Thoughts on Emilio Uranga’s ¿De quién es la filosofía?*

I. Tracing a Line from Analysis of Mexican Being

An underlying premise of Analysis of Mexican Being (AMB) is that philosophy is intimately tied to a specific circumstance from which it is essentially inseparable (namely, “lo mexicano”), and, thus, that positionality, lived experience, and catastrophe are philosophical resources. This premise justifies, for Uranga, the focus on the determinate historical entity that he analyses (namely, the Mexican) and, so, the truths of his philosophical analysis will be truths that point to the being of that entity but also to the being of others entities who share in that positionality, lived experience, and subjectivity. While he never clearly abandons this commitment to the necessity of subjective experience for philosophical truth, towards the end of his life Uranga seeks to lessen the grip of individual subjective experience on philosophy; that is, he seeks to show that the specific circumstance from which philosophy arises is secondary to philosophy itself, not on par with it as it seems to have been in the Analysis.

Emilio Uranga published ¿De quién es la filosofía? in 1977. It’s a fantastic little book where Uranga deploys the Russellian theory of descriptions so as to disembody philosophy, argue for philosophical objectivity, and bring about the (famously postmodern) “death of the author,” constituting a clear departure from the founding premises and philosophical commitments of his Analysis from his early (M)existentialist period. Framed as a critique of the philosophy of his teacher and mentor, José Gaos, the work is a series of reflections on the necessity to separate the author from the text—a connection that Gaos spent a lifetime attempting to establish through his philosophy of “personalism.”[1] However, ¿De quién es la filosofía? (DQEF) which we could translate as To whom does philosophy belong? Or, even, Does philosophy belong to anyone?, while a critique of the sort of situated philosophy that lends his Analysis its enduring value, nonetheless retains Uranga’s early anxieties about Eurocentrism, telling us (as an answer to the title of the work) that philosophy belongs to no one, which means, conversely, that everyone has a right to it—a right to create it and to be created by it. My impression is that there is an underlying continuity between this work and the work leading up and including 1952, which we could express as a serious concern with speaking on behalf of and from one’s particular, historical, cultural, worries (although by 1977 he is no longer concerned with a specifically “Mexican” concern).

Echoing Ronald Barthes’ 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author,” Uranga now insists that philosophy, once it is written is, properly speaking, authorless. The flight of the author does not take away from philosophy; philosophy was meant to stand apart, and in the absence of the author, it does just this. While it must necessarily be expressed from the point of view of a particular life (a subject), it is meant to transcend that life, to be a-historical and subject-less. He writes:

A philosophy without a subject to sustain it appears to us like an unstable phantasm [fantasma vacilante] that will fall apart right before our eyes at any moment. But…these anxieties are unjustified….For a certain time, the creator and his philosophical system have been “contemporaries,” “partners”…who eventually take separate paths: the philosopher to the tomb and the philosophical system to the annals or the history of philosophy (DQEP, 64-65).

The aim of philosophy is to live outside the confines of the subjective experience and the temporal. In fact, his turn to ontology in the Analysis sought to do just this, namely, to give the Mexican experience an objective gloss. As a phenomenological ontology, it offers a description of a way of life that other ways of life would find familiar. It is ultimately an expression of the Spirit of a people (e.g., lo mexicano) and not of any particular life.

This softening of the role of the subject in the articulation of the philosophical is meant to point to the objectivity of philosophy in general but also to Uranga’s own commitment to such objectivity. The idea is that even in the Analysis, where the focus is on Mexican being from the point of view of that same being, objectivity holds as what is said has universal implications and is not restricted to the experience of one particular cultural or political subject—that which is Mexican (lo mexicano), that is, speaks not only for itself but for all humankind. But while in 1952 subjective experience (via the phenomenological and existential standpoints) fully and richly informs the “truths” of philosophy, even taking priority over them, with the publication of ¿De quién es la filosofía? Uranga seeks to de-prioritize the subjective point of view, to place philosophy over the philosopher, and recover philosophy’s proper role as the source of objectivity and universality, a role lost or muddled in the project of a Mexican ontology and the philosophy of lo mexicano. That he pulls off the divorce is another matter, but what is important for us here is to highlight this “phase” of Uranga’s development, a phase where he “seems” to take back that which lends his Analysis its enduring value, namely, the emphasis on the value of subjective experience.             

¿De quién es la filosofía? is a question that asks: who does philosophy belong to? And the answer is clear: philosophy belongs to no one and to everyone, simultaneously. It is not a narrative of its owner, and so it cannot be claimed by that owner; but this just means that it can be claimed, and practiced, by anyone who wishes to do philosophy. Its claims will be objective, universal, and transcendent, unlike its author, who will die and be forgotten. 

Given all of this, what about a “Mexican ontology” or a philosophy of a “Mexican being”—with their objectivity in question—are they of any value whatsoever as philosophy? Uranga hesitates before completely dismissing his previous work. On the one hand, he says that reading Bertrand Russell brought him to see that his previous existentialist work was misdirected. 

[Russell’s philosophy] convinced me that all philosophy of “styles of life,” of “lived experience,” of “experience,” or of “human life,” is nothing but a “provincial gesture” [“gestecillo de aldea”], despite the familiar way in which [philosophy as provincial gesture] gives itself to our reflections, conditioned as they are by the tradition of the “tribe.” (DQEF 23)

This would suggest that the work of the Analysis is nothing but a “provincial gesture” that was too tied up in the particularity of his own lived experience. But, even if Uranga is gesturing toward a denial of his previous position, in the end, the text of Analysis consciously seeks to transcend its provincialism in offering itself as a “lesson” for others “that through a thousands accidents of history, of culture or society, have been framed by the catastrophic” (AMB, 185). 

In De quien es la filosofia? Uranga insists that philosophy is not an expression of a determined subjectivity; however, he does not want to go so far as to deny that it begins there. Ultimately, the idea is that, while it is a description of a “style” of life, once articulated it reveals ontological dimensions shareable with other “tribes” and other times. It is transcendental. 

The [philosophical] system can be explained as a revelation of life itself, but once it leaves—the system only leaves and does not return—its “reasons” are inaccessible, deaf to the call of facticity. In the end, the tribe does not need more language than what it has in its rituals. The system has broken the ties  with tradition and travels above “customs.” Here we have what an old woman once meant when she said: “My son only speaks for strangers.” With the philosophical system we have left the parish; it is an ungodly action. (DQEF, 31)

Philosophy is “ungodly,” and, as he says elsewhere, “demonic,” but if we are looking for reasons as to why Uragna’s dramatic turn from his earlier work, we can point two underlying motives—to more personal motives. The first is tied to the tradition of Mexican philosophy that he helped establish and to the philosopher most responsible for the promotion of this tradition: José Gaos. The Spanish philosopher Gaos, who was a student of both Heidegger and Ortega y Gasset, had fled the Spanish Civil war and exiled himself in Mexico City in 1937. He brought with him phenomenology, existentialism, and his own brand of historicism, an approach to philosophy that he had inherited from Nietzsche and that he called “personalism.” This is the idea, according to Gaos, that “philosophy does not give us an image of the world subject to corroboration or verification, rather it gives us a biographical narrative of a man who has given himself over to thinking about the world…the history of philosophy is thus a collection of biographies or autobiographies of philosophers” (DQEF, 15). Gaos’ overly subjective philosophy, while it had helped launch the philosophy of lo mexicano as we find it in the writings of el grupo Hiperion, no longer seemed viable to Uranga and he now sought “rapture and divorce” (DQEF, 15) between biography and philosophy, but also between himself and Gaos, with whom he had had a falling out 20 years prior, and whose philosophy was, he says, “diametrically opposed” to his own (DQEF, 23).

The second motive is perhaps grounded on self-awareness: that is, by distancing himself from Gaos, Uranga aimed to offer his own philosophizing as a contribution to the annals and history of philosophy while distancing it from his own personal failings. The last thing Uranga wanted was for posterity to identify his philosophy with his biography (for many reasons, which I won’t get into now). 

*My goal is to write a series of reflections on this text over the next few months. This is the first installment.

[1] This follows from the view, espoused by Nietzsche, that philosophy is a form of autobiography. The basic idea behind personalism is that philosophy is nothing more than the personal confession of the philosopher. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche had professed: “I have gradually come to realize what every great philosophy so far has been: a confession of faith on the part of its author, and a type of involuntary and unself-conscious memoir.”

2 responses to “Thoughts on Emilio Uranga’s ¿De quién es la filosofía?*

  1. Wow. Quite a deep dive and stimulating first read to start off a day of Razon–de quien y para que onda?
    gracias y saludos,
    Jo’se fm

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