Philosophy and the Colonial Difference

By Mignolo, Walter D. | Philosophy Today, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Philosophy and the Colonial Difference

Mignolo, Walter D., Philosophy Today

In the 1950s the distinguished ethno-historian and expert in Ancient Mexico, Miguel Leon-Portilla, published his classical book titled La filosofia Nanuatl. He did not have to wait long for criticism and one of the major attacks was his "imprudent" use ofthe term "philosophy" to designate something that the Aztecs or Nahuatl speaking people could have been engaged in. But criticisms were in the first place ambiguous. The "lack" of philosophical discourse among the Aztec could have meant that they were "barbarians," uncivilized or not enough developed. On the other hand, it could have meant just that they were "different". In such case, Nahuatl speaking people may not have had "philosophy" but the "difference" shall not be considered as a lack but an assertion that they had or did something else. Europeans, in their turn, did not have whatever that "something" else could have been. In another study, Leon-Portilla reflected on the social role of the tlamatini. He did not translate this social role as "philosopher" but described it as "those who have the power of the word" (Leon-Portilla, 1976; see also Mignolo,1995 for the case of philosophy in the Andes). Leon-Portilla, as anybody else, had difficulties in defining, first, what philosophy is in order to show, second, that the Aztec or Nahualt speaking people indeed had philosophy. He managed, however, to give an acceptable picture of what philosophy was for the Greeks and then matching it with the remains of Aztec documentation from the beginning of the sixteenth century, before Cortes' arrival in Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

Leon-Portilla overlooked the fact that philosophy, in Greece, went together with the emergence of what is today considered the Western alphabet and Western literacy. Indeed, if I had to define what philosophy is (following the Greek legacy), I would begin by saying that it is something that is linked to writing and to alphabetic writing. I will further add that it was alphabetic writing, linked to the concept of philosophy, that allowed Western men of letters, since the sixteenth century, to establish the difference between philosophy and other forms of knowledge. There is a caveat in this argument, however: the Arabic language and the Arabic early contact and translation of philosophical texts from Greek to Arabic. I will not pursue this point, since I have to concentrate on Latin America, but it is indeed an issue to keep in mind to understand the emergence of the colonial difference.

Beyond overlooking alphabetic writing in its complicity with Western self description of philosophy, Leon-Portilla accepted without further question (and here he is not alone) that philosophy is a Greek invention and the natural point of reference to decide whether something else is or is not philosophy. We can extend the same argument to other practices, to be sure. But let stay with philosophy. So, the argument goes, philosophy did not exist before the Greeks invented it. Therefore, communities or civilizations before the Greeks, or even having simultaneous histories after the Greeks invented philosophy, but with not much contact between them, did not have philosophy. Like the Aztecs in the early sixteenth century, for example. Or the Chinese, before the Greeks and during the Greeks' golden age of philosophical thinking. There is something odd in this historiographical picture, particularly because it is the result of an argument that places philosophy as a good thing to have, a's a crucial achievement of which other cultures have been or are deprived.

You may be asking yourself at this point, what does all of this have to do with Latin American philosophy? A lot, indeed, since I am talking around the colonial difference, and the colonial difference came into being during the so-called "conquest of America," which is, in a different macro-narrative, the emergence of the Atlantic commercial circuit and of the modern/colonial world. Let me explain. But, to do that, I have to stay a little longer with the famous Greeks. …

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