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The Desire to Think: A Note on Latin American Philosophy

From: CR: The New Centennial Review
Volume 7, Number 3, Winter 2007
pp. 21-30 | 10.1353/ncr.0.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

To Adriana Valdés

It is necessary to prevent the danger of formulating a philosophical nationalism instead of philosophizing with the treasures of the national experience.

—José Vasconcelos (1993, 337)

The question of the existence or nonexistence of Latin American philosophy constituted, at least for a while, the main problem debated by Latin American philosophy. In 1925, the Peruvian thinker José Carlos Mariátegui observed, “It seems evident to me that there exists a French thought, a German thought, etc., in Western culture. The existence of a Latin American thought does not seem evident to me” (1993, 41). Naturally, Mariátegui is not concerned with testing the empirical fact of whether in the territory of Latin America there has been philosophical production, or whether in European centers for philosophical research one may find some Latin American citizens as researchers. In La Philosophie en Amérique Latine (1997), Alain Guy compiles an extensive catalogue of philosophical works that have been produced on Latin American soil from the sixteenth century to the present, including the work produced by Latin American citizens in Europe. He makes no distinction between philosophical currents that began in Europe and those that seem to have begun in Latin America (such as the theology of liberation). Furthermore, he makes no distinction between works written in Portuguese or Spanish and those written in Latin (during colonial times) or English, French, and German (see, for instance pages 86–87).

In Mariátegui’s diagnostic the point is different: he does not simply state that there has not been philosophy in Latin America, but that there has not been an authentic philosophy of Latin America. As Augusto Salazar Bondy states half a century later, “to register the process of Latin American philosophy— in spite of the work of great personalities and their good will—is to tell the history of the passage of Western philosophy through our countries. It is the history of European philosophy in Latin America rather than the history of an authentic philosophy of Latin America” (1993, 203). The Argentinean essayist Juan Bautista Alberdi, perhaps the first to draw attention to the specific question of Latin American philosophy, writes in 1842: “Our philosophy must rise from our needs. What are the problems that America is called to establish and resolve in these moments?” He concludes: “Latin American philosophy must be essentially political and social in its object, passionate and prophetic in its instincts, synthetic and organic in its method, positive and realistic in its procedures, republican in its spirit and destiny” (1993, 149).

Nevertheless, the claim for an “authentic” Latin American philosophy is not at all something easy to justify, at least at first glance. Why should philosophy be tied to a “national” or “continental” identity, whether in a territorial or in a symbolic sense? What in Plato’s or Aristotle’s—or Thales’s or Heraclitus’s—thinking could be properly said to be authentically “Greek” (or Athenian, Milesian, Ephesian, etc.)? What, in Descartes’s Meditations, could be called authentically European or French, and even more, what in his philosophical work could be considered to be about France or Europe? As José Gaos remarks, “it is not at all certain that Descartes or Comte, Kant or Hegel wanted to produce a French or German philosophy.” Indeed, the question about the existence or nonexistence of a national philosophy does not seem to have precedents in the history of philosophy. Maybe one could suggest, not without irony, that the very question about an original Latin American philosophy is already an originality of Latin American philosophy. “Considered in general,” José Gaos continues, “the desire, the intentional and explicit effort of producing a peculiar and original philosophy, a philosophy of one’s own idiom and of one’s own territory, seems to be a novelty not at all justified, at least by history” (1993, 481).

Yet Augusto Salazar Bondy defines what he understands by “authentic philosophy” in the following terms: “the manifestation of the rational consciousness of a community, the explicit conception of the mode in which this community reacts to the ensemble of reality and to the course of existence, the peculiar way of illuminating and interpreting being within which...



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