Latin American Philosophy from Identity to Radical Exteriority

Latin American Philosophy from Identity to Radical Exteriority

by Alejandro Arturo Vallega

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While recognizing its origins and scope, Alejandro A. Vallega offers a new interpretation of Latin American philosophy by looking at its radical and transformative roots. Placing it in dialogue with Western philosophical traditions, Vallega examines developments in gender studies, race theory, postcolonial theory, and the legacy of cultural dependency in light of

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While recognizing its origins and scope, Alejandro A. Vallega offers a new interpretation of Latin American philosophy by looking at its radical and transformative roots. Placing it in dialogue with Western philosophical traditions, Vallega examines developments in gender studies, race theory, postcolonial theory, and the legacy of cultural dependency in light of the Latin American experience. He explores Latin America’s engagement with contemporary problems in Western philosophy and describes the transformative impact of this encounter on contemporary thought.

Indiana University Press

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From the Publisher
"No other contemporary philosopher is more engaged with the meaning and sense of philosophy in Latin America than Alejandro A. Vallega." —Omar Rivera, Southwestern University

Linda Martín Alcoff

"Vallega engages with current debates among those seeking a decolonial approach to concepts of identity, history, and liberation without unhelpful baggage from European colonial modernity. He impressively remaps and advances the debate. Many have been anticipating this book with some excitement; it will exceed their expectations." —Linda Martín Alcoff, Hunter College

Eduardo Mendieta

"Vallega's wonderful book demonstrates that the question 'Is there Latin American philosophy?' has outlived its rhetorical usefulness. Instead, it announces that the task before us is to engage with a vast canon that is as dispersed and buried as it is unsuspecting and challenging. If we read Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton as philosophers of the ‘American Revolution’—why not read Bolivar and Miranda also as political philosophers par excellence? If we read Martin Luther King, Malcom X, and Angela Davis as radical thinkers, why not do so with Martí, Guevara and Subcomandante Marcos? Those before Vallega had to apologetically introduce some key figures and themes in the U.S. context. After this book, we have been brought to the elevations of thinking from which we can surmise and survey a tradition that reaches across time, beyond the emergence of a putative vanguard of history led by an imagined 'Europe' or 'West,' and beyond equally illusory disciplinary purity and unity. Vallega reminds us that philosophy is homeless by definition and that thinking deserving that name operates under the imperative to be attentive to new questions, which may come from unusual places, in different accents, with different gestures. By exposing us to the vibrancy, richness, relentless tarrying with difference and alterity of Latin American thinking over several centuries, Vallega also gifts philosophy as such." —Eduardo Mendieta, Stony Brook University

Omar Rivera

"No other contemporary philosopher is more engaged with the meaning and sense of philosophy in Latin America than Alejandro A. Vallega." —Omar Rivera, Southwestern University

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Indiana University Press
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World Philosophies Series
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Latin American Philosophy from Identity to Radical Exteriority

By Alejandro A. Vallega

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Alejandro Arturo Vallega
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01265-4


The Question of a Latin American Philosophy and Its Identity

Simón Bolívar and Leopoldo Zea

Philosophy and Western culture have been synonymous at least since Hegel's philosophy of history. Even when philosophy has been ignored, degraded, reappropriated, or put into question and even when philosophers have sought to "destroy" it, philosophy has been taken as a given inseparable from Western culture and born of it. Practically speaking, no one from the West or educated under the Western tradition, no matter how critical of it, would put into question the existence of European, French, German, or Italian philosophy. In Latin America the situation is different: The question that animates the very arising into existence and the path of Latin American thought is if there is Latin American philosophy, or if it is at all possible to speak of such a phenomenon. This is not due to a lack of culture or thought but rather to the distinct situation of the Latin American mind. Since Latin America's inceptive insertion into European history (1492), given its inseparability from the development of European modernity (as the very name "Latin America" itself indicates), to be an American, in its broad sense, has meant to be part of many histories, lineages, memories, and various forms of knowledge. Indigenous, Andalusian, Islamic, African, Jewish, criolla, ladina, mestiza, Guarani, Inca, Maya, Araucana: Latin America has as its origins a diversifying difference that calls not for a question of Being and for a single philosophy but for the articulation of that distinct play of concrete realities that are clumsily misrepresented under one name. Latin American philosophy, then, may be said to be philosophy by virtue of remaining philosophical, that is, by virtue of remaining with the very question of the possibility and existence of a thought that may articulate the density, distinctness, and fecundity of human experiences. In this chapter, I introduce Latin American philosophy through three figures, each of whom in a critical way calls for a Latin American thought born from its distinctive and diversifying realities. Each of them recognizes the radical difference that situates Latin American thought and deepens the question of the possibility of philosophical thought that may arise from the Latin American situation and at the same time speak to others in an articulate hermeneutical dialogue. Together these thinkers introduce the call for a Latin American situated thought that must give articulation to the distinct realities of the Americas.

Abyssal America: Simón Bolívar

In his famous "Letter from Jamaica," written in Kingston in 1815, Simón Bolívar offers a frank and direct account of the past and future of the Americas in light of the revolutionary movements already on their way. As Bolívar points out, to speak of Latin America is to speak of a land "so vast, so varied, and so little known," that he himself may only offer some approximate conjectures concerning its situation and future. In his introductory words, Bolívar emphasizes that it is impossible to give a clear and complete account of the American situation. To illustrate his predicament he speaks of the failed attempts by von Humboldt to give an account of the Americas in his encyclopedia of theoretical and practical knowledge. His limitation and failure are due to the fact that "although some of the facts and its [America's] development are known ... the better parts are shrouded in mystery." Bolívar goes on to candidly express his view concerning the break in the relationship between Spain and the Americans. He reminds his reader of the sanguinary frenzy unleashed upon the Americas by the colonizers and concludes that the ties that once held Spain and the Americas in kinship have been severed.

He then goes on to identify an abyssal truth at the heart of the seeming mystery that enshrouds the very existence of the Americans:

We are ... neither Indian nor European, but a species midway between the legitimate proprietors of this country and the Spanish usurpers. In short, being Americans by birth and deriving our rights from Europe, we have to assert these rights against the rights of the natives of the country, and at the same time we must remain in the country against the invaders' invasion. This places us in a most extraordinary and difficult situation.

Bolívar's words provide a view of the American situation yesterday and today. The crucial point for us is to recognize the extraordinary and difficult character of being American that he manages to put forth in this brief passage. As Bolívar points out, being American or Latin American means asserting European rights over those of the natives of the country, while at the same time resisting the invader in the country, that is, the European. This statement has often been interpreted as the recognition that Latin Americans are both European and indigenous in origin. Or it has been read as what it is at face value, the declaration of European ideals over indigenous senses of life, which ultimately continues a history of exclusion of indigenous thought. However, in my reading, underneath this basic recognition lies a deeper reality: to be an American means to inhabit a place of fundamental uprootedness.

As I just mentioned, immediately before the above quotation, Bolívar explains that the bloody conquest and destruction of indigenous cultures has made it impossible to find a place of return to what was there before the arrival of the Spaniards. But then, in the quotation at hand, we find a deeper existential difficulty with the place of the American, an irresolvable double displacement. On the one hand, the revolutions and the foundation of the American nations are grounded on European ideals. As Bolívar's sharp analysis points out, this means asserting the European founded rights—the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality that distinguish the Enlightenment with respect to the development of rationalism in the name of human freedom—over those of the natives. On the other hand, the Americans wage a war against the European invaders. In short, the place of the American is a place of double violence and destruction, a place granted by a twofold war against one's very identities. To be an American in such situation means to be in a constant state of uprootedness and self-negation. This internal displacement and violence is evident when one considers that it does not take long for the newfound national governments to begin the extermination of the indigenous people in the name of progress and national identities.

To cite a classic example, one can see a distinct case of this perpetual internal violence in the history of Argentina in the nineteenth century, where we find from the period almost immediately following the declaration of independence a continuous process of self-destruction. This occurs with the rise to power of the gauchos and the indigenous genocide under Juan Manuel de Rosas in his desert campaigns. This period is followed by Sarmiento's call for the destruction of Rosas's gaucho culture in the name of Western industrialized society and the building of the cities in his Civilizacion y Barbarie (Civilization and Barbarism: The Life of Juan Facundo Qiroga [1845]). Moreover, one of the main reasons for the disappearance of the Negro population of Argentina, which constituted 30 percent of the population of Buenos Aires in the 1830s, was the systematic drafting of males into the army, particularly during the war between Paraguay and Argentina under Sarmiento's government between 1864 and 1870. Thereafter comes the rise of Rocca, under whose presidency takes place the final war against the indigenous peoples, endorsed by Sarmiento. During these bloody campaigns the Negro armies are used to decimate the indigenous population, and the colored male population of Buenos Aires vanishes thanks to the casualties of the war. In short, through this period from the early century to the beginning of the twentieth century we find the continuous self-destruction of Americans, be they criollos, indigenous, of African origin, or immigrated Europeans, all of them peoples always caught in the irresolvable violence of that dense and ambiguous space Simón Bolívar had so well delimited in his letter.

At the same time, it is well known that the "Letter from Jamaica" already contains the main thrust of Bolívar's thought—namely, his conscious struggle to end the American dependency on Spain and his call for Americans to rule themselves by finally overcoming their passive role in politics. Only if it is active, argues Bolívar, does America have a future. This call for an active American self-determination is a call based on unity, on the need for the diverse lands and peoples to come together under a shared freedom, as he makes famously clear in his second address to the National Congress in Angostura, Venezuela:

The diversity of racial origin will require an infinitely firm hand and great tactfulness in order to manage this heterogeneous society, whose complicated mechanism is easily damaged, separated, and disintegrated by the slightest controversy.... Our hands are now free, but our hearts still suffer the ills of slavery.... All of our moral power will not suffice to save our infant republic from this chaos unless we fuse the mass of the people ... unity, unity, unity must be the motto of all things. The blood of our citizens is varied: let it be mixed for the sake of unity.

Here is not the place to engage in a discussion of the other great thinker of freedom José Martí, but one must at least keep in mind the resonance of Bolívar's words with those of Martí, their common vision of liberation across and without the exclusion of difference.

Bolívar's call for an active America, however, is founded on the realization of a space of uprootedness, and what ensues from this ambiguous space is even more tragic than what went before: genocide and nationalistic wars between the new American nations. The vision of a diversity shared in unity and freedom, which Bolívar would call for throughout his life, is marked by an internal, abyssal difference. As the example above shows, and as the history of Latin America with respect to difference and violence illustrates, the solution to this difference cannot be found in appealing to a single origin, national identity, tradition, or history in the name of progress. Rather, the difficulty Bolívar puts forth so clearly requires that one remain with the Latin American situation as such: that is, understanding by undergoing and going under that uprootedness, by thinking through a being in between and in alterity that cannot be framed or resolved by national, ethnic, or any other essentialist vision of Latin America and its peoples. I will now move to a second moment in the history of Latin American thought, in which the Mexican philosopher Leopoldo Zea calls for a thought situated in and arising from Latin America's concrete reality. I will consider Zea's profound contribution to Latin American thought as well as the limitations of his project with respect to his engagement with the radical difference we found in Bolívar.

Deepening and Exposing the Ambiguity of Latin American Philosophy: Between a Situated Thought and Universal History in the Thought of Leopoldo Zea

The abyss marked by Simón Bolívar's statement concerning the sense of being Latin American leaves an opening that will echo throughout the unfolding of Latin American thought in the twentieth century. The difficulty takes the form of the question of identity, that is, the question of the possibility or impossibility of a Latin American philosophy. We are speaking of a philosophy that engages Latin America's own reality and that may develop a conceptual sense of that distinct existence, ultimately giving articulation to the senses of being Latin American. We turn now to the Mexican philosopher Leopoldo Zea, one of the founders of Latin American philosophy, whose work is distinguished by his insistence on the existence of a distinct Latin American philosophy that may be traced from the famous debates of Valladolid in the sixteenth century about the humanity of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and through the positivism and romanticism that underlie the revolutionary movements of the nineteenth century in the Americas to the new developments of a Latin American philosophy situated on its own historical and cultural grounds with its own characteristics.

"Our Own": Recognizing America's Philosophical History and its Relationship with European Thought

In Concerning an American Philosophy (En torno a una filosofía americana), published in 1942, Leopoldo Zea writes,

To be a Latin American was until very recently a great misfortune, because this did not allow us to be European. Today it is just the opposite: the inability to become European, in spite of our great efforts, allows us to have a personality; it allows us to learn, in this moment of crisis in European culture, that there is something of our own [algo que nos es propio] that can give us support. What this something is should be one of the issues that a Latin American philosophy must investigate.

Zea's most evident contribution to Latin American thought is his call for and recognition of the existence of a Latin American philosophy, and his doing so by calling for thought that arises in critical engagement with its historical and existential situation. Moreover, this turn toward the Americas anticipates in a way the philosophy of liberation by putting at its center the asymmetry in the concepts of identity between the conqueror and the conquered that results from the cultural and intellectual dependency of Latin Americans under European and American Western ideas of what counts as humanity and culture. In Zea's account, the colonizer establishes the asymmetry by reducing the colonized to the subhuman, thus putting into question the humanity of the colonized. From this exclusion of the American as human arises for Latin American thought the question of the humanity of those peoples of the new continent. This question in turn is expressed over and over again in a distinct form as the question of Latin American identity: "What does it mean to be Latin American?" This question becomes the ontological question for the American, in contrast to the European questions of what existence is or why is there anything rather than nothing. What makes for a history of Latin American thought driven by the question of Latin American identity is, then, the European colonization and development of modern rationalism in its instrumental and calculative as well as humanistic paths, which were enforced over the Americas. In other words, what distinguishes Latin American philosophy from the sixteenth century on is the question of the humanity of Latin Americans and hence the issue of the possibility of a Latin American philosophy that may articulate the distinct senses of being human in Latin American experience. In 1942, in light of the loss of the central gravity of European ideals thanks to the two world wars, Zea sees the historical moment for Latin American philosophy to affirm its distinct sense of humanity and thought and in doing so to renovate creatively the project of humanity from a situation other than the European.

Zea's response to the question of whether there is a Latin American philosophy is affirmative from the very start. This is because, as I have just indicated, to be American is to struggle with the question of identity, although under the asymmetry of coloniality. In terms of Simón Bolívar's statement about being Americans, one may say that Leopoldo Zea will articulate that very abyssal situation by recognizing how being in between and in constant struggle is already a philosophical way of being. For Zea, in light of this asymmetry, a dependency sets in: The subhuman continue to attempt to show that they are like the master conquerors. The nineteenth century unfolds in Latin American philosophy as a series of attempts to resolve the asymmetry by showing that the Americans are indeed like the European man and therefore are humans capable of the same accomplishments as the Europeans and later the North Americans. But this is a series of duplications and applications of forms of thought, projects, and definitions that are alien to the existence of the Americans. Latin American thought, from the quarrel between Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in Valladolid about the humanity of the native Americans through most of the nineteenth century, appears as a desperate struggle to affirm the being of the Americans through a perpetuation of a dependency on the very model of the human as modern Western man. But for Zea this pernicious cycle, in spite of all its imitative character and the intellectual dependency it implies, still is a form of philosophical thought. However, given the pernicious character of this tradition in Latin American philosophy, the crucial moment for him is the turn to "our own" Latin American reality and thought. As we will see later on in this section, this turn must at the same time respond to its origins, that is, to Western philosophy. For Zea, exploring the question of Latin American philosophy means showing the place Latin American philosophy has had and may have in the context of Western philosophy.


Excerpted from Latin American Philosophy from Identity to Radical Exteriority by Alejandro A. Vallega. Copyright © 2014 Alejandro Arturo Vallega. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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

Alejandro A. Vallega is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oregon. He is author of Heidegger and the Issue of Space: Thinking on Exilic Grounds and Sense and Finitude: Encounters at the Limits of Art, Language, and the Political.

Indiana University Press

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