Notes for a Paper on Merleau-Ponty and el group Hiperion

de CAS

El Grupo Hiperión’s project of existentialism and phenomenology is mobilized as a philosophical critique of the Mexican present—a critique of a “concrete situation,” “reality,” or “life,” otherwise known as “lo mexicano.” This critique is not meant to instigate a philosophy of suspicion, where criticism means a perpetual attack on the ways of being to which individuals can become accustomed. Mexican philosophy during its existential phenomenological moment is a philosophy of commitment and responsibility.

Zea best describes this conception in his Filosofía como compromiso:

Commitment to philosophy does not refer to a particular covenant, to an obligation assumed in exchange for certain political advantages, social or economic; but to the inevitable commitment that every man, philosopher or not, has to his circumstances, reality or world.[1]

We find this conception, or vision of “philosophy as commitment” in Merleau-Ponty: “Philosophy would be false only insofar as it remained abstract, imprisoning itself in concepts and beings of reason, and masking effective interpersonal relations.”[2]

The philosophical program undertaken by Hyperion unmasks itself in a critique that takes shape as a historical, ontological, and phenomenological problematic which risks philosophical purity (orthodoxy) in an attempt to be prescriptive and practical. This type of critique, with its historical-ontological-phenomenological dimensions is not original to the Mexican philosophers of Hyperion or to Merleau-Ponty. We find it most prominently in Jean-Paul Sartre. It is a fact of the matter that both of these thinkers exerted a great deal of influence on the Hyperion group. Indeed, Sartre’s L’Être et le néant—published in 1943—was especially influential in shaping the Mexican existentialist landscape during the years leading to the formation of Hyperion. As the project of Hyperion was defined, however, and as existentialism began to take on some vestiges of humanism—in both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty—the best or rather clearest, combination of these two approaches [humanism and existentialism] was offered by Merleau-Ponty. It came down, I believe, to which of the two best presented the outlines for a project of transcendence suitable for the vision of philosophy Hyperion imagined. Nevertheless, as the official, philosophical, break between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty did not occur until 1955, it is difficult to say with any degree of precision why the project of transcendence “suggested” by Merleau-Ponty was more appealing. Perhaps it just boiled down to his willingness to hear them out and collaborate—to travel to Mexico City and validate their project with the promise of future collaboration.[3] As Luis Villoro triumphantly proclaims, “Finally, in January of 1949, the visit to Mexico of Maurice Merleau-Ponty contributes to the diffusion of French existentialism.”[4] So it is Merleau-Ponty’s presence which is the most invigorating to the Hyperion project, which finds in his writings of the time a kindred vision of the role of the philosopher and of the infinite tasks of philosophy. The existential-phenomenological concept of “lo mexicano,” for instance, affirms in no uncertain terms ideas like the following, from Merleau-Ponty’s essay “Marxism and Philosophy”:

if [the philosopher] assigns himself the task of pursuing the immanent logic of other experiences and other existences…if he forsakes the illusion of contemplating the totality of completed history and feels caught up in it like all other men and confronted by a future to be made, then philosophy fulfills itself by doing away with itself as isolated philosophy. This concrete thinking, which Marxs calls ‘critique’ to distinguish it from speculative philosophy, is what others propound under the name of ‘existential philosophy.’[5]

By the time Merleau-Ponty’s plane lands in Mexico City in the Spring of 1949, Mexican philosophers have certainly forsaken the illusions of universality, opting for a Heideggerian emphasis on the most proximal being at their disposal. In their phenomenological pursuits Zea, Uranga, and Portilla aim to bring about a confrontation with the Mexican present with a view to transform it as a “a future to be made.” In “pursuing the logic of other experiences and other existences,” namely, the logic of a Mexican reality that Mexicans do not know, that is other to Mexican consciousness, Mexican philosophy fulfills itself as more than a mere provincialism.

But is the Mexican philosophy of Hyperion simply reaffirming old ideological habits by imitating the ideology of “existential philosophy” or “phenomenology”? This criticism has plagued the history of philosophy in Mexico since the Conquest. In this case, however, three things must be kept in mind: one, what is being appropriated in the Hyperion project is not an ideology, but a method; two, what is taking place is not imitation but appropriation/sublation; and three, what is being appropriated does not allow itself to be assumed merely academically. The last of these points has to do with the particular brands of phenomenology and existentialism that are being assumed. Merleau-Ponty’s brand conceives existentialism, for example, as somehow grounded in Marx’s critical philosophy. More importantly, in the passage quoted, Merleau-Ponty is clear in his conception of philosophy as a “concrete thinking,” or a thinking of the present, what others identify with “existential philosophy.” It might be misleading, however, to refer to the philosophy of Hyperion as merely existentialism, just like it would be misleading to refer to Merleau-Ponty as merely an existentialist. At least in the essays of Sense and Nonsense, published in the mid-1940’s, Merleau-Ponty is outlining a critical humanism that goes beyond the descriptive character of the existentialist repertoire. This, along with their intimate association, suggests that a less obvious common thread unites Zea’s project of rational reconstruction, Uranga’s call for ontological auscultation, and Portilla’s attitudinal shift in interiority, namely, the presence of Merleau-Ponty and his association and identification, noted above, of existentialism, critique, and “concrete thinking.”[6] It thus makes sense for Zea to write: “Existentialism does not wish to elude reality, does not evade it, it confronts it, assuming it with all of its consequences.”[7] That philosophy can confront the present is a lesson learned from Marx but made relevant for Mexican philosophers by Merleau-Ponty.

It could be argued that I am exaggerating Merleau-Ponty’s influence here. But a passage from Emilio Uranga’s piece, “Maurice Merleau-Ponty: fenomenologia y existencialismo,” suggests otherwise:

the value of [Merleau-Ponty’s] existentialism is its capacity to ground a systematic description of human existence, but not of human existence in the abstract, but of a situated and situational human existence, of a human existence located in a determinate geographical habitat [sic], in a social and cultural sphere also determinate and with a precise historical legacy.[8]

Uranga’s purpose in this paper is to show—following Merleau-Ponty—that philosophical practice is justified despite its precise historical context or its determinate geographical location. Hyperion’s ambition to philosophize on their own terms, at these initial stages in the fall of 1948, is held together by an appeal to the great French humanist. The fact that Mexico, or Latin America, has been historically thought in terms of European ambition and conquest is transcended by thinking of Mexico and Latin America as genuinely human environments inhabited by genuinely human subjects—subjects of power and makers of history.

[1] La filosofía como compromiso, p. 11.

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-sense, trans. Hubert Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 133.

[3] For more on the possible reasons for the split between Sartre and Mereleau-Ponty, see Mikel Dufrenne, “Sartre and Merleau-Ponty,” The Debate Between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, ed. Jon Stewart (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998).

[4] In “Génesis y proyecto del existencialismo en México,” p. 241.

[5] Sense and Non-sense, p. 133.

[6] This is in addition to the view that Merleau-Ponty’s idea of embodied consciousness justified talking about consciousness in praxis, about a consciousness affected and affecting its circumstance. Uranga alludes to this in his “Maurice Merleau-Ponty: fenomenologia y existencialismo” Filosofia y Letras, Vol. XV, No. 30 (April-June 1948): pp. 219-241.

[7] Leopoldo Zea, “El existencialismo como filosofia de la responsabilidad,” El Nacional, 5 June 1949, sec. 3.

[8] Uranga, “Maurice Merleau-Ponty,” p. 240.


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