Last night I presented a paper in which I suggested – I should have made this clearer – that one value of introducing Mexican philosophy in the US is that it is a contribution to comparative philosophy, whose primary value is its capacity to disorient and unsettle. As a discipline, philosophy will be truly comparative, not when we include the voices of historically marginalized groups, but when those voices help us to undermine the authority of the Western European tradition – when we all, to borrow the words of Octavio Paz, find ourselves alone with our solitude, contemporaries of one another. In short, when the effort to include the philosophy of historically marginalized peoples isn’t a question of deciding whether they do philosophy, but one of our having to decide whether we do.
But how do we achieve that? In the paper, I argued that comparative philosophy needs to be closer to history and literature, not just a matter of introducing famous texts from different traditions (like Confucius’s Analects or the poetry of Nezahualcoyotl) in order to compare them to famous texts in our own tradition. For what we are comparing is not just ideas, but the culture in which those ideas emerge. And so what we need are histories that provide something of a cultural immersion experience in which the reader doesn’t just make contact with an author, text, or idea, but can have a disorienting encounter with a different culture. I said something to the effect, “You know how when you come back from abroad after several months in, say, some third world country, one of the first thing you realize is how strange all the old familiar things are – how uncanny your old life is. That’s what comparative philosophy needs to be, as much as that kind of experience is possible through a set of texts.”
Now, onto Mexican philosophy. I want to argue that what the history of 20th century Mexico will show is that la filosofía de lo mexicano (the philosophy of what it means to be Mexican) is at the center of what we can call Mexican philosophy, as opposed to philosophy in Mexico. To be sure, this tradition of philosophy in Mexico, which reached its height in 1945-1955, is just a starting point, since we won’t be able to see it as a distinctive tradition – one different from both Western philosophy and philosophy in Mexico – except by situating it in Mexican culture and the history of Mexican philosophy surrounding it. (What I wanted to argue but didn’t have time to is that the framework of this history is education reform in Mexico, starting in 1910 and developing through the 1960s). But a starting point is all I’m looking for.
The Q & A that followed was helpful but there is one comment in particular that kept me up last night and which I want to articulate before I forget.
At the end of the symposium, James Maffie wanted to discourage me from identifying “Mexican philosophy” with la filosofía de lo mexicano, or the larger search for lo mexicano during the 20s through 40s, since I am in danger of unwittingly glorifying and substantiating a project that was fundamentally racist, elitist, exclusive, and oppressive. And I would add to Maffie’s criticism that the description is also inaccurate since it excludes many more Mexicans than it includes, and so it is hard to understand how we might think we are talking about lo mexicano (“the Mexican”).
This is the best criticism and one that I share, actually. But the question is: what are we to do? Because the truth is that this search for Mexican identity in the 20th century, which did change the character of philosophy in Mexico and which I think makes it philosophically interesting in the comparative context, was in fact a major political and social force that radically changed the Mexican landscape, for better or worse. In other words, I have a hard time believing that the correct response to the injustices of Vasconcelos’s education reform, Mexican muralism, the export of tequila, Mexican cinema, the ballet folklorico and the formation of a national image through all the other cultural products ready to be exported, is not to tell the history of them at all or as distinctly Mexican (as our colleague Andrew Soto argued about non-Chicano theories, products, and histories).
In fact, I think it is the very injustices of these social and cultural movements that demands that we do tell this history, since it offers us an opportunity to witness and learn from our past mistakes, especially as we are trying to define, for example, what it means to be Mexican-American. After the talk, Maffie said to me that he was worried that my enthusiasm for the project was fueled by a desire to find my own identity. I take it that the danger here, again, is that I uncritically endorse a false and dangerous picture that to be Mexican is to be this or that, some set of characteristics that not only overlooks the ineliminable complexity and ambiguity of the people in Mexico, but which also continues to privilege and justify white supremacy in Mexico while marginalizing everyone else.
I certainly don’t want to disagree with Maffie because I think he’s absolutely right. I am also ever aware of the danger of letting one’s ego take over in the form of defensiveness, which quickly brings a potentially fruitful conversation to an immediate and unfortunate end. So I will simply ask Maffie and myself a question.
What are we supposed to do under the assumption that, for better or worse, the search for lo mexicano did in fact shape the character of Mexican culture and philosophy? Or better: how can we capture this history as a culturally and philosophically interesting movement without falling prey to the same blindness that drove (or continues to drive) European conquest and colonialism. Again, I’m operating under the assumption that Maffie’s point is not that we give up talking about Mexican philosophy altogether or that he fundamentally disagrees with my view of comparative philosophy.
I imagine he might say that, if we are going to talk about “Mexican” philosophy, what we need is a history that doesn’t exclude pretty much everyone outside Mexico City and Guadalajara, or overlook the colonial pretensions underlying the search for lo mexicano, or which doesn’t indirectly glorify this project by identifying it with Mexico writ large. In other words, we need a larger and more complex history – one which will in the end demonstrate that it is a mistake to essentialize Mexican identity.
But I think that these suggestions are compatible with what we’re doing, since I’m only offering this “definition” of Mexican philosophy as a starting point, the beginning of the conversation we should be having – the beginning of the conversation Maffie and I are having right now.
I would also point out that the search for “the Mexican mind” is not the same as the search for “the American mind.” (Maffie also made this comparison because the latter – I agree – is deeply flawed, propagandist, exclusive, chauvinistic, racist, insofar as it willingly excludes everyone but white men.) What’s the difference? I can’t answer that here but I suspect it has something to do with mestizaje. So, yes, it is true that Europeans raped, pillaged, killed, enslaved, and oppressed the natives as well as those brought from Africa, that they continue to do so, and that the search for lo mexicano is in tune with the systematic willingness to overlook that side of history. But one fundamental difference is that in the case of mestizos, we are those whom we oppressed or those whom we were embarrassed of. So, there’s a strange identity conflict built into the Mexican case that makes it different, I think, from the “American” case. Of course there was serious othering in Mexico, and there still is, but it is much more complicated than it is in the US, as can be seen on any major street in a Mexican city.
And, yes, I think my interest in Mexican philosophy is driven, in part, by the need to understand my own identity. As Carlos and I say, this shit is personal. And I think that all philosophy should be. But I am optimistic because what I value about Mexican-American identity, like all hybrid identities, is its increasing and never-ending complexity. We are neither Mexican nor American, or we are some combination of both, and I think there is an openness to this identity that benefits from, and is not limited by, an understanding of the left side of the hyphen.
And I’ll stop with a small practical, pedagogical point. We should keep in mind that our goal is to introduce a philosophy that a historically marginalized group in the US might identify with and which may encourage them to study philosophy (or at least not continue to be indirectly excluded from the discipline). I have said to my colleagues in Mexico more than once that to be a Mexican-American philosophy in the US is not at all like being a Mexican philosopher in Mexico. It is much closer to being someone from an indigenous community far on the periphery who somehow, and against ridiculous odds, finds a position at a major Mexican university. This small justification, I don’t think, is not nothing. And the question is: how do we do this well?