Genuine Mestizo Thinking

A major criticism of la filosofía de lo mexicano (the philosophy of Mexicanness) – and of the idea of Latin American or Mexican philosophy more generally – is that it suffers from a kind of provincialism. Philosophy is said to aspire to universality and any discipline that limits itself to a narrow set of circumstances, concerns, or application – to understanding its own identity – simply is not philosophy.

It’s an all too standard refrain by now and, along with my compas, I have resisted this criticism as a form of gatekeeping (at best). In particular, I have tried to show that this definition of philosophy itself suffers from a kind of provincialism, insofar as it willingly conflates (or confuses) the Western European conception of philosophy with philosophy sin más, that is, with what would be called “pure philosophy” if that phrase weren’t so obviously chauvinistic. Matters are made worse when you add to this the underlying imperial drives that are captured in various ideas about what philosophy ought to be. In other words, adding a normative ought to what should remain a descriptive is has been – and I think we can say this now without exaggeration – nothing less than a weapon of mass destruction.

In response, we have tried to show the traditionality of the philosophical tradition – that is tradition and not a natural kind and there is no weight to the normative ought – in order to create a space for ourselves to pursue our own philosophy, in response to the demands of our own circumstances and our own needs. We have tried to speak for ourselves, in our own tongue, and, as much as we have been able to, without the subtle coercion that comes in the form of wanting (and in many cases, needing) to be accepted (which is even more subtle because we are made to feel the outsider). Needless to say, we still have a long way to go.

But today I want to pause and listen to the potential force of the criticism. More and more, as I listen to efforts to decenter, decolonize, discombobulate, etc. – almost all of which I am in total sympathy with – I am worried that we may swing too far in the opposite direction. So I want to remind myself of the particular challenge of mestizaje and the attendant epistemologies and activism.

If we plumb the depths of our philosophical souls and find that we are not Western, we will also find that we are not entirely non-Western either – not in thought, language, religion, cultural history, modes of comportment, and on and on. José Martí made a mistake when he distinguished “our Greece” from “the Greece which is not ours.” The challenge before us is not that we have to shed the Greece which is not ours in order to rescue the Greece that is. The challenge is that we have two Greeces that we need to reconcile. And León-Portilla made a grave mistake when, in his Aztec Thought and Culture, he tried to reconcile our two heritages by reducing one to the other (in this case, the Tenochtitlán to Athens). That’s the kind of Eurocentrism we do need to fight against tooth and nail, in large part because the two are not always compatible and we stand to learn as much about ourselves from their differences as from their similarities. Or, to put it the other way around, we stand to forget as much about ourselves by focusing only on the similarities.

And Simón Bolivar made a mistake when he said that we are neither Indian nor European, because the truth is, we are both. So, if Martí was lamenting the embarrassment of our indigenous ancestry – “Those carptenters’ sons who are ashamed that their fathers are carpenters! Those born in American who are ashamed of the mother who reared them, because she wears an Indian apron, and who disown their sick mother, the scoundrels, abandoning her on her sickbed” – we should also lament at this point in our intellectual history the embarrassment we now feel for our European ancestry.

It is true that we are fighting for our autonomy, both on the ground and in the slightly rarified air of academia where we are equally, and not unconnected, excluded from the mainstream. But we also want a kind of authenticity – that is, in pursuing philosophical truth, we do not want to forget ourselves. And if it is a kind of self-negation or even self-hatred to deny or forget that part of us that is tied to America before it was “America,” then it is just as much a kind of self-negation to deny or forget that part of us that part of us that made the other half of ourselves feel inferior. This is our malinchismo.

We are contradictory. And the most “Western” thing we can do now is try to reconcile that contradiction with a kind of consistency. We are both Indian and European and in many ways irreducibly complex and ambiguous. Therein lies our challenge. But therein also lies our promise.

(So, yeah, borrowing the bit about language from my last post, if I’m an academic who is proud to use “chunti,” I’m a Chican@ who proudly uses also “therein.”)

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