This summer was my longest stay back home, in Mexico City, in my life as a philosophy student abroad. Because of course I failed to meet my goal of finishing coursework before the holiday, I went back to the studio space I used to rent for writing in Colonia Juárez, near the city centre. By “studio space” I mean the one unusable corner of an apartment in an early twentieth-century building that, the landlord claims, used to house the British diplomatic corps prior to the Mexican revolution, and that now brims with wild flora and peeling green walls.
It was there that the earthquake found me.
The essay I was grappling with deals with the old question whether the things we perceive—the things that we see and touch—have a reality that is independent of us. The relevant discussion starts with Immanuel Kant’s argument against Descartes’ skepticism about the empirical world.
While Descartes aimed to show that the only thing I can be certain of is my own existence, Kant argued that in order for that to be possible I need to in fact be aware of the world around me as actually existing independent of me. This is because, if I am aware of my existence as flowing in time, as I am, then there must be something fixed by reference to which I can be aware that I am not fixed but flowing. Precisely because Descartes is right that I can be certain that I exist, says Kant, I must be certain that a world distinct from me exists as well.
This argument is liable to numerous objections. A famous one, raised by contemporary philosopher Barry Stroud, is that Kant reasons illegitimately from a premise about subjective experience to a conclusion about the existence of objective reality. The problem is that one field of inquiry concerns how we experience and know the world, i.e. what our conceptual framework is like, while the other concerns what actually exists. According to Stroud, the most Kant’s premise can prove is that we experience the external world as existing.
I commissioned myself to get Kant out of this dead end. Though the task is of course ridiculously ambitious for a student, at the same time it felt easy. After all, I have seen, heard and touched the world my entire life. How hard could it be to show that that world, like me, is real?
At the studio, I sit facing a window that faces the inner courtyard. This arrangement makes my desk improbably quiet for the location of the building, opposite various businesses and half a block from the local market. Perfect for thinking and writing. That’s what I was supposed to be doing last Tuesday, around 1pm, when my chair suddenly shook. Because the public early-warning alarm did not in fact go off early, and because my spot is improbably soundproof, it took me a second to infer from the rocking of the lamps and unfastened windows that I was finally acquiring what we Mexico City-born millennials used to be accused of lacking in explanations of our generation’s apathy: the experience of the 1985 earthquake, which occurred exactly 32 years before and which took the lives of thousands of Mexico City dwellers, and transformed those of the rest.
Needless to say, those twenty seconds were unlike anything I’d felt before. Standing under a beam as instructed in school, I did nothing but absorb reality with all my senses. It wasn’t until the swaying finished that I thought about how unlucky I had been to find myself in an over one-hundred-year-old house at the time of the tremor, and how lucky it was that one-hundred-year-old houses were often built with iron rather than concrete beams. Other than that, however, I didn’t think much yet. I sat back down, read a little more, and felt vaguely uneasy. I went out to get something to eat.
The street was chaos. On my way to the market, I stumbled upon debris. Electricity and mobile coverage were out, so I followed the sound of a radio and heard talk of collapsed buildings. Only then did the magnitude of the quake start to hit me. Moreover, the voice said, those buildings were located in the Roma and Condesa area: right next to where I live. I headed back to my studio, still stunned, not thinking, where my friend José Antonio found me. We managed to reach his girlfriend and my parents from a shop’s landline, and at a point when cell coverage was back, a friend from abroad texted me uncanny pictures of the disaster. “They need help digging people out,” he added. And so we went.
Kant’s goal in the above argument, found in his “Refutation of Idealism,” might be described as that of getting objectivity out of subjectivity: his aim is to secure certainty about what the real world is like out of certainty about what our experience of it is like. In these terms, his claim is that subjectivity implies objectivity. Stroud’s objection is that subjectivity is self-sufficient. For our experience to be the way it is, Stroud says, we must only believe the world to be as real as it seems to us.
The attack is powerful. It is tempting to claim, with Stroud, that no matter how genuine my awareness of what’s around me might seem—no matter how vividly red apples look to me or how strongly cheese smells, there is no way to show that my awareness of these things is not just an awareness of my own imaginings, i.e. an awareness of myself and nothing else. But perception has often been considered the most primitive link our minds have to the world. So Stroud’s claim that my awareness of my own perceptions does not imply awareness of the world leaves Cartesian skepticism untouched—and my coursework ambitions in trouble.
Damage in Colonia Juárez was severe but no buildings crumbled. The neighborhood is located just north of Colonias Condesa and Roma, and all three stand on what used to be the lake where the Aztecs founded the city nearly a millennium ago. Their soils, accordingly, are loose and dance to quakes like jelly. Most dwellings in Condesa and Roma, however, are older.
José Antonio and I collected a batteryless radio from his home a few blocks from my studio; and lamps, and although we felt silly, a couple of cans of food. Nothing of this of course would be of any help. Nothing could prepare us for what we were about to see.
As soon as we crossed Chapultepec Avenue and entered Colonia Roma, it became apparent that what happened really had been a catastrophe. One out of every four buildings had some kind of damage, and there was broken glass and fallen bits of facade on every street. We joined a group of people carrying shovels; they were headed to a collapsed office building a few blocks away. A truck that had somehow crossed the cordon blocking off the street drove past us; it was packed with volunteers waving, inviting us in. We followed them running. Shortly, we saw our first site of collapse. Then another. Then another. There were desperate people howling. In Condesa, we ran into a friend outside his practically intact house, pale and shaking. We asked if he was okay and if he was headed somewhere safe. He replied reflexively that he “had no one”—he meant no lovers or close friends. We knew this but it had been never spoken. We hugged; we told him warm things. He stood there and we left.
We reached the corner where an apartment building used to stand on Amsterdam Avenue, one of the city’s prettiest. It was clearly the place where we would be of most help. Volunteers had begun to organize two rows of people, one to pass rubble piece by piece towards a dumping site a few blocks away, the other to pass empty buckets for faster removal in the opposite direction. I was in the first. I touched, in addition to bricks and rods, parts of a desktop, parts of a cradle, and a window frame. The girl next to me freaked out when she realized a piece of wall I’d passed her was spattered with something that looked like blood.
During the next four hours—an eternity—three sudden rounds of clapping arose. They meant three survivors had been saved.
For Kant perceptual experience requires not only sensory input, but the possession of certain concepts for organizing experience, like cause and effect or agent and patient. For him, perception involves both the faculty responsible for sensation, sensibility, and the one responsible for concepts, understanding. Otherwise, although one might sense, one does not perceive anything at all.
To see anything, we must be able to make sense of it.
I returned home that first night by way of crossing apocalyptic, pitch-dark Condesa. The next day, I joined a cyclists brigade distributing food and medication from collection points to places where traffic or rubble made car access impossible. By Friday, however, most of the city’s needs were covered by professionals, so friends drove out to towns where help still hadn’t arrived. I stayed. I had an essay to finish and only one week left.
I worked at my studio all day that Friday, or tried to, but it was hard to focus. I gave up early in the evening and rode my bike back home. On the way, I passed many buildings left uninhabitable and several of the collapsed ones where cranes and rescuers were still at work. This time, however, I saw them (and the people and the street) without the urge to help, as a landscape rather than as a call to action.
The three previous days, that is, my experience of the wrecked city had been not only theoretical but practical; upon perceiving it I formed the judgments “this place demands your help” or “that place must be avoided.” Now, by contrast, I experienced it at a contemplative distance, from my bike. And what I saw was beautiful. Roads were empty and night had fallen, so the ruins, lit by spotlights, were like sculptures, demanding my full attention. Rescue staff formed ant-like patterns as they roamed the mountains of rubble. The voices of the workers, yelling incomprehensible things, harmonized with noises from the machinery. And finally, scattered in the vicinity, shadows slumbered. It was the victims’ families still waiting for their bodies, unable to go home.
My heart was throbbing.
I headed back to Juárez, to José Antonio’s. It was also his first day of coming down from the stress. Together, we cried for the dead and the newly homeless, for the sad beauty of what we’d seen and the outpour of love Mexicans demonstrated for each other in response. We cried for the children in the Enrique Rébsamen school, and for the pet turtle someone rescued from the Amsterdam Avenue collapse where we’d been helping and which, when it stuck out its head shyly, broke everybody’s hearts.
There is one type of human experience, Kant concedes, in which we do see something without making sense of what we see. It consists in witnessing phenomena such as hurricanes, thunderstorms and volcanic eruptions: manifestations of nature’s might so great in magnitude or force that our faculties fail to comprehend them. Kant calls it an experience that is aesthetic in nature but goes beyond beauty: the experience of the sublime.
Never had I been so acutely convinced of the reality of my neighborhood as when I saw it destroyed that Friday night, not because I conceptualized it as “Condesa” or as “a place that needs your help,” but because I could simply feel its power as a shiver down my spine. Similarly, it took seeing my fellow volunteers sweat while clearing rubble, and seeing my best friend open his door in tears, to realize that I myself was shaken. My awareness of others, that is, proved necessary in this way for my awareness of myself.
Perhaps, I thought, objectivity, after all, is implied by subjectivity. And perhaps it also worked the other way around.
It’s been almost two weeks since the earthquake. Friends who were away volunteering are returning to town. Most of my neighborhood has electric power now, but a few meters from where I sit right now, families still wait for it to be restored.
I’m flying out this Friday and I still haven’t finished my essay. I’m not sure whether what I’ve conjectured is right (I suspect it is quite flaky), but at this point I’m not sure how much I care. My city and my country are broken and I feel desolate to leave them that way. If I’ve learned anything from philosophy these days, it’s that it might be these people and this pile of dirt and walls to which I owe my very self-awareness: these people that we call Mexicans and this place that I call home.
Sorry—these beautiful people. And this beyond beautiful place that I call home.