“Forgetful at times of that native land”: An initial, mostly speculative response to A History of Ideas in Brazil

A temple to positivism in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Image found here.

In the interest of getting through a bunch of books I’ve obtained through interlibrary loan, I’ve had to put aside my recent obsession with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Not to worry, though: in a few days I hope to have something of a summary post that picks up where this one and this one before it leave off.

At present, I’m reading up on Brazilian positivism as treated in João Cruz Costa’s A History of Ideas in Brazil: The Development of Philosophy in Brazil and the Evolution of National History (California, 1964). To be quite honest, up to the discussion of positivism, it’s been an intellectual snooze-fest: There are only so many ways Costa can say, over the course of the 80 or so pages devoted to chronicling the three centuries before the constitutional monarchy established in 1822 that gained Brazil its independence from Portugal, “Brazil had no history of ideas, and it’s mostly the Jesuits’ fault.” (Costa is no neutral chronicler of this history: he openly mocks some of his subjects, and either he personally is no fan of the Jesuits, or he just happens to have selected sources to cite that see the Jesuits more as a bane than a blessing on the colony’s early years; a little more about that later on. I’ll just say, regarding the allegedly pernicious effects of the Jesuits, that I don’t know enough to form an independent judgment about this issue.) Part of the problem, I think, is also due to a combination of Costa’s rather haphazard organization (which compels him to repeat himself) and a less-than-smooth translation. Now that I’m (finally) up to the section on positivism, it’s doing a better job of holding my interest, if only because it was the institutionalizing of positivist principles in education and governance that marks official Brazil’s first adoption of a coherent set of ideals on which to begin building itself as a nation.

[Just as a quick aside: Brazil is one of the few Latin American countries who gained its independence relatively peacefully rather than via a violent overthrow of the metropole. Good old Wikipedia has a quickie summary of these events. Anyway, as I read all this I found myself thinking about the U.S.’s experience during the last quarter of the 18th century and wondering if that transition to independence was as smooth as it was because it was, after all, a war based clearly on a set of principles regarding good governance. Brazil, by contrast, simply wanted to remain a sovereign nation once it had been declared as such–so far as I can tell, there was no grand philosophical ideal at stake. Indeed, as noted above, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as a school of thought that was identifiably Brazilian.]

But I’m not writing this because Costa’s book is tedious going. Rather, it has some rather odd moments in it that I want to talk my way through and that perhaps someone out there might find interesting, or maybe even comment-worthy.
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