Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Latin America, philosophy in


Latin America, philosophy in

Geographically, Latin America extends from the Mexican–US border to those regions of Antarctica to which various Latin American countries have laid claim. It includes the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Philosophy in Latin America dates from pre-Columbian (before 1492 in Hispanic America) and precabralian times (before 1500 in Brazil). Autochthonous cultures, particularly the Aztecs, Mayas, Incas and Tupi-Guarani, produced sophisticated thought systems centuries before the arrival of Europeans in America.

Academic philosophy began in the sixteenth century when the Catholic church began to establish schools, monasteries, convents and seminaries in Latin America. The seventeenth century saw little philosophical activity as effort was made to use academic thought to maintain the status quo, which reinforced a basically medieval worldview. Intellectually, the eighteenth century perpetuated this calm traditionalism until mid-century when a generation of Jesuits tried to break with the thought of Aristotle in order to modernize it. Political turmoil prevented academic philosophy from broadening in the early part of the nineteenth century. Later in the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, positivism eventually became entrenched in most Latin American countries. In the early twentieth century new intellectual movements began as a backlash against anti-positivism.

1 Latin American philosophy up to the nineteenth century

Indigenous cultures, particularly the Aztecs, Mayas, Incas and Tupi-Guarani, produced interesting and sophisticated thought systems centuries before the arrival of Europeans in America. Many cultural artefacts were lost or destroyed so that study of this period involves many challenges in deciphering the subtleties and complexities of the earliest thought in Latin America. Indigenous cosmologies were often linked to phenomena in the natural world (see Latin America, pre-Columbian and indigenous thought in; Brazil, philosophy in).

Academic philosophy grew up in the sixteenth century when the Catholic church began to establish schools, monasteries, convents and seminaries in Latin America. If the encounter with the New World had significant impact on the European mind, this was not initially reflected in the philosophy being taught and written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which tended to restate and reinforce medieval values. However, intriguing writings on ethics and jurisprudence grew out of the contact between Spain and Latin America. Essentially, these writings analysed the relationship between cultural differences and human rights. The Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas was a pivotal figure who defended the rights of native and African peoples living in the Indies in the sixteenth century (see Latin America, colonial thought in; Mexico, philosophy in).

With a few notable exceptions, the seventeenth century was largely moribund philosophically because most efforts were directed towards using academic thought to maintain the status quo, which reinforced a fundamentally medieval worldview. The main philosophical task involved justifying and protecting the Catholic faith against Protestantism and science. Scholasticism was the dominant trend. However, there were some exceptions to the dominant practices in the form of several remarkable historical and philosophical figures. Antonio Rubio’s studies on logic are remarkably advanced. Juana Inés de la Cruz had a brilliant philosophical mind and is usually considered one of the earliest feminist thinkers in America (see Latin America, colonial thought in; Feminist thought in Latin America).

Intellectually, the eighteenth century continued this calm traditionalism until mid-century when a generation of Jesuits tried to break with the thought of Aristotle and bring philosophy into ’modernity’. They were primarily influenced by post-Renaissance Italian and French philosophy. However, the Jesuit order was expelled from the Spanish-speaking world in 1767. This delayed the introduction of proto-modern European philosophy in Latin America. The eighteenth century has become the subject of much revisionist philosophical study, particularly in Mexico (see Mexico, philosophy in).

Academic philosophy still did not broaden in the early nineteenth century because of political turmoil both in various Latin American countries and in Europe. Universities occasionally closed. This inhibited academic philosophical progress as universities were the locus of much philosophical activity. A more productive forum for philosophy was often the political arena in which thoughtful essays of ideas were written by nonacademics on themes such as constitutional government, progress and autonomy (see Literature, philosophy in Latin American; Argentina, philosophy in).

Later in the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, positivism eventually became entrenched in most Latin American countries. This movement claimed to be an objective methodology of the sciences. It was widely believed that scientific doctrines could provide the most efficient management of society through educational and political reforms. Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer were the primary positivist influences in Latin America (see Positivist thought in Latin America; Analytical philosophy in Latin America; Brazil, philosophy in).

2 Latin American philosophy in the twentieth century

In the early twentieth century new intellectual movements began. Arising from these was a strong, thoroughgoing anti-positivist backlash. Ideas that positivists had promoted as ’scientific’ were rejected by anti-positivists for being scientistic (see Anti-positivist thought in Latin America; Argentina, philosophy in). Philosophers entertained idealism, vitalism, pragmatism and various political and social philosophies (see Phenomenology in Latin America; Existentialist thought in Latin America). Neo-Thomist thought continued to be widely studied, primarily in the Catholic universities.

A focus on regional thought in Latin America was an outgrowth of anti-positivist thought and a consequence of the arrival of Spanish philosophers who were exiled after the fall of Republican Spain. The writings of the Spaniard, José Ortega y Gasset, were widely influential in shaping Latin American philosophical reflections. Philosophers addressed the question of authenticity as they explored whether Latin Americans were simply adopting European philosophies, or whether they themselves had any authentic philosophy to offer. Many concluded that Latin Americans were adapting, rather than adopting European philosophies to their own reality (see Existentialist thought in Latin America; Phenomenolgy in Latin America; Anti-positivist thought in Latin America).

This process of critical self-examination, or ’autognosis’, was twofold. First, philosophers in individual countries and regions of Latin America sought to identify what was unique or distinctive about their thought or being. Later, philosophical contributions made by Latin America as a whole were compared and contrasted with those of other regions in the world (see Argentina, philosophy in; Brazil, philosophy in; Mexico, philosophy in). Studying Latin American thought in comparative perspective engendered a debate of considerable longevity over whether ‘Latin American philosophy’ exists or whether ’philosophy in Latin America’ is a more accurate denotation. Every Latin American country, including Puerto Rico, can be argued to possess unique philosophical traditions. At the same time there exists an extensive body of argument and commentary on what kind of philosophy, if any, can claim to be ’universal’.

Since analytical philosophy presents perspectives, methods and projects which claim to have universal appeal and applicability, it is often embraced in academic circles and is most frequently entrenched institutionally in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. Analytical philosophy in these countries, while not obviously a response to immediate regional social, political or economic circumstances, serves to include and validate its adherents in international circles by adopting a style widely practised and accepted by mainstream Anglo-American academic philosophy. Attracted to the linguistic ’rigour’ of analytical philosophy, some adherents claim that it is the only way to do ’real philosophy’.

The late twentieth century reveals that it is possible to speak of both ’Latin American philosophy’ and ’philosophy in Latin America’. Some areas of philosophical research imbued with regional and cosmopolitan appeal are cultural identity, feminist thought, liberation philosophy, marginality and Marxist thought in Latin America (see Cultural identity; Feminist thought in Latin America; Liberation philosophy; Marginality; Marxist thought in Latin America). Many of these areas are profoundly engaged with Latin American realities in historical context. Rather than blindly adopting canonical Western philosophical paradigms, writers in these traditions seek to broaden the definition of what is human by convincingly articulating and incorporating Latin American experience and values into both the crucial discourses of philosophy and the pressing themes of the modern world (see Marginality).

Marxist philosophy has been and most likely will continue to be significant in Latin America partly because of continuing problems of economic disparities. Concerns with retributive justice, human rights and issues of power and truth, as well as the belief that Marxist theory more accurately describes reality, contribute to the vitality of this thought. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the passing of Maoism in China, for many the Cuban Revolution of 1959 is still idealized because it continues to threaten the US ’monster’ to the north, while advancing the notion of a supportive, egalitarian and responsible community. The Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui was an original Latin American Marxist thinker whose thought has generated interest and respect internationally (see Marxist thought in Latin America).

One of the best known and most interesting contributions of modern Latin American intellectual life is liberation philosophy. The philosophical movement originated in Argentina, although many of its practitioners reside in other Latin American countries (see Argentina, philosophy in; Mexico, philosophy in). Philosophy of liberation should not be confused with liberation theology (see Liberation theology). Philosophy of liberation attempts to explain philosophically the theoretical underpinnings of social and political phenomena, such as dependency, and reinforces theology of liberation. These movements are responses to significant events in twentieth-century Latin America such as the Cuban Revolution (1959), the Argentine ‘Dirty war’ (1976–1983) and repressive regimes which began in Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964 and Chile in 1973. Other political topics for these writers included populism, Marxism and Peronism. Philosophy of liberation differs from theology of liberation, Latin Americanist philosophy and Marxist philosophy especially in terms of its more limited accessibility. Philosophers of liberation employ a complex and specialized vocabulary which requires initiation on the part of readers. In addition, philosophy of liberation is not a unified movement: it is more appropriate to speak of philosophies of liberation. Such fragmentation in this field can be partly explained by the political orientations of thinkers whose views range from the extreme left to the extreme right. Their philosophical influences vary widely and include Francophone, German and other Latin American thinkers.

Philosophical activity in Latin America is characterized by a tremendous diversity of focus and methodologies. Latin Americans are keenly aware of philosophical developments in the rest of the world and thus entertain a variety of philosophical stances: progressive and conservative, pragmatist and idealist, materialist and spiritualist. Numerous philosophical interests and projects exist in Latin America because of a diversified and active philosophical profession, an interested public, some government support, a cultural awareness of other continents among the educated and noneducated alike and a widespread faith in education as a key to development.

How to cite this article:
OLIVER, AMY A. (1998). Latin America, philosophy in. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved April 20, 2014, from

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