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  • Beyond the "History of Ideas":The Issue of the "Ideological Origins of the Revolutions of Independence" Revisited

This paper analyzes how Latin American historiography has addressed the issue of "the ideological origins of the revolution of independence," and how the formulation of that topic implies assumptions proper to the tradition of the history of ideas and leads to anachronistic conceptual transpositions. Halperín Donghi's work models a different approach, illuminating how a series of meaningful torsions within traditional languages provided the ideological framework for a result incompatible with those languages. This paradox forces a break with the frameworks of the history of ideas and the set of antinomies intrinsic to them, such as that between "tradition" and "modernity."


historiography, Latin America, independence, Tulio Halperín Donghi, history of ideas, conceptual history

"It is less instructive to search for alleged origins—European or otherwise—than to focus on the global conditions and interactions through which the modern world emerged."

—Sebastian Conrad, What Is Global History?

The issue of the "ideological origins of the revolutions of independence" has recently returned as a central topic in Latin American historiography.1 The standard view, whose origin can be traced back to the period of the wars of independence, affirms the existence of an intimate relation between the revolutionary outburst and the arrival of the ideas of the Enlightenment, coming mainly from France. According to this view, Rousseau's concept of the social contract provided the basis upon which the entire revolutionary discourse stood.

This standard view implies, in turn, another assumption: that local societies, educated in the Catholic milieu of the Spanish tradition, were not [End Page 125] ready for independence. Hence, in this context, only the intervention of an external factor could explain the end of the colonial system and the formation of new nations founded on modern, republican systems of government. We find here the fundamental antinomy that has structured the interpretations of the revolutions of independence in Latin America: the postulate of a contradiction between liberal ideas that were imported from abroad and local culture and traditions that were reluctant to accept those liberal ideas. As Charles Hale states in his contribution to the Cambridge History of Latin America, these ideas "were applied in an environment which was resistant and hostile."2 This allegedly sealed a permanent maladjustment that determined the entire history of Latin American political and intellectual history.

On this model, the American Revolution serves as counterpoint to the Latin American revolutions: the revolutions in the two regions were premised on two opposite principles. While the former was founded on a liberal ideology, giving rise to an individualistic, democratic concept of society and politics, the latter remained tied to an organicist view that precluded the affirmation of modern, democratic systems of government. In short, modern, liberal ideas are "misplaced ideas" in the Latin American context.3 This opposition results in an essentialist perspective, in which North America and Latin America appear as expressions of two transhistorical essences in mutual opposition—the incarnations of two eternal or quasi-eternal principles. The entire historical development of these two regions would be determined by their origins, when the basic matrix of their political cultures was supposedly established. And no subsequent event could change it; they only reproduce that inner nature of which they are an outer expression.

In the American academy, this view was established by the author of The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), Louis Hartz.4 In the prologue to his edited collection The Founding of New Nations (1964), Hartz affirms the thesis that the nations that emerged from the expansion of Europe fixed their political culture according to the pattern that prevailed [End Page 126] in the metropolis at the time of the conquest.5 Thus, while North America inherited from England a modern, bourgeois, liberal pattern of thinking, Latin America retained the medieval, feudal, organicist tradition that prevailed in fifteenth-century Spain.6

In great measure, the affirmation of that view was conditioned by the wave of military coups that were spreading in the region in the sixties and seventies, when these views were elaborated. Besides, that dichotomy fit a well-established interpretive framework in the field, whose basic expression was provided by Isaiah Berlin's opposition between "negative liberty" and "positive liberty" (itself a reformulation of Benjamin Constant's distinction between the "liberty of the moderns" and the "liberty of the ancients").7 The paradox here is that, at that very moment, the very interpretation of the ideological origins of the American Revolution, which associated them with the liberal creed, had already begun to become undermined by the precursor work of Bernard Bailyn (which would be further elaborated by Gordon Wood and John Pocock, among others). According to Bailyn, the discourse of the American revolutionaries was founded upon a much older ideological tradition that he called "civic humanism," and subsequently was redefined by the other authors in terms of "classical republicanism."8

Meanwhile, in tune with that new perspective, a more recent interpretation of the issue of the ideological origins of Latin American independence emerged, uniting its organicist vein with the republican concept,9 which would have deep roots in the Spanish political tradition.10 It could be traced back to the neo-scholastic thinking of the seventeenth century, when the concept of a social pact, that revolutionaries supposedly adopted to justify their separation from Spain, was originally formulated.11 [End Page 127]

In effect, the so-called second generation of neo-scholastics, whose main representative was the Jesuit Francisco Suárez (1548–1617), elaborated on the idea that sovereignty did not come to the king directly from God, but rather through the intercession of the people, who conferred it on the monarch. Thus, by postulating that the idea of a social contract that the revolutionaries invoked to justify breaking colonial ties with Spain was not taken from Rousseau or the Enlightenment, this interpretation challenged the standard view but preserved the basic antinomy on which that view rested.

The shift in the dispute from an opposition between the Enlightenment and neo-scholasticism to an opposition between liberalism and republicanism is, in fact, merely a transposition of the terms within the same interpretive scheme. The paradox, in this case, is that the reformulation of the antimony resorts to the findings of those very authors who intended to show that what would have happened in Latin America would likewise apply to the American Revolution—that the presumed ideological premises were not the liberal ideas but rather the republican ideas.

Lastly, these reinterpretations miss the crucial aspect: rather than reformulating the terms of the antinomy, the new views call into question that very opposition. Even more radically, the inconsistency reveals that, thus posed, the whole discussion about the issue is misleading and inevitably leads to absurd conclusions. As a matter of fact, there is no way to establish whether the idea of the social contract that the revolutionaries endorsed was taken from the Enlightenment or from neo-scholasticism, whether it had liberal or republican premises. As Daniel T. Rogers shows, as the debate escalated, the definitions of the very concepts at stake, like those of liberalism and republicanism, became inconsistent and contradictory.12 And, more importantly, even if it were possible to establish this, it would be absolutely irrelevant to the comprehension of revolutionary discourse.

This is what the work of the Argentinean historian Tulio Halperin Donghi reveals. In Tradición politica española e ideología revolucionaria de Mayo (1961), he reformulated the whole question. According to Halperin Donghi, the point is not to establish the origins of these motifs and ideas, but rather to determine what the revolutionaries at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century did with them—to [End Page 128] understand how those motifs or ideas then became rearranged and resignified, giving rise to the peculiar conceptual universe within which the revolutions took place. It is clear that these motifs and ideas then served new purposes and were addressed to specific problems and questions that were absolutely different from those to which they had been addressed in their origins. At that point, even though the ideas hadn't changed, the logic of their articulation had, giving rise to new ideological constellations: "If, as we have seen, the originality of any thinking does not reside in each of the ideas that is coordinated in it, seeking the source of each one of them seems to be the least fruitful (as well as the least sure) method to study the history of thought."13

The history of ideas is thus radically incapable of understanding what changed at this moment, since the kind of conceptual rupture produced by the emergence of a revolutionary discourse cannot be perceived on the level of the ideas that it gathered but in the ways in which it articulated them. Nor can these transformations be defined in terms of variations of models without smoothing over all the intricacies and problematic edges intrinsic to these kinds of complex historical–conceptual processes. And it is this (the fact of missing how ideas became resignfied in the given specific context) that explains why, beyond the differences among its participants, this entire debate has remained locked within the frameworks of the antinomies of the tradition of the "history of ideas," such as individualism and organicism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, rationalism and irrationalism, modernity and tradition, etc. These thus appear as kinds of eternal substances that cross through the whole of Western intellectual history. And all conceptual formations could be classified according to this binary grid. Every form of thinking necessarily will fall on one or the other side of the antinomy (or, eventually, will appear as an inconsistent mixture of the two terms).

The point is that within the frameworks of this dichotomic grid, the result of historical research will always be predictable. We will find nothing that we do not know beforehand, except empirical specifications—how well or how badly a given reality adjusted to a given model, but this has no effect on the models themselves. Historical events here appear as merely factual, external circumstances. They do not play any role in the definition of the models, which can be perfectly established a priori, independent of those circumstances. In this fashion, the debate on the topic inevitably [End Page 129] results in anachronistic transpositions, the series of "mythologies" that, as Quentin Skinner and others have denounced, are intrinsic to the history of ideas.14 In the following pages I intend to analyze how, in the classic work quoted above, Halperin Donghi approached the issue of the "ideological origins" of the revolutions of independence in Latin America and reframed that issue within a perspective far removed from the traditional frameworks of the "history of ideas," thus providing the basis for what we can call a "new conceptual history" of Latin American independence. It breaks with the scheme of "models" and "deviation" to recreate the historical–conceptual process, highlighting the intricacies that are proper to them.

In effect, for Halperin Donghi, tracing the origin of the ideas and motifs that the revolutionary discourse gathered is irrelevant. The point is to understand how they were re-signified once they became inscribed into new discursive fields. Ultimately, the standard view, under its different versions, misses the crucial point: how the very traditional ideas would eventually serve as a basis to a revolution that radically reconfigured local politics. At that moment, Latin American societies mutated, facing dilemmas and problems that had been completely unknown. And this reconfigured the terms of the political debate, thanks to which even very old ideas gained a completely different meaning.

Yet, the new perspective provided by Halperin Donghi does not simply shift our focus from (past) origins to (present) connections, but rather it transcends that very opposition and recreates historical–conceptual processes. Halperin Donghi was led, in turn, to the definition of the basic paradox that the revolutionary discourse raised and he intended to unravel: that the very revolutionary vocation for a radical rupture with the past had its roots in the very past with which it wanted so violently to break. As he shows, "the ideas in whose name the pre-revolutionary reality was condemned were born out of that same reality" (9). But, unlike the standard view, this corroboration no longer results in the assumption of a lineal continuity between the pre- and the post-revolutionary ideas. In that perspective, Latin America appears as a kind of eternal substance, a land with no history, perpetually attached to its feudal, medieval roots, opposed to another eternal essence called North America, obliterating the series of conceptual torsions that these ideas underwent since their origin in order to produce that paradoxical result—a revolution that demolished a three-centennial political regime and deeply transformed local societies. As he [End Page 130] affirms: "[By looking for the origins of ideas, these interpretations] run the risk of underlining the affinity between the world of revolutionary ideas and that existing before revolution, overlooking a fact which is much more essential than that very affinity: that—as we already have remarked—those ideas now structured a revolutionary ideology, an ideological tool to deny and condemn the past" (12).

According to Halperin Donghi, this is precisely the point at stake, that which a conceptual history of the revolutions of independence should be aimed at recreating: the series of semantic displacements through which traditional ideas ended up giving rise to a revolutionary ideology that was alien to (and indeed contradicted) the conceptual frameworks within which those ideas were initially conceived. His book thus serves as a model for approaching the political–conceptual process that led to the revolutions of independence in Latin America as what we can call, taking an expression from Hans Blumenberg, a "history of effects" (Wirkungsgeschichte).15


For Halperin Donghi, the line of interpretation emphasizing the traditional roots of the idea of the social contract endorsed by the revolutionaries made a fundamental contribution insofar as it allowed us to assume a critical distance from the self-interpretation of its agents, who perceived the moment of the revolution as a kind of virginal dawn of liberty. This self-perception, he thinks, cannot be taken at face value but it deserves examination. As he affirms, the anxiety to radically break with the past actually had its roots in the same past with which these agents desired to break. The inability of the revolutionary discourse to come to terms with its own conditions of possibility is, to him, symptomatic.

Yet, this critical view of the self-perceptions of the agents, in turn, misses a critical point: how those traditional ideas were reformulated through this process, assuming a completely different meaning from the established one. As a matter of fact, the conceptual ground on which the neo-scholastic idea of the social contract was founded was very different [End Page 131] from that of the Enlightenment. Although the idea endured, the language in which it was articulated had already mutated.

In the first place, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thought, it was impossible to conceive of the community as self-constituting. The idea that a political community could exist at the margins of any center of power, around which it could coalesce and in whose terms it could define itself, was simply absurd. As Francisco Suárez has stated, "a body without a head is mutilated and monstrous."16 The constitution of a political community necessarily entailed relations of authority and obedience.17 Before the institution of a political power, we have merely a plurality of dispersed individuals, not a community, properly speaking. As Halperin Donghi remarks, "[For Suárez] the multitude can be considered from two different points of view: as a mere aggregation, with no order or physical and moral union, or as a political body. Now—and we find here again a postulate derived from an authoritarian concept of political relationships—, the political body demands, as one of its essential conditions, the presence of the political power" (33).

Royal authority was thought to belong to the realm of natural right, the need for it inscribed in nature itself. Political power and the community were simultaneously constituted—"it is only thanks to the king that the political body exists" (53)—and the latter could not be detached from the former. Thus, even though it is certainly true that the revolutionaries took the idea of the social pact from the neo-scholastics, it would be absurd to see that postulate as a precursor idea of revolution. We must keep in mind that neo-scholastic thinking, even though it made reference to the idea of the legitimacy of tyrannicide, "was a discourse of power" (37), not of revolution.

In addition, there is a second fundamental difference between the neo-scholastic and the Enlightenment concepts of the social contract. Although both imposed limitations on power, the limitations that the former postulated were not associated with the idea that the monarch should follow or obey popular will. Popular will had no normative force in the politics of the ancien régime (the fact that people want something does not make it right or just; justice was considered to be a set of objective norms, established by God himself and imprinted in the very nature of things). Royal power was limited only by the nature of the ends it pursued. The social [End Page 132] contract at that time functioned as a reminder that power should be exercised by the monarch on behalf of the welfare of the community and not on behalf of his own welfare. Yet we find here the point of the first torsion of this traditional discourse, which will eventually lead to revolutionary discourse. It is here that the first conceptual displacement in this history of effects is produced.


To Halperin Donghi, the figure of Juan de Solórzano (1575–1655) exemplifies the first in the series of torsions that occurred within traditional political discourse throughout the centuries of the colonial regime. As he writes, "Solórzano participates in another fundamental feature of Spanish political thinking in the era of the Baroque: the exalted and never resolved contradiction between ideals and historical-political reality" (55).

The neo-scholastic thinking of the "second generation" must be inscribed within the context of the disintegration of the universalist ideals of the old empires (which Philip II had seemed to briefly incarnate), which resulted in a fundamental reconfiguration of the political discourse of the medieval Christian tradition (let us take note of the fact that Halperin Donghi does not say that Solórzano affirmed this, but he expresses an objective change in the conditions in which political discourse took place). At this point, the ends with which the concept of the social contract had hitherto been associated were reinterpreted in increasingly secular terms; they were no longer transcendent (the realization of the kingdom of God on Earth) but profane: "the common wealth was now defined as the felicitas civitatis as well as that of the citizens as such" (36).

It would be inaccurate to see the spread of Enlightenment ideas in the eighteenth century as a contestation of the absolutist concept of power, or in contradiction with the principles of the Catholic monarchy. Rather, it served to reinforce the authoritarian character of it. With the Enlightenment, the kind of knowledge associated with the exercise of power lost the self-evident nature that the traditional idea of justice possessed, thus more radically escaping the doxological field (popular opinion).18 Yet, it indeed [End Page 133] produced a more fundamental departure of the seventeenth-century rationalism by imbuing political discourse with a more marked empiricism: "the essential change resided in the revalorization of the data of experience" (45). And, although this first redefinition was perfectly suited to the absolutist ideal (actually it reinforced its absolutist nature), eventually it would pave the way to a second twist in the traditional political discourse that would bring about far-reaching political consequences.


As we have seen, the break from the universalist ideal of the old empires did not affect the concept that the limitations the social contract imposed on political authority were not related to the origins of this authority in the people, but to the ends to which political power was conferred, which became increasingly secularized. In Spain this process accompanied, in turn, a profound impression of the rapid decline of the empire. At this juncture, there seemed to be an abyss between those ends and actual reality, the roots of which were then sought in the past. This fact already entailed a fundamental change in how society and power were conceived, since it implied the emergence of the concept of a new entity: the nation, which then became distinguished from the monarchical state and became an entity unto itself.

This phenomenon resulted from a historical–conceptual displacement that then was taking place. In the eighteenth century, Spaniards started to think of (ministerial) despotism as the fundamental cause of the decline of the empire. It was held responsible for the abandonment of the kingdom's "traditional constitution." This view accompanied, in turn, the development of the school of "historical constitutionalism." The origin of this school is usually given as Melchor Gaspar de Jovellanos's inaugural discourse at the Spanish Academy of History in 1778. The school's main goal was to explore the national past in search of the traditional Spanish constitution that despotism allegedly had dislocated and this school intended to recover. This gave rise to a new type of treatise, organized around a new object of inquiry: the nation and its past, which thus made itself present on the level of political discourse. Thereby the terms of the entire debate were rearticulated. As Halperin Donghi remarks, from then on, "the figure of the King was no longer identified with the entire nation; the latter was now placed on a higher and broader plane" (97). [End Page 134]

We see here the second displacement in traditional political discourse. At this moment, the nation gained a substantive presence of its own. It found the means for its articulation at the margins of political power. And this broke the logic of the absolutist state. As Halperin Donghi describes, "Fatherland and nation are notions that represent a radical innovation in traditional political thinking, insofar as they are seen, in an increasingly emphasized fashion, as entities able to subsist at the margins of the state's organizations" (100).

The first displacement in traditional political discourse that Halperin Donghi traces, as we saw, had to do with the redefinition of the ends of political power, which became increasingly interpreted in secular terms. The second torsion was even more radical, since it involved the emergence in the political arena of a new subject: the nation, which possessed a will of its own and, presumably, the power to impose it even against the will and action of the political authority. The nation was now assumed to pre-exist the monarchy and, as a consequence, to eventually subsist after its fall. Lastly, it amounted to erect two sovereignties on the same level of reality: monarchical and national sovereignty. At that point, if the revolution was not necessarily fated to be produced, the horizon in which it became eventually conceivable had been opened.

This new concept of the nation, which introduced a heterogeneous element within the frameworks of absolutist political discourse, resulted, in turn, from the efforts of local oligarchies to control the advance of state intervention, especially in local finances and the administration of justice (the two faculties traditionally reserved to the local authorities).19 In the context of this struggle, local oligarchies invoked the people and the will of the people, on whose behalf they claimed to speak. This process was similar to that of seventeenth-century England as described by Edmund Morgan in his classic work The Invention of the People.20 Analogously, we can point to "the invention of the people" or "the invention of the nation," in the Spanish empire, entities which then became detached from political power and, more importantly, found their own organs of expression at the margins of the state apparatus.

The paradox here is that the absolutist state also invoked "the people," or even "the nation," in order to justify its own actions against local oligarchies. In effect, public officials invoked "the nation" in claims that they [End Page 135] meant to liberate it from oppressive local oligarchies. Eventually, this nation, now detached from the state apparatus and politicized by the very action of the state, would come to confront that same state and to declare it artificial. Opposed to the state was now a new entity: the nation, which would be posited as the only "natural" one.


The second half of the eighteenth century thus witnessed a general trend of exploring the national past in search of the "traditional constitution" from which despotism had allegedly departed. Certainly, historical constitutionalism did not simply recover past institutions; at this moment, the (republican) national tradition was (re)invented. More importantly, this fact became evident for its agents and speakers as soon as the debate around the "traditional constitution" exploded. We cross here a further threshold, a third step in this history of effects.

According to Halperin Donghi, a further displacement within traditional thinking would occur as a result of the royal vacancy after the Abdications of Bayonne (which were forced by Napoleon, who then designated his own brother the governor of Spain, triggering the so-called Guerra de Independencia, a general uprising by the local population). At that juncture, it was convoked to the Cortes at Cádiz (the Cortes had not been convoked since the sixteenth century), whose first measure was to assume the sovereignty left vacant after the abdications. This meant the institution of a completely new figure: a constituent power. This new power no longer had anything to do with the traditional Cortes, other than sharing its name.

The congressmen now assumed the representation of the nation, on behalf of which they spoke and from which their prerogatives were supposed to emanate. The mission of the Cortes was to restore the traditional constitution of the nation. Yet it soon became clear that there was no agreement on what that traditional constitution was. Every party had a very different view. In any case, there was no doubt on one point: whether they had to create a new constitution or restore the traditional one, or, in the latter case, determine what that traditional constitution was, it was the Cortes that would have to decide. Only they were entitled to do so. And this represented a fundamental political–conceptual innovation.

The very formation of the Cortes at Cádiz meant a break with the premises on which the ancien régime was based. The constituent power was [End Page 136] instituted in the name of past traditions but was heterogeneous with the traditional order. As François-Xavier Guerra remarked, quoting Tocqueville (who, in turn, took on an expression by Loménie de Brienne, in reference to the Estates General): from the very moment the constitution of the nation became a matter of controversy, the ancien régime had crumbled.21 We find here a fundamental paradox: Spaniards looked back to the national past only to find in it the power to cancel that past (that is, the Cortes, which was entitled to create a new constitution, should it so wish). Yet here we also meet the limit point of the so-called Spanish first liberalism.


The constituent power that emerged at Cadiz actually had a limited goal. The mission of the Cortes was to provide a constitution in order to institute a new political regime. In fact, it did not eliminate the monarchical system, but transformed it into a constitutional monarchy. However, the final limit of the first liberalism did not lie there (a constitution is not necessarily democratic), but in another point. The constitution of the state, whatever its form, indeed required the existence of a subject who could institute it. In effect, even though there was no agreement regarding the nature of the traditional constitution of the nation, the revolutionary process initiated in Spain after the royal abdications already presupposed the presence of that nation. The spontaneous uprising against the foreign occupier seemed to prove its existence. The entire discourse of the Spanish first liberalism was premised on that assumption. Only in the colonies would this assumption become challenged. Thereby emerged a new problem, which was not perceived as such in the Spanish peninsula: how to constitute the nation itself.

In the colonies, the invocation of a constituent power then assumed a sense of radical foundation that was absent from the peninsula. Beyond the character of the ideas themselves, the actual situation imposed there a Jacobin logic on the revolutionary process. As Halperin Donghi remarks, the revolutionary ideal would become much more than an ideology in the colonies; it would turn into the founding myth of the new nations, one [End Page 137] which would be now located in the place of the past with which the revolution intended so brutally to break.

Revolutionaries in the colonies thus faced a much more radical challenge than their Spanish counterparts. Initially, the former, like the latter, claimed that after the fall of the monarchy, sovereignty returned to the nation. But they would not take long to discover that, in Spain's American possessions, there were no nations that pre-existed the monarchy and could assume sovereignty. According to the porteño revolutionary leader Mariano Moreno, at the origin of colonial societies lay not a social contract but an act of sheer violence. As a consequence, there were no pre-existing nations here which could be invoked. And the process of territorial disintegration that followed independence threw this problem to the forefront of political debate. At this juncture, there was no way to determine what constituted the nation, what its boundaries were, which collective subjects were entitled to claim sovereign rights, which could claim possession of an autonomous will. (The inhabitants of the viceroyalties? Of the Intendencias? Of each city? Or, the population of the kingdom as a whole?)

This gave rise to a process of territorial disintegration that soon seemed unstoppable. Every province, and indeed every city, claimed to possess sovereign rights to constitute itself as an autonomous national entity. This meant the dissolution of the subject of sovereign imputation; the subject had become indiscernible, turning into the center of a properly political dispute (in Carl Schmitt's sense of the term). And the social contract discourse had no answer to this. It presupposed a criterion of demarcation (how to delimit who could freely contract with each other and legitimately constitute a nation of their own), but was radically unable to establish one, given the abstract and generic nature of the subject.

Lastly, the issue that emerged then was how the constituent power itself should be constituted. This was a paradox implicit in every constituent congress: it must invoke the existence of the very entity which it supposedly came to constitute; that is, the nation that had invested it and from which its privileges emanated. But only in the colonies did this paradox become evident as such. The revolution should invent, along with a new political power, the very subject that should constitute that power. Here we get the fourth and last torsion in the traditional conceptual universe, the point at which revolutionary discourse took its final form, and, paradoxically, the point at which it began to dissolve, eventually paving the way for a new reconfiguration of political language. Finding an answer to this paradox was the main concern of the nineteenth century, of what Foucault [End Page 138] called, in The Order of Things, "The Age of History."22 The burden of constituting the nation would then be transferred from the subjective to the objective realm. This would now be the task of History (with a capital H), the new entity that then emerged as such (a conceptual transformation that Reinhart Koselleck analyzed under the label of Sattelzeit).23 At this point, the entire set of antinomies that the absolutist state had established (and which eventually led to its own dislocation) would finally collapse to make room for the emergence of a new conceptual constellation.24


Halperin Donghi's recreation of the process that led to the revolutions of independence in Latin America illustrates why the issue of ideological origins must be overcome, leading us, in turn, to break with the framework of the history of ideas founded on "models of thinking," "ideal types," as well as the set of oppositions that result from it (like those between "liberalism" and "republicanism," or "negative liberty" and "positive liberty," etc.). This view can only result in a classificatory grid that secludes historical research within a framework of limited options, which are already established beforehand (and, therefore, always yield predictable results). As we saw, Halperin Donghi's approach transcends that framework, breaks with the whole debate around ideas or models of thinking, and seeks to trace ideological processes—that is, how a given discursive field itself becomes successively reconfigured. And this translates the whole issue from the subjective side (the ideas of the subjects) to the objective plane of historical reality. We find here the crucial methodological transformation his work introduced in political–intellectual history; rather than questioning a particular interpretation of the issue, it meant the dislocation of the very epistemological ground on which the entire tradition of the history of ideas was erected: a philosophy of consciousness. In effect, the kind of displacements he traces, although of a conceptual nature, are not merely changes in the [End Page 139] "ideas" of subjects. For example, the detachment of the nation from the body of the king was not something that someone thought, something that a given thinker proposed or devised. These torsions involved the reconfiguration of the horizons within which ideas deployed; they embodied an alteration in the conditions for the public articulation of ideas, even though the ideas of subjects themselves remained unchanged.

To go back to Tocqueville's expression, quoted by Guerra in connection to the Cortes at Cádiz, when he stated that from the very moment the constitution of the nation became a matter of controversy the ancien régime had ended. Guerra interprets this as affirming that the best expression of this change was the victory of the liberal party, led by Manuel Quintana, in the election of the deputies to the Cortes. However, this is not what Tocqueville meant, but rather the opposite: even the victory of the absolutist party would not have altered the fact that from the very moment the constitution of the nation became a matter of controversy, the ancien régime had ended. In effect, as Halperin Donghi has shown, the very emergence of a constituent power implied the collapse of the logic that articulated that discourse. Ideas had not necessarily changed, but the logic that articulated them had. This distinction is fundamental. It reveals the fact that changes in political language do not refer to the ideas of the subjects, but to the kind of problems subjects find themselves confronting at any given moment. Changes in the soil of problems, rather than in ideas, are what eventually reconfigure the discursive field. In fact, the ideas of subjects in 1810 probably were not very different from their ideas in 1800; however, the issues at stake had mutated, and this altered the entire political discourse. The constitution of the nation was a problem that could not be conceivable within the framework of the political languages of the ancien régime.

We observe here the fundamental aspect that separates the kind of conceptual history of independence practiced by Halperin Donghi from the traditional approaches of the history of ideas: the conceptual processes he analyzes are objective phenomena, independent of the will and even the consciousness of agents. They refer to a symbolic dimension that is embedded in social and political practices. As a matter of fact, every social, economic, or political practice works on the basis of a set of assumptions and presupposes a symbolic dimension that constitutes it. We set this dimension in motion in the very performance of this practice, whether or not we are conscious of how it actually works. To wit, today we are all agents in a globalized economy; we actively participate in it, but we do not really know how it works. And these transformations entail a conceptual dimension that has to do with the set of implicit assumptions here at work. The same [End Page 140] thing is true of political languages: we do not know how political language (and the set of underlying assumptions on whose basis it is founded) has mutated in the last twenty years any more than we know how the economy currently works, yet we still participate in it. We find here Halperin Donghi's fundamental shift in approach to the intellectual history of the revolutions of independence. His approach actually transcends the realm of ideas, of the representation of reality. Its objects are of a symbolic nature, but this symbolic dimension belongs not to the realm of subjective representations of reality, but rather to that which those ideas intend to represent. Unlike traditionally thought, this symbolic dimension does not circulate in the brains of the agents (as we saw, they are not necessarily conscious of it). It forms an integral part of actual practices and exists prior to the interpretations we make of them.

This is the critical aspect of Halperin Donghi's methodology. It crosses through the opposition between "ideas" and "realities" that is at the basis of the tradition of the history of ideas, rendering that opposition untenable. And this is what allows his approach to break with the whole issue of the "ideological origins" and the set of antinomies that are proper to it. The type of conceptual history Halperin Donghi practices in this book thus makes evident why the whole discussion about the affiliation of the ideas of the revolution (whether they were neo-scholastic's or Enlightenment's republican or liberal) is misleading. The ideological origins of the revolutions of independence cannot be defined. And even if they could, that process would be totally irrelevant to the kind of conceptual processes we intend to analyze. In the end, traditional approaches to the history of ideas, focused as they are on the problem of the intellectual origins of revolutionary discourse, cannot conceive of how traditional ideological frameworks could have led to a result that not only was the opposite of that which they were intended to produce, but was also inconceivable within them. That is, more precisely, what Blumenberg meant by a "history of effects" or Wirkungsgeschichte. Halperin Donghi's work illustrates the fundamental shift this entails in the writing of intellectual history, one aimed not at describing ideas and models of thinking, but at recovering the intricacies of complex political–conceptual processes. [End Page 141]

Elías Palti
Universidad de Buenos Aires Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, CONICET


1. For a detailed state of the art on the different views of the revolutions of independence in Latin America from the perspective of conceptual history, see Elías Palti, "¿De la tradición ala modernidad? Revisionismo e historia político-conceptual de las revoluciones de Independencia," in Independencia y revolución: Pasado, presente y futuro, coord. Gustavo Leyva et al. (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica / Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2010), 174–90.

2. Charles Hale, "Political and Social Ideas in Latin America, 1879–1930," in The Cambridge History of Latin America, ed. Leslie Bethell, vol. 4 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 368.

3. See Roberto Schwarz, Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture (London: Verso, 1992); and Palti, "The Problem of 'Misplaced Ideas' Revisited: Beyond the History of Ideas," Journal of the History of Ideas 67, no. 1 (2006) 149–79.

4. Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1955).

5. Hartz, The Founding of New Societies: Studies in the History of the United States, Latin America, South Africa, Canada, and Australia (New York: Harvest / HBJ, 1964).

6. Richard Morse was in charge of the piece dedicated to Latin America in the book edited by Hartz [Morse, "The Heritage of Latin America," in Hartz, The Founding of New Societies, 123–77].

7. See Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered before the University of Oxford on 31 October 1958 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958); Benjamin Constant, Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

8. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Random House, 1993); J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).

9. See, for example, Natalio Botana, La tradición republicana (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1984).

10. For an antecedent of this interpretation, see Guillermo Furlong, Nacimiento y desarrollo de la filosofíaenelRío de la Plata 1536–1810 (Buenos Aires: Kraft, 1962).

11. A different version of this view was provided by Ricardo Levene, who sought the local roots of the independence movements in Spanish juridical tradition [Ricardo Levene, Las Indias no eran colonias (Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1973)].

12. Daniel T. Rogers, "Republicanism: The Career of a Concept," Journal of American History 79, no. 1 (1992): 11–38.

13. Tulio Halperin Donghi, Tradición política española e ideología revolucionaria de mayo (Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1985), 17 (hereafter cited in text).

14. Quentin Skinner, "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas," History and Theory 8, no. 1 (1969): 3–53.

15. See Hans Blumenberg, The Genesis of the Copernican World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 123. In that book, Blumenberg describes the series of torsions that Aristotle's physics and its fundamental concepts underwent as a result of the efforts to save it from the anomalies that it had presented in the centuries immediately preceding the astronomical revolution initiated by Copernicus.

16. Francisco Suárez, De Legibus (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1971), book I, chap. 8, paragraphs 8–9.

17. See Palti, An Archaeology of the Political: Regimes of Power from the Seventeenth Century to the Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), chap. 1.

18. On this topic, see Palti, "El absolutismo monárquico y la génesis de las 'soberanía nacional,'" in Conceitos e linguagens: Construçôes identitárias, org. Márcia Naxara and Virginia Camilotti (São Paulo: Intermeios, 2014), 33–50.

19. See Palti, An Archaeology of the Political, chap. 3.

20. Edmund Morgan, The Invention of the People: The Right of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988), 49–50.

21. See François-Xavier Guerra, "La política moderna en el mundo hispánico: Apuntes para unos años cruciales (1808–1809)," in Las formas y las políticas del dominio agrario: Homenaje a François Chevalier, coord. Ricardo Ávila Palafox, Carlos Martínez Assad, and Jean Meyer (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara, 1992), 178.

22. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1970).

23. Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985).

24. We find here operating the kind of dialectic described by Koselleck in his 1954 doctoral dissertation (published in 1959). As he stated in it, "Absolutism necessitated the genesis of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment conditioned the genesis of Revolution." Koselleck, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Oxford: Berg, 1988), 8.

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