For Pioneers: Some Remarks on John H. Haddox (1929-2017)

It has been 10 years since the conference that celebrated John H. Haddox’s 50 years at UTEP and, ultimately, gave occasion to a volume of essays inspired by his work [See, Sánchez, Carlos A. & Jules Simon. (2010). The Thought and Social Engagement in the Mexican-American Philosophy of John H. Haddox. Lewinston: The Edwin Mellen Press]. Many things have happened in those 10 years—social, economic, and environmental crises have shaken us all…Trump.

One thing that has taken place over the last decade has to do with a renewed interest in the history of Mexican philosophy, in philosophy in Mexico, in the US, as a new generation of the philosophically inclined consider the possibility that, yes, there are or have been Mexican philosophers worthy of being considered for induction into Western philosophy’s pantheon.

Not that our conference a decade ago had anything to do with that. Most of the papers presented there, and included in the volume which Jules Simon and I put together, were on themes dealing with Haddox’s social and community involvement, his teaching, and his self-less sacrifice, and not his philosophical output—although there were some really good ones dealing with that. But while our conference or our volume contribute but in a marginal way to the current state of Latin American philosophy in the US, John Haddox’s contributions have been central and worthy to be remembered. In his early excursions into the philosophical history of Mexico, Professor Haddox made available an entire field of investigation that a new generation of scholars is rediscovering. His work on thinkers left out of the standard history of philosophy is inspiring and, in one way or another, its existence has given direction to my own professional pursuits.

The purpose of our anthology in 2010 was to communicate Professor Haddox’s enormous influence to others. Again, this influence is not restricted to his work in philosophy, but to many areas of intellectual and social life. But, as we learn from those essays, Professor Haddox’s idea of philosophy was married to his call for social activism. His was a practical philosophy of life. What our volume accomplishes is that it presents this practical philosophy of life and in so doing it has, in a small but significant way, challenged the standard idea of philosophy. As it stands right now, philosophy as an academic discipline thinks of itself as a privileged kind of thinking whose task is to rid the human mind of its conceptual confusions and its methodological prejudices. It thinks highly of itself, and, as such, only a few, well-trained, well-versed, and well recommended individuals can take it on. This means that philosophy as an academic discipline is not very diversified, in content or laborers. And it doesn’t stray far from its intellectual enclosures. That is, it rarely speaks to our social ills. What our modest text tried to show was that philosophy is not as homogenous as everyone thinks it is—it is not a defined, rigorous, endeavor with a specific path and determined questions. It can transcend its own determined picture of itself and step into the lives of ordinary people—as Haddox has shown and done in his life and work.

As the testimonies in our volume make clear, John Haddox has spent the greater part of his life shining light on the darkest corners of our social world, it has been a heroic effort to give voice to the voiceless. This is no less true of his efforts in the world of philosophy. His work on the Mexican philosophers Jose Vasconcelos and Anotonio Caso are examples of a North American thinker, himself trained in the methods of the Western philosophical tradition and very well part of it, giving voice to the voiceless. Haddox was the first to translate and publish commentary on Vasconcellos and Caso, a labor that motivated my own work on Jorge Portilla. Sure, Vasconcelos and Caso had their own voice, and a loud one at that, a voice which reverberated all throughout Mexico and Latin America, but it was Haddox who made it possible for the North American academy to hear them and take them seriously as philosophers.

Why is this important? How are the two small books on Caso and Vasconcelos, written before I was born, significant inside and outside the sphere of academic philosophy? In other words, why should you care about a couple of texts that you have to really look for to find? In the remarks that follow, I want to focus on Haddox’s contributions to philosophy. I will not provide a summary of those important texts, nor will I provide an analysis of their content. My focus will be on the overall significance of doing this kind of work—the kind of work that uncovers and makes known. So, while I am thinking of the Caso and Vasconcelos books, I do so only because these are the texts that matter to me; ultimately, I believe that what I say here applies to Haddox the philosopher and Haddox the man.

It could have been otherwise: The Caso and Vasconcelos Books

Let me begin by talking about things that are necessary and things that are not.

There are a few necessities in life, a few things that could not have been otherwise than they are. The “discovery” and conquest of America in 1492 could have been otherwise than it was—it could have happened earlier or later, it could not have happened at all. History teaches us that it was, by all intents and purposes, accidental. But once it did happen, other things became necessary, for instance, the mixing or destruction of races, languages, and cultures. After the initial “discovery,” colonialism became necessary because of the economic motivations of sailing across the Atlantic. That is, once they settled on the economic incentive, Europeans would necessary colonize to the Americas. But the violent annihilation of peoples was not necessary; this was a result of laziness, fear, and greed—of bad manners and an unwillingness to love that which was not understood. A moral compass in tune with the religious doctrines to which the conquerors and colonists professed allegiance could have, perhaps, prevented the genocides.

So colonialism necessarily followed from the accidental, or contingent “encounter” with the “New World.” With this necessary colonialism came the ways of thinking that define European peoples. Western rationality arrived on ships with the language of the conquerors. It conquered and colonized, justified destruction, murder, and rape, and it spoke of universalities and abstractions that it alone could grasp. When it did this, when it spoke of eternal truths and of its privileged access to universals, it called itself philosophy. And it sat in judgment of all other ways of thinking and doing. If the way of thinking did not conform to its rigid criteria, to what it deemed rational, then the thinking was deemed invalid or irrational, primitive or barbarian. So, as history progressed, and with it the establishment of a mestizo culture that was neither indigenous nor European, the effort intensified to repress the “irrational,” the “primitive,” and the “barbarian.” This repression, and oppression, was justified by the rigid demands of Western philosophy. The effect was that Latin American thinkers repressed and silenced the poetic and philosophical voices of their pre-colonial past, and allowed themselves to be judged according to the standards set down by Western rationality. They came to believe that only by thinking in those terms, in accordance with those standards, could they arrive at Truth; and that only by thinking and speaking in the language of Western reason could they be and become philosophers. The assumption was that if they thought and spoke philosophy as it had been thought and spoken by European philosophers then they would be welcome into the philosophical family, they could join the struggle to wrestle truth from the universe, from God, or from forgetfulness.

But western rationality is inherently racist. While it allowed itself to be worshiped and spoken of by the Latin American mestizos, whose love of letters and wisdom they had inherited as a human birth-right, it had trouble recognizing them, of giving them their due. And this is why Introduction to Philosophy textbooks do not include the thought of Justo Sierra, Jose Ingenieros, Alfonso Reyes, or Jose Marti. Because as good as they were, as intelligent and insightful as they were, they were not European or, we can also say Anglo-American, and so they remain in the shadows of the Western philosophical tradition—as curiosities or “projects” for academics interested in anomalies.

The fact is that most of the great, and unknown, Latin American philosophers pursued Truth in accordance with the dictates of Western reason at the expense of, perhaps, a different kind of rationality more in touch with their Latin American reality. And they were excellent at it, true exemplars of the kind of thinker that Europeans and North Americans celebrate. But even as exemplary, they remained ignored as philosophers, they were not thought capable of contributing anything meaningful to the history of Western philosophy. Sure, their names are known: Octavio Paz, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, Carlos Fuentes, Emilio Uranga, and Jose Carlos Mariategui. But, at best, they are considered excellent poets or essayists; at worse, they are not considered at all.

In this way we could have gone the entirety of the 20th century without disturbing the stranglehold of the West on reason and philosophy. But this was not necessary. John Haddox and others made it possible to supplant the traditional East-West division of the philosophical world with a North-South revision which is meant to include those philosophers from the “global” south who have said something worth hearing.

The absence of these thinkers in the historical registers of philosophy makes it seem as though they never had a right to philosophize at all. This is why we spend so much time justifying what they said or wrote as “authentic” or “original.” Our obsession with originality seems to be grounded on the belief that only original thinkers have a right to philosophy and those that don’t seem, to us, original, do not. That they should not be philosophizing. The debates over Mexican positivism in the 19th century, for example, always tend to converge on the fact that 19th century Mexican positivism was a borrowed system of ideas with no “fit” in Mexican material reality. Those thinkers that promoted positivism in Mexico, therefore, were not original and, ultimately, have no right to be called authentic philosophers. But then we have a real hard time finding those that are original and hence have a right to philosophy. The colonial legacy makes this finding a difficult task, and we end up trying to figure out if, and when, philosophy has authentically existed in Mexico.

Some of us would like to think that the right to philosophy belongs to all. But that has not always been the case—and some don’t think it will ever be the case. Professor Haddox’s work, the manner in which he lay bare and unfolded the philosophy of Caso and Vasconcelos, made them recipients of this right; and made it possible, too, to grant this right to all who would venture to think big thoughts—whether they are “original” or not.

Jacques Derrida spent a great deal of time talking about a “right to philosophy” and about who had this right. Indirectly, and unintentionally, John Haddox contributed to the unfolding of this, very important, question. His work allows everyone to stake a claim to the continent of a priori thoughts, universal essences, and speculations about life and death. Derrida writes, “I do not believe that the right to philosophy is dissociable from a movement of effective democratization” (14). From what I know, I think Professor Haddox had this insight a long time ago. And so, together with a small handful of North American intellectuals over the past 50 years, he has made possible philosophy’s democratization.

But What is Philosophy?

Karl Marx suspected Western philosophy of being a pastime of the bourgeoisie—or, of not being a “right” of all, but a privilege of few. This suspicion was based on his view that philosophy was tied to the economic system of capitalist culture, and was a privilege of those who enjoyed the benefits of a favorable material condition. So the pretention of those who practice philosophy, namely, that beauty, truth, and justice are abstract, universal, concepts is itself a result of their class situation. This means that philosophy can only pretend to reach Truth, but can only do so within the conceptual, linguistic, and historical limits of the epoch of which it is an expression. To practice philosophy, then, one had to be in a position to enjoy favorable material conditions—those conducive to meditative and speculative thinking. So not everyone can practice philosophy; not everyone can be a philosopher. Not everyone can demand their right to philosophize.

The view that philosophy is the right of those who are in the favorable class situation to practice it also means that—at least up until the last century—philosophy, when it exists, exists only within the confines of the first world, which is itself the home of the European, or Western intellectual tradition. But what are we to make of philosophies and philosophers from other non-European cultures? The quick response is that what they are doing is not philosophy. So Nahual philosophies are dismissed as poetic insights contaminated by religious dogma and relativized to the particular peoples and languages of the Nahual. The same can be said of African and certain manifestations of Latin American thought. All of these sound and feel like philosophy, but because of the dissimilarities to the systematic way in which philosophy has existed in Europe, they are not considered philosophy.

But what is philosophy? The American philosopher Richard Rorty suggested that the difference, or “tension,” between poetry and philosophy is one between an effort, on the one hand, to “achieve self-creation by the recognition of contingency,” and, on the other, “to achieve universality by the transcendence of contingency” (25). In other words, poetry is concerned with seeing one’s own life as unique and accidental; philosophy is concerned with seeing one’s life as part of a greater whole, one with its eternal laws and necessary paths. To be a philosopher is to dedicate one’s life to describing the ways in which we are all in our human mess together, the ways in which we are all part of the human drama. Caso and Vasconcelos were these kinds of philosophers—and Haddox was this kind of philosopher, too—the kind that implicate us all in our human crises. It would be irresponsible to assume that this sort of thinking only takes place in Europe or Anglo-America.

This means that we have to look at whether or not philosophy, in this Rortyian, sense has existed in the Americas. What we find is that, yes, it has. And not only after the Europeans arrived, but before and since.

The value of Haddox’s two famous books is that it accomplishes precisely this: it shows that Mexican philosophers, working from the confines of their own mestizo culture, were capable of translating the contingency of their own historical and circumstantial world into the universalist, viz., philosophical, language of the Europeans. This does not mean that they somehow betrayed their difference by trying to assimilate to the European way of doing things; this means that they appropriated their right to philosophize by doing philosophy on their own terms. So the victory is one of appropriating a right previously denied by the conservators of what has, since Socrates, been called “philosophy.” What we find in the Caso and Vasconcelos books, is an account of philosophers who deserve their place in the history philosophy. And Haddox’s books are the fight that makes this possible. Haddox’s books are events in the democratization of philosophy.

Professor Haddox, like some of us today, believed that philosophy belongs to us all, and not just to the privilege few that have the time, money, and access to write dissertations and publish papers in academic journals. Once we see, with Haddox, that Mexican philosophers like Caso and Vasconcelos were attempting to translate their contingent human existence into the language of universality, thereby inserting themselves and their countrymen into the human drama, we can appreciate that their efforts were more about demanding recognition as human persons and less about being philosophers.

And so…

The significance of professor Haddox’s two texts is that they announce to a Eurocentric, Western rationality that others worry about life in the same way. Not only that, but that they are able to transcend the contingency of their existence in the same way, although in a different language, and, perhaps, using different metaphors and linguistic inventions. I find Professor Haddox’s treatment of the Mexican philosophers to align with what Derrida has said of philosophers: “A philosopher is always someone for whom philosophy is not given, someone who in essence must question the self about the essence and destination of philosophy. And also reinvents it” (4). Indeed, Dr. Haddox’s presupposition, I believe, has been precisely this: that the destination of philosophy is not determined, and that philosophers from other regions, cultures, languages, religions, and times, are making philosophy by simply questioning their place in the cosmos, reinventing it as they go. In this very simple way, philosophy is universal and a universal right that can be demanded at any time by any one. And this could only mean that philosophy belongs to us all!

In true democratic fashion, John Haddox fractures the stranglehold of western philosophy. He democratizes it so that we can all join in the conversation about our human mess. Those who knew John Haddox well tell me that that’s how he is with all things. And for that, he must never be forgotten. cas.

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