Latin America, philosophy in

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-ZA009-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 02, 2022, from

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).

Citing this article:
Oliver, Amy A.. Latin American philosophy up to the nineteenth century. Latin America, philosophy in, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-ZA009-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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