Activist philosopher, political figure (once a candidate for the Mexican presidency), and educational administrator (among other things, secretary of public education in his native land for four years), José Vasconcelos was also a prolific essayist, producing dozens of books and numerous uncollected essays which appeared in diverse periodicals.
If it can be said that Parmenides was being-intoxicated and that Spinoza was Godintoxicated, it can just as well be said that Vasconcelos was unity-intoxicated, possessed by a desire to achieve a comprehension of the whole of reality—not by abstracting generalities from individual differences, but by seeking what he termed a “synthesis of the heterogeneous,” wherein all aspects of reality would be unified while still remaining diverse. As a result it can be difficult to understand or appreciate single essays in isolation. Vasconcelos’ words are often like notes, his essays like musical passages, even at times like whole movements of a symphony, and are more meaningful considered together than by themselves.
Among the many works he penned were four volumes of autobiography; a number of aesthetics-centered works, the most important of which were El monismo estético (1918; Aesthetic monism), Tratado de metafísica (1929; Treatise on metaphysics), Ética (1932; Ethics), Estética (1935; Aesthetics), and Lógica organica (1945; Organic logic); several collections of essays on sociopolitical topics, including La raza cósmica (1925; The cosmic race), Indología (1927; Indianology—Vasconcelos’ term), and Bolivarismo y
Monroísmo (1934; Bolivarism and Monroism); and a collection of highly original essays on educational theory and practice entitled De Robinsón a Odiseo (1935; From Robinson [Crusoe] to Odysseus).
Vasconcelos affirmed that the major achievements of his homeland were in the realm of the arts—poetry, music, painting, sculpture, and architecture. Hence when he concentrated on aesthetics in his philosophy he felt he was reflecting a dominant feature of Mexican life. Further, he was, in the traditional Spanish phrase, un hombre de carne y hueso (a man of flesh and bone), a philosopher who sought truth as the fruit of a total experience—sensory, intellectual, volitional, emotional; he sought the “whole” truth as a “whole” person, and this total experience is aesthetic. In Tratado de metafísica Vasconcelos used the example of a gardener who, amidst the splendor of a rose garden, sets himself to counting the bushes. However, as soon as he does so the most profound and stirring aspects of the place are shattered. As with the rose garden, so too is the philosophical conception of the universe of a person whose vision is narrowed to the realm of the mathematical.
Even in his ethics, Vasconcelos’ approach was aesthetic. He pointed out that to create a work of beauty the artist gives a special form to some matter, such as the arrangement of sounds in a symphony or of shapes and colors in a painting. Our human acts and the events and circumstances of our lives are a kind of matter to which we can give a form.
Thus in Ética Vasconcelos wrote that in a heroic action or a saintly work, ethics and aesthetics become one, with the hero or the saint creating a life of beauty.
The task of achieving a system of unity-with-diversity in his aesthetic philosophy was also the principal problem in Vasconcelos’ social and political thought—in both domestic concerns within Mexico (as in La raza cósmica and especially in Indología, where he discussed questions concerning human unity and racial and cultural diversity) and international (especially inter-American) issues (as in Bolivarismo and Monroísmo,
where he sought the integration of the diverse nations of Latin America in an exemplary union).
To project his comprehensive view of reality Vasconcelos employed a “poetic” method of exposition. He explained that the poet, as an artist, recognizes the essential role of the emotions in the cognitive process and is precisely the artist who employs a discursive language by means of which this process can be elaborated and explicated. Thus Vasconcelos remarked in his Ética that a philosopher must be “a poet with a system,” pointing out that the insights of the poet are necessary in order to grasp reality; the
philosopher organizes such insights in the writing of essays.
While his essays are often attractive and stimulating, Vasconcelos’ scholarship can be suspect (with, for example, slight care taken about properly identifying his sources).
Moreover, a number of his poetic passages are at times decidedly obscure; the reader may glimpse poetic insights without being able to discover the philosopher’s system.
However, such objections concerned Vasconcelos little since he saw himself as an inventor, a creative essayist, and not as a pedantic philosopher.
José Vasconcelos was a complex, passionate figure who, despite his academic weaknesses, is one of the major philosopher-essayists of modern Latin America.
Born 28 February 1882 in Oaxaca. Studied in the United States; law at the Escuela Nacional de Jurisprudencia, Mexico City, graduated 1905. Married Serafina Miranda (later died), 1909: one son and one daughter. Cofounder, Ateneo de la Juventud (Atheneum of youth), Mexico City, 1909–14. Official post in the Progressive Constitutional Party; official representative for Francisco Madero in Washington, D.C., 1910–11; arrested and briefly imprisoned after Madero’s assassination, 1913. Traveled in Peru and the United States, 1915–20. Rector, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, 1920–21. Secretary of public education, 1920–24; unsuccessful candidate for Governor of the State of Oaxaca, 1924. Traveled in Europe, from 1925, and taught at various universities in the U.S. Unsuccessful candidate for President of Mexico, 1929. Traveled in Central America, Europe, and the U.S. for ten years; returned to Mexico, 1938. Director, National Library and the Library of Mexico. Founding member, El Colegio de México. Married Esperanza Cruz, 1942: one son. Died (of a heart attack) in Mexico City, 30 June 1959.
Essays and Related Prose
El monismo estético, 1918
Divagaciones literarias, 1919
Estudios indostanicos, 1920
Artículos: Libros que leo sentado y libros que leo de pié, 1920
Ideario de acción, 1924
La raza cósmica, 1925
Aspects of Mexican Civilization (lectures), with Manuel Gamio, 1926
Tratado de metafísica, 1929
Pesimismo alegre, 1931
Bolivarismo y Monroísmo: Temas iberoamericanos, 1934
Hispanoamérica frente a los nacionalistnos agresivos de Europa y Norteamérica (lectures), 1934
De Robinsón a Odiseo: Pedagogía estructurativa, 1935
Qué es el comunismo, 1936
Qué es la revolución, 1937
El realismo científico (lectures), 1943
El viento de Bagdad: Cuentos y ensayos, 1945
Lógica organica, 1945
Discursos, 1920–1950, 1950
Temas contemporáneos, 1955
En el ocaso de tni vida, 1957
Cartas políticas, edited by Alfonso Taracena, 1959
Letanías del atardecer, 1959
Pesimismo heroico, 1964
Antología de textos sobre educación, edited by Alicia Molina, 1981
Other writings: three plays, works on Mexican history, sociology, and education, biographies of important Mexicans, and the autobiographical series Ulises criollo (1935– 39; A Mexican Ulysses).
Collected works edition: Obras completas, 4 vols., 1957–61.
Foster, David William, “A Checklist of Criticism on José Vasconcelos,” Los Ensayistas 14–15 (1983):177–212
Basave Fernández del Valle, Augustín, La filosofía de José Vasconcelos, Madrid: Cultura Hispánica, 1958
Cárdenas Noriega, Joaquín, José Vasconcelos, 1882–1982: Educador, político y profeta, Mexico City: Océano, 1982
De Beer, Gabriella, José Vasconcelos, and His World, New York: Las Américas, 1966
Fernández MacGregor, Genaro, Vasconcelos, Mexico City: Ediciones de la Secretaria de Educación Pública, 1942
Giordano, Jaime A., “Notas sobre Vasconcelos y el ensayo hispanoamericano del siglo veinte,” Hispanic Review 41 (1973): 541–54
Haddox, John, Vasconcelos of Mexico, Philosopher and Prophet, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967
Robb, James Willis, “José Vasconcelos y Alfonso Reyes: Anverso y reverso de una medalla,” Los Ensayistas 16–17 (1984):55–65
Taracena, Alfonso, José Vasconcelos, Mexico City: Porrúa, 1982
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