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  • Orientalists, Propagandists, and Ilustrados: Filipino scholarship and the end of Spanish colonialism by Megan C. Thomas
  • Vina A. Lanzona
Orientalists, Propagandists, and Ilustrados: Filipino scholarship and the end of Spanish colonialism By Megan C. Thomas. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Megan Thomas’ book, Orientalists, Propagandists, and Ilustrados: Filipino scholarship and the end of Spanish colonialism, is an ambitious project. It is ambitious for several reasons: it aims to contribute to an already crowded field in Philippine history, the late nineteenth century, often studied as the culmination of Philippine nationalist thought; it bridges the fascinating and complex intellectual developments in Europe and the production of knowledge in one of its colonial outposts, the Philippines; and, as an intellectual history, it builds on and engages the works of noted Philippine scholars such as Vicente Rafael and Resil Mojares who similarly interrogate the intellectual discourses that shaped Philippine nationalism through the work of Filipino intellectuals such as Jose Rizal, Isabelo de los Reyes, Pedro Paterno, Mariano Ponce, Pedro Serrano Laktaw and T.H. Pardo de Tavera. Scholars of Philippine studies will find the themes of Thomas’ book familiar, but these themes get a much needed re-analysis and elaboration through Thomas’ impressive grasp of intellectual developments in Europe and the Philippines in the nineteenth century, particularly Orientalist and racialist discourses, and the way these political and intellectual developments shaped nationalist and revolutionary thought and action in the Philippines.

Like many scholars of the Philippines who work on the late Spanish colonial and revolutionary periods, Thomas focuses on the ilustrados, the enlightened and educated Filipinos she labels “worldly colonials.” Many of these ilustrados studied abroad, were passionate about producing knowledge about the Philippines, and left a legacy of written work that future scholars have mined to understand the “scholarly intellectual foundations for a nationalist challenge to Spanish authority,” a challenge that culminated in the Philippine Revolution in 1896. According to Thomas, these “young Filipino authors” integrated “certain ideas, models and principles ‘from Europe’” in their own work “as they thought about their place in the world and as they rewrote the narratives in which they saw themselves and their homeland figured” (3). Building on the work of Partha Chatterjee, Thomas argues these scholars drew on European practices of linguistics (philology), folklore, anthropology, history and ethnology under the intellectual rubric of European Orientalism and nineteenth century racial sciences, as a basis for their own colonial criticism and anticolonial projects. These Filipino intellectuals moved freely in the intellectual spaces provided by their colonial educations in Spain and beyond and, while they adopted essentially colonialist ideas of race and Orientalism, Thomas traces the way they appropriated these discourses, which were never homogeneous, for anticolonial thought and politics. As Thomas writes persuasively: “Orientalist and racial sciences can be used for liberatory projects as well as repressive ones; they are subject to the particular political and historical context in which they are deployed, and also to manipulation by their practitioners” (7).

In Chapter 1, Thomas elaborates on the idea and practice of European “Orientalism” and its influence on the development of the anthropological sciences. Developed in the German, French and English academies of the nineteenth century, Orientalist sciences began with a fascination with the Orient to generate knowledge about the Eastern origins of European civilization. At its heart was philology, and a focus on authoritative texts and on the narrative of the decline of civilizations from ancient greatness. Orientalism’s critics, most famously Edward Said, uncovered in its practice “Anglo-European cultural chauvinism and racism, and the political institutions that have supported Western colonialism and imperialism in the East” (27). Because the Philippines was a textless society with not much trace of ancient greatness, local authors (without much guidance from their intellectually backward Spanish colonizers) needed to utilize colonial Spanish, and not indigenous, sources, and the scholarly practices of philology and the anthropological sciences, including ethnology, folklore, mythology and history, to explain the complexity and diversity of Philippine society.

Subsequent chapters explore particular scholarly traditions and the complex appropriations of European ideas by Filipino ilustrados. The goal of these scholars was to recover pre-Hispanic culture and to emphasize its superiority to Spanish colonialism. In Chapter...