Varona y Pera, Enrique José (1849–1933)

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Enrique José Varona y Pera was a Cuban philosopher, statesman, and man of letters. Beginning in the mid-1870s, Varona dominated Cuban intellectual life for fifty years. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Havana, was founding editor of Revista cubana, and took an active part in education and politics. A former member of the Spanish Cortes, he became a revolutionary colleague of José Martí, was appointed secretary of public instruction and fine arts after the 1898 revolution, and served as vice-president of Cuba from 1913 to 1917.

Varona, one of the leading Latin American positivists, adapted French positivism and British empiricism to the contemporary sociopolitical and cultural situation of Cuba. Logic, psychology, and ethics were his primary philosophic concerns.

J. S. Mill's analysis of induction served as the basis of Varona's work in logic. As a scientific study of the ways in which man thinks and learns, logic assists in providing methodologies for the particular sciences as well as for the educational process. There are three stages in any mental act: The first and third are directed toward the object of experience, the second consists exclusively of mental activity. Unrelated data are obtained from nature; they are then related significantly in terms of ideal constructs, and the resultant schema is again compared with experience through controlled experimentation.

In psychology the root problem is that of human freedom. Varona subordinated the study of psychology to that of physiology and accepted a strictly deterministic position. However, his concern for the political and cultural independence of Cuba demanded an interpretation of man that provided room for freedom. Although man is not free, the development of intelligence provides him with the ability to avoid being an automaton, to understand the nature of causal determination, and thereby to "train and direct it, which is tantamount to overcoming it."

The proper approach to the study of ethics is genetic. Morality is based on the social nature of man, which, in turn, has its roots in the evolutionary biological process. "Man is not sociable because he is moral. Man becomes moral by virtue of being sociable" (Conferencias filosóficas, tercera serie: Moral [Havana, 1888], p. 10). Just as the biological organism is dependent upon its natural environment, so the human organism is dependent upon its social environment. Such social dependence constitutes social solidarity. Awareness of this dependence and conscious accommodation of the individual to the social milieu constitutes moral behavior.

Throughout Varona's work and especially in a final book of aphorisms, Con el eslabón (Manzanillo, 1927), a subtle, penetrating irony concerning the foibles of human thought and existence was evident.

See also Empiricism; Ethics; Latin American Philosophy; Logic, History of; Mill, John Stuart; Positivism; Psychology.


Varona's collected works are Obras, 4 vols. (Havana, 19361938). Works on Varona include John H. Hershey, "Enrique José Varona, Cuban Positivist," in Humanist 3 (January 1944): 164ff.; Medardo Vitier, La filosofia en Cuba (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1948), Ch. 11; and Humberto Piñera Llera, Panorama de la filosofia cubana (Washington, DC: Unión Panamericana, 1960), Ch. 5.

Fred Gillette Sturm (1967)