Reflections on Portilla, el regateo, and the different paths one can take

In “Comunidad, grandeza, y miseria del mexicano” (1948), Jorge Portilla inadvertently and quickly, touches upon something that those who object to the very idea of a Latin American, and Mexican, philosophy just can’t get over, usually expressed in the question, so what’s so Mexican about Mexican philosophy? or what’s Latin American about Latin American philosophy? After reflecting on the Mexican practice of “haggling,” or regateo, an all-too common practice manifesting itself in the seemingly chaotic and apparently lawless Mexican mercado, Portilla says:

Clearly, it could be objected that the indicated acts are given elsewhere in the world and not just in Mexico, but what matters here are not the behaviors as such—all human action is, by being such, universal in a certain sense—but the weight, the caliber, the reach, and the evident importance that such acts have in Mexican life.

Mexican philosophers, meditating on their own, situated, reality, recognize the universality of the phenomena that they witness, but, as Portilla does here, assume that the universal is somehow instantiated more forcefully in Mexico. This assumption authorizes Portilla to meditate on the “Mexicanness” of human phenomena like regateo or relajo, and offer phenomenologies of such phenomena. However, comments like the one cited reveals a shortcoming in the phenomenological method appropriated for such purposes, namely, that lo mexicano of such phenomena is not a perceptual givenness. So what is it? Whatever is missing in the method is precisely what obscures a proper understanding of the Mexicanness of the state of affairs described. We get to what is missing by asking: How are weight, caliber, and reach measured? Which intuition reveals this weight, this caliber and this reach? If these rational exercises are comparative, if this is comparative philosophy, then against what are we comparing? Ought we just to assume that the weigh, caliber, and reach, really is greater in Mexico as elsewhere?

These questions ask the philosopher to show familiarity with the manner of givenness of the phenomena in question as they are given elsewhere. Or do they? In Husserl’s phenomenology, eidetic variation only required an imaginative exercise whereby the phenomenon was imagined in its various manifestations, in its repeated instatiations, until it revealed its essence. This didn’t mean that the phenomenologist had to have had some encounter with every instatiation of the phenomenon either in history or in place, only that this variation was done thoroughly and responsibly. So it is possible that Portilla was working within the bounds of the eidetic variation when he proposed that the intensity of the phenomena that he described to be greater where he experienced it than elsewhere.

Arguably (of course), what is missing is something like an account of categorical intuition, in the Husserlian sense. Intensity—of degree, of caliber, of reach, of weight—is a categorical relation, a relation not given to sense experience (the intensity of regateo in Mexican life is not given in the perceptual experience of the act), but in categorical intuition. Husserl says that this new act is not perception in the normal sense but one that intuits founding acts of relation, degree, etc. (Logical Investigations §46). But lacking this account, ought we to discount Portilla’s proclamation of weight, reach, and caliber as unjustified? Or, rather, discount his account of the intensity to which those acts he witnesses are given? I don’t think so. What I think this means is that we who work on Mexican philosophy have much more work to do in order to make its study challenging enough to encourage the kind of deconstruction and interventions going on with other traditions. Portilla is one of those writers that lend themselves to such interventions—that welcome the full arsenal of the phenomenological critique. Although his writing is not as systematic as, say, Jan Patočka, he invites the same kind of confrontation, and I think pointing this out is a necessary first step to normalizing his study.


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