Searching for Connections

The pursuit of Mexican philosophy is a comparative project. As those of us engaged in mapping and interpreting the history of philosophical thought in Mexico are asked to define “Mexican philosophy”—to explain what makes it different, unique, authentic, original, distinctive, or non-Western—it is tempting either to isolate and exaggerate its differences or to isolate and exaggerate its similarities.

In other words, in endorsing (the value of) Mexican philosophy, we are faced with a double bind and are tempted to choose a side, typically out of frustration or insecurity or for the sake of convenience and expediency. One says either that Mexican philosophy is characteristically different from Western philosophy, which would explain why it remains invisible and misunderstood in mainstream circles (i.e. perhaps defensively), or one says that it is just an extension of Western philosophy because “Western philosophy” just is philosophy, philosophy sin más, the only kind of philosophy (i.e. also perhaps defensively). But the appropriate relation is more complex and “seeing” it requires demonstrating both its similarities and its differences.

This is not just a historical point but a philosophical point about identity and essences. I’m thinking of Wittgenstein’s line, somewhere in the Investigations, that says something to the effect that everyone is looking to simplify the world by identifying similarities among objects; show me differences. Perhaps the goal in this comparative project should be a kind of ubersïght or “perspicuous representation,” a kind of “seeing” in the tradition of Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants or Theory of Colors or Galton’s famous photographic plate (cf. Wittgenstein’s “A Lecture on Ethics”). I’ll have more to say on this soon.

For now, speaking of Wittgenstein, I was reminded that this is a comparative project because as I was talking to someone about the arch of 20th century Mexican thought the other day, I realized that it is more similar to European thought and culture than I want to admit. I was explaining that Caso and Vasconcelos endorsed a variety of Romanticism and mysticism in response to the scientism that dominated at the end of the 19th century and that manifested itself in political bureaucracy and the academicization and specialization of the university. And then I was reminded of the strange, very non-academic style and structure of the Tractatus, not to mention its over-arching mysticism, or even the fact that he left a career in aeronautical engineering in pursuit of the “foundations” of mathematics. And I thought more generally of the intellectual and artistic dissidence in fin-de-siecle Vienna, of Klimpt’s criticisms of academic art and Schönberg’s atonal music. And as I was talking about Ramos who, following Ortega y Gasset (a Spaniard), tried to combat their anti-intellectualism, and who lamented the crisis of modernity and progress, I thought, Why don’t more commentators take seriously the fact that the epigraph to the Investigations reads, “It is in general the nature of progress to look greater than it really is”? That is a very 20th century thought and the Investigations is much more a commentary on European culture than is usually thought.

So, what focusing on the comparative nature of the project might do is help us to see connections in both directions. In making sense of the similarities and differences of Mexican philosophy, we may be encouraged to re-read are all too familiar philosophies anew, as if they were strange.

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