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Journal of the History of Ideas 67.1 (2006) 149-179

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The Problem of "Misplaced Ideas" Revisited:

Beyond the "History of Ideas" in Latin America

Universidad Nacional de Quilmes—CONICET
The change that has come over this branch of historiography in the past two decades may be characterized as a movement away from emphasizing history of thought (and even more sharply, "of ideas") toward emphasizing something rather different, for which "history of speech" or "history of discourse," if not unproblematic or irreproachable, may be the best terminology so far found
J.G.A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History1

In 1973, Roberto Schwarz published a paper that profoundly marked a generation of thinkers in Latin America: "As idéias fora do lugar" ("Misplaced Ideas").2 It was originally intended to provide a theoretical framework for "progressivist" authors to counter the influence of nationalistic tendencies that, in the 1960s and 1970s, were particularly noticeable among the leftist political organizations.3 Yet, the concept of "misplaced [End Page 149] ideas" soon proved especially productive for theorizing the problematic development of ideas in Latin American history. Schwarz's text thus became the fundamental point of reference for those in the field who intended to question the hitherto predominant paradigms in cultural and literary critique, which were mostly inspired by the Romantic-nationalistic tradition. Notwithstanding, a quarter of a century later, Schwarz's original contribution in this regard needs to be reassessed. In the course of the last twenty-five years, the apparent loss of the national states' centrality helped to reveal the inherent complexity of the processes of cultural exchange hidden behind a perspective that still tended to conceive of them exclusively in terms of inter-national relationships. Furthermore, a series of new developments in the disciplines specifically dedicated to analyzing those kinds of exchange processes compels us to reconsider some of the implicit assumptions in Schwarz's concept and reformulate it.

The object of this paper is to explore, in the light of the new realities of the last fin-de-siècle, new perspectives regarding the dynamic of ideas and cultural exchange in peripheral areas (of which Latin American is only a particular case), utilizing the new conceptual tools provided by the recently developed disciplines and theories in the field. Ultimately, the present work intends to raise a broader, epistemological, issue, whose relevance exceeds the local context. As it shows, the shortcomings in Schwarz's theory spring from a crude linguistic view, which is inherent in the "history of ideas," that reduces language exclusively to its referential function. A more precise distinction of the different levels of language will thus help to reveal aspects and problems that Schwarz's perspective obliterates. Yet, as this paper also intends to demonstrate, Schwarz's original intellectual project may be disentangled from its linguistic premises and recovered for cultural critique. Applied in a new way, it can still provide a theoretical framework to comprehend the intricacies of the processes of cultural exchange, and, more specifically, the problematic dynamics of ideas in Latin America that Schwarz intended to analyze.

On Places and Non-Places of Ideas

In order to understand the sense of Schwarz's notion of "misplaced ideas" we must place it within the conceptual framework in which it emerged. With it, Schwarz aimed to translate into a cultural key the postulates of the so-called "dependency theory," the core of which took shape in the "Seminar [End Page 150] on Marx," organized in São Paulo in the early 1960s (and in which Schwarz participated). As is well known, that theory intended to refute the "dualistic" approaches that viewed the peripheral areas as vestiges of a precapitalistic world that tends historically to disappear. The nations in this area would thus replicate the same pattern of linear development of central countries. On the contrary, dependency theory postulated the existence of a complex dynamic between the center and the periphery, the two representing instances inherent in capitalist development, thus forming a single, interconnected system. According to...


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