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Vaz Ferreira, Carlos (1872–1958)


Carlos Vaz Ferreira, the Uruguayan educator and philosopher, was born in Montevideo. He became a professor of philosophy and rector at the University of Montevideo and played a prominent part in the theory and administration of primary and secondary education in Uruguay. He wrote voluminously and was a popular lecturer. As a result, he was for several decades a major intellectual force in his country. At various times and in various respects, he was influenced by Herbert Spencer, J. S. Mill, William James, and Henri Bergson, without full commitment to any of them.

Vaz Ferreira was impressed by the fluid complexity of experience, thought, and reality. Words and logical forms impose false precision and system on the contents of thought. The remedy is not a flight from reason but the development of a plastic reason close to experience, life, and instinct, alert to degrees of probability and unwilling to assent beyond the warrant of the question and evidence. The formulation and disposition of metaphysical questions requires the highest degree of caution, but metaphysics is both legitimate and necessary. It is impossible to move far in science without running into metaphysical questions, and it is necessary to cultivate metaphysics in order to understand the symbolic and limited nature of science and to counteract the bad metaphysics that comes into being when metaphysics is neglected. Vaz Ferreira was critical of positive religion but was sympathetic to religion as the emotional apprehension of a possible transcendent being.

The ethics of Vaz Ferreira showed the same skepticism fused with marked human warmth and moral insight. Ethical principles cannot be stated without exceptions or descent into casuistry. Ideals clash and choices are usually between alternatives that contain some evil. An ethically sensitive person therefore is more subject than others to doubt, crisis, and remorse: satisfied conscience is more readily found in those who have a narrow awareness and ready formulas. But an ethically sensitive person may exemplify the perfection of individual morality, in which are combined a feeling for each individual act and a care for all possible results. Vaz Ferreira held that there has been moral progress in the course of history: Ideals have been added from time to time, more persons now share to some degree in all ideals, and there is greater resistance to evil.

See also Appearance and Reality; Bergson, Henri; Experience; James, William; Latin American Philosophy; Metaphysics; Mill, John Stuart.


Vaz Ferreira's principal works include Los problemas de la libertad (Problems of liberty; Montevideo, 1907); Conocimiento y acción (Knowledge and action; Montevideo: Mariño y Caballero, 1908); Moral para intelectuales (Ethics for intellectuals; Montevideo, 1909); El pragmatismo (Montevideo, 1909); Lógica viva (Living logic; Montevideo, 1910); Sobre los problemas sociales (On social problems; Montevideo, 1922); Fermentario (Montevideo, 1938).

See also Arturo Ardao, Introducción a Vaz Ferreira (Montevideo: Barreiro y Ramos, 1961).

Arthur Berndtson (1967)

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