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The Philosophy of Liberation: An Interview with Enrique Dussel (Part I)

Enrique Dussel invites me in through the black gates that lead to his office at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma Mexicom.  I am 45 minutes late but he wants to put time aside for me despite my delay. “You have come all the way from Pakistan after all,” he says. “It would be a shame if we did not speak.”

His office has a library that looks like his mind: Eclectic and disciplined. He is a voracious reader of philosophy from across the world, almost as if his person does not recognize boundaries of thought. The books that he has written cover an entire wall, all bound in identical black leather with titles engraved in gold. “My compiled writings,” Dussel explains. He has channeled his engagements into his thinking and his pen, and produced a collection of work that has inspired generations of philosophy students, activists, and political groups, in Mexico and beyond.

Dussel is one of the most grounded and innovative political philosophers alive today. He is the author of more than 50 books, and written extensively about everything from political philosophy and ethics, to theology, aesthetics, and ontology. As one of the founders of the Philosophy of Liberation, he approaches his areas of thought from his position as a thinker in the Global South. His experience as a young boy in Mendoza, Argentina, the son of a country doctor, played a defining role in his life. His interaction with poor rural families, voluntary work with disabled children, and political activism as a teenager constituted his intellectual discourse, paving the way–along with so many other experiences–towards the man that he is today. Perhaps that is why his background is precisely the place that he starts, as I sit down to speak to him, to ask him about his person, and his philosophy.

Mahvish Ahmad (MA): You describe yourself first and foremost as a philosopher. Could you explain the role of the philosopher and of philosophy?

Enrique Dussel (ED): For me, philosophy was first and foremost the discovery of what it means to be a philosopher in Latin America.

As an 18 year old, I chose to study at the Faculty of Philosophy. During my time, a Bachelor was 10 semesters, or five years, long. I first studied in Argentina, but left for Mexico where I was in exile through the Argentinian military dictatorship of 1975. At this point, the study of philosophy in Argentina was Eurocentric. We studied Greek philosophy, Latin, the middle ages, etc. So studying philosophy in Argentina was the same as studying in Madrid, Paris or Berlin.

At the age of 23, I received a stipend to pursue a post-graduate doctorate in philosophy in Spain. It was at this point that I discovered that I was not a European, but a Latin American. And, then, I didn’t know what happened. I spent a total of 10 years in Europe. After Madrid, I went to Sorbonne in Paris, and Germany for two years. I went to Israel, the Mediterranean, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Greece, and so on.

[Dussel picks up “The Politics of Liberation: A Critical Global History”, the first of his mammoth 3-volume work laying out the foundations of a decolonized political philosophy]

This book is the first of its kind, mapping out Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Philosophy from the 13th Century until the year 2000. It is 1100 pages long, and each page has two columns. I inspired the book, but more than 60 colleagues have collaborated in its production. This is the first history of philosophy in Latin America. It was published in 2010, and nothing of its kind has ever existed.

Thinking as a Latin American philosopher has been a very difficult struggle. The academia, and its university professors, have mostly been Eurocentric.

I started when I came back from Europe and discovered popular struggles. We started thinking of the history of Latin American philosophy, from the point of view of the oppressed. An approach that is so characteristic of Liberation Philosophy, the only new school of thought born in Latin America. All other schools, Marxist, phenomenology, American pragmatism, etc., are all commentaries of Europe or the United States.

So to answer your question, for me philosophy is to think, to critique in a radical manner, against the foundational moment of domination. The oppressed constitute the majority in the periphery, the South and the old colonies. Modern philosophy is bourgeois. Consciously or unconsciously, this philosophy justifies imperialism, bourgeoise, capitalism, eurocentrism. Domination has a last philosophical moment. We build a critique against this foundational moment so the oppressed people can become free. That, for me, is the function of philosophy. It is a critique of the status quo.

MA: How does the philosopher, the intellectual, play a role within this critique?

ED: First, through the deconstruction of the history of philosophy. Europeans believe and lay claim to being the universal philosophy. Descartes is the beginning of modern philosophy. And modern philosophy is a world philosophy.

We say “No, hold on a moment!” Modern European philosophy is a European philosophy. It is true that European countries like France or England become, especially after the industrial revolution, empires of their time. And that all other cultures were more or less dominated as colonies.

Understanding their philosophy, European philosophy, as provincial, which it is, is not easy for us. We are of the conviction that Hegel and Marx are for all worlds, and not philosophers of the central moment of world history.

It is necessary to discover and develop the new subject, i.e. our subject. It is necessary to rethink our problems, and not only European problems. Develop new categories. Ask new questions, and develop new answers, that Europe cannot develop, because their problems are different. After this exercise, we can perhaps look at the categories of European philosophy, and see if they are relevant.

But let me also bring in something else that is interesting.

Let me bring in the beginning of the Philosophy of Liberation. They are a group of philosophers in Argentina in the 1960s who arose during military dictatorship and oppression. There were very interesting popular movements in Argentina in the ’60s. The ’68 of Argentina or Mexico is not the ’68 or Paris or Berkeley. Ours was very different. Here in Mexico, ’68 was Tlatelolco. During a repressed student and workers movement the government massacred more than 400 in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City. In Paris and Berkeley, not one person was killed. Here, more than 400 died. In Argentina, students and workers took control of a city, Cordoba. We call it “The Cordobazo”, or “The Big Cordoba”, and it sought to challenge the dictator, Ongania’s, power.

Political engagement is very strong in our countries, and we have a very strong and popular political sensibility. The “popular” is a very difficult subject in Europe or the United States. There people think Hitler, folk and folkgeist, they think rightist groups. But in Latin America, the people signify dignity, and the poor. They’re all Indians, Afro-Americans, and workers, the marginalized. The “people” have another meaning for us.

The same goes for the state. Antonio Negri in Empire said the state is not important. The question is empire, and empire has no relation with the state. But for us, in post-colonial countries, the state is very important. Because the state can defend us from the presence of world capitalism. So, we have many different visions not just on the political, but also of the ethical.

The ethical liberation I developed is not a consensual ethics like Habermas. I needed a material ethics of the affirmation of life, the corporality of life. Because, for the poor, poverty is a problem, whether you are in Pakistan, India, or Latin America. For us, poverty is a problem.

But what does it mean to be poor?

I discovered Marx not as a Marxist. I discovered Marx as a means to understand what it means to be poor. Being poor not on the individual, moral, or abstract level, but in the economical, the geopolitical, and the historical sense. To discover the poor as “other”, in the sense of Emmanuel Levinas, a French philosopher, is different than the “other” in Levinas himself. When I spoke with Levinas, he didn’t understand why we found his thought so interesting. Because, for us, the first problem wasn’t exteriority, but poverty.

The trouble is that our problems are not very well represented in North American or European philosophy. We have other questions. For example, the alienation of the colonial culture of the old colonies. We have a tradition, and this tradition was the annihilated, oppressed because of the exploitation by European culture. We have a dichotomy here, that the European does not understand. The European does not understand what it means to confront these questions. He has no idea what all our questions mean, because our situation is very different: To be colonial.

For example, I read Parmenides, who said the being is what the non-being is not. For a European it is almost an abstract tautology. But, when I read the Greek philosopher, I understood that the being is Greek, and the non-Greek is the non-being. The barbarian, the asiatic, the other people outside the city walls. Heraklitus said the logos is until the wall of the city, after the wall is the multitude. But, this multitude is an asiatic multitude, the non-being, the non-human. So, I understand this from the point of view of the coloniality of being. I understand it in the other way. All Greek, feudal and even Islamic philosophy–because even in Islamic philosophy there is a sense of who is Islamic (Dar-ul-Islam) and who is not Islamic (Dar-ul-Harb)–advocates the negativity of the other. The problem is that I am that other.

In the first lecture I gave in the United States, I said, “For you Latin America is not civilized, developed, human. It is not. When I speak of my country, I speak of the non-being, of a barbarian philosophy.” I begin with a text of Athenagoras in the 2nd century. He was not a Roman, and spoke on the barbarian philosophy of the Roman people. I can reread the Roman and understand what it means to be the barbarian of the European. I introduce a new, and actual, subject into European philosophy.

For North Americans, to be a Mexican is to be illegal in the United States. And to be illegal is to be a second human being. It is a racist category, indicating that Parmenides is still at work today. The being is Anglo-Saxon, the non-being, the non-human, is non-Anglo-Saxon, whom we can kill, no problem. Take Iraq, one Iraqi is not a problem. We can kill hundreds and thousands of persons, but the 25 boys are a problem. The American is paramount.

A sensitivity to this, an attempt to critique this, is developed in a Philosophy of Liberation.

MA: How does one go about decentering such a dominant discourse?

ED: Many things come to mind.

This is a small book, “The Philosophy of Liberation.” It is like a meta-discourse.

There are abstract categories. All categories in the social science e.g. in anthropology, sociology, history, politics, etc. have abstract categories.

We can speak on the totality; a system. But what does totality mean? A system? What does it mean when somebody in the exteriority of the system is subsumed and alienated in the system? And how can somebody recoup the dignity of the system, and organize a new system? And put the system into question? All these are abstract categories. I call them meta-categories. It is logic.

The Philosophy of Liberation begins to be a logic. But afterwards, on the basis of this logic, I construct a politics, an ethics and an aesthetics, many things. At this point, I operate on a more empirical level. For example, the question of gender at an erotic level, woman/man. I can develop a treatise on the liberation of woman based on the categories I develop in the philosophy of liberation. And confront issues like psychoanalysis.

But on these levels, the question of modernity always plays a role. And in modernity, central and peripheral countries now begin to be in question. Because, now, at this moment, the centrality of Europe and the United States begins to change. The presence of China and India begins to be more developed. Russia discovers a new possibility. And the new poles of presence, where the center is not Europe, United States, and Japan, like some years ago, begin to be a pluripolarity–if I can call it that.

Now, it’s more difficult to see many relations on this geopolitical level. But this moment is still interesting. China, for example, begins to be more present at all levels. They also begin a discovery through their own philosophy. Because, Marxism said the old culture was a bourgeois, monarchic mix–nothing. But now, the Chinese begin to discover that there is an old Chinese culture. They begin to discover tradition, to understand what China means. China is not a miracle. It has developed over 2000 years of civilization. Each of these big cultures have begun to discover their traditions, and have begun a dialogue with modernity. They have philosophical questions that we must put into the discussion. That, generally speaking, Europeans don’t put into the question, or into the discussion.


Enrique Dussel is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Iztapalapa campus of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (Autonomous Metropolitan University, UAM) and also teaches courses at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM). He is also considered one of the founding fathers of the Philosophy of Liberation.

Mahvish Ahmad is an independent journalist and lecturer living and working in Islamabad, Pakistan. She is also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Tanqeed | a magazine of politics and culture.

Illustration by Ahmad Ali Manganhar

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