Hostos’ Philosophy and Modernism in Latin America

The late thinker sought to modernize the subcontinent by prefiguring a new breed

of literary expression.

Contending scholars have for long made peace over the fact that Eugenio María de Hostos (1839-1903) led the quest for an authentic modernization of Latin America. In 1938, delegates at the Inter-American Conference in Lima, Peru, named him Citizen of the Americas, and ever since even children in the hemisphere schooled by the most disengaging methods may recall in a snap the gist of his apostolate.

Praised as a keen liberal reformer, Hostos stands high especially for having championed the cause of Antillean independence from Spanish colonial rule. In his native country of Puerto Rico, though, a growing paradox bewilders his stature: the patriot vehemently opposed the United States’ seizing of the island after the Spanish-American War in 1898, and until this day, his ideas pose a challenge to the overpowering governance option under the new metropolis’ sovereignty.

Thus, the still incomplete critical edition of his Complete Works, based on the also incomplete 20 volumes collected in a commemorative printing from 1939, continue to linger in most of the institutionalized learning of his birthplace. When not eschewing the extent to which his philosophy irrigated imaginative discourse in Latin America, only a few, non-fragmentary studies barely seep some light on the topic.

Hostos’ Philosophy

Hostos concocted his “positivism in action” from the edgiest Western schools of thought, and fine-tuned it on a pre-Columbian base to treat Latin America’s most impeding ills at the time—namely, a lost sense of individual responsibility, neglect of the land’s indigenous constituents, slavery, weak civic organization, and an excess of what amounted to a scholastic rhetoric in education.

His most enduring accomplishment in philosophy underscores a liberating struggle from within one’s own existence, the expression of which common sense would authenticate according to practical reason. This much-needed “agony,” as he called it by remitting to the Greek root of the term (struggle), would culminate in the moral improvement of the self, and hence, reinforce in due course the “mathematical faith” of his fellow citizens.

Some of Hostos’ assumptions could hardly live up to our days, such as his Kantian-like deontology (Walter Rosich, “De Hostos, revisado,” El Nuevo Día, January 27, 1999, p. 67). His opinion on literature scores far better as it resonates in the voice Mayron Magnet, for whom, in a postmodern reversal of fate, creative writing “is a knowledge that has its practical uses, too, no less than scientific knowledge…, [for] it builds civilizations. It defines what it means to be human, dramatizing the values and ideals, [and] the web of culture… that differentiate us from the beasts.”

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism’s rather cautious approach to Hostos stems in part from his rejection of “pure” creative works, including the novels he himself penned under Germanic lyrical spells during his youth. Urged by the delayed dawning of modernization in Latin America, he called instead for a more practical revamping of the mind against some of the most prominent fiction writers of his days, who in his view were nothing but stylish “corruptors of sensibility and understanding.”

When compared to his formidable treatises on ethics, law, and education, his literary output—written for the most part as instructional tools for his children—seems to dwindle indeed. As for criticism among grownups, not the short-pants type Michel Foucault denounced, Hostos marches, with his children’s “toys” included, at the theoretical forefront of literary modernism, the first “mental movement” (Rubén Darío) to clinch by 1875 Latin America’s autonomy within the latest modernization shifts of the West.

Hostos and the Prefiguration of Modernism

From the atomized logic of his essays, Hostos zaps at the ramping commercialization of literature for inducing the “trade of the idle, or of those already done with the work of their life.” He also seems to have anticipated the critics of that new orthodoxy Magnet likewise deprecates, which “no longer see the literary enterprise as reliably trying to show us the truth of our condition and the possibilities it offers.”

Quite to the contrary, Magnet adds straight on, these critics try “to hoodwink us into tolerating political and social oppression that we would instantly reject, could we but free our minds from the myths and mystifications with which authors, mere apologists of the established and the powerful… have beguiled us.”

Again, in the literary front, and to use his own wording, Hostos sustained that the worth of literature in the impalpable inner region of the self was no less worthy in our wretched outer region of the palpable. Rather than execrating the genre per se, he proposed in varied antithetical fashions that literature in Latin America, in order to secure its authentic modernization, had to operate an overlapping magisteria, or become a frontier activity relative to other positive fields of knowledge while these would in turn feedback from literature as well.

Hostos called this lack of progressive interaction a “character crisis” with respect to his own early and “rare” literary writings. As the “newly emergent critical orthodoxy” falls in disgrace, readers such as Magnet can now run deep in nostalgia and gauge how much this crisis prefigured Latin American modernism, and still “show us the truth of our condition and the possibilities it offers.”

[April 14, 2011]

Image: Winter Day Just Before Noon by Paul Klee, 1922