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Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América

Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América

by Rodolfo Kusch, Joshua M. Price (Translator), María Lugones (Translator), Walter D. Mignolo (Editor), Irene Silverblatt (Editor)

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Originally published in Mexico in 1970, Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América is the first book by the Argentine philosopher Rodolfo Kusch (1922–79) to be translated into English. At its core is a binary created by colonization and the devaluation of indigenous practices and cosmologies: an opposition between the technologies and


Originally published in Mexico in 1970, Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América is the first book by the Argentine philosopher Rodolfo Kusch (1922–79) to be translated into English. At its core is a binary created by colonization and the devaluation of indigenous practices and cosmologies: an opposition between the technologies and rationalities of European modernity and the popular mode of thinking, which is deeply tied to Indian ways of knowing and being. Arguing that this binary cuts through América, Kusch seeks to identify and recover the indigenous and popular way of thinking, which he contends is dismissed or misunderstood by many urban Argentines, including leftist intellectuals.

Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América is a record of Kusch's attempt to immerse himself in the indigenous ways of knowing and being. At first glance, his methodology resembles ethnography. He speaks with and observes indigenous people and mestizos in Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. He questions them about their agricultural practices and economic decisions; he observes rituals; he asks women in the market the meaning of indigenous talismans; he interviews shamans; he describes the spatial arrangement and the contents of shrines, altars, and temples; and he reproduces diagrams of archaeological sites, which he then interprets at length. Yet he does not present a "them" to a putative "us." Instead, he offers an inroad to a way of thinking and being that does not follow the logic or fit into the categories of Western social science and philosophy. In his introduction, Walter D. Mignolo discusses Kusch's work and its relation to that of other twentieth-century intellectuals, Argentine history, and contemporary scholarship on the subaltern and decoloniality.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[I]ndispensable reading for all scholars and students of the question of cultural encounters, the construction and deployment of the other, the struggle and constitution of different and competing epistemologies, and the setting up of the coloniality of power/knowledge. . . . [E]xtensively
researched and carefully thought out . . . make[s] an enormous contribution
to our knowledge and understanding of the Andean post-colonial world and
the processes of subject formation that ensued from the conquest to this day.”
- Sara Castro-Klarén, MLN

“This translation of one of Rodolfo Kusch’s most important works marks a significant step in the energetic conversation that has emerged over the last decade among postcolonial, indigenous, and Latin American studies. A translation of Kusch’s work has been sorely needed, both to complement the writing of scholars including Walter D. Mignolo, who have drawn from and discussed Kusch, and to stand alongside translations of books by other Latin American and Caribbean intellectuals including Édouard Glissant, Fernando Ortiz, and Enrique Dussel.”—Michael Hames-García, author of Fugitive Thought: Prison Movements, Race, and the Meaning of Justice

“Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América is a superior work by Rodolfo Kusch, and María Lugones’s and Joshua M. Price’s superb translation is a major contribution to English-language philosophy. Kusch’s book operates on many levels, as a post-Heideggerian phenomenology of culture, an existential analysis, and a sustained reflection on Otherness.”—Mario Sáenz, author of The Identity of Liberation in Latin American Thought

MLN - Sara Castro-Klarén

“[I]ndispensable reading for all scholars and students of the question of cultural encounters, the construction and deployment of the other, the struggle and constitution of different and competing epistemologies, and the setting up of the coloniality of power/knowledge. . . . [E]xtensively researched and carefully thought out . . . make[s] an enormous contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the Andean post-colonial world and the processes of subject formation that ensued from the conquest to this day.”

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Latin America Otherwise
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América



Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4641-8

Chapter One


In América we treat philosophy in one of two ways, an official way and a private way. From the university we learn of a European problematic translated philosophically. The other is an implicit way of thinking lived every day in the street or in the countryside. Félix Schwartzmann had already hoped to resolve this problem in his book El sentimiento de lo humano en América, where he notes that a philosophy typical of América at this point exists only in poetry and in the novel, as he demonstrates in his analysis of Pablo Neruda's work and of the Brazilian novel.

Clearly, the issue is not to negate Western philosophy, but to look for a formulation closer to our own lives. When Kant enunciates his theory of knowledge, he does so because it was necessary at that moment. The same is true of Hegel, who expresses the intimate feeling of the German bourgeoisie of his time. Descartes had thought his cogito ergo sum because the century of Richelieu, with its reason of state, demanded it. European thinking, as Dilthey has so ably demonstrated, always linked itself to a way of life. In this sense philosophy has the same degree of receptivity as art and religion.

It is also true that Nicolai Hartmann was not in agreement with this approach. But his defense of a philosophical "science" is nothing but the ideal of every philosophy professor. It is true that a harmonious and coherent doctrine fits the nature of teaching. Yet every generation demands, in spite of what Hartmann may think, the philosophical conceptualization of its particular sense of life.

But this is what is so weighty. In order to carry out such a conceptualization, it is necessary not just to know philosophy, but above all-and this is very important-to face reality abiding a degree of distortion few can sustain. To investigate daily life in order to translate it into thinking is a dangerous venture, since it is necessary, particularly here in América, to make the grave mistake of contradicting the frameworks to which we are attached.

Colloquia on indigenous thinking in some Andean universities evidence this tendency. It is not possible to begin the rescue of Inca thinking with, for example, a philosophical attitude still entangled in a Comtean system of a hundred years ago, or with a phenomenology studied only so as to be repeated in the university classroom. All that would result from this practice is a version of Inca thinking entangled in the researchers' fear of overcoming their own philosophical prejudices.

And if we ourselves still cleave to this perception; if we are used to invoking a comfortable and worn positivism-and to this we add contemporary North American neopositivism-the work of translating our life into philosophy becomes doubly unrewarding.

And let me add one more thing. A uniform way of life does not exist in América. The ways of life of the Indian and the well-off city dweller are impermeable to each other. On the one hand, the Indian retains the structure of an ancient form of thinking, a thousand years old, and on the other, the city dweller renews his way of thinking every ten years.

If Europe has succeeded in solidifying a philosophy, it has been because since the end of the Middle Ages it established a relatively homogeneous social body, in spite of Tönies's theory of the transition from community to society. Evidently, an elite has promoted that specific manner of thinking and was able to make it official without further ado. We should not forget here the "School of Wisdom" in which the principal German thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century participated.

What to do, then, in América? I have never before seen with such clarity the radical contrast that runs through everything Américan as when I examined the curious map of Perú drawn by the chronicler Guaman Poma. It is oval shaped, and in its center one finds four couples ruling the four cardinal points, with a sun and a moon presiding over the picture and a series of monsters disseminated throughout its contours (figure 1). Such a map is today discarded as something "subjective," and considered incommensurate with a modern map of Per? scientifically in sync with reality.

What Guaman Poma drew does not accord with reality, but it does encapsulate all of its Indian and Inca inheritance; and whether one likes it or not, it is his map-the real habitat of his community, we are tempted to say. In this sense his four ruling couples, presiding over the four zones of the old Tahuantinsuyu, symbolize the maternal protection within which the ancient Indian found himself sheltered. In the final analysis, the Perú Guaman Poma traversed must have been the one reflected in his map and not the one plotted by contemporary science. If we take this into consideration, can we reject without further ado the "subjectivity" contained in his drawing? Furthermore, a map of Perú made with modern instruments will be real, but it will have nothing to do with what Peruvians think of their country. It is an impersonal map, produced by the anonymity of science, and statistically accepted by the majority, but it is not my country, the one each person lives daily.

Geographically, it is possible to plot a map from the scientific angle while living in another country. Such cannot be done in philosophy. That is because philosophy manifests itself as a translation of a subjectivity-such as Guaman Poma's-to a conceptual level, according to a jargon minted by the academy and upheld even when it contradicts the rigidity of scientific formulations. I think América oscillates to a great extent between two things: a candid subjectivity that affects all of us and that follows a downward path to the simple formulation "it seems to me" and the scientific attitude whose rigidity is used precisely to mask in each of us a subjectivity we do not succeed in channeling. Let us think about the pressure exerted on our interiority by an imported culture, and the importance of that interiority in the elaboration of a culture that is our own.

That same pressure in Argentina does nothing more than perpetuate and legitimate a way of thinking which has been meticulously imported, perhaps due to the absence of a pueblo who would challenge it with its own formulations. But is it different in the rest of América? Can the resounding opposition between indigenous people and the bourgeoisie give rise to an autochthonous way of thinking?

The real distance between an indigenous way of thinking and a way of thinking consistent with traditional philosophy is the same as that between the Aymara term utcatha and the German term Da-sein. Heidegger takes up this word from ordinary German speech, first because Sein signifies being (ser)-which allowed him to take up again the themes of traditional ontology-and second because Da-which means "there"-signaled the circumstance into which being had fallen. Heidegger's problematic is centered on an awareness of a diminished being, a thrown being. His merit lies in having taken up in the twentieth century the theme of being with an exactitude that befitted the lives of the German middle class. This class had always felt the fall of being as its own, with all of the anguish that implies. If we add to it the concepts of time and authenticity, we notice that a thematic so threaded is not so far from the thinking of a European bourgeoisie which feels the crisis of the individual and tries to remedy it.

It is different among the Aymara. An equivalent to Da-sein might be cancaña. According to Bertonio, cancaña means "barbecue spit, being, or essence"; it is also linked to "flow of events." But the term utcatha is much closer to the indigenous sensibility. Bertonio translates utcatha as "estar." Moreover, it appears to carry in the first syllable a contraction of the term uta, or dwelling, which would link it to the concept domo-that is domicile or being-in-the-house (estar en casa)-so vilified by Heidegger and Gusdorf. It also means "to be sitting down," which paradoxically takes us to sedere which is the source of the Spanish word being (ser). Finally, Bertonio mentions the form utcaña, "the seat or chair and also the mother or womb where woman conceives." In short, the meanings of utcatha reflect the concept of a mere givenness or, even better, of a mere estar, but linked to the concept of shelter and germination.

The depth of feeling of an Indian when he is on Buenos Aires Street in La Paz and decides to take a bus to his ayllu must be understood in terms of utcatha and not Da-sein. That is, he will inhabit his mere estar and under no conditions will feel the fall of any being (ser). Why? Because it appears that in that mere estar of utcatha, another element is present, which Bertonio points to when he transcribes a related term, namely, ut.ttaatha, "to exhibit or take things out to sell ... in the plaza." Here the concept of plaza has an evident archetypal sense from the point of view of deep psychology since it is a symbol of the center of a world plotted in a magic plan-my world-the same one that Guaman Poma plots when he draws the map of Perú with the four couples that govern it. It is the existential and vital world of Guaman Poma and of the Indian in general that consequently has little or nothing to do with the real world detected by science, but rather with the reality lived daily by each person. And now the question can be posed: is this preference for the real which comes from a full feeling of estar no más [mere estar]-is this not perhaps profoundly Américan-something in which both Indians and whites participate?

It is evident that a way of thinking sparked by a term like utcatha will not lead to a philosophy in the sense in which we understand that term today, but rather to a strict "love of wisdom." That is why it will not give rise to a theory of knowledge, but rather to a doctrine of contemplation. Terms such as sasitha, which Bertonio translates as "fasting in the manner of gentiles," or amuchatha, "to remember," whose first part, amu, or flower, also has a deep meaning in the psychology of the unconscious, seem to corroborate that the contemplative attitude toward the world predominates in indigenous thinking.

Now, if all of this were true, it would be fitting to pose the following question: if our role as middle class intellectuals is to lead the thinking of a nation, do we really have the freedom to adopt any philosophy? In sum, what is our mission? Will it consist in representing and sifting through the depth of the sensibility of our people, or does it consist simply in lodging ourselves in its periphery, retaining specializations our people do not require? Evidently, this is the paradox that the philosophical task poses when it is taken in its depth.

But it is not a question of advocating a rabid philosophical folklorism, because if we did that we would be exposing a great weakness. It is instead a question of understanding freely our South Américan truth, which to our excessively schematic mind as middle-class intellectuals turns out to be surprising and unexpected from every point of view. Comprehending the "meaning" of South Américan life requires overcoming the barriers we have placed in its way. It is necessary to think at the margins of the categories of economics, of civilization, or of culture, and to recover, in sum, that wonderful ingenuousness of a Guaman Poma when he describes his philosopher (figure 2): "Indian astrologer-poet who knows the flight of the Sun and the Moon, and the clip (eclipse) and the stars and comets-day Sunday month and year and of the four winds of the gold world to sow foodstuffs since antiquity. Indians, the Indian philosophers/astrologers who know the hours and the Sundays and days and months year to plant and harvest each year's food." Of course it will not be a knowledge of the "eclipse" nor of the "flight of the Sun and the Moon," but it will be-and this is completely equivalent-the recovery of a consciousness of unity among those deep contradictions that in América tear us apart politically, culturally, and in our everyday life.

Chapter Two


The indigenous family compound was an ayllu, or Aymara community dependent on Toledo, situated close to Oruro (Bolivia), squarely in the Andean highlands. It included just a square adobe house and two putucus, or cylindrical constructions of the same material, all joined by a pirca, or wall, also made of adobe. We had arrived there with some students to conduct our fieldwork, and we succeeded in making connections with the Halcón family who inhabited it. The family was composed of the grandfather, his son, the son's wife and three children.

The grandfather caught my attention. He was leaning on the adobe pirca and was looking into the distance as we pestered him with questions. It was really the son who talked with us. He knew Spanish, so probably he had done his military service. He showed a degree of self-confidence. The interview in itself was average, though it was a bit slow and arduous. Once in a while the grandfather would turn and answer our questions with a smile. A smile can be useful when one does not want to say what one is really thinking and generally when one does not want to speak. But he showed goodwill. One could even say that given our questions, he took the effort to probe regions of his memory to give us the information we needed.

He informed us about the system of reciprocity (ayni), the ayllu, or community, and a thousand other things. But in reality he did not want to speak. He eventually began giving abbreviated replies. I remember his gaze as he returned to leaning on the pirca. He seemed to be saying to himself with a certain smugness, "Why is there a need to ask so many questions?" Besides, he must have been wholly preoccupied with his own concrete labor on his farm. He remarked, for example, that the earth had yielded very large potatoes in the past and that today that was no longer true, that before it used to rain more than now, and that before, everything was better. The world had gotten old with him.

It seemed pointless to keep asking questions. I had the reaction most people have in those kinds of cases. Indigenous people like the grandfather do not have any reason to become conscious of their customs, since they do not even know where the customs come from. They think only that they must be followed when the circumstances require it. Thus, the interview tended to be disorganized. The grandfather became fatigued, as was to be expected if one thinks that the questions required a great deal of effort from him.

But at that moment we found ourselves in a peculiar situation provoked by some members of our group. Someone took the initiative and asked the grandfather why he did not buy a hydraulic pump. His face became more impenetrable. Several institutions could help him. Surely he could make an agreement with his neighbors and they could pool together, buy the pump, and in easy installments, shared by all, it would be paid for in short order.

I looked around. The Andean plateau was dry and arid, the sheep thin. That was reason enough to buy the pump. We told him that the pump "would help you" and "it will fatten your herd." "Go to Oruro and stop by the Agricultural Extension Office." The grandfather did not answer. The son, to be agreeable, answered between clenched teeth: "Yes, we are going to go." Then a heavy silence. The grandfather kept on looking at the Puna. What was he looking at?

There was nothing left to ask and nothing left to propose. We left. In the distance we saw how the sky weighed on the putucus. What was the grandfather thinking? Maybe the son would try to convince him and would tell him: "Grandfather, we are in another time, these things are necessary. The gringos are right." But the grandfather would chew some coca, would offer some of his alcohol to the earth, and would not answer. What's more, he would surely think that to produce rain one of the common rituals like the Gloria Misa or the Huilancha would be cheaper and much more reliable.

What are we to think? The grandfather belongs to a world in which the hydraulic pump lacks meaning, given that the grandfather relied on his own resources, such as ritual. Now, if this is true, the border between him and us appears immovable. Evidently, our tools do not cross easily to the other side. I remember that we were barely a meter away from him, but the distance between us was much greater.


Excerpted from Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América by RODOLFO KUSCH Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Rodolfo Kusch studied philosophy at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and taught for many years at the Universidad de Salta in northern Argentina. He is the author of numerous books, including Esbozo de una antropología filosófica Americana, Geocultura del Hombre Americano, América Profunda, and la Seducción de la Barbarie.

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