard.” While this sort of trickery inevitably finds a home in those for whom the allure of tradition and universal, godly authority is too strong to fight against (for instance, in Portilla’s defense of modernity and Uranga, Vil- loro, and Guerra’s post-Hyperion critique of Gaos), it is exposed as trickery and desperation by those for whom the recognition of contingency and uncertainty is a mark of authenticity (notably, in Uranga’s and Zea’s circumstantial philosophy during the years of el Grupo Hiperion). It is against the magical safeguards of Eurocentric rationality—safeguards put in place during the colony and maintained by a remnant colonial order underpinning modernity in Latin America—to which Uranga responds in his Analisis. For Uranga, as for Dewey, one must guard against mythical generalities, but especially when those generalities oppress, marginalize, or exclude. Uranga’s own version of the philosophical fallacy is couched in a postmodern observation about the passion for objectivity and the presumed reach of the magical safeguards Dewey challenges. Uranga writes: “[First of all] we are not very sure about the existence of humanity in general, and, second of all, whatever passes itself off as humanity in general, namely, European humanity generalized, does not seem to be defined by its accidentality, but rather by an arrogant substantiality” (1952, 20).

Contingency is, thus, the operative concept in Experience and Nature. In the second chapter, “Existence as Precarious and as Stable,” Dewey locates contingency in the realm of human existence as a fundamental human reality. Stability, he says, is desired, wished-for, postulated by philosophy, and demanded by science, but seldom (if at all) a fact. Human experience is in fact the experience of this precariousness and this danger. Existence is the oscillation between life and death, safety and hazard. Sure, there are hints of permanence, but these are fleeting and only made permanent by reflection itself. Reflection desires regularity and order, and usually achieves it (even if fallaciously). But, Dewey insists, without the danger of falling, without accident, there would be no such desire, which means, consequently, that there would be no thinking that seeks order, and thus no philosophy and, ultimately, no science. He writes: “But it is submitted that just this predicament of the inextricable mixture of stability and uncertainty gives rise to philosophy, and that it is reflected in all its recurrent problems and issues” ([1927] 2012, 44-45). And: “The ultimate evidence of genuine hazard, contingency, irregularity and indeterminateness in nature is thus found in the occurrence of thinking. The traits of natural existence which generate the fears and adorations of superstitious barbarians generate the scientific procedures of disciplined civilization” (69-70). The mythologizing of necessity and regularity (again, the philosophical fallacy), in other words, is the result of the effort to cover up, to bury, the sources of fear and anxiety in human life, the result, in other words, of transcending contingency. This means that philosophy itself is a covering up, rather than an uncovering or revealing as the history of philosophy has claimed, since the pre-Socratics to Heidegger.

With philosophy, human thinking allows itself the ability to transcend its fears and reflect back to its own constructed harmony. Philosophy thus emerges from a natural instinct: in the primitive barbarian this instinct generated fear and adoration; in advanced civilization, it generates the means to combat that fear and institutionalize adoration. What this suggests, however, is that the instinct for transcendence and objectivity at all costs, for a passion whose integrity lies in its refusal of itself

(philosophy), can also manifest itself in a different way, namely, a thinking that recoils into what could be seen as a primitive state of barbarism whereby human beings live with the uncertainty and contingency as recognized and accepted “facts.” The Western mind has staked its own superiority on an unyielding commitment to an ideology of dignity that it opposes to the barbaric, opting to think beyond its limitations while granting itself the security of transcendental and stable truths. A philosophy of contingency, and barbarity, will naturally seem antithetical to the dignified thoughts of the Western, civilized mind. Herein lies the bad faith of Western rationality.

Contingency thus plays a decisive role in Dewey’s philosophy of existence—whether as the reason for desiring transcendence or as occasion for authenticity. When the “fallacy” is broken down, the fact of contingency serves to remind us of a fundamental responsibility to mold an existential project—for ourselves and others—that does not shy away from the instability and uncertainty of life. Uranga concludes his Analisis in a very Deweyian fashion: “Being accidental should not represent, for us, an inferior value before the substantiality of the European, but rather precisely emphasize the fact that what is authentic or genuinely human is nothing consistent or persistent, but something fragile and breakable” (1952, 70).

Ultimately, in Uranga’s Analisis, the denial of accidentality, or contingency—through the promotion of a false belief in permanence and immutability—justifies the self-certainty of Western culture, and simultaneously, the criteria for dehumanization, as a people that challenges the denial risks losing its status as rational, that is, human, beings.4 Likewise, Dewey suggests that Western philosophy actively operates under this denial, giving rise to a thinking that aspires to universality, permanence, and absolutes. Some philosophers outright deny contingency, such as Kant and Husserl, while others deny it secretly, such as Heidegger.5 But the denial is endemic.

For both Uranga and Dewey, authentically living our human predicament requires that one put an end to the denials. Existence, being, or nature must be thought as they are given, namely, as in a constant state of flux and insufficiency, as always already deficient. “Contingency and change,” Dewey writes, “measure degrees of deficiency of Being” ([1927] 2012, 48). Being is deficient; it is given as such in experience. Without this deficiency, strife, struggle, invention, and innovation would be impossible (another way to say that absolute Being lacks nothing). Uranga, as well as Leopoldo Zea and los hiperiones, insists that this deficiency, or rather its recognition, authenticates both the ontological project of Mexican identity and the epistemological problematic of a circumstantial philosophizing more generally. Moreover, the Mexican existentialists insist that knowing the delusional nature of claims to permanence and purity, which have historically been deployed for the sake of domination, are liberatory. Or more dramatic still: the recognition of deficiency, accidentality, or contingency is the key to becoming truly human.

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