Ethnic Labels and Philosophy: The Case of Latin-American Philosophy

By Gracia, Jorge J. E. | Philosophy Today, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Ethnic Labels and Philosophy: The Case of Latin-American Philosophy


Gracia, Jorge J. E., Philosophy Today


Many histories of philosophy are arranged according to categories that appear to be national. It does not take very long in a library to find histories of French philosophy that claim to deal with the philosophies produced by the French nation, and the same can be said about histories of Spanish philosophy, German philosophy, American philosophy, and so on. Indeed, there are societies, like,the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy in the United States, that purport to be devoted to the study of some of these philosophies. Of course, there are many histories of philosophy that concentrate on periods and cut across national boundaries, such as histories of ancient, Renaissance, and medieval philosophy. Likewise, there are histories of problems, themes, and schools, which also do not seem to pay much attention to nationalities. Nonetheless, a favorite way of organizing histories of philosophy is along boundaries that are taken to be national.

When one looks at these histories more carefully, however, it becomes clear that what is included in them often has little to do with nations as we generally understand them today, that is, as groups of people organized politically and living in particular territories.1 Under French philosophy, much more than the work of French citizens is included, and the same could be said about Spanish philosophy, English philosophy, and so on. Consider, for example, that histories of Spanish philosophy routinely include references to Seneca and Averroes, philosophers who lived long before the Spanish nation was constituted as a political reality, and whose relation to this nation, as we know it since the sixteenth century, is less than tenuous. Indeed, it appears that other considerations, such as language, culture, and history, play important roles in the inclusion within these categories.

This suggests that the use of these categories as reflecting national identities is inaccurate, and that they should rather be understood in other ways. One possibility is to take them to reflect ethnic, rather than national identities. Thus, "Spanish philosophy" and "French philosophy" become ethnic labels, which name and include the philosophical work of persons who do not necessarily belong to the same nation even though they belong to the same ethnic group.

The notion of an ethnic philosophy poses all sorts of philosophically interesting questions. Some of these are related to the notion of ethnicity itself, which is receiving considerable attention these days, but remains still quite murky. I have dealt with ethnicity elsewhere in some detail, so I shall not take up this issue here.2 Instead, I shall take up the question of inclusion: What counts as part of an ethnic philosophy? Unfortunately, posing the question in this way does not take us very far. In order to make some progress we need to pose the question in concrete terms, and so I have chosen the case of Latin-American philosophy for this purpose. There are several reasons for the choice. One, it is a clear case of ethnic philosophy in the sense I understand it here, insofar as there is no Latin-American nation; two, there has been much discussion about the nature, and even existence, of Latin-American philosophy; and three, I am well acquainted with the topic. In addition, I need to clarify some confusions. The first of these has to do with the notion of history. This notion is important because, when one speaks of an ethnic philosophy, often what is meant is the history of that philosophy. But "history" itself is frequently used ambiguously.

My overall thesis is that ethnic philosophies are historical realities enmeshed in webs of complicated relations. This requires that a proper understanding of them reflect this reality. Moreover, it is a mistake to think of these philosophies as classes whose members satisfy necessary and sufficient conditions. The conditions of membership vary, as history itself does, allowing for different groupings and ways of looking at them.

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