Vasconcelos, José (1882–1959)

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José Vasconcelos, the Mexican politician and philosopher, was born in Oaxaca. Vasconcelos was active in the Mexican revolution, directed the reform of Mexican education as secretary of education in the early 1920s, ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1929, and subsequently was exiled for a time. He was rector of the National University of Mexico, visiting professor at the University of Chicago, and director of the Biblioteca Nacional de México. The sources of his philosophy were Pythagoras, Plotinus, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, A. N. Whitehead, and especially Henri Bergson. Of Latin American philosophers, Vasconcelos is the most original, venturesome, and impassioned.

He called his philosophy aesthetic monism, scientific realism, and organic logic. The system he developed stressed intuition in addition to scientific experience; the particular, concrete, and heterogeneous; organic wholes; the fluid, living, and psychical; and the methods of art rather than mathematics. The true method of philosophy, Vasconcelos claimed, is to understand the particular phenomenon, not by reducing it to the universal but by relating it to other particulars in an organic whole in which unity is achieved without sacrifice of individuality.

The pervasive term in Vasconcelos's theory of reality is energy, which is unformed in its primordial condition but takes on determinate structures in the three phenomenal orders of the atomic, cellular, and spiritual. The transformation in recent physics of the elementary particle from a rigid body to an "individualized dynamic frequency," Vasconcelos held, emphasizes activity and novelty in the atom, which are reminders of spirit. In the cellular order, internal purposes are introduced. Spirit is eminently creative, but its action follows structures, or a priori methods, of logical inference for intellect, of values or norms for will, and of aesthetic unities for feeling. The early thought of Vasconcelos was pantheistic, finding the creative principle in the self-sufficient pervasive energy of the world. His later thought, after he had returned to the Roman Catholic Church, was theistic. It appears that in both periods "spirit," rudimentary or refined, was basic to his view of reality.

In Vasconcelos's aesthetics may be found implications for both reality and the life of spirit. The work of art, an emotionally intuited image, observes principles which, although more lucid in the work itself, have general application in reality. A musical scale is constructed by the musician out of the continuum of natural pitches; its members are discrete tones separated by intervals or jumps. The activity of constructing this scale is analogous to that of intelligence in separating and ordering the objects of sensation; the discontinuity of the tones is similar to that of quantum phenomena in physics. Musical compositions observe three modes of aesthetic unitymelody, harmony, and rhythmin which the heterogeneous or discontinuous is unified without loss of diversity. A true metaphysics, fortified by modern science, finds the same types of unity in reality, unlike mathematics, which unifies by reduction to homogeneous quantities.

Art, according to Vasconcelos, expresses the transformations of the spirit in the pursuit of value. He distinguished three kinds of art. Apollonian art is formal and intellectual. It can be saved from decay in giganticism or sensuality only by a shift to the Dionysian mode of passionate affirmation of the human will. Dionysian art does not decline; passion either destroys the spirit or saves it by a change to religious ardor. In mystical art, passion is directed from a temporal and human object to an eternal and divine object. Passion need not retreat from fate, as the Greeks thought; as Christianity discovered, it can be fully satisfied in the divine.

A similar conclusion occurs in the ethics of Vasconcelos. A terrestrial ethics, exemplified diversely in empiricism, hedonism, Confucianism, humanism, and socialism, does not take man beyond his animal and human condition. (Apart from this deficiency, a limited socialism stripped of Marxist theory has merit; Vasconcelos was critical of capitalism.) Metaphysical ethics attempts to go further in the name of reason; but the rational universal law of Immanuel Kant is a discipline appropriate for things and not for spirits. The highest ethics is revelatory; it combines transcendence, emotional illumination, and infinite love. Vasconcelos highly praised the wisdom of Buddhism and of Christianity, but he preferred Christianity because of its affirmation of life.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Bergson, Henri; Intuition; Kant, Immanuel; Latin American Philosophy; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Plotinus; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Scientific Realism; Whitehead, Alfred North.


Principal works by Vasconcelos include Pitágoras: Una teoría del ritmo (Havana: El Siglo XX, 1916); El monismo estético (Mexico City: Murguia, 1918); Tratado de metafísica (Mexico City: México joven, 1929); Ética (Madrid: Aguilar, 1932); Estética (Mexico City: Botas, 1936); El realismo científico (Mexico City: Centro de Estudios Filosóficos de la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, 1943); and Lógica orgánica (Mexico City: Edición de el Colegio Nacional, 1945).

Also see Patrick Romanell, Making of the Mexican Mind (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1952), Ch. 4.

Arthur Berndtson (1967)