Midnight Reflection or Notes on Teaching Mexican Philosophy in the US

Prelude: this is strictly my experience of teaching Mexican philosophy to graduate students at San Jose State University. While this experience can be generalized, I make no such claim. These is a meditation—a quiet rumination on what I think about my own teaching and a mediation on how I feel about it.

Fact 1: Students taking my course take it for at least two reasons: one, they have to take it, since the seminar fulfills some requirement for graduation—all graduate seminars fulfill either the “core” or the “elective” requirement; and two, they like my teaching style or find my unhinged and unorganized ramblings somewhat entertaining. They come into the course because they want to gain a deeper insight into Mexican thought nor do they take it because they want to broaden their own philosophical repertoire (in the end, the task is to change that, thought). Thus, students taking a course on Mexican philosophy (those in the US) don’t usually expect to get much out of it (and this can be, for this guy, very motivating).

First movement: The question is always: how do I begin? How do I insert the idea of Mexican philosophy into the history or context of philosophy as they’ve come to know it? The experience is uncanny—to break history open so as to wedge something into the fracture feels like a violation of a trust, of a responsibility or a loyalty (a trust, responsibility, or loyalty thrust upon me by an invisible community who found it fitting I get a PhD and keep it). But I immediately recognize this as a symptom of my own colonized mind, so I suppress it and dive head-first into the history of philosophy: I like to start with Hegel’s historicism, in which I find the grounds to say that philosophy itself is rooted in history, circumstance, and that it will, in its articulations, reflect that history and that circumstance in one way or another.

Appealing to Hegel allows me to create a space for Mexican philosophy at a time when Mexican thinkers desired to philosophically contemplate their own historical situation: the Mexican Revolution. We are forced to ask: what is a revolution? And, why is a revolution a time for philosophy?

Interlude: a colleague of mine, Tommy Lott, told me once to stop appealing to Hegel in work in which I try to argue for the authenticity or originality of Mexican or Latin American philosophy. It is a form of dependency on the white masters that I should deny once and for all. But this is easier said than done. The students in my Mexican philosophy course need to be placed in a horizon of intelligibility; they need to situate themselves in a familiar context, so as to make sense of the significance of what I will say later about the Mexican contribution. (However, if someone figured out a way to do this that is both effective and useful, then let me know!)

Second movement: after setting up the occasion for thinking philosophically, I introduce Antonio Caso, José Vasconcelos, and Samuel Ramos as founding figures in the project of a “Mexican” philosophy. Unfortunately, the Euro- and Anglo- connection makes a necessary appearance, again, for the sake of context and familiarization. Students appreciate Caso’s relation to Kierkegaard, Vasconcelos’ to John Dewey and the American pragmatists, and Ramos’ response to Ortega y Gasset. This last connection is significant for the narrative, since it is the echoes of Ortega’s historicism that resonate most loudly in the work of the generation that follows.

It is in the context of Ramos that we encounter and engage with the question of “lo mexicano,” or the question of what it means to be Mexican. Ramos’ Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico (one of the few texts in 20th century Mexican philosophy readily available in translation) places us in a position to consider for the first time in the course the issue of cultural authenticity. While Ramos suggests that given Mexico’s relations of dependency to Europe (especially Spain) the achievement of authenticity is prohibited by a cultural inferiority complex. This idea presents an easy entry point into questions of cultural identity, authenticity, the weight of history, and the possibility of overcoming historical trauma. Here we can connect themes in Mexican philosophy directly to the present, to questions of Mexican-American, Chicano, Latinx identity, for instance.

Third movement: the Spanish Revolution figures prominently in the history of Mexican philosophy in the 20th century. Many of Spain’s most important philosopher fled the Franco regime toward the end of the 1930s, among them Jose Ortega y Gasset, Jose Gaos, Jose David Garcia Baca, and Eduardo Nicol. Of these, Gaos was perhaps the most influential for the generation that came after Ramos. Gaos’ seduces Mexican philosophy with Heidgger’s existentialism through lectures and translations (most notably, his own translation of Heidegger’s Being and Time). With his encouragement, Gaos’ students, including Leopoldo Zea, Emilio Uranga, Luis Villoro, and Jorge Portilla formed the famed el grupo Hiperión, who, between 1947-1952, engaged in an project of “autognosis” inspired by phenomenological hermeneutics, existentialism, and historicism.

I spend quite a bit of time here, mainly because of the books I’ve written and my selfish desire to talk about them at length. At this point, discussion is oriented toward the question of “place” in philosophy? Zea’s conception of origin (in both senses) is discussed with the hope that students can arrive at an understanding of what it may mean to talk about “original” philosophizing.

I get great satisfaction from teaching this unit. There is a deep sense of accomplishment when discussing philosophy in the context of Mexican culture; it has to do with being able to introduce a generation of previously unknown thinkers to students who previously could not see past the rigid and hegemonic barriers set up by the Western philosophical tradition (and by all of you!).

Advertisement: I have my students buy my books on Mexican philosophy. This is a necessary evil. The material for such courses is currently scarce, and what there is, most of the recent stuff has been done by me (and with the new book, by Robert).

Fourth movement: Of course, it is important to present all sides to the story. Mexican philosophy is not simply an affirmation; that is, Mexican philosophy does not arise simply because some Mexican philosophers asserted its existence. It comes about through a rigorous and heated dialogue between those who affirmed a certain cultural particularity and those that denied it, between those whose loyalty to phenomenology or existentialism or Marxism etc. led them to make grandiose claims and those who saw right through the fallacy, between essentialists and existentialist, between particularists and universalists. At times, these dialogues took place in the soulspace of one person, who at one moment thought through historicist lenses and the next through universalists and abstract frames (as was the case with Uranga and Villoro). To flush this out I take some time to look at Abelardo Villegas’ excellent book, La filosofia de lo mexicano (1960) which breaks everything down just right!

            Predictable dialogue: someone will finally muster the courage to challenge both my ideas and his or her own reasons for taking the course.

Student: “But isn’t philosophy just philosophy? I don’t understand what makes it Mexican.”

Me: (irritated by the persistence of this fucking question) “The ‘Mexican’ in Mexican philosophy refers to its origins in a real, human, and historical existence that wants to speak its name. There is a difference in being Mexican that the philosophy will capture, and that distinguishes it from philosophy as such, which is, as we understand it even in this very moment, European and Eurocentric.”

Student: “yeah, but isn’t philosophy just philosophy?”

Me: (in hopeful anticipation that I will be able to clear all this shit up at the end): let’s come back to that…

Fifth movement: Trying to give a well-rounded account of Mexican philosophy is a difficult task. There is an entire problematic discussion which is not had regarding Aztec, Scholastic, post-Kantian philosophy, and this because I, personally, don’t count that as part of the “history” of “Mexican philosophy” as I understand it (see our “Introduction” to Mexican Philosophy in the 20th Century Essential Readings (Oxford, 2017). Then there’s the current era, of which I can only hint given time limitations. Perhaps when the study of Mexican philosophy becomes normalized in the US, will I be able to delve into the contemporary work of Guillermo Hurtado, Carlos Pereda, Carmen Rovira, and, what I can only call (but probably shouldn’t), the Pocho Renaissance in Mexican Philosophy (that’s me and Robert and Francisco and all the others currently making or trying to make contributions to this particular tradition).

Postscript: So, what do my students learn? What do they gain? Philosophy is a right and a right for everyone. The history of philosophy, if it is not challenged, stays the same, it excludes and marginalizes, so we must push hard against it and open it up, reveal its cracks or crack it open a chingasos. But what the students learn, ultimately is that there’s more to the story than what we can teach and what we do teach (and are capable or able to teach). Behind every Emilio Uragna stand a dozen philosophers (men, women, indigenous thinkers, etc.) that I, as one person, cannot and will not get to in this lifetime. Anyway, I think that’s what happens when I teach Mexican philosophy here, in the US.





3 responses to “Midnight Reflection or Notes on Teaching Mexican Philosophy in the US

  1. Carlos, sounds like a great course! with the prefect teacher for it. There are (I know you agree) alternative ways to introduce those thinkers that are correspond to different plausible and well grounded historical narratives. Doing it via Hegel and “historicism” is one of them (I would not make any apology about some European connection: can you separate the German accordion in a story about Mexican Conjunto music?). But here is another alternative: a narrative about the effort to do philosophy from ones “Circumstances” or “La Vida”. Frondizi believes that in Latin America many of the differences between philosophers have to do with different understandings of doing philosophy from ones “circumstances”. For some it was the quest for “mexicanidad” for others not. The influence of Ortega and Unamuno are key, and they (as much as Bergson, who was a big influence) are more into “La vida” than “historicism”; before or at the same time as the German and French existentialist. Pedagogically this has the advantage to bring this “home” (to the Americas) right away. James and Dewey are also reacting to European thought in the same general way and in the same general “American” context. I am not saying this is the only true story but one that is also (as yours) worth trying out (testing) in a class.

  2. ¡Me encantaría poder tomar tal curso! Sounds excellent. I do want to add that to begin with Hegel is a sustainable idea. After all Hegel was pursuing not an Anglo-European vision of the world’s per se (even though that obviously was it’s origin) but rather a universal all-encompassing thought to understand and grasp history and do something with it… where one can be positive of history (even when we don’t like it!). Hegel’s handle of tension and movement in history is helpful as one looks to understand our own historia. Don’t get me wrong… I am all for doing our best to do history and to interpretate it from our perspectiva (a little Nietzsche in there too). I am convince that we don’t do enough of this and that we have ways to go to catch up (thank you for your work!!) but if we do it by thinking we can erase everything that isn’t us (by ignoring it) we will land somewhere that’s more reactionary than convincing. Like Unamuno (to quote another -perhaps more likeable- Anglo-European) said to falanjistas at the University of Salamanca in 1936, “Venceréis pero no convenceréis.” ¡Gracias por arduo y bendito trabajo buen doctor!

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