Mexican Philosophy at the APA

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?




7 responses to “Mexican Philosophy at the APA

  1. I want to say that I really appreciate the work that you and Carlos are doing. Like you say we have to start somewhere. On one hand I agree with Maffie’s observation. I remember Amy Oliver brought up a similar point in a paper she presented on Zea a couple of years ago when we met at William & Mary. According to Oliver, Zea was not supportive of the EZLN because Zea so believed that the Mexican Revolution was *the* unifying movement of all Mexicans across class, gender, religion and race, so Zea saw the raising up in arms of the EZLN against the Mexican government as undermining the unifying labor the Mexican Revolution had accomplished. So yes, if I’m interpreting Maffie’s comment correctly, we’re running the danger of doing something similar to Zea, when it is evident that the Indigenous peoples have always been excluded unless it was in the interest of the Mestizos to be inclusive. There is that – but at the same time I think it’s important that while we or anyone seek to be inclusive, it is important that we also be respectful of those we seek to include. For instance, many Indigenous peoples do not consider themselves Mexican, nor do they wish to be considered Mexican. They may see themselves as Raramuri first and foremost, and Mexican as an unwelcome imposition.

    • Kim, there was something else you said in conversation which I thought was important. We are proud to be Mexican or Mexican-American, and that is a good thing, especially in the US. So part of the challenge is figuring out how to square that with all the challenges of defining lo mexicano.

  2. Hey Kim, thanks for this thoughtful comment. I’m especially intrigued by the last point – that not including certain indigenous groups from Mexican national or cultural identity may be a way of respecting their autonomy and difference. If that were the case, not everyone in Mexico should be considered “Mexican,” and thus to speak of la filosofía de lo mexicano might not be as much an offense as we are suggesting, even if only accidentally. Actually, I was about to say, as I was thinking about “accidentally,” that it is certainly not a point the philosophers we’re covering would have thought about. But I’m not sure whether they did or would have or not, and as Jules points out, part of what gives this project value is that the tradition we’re focusing on was self-conscious, a turning point in Mexican thought, and it’s exactly that self-consciousness regarding the identity of one’s tradition of philosophy – that it might be Mexican, for example – that we’re trying to introduce into comparative philosophy. So we’ll have to see who this unfolds.

  3. This is Goyo
    I am so glad you are all having such discussions and panels in the APA.
    Congra! I was not there so you can ignore my reaction, but I got lost quickly. I do not understand the assumptions being made in the discussion between philosophy, culture, politics, and history. The discussion has moved to me confusing or not distinguishing the identity of a philosophy, the identity of a culture, and the problems of social injustice (exclusion). I am lost!

    If the concern or project of la filosofía de lo mexicano (the philosophy of what it means to be Mexican) is about what is the cultural identity of a people; then what does it have to do with, or why is it relevant the history of injustices committed by them or others? The discussion seems to be is stretching the meaning of “philosophy” and “culture”
    and issues of historical injustice in mysterious ways to me.

    A different point…while it is true that many times in order to understand (and compare) philosophies (as texts, ideas, theories, claims) one needs also to understand the culture or history in which they emerge; it does not follow that the philosophies (or their value) can be reduced to
    them. The same can be said about the music or any art products.

  4. Longtime reader, first time poster.

    Thanks for this interesting discussion. Jim–thanks for raising it at the conference. Kim–thanks for that article, very moving.

    In terms of the project: I’d be open and honest at some point, perhaps in the introduction or in a subsection of the intro, in explaining how the category “Mexican” is a contested and problematic term. Articulate the criticism that Jim put forth–don’t hide from it nor should you let it derail the project. ‘Lo Mexicano’ was a cultural phenomenon that played a role in shaping the history of Mexico and had an impact on various indigenous cultures in the region. As I take it, the project of describing Mexican philosophy and ‘lo Mexicano,’ whatever that may be, is just that: a description. You are not endorsing the idea of being Mexican, are you?

    It seems like the project becomes normative when you ask the concept of lo Mexicano to do some work in comparative philosophy. Granted this might entail that you are forced into assuming an identity that has marginalized and dominated others, but insofar as Mexican identity in the US is not the same as that in Mexico then what is the difference that allows for its endorsement, embracement here? Nevertheless, I don’t see the concept helping comparative phil so much as the process of philosophizing about it. Lo Mexicano might not help comparative phil but the way(s) in which this concept is meaningful might (read Sun GI, “How does Asia Mean?”).

  5. Pingback: Guest Blogger: Grant Silva of Marquette University “On the Orientalism of Lo Mexicano?” | 20th Century Mexican Philosophy·

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