‘Mexican existentialism provides a template for a kind of liberationist project’


Mexican paper maché horses. Photograph by Tomascastelazo.

From Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

In 1948, a group of philosophers in Mexico began a spirited and public engagement with existentialism. The movement flourished for only four years, but Carlos Alberto Sánchez argues that the project was of considerably greater philosophical importance than its brief duration might suggest. In Sánchez’s reading, Mexican existentialism was, “that moment in the history of philosophy when Mexican philosophers hesitated before the Eurocentric conception of philosophy and identified [philosophy] with a quest for self-awareness” (91). The hallmark of this movement was an attempt to put the notion of Mexicanness at the center of a systematic research program in philosophy, and to explore the way in which this situated, contingent way of being might inform philosophical and practical commitments. This book is a lively and intellectually serious engagement with this sometimes incredible but oftentimes fascinating philosophical movement.

Sánchez argues that Mexican existentialism is worth our attention for at least three reasons. First, an accurate global history of existentialism, one that takes seriously the case of Mexican existentialism, looks interestingly different from the conventional story. Second, there are lessons to be learned from the Mexican appropriation of European existentialism, and these insights can inform our understanding of the situation(s) of Latinxs and the proper aspirations of a Latinx philosophy. In particular, Mexican existentialism provides a template for a kind of liberationist project that remains worth pursuing. Third, the project of Mexican existentialism reflects both an important and underappreciated way of doing philosophy, one that starts from reflections on the particular, concrete, situated, and contingent circumstances of its production. Sánchez offers an intricate and wide-ranging case for each of these claims. He also goes on to explore the nature of interpretation, and the specific purposes for which we might undertake readings of historical philosophy. This slender volume covers a lot of ground.

The rise and fall of Mexican existentialism constituted one moment in a much wider and still ongoing debate in Latin America and elsewhere between, on the one hand, situated, contingent philosophy, and on the other, decontextualized “universalist” philosophy. Sánchez comes down firmly on the side of situated philosophy. He also explicitly repudiates the direction of most Mexican philosophy after the existentialist moment of the late 40s and early 1950s. He writes that, “Encouraged by smart men to aspire to great heights and think of possibilities and not actualities . . . Mexican philosophers have found it necessary to deny their own history and their own circumstance” (92). Sánchez finds fault in this, and thinks that it is wasted effort to strive to do non-situated philosophy, noting that, “we cannot go far enough or deep enough to fulfill the condescending aspirations of the Western ideal of philosophy” (92).

“Contingency and Commitment: Mexican Existentialism and the Place of Philosophy, Reviewed by Manuel R. Vargas”, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews