Languages of Historical Representation: Andrés Bello and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento on the Theory and Method of History in Post-Colonial Spanish America

 “Plano Ludwig”, map of Buenos Aires made by Pablo Ludwig in 1892. Printed by Imp. Est. Gráfico de Gunche, Wiebeck and Turl, San Martín 315, Buenos Aires. 

by Pablo Soffia Palma

The paper argues that Bello and Sarmiento used historical discourse to break Spanish American epistemic dependency from Europe and promote autonomous canons of thought. This claim challenges the still prevailing scholarly consensus on Bello and Sarmiento as intellectually opposite and Eurocentric. The first section delves into Bello’s position on the philosophy of history as connected to his philosophy of mind and semiotics. The second traces Sarmiento’s methodological experimentations on the writing of history. The paper concludes that both thinkers were part of a transnational movement aiming at turning historicism into a means of decolonization.

Author’s bio:
Pablo studied history (BA, 2014) and philosophy (BA, 2016) at PUC (Chile). In 2017, he completed a joint MA in History of Political Thought and Intellectual History at UCL and QMUL (London). He is currently a PhD candidate in History at UCL under the supervision of Prof Nicola Miller. His PhD thesis, “Decolonizing Historicism: Theories and Methods of History in Nineteenth-Century Spanish America,” focuses on historical thought, including historiography and the philosophy of history, but also encompassing debates on the philosophy of mind, education, language, sociology, and law. He argues that between the 1830s and 1890s, key Spanish American intellectuals used historical discourse to break their epistemic dependency from Europe and create local, autonomous canons of thought. Pablo’s research interests include the global history of the humanities and social sciences, in Europe and the Americas, between the 18th and the 20th centuries. 

Registered attendees received access to the video presentation and shared questions and comments below.

4 replies on “Languages of Historical Representation: Andrés Bello and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento on the Theory and Method of History in Post-Colonial Spanish America”

Hi Pablo, thank you for the great paper and video! I found including visual aids very helpful to digest a presentation, so extra thanks for choosing this method. I will have to confess that this is a topic that I am quite unfamiliar with, but your writing is very clear and structured, so I had no trouble grasping the essence and following your argument. The methodological approach of reading popular materials against the grain and including valuable sources that were previously neglected is also exciting.

One part of your argument that I thought could perhaps be more streamlined would be the language regulation. For someone with little knowledge on the subject, it was a bit tricky for me to understand the positionalities of Bello and Sarmiento without knowing how, by whom, and why language was regulated. I am particularly curious about this, since linguistic reform/revolution was also a significant part of the New Cultural Movement mentioned in my paper. It would be interesting to find out some similarities and differences between these two intellectual campaigns.

Another aspect that I would have liked more information on was the transnational Spanish American movement that used historicism to decolonize. Is this movement itself (which you mentioned was rarely examined) already an argument that you are making? Or are you challenging existing scholarship by including Bello and Sarmiento in it? Also, is this broader transnational framework contained within postcolonial Spanish America? It would be fascinating to find out, for instance, if and how their writings were perceived in other postcolonial/anti-imperialist regions.

Overall, it was a pleasure reading your paper and familiarizing myself with the topic. Looking forward to more discussion when we meet “in person”!

Hi Pablo, thank you for the highly edifying presentation and insightful research. Your paper is multi-faceted, naturally—but I had a number of thoughts coming off what you describe as Bello’s thinking in particular and his attempt, as you describe it, to “subsume metaphysics into psychology,” which ultimately becomes a psychological theory of science (Brentano’s Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint came to mind for me, at this point). It seems that Bello is most intent on challenging the hegemonic, as such, and, in essence, restructuring philosophy. As far as Anglophone/European philosophers go, you mention Rorty during your presentation, but I was also wondering if you see Bello’s project of subsuming metaphysics and dispelling “fictitious philosophical riddles and problems” as kindred to or distinct from what is taken up by Wittgenstein more than fifty years after Bello’s death: namely, in the sense that the later Wittgenstein takes up the task of redrawing our conception of what “counts as” a “problem of philosophy” and arrives at the view that, so often, these problems (broadly speaking) are the result of a confusion or equivocation in the use of language and its structures. Bello’s diagnosis and tactic is different, of course, but he seems to me to be motivated by a similar frustration with the tendency of philosophy to “solve” false problems which it itself creates.

To bring it back to the more central concern of your research: Do you interpret Bello as similarly embarking on a “first philosophy” or even an anti-philosophy – since one could argue that any attempt that seeks to tear down “metaphysics” (something which one later finds in both Wittgenstein, who wants to be rid of ‘metaphysics’ entirely; and Heidegger, who thinks metaphysics, as the philosophical tradition conceives it, is both ubiquitous and errant) necessarily has to recover what the possibility for philosophy consists in? In terms of the broader idea that gathers us all for this conference – do you think that this kind of work of reorienting or re-envisioning the possibility of philosophy must entail engagement with the ‘irrational’, or with that which does not solely make appeals to the rational structures of pure thinking, since this will only lead to the same kinds of dead-ends and pitfalls that “rational thinking” has produced since Western philosophy began?

Please forgive if this is a lot; these are just some of my preoccupations at present, and your presentation very provocatively led to me to interrogate my understanding of the philosophers I work with—along with leading me to two arguably anticipatory figures. Thank you for the excellent research!

Hi Pablo! Thank you for your interesting paper and video presentation!

I have to admit that it took some time for me to understand your theoretical approach and your main argument in your paper, mainly because I was unfamiliar with your topic. I know the feeling that when you are researching a topic and very keen on it, one might forget that “the story is, of course, well known” – as you write on the page 2 – may not be the case for everyone. What would have helped me to understand your justifiable argument and also critique towards previous research better, would have been clearer positioning of yourself as a researcher. What is your viewpoint to the topic? What is the main challenge / question you want to look at and offer thoughts about? What do “decolonization” or “method of history” mean in your paper and most importantly in the historical context you are constructing? As Qingyang commented earlier, I was also a little confused by “languages” and their role in the title and in the paper. It would have been useful, too, to introduce your main characters, Sarmiento and Bello, a little earlier and contextualize their significance in the intellectual movement (or other meaningful contexts) clearer right in the beginning.

However, after I understood better your viewpoint and your critique towards previous research, I think it was all great and justifiable! On page 7, your notion on the blurred distinction between historiography and philosophy of history was one of the key points I found interesting. I would have liked to know more about the definitions of that time of those theoretical concepts and how they saw their significance in what they did. I was impressed by your clear practical argument that previous research has neglected certain source material that would change the overall view of Sarmiento’s thinking – very inspiring! I found the (for me, quite modern) ideas of and critique towards determinism (page 22) convincing and fascinating. This leads me ask, how would you actually describe the process and significance of “decolonization” introduced by your main characters? How were quite philosophical and abstract ideas of history and its meanings in national narrations put into practice in striving for decolonization?

I look forward to hearing more of your paper in our meeting! Thank you for your great effort!

Hi Pablo, thanks for such a rich paper! This is all very unfamiliar material for me, so my questions will perhaps be points for clarification, more than anything; but I very much look forward to hearing more about your work during the discussion.

First, I would like to hear more about the relationship between the national and transnational sphere in your authors’ thought. Towards the beginning of your paper, you position yourself against a tradition of scholarship which has insisted on reading Bello and Sarmiento within the framework of processes of ‘nation-building and state-formation’; and throughout the paper, you outline your authors’ approach to certain problems from a pan-Spanish-American perspective. This to me was one of the most fascinating aspects of the paper, but it also left me with a number of questions about what place national identity and national politics might have in these authors’ thought, and what specific cultural similarities/differences they envisioned across different Spanish American countries (although this might at least in part be due to my own ignorance of common cultural traits in South America!). For instance, you write that ‘Facundo’s barbarism incarnated the primordial Argentinian way of being’—could this primordial way of being also apply to other Spanish American countries, in Sarmiento’s view? Did he make room for different “national barbarisms”? Am I correct in assuming that when you write that, for Sarmiento, ‘Spanish Americans had to elaborate philosophies and literatures locally rooted’, by ‘locally’ you mean at an individual national level—or was the local actually even more restricted/specific?

The second, brief question is about the normative value of Sarmiento’s model in Argirópolis. By your account, it seems like Sarmiento was fully committed to the practicability of his design. To what extent, then, do you think it is fruitful to describe it as “utopian”? To my mind at least (but am perfectly happy to be contested, and I might be biased due to my greater familiarity with early modern utopias), a “utopia” is generally a thought-experiment offering a model which is indeed to be kept in mind and followed in principle, but can never truly be fully pursued as a radical institutional political project—it tells us what we should want from a political society, but doesn’t really tell us how to get there. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks again and see you soon!

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