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The Conjuring of Ridiculous Things: Value of Mexican Philosophy

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An occupational hazard of studying, writing about, and teaching Mexican philosophy is that there will always be someone who asks, “What makes it ‘Mexican’?” Or, “What’s so different about Mexican philosophy?” A more pernicious line of questioning might include dismissive queries such as: “Why study ‘Mexican’ philosophy at all?” At some point, I ignore these entreaties as background noise. But before that happens, I have to address some version of these questions, if only to show critics that I am thinking about such things.

There is, of course, a well-developed and highly nuanced answer to the question as to why one should study Mexican philosophy “at all.” But I haven’t found it yet. My current answer is more direct and, perhaps, uninterestingly personal: As a Mexican American, I take pride in the intellectual traditions of Mexico. I also take offense when these are ignored or systematically marginalized. My pride and taking offense may be rooted in my own cultural-historical embodiment. I remember growing up in Michoacán, Mexico, and hearing my 90-year-old Tarascan grandfather, at one point an accomplished corn farmer, call me “filosofó” in a disparaging way—philosophers for him were the “lazy conjurers of ridiculous things” (huevones que se la pasan pensando pendejadas). After every excuse to get out of feeding the horses or beheading an unlucky chicken for dinner, that’s what I was! But this pride and this offense might also be rooted in something else—in a more pre-theoretical understanding of what makes philosophy worth studying, of what philosophy should gift me. What Mexican philosophy gifts me is an occupational model—that is, a way to conduct myself philosophically in the world.

The “model” that I’m thinking about also bestows to Mexican philosophy its distinctiveness. It is a model of doing philosophy wherein situation, embodiment, place, subject-position, etc., are taken seriously and respected. We see it especially with Mexican philosophers of the first part of the 20th century, who worried about Mexico. They agonized about their place in the world as Mexicans. Even those who took more analytic routes to philosophy found it necessary to proclaim their distance from this model, which meant that it was clearly a factor in their thinking.

For me as a reader of Mexican philosophy, the consciousness of situation present in texts of this tradition is clear. Whether affirming or denying their “Mexicanness,” Mexican philosophers reveal a struggle that is part of their philosophizing; a struggle that reflects a belief that philosophy was not bequeathed to them as a birth-right, that thinking “ridiculous things” was not something that they should do, that it was not “practical” or acceptable to think big thoughts. Blame the fact of colonialism, imperialism, Catholicism, or whatever “ism” that has affected Mexicans (and Latin Americans in general) for the false belief that philosophy is not a right but a privilege.

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In a similar way, mid-century Mexican existentialism, in particular, speaks directly to my Mexican Americanness in a way that other philosophical traditions or figures have not and cannot. Ultimately, this is what attracted me to Mexican philosophy. Sure, it also appealed to me because, as a Mexican American, the idea that Mexico had a philosophical tradition was intriguing, and I sought to know it and be “part” of it as much as I could. But, it also gave me a way of seeing my own existential situation. For example, when Emilio Uranga talks about the “being of the Mexican,” he points to “nepantla” as constitutive of this being. Nepantla is the “in-betweenness” of this being, the unsettledness of this being’s historical identity. Mexican mestizos (“modern” Mexicans in the philosophical literature) are both Indigenous and European; nepantla describes their inability to be either, to be always in-between both. This creates an existential anxiety that he calls “zozobra,” an internal floundering and shipwreckedness that reveals Mexicans as contingent and accidental. This description appealed to me on a fundamental level: I am a Mexican American, and my unsettledness would be more complex than it was, say, for my Mexican mother. Within my own identity, I must count her own ontological unsettledness as well as my own, compounded by a disquietude brought about by that nebulous “American” identity that imposes itself on my own subject position as a citizen of the United States. The consciousness of this complex ontological nepantla is a gift of Mexican philosophy.

Someone may object that I’m letting my own prejudices blind my judgment about the value of Mexican philosophy, that the only thing that makes Mexican philosophy valuable for me is that it is done by Mexicans, that what’s valuable about putting them on a syllabus is their Spanish surnames. There’s truth to this only to the extent that I do find value in the Mexicanness of Mexican philosophy. But I also find in Mexican philosophy that model I spoke about before, a model that transcends the pettiness of my own subjective preferences for Spanish surnames. This is not to say that there is no value in Spanish surname—there’s definitely value in seeing Spanish last names on a syllabus! If anything, the surname encourages students who will otherwise not see themselves reflected in the syllabus to see that philosophy is not just a German, French, or English occupation. Moreover, the last name sparks curiosity and leads readers to authors and paths of thinking previously unfamiliar.

An example: for an existentialism class I assigned Martin Heidegger and Emilio Uranga, one after the other. After we had gone through the units, a student asked why we read Uranga at all, if what he said was said more “philosophically” said by Heidegger? This is a question that asks for the difference, for the justification that makes Mexican philosophy unique or worth studying. When I think about what to put in the syllabus, the choice between Uranga and Heidegger is a real decision for me. Both talk about being, and Uranga appeals to Heidegger for his own analyses; both talk about ontology (although Uranga’s discussion of ontology is much more contentious, because he talks about a “Mexican ontology”). Moreover, both of these figures are controversial: Both are accused of moral depravity or moral silence in the face of atrocity (Heidegger in relation to the evils of Nazism, Uranga in relation to a rumored complicity with the political regime responsible for the Tlatelolco student massacre of 1968). So what does Uranga add that Heidegger does not? For me, Uranga adds the model of thinking both from one’s circumstances and beyond them—circumstances that in many cases includes colonialism, imperialism, and other forms of intellectual and social marginalization. This may seem “unphilosophical” and harmful to the integrity of philosophy as traditionally conceived, simply because philosophy’s business is allegedly to transcend the particular or the local. But my own embodiment refuses to be dismissed by the imperatives of the tradition, and what Uranga offers to my breathing, living, preoccupied life of thinking ridiculous things is more directly meaningful than what Heidegger offers.

I am also committed to diversification and inclusion. I think it valuable to diversify the syllabus and make it more inclusive. To this, someone will inevitably interject that my attempt is an empty gesture, since I am perpetuating a patriarchal (and colonizing) agenda that was there before I introduced a Mexican (mestizo) male into the reading list, and since I’m not really diversifying anything at all but repeating the European philosophical tradition by including a figure who studied Heidegger (and at one point actually studied with Heidegger in Germany in the mid-1950s). And this is a fair criticism. In response to the first objection, I include in the syllabus Rosario Castellanos and Rosa Krauze, two Mexican philosophers whose existential feminism is undoubtedly informed by their embeddedness in Mexico as a cultural-historical space. As for the second criticism, I insist that even if at times Mexican philosophers are merely echoing the European philosophical tradition, their echoes nevertheless affirm their social, historical, and cultural reality. As the Mexican existentialist Jorge Portilla once said, “Our task is to know and soak up European philosophy, and then to philosophize like [Latin] Americans.” On a more immediate level, and at the very least, the names of these philosophers on the syllabus serve to fracture expectations, to move the discussion away from France, Germany, England, and the United States, and towards the Global South, past border fences and into new thinking spaces. The actual differences presented in Mexican philosophy will, ultimately, be left to its interpreters and readers, who may perhaps see enough there to publish, translate, and teach it.

Ultimately, the value of Mexican philosophy resides in this: Through their own historically situated reflections, Mexican philosophers offer their own circumstantially informed model for the conjuring of ridiculous things. Mexican philosophers are not afraid to allow their circumstance to enter their transcendental meditations in one way or another. The themes they chose to focus on, such as mexicanidad, challenge the hegemony of universalizing philosophy. So what we read is philosophy in a different voice, borne of the struggle against and with the “white mythology” of Western philosophy.

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The Conjuring of Ridiculous Things: Value of Mexican Philosophy. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-conjuring-of-ridiculous-things-value-of-mexican-philosophy/
“The Conjuring of Ridiculous Things: Value of Mexican Philosophy.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-conjuring-of-ridiculous-things-value-of-mexican-philosophy/
The Conjuring of Ridiculous Things: Value of Mexican Philosophy. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-conjuring-of-ridiculous-things-value-of-mexican-philosophy/> [Accessed 1 Mar. 2024].
The Conjuring of Ridiculous Things: Value of Mexican Philosophy [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2024 Mar 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-conjuring-of-ridiculous-things-value-of-mexican-philosophy/
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