N.B. You can watch Carlos Alberto Sánchez and Amy A. Oliver discussing Mexican Philosophy with Amy Reed-Sandoval in one of our digital events on Monday 5th June. More details and registration here.
It is quite a thing to be struck by the thought that, yes, maybe there is something different about one’s historical, cultural, and even political situation; it is quite another to be willing to communicate this difference philosophically rather than through poetry, political manifestos, or literary narratives. Undeniably, there is a certain glamour or prestige attached to describing oneself in a language of the eternal, the transcendent, the undying. The problem is that such an effort reeks of privilege – a bourgeois conceit. For Mexican philosophers of the mid-20th century, however, it seems to have been a necessary conceit. If they were to fully emerge from the shadows of colonialism a century after independence, some arrogance and presumption was certainly in order, and even demanded.
Enter Emilio Uranga’s Analysis of Mexican Being (originally published in 1952 and translated into English in 2021). The underlying assumption of Uranga’s work is that the conquest and colonization of the Americas forced the creation of a new type of being – a new, non-European and non-Indigenous way of being, of doing, and of becoming, a being that is accidental, insufficient, indeterminate, a being that is “nepantla” – a Nahuatl term meaning “in between” or “in the middle.”
Uranga, along with other Mexican philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century, sought to think the nature and function of this new type of human being. The need for a philosophical intervention was necessary since that being, while owing something to both European and Indigenous ways of existing, was both and neither at once, and because of this in-betweenness (nepantla) had for centuries been relegated to the margins, to the peripheries as an impure bi-product of (historical) necessity – indeed, as an accident. Describing it philosophically was a way to justify its reality, to say: “this is human!”
Borrowing from the existential and hermeneutical phenomenologies of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Ortega y Gasset, Sartre, and Scheler, Mexican philosophers gathered in the late 1940s to ask what it truly meant to be Mexican, and, simultaneously, to figure out how to ask this question in such a way that what they said about themselves would be more than a stereotype, that it would be profound, deeper than what mere appearances would suggest. What they ended up saying, and elegantly and distinctively so, was that Mexican being, as nepantla, was lived in radical contingency, insufficiency, and indeterminacy. Such elegance and distinctiveness, I now think, came by the way they framed their reflections – namely, as an ontology, a philosophy of being, one that placed nepantla at the centre. “We thus have before us in all its purity,” says Uranga in reference to nepantla, “the central category of our ontology… one that does not borrow from the Western tradition, satisfying our desire to be originalists.”
Placing nepantla as “the central category” of Mexican ontology means that it will do much of the heavy lifting when talking about this “new” being. The idea is that as nepantla, Mexicans exist (whether they were conscious of this or not) in a perpetual state of suspension between being and becoming. To be “in between” in this sense means that Mexicans are simultaneously entangled with multiple origins and destinations, moral commitments, and life projects; it refers, in general, to one’s being involved in a constant negotiation between old and new ways of doing things, between opposing ways of thinking things, between different ways of saying things. Rather than choose one or another, Mexicans, and anyone else who may identify themselves as nepantla, stay in the in-betweenness of it all, in the liminal space where worlds collide.
“Ontology,” writes Uranga in a letter to his friend José Moreno Villa, “is the poetic decision to allow being to speak and to speak only of being.” Uranga seeks this because he is conscious of the fact that only a being speaking of itself as being will be capable of breaking through its own particularity without losing sight of it. By speaking about being in a philosophical way, Mexicans can both transcend their cultural, political, or ethnic enclosures while retaining their fundamental Mexicanness.
This strategy, moreover, is one which he thinks Europeans would not adopt simply because they have never had a need to resort to it. As Uranga puts it in Analysis of Mexican Being:
The European does not need to ask himself the question regarding his own being because he immediately identifies the human and the European. He does not need to justify himself before humanity because, for him, his own being is the measure of the human.
The European has never had to question his own humanity before another, which means that they (and their backers) will find the very idea of a Mexican ontology puzzling.
Mexican ontology is the attempt to give an answer to the question about a being that must ask itself if being human and being Mexican are the same thing.
We thus have a philosophical project that arises out of a need. Mexican ontology is the attempt to give an answer to the question about a being that must ask itself if being human and being Mexican are the same thing. It is an attempt to justify oneself before others both because our own being has now become a question to ourselves, but also because not doing so only prolongs voicelessness and invisibility.
Central to Mexican ontology are the notions of substance and accident. Substance is to be understood simply as something that can stand on its own, that has autonomy, that is worthy of respect, dignity, and that can speak for itself. It is full of being. An accident, on the other hand, is accidental to substance – it depends on substance for its justification, for its dignity, autonomy, and voice; an accident lacks substance and it is, as Uranga puts it, a “minus of being, a being reduced or ‘fragmented’ due to its mixture with nothingness.”
That the accident is in a “mixture” with nothingness means that the accident is always insufficient. It is not sufficient enough to be being, but sufficient enough to be not-nothingness.
The philosophical problem that calls for ontology is one related to the sort of being that Mexicans could claim for themselves almost 500 years after the Spanish conquest. That is, for centuries, questions about their Spanishness, their indigenousness – in short, about their authenticity – had made it impossible to get a clear sense as to who or what Mexicans were or what sort of being defined them.
Before the ontological intervention, inquiries into the "sort of being” of Mexicans tended to culminate with psychological descriptions. A popular one was that inferiority – or, more precisely, the feeling of inferiority – lay at the heart of what it meant to be Mexican. As a mixture of Spanish and Indigenous racial types (mestizaje), the feeling of inferiority was essentially tied the impurity of the mix. Because mestizaje is not something one can outrun, it was thus thought that inferiority defined Mexican spiritual, cultural, and individual life; the feeling of inferiority was simply part of the way things were.
From a psychological point of view, the feeling of inferiority is thought to be a result of historical events that could have gone otherwise – that is, of accidentality understood non-ontologically or pre-ontologically. Looked at philosophically, however, this same feeling is related to accidentality when understood ontologically as a “minus of being,” or as an “insufficiency” of substantial being. As Uranga explains:
The insufficiency of the Mexican person is the insufficiency of his being as accident and only this. Any other sense that may be given to the word “insufficiency” falls outside our ontology. If critics insist on interpreting our affirmation of the insufficiency of the Mexican being as “weakness,” “impotence,” “defeatism,” “hopelessness,” and thus continue to criticize what we have affirmed, they show themselves to be perverse, incapable, or bad intentioned. When we say that the being of the Mexican is accidental, our purpose is to take such an assertion seriously, which means that our purpose is to clarify the problems entailed by the characterization of being as accident.
In this way, ontology, or the philosophy of being, ultimately challenges a negative stereotype to which Mexicans had grown accustomed, namely, that given their unique historical situation, they were, in fact, inferior, or weak, or impotent, or hopeless. The truth that the ontological project made it clear, however, was that if this condition was indeed a uniqueness, it was a human uniqueness, and Mexicans were not alone in being characterized by it.
But coming up with an ontological story that can affirm Mexican existence as truly human (understood as a minus of being that is also not-nothingness, a “mixture” of being and nothingness) requires reimagining ontology for this very concrete purpose. This, in turn, requires certain violations of the Western ontological tradition, where thinking about being should not be corrupted by historical and political facts like race or nation.
The ontological story of Mexicans begins with the concreteness of Mexican existence itself and not with an abstract or catch-all conception of being.
Thus reimagined, the ontological story of Mexicans begins with the concreteness of Mexican existence itself and not with an abstract or catch-all conception of being. In other words, it is not a fundamental ontology. For Uranga, this process of thinking about the particularity of Mexican existence can in turn reveal a clue to a more fundamental being. This means that Mexican ontology will pay attention to certain historical particularities of Mexicans, but, again, without losing the focus on being, specifically, on accidentality as a way of being.
Affirming accidentality has to do with not seeing oneself as a substance, understood as something unalterable or impervious to historical or political realities. But it also means that one does not see oneself as nothing, as unworthy of respect and philosophy, and thus as inferior, weak, impotent, hopeless. To think oneself as accident is to think of oneself as ontologically, but not factually, “insufficient.”
The reality is that none of us, not even the most powerful and self-fulfilled, can claim the superiority and permanence of what is opposed to the accident. But it is this sort of distorted, idealized, reading of being that has been historically reflected in the treatment of Mexicans (and other marginalized peoples) as inferior and, thus, as inessential. It has resulted in thinking of Mexicans – and other “accidents” – as wrong for this world.
Uranga’s Analysis of Mexican Being presupposes that this has been how Mexicans have been understood and how they’ve understood themselves: as wrong for this world, or, as “accidents.” Mexican existence as accident then makes sense of related forms of being also belonging to them, such as nepantla (in-betweenness) and zozobra (emotional restlessness or unsettledness). What ontology allows is the formulation of this insight: Mexicans as accidental, in-between, and restless are no less human than everyone else, even those that consider themselves fully invested with being, securely positioned, and emotionally settled. In this way, Mexican ontology seeks to make sense of Mexican life as human life.
Mexicans (both mestizos as well as Indigenous Mexicans) have historically found themselves reduced to less-than-human by European colonizers because of their apparent historical accidentality, because they appear to lack the historical necessity of Europeans. In order to create distance between themselves and the accidents, Europeans made themselves out to be other-than-accidental; they made themselves out to be substantial – self-justified, autonomous, capable of standing on their own, authorized to dominate. It was by the middle of the 20th century that the “moment of crisis” had arrived, the moment at which Mexicans were to discard these inherited and imposed conceptions of being human. For his part, Uranga urges a rejection of:
…ways of organizing the human that have been “imposed” on us and that, with arrogant “sufficiency,” have been proposed and offered as more “radically” human than ours. But the moment of crisis has arrived…[we hear] the imperative of unmasking, of radically refuting the “impostor” within us. But, after this, the man who underneath still nourishes the dross (nutrean las escorias) is no longer exclusively the Mexican returned to his truth, but is more accurately man – simply man.
The task of “unmasking” was left to ontology. This was one of the “ways of organizing the human.” Revealed is being in its truth, without exaggeration, as accidental, and “simply man.”
We can understand Mexican ontology as a means to push back against inherited and imposed ontological schemas of all sorts.
The promise of Uranga’s ontological program is that those narratives supporting supremacist self-interpretations based on misguided ontological understandings can be and should be demystified. In a certain way, we can understand Mexican ontology as a means to push back against inherited and imposed ontological schemas of all sorts. It is through such re-descriptions, through such intentional deployments of ontology, that the West is forced to confront its philosophical other, the one who now, in a flip of the script, pushes it into an unfamiliar and unstable terrain – into an ontology of lo mexicano.
Returning to what may be most problematic about all of this. On the face of it, a “Mexican ontology” seems to be motivated by a misunderstanding of philosophy itself. Such a project will sound strange to those for whom philosophy is just philosophy and qualifying it as “Mexican,” “French,” “Italian” and so on, serves to pervert it or degrade it. These folks will, I guess, quickly dismiss a Mexican ontology as a misunderstanding of ontology, as a symptom of an overly active enthusiasm on the part of the “subaltern.” Instead, an investigation into the nature of Mexican being should surely be left to philosophical anthropology, sociology, or, even, psychology. Bringing philosophy to bear on “Mexicanness” certainly appears to violate instructions laid out by the Western philosophical tradition that sets up the rules and conventions for doing philosophy properly, including doing philosophy filter-free, purely, without the intervention of contingencies like nation, race, or history.
Mexico is a nation, a historical entity with politically defined boundaries and a real trade deficit, and not a delineated and accepted sphere of being, like history or science or the financial industry. While Husserl acknowledged that we could talk about “regional ontologies” that account for what there is in specific regions or areas of investigation, e.g. a historical ontology that investigates historical objects and their interrelations, “Mexican ontology” appears to fail even as a regional ontology due to the unwieldy parameters of "Mexico" as an object of study.
In Emilio Uranga we find a philosopher steeped in history of philosophy, fully in touch with the philosophical tradition, but also highly suspicious of its intent.
However, in Emilio Uranga we find a philosopher steeped in history of philosophy, fully in touch with the philosophical tradition, but also highly suspicious of its intent. He suspects, for instance, that a filter-free, view-from-nowhere philosophizing is impossible. He also suspects that the Western philosophical tradition has just gotten used to itself – that it has become “uncritical”:
Critics are quick to deny that there can be an ontology of Mexicanness. Ontology, they insist, can only refer to being in general and, in the case of a fundamental ontology, to the analysis of not a particular type of man, but of “man in general.” In spite of repeated attacks against the idea of a “man in general,” this objection continues to operate uncritically and is in dire need of clarification. It is true that ontology asks for the sense of being in general, but it is also true that it is always a question asked by man himself; moreover, asking about being seems inconceivable if being is not grounded in man. In this sense, man and being are inextricably linked.
Uranga’s insight here is that there is no such thing as “man in general;” rather, the being that asks about its own being is always a particularized man, a person in a specific situation. And that to deny this is to deny a basic human experience – namely, that the question about one’s being is always asked by someone. In Mexican ontology, this “someone” is the Mexican philosopher herself:
The ontology of that which is Mexican [ontología del mexicano] is a philosophical exercise in which the attempt is made to make evident the fundamental project of the Mexican person, the way in which they chose their being, the form in which they try to fill that emptiness which they themselves are constitutionally.
Such a way of approaching being, however, makes it sound like what we’re talking about is not being in the traditional sense, but, rather, a sort of project – not a being, but a becoming. And this wouldn’t be too far afield: Mexican being is nepantla, a being always in between, always on the way, never a completed project, an accident and not a substance.
Here we arrive at what the “ontological difference” at the core of Mexican ontology means. It refers to the way that substance and accident are manifested in everyday life; in the way in which certain people carry themselves, i.e., as powerful, self-sufficient and privileged, on the one hand, or as powerless, insecure and dispossessed, on the other. Uranga reads this in the history of Mexico itself as the difference between European supremacy, on the one hand, and a Mexican sense of inferiority, on the other. But once we zoom out of the everyday, there is no real difference between Europeans and Mexicans. Ontologically, both are accidental and insufficient:
[T]he human being is radically a desire to fulfil his insufficient being, to give itself that amount of being that would make his being equal to that of the massive being of things…human reality is a deficiency or lack of being.
Denying this insight would be to hold on to a view of self-sufficiency and substantiality that is humanly impossible to achieve. To live authentically, or non-arrogantly or honestly, would mean accepting our own impermanence and insecurity. It would mean living with the truth of our own being, recognizing that, yes, this is human.
For Uranga, as we have seen, Mexicans suffer from a “minus of being.” It is an emptiness the recognition of which is motivated by the fact that Mexicans are concrete, historical, and accidental begins fated for death or destruction as opposed to being ideal, eternal, and necessary substances unencumbered by the inevitability of death. It is an emptiness, moreover, that Mexicans recognize in themselves and when they look beyond themselves, when they behold the “self-certainty” of the American or the European, the security of those who seem so sure of themselves.
Of course, it is obvious to us that this “minus of being,” or accidentality, is one that describes us all, whether Mexican or not. We recognize it in ourselves and also recognize that knowing this puts us closer to the truth of our own being than if we were to avoid it. The reason why Uranga does not simply say that what he says applies to us all is that he does not want to speak on behalf of everyone. This would be, he says, a sort of “arrogance” characteristic of Western philosophy:
The goal of my work can thus be reduced to this. It could be said that any other character (besides the Mexican) allows for the same kind of operation, but I have my (Mexican) character proximally at hand and it would be absurd to appeal to something other than myself as a means to find the truth – it would be like cleaning my neighbor’s glasses so that I may see better. To those who feel learned in foreign techniques, I give my congratulations. Let them do their work with Greek, German, or French tools. What’s important is that at the end of the exploration our results coincide, or else we must go our separate ways. It would be interesting to see a restoration of what it would mean for the human being to be substantial. But I am convinced the being of that kind of being is accidental and not substantial.
The method of a Mexican ontology is simply to speak about that which experience authorizes us to speak about. Anything more, like a speaking of humanity in general, is out of bounds and beyond our cognitive abilities.
We may be tempted to read Mexican ontology as a form of philosophical decolonization. By putting the stress on its Mexicanness, it inevitably challenges a particular supremacist tendency in European philosophy as presented to Mexicans at various points in their history. This particular supremacist tendency says that European concepts, such as “ontology” or even “the human,” should be regarded as applying universally – regardless of where their referents are found. But, more importantly, this supremacist tendency contains a threat: one should use these concepts as they were intended or risk relegation to the margins of philosophy.
But decolonization was not the goal, especially when you consider that the Uranga’s overall project was not meant to upend a colonizing imposition. In other words, Uranga’s articulation of a Mexican ontology is not a radical misreading of that tradition. In fact, it is still talking about relations or forms of life between, or amongst, entities existing in a particular social, historical, cultural, or scientific domain. While this ontology is not neutral or abstract or formal, Uranga himself asks us to call it a domain-specific regional ontology, and in this way aims to maintain some closeness to the Western philosophical tradition. Mexican ontology may not be decolonial in any meaningful way, but it is anti-colonial, or counter-colonial insofar as it purposely designates itself as “Mexican” – and it does this to draw attention both to its particularity and to the “arrogance” of the Western tradition.
Carlos Alberto Sánchez is Professor of Philosophy at San José State University, where he teaches and writes on Mexican philosophy and culture. He has published widely on Mexican philosophy. His books include The Suspension of Seriousness: On the Phenomenology of Jorge Portilla (2012), Contingency and Commitment: Mexican Existentialism and the Place of Philosophy (2012), Mexican Philosophy for the 21st Century (forthcoming), and Blooming in the Ruins: Mexican Philosophy as a Guide to Life (forthcoming). He is the co-Executive Editor of the Journal of Mexican Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy. He lives in Hayward, California.