Uranga On Method, II: The Ol' "Imperial Passion"

In “Notas para un estudio del mexicano,” Uranga introduces the worry that Mexican life and experience—i.e., lo mexicano—may somehow overwhelm its concept—i.e., “lo mexicano,” making it impossible for a “philosophy of lo mexicano” to get off the ground on rational grounds. To this worry, he insists that lo mexicano-as-experience is not ineffable, that it can be rationally captured, even if partially or from a certain point of view. Within certain limits, that is, the concept will capture only what is given as it is given, and nothing more. In this, the goal is to stick to the limits of reason. Phenomenology enters the picture to vindicate those limits: through its methodological requirements, it forces the research into the realm of what gives itself in itself. In phenomenology, there is no urgency to achieve perfect coincidence between concept and intuition, since that coincidence (i.e., objectivity) only exists within certain ideological commitments that Leopoldo Zea had previously nominated as imperialistic–he called the Western, Eurocentric desire for objectivity, the “imperial passion.”

Like Zea, Uranga’s does not subscribe to the so-called view from nowhere that the philosophical tradition has promoted since the ancient Greeks. Uranga’s desire for authenticity and fidelity to his own, Mexican, experience motivates the entirety of his philosophical approach. Uranga’s method of investigation is not meant to be disinterested, objective, generalizing, or purifying; it means to arrive at the concrete, living, experience of human beings in their accidental, insufficient, historical circumstance.

Here’s a passage from “Notas para un estudio del mexicano,” translated and annotated, that speaks of the method that I’m trying to articulate as being Uranga’s:

It is worth calling attention from the start to the unassailable rationalism that has presided as a premise to everything that has been said[i] about lo mexicano.[ii] No one would dare come up to this podium and declare that lo mexicano is ineffable, that it will always escape our formulations and that our concepts can never bite down on Mexican being.[iii] On the contrary, there is a healthy tendency or temptation to believe oneself capable of defining and conceptualizing our own manner of being.[iv] If our analyses had declared, a priori, that there is a remainder of our being that reason cannot penetrate we would have witnessed the proliferation not of an ontology of the Mexican but of the most primitive mysticism of the Mexican.[v]

Rationalism, which functions as a presuppositions to our analyses, is suspicious of subjectivism or regionalism.[vi] What is rational violently reacts when it feels itself accompanied by individualism or provincialism.[vii] From here, two criticism are typically directed at our inquiries into Mexican being. The first[viii] insists that these lectures, more than being testimonies about that which is Mexican are, rather, testimonies about Mexicans, about “Mexicans as seen by Mexicans.”[ix] It is true that a great deal of sagacity is required in order to see that the things of Mexico are seen always through the temperament of the observer, or as the naturalist used to say, “pieces of the world seen from the point of view of our character.” But if it is true that subjectivity inevitably interposes itself, it is true that borrowing from it so as to speak about the world is the most honest and sincere thing to do.[x] Nothing is as familiar, if we are of the reflexive type, than our own character and nothing keeps us from taking as an instrument for the exploration of reality our own subjectivity, since it is just a matter of subtracting, if one wants, the deformations of the instrument in order to obtain [116] an objective result, as is done in the most trivial and ordinary operations of laboratory physics.[xi] If we insist, however, in settling on what is “objective,” what happens is that we make use of our character, as in the first case, but vaguely, and then the reader is tasked with the thankless job of defining, first, the character of our supposed objective observer so as to, secondly, guess what he is saying about the Mexican.[xii] It’s better to conduct an investigation about Mexican vulgarity on the basis of a recognized vulgarity of character, than to conclude that vulgarity is only found in the soul of the critic.[xiii] In stages of a reflective meditation an auto-analysis clearly directed has to precede the analysis of the rest. Those who when speaking of the Mexican refuse to confess what they have previously lived of lo mexicano deny to their conclusions the interest of the concrete. [xiv]  (pp. 115-116).  

Notas para un estudio del mexicano (1951)

[i] The reference here is to the lectures given that year, 1951, on “Mexico y lo Mexicano.”

[ii] “Lo mexicano” is understood as an experience, a mode of being, or that which is Mexican. Uranga is, like his contemporaries, aiming to get to the “essence” of this experience. Clearly, there is a rational pursuit aided by principles of rationality. In danger of being pegged an anti-rationalist, and, of not being taken seriously, this seems like a necessary point to make.

[iii] At least no one claiming to be rational about the task of philosophy would dare declare that lo mexicano stands outside the space of reasons. The suggestion here is that anyone proclaiming philosophical rigor would also proclaim that there is nothing about the Mexican experience that is not subject to intelligibility. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, everything about lo mexicano can be said, and so nothing should be passed over in silence.

[iv] Again, at least for anyone claiming to be rational about the task of philosophy.

[v] So the ontology of the Mexican is undertaken with the confidence that it will grasp a being adequately and without remainder. The difference between mysticism and ontology is thought to be, then, that ontology will not leave anything out of its account, while mysticism will simply pass it over in silence, surrender to the ineffable, or renounce all judgment. But what is this “anything” that ontology will not leave out? Presumably, the anything is the thing as it is in itself, lo mexicano as it gives itself in immediate, ordinary, experience. We will say nothing about what does not give itself, nor assume that there is anything that does not give itself; hence there is no room for mysticism. Nothing is positied that cannot be grasped.   

[vi] Some decades ago, Leopoldo Zea said that Western philosophy in general was plagued by what he called “the imperial passion.” This was a passion for objectivity, for universality, for necessity at the expense of the concrete, the subjective, and the contingent. These, according to this imperial passion, added nothing to philosophy.

[vii] A common criticism we, who work on this, constantly face is that the “Mexican” in Mexican philosophy denotes a regionalism, relativism, or provincialism that is not philosophical.

[viii] I’ll discuss the second criticism in the next post.

[ix] The first criticism states that rather than philosophizing about a particular mode of life (lo mexicano), Mexican philosophy is nothing other than “confession,” or autobiography, or just cultural narratives with nothing philosophical about them.  

[x] Uranga’s response is that there is a thin line between objective description and subjective confession. In fact, there is no line. Subjectivity “inevitably interposes itself.” More than that, listening to the experience of subjectivity, is the “most honest and sincere thing to do.” Philosophy is not so far removed from our everyday thinking that we should shun what is most immediate to our experiences, that is, what is most familiar, and heartfelt.

[xi] A methodological point: (a) we begin with our immediate experience (in this case, my own character–that I am this and that way, extreme in regards to certain things, hesitant in regards to other, prone to objectless anxiety, hyper self-aware, impossibly historical, etc.); (b) strip this character to its bare essential, namely, my identity as subject; (c) subtracting from (a) whatever screams of my own quirks, ticks, and hang-ups; so as to (d) arrive at “objective results.” Notice, however, the qualifier “if one wants.” This means that the “subtraction” would be an act of will and a response to some demand. If one wants to subtract oneself, one can, but one does not have to in order for the “results” to remain valid and meaningful.

[xii] The burden of objectivity will always fall on the reader. How can we know to what extent Hegel’s objective philosophy was in fact objective—how much of himself did he truly subtract?

[xiii] This sentence, which speaks volumes about the method, needs rewriting: “It is better to begin an investigation about Mexican vulgarity on the basis of what we already know about Mexican vulgarity, than to let us conclude that vulgarity exists only in the soul of the observer.” In other words, it is better to begin a philosophical study with what we know about ourselves, then to let others tell us what it is we know about ourselves.

[xiv] We must begin with our subjective experiences, i.e., with the concrete. Common to the distinct approaches to phenomenology that Uranga appropriates, and thus central to his own method, is a respect for proximity. He alludes to this methodological commitment in “Notas.” That which is “more familiar…our own character” is the space for the investigation of the truths of reality. There is no need to go beyond that, to go into the unknown corners of a human experience that cannot possibility be given to me in the sphere of my own subjectivity. To get to the truth of things, I just need to “subtract” the vagaries and eccentricities of my own personality, while “accentuating” those that cannot be subtracted (cf. p. 118).

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