Today Mexican philosophy is enjoying something of a renaissance. Emerging from the Mexican Revolution of 1910, philosophers in Mexico grappled with questions concerning Mexican identity, including the identity of Mexican philosophy, and formed a distinct philosophical tradition known as la filosofía de lo mexicano, or the philosophy of Mexicanness. At its core, this golden age of Mexican philosophy (1910-60) aimed to uncover the essential characteristics of Mexican culture in order to reaffirm them in light of a history of conquest and colonialism. Thus, the philosophy of Mexicanness represents an effort to achieve liberation from the dominant paradigms of Western thought, as well as a genuine desire for self-knowledge – what the Mexican philosopher Emilio Uranga (1921-88) referred to as ‘autognosis’.
On a relatively standard account, the philosophy of Mexicanness begins with Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico (1934) by Samuel Ramos, so it is not surprising that Uranga begins his ‘Essay on the Ontology of the Mexican’ (1951) by quoting Ramos at length. Uranga highlights the central thesis of the text: that the defining characteristic of the Mexican mind is that the Mexican suffers from an ‘inferiority complex’. Like Ramos and other intellectuals of this period, Uranga sought to comprehend the characteristics that define the Mexican people. Mexicans are sentimental, Uranga claims, and full of melancholy. They have a peculiar fascination with death and dying. Readers today need think only of Coco (2017), Pixar’s portrait of Mexican culture: even though it is a children’s movie, it is fundamentally about loss and the threat of being forgotten. However, unlike Ramos, Uranga proposes an ontological account of Mexican sentimentality, melancholy and inferiority, concluding that these are but symptoms of an ‘ontological insufficiency’ – of the fact that to be Mexican is to fundamentally lack that which would otherwise make one sufficient.
Born in Mexico City in 1921, Uranga was a founding member of el grupo Hiperión, a group of young Mexican philosophers influenced by German and French existential phenomenology. Considered the most capable member of the group and referred to as primus inter pares (first among equals), Uranga presents a novel interpretation of Mexican life in his essay on the ontology of the Mexican. ‘Mexicans are creatures of melancholy,’ he writes, making clear that he is not referring to a psychological disposition toward sadness, but to an ontological condition of being groundless and, more to the point, of being conscious of one’s lack of permanent foundation. ‘Ontologically speaking’ – a phrase Uranga repeats – the Mexican is an ‘accidental’ being.
At the centre of Uranga’s ‘ontology’ is the scholastic distinction between substance and accident. A substance is that which endures and survives change. It is what remains the same despite change – the thing itself, which is characterised by permanence. By contrast, an accident depends on a substance for its existence – x must be an accident of something – and is by definition impermanent. Applied to the human being – something that the phenomenologist Martin Heidegger does not do – this ontological difference manifests itself in the feeling of power, a sense of self-sufficiency and permanence on the one hand, and a fundamental sense of insecurity and impermanence on the other hand. In historical terms, it is the difference between the modern European’s belief in her power over nature and inferior human beings, and the various forms of Mexican dependence and self-denigration.
Like Ramos’s unflattering portrait of the Mexican in the Profile, the purpose of Uranga’s analysis of Mexican sentimentality is not simply to put the Mexican on trial. Instead, there is an underlying lesson about the human condition that the Anglo-European can learn from Mexican self-examination. To be accidental is not the tragic fate of Mexicans – the peculiar source of their misery or fascination with death. Instead, it is an essential feature of being human. In other words, if Uranga is right, the belief in the self-sufficiency or substantiality of human existence that defines modern European history – a belief that provided Europeans with a justification for a history of conquest, colonialism, exclusion and exploitation – is not just mistaken or false, it is inhuman.
It is worth pointing out that Uranga’s use of ‘ontology’ is problematic, given that the object of his analysis is the specific being of the Mexican. As the philosopher Guillermo Hurtado of the National Autonomous University of Mexico pointed out in 2011, Uranga engages in a ‘micro-regional ontology’, not ontology proper. Hurtado asks: ‘How far can the regionalisation of an ontology be taken?’ However, the seeming regionalisation of ontology did not bother Uranga, as he believed that the results of the analytic would show that Mexican being, as insufficient and accidental, represents being in general. So, for Uranga and el grupo Hiperión, or los hiperiones, the existential analytic of Mexican existence (or Dasein, as Heidegger might have it) would open the path to a greater truth, ‘the Mexican is human and the human is Mexican’. Thus, while it might be problematic for a more traditional phenomenologist, we like to see Uranga’s appropriations of the phenomenological-existential method as creative, a refusal to employ an approach that already exists and a willingness to adjust the method to match the (historical) object of study.
Uranga’s ‘Essay on the Ontology of the Mexican’, as well as other influential texts in la filosofía de lo mexicano, can be found in Mexican Philosophy in the 20th Century (2017), the inaugural volume of Oxford University Press’s new series, Oxford New Histories of Philosophy. It is a shorter version of Uranga’s more robust Análisis del ser del mexicano (1949-52), or ‘The Analysis of Mexican Being’, soon to be translated into English. Uranga’s essay ‘The Mexican and Humanism’ has been translated into English in The Modern Mexican Essay (1965). Other noteworthy works include Literary Tricks (Austicias literarias, 1971), and Who Owns Philosophy? (¿De Quien es la filosofia? 1977), which both testify to a struggle for and against the traditional postulates of philosophy and the philosophical life.
Carlos Alberto Sánchez is professor of philosophy at San José State University. He is the author of several books, including ‘Contingency and Commitment: Mexican Existentialism and the Place of Philosophy’ (2016). He is also the co-editor of ‘Mexican Philosophy in the 20th Century: Essential Readings’ (2017) which is a volume of the Oxford New Histories in Philosophy series and a project of the Center for New Narratives in Philosophy. He lives in San José, California.
Robert Eli Sanchez, Jr is an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He is the co-editor of ‘Mexican Philosophy in the 20th Century: Essential Readings’ (2017) which is a volume of the Oxford New Histories in Philosophy series and a project of the Center for New Narratives in Philosophy. He lives in Los Angeles, California.