Frondizi, Ortega, y Ramos

As some of you may know, I am working on an Introduction to Latin American and Latinx philosophy, which is now under contract with Routledge, due to be published early 2019. (More details soon). As part of the project, I’ve been soliciting feedback from our friends and colleagues, in part just to continue a dialogue on the meaning and future of Latin American philosophy (LAP), especially in the US. So far, our friends and colleagues have been characteristically generous with their time and knowledge, but I wanted to share one piece of feedback in particular.

In response to my table of contents, our good friend Gregory Pappas wrote to me that he was glad to see that José Ortega y Gasset was going to be featured in one of the chapters because, as he put it, we can better understand the difference between several Latin American philosophers in terms of how they appropriated and interpreted Ortega’s use of “circumstances” in his all-too-often quoted, “I am myself and my circumstance and if I don’t save my circumstance I don’t save myself,” and because Goyo is becoming more and more convinced that Ortega was “the starting point of it all.”

It is also important for us to continue thinking about the influence of Ortega because, if I’m understanding Goyo correctly, if there is a certain interpretation of “circumstance” that indicates the path to liberating philosophy from Eurocentrism, there is another interpretation that risks sliding into false nationalism or continentalism in philosophy. In short, and this is Frondizi’s criticism of contemporaneous efforts to find or produce a distinct “Latin American philosophy,” if the problem with Eurocentric conceptions of philosophy was a false (and, we might add, imperialistic) universalism, the pendulum might have swung too far in the opposite direction (“contextualism gone wild” in Goyo’s memorable wording). Let’s put it another way, just for the sake of clarity. If Ortega’s perspectivism and ratio-vitalism offered an important critique of traditional metaphysics and epistemology – there simply is no perspective sub specie aeterni, no chasm between subject and object to be closed – it also presented the possibility of provincialism in philosophy and science. Did Justo Sierra really mean to say that the goal was to “nationalize science” and “Mexicanize knowledge”?!

Here’s the worry, in the words of Frondizi: “Provincialism is the enemy of philosophy, and it seems a provincial attitude to try to develop deliberately a Mexican or Argentinean philosophy.” Or here is some language from Romanell I’m reading next week at the Alfonso Reyes conference:

The reason that the Mexican author [Samuel Ramos] hardly goes beyond his programmatic intentions of making a positive case for a national philosophy of Mexico, is that he really cannot, strictly speaking. As the early Ramos initially realized only too well, philosophy as such belongs to “the sphere of the universal” and, if so, philosophy of Mexican culture (or history) cannot be philosophy except by fiat, ex hypothesi. A brand of tequila, for example, can be marked ‘Made in Mexico,’ but a brand of philosophy cannot (at least, not in the same sense).

I am sharing Goyo’s feedback, not because I disagree with it. I agree that the possibility and meaning of Latin American philosophy hinges on the truth of the kind of claims that Ortega made, one way or the other. And I agree that provincialism in philosophy is both a possibility and ought to be avoided. In fact, this is why I proposed one chapter explaining Ortega’s Meditations on Don Quixote and The Modern Theme as it applies to the possibility and meaning of national philosophy (e.g., Mexican philosophy).

What I’m wondering is whether, as a matter of historical fact, it is correct to attribute efforts to nationalize philosophy in Latin America before 1938 to misinterpretations of Ortega, as Goyo and Frondizi maintain. I’ll consider just one example here, though it may be the most paradigmatic example they have in mind – namely, Samuel Ramos’s Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico, which is widely considered the first major work in la filosofía de lo mexicano, exactly the sort of philosophical movement that, I believe, made Frondizi cringe.

In his History of Philosophy in Mexico, published in 1943 – the year is important – Ramos wrote:

An intellectual generation that began to act publicly between 1925 and 1930 was uncomfortable with the philosophical romanticism of Caso and Vasconcelos. After a critical examination of their doctrines, they found anti-intellectualism groundless, but they also did not want to return to classical rationalism. Amidst this perplexity, the books of José Ortega y Gasset began to arrive in Mexico, and in the first of them, the Meditations on Quixote, they found the solution to their problem in the doctrine of vital reason. Additionally, because of the Revolution, there had been a spiritual change that, beginning around 1915, had become clearer in the minds of the people and could be defined in these terms: Mexico had been discovered. It was a nationalist movement that spread little by little throughout Mexican culture—in the poetry of Ramón López Velarde, in the paintings of Diego Rivera, in the novels of Mariano Azuela. Vasconcelos himself, from the Ministry of Education, had spoken of forming a national culture and promoted all efforts in that direction. Meanwhile, philosophy did not seem to fit into this ideal portrait of nationalism because she always pretended to look at things from the point of view of man in general, rebelling against the concrete commitments of space and time, that is to say, of history. Ortega y Gasset again offered a solution to the problem by demonstrating the historicity of philosophy in his The Modern Theme. Uniting these ideas with others that had been expressed in the Meditations on Quixote, that Mexican generation found the epistemological justification of a national philosophy.

There it is, straight from the horse’s mouth. Just like Frondizi claimed, Ortega was being used to justify national philosophy that borders on provincialism, or worse.

Aside from the fact that Carlos and I don’t agree that la filosofía de lo mexicano is provincial, a form of petty nationalism, the problem is that it’s not clear that Ortega actually played the role Ramos attributed to him in 1943. Yes, Ortega began to have an important influence in Latin America in the 1920s on, but it seems to have bene more for the influence of his personality, as in his “Letter to a Young Argentinean Who Studies Philosophy,” in which Ortega suggests that Latin American philosophy is not mature enough to evaluate European philosophy; or through capacity as editor, as in his Revisita de Occidente, through which he introduced the Spanish-speaking world to contemporary German philosophy. But where is the evidence that the generation that normalized philosophy in Latin America (1920s-1940s) did so on the basis of some interpretation of Ortega’s perspectivism and ratio-vitalism? I’m not saying that there isn’t any; instead, I’m asking for it.

Here is some evidence that Ortega wasn’t influential as we now say he was. When Ramos published the first edition of his Profile in 1934, nine years before his Historia, he does not cite Ortega but does cite many other crucial influences. Add to that when José Gaos reviewed the second edition of the Profile, I believe in 1938, he made it a point to note the similarities between Ramos’s book and the philosophy of Ortega. Keep in mind that Gaos knew Ramos well at the time and would have known if Ramos claimed to have been influenced by Gaos’s teacher (Ortega). Also, it’s a little too convenient that when Ramos reconstructs the history of philosophy in Mexico, he places himself and his generation at the beginning of “Mexican philosophy” properly understood, that is, as something different from “philosophy in Mexico.” In fact, if we continue, there is more reason to think that it was historians like Ramos (or, more to the point, after Ramos) who found in Ortega a convenient thread to tie together a loose narrative that puts them front and center of the meaning of Mexican philosophy. (Kind of like Kierkegaard’s The Point of View of My Work as an Author.)

It might be worth pointing out here that Frondizi was writing in the late 40s and 50s. In fact, his “A Study in Recent Mexican Thought” was published in 1955. So, the question is: was he just taking Ramos’s et al. self-hagiography at face value, as some historians are starting to claim?

But, what if, as a matter of historical fact, the major philosophers in Latin America  who aimed to nationalize philosophy before 1940 weren’t influenced by Ortega as much as, or in the same way, they said they were? It might still be the case that early efforts to nationalize philosophy (e.g., in Mexico) was a form of contextualism gone wild. And that’s what really concerning as we consider the meaning and future of Latin American philosophy, right?

Yes it is. But assuming that we are looking for some balance between the two extremes Frondizi and Goyo are worried about – the right interpretation of “circumstances” that avoids searching for Reality with a capital “R”, on the one hand, and provincialism, on the other – what would be really interesting, particularly illustrative, is if we found out that there was no direct influence of Ortega on the generation of philosophers in question, but rather a common influence, philosophical or cultural or historical, on both.

What I’m suggesting here, pace Frondizi and Goyo, is that if it turns out that the development of nationalist philosophies in Latin America pre- or post-1940 weren’t the product of a misinterpretation of Ortega’s use of “circumstances,” if it turns out that what Ramos was up to in the 30s wasn’t influenced by the books he cites in 1943, then we need an interpretation of “circumstances” that explains how and why Spanish-speaking philosophers began to reflect inwardly, critique traditional philosophy, grasp at various forms of perspectivism or historicism.


One response to “Frondizi, Ortega, y Ramos

  1. Roberto, thanks for sharing…and for taking me seriously 🙂
    You are correct, what we and Frondizi have is nothing more than a hypothesis about history, so we may be wrong about the influence of Ortega. It is important that Gaos is the student of Ortega so this is a direct link. But you raise also the more important issue for today: if we all reject universalism (archemedian starting point favored in Western philosophy) where should we start (for present and future philosophy)?
    To say in our present context or circumstances does not settle things. Since there will be reasonable differences between us about what we mean. For me, I stand on the idea (found in Ortega, Dewey, and Frondizi) that the ultimate context in which we philosophize is “everyday life” in a “situation”; and not in History or Culture or Politics; which are all in a “Lived present situation”. I have an article where I lay out 4 or 5 reasons why this is the proper starting point of philosophy. But the debate is open and should go on…..for these philosophers the main category is “Life” or “La Vida” or “Lived Experience”. Remember this is also the main commitment in Bergson and Dilthey.

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