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When one aspires to love all wisdom, one should look for it worldwide – and that task is not easy. Typically, when we philosophers look outside the West, we look above all to Asia. But within the West (at least after the fall of the Roman Empire), we also tend to narrow our focus to the United States and Western Europe, with occasional bones tossed to Canada and Australia. And there’s a lot we miss when we do.

Like Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Latin America is largely a Western culture, even if it has been on the periphery of the West’s overall attention. (Latin America and Eastern Europe each pay more attention to the USA and Western Europe than they pay to each other.) Like Africa, it is a continent-sized region of the world that gets much less philosophical attention than does Asia. Two years ago I gave African philosophy a survey post here – still less than it deserves – but have not yet done the same for Latin America. I’d like to fix that now.

Let’s start as early as we can, with pre-colonial indigenous Latin American thought – traditions as far from Western and Asian thought as can be. We unfortunately don’t have a lot of textual records from them left today; the vast majority of written records we do now have were collected in the colonial era. The best such records we have come from Mexico, whose name is what the people we call Aztec used to describe themselves. The Aztecs and Mayans do not appear to have argued for detailed philosophical systems the way Plato or the Pali Canon or Mencius did, but they did have the sort of incipient philosophical thinking that one finds in Homer or the Vedas or the Book of Rites. I’ve already learned from the Aztec concept of teotl as described by James Maffie: a metaphysical unifying One that contains within it badness as well as goodness.

Ethically, I am struck by the wisdom in the Cantares Mexicanos, a 16th-century collection we have of traditional Nahuatl (Aztec) songs. Like most people, the Aztecs believed in gods and an afterlife; what is striking is that despite those beliefs, their outlook retained a determined worldliness. They were all too aware of life’s fleeting shortness, and lamented it; yet that awareness led them not to dismiss this life in favour of a world beyond but to seek enjoyment here:

One day we must go,
one night we will descend into the region of mystery.
Here, we only come to know ourselves;
only in passing are we here on earth.
In peace and pleasure let us spend our lives:
come, let us enjoy ourselves.
Let not the angry do so; the earth is vast indeed!
Would that one lived forever; would that one were not to die!

Beyond the limited records we have from the Aztecs and Mayans, records of other indigenous civilizations (especially older ones) are even spottier. What were indigenous Americans thinking before 1300 or so? We can make a few guesses based on the statues and temples they left, but basically we don’t know. In the Americas there remains nothing comparable to the long traditions of North African thought preserved in the Roman Empire and in the medieval Muslim and Christian worlds.

After the European invasion, however, there is a centuries-long wealth of philosophical reflection growing from European roots, of a sort found less in Africa. This is why I generally categorize Latin American thought as part of the Western tradition, though the pre-conquest indigenous traditions were not Western – just as with North American thought. It can be easy for North Americans to forget just how long Spanish- and Portuguese-speakers have been in the Americas. But even a short visit to Latin America leads the North American visitor to remark how old it is – the centre of Lisbon, Portugal, rebuilt entirely after the 1755 earthquake, feels old to us, yet so many of Latin America’s city centres were built before that.

Accordingly, non-indigenous philosophy goes back much further in Latin America than in North America, to a pre-modern colonial world; there are interesting philosophers of European ancestral origin in Latin America well before there are any in North America. Centuries before Thomas Jefferson or Jonathan Edwards, let alone Emerson or William James or John Watson or Lionel Groulx, there were important Latin American philosophers and philosophical debates. Brian Tierney argues that the Valladolid debate on the moral status of indigenous Americans, between the Spanish philosophers Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, played a crucial role in building our modern concept of rights.

So too there was the Mexican polymath Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, usually just known as Sor Juana, who I find one of the most relatable figures in the history of philosophy. She knew her searching intellect could never be satisfied by the life of a homemaking mother, so she took up the path of a nun, which gave her access to scholars from the court and the university and the chance to keep a large personal library. There she wrote a variety of works, of which her baroque philosophical poetry is particularly famous. The work attracted criticism from a bishop who thought it was sinful pride for a woman to write publicly, especially on topics not explicitly Christian. Her response, the Reply to Sor Philotea, is one of the most eloquent premodern defences of women’s capabilities.

As Latin Americans entered the modern era, they thought with modern Western philosophy – but not in quite the same ways that North Americans and Europeans did. Auguste Comte‘s philosophy of positivism, in particular, left a much deeper mark on Latin America than it did elsewhere: Latin American governments embraced Comte’s view that all fields of knowledge should consist in the scientific study of general laws, and that society, especially, could progress through a knowledge of its laws. The positivist influence was so strong that positivism’s motto remains on Brazil’s national flag today: ordem e progresso, order and progress.

The flag of Brazil

Some of Latin America’s greatest thinkers emerged as positivism’s critics. I am particularly impressed by Uruguay’s José Enrique Rodó, whose Ariel is a passionate reaction against the positivist drive to quantification and pragmatic utility. Rodó calls for artistic and aesthetic appreciation and Aristotelian excellence: we should be striving to better ourselves and appreciate the heights of human culture, in a way that is all the more urgent in an immigrant democracy without a homogenous cultural reserve to draw on. As befits the content of the claim, the literary form of Ariel is not an abstract argument but a poetic exhortation.

Latin America was an overwhelmingly Catholic region until very recent decades where evangelical Protestant missionaries have made major inroads. As one might therefore expect, Catholicism has played a major role in its philosophical history, and not just in the early years with Sor Juana and the Valladolíd debate. Perhaps globally the best-known Latin American philosophical tradition is liberation theology (teología de la liberación), the theological tradition created by thinkers like the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, which focuses its attention on the poor and oppressed. The current pope – who, let’s not forget, is Argentinian – draws several ideas from liberation theology, though he is not a liberation theologian himself.

Now when I spoke to Latin American philosophers at a MacIntyre conference, they had told me that Latin Americans don’t care about liberation theology nearly as much as North Americans do. I don’t know whether that’s true – but I’m interested in what Latin Americans will do with MacIntyre. Latin American soil does seem particularly fertile for MacIntyre, as a place where both Catholicism and Marxism are influential, though the left-MacIntyreans don’t seem to have gathered any traction there yet.

I’ve only scratched the surface here, focusing on the Latin American philosophies I find particularly interesting. As one would expect in a place with a long tradition of modern universities, there are plenty of Latin American philosophical movements for which there’s no room in a single post – just as there would be if I tried to do a single post on the philosophies of Western Europe. Still, I hope this is a good taste of what Latin American philosophy has to offer.