Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Lessons from the Philosophy of Race in Mexico

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Lessons from the Philosophy of Race in Mexico

Article excerpt

Mexican philosophy has been an especially active site of thinking about race, leaving a considerable conceptual and terminological legacy in, e.g., the concepts of 'La raza cosmica', "indigenismo," and the claim that mestizaje can eliminate racism. Despite this legacy, the precise conceptions of race deployed by Mexican philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century have often been poorly understood. Consequently, the specifically racial components in their work have been frequently dismissed on the grounds that it was unscientific, irresponsible, and/or sloppy. I hope to show that with a sufficiently rich understanding of at least the seminal works, many-though certainly not all-of these criticisms can be blunted.

Historically, race has generally been understood as a somatological category identifiable by morphological differences. That is, race was thought to be something that picks out physical features that mark off distinctive natural kinds. Although the word "race" can be traced back to 1580,1 the twentieth century's conceptual heritage is more closely tied to the developments of nineteenth century anthropology and biology. In particular, racial differences have often been thought to reflect underlying biological differences.2 It is hardly necessary to point out that current scholarly conceptions of race usually treat the biological concept as "artifactual" or "error-theoretic," that is, a socially constructed category that falsely purports to have biological underpinnings. Understanding race as artifactual has been a useful tool for illuminating how perceptions about membership in a racial group are and have been subject to numerous factors entirely disconnected from the ostensive source of racial classification, and how the categories themselves have been subject to variable, oftentimes pernicious human interests. Our interest, however, is in earlier biological conceptions of race. In the case of Mexican philosophers, their work was frequently influenced by the state of French Biology. The science of genetics, which has provided much of the purported foundation for thinking about race, was not unified until well into the twentieth century. Consequently, tremendous variations can be found in the biological conceptions that funded various philosophical treatments of race. Attention to this fact can go a long way towards removing the apparently embarrassing or contradictory race-based claims of various Mexican philosophers.

Although our primary focus will be on two of the more unusual theories of race in Mexican philosophy, those of the positivist Francisco Bulnes and the anti-positivist Jose Vasconcelos, the instability of biological conceptions of race had more far-reaching consequences for the kinds of explanations of social theories proposed by subsequent generations of Mexican philosophers. I will briefly remark on some of these consequences for later figures like Samuel Ramos and Leopoldo Zea. As a group, these four figures represent the core of Mexican philosophical thought on race in the first half of the twentieth century.

Bulnes and the Agrarian Races

Like so many things in Mexican philosophy, the history of philosophical racial discourse has a natural starting point in the late nineteenth century. Racial discourse among Mexican intellectuals was tied to the rise of positivism, the adoption of Spencerian Social Darwinism, and in some interpretations, to class interests.3 An excellent example of racial thinking fully embedded in the intellectual currents of the day is the book El porvenir de las naciones hispanoamericanas, written by Francisco Bulnes (1849-1924). Published in 1899, it gives us a convenient place to begin our reflections on race in Mexican philosophical thought.

Perhaps best known for being one of the original five cientificos during the Porfiriato, Bulnes was in many ways typical of Mexican intellectuals at the turn of the century. A contemporary of Justo Sierra's, Bulnes believed that science ought to applied to the problems of governance. …

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