Philosophy In, Of, and About Mexico

07 July 2023

Mexican philosophy is full of fascinating ideas, from Mexica ("Aztec") and Mayan thought to Sor Juana’s feminism and Emilio Uranga’s existentialism. But is "Mexican philosophy" a single thing? Do all those branches have anything significant in common, other than coming from (roughly) the same part of the world?

Arguably, the answer is yes. After all, we talk about "Greek philosophy," "German philosophy," and even—god help us—"French philosophy." So there seems to be no reason not to talk, in a similar way, about Mexican philosophy: it's no more or less variegated than, say, a body of thought that includes Plato, Gorgias, Diogenes, and Posidonius. What's more, Mexican philosophy is a tradition. These voices are often in conversation with each other, and they are frequently talking about a single central topic: freedom.

One famous example is Bartolomé de las Casasa 16th-century priest (originally from Spain) who railed against the barbarity of the European invasion. In Las Casas's time, Spanish colonists were enslaving the Indigenous inhabitants of the lands they had invaded; Las Casas vigorously opposed this, drawing—fascinatingly enough—on Aristotle. It might seem counterintuitive (to say the least!) to draw on Aristotle for opposition to slavery, since Aristotle claims some people are "slaves by nature." But Aristotle also saiys it's wrong to force rational beings to do things; you can attempt to persuade them, but you can't coerce them. Since this obviously applied to Indigenous people in the Americas, Las Casas had an excellent case. And although Las Casas did not prevent all of the abuses, he got his colonial contemporaries thinking seriously about the rights of Native people.

The tradition of philosophizing about freedom just kept on going. In the early 19th century, for example, Miguel Hidalgo, leader of the War of Independence, used Enlightenment ideas to argue for Mexican autonomy. Hidalgo didn’t end up getting separation of church and state written into the constitution, but the revolution did at least abolish the monarchy and protect the freedom of the press. And shortly after that, in 1829, Mexico outlawed slavery.

Nor did Mexican philosophers stop there. In the 20th century, Mexican existentialists like Emilio Uranga called for an even more radical freedom—the freedom for each individual to choose their life. Uranga also flipped the Eurocentric script on its head: Europeans are always criticizing Mexican thinkers, he said, for being full of resentment, melancholy, and angst. But these things help us understand our fundamental existential predicament, and so make us more human. So Europeans should be more like Mexicans, not the other way round.

Mexico also had advocates for women’s freedom, like writer and poet Rosario Castellanos, one of whose characters says “it’s not good enough to imitate others. It isn’t even enough to discover who we are. We have to invent ourselves.”

In short, the whole tradition really does feel like a single conversation, stretching all the way across the centuries. It's wide-ranging, and endlessly insightful, but at its core, arguably, it is a conversation about freedom. We can't wait to hear more about it from our guest: Manuel Vargas, co-director of the Mexican Philosophy Lab at UC San Diego and author of the forthcoming book, Mexican Philosophy.

Comments (4)

Paulo's picture


Thursday, July 13, 2023 -- 10:53 PM

Can you please touch upon the

Can you please touch upon the evolution of anarchist thought of Ricardo Flores Magon?

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Daniel's picture


Tuesday, July 18, 2023 -- 6:05 PM

Why? Do you intend to turn

Why? Do you intend to turn us in to the Pinkertons? Under the presumption that you're using the second person here in plural number, one possible response to the request you've made above might be to suggest a libertarian shift during his North American exile which is contrasted with his earlier positions, the latter describable as requiring an intermediate transition between capitalist and socialist institutions. For if that's true, it must be described as an evolution in R.F.M's thought which moves from what is already understood to what can as yet only be imagined, or, if you like, an evolution from the Understanding to the Imagination. In this relation, there's a passage in Leonard Peltier's Prison Writings, composed also in Leavenworth prison, which describes viewing a pigeon outside the window of his cell, looking about, taking off and landing again, etc., and reflecting upon the birds independence, as nothing restricts its movement or impedes its decisions with regards to where to go. In this reflection, the author states that his own freedom is enhanced and made stronger by merely imagining the pigeon's, as if granted by it some measured form of liberty. In a similar relation, when Nagel asked "what is it like to be a bat?", --is intermediary preparation here categorically excluded analogous to preparing for a free society and living in one? If so, the evolution to which you refer could be called one of preparation for what can be imagined to imagining what needs no preparation.

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oilumiun12's picture


Wednesday, November 22, 2023 -- 9:35 PM

There has been considerable

There has been considerable interest in political philosophy, philosophy of history, philosophy of science and ethics. Since the 1980s, works about the history of ideas in Mexico and the history of science and technology have proliferated .

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Daniel's picture


Thursday, November 23, 2023 -- 11:36 PM

So where does that leave the

What place does the perfect tense of "have proliferated" have with regards to "since the 1980's"? Would it be mistaken to conclude that no relation exists between these two pieces of nominal semantic content in the mind or intentionality claim-basis of a speaker, so that whatever correspondence they could be said to obtain to an object could only be supplied by a reader, who accordingly would therefore be its sole possible author? For at some point a responsibility-attribution must be assumed for their paratactical generation, even if none are detectable from their ostensively narrative form. Where might one find it? What resplendent revelations lay hidden in its utter vacuousness?

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