From Positivism to ‘Anti-Positivism’ in Mexico: Some Notable Continuities

In Gregory Gilson & Irving Levinson (eds.), Latin American Positivism: New Historical and Philosophic Essays. Lexington Books. pp. 49 (2012)

Alexander Stehn
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
A general consensus has emerged in the scholarship on Latin American thought dating from the latter half of the nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth. Latin American intellectuals widely adapted the European philosophy of positivism in keeping with the demands of their own social and political contexts, effectively making positivism the second most important philosophical tradition in the history of Latin America, after scholasticism. However, as thinkers across Latin America faced the challenges of the twentieth century, they grew increasingly disappointed with positivism, so that “anti-positivism” stands out as a defining feature of Latin American philosophy in the early twentieth century. In this essay, I challenge or at least add nuance to this widely accepted narrative by demonstrating considerable continuity rather than simple rupture between positivism and “anti-positivism” in Latin America. I focus on Mexico, where both positivism and the reaction against it are generally taken to have been strongest, or at least most politically significant. After tracing the history of positivism’s transformations in Mexico from Auguste Comte (1798-1857) to Gabino Barreda (1818-1881) to Justo Sierra (1848-1912), I show how Mexico’s leading “anti-positivist” philosophers—José Vasconcelos (1882-1959) and Antonio Caso (1883-1946)—draw substantially upon their positivist predecessors.
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