The Imperial Passion I

In the “Introduction” to Filosofía y vocación, her edited collection of “seminar papers” written by José Gaos, Ricardo Guerra, Alejandro Rossi, Emilio Uranga and Luis Villoro, Aurelia Valero Pie gives us a glimpse into a tiny but significant corner of the Mexican philosophical landscape of the late 1950s. The papers themselves, together with that “Introduction” play out like a one-act play—if you’ve got that kind of patience and are willing to indulge yourself in ridiculous exercises. The plot involves a group of former students who over the course of a year meet with their former teacher to discuss Hegel, Husserl, Kant, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Feuerbach. Simple enough. The teacher, José Gaos, soon steers the discussion toward the nature, function, origin, and limits of philosophy itself. As one of the most important philosophical figures in 20th century Mexico, the Spanish exile, we assume, feels entitled to move the discussion along lines that he sees fit. There is the suggestion that Gaos expects his students to expand on his definitions and explanations of what philosophy is and what it is not (this “suggestion” is clearly my projection, who as a teacher of philosophy have had similar expectations—a horrible habit). However, in a “dramatic” twist, we find that his students have transcended the master and no longer find his theories on the matter sustainable. As a spectator to this imaginary play, I feel deeply for the teacher; I can sense his renunciation in the face of, as Valero suggests at the end, his irrelevance, or his tragic failure.

A main point of contention between the master and his students has to do with what philosophy is not. According to Gaos (as Valero explains), philosophy is not revelatory of universal, timeless, truths and ideas; at best, what philosophy and its history has revealed is that truths and ideas are never stable and always historically situated. So philosophy is revelatory, but only of our finitude and limitations. Valero characterizes Gaos’ stance thus: “we must learn to live under the notion of [as Goas put it] ‘the individual’s historical solitude in the midst of his time’” (Valero 11). Gaos calls this approach “personalismo,” and it involves searching for meaning in the philosopher him/herself, in her life and autobiography. His students object to what they perceive as a form of rampant subjectivism. Not only does such subjectivism fly in the face of traditional theories of philosophy, but it assumes that philosophy and one’s personal life are somehow inseparable (which would mean that philosophy is not transcendent, to use Rorty’s term for it). At this point in my recreation, I can imagine Emilio Uranga, who allegedly has a reputation for meanness and unsociability, will reject this thesis outright, as many of his greatest philosophical moments are when he reflects on communion and generosity. It is imperative for him, if reports of his misanthropy are to be believed, to dissociate the author from the text; if, again, those reports are right, he will be, ironically, rejecting the thesis on personal and not philosophical grounds—his philosophical denunciation would be emanating from his personality. (He does offer “philosophical” reasons, by the way [Cf. Valero, 24].)

But the biggest reason for objecting to the master has to do with the subjectivism issue. Philosophy ought to be objective. And that’s that! Perhaps the character that pushes this issue the hardest is Ricardo Guerra. He seems to suggests, rather dogmatically, two things: the first, that philosophy is not a choice, but a “manner of being” that, somehow, choses one; and the second, that it is wholly objective in what it investigates, from whence it arises, and what it reveals. About the first he says:

“Philosophy has revealed itself to me, gradually, as a ‘necessity,’ as a ‘manner of living,’ as a ‘manner of being.’ Not as a possibility among others, involving decision and joy, but precisely as ‘what must be done,’ ‘what must not be otherwise,’ ‘what demands the renunciation of…’ without not yet knowing the value or significance of such a ‘renunciation of…’ [‘lo que nos exige renunciar a…’ sin conocer aún el valor o significación de esta ‘renuncia a…]” (46).

The notion that philosophy elects me as its vehicle, so to speak, sounds deterministic and, to certain ears, oppressive (what do you think, Robert?). Unless philosophy is like freedom which is thrust upon me, in which case I am condemned to it. But don’t I have to know what it is, first and foremost, before I feel myself condemned to it? Guerra tells us that it “reveals” itself as a “necessity”—but necessity to do what? To be? Because if I am condemned to philosophy as a “manner of being,” what does the knowledge of my sentence tell me about what it is that “must be done”? I could easily “confuse” philosophy with poetry and spend my days believing myself condemned to a manner of being that is not philosophy at all. The question is, then: what is philosophy? Really, what is it? Guerra doesn’t answer that question—at least not here, as he faces his teacher.

About the second thing Guerra insists on, namely, that philosophy ought to be objective through and through (well, he doesn’t “insist” on this, but suggests it via negativa):

“Philosophy is not a subjective problem, nor is it a personal confession….It is not a will to power [voluntad de poder] nor an instrument or means for something that is not itself. Any relationship with philosophy that is founded on the kind of interest just mentioned can only get us, in the best of cases, nihilism and skepticism” (48).

In this way, the student reproaches his teacher by suggesting that the teacher’s personalismo can’t get us anywhere except where we, philosophers, don’t want to be, namely, in suspension and doubt. Moreover, if philosophy is not a subjective problem, then it is an objective one, alien to the “confessional” nature of subjective life. What grounding philosophy (and what comes with it, presumably truth and knowledge and inner peace) in personal existence cannot achieve is universality and ahistoricality, which is what Guerra, the chosen one, wants this that has been thrust itself upon him to be. Leopoldo Zea would say that he suffers from a serious case of the “imperial passion.” I think he’s right.

To be continued….

One response to “The Imperial Passion I

  1. I’m not sure it sounds either deterministic or oppressive; both seem to take Guerra’s first suggestion too seriously and too literally. Instead, it sounds to me a little arrogant–like an expression of his desire to matter–and way too heavy-handed. What he probably means, if we could press him on it, is something more pedestrian: that he couldn’t imagine his life without philosophy, or that he is constantly plagued by the problems of philosophy and most people aren’t. (Too bad he hadn’t read Wittgenstein who describes success in philosophy as being able to stop when you want.) But you’re right, it all depends on the meaning of philosophy, or at least what Guerra means by the term, and so it’s hard to say more. But my bet is that Gaos wasn’t so impressed.

    As for the insistence that philosophy is objective, same thing: if only it were as simple as choosing between subjective and objective, two reliably easy targets. In fact, Guerra’s claim that philosophy seems to have chosen him–leaving aside the awkwardness of attributing agency to philosophy, an abstract noun–seems at odds with his claim that it is objective. Doesn’t describing philosophy as a “manner of living” suggest that one’s life is a reflection or “expression of philosophy”? I put the latter in quotes because it’s awkward and seems to pose a problem for Guerra. It’s awkward to say “an expression of philosophy itself”. One could say it is an expression of “one’s” philosophy, but that would be too subjective for Guerra. It could be an expression of the objective truths of philosophy, but I’m not sure what that would mean. What’s more natural is that it is an expression of one’s a commitment to philosophy, which seems to put us right back to Gaos’ personalismo, searching for meaning in the philosopher who lives philosophy. The philosopher would live “the truth,” would exemplify the truth of philosophy adverbially, as when one says that Jesus was THE truth or THE way. You would capture objectivity in the form of the definite article, but it sounds like Guerra was a long way from being prepared to explain this definition of philosophy as a manner of living. So, in any case, sounds like our character has some serious thinking to do.

    I hope after the intermission, you tell us more about “imperial passion” and Gaos’ response. Was he a patient teacher who let his students pound their desks? Did he offer a more subtle response? Did he draw a lesson from the interaction?

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