Teaching Mexican Philosophy (Part 1: The Game Plan)

In the introduction of our book – I just noticed that it is $10 on Kindle – we claim that one of the main reasons Mexican philosophy has struggled to gain a foothold in the US is that there are so few primary resources in English. Now that there are enough to get started – for $10, no less! – I want to suggest that there is another obstacle that may be as discouraging: having to acquire a background in the historical and cultural context of the texts we’ve translated. (There are, of course, other non-philosophical and institutional obstacles – ahem, racism – but we’ll leave that for another post.)

Although we would argue that all philosophy is rooted in cultural and historical circumstances – do you agree, Carlos? – and further that a full appreciation of a text depends some knowledge of those circumstances, this may be especially true of the Latin American philosophy (LAP) that has been translated into English. Writing 65 years ago, A. MacC Armstrong said:

[LAP] is an outdoor one… [Unlike the European philosopher, who stays in his study alone, the Latin American] finds himself out in the streets, among men who meet to deal with each other and make holiday. … His favorite instances of language are idiomatic conversations, even thieves’ argot, and he recognizes straight away that far his mental armory is not all his own work and that far from being common to every rational being it is a historical development.

If this is a fair generalization, as I believe it is, then studying LAP requires a kind of immersion in Latin American cultural and political history. How did thieves talk? But – and now I can hear the objections mounting – who among our fellow philosophers has time to educate oneself in a different cultural history in addition to the relevant philosophy? (Short answer: they are not separate endeavors, ever. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)

(As an aside, I might point out that part of the problem is not just the amount of work involved, but the fact that it may be the case that it is a mistake to speak of Latin American philosophy as a single, unified tradition, just as we are beginning to question whether we ought to speak of “Western philosophy.” Of course, it can be done, and often is, usually for the sake of comparing it to other historical traditions, but it loses its meaning when it becomes self-reflective about its own identity or, what is worse, it retains its meaning by being highly exclusive. So I predict that one of the major changes in LAP in the US will be that we begin speaking about, learning and teaching, different traditions within Latin America (e.g., Mexican philosophy, Peruvian philosophy, Latin American indigenous philosophy, Latin American feminism, Latinx philosophy, Carribean philosophy, Afro-Mexican philosophy, and so forth. )

So, with this worry in mind, I have decided to start working on what might serve as a kind of master syllabus for a course entitled “Mexican Philosophy.” Of course, a syllabus is always a deeply personal affair, so what I have in mind is not so much the syllabus that you should use, but rather something that a professor who knows nothing about Mexican philosophy might use, in class, to teach or immerse herself in it for 10-15 weeks, from scratch.

In the last few years, I have taught three full courses on Mexican philosophy at very different academic institutions (William & Mary, UCR, Mount Saint Mary’s, LA), and in all three cases, the biggest challenge has been to narrow down the supplementary reading that provides a sufficient grasp of the cultural and historical context of the readings that now constitute our anthology. Take the Mexican Revolution, for instance, what in my mind is one of the most complex and elusive events in military history. What are the readings (or videos) that (a) provide the basics of the Mexican Revolution, (b) in a way that prepares them for philosophical discussions that are either about or informed by the cultural legacy of the Revolution, and (c) in a very short period (let’s say a couple of weeks). It’s not impossible, but it is a challenge, especially if the goal is not to take 20% or so out of the semester to study something aside from philosophy. That’s just one example.

So, over a series of blog posts, and with your help, I will try to write a fully annotated syllabus on Mexican philosophy. Such a syllabus would address:

  1. Why we narrow “Mexican philosophy” down to the years 1910-1960.
  2. How best to understand (and teach) the military phase of the Mexican Revolution.
  3. The social, cultural, historical and lasting legacy and significance of the Revolution.
  4. The development of Mexican philosophy, particularly the development of la filosofía de lo mexicano.
  5. The relation between Latin American and Mexican philosophy.
  6. Internal and external criticisms of Mexican philosophy.
  7. The contemporary relevance of old texts rooted in the Mexican circumstances, as well as the future of Mexican philosophy, particularly in the United States.
  8. General philosophical questions concerning the national or ethnic philosophies, the relation between the historical and the universal, Mexican identity and humanity, Mexican philosophy and Western European philosophy, and so on.

Already this is starting to sound like an impossible amount to cover in a single semester, let alone a quarter. But I think it can be done, and more to the point, I think it should be. It just requires a little ingenuity about what sources to mine for each topic, how to get them to cross pollinate or serve as hypertexts, and how to get them to build on one another for a cumulative effect.

So, little by little, I will begin chipping away at the above eight aspects of Mexican philosophy, to see if we can be maximally efficient and design a single, introductory course that covers them all. If I do this right, the “recommended reading” will end up being a lot longer than the assigned reading, but he point is to give the teacher and student a “what to read first, and in what order.”

I’ll give myself until our author’s-meets-critics session at the Pacific APA in April to finish. Wish me luck!

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4 responses to “Teaching Mexican Philosophy (Part 1: The Game Plan)

  1. Hi RESJR,
    I agree that it is a generalization that LAP needs to be encountered with some knowledge or experience of the culture, context, language, because I think this applies to so many perspectives. For example, feminist theology was great for women trying to work their way into theological studies and have men (power) in the discipline acknowledge that considering theology from a female perspective was necessary. However, it didn’t help women of color because white feminists did not know enough of their experiences. Therefore: Womanist Theology.

    Also, I think this and other generalizations make assumptions about those of us interested in LAP. I am white, Croatian/English, steeped in American-Mexican culture and language in S.F. growing up; including marriage. So I don’t think I am a complete foreigner. However, the context, experience, and some of the language of the authors are for me the largest challenges. And that was the same challenge approaching Koine and Aramaic texts of the Bible in order to do exegetical work.

    I believe this book and more like it, and, courses that you are creating, will break the walls of fear that philosophers have had in letting people into the “insider” group. That group in general is called: Philosophy, and we women know the ‘wall’ very well.

    Your proposed syllabus looks really good.

  2. I agree that having to acquire (and convey) a background in the historical and cultural context is one obstacle to teaching Mexican philosophy. So I don’t doubt the value of the annotated syllabus you are proposing. But here’s another obstacle: it seems like the way Mexican philosophy is going to work its way into the philosophy curriculum isn’t going to be by way of semester-long courses on the subject, but rather by getting professors to incorporate bits and pieces into already-existing courses. From that perspective, presenting the necessary cultural/historical context in a 10-15 week syllabus isn’t an achievement; it’s a problem. If I need a whole term to do justice to Mexican philosophy, then I certainly can’t teach it in any of my existing history of philosophy courses — which would be a shame, since those courses are some of the few that manage to attract nonmajors. Especially for profs who teach in relatively small departments with just a few required history courses, it’s going to be hard to justify a whole term on one era/region of history.

    • Neal, that’s a fair point. Perhaps the best response here is that teaching a semester-long course on Mexican philosophy is the best way to work Mexican philosophy into the curriculum. Of course it would be great if professors could incorporate Mexican philosophers into their already existing courses. Someone teaching the philosophy of religion, for instance, might use Antonio Caso’s Existence as Economy and as Charity: An Essay on the Essence of Christianity. And there is some value to that: for those who need reminding, it helps the profession by pointing out that there are profound philosophers outside the Anglophone (or French, German, Greek, and Latin) tradition. However, if the goal is to introduce Mexican philosophy into the curriculum as a distinct tradition, one that in some way challenges the authority of the “Western tradition,” as it’s usually defined, then I think one needs at least a semester.

      It’s worth pointing out, of course, that these two obstacles (or rather, their solutions) are not mutually exclusive. So I might just add that the order of explanation might go the other way. Your worry seems to be that professors won’t use their limited resources dedicating entire semesters, or blocks of their history series, to Mexican philosophy in particular, so if the goal is to promote Mexican philosophy, then we ought to include it where we can. And, you might add, if Mexican philosophy gains enough popularity, then professors might be more willing eventually to consider a semester-long course. I’m saying that although someone might find a particular text useful for their already existing course, they are unlikely to incorporate Mexican philosophers for the sake of incorporating Mexican philosophers, unless they suspect that there is something particularly valuable about doing so, which I think hinges on being able to say that there is something particularly Mexican about it. And so if the goal is to build a culture of appreciating Mexican philosophy as Mexican – or other traditions as somehow representing unique experiences of the human condition – we need to build the infrastructure for people to develop a competence in a foreign tradition. That’s how areas grow, and with a critical mass, how they thrive.

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