The name which Auguste Comte gave to his system of philosophy was positivism. He chose this name for the simple reason that philosophy for Comte had to be derived from and based on the “positive” sciences: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and social physics. It was a philosophy of science—or rather, a synthesis of the particular “truths” of the individual sciences which were all considered to be manifestations of natural phenomena.

Yet, for Comte, it was not enough to study and develop a system of philosophy for its own sake. The positivist philosopher was to apply his knowledge actively to the human condition and all of its problems, for his positivist understanding placed him in the best position to serve the cause of mankind. Thus it was that Comte’s whole philosophy of science involved political, religious, and ethical considerations, as well as the strictly logical and scientific, and he called it collectively the Religion of Humanity.1

Comte’s Religion of Humanity was based on both theory and practice. Theoretically it involved a philosophy of government in which positivist elite groups organized and influenced a sociocratic state. In practice it involved worship by orthodox positivists in secular temples, the deification of Comte himself, a priesthood, a group of disciples and followers, a missionary program, the symbol of the Virgin, and many other ritualistic traits.

Positivism, either modified or orthodox, was the system of thought adopted by hundreds of disciples, missionaries, and believers in many countries of Europe and Latin America. In France, Pierre Laffitte and Emile Littré were the main directors of the movement after Comte. In England the writings and activities of Richard Congreve, Frederic Harrison, E. S. Beesly, and J. H. Bridges were important. Positivism also found adherents of one variety or another in the United States, Germany, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, and, of course, Mexico. Excepting Social Darwinism and Marxism, probably no other system of philosophy was as important as positivism for the intellectual history of nineteenth-century Europe and Latin America.2

The writing of intellectual history is a fairly recent development in Mexican historiography. This is especially the case concerning the social role of the ideology of French or Comtean positivism in the context of Mexican history during the Porfiriato. Early accounts contemporary with the era of Porfirio Díaz, 1876-1911, were for the most part polemics either defending or attacking the philosophy itself, with little or no attempt to relate positivism to a historical context.3 Although the writings of one of Mexico’s most orthodox positivists, Agustín Aragón,4 were a major exception to this procedure, it was not until the 1940s, through the efforts of Samuel Ramos and Leopoldo Zea,5 that this basic trend was changed.

The historiography of Mexican positivism since Zea has been, with a few exceptions such as some of the writings of Elí de Gortari, utterly and many times uncritically dependent upon the framework and conclusions of Zea’s pioneering writings. Although Mexican writers have sometimes been critical of Zea, some of the most recent writings on Mexican positivism by Víctor Alba and Abelardo Villegas have not only based their own research upon Zea’s works, but have also retained the Zea scheme intact. English-speaking writers have shown even less inclination than their Mexican counterparts to question Zea’s method and conclusions. Such studies as those produced by Harvey Salem, Sam Schulman, and Patrick Romanell have all been based on the secondary authority of Leopoldo Zea.6 To date no general revision or investigation of Zea’s account of positivism in Díaz Mexico has appeared, so that the most important and comprehensive history of Mexican positivism remains Zea’s classic volumes, El positivismo en México and Apogeo y decadencia del positivismo en México. Major contentions and justifications of this essay are that Zea’s histories were at least partially inadequate in both methodology and content and therefore demand both reappraisal and redirection.

Samuel Ramos was the first of his generation to write in the area of intellectual history as usually defined. Both his philosophical and his historical writings had a great influence upon Leopoldo Zea’s work. Zea borrowed from Ramos both his notion of perspectivism and his general outline of positivism in Mexico as an ideological expression of Mexico’s special circumstances. Ramos learned from Ortega y Gasset that ideas were philosophical perspectives relative to any and every particular culture. A Chinese perspective was intellectually as valid as Western philosophy because every ideology was an organic expression of each society’s practical needs. This was also true for Mexican philosophy, he said.7

In 1934 Ramos published El perfil del hombre y la cultura en México. In this work he explored the “Mexican circumstance” along psychoanalytic lines. His psychoanalysis of “lo mexicano” indicated that Mexican society, as an imitator of Anglo-Saxon culture, was suffering from an inferiority complex. The clinical solution was for Mexicans to engage in a process of self-analysis and become Mexicans. In order to arrive at self-understanding the Mexican must turn away from the instrumentalism and pragmatism of North American culture and arrive at a humanistic orientation which would be truly Mexican in nature and therefore solve the Mexican’s spiritual crisis.8

Ramos incorporated some elements of this philosophical scheme into his Historia de la filosofía en México. According to him, positivism, as introduced by Gabino Barreda and modified by the followers of Spencer, served the needs of an educated and cultivated elite of middle-class Mexicans. Their popular interpretation of positivism was nothing other than a superficial sensualism. Losing all ethical content, it became a rationalization of the animal instinct in man. Prior to 1910 the major opposition to positivism was found within organized Catholicism, but after that time it was the skepticism of Justo Sierra and the activities of the Ateneo de la Juventud which succeeded in overthrowing the tyranny of positivism. Mexican society could now find its own salvation through a nativist philosophy which did not imitate the materialist and positivist attitudes of the Anglo-Saxon mind.9 Like many other Mexican writers of the 1940s, Leopoldo Zea was exposed to Ortega’s perspectivism through his association with Ramos. Ortega’s themes of historical relativism and cultural pluralism were complemented by Zea with the type of “historicism” found in Karl Mannheim.10

During the 1930s Spanish intellectuals in exile added a third element to the milieu of Mexican thinking, that of Heidegger’s brand of German existentialism. José Gaos was particularly important in exercising this and other types of German philosophy upon Zea, who was his student. By 1948 Zea and others had formed a group called the Hyperion. Employing an existentialist method, the Hyperion’s main objective was to describe the peculiar Mexican situation and to discover a national ethos.11 This, then, was the intellectual climate of the 1940s in which Zea wrote his histories relating to positivism in Mexico.12

Zea’s outline of positivism in Mexico was most fully developed in the two works, El positivismo en México and Apogeo y decadencia del positivismo en Mexico. In the former book he investigated the theoretical content of Comtean positivism and its role during the revolutionary movements of the nineteenth century. Comte’s Mexican disciple Gabino Barreda had introduced positivism to Mexico in an attempt to help create a new middle-class order along the lines of progress and peace. Zea argued that in due time the philosophy failed because the positivist notion of “order” became outdated and utopian and thereby no longer served Mexican needs. In the latter work Zea recounted the apogee and decline of positivism during the age of Díaz, 1876-1911. This second volume attempted to show how a Spencerian type of positivism was adapted to the political needs of “Porfirismo,” and how the doctrine decayed into a crass rationalization of unrestricted economic individualism which exploited the Mexican masses, especially the Indian. And finally Zea, like Ramos before him, pointed to the active role of the Ateneo in overthrowing Positivism after 1910.

From these two major histories and from later articles Zea’s history of positivism can be constructed along the following lines. He began his outline in the early 1830s with the activities and thought of Mexico’s first theorist of the middle class, José María Luis Mora. Mora’s theoretical sources were the utilitarian ethics of Bentham and Mill. According to Zea, Mora thought that the Mexican government of his day promoted only the narrow interests of clergy and army and was therefore the major source of Mexico’s chaos and incessant revolutions. As the theoretician of liberalism, Mora believed that the only solution for Mexico’s ills could be found in the adoption of English and American political theory. This political theory represented the interests of the industrious middle class and taught that the role of government was to promote the ideals of the bourgeoisie in the areas of morality and industry. Mora also developed a theory of education which would help to lead Mexico along the road of progress and peace. In pushing his reforms, Mora was, as Zea called him, a “positive man.” But, alas, Mora’s liberal reforms were thwarted by the efforts of the reactionaries. It was only after the French were expelled in 1867 and their clerical supporters defeated that a new generation of liberals could realize the educational ideals of the middle class. This was the work of a later generation of liberals who were Mexican positivists.13

Zea asserted that liberalism and positivism emerged triumphant from the Reforma in 1867. In the same year when Juárez had Emperor Maximilian executed, Barreda, disciple and student of Auguste Comte, delivered his famous “Civic Prayer” in Guanajuato. According to Zea, Barreda’s oration interpreted Mexico’s history in terms of Comte’s “law of three stages.” Mexico had evolved from the theological or colonial period through the metaphysical or revolutionary age to the contemporary epoch of victorious liberalism and positivism. During the following year Barreda was the most important force in the founding of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, which educated Mexico’s second generation of positivists in Comte’s hierarchy of sciences. Thus it was that Barreda fulfilled the tradition of Mora by introducing positivism to serve the class interests of the Mexican bourgeoisie.14

The type of positivism which Barreda introduced to the educational system of Mexico differed, however, from that about which his master Comte had lectured in Paris. For example Barreda made a major alteration in Comte’s slogan, “Love, Order, and Progress.” Although Comte had considered French liberalism a negative force, Barreda looked upon Mexican liberalism as a positive influence in the history of Mexico. He therefore changed Comte’s slogan to “Liberty, Order, and Progress” to emphasize the liberal’s past concern with liberty and freedom.15 According to Zea, from the very beginning the conservative ranks of clergy and army opposed Barreda’s positivism. Also by 1868 Barreda’s modification of Comte’s philosophy led to a split in the liberal camp. The basic ideological issue was the meaning of “liberty” in Mexican life, for Barreda rejected the older concept of unrestricted individualistic freedom. To him, true liberty had to be compatible with order, and individual freedom was limited by physical and social laws. Arguing by analogy, Barreda noted that when an object falls in nature, it is not truly free but subject to the law of gravity. Accordingly the liberty of an individual consists “in his acting in accordance with these laws.” This new concept immediately alienated the radical or “Jacobin” branch of combative liberalism, while the so-called moderates, accepting a restricted definition of freedom, became more positivistic.16

From 1868 to the late 1870s the Preparatory School educated a new generation of leaders in the “truths” of Comte and of Darwin, Mill, and Spencer as well. Thus there emerged a new generation of positivists who abandoned Comte for what Zea implied was the materialistic or extreme positivism of Spencer. In 1877 Barreda’s students organized the Asociación Metodófila “Gabino Barreda” to explore the nature of organic society using positivist methods. As early as 1878 Justo Sierra and others published an organ called La Libertad, which proclaimed a new concept of “liberty” in terms of Spencerian positivism. La Libertad argued that Mexico had not yet evolved far enough to be ready for liberty, and that economic progress, based on political order, was a necessary prior condition to freedom. Thus, as Zea argues explicitly, the younger positivists left to the school of Barreda the task of contemplating the “metaphysical” nature of liberty. Barreda’s chief agent in this task was none other than Agustín Aragón.17

To continue Zea’s narrative, the period between 1876 and 1892 was characterized politically by the rise of young positivists to important positions in the Díaz administration. By 1880 Justo Sierra’s public pronouncements had gained him a place in the Chamber of Deputies. During that same year Pablo Macedo, Francisco Bulnes, and Rosendo Pineda followed him into the chamber. By 1889 Pineda had joined forces with Romero Rubio, Díaz’ father-in-law, to organize a group of intellectuals in support of the Díaz regime. By 1892 this group had created a political party called the Unión Liberal. It was at this time that the young positivists first started to come to political maturity.18

During this same period the major ideological issue was the controversy over the role of logic in the Preparatory School. Justo Sierra and Porfirio Parra defended the logic of Mill and Bain from the attacks of José María Vigil. Vigil argued that posivitism was nothing other than an anarchistic doctrine, and that it was not even truly scientific. He insisted that positivism was an anti-social doctrine based upon sensualist notions of psychology and contrary to the liberal institutions of Mexico. As early as 1882 the positivists were nominally victorious with the adoption of Luis E. Ruiz’ Nociones de lógica, but the debate continued on through the next decade.19

The year 1892 was especially important in Zea’s reconstruction of Mexican history. This was the year in which the Unión Liberal called a national convention to popularize the return of Porfirio Díaz to the presidency. The party also published a manifesto, the purpose of which was to analyze the social problems of the country along scientific lines. Because of this emphasis on science, their political opposition dubbed them the Party of Scientists, or the Científicos. This name was first applied only to the small group of intellectuals who formed the core of the party, but it was later expanded to include those individuals influential in the Díaz administration who adopted the positivist credo.

The spirit of the manifesto seemed to indicate that the Científicos were simply heirs to the liberal tradition. However, a closer examination revealed to Zea that although the authors of the manifesto insisted on the preservation and continuation of liberties by government, they attached least importance to the right to vote. In other words, freedom of economic action, i.e. the right to invest, gather capital, and trade, was more important to them than the right to choose the government. Positivism had now entered the political arena so as to exercise some influence in orienting the Díaz dictatorship toward its economic and social goals. Traditional Mexican liberalism had been transformed, at least in part, into a technical movement based on scientific theories about economic progress.20

Zea was certain that the founders and signers of the Unión Liberal manifesto of 1892 were in the same positivist tradition as the positivists who had written for the newspaper La Libertad in 1878. Citing the authority of Aragón’s Essai, he noted that such government administrators as Limantour and Fernández Leal consciously employed techniques of positivism in making decisions. On the vague authority of Aragón alone, he assumed that Porfirismo was government which responded to the needs of a middle class and which sustained its position through a process of rationalization based upon positivist ideology.21

In 1910 and 1911 revolution swept away this corrupt form of Spencerian positivism which had justified a small political elite in its unregulated economic exploitation of the country. The perversion of Mora’s tradition had finally brought about a political and intellectual movement which ended the rule of Díaz. In the ideological realm this revolution grew out of the positivist movement itself through the activities of the Ateneo de la Juventud. José Vasconcelos, Antonio Caso, and other revolutionary writers attacked positivism at a particularly vulnerable point by calling it dogmatic and unscientific. Succeeding where both Catholics and Jacobins had failed,22 this new generation of philosophers would help to build a new society upon a philosophy which was strictly Mexican and not simply another European or American imitation.

Both Ortega y Gasset and Benedetto Croce influenced the shape of Zea’s critical philosophy of history. From Ortega he learned that absolute ideas did not exist in an eternal sense but only in a circumstantial way. Thought existed as a dialogue with the social circumstances, i.e., ideology was merely the form in which a human being or a social group reacted to particular circumstances. The value of philosophy was to be found in its historical content. All philosophies were equally true in the sense that they were speculative constructs about reality which related to a particular social setting.23 From Croce Zea took the notion of the relation between the conceptual process and history. History was not possible without a concept of history formed by man in the process of thinking. Synthesizing the complementary views of Ortega and Croce, Zea said: “History is not possible without some element or concept, and, likewise, neither is philosophy possible without the intuitive, historical element.”24 Zea reasoned, therefore, that the proper study of philosophy was that of its origins, i.e., the historical circumstances. And since philosophy was not universal in any eternal sense but was rather a particular expression of individual cultures, the study of positivism as an ideological perspective of Mexican society was a justifiable pursuit. Thus Zea set out to analyze the ideology of positivism in its relationship to Mexican historical events and in so doing undertook a type of intellectual history. How successful was he in employing the methodological techniques of intellectual history? To answer this question an investigation of Zea’s methodology is necessary.

Along with Croce’s idealism and Ortega’s perspectivism and ethical relativism, Zea adopted the fundamental assumptions behind Max Scheier’s and Karl Mannheim’s “Sociology of Knowledge.” The synthesis of these views formed the basis underlying Zea’s assumptions concerning the role of ideology in history. Mannheim’s “historicism” taught that ideas were relational in nature. By that he meant that ideology was a relative mental construct designed to relate to and meet the needs of social circumstances. A similar concept could have several manifestations in the same culture. These different manifestations would all relate to different social groups experiencing various social conditions. As Zea quoted Mannheim, “each group will attempt to interpret a particular concept in accordance with its interests.”25 This meant for Zea that positivism was nothing other than an ideological justification for Mexico’s rising middle class. When positivism came to lose its functional character and ceased to meet the social needs of Mexico’s middle class, the middle class (especially the Ateneo) replaced this philosophy with a nativist one related to Mexico’s peculiar situation.

Any critique of Zea’s method would have to take into account Zea’s uncritical reliance upon Mannheim’s historicism. The central theme of Mannheim’s philosophy of history was that there could be no such thing as the classic liberal conception of an objective, unbiased truth. Man’s thinking about social problems was selective in that it always represented a particular point of view and served some special interest. Mannheim went further than Marx in stating that all thinking, including the ideology of Marxism, was socially determined. Yet Mannheim’s skepticism was not purely negative. He believed that this type of relationalism or relativism could lead to a new definition of objective knowledge. Mankind could embrace a different type of objectivity through an awareness of the limited and partial view of all ideology. With a realization of the limitations of ideology man could enter sympathetically into ideologies other than his own. Sympathetic imagination woud enable man to gain objective truth in the psychological sense of unifying all individual perspectives. To create this condition of objective truth was the role of a special class in society, the intellectual elites.26

Zea’s entire typology fitted well in Mannheim’s scheme. Positivism, like all ideologies, had to serve the interest of a special class. From Mora in the 1830s through Justo Sierra in the 1880s to the Científicos after 1892, the role of positivism was one of attending the needs of Mexico’s middle class. In general, positivism had to be a passive factor reflecting the material and social forces of Mexican society. Committed to this philosophical position, Zea’s histories were more speculative than historical in the empirical sense. Zea rarely attempted to demonstrate the active role of positivism in shaping Mexico’s history. And his treatment of the overthrow of positivism tended to overemphasize the role of the intellectual in society. Zea’s history gave credit to the intellectual elites of the Ateneo for the downfall of positivism and the rise of a mystical and universal philosophy which defined objectivity in a spiritual or psychological form.

Given Zea’s reliance upon the relationship of ideology to social classes, it would be reasonable to assume that Zea would have involved himself in some type of class analysis of Díaz’ Mexico. Zea, like many Mexican writers, did not employ a sociological approach to his study of positivism’s role in Mexican society. In other words, Zea made no attempt, either through personal research or by reference to other sociological studies, to demonstrate his fundamental assumption—that ideology, especially positivism, correlated in its expressions to specific social groups and as such served the special needs of these groups.

Zea was content with the vague expression “middle class” and did not concern himself with the fact that this overused phrase was devoid of any special meaning. In none of Zea’s many books and essays was there an attempt to develop a structural analysis of Mexican institutions such as the Catholic Church or of such formal groups as the Científico clique. Zea was also unaware of the subtleties of decision-making and the possibility that formal groups such as the Científicos might coalesce into some tangent group of an informal nature like the Sociedad Amigos del Presidente for purposes of policy-making. A structural analysis of the Porfiriato is an undertaking of the first magnitude, and because of this it should be understood that Zea’s mistake was not so much one of aberrance as of simple omission.27

Zea was also uncritical concerning the problem of social change. For decades “muckraking” and liberal historians, in an attempt to justify the Revolution, had peopled the prerevolutionary scene with underworld characters such as Porfirio Díaz and José Limantour, who, with others, had engaged in a conspiracy to exploit Mexico’s human and natural resources. Zea’s discussion of the revolutionary Ateneo was filled with implications about the unethical character of the positivism of an entrenched bureaucracy. The possibility that positivism was a constructive force leading to economic development with inherent social dislocations was not considered by Zea. It can be noted that recent writers have entertained the hypothesis that revolution in Mexico was more a result of higher standards of living than of political suppression.28

Although Zea did make extensive use of La Libertad and other Mexican newspapers, his documentation was often based upon either literary or philosophical sources, or upon the secondary authority of Aragón and Ramos. Because of this, his pursuit of Mexican “circumstances” has to be considered as either history of philosophy or as internal history of ideas. Possibly one explanation for this tendency is that Zea more often asked the ontological question, “What is the Mexican?” rather than the sociological one, “What is the social status of the so-called Mexican positivist?”29

Several critics and reviewers have commented upon this aspect of Zea’s methodology. In reference to El positivismo en México, Alfonso García Ruiz noted Zea’s preoccupation with internal analysis of philosophical texts and his neglect of the Mexican “circumstances.” Stanley Stein, although content with Zea’s earlier works on positivism, did suggest that Zea failed “to detail the cultural matrix, the national ‘urgencies’ and ‘historical circumstances’ shaping the adoption of positivism in each country studied.” And finally, Moisés González Navarro stated that Zea’s method relied upon secondary sources and as such was based upon a few personalities such as Mora and Justo Sierra to the exclusion of a realistic historical picture.30 Another resuit of Zea’s ontological approach was a propensity to see an over-lying pattern in history to which particular events conformed. This inclined Zea to the use of stereotyped notions which were devoid of precise meaning. Charles Griffin remarked in a review of one of Zea’s recent works that his view of the past “opens the way to tendencies that Huizinga has referred to as ‘inflation of terms, stereotypes, and anthropomorphism.’”31

Precise language, important for all historical disciplines, is especially critical in the writing of intellectual history. All too often we encounter such fuzzy terms as “the Mexican Mind” or “the Spirit of the Age.” Zea did not always choose his terminology carefully. The most obvious example was his peculiar and ambiguous use (or misuse) of the term “positivism.” Taking his lead from Horacio Barreda, the son of Gabino Barreda, Zea argued that positivism had to be considered only as incomplete or complete positivism. A positivist should not be called a Comtean positivist, because Comte himself was an incomplete positivist. To Zea positivists were simply those individuals who in all of their investigations applied the positive method.32 Positivism was not to be defined as a doctrine formulated and developed by Comte and his French disciples, but rather as a method of investigation which was universal in nature. It would seem to follow that this method was more that of the scientific approach in general than of Comte’s positivistic procedures in particular.

One difficulty with this definition was that it categorized as positivistic the very different philosophies of Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer. As noted above, Zea said that the second generation of positivists had been schooled in the doctrines of Mill and Spencer. The age of Díaz was characterized ideologically as the age of Spencer’s Social Darwinism or extreme positivism.

Yet a very superficial reading of Mill’s critique of Comte’s philosophy would indicate the obvious, i.e., Mill’s brand of thinking was quite different from that of Comte’s. Even Mill himself noted a tendency in England for thinkers to be erroneously labeled “positivist” and their philosophy, “positivism.” Differing in attitude from Comte, Mill asserted that Comte’s last volume in his Système de Politique Positive was “in some respects a still sadder picture of intellectual degeneracy than those which preceded it.” In the conclusion to his criticism of Comte’s Cours de Philosophic Positive, Mill insisted that Comte had “done nothing in Sociology which does not require to be done over again, and better.” And finally in a letter to the French positivist Littré, he confessed that most of Comte’s sociological opinions were “diametrically opposed to mine.” Although Zea was aware of these differences between Mill and Comte, his imprecise use of the term “positivism” did not always indicate this awareness.33

The same can be said for those particular differences which placed Spencer’s system in opposition to Comte’s. Spencer, unlike the ideological determinism of Comte, considered human emotions and psychological forces as central determinants in the evolutionary movement of society. To Spencer, emotions are “mainly predetermined,” while beliefs are “mainly postdetermined.”34 Another major distinction between the two thinkers was that Comte’s philosophy was a theory of history which was quite different from Spencer’s theory of biological growth. Comte believed that although biology could provide guide lines to human nature, the actual course of social development was ultimately found in a study of historical evidence. The result of Comte’s method was a history of science based upon his dubious “law of three stages.”

It was also unfortunate that Zea often equated “positivism” with ideas and activities which writers today would call “scientism.” Zea assumed, especially in his review of essays appearing in La Libertad, that authors who accepted the scientific method and shared an attitude of admiration for the use of the scientific method in the study of society were either inspired by Comte or accepted his philosophy of positivism. Yet positivism was much more than a method, it was a philosophy of history which postulated stages of history directing themselves progressively towards a scientific end.35

One other observation should be made concerning Zea’s methodology. This was Zea’s failure to record instances of negative results. A cursory examination of the literature of the Porfiriato would indicate that in most instances newspapers and government materials were lacking in any strict ideological content. Limantour, a key Científico and thereby leader of the so-called political positivists, is a good example of a personality whose correspondence indicates little which could be considered Comtean philosophy.36

At this point it is necessary to outline Zea’s speculative philosophy of history and to see how his treatment of positivism fits neatly into his dominant world view. As has been already observed, he borrowed generously from the perspectivism of Ortega and the historicism of Mannheim. To these fundamental positions he then added some of the themes which are to be found in Heidegger’s type of existentialism.

His philosophy of history was first consciously developed in 1945 in a monograph entitled En torno a una filosofía americana. Zea argued that a truly continental American philosophy was possible if and when the American circumstances demanded it. Zea believed that the Americas could not only produce a circumstantial philosophy which would meet the needs of America’s vital situation, but could also achieve a universal truth through awareness of the common circumstances of “humanity.” The history of Mexico and of all America had been characterized by the cultural dominance of Europe. Mexicans during the Porfiriato “anglicized” their own values in a desperate attempt to imitate North American and European standards. The result was a failure and only revealed that Mexico was suffering from a national inferiority complex. The only solution for this situation, and his diagnosis and treatment applied equally well to North America, was for Mexico to mature and become conscious of her own peculiar circumstances. With maturity would come a new philosophy of the Americas. This philosophy would at first be national or Mexican in content but would soon develop into a truly continental philosophy of universal validity.37

Zea conceived of Mexico’s history, from the conquest to the Revolution of 1910, solely as a tendency towards indiscriminate Europeanization. Early Christian missionaries, the creole leaders after Independence, and the Científicos of the Díaz period all sought to Europeanize the natives without taking into account Mexico’s conditions. This trend was first reversed in 1910 when Mexico left Europe behind and started the process of Mexicanization. Mexico was now repudiating the Occidental’s claim to universality by offering to the world a universal philosophy which found its origin in a discovery of the “Mexican.”38

The tone underlying this philosophy was existential. Anguished man could only achieve his realization through recognition of the temporality of the human condition. The themes were those of metaphysical despair and the necessity of human freedom achieved through individual or particularistic decisions. The existential quality of Zea’s writings meant that man was an entity whose being consisted not only in what he was, but in what he may become. His task as an existential historian was to use history to illustrate how past conditions delimit future alternatives. Zea’s point of departure was himself, or man as an individual, or “lo mexicano.” His orientation was the future.39

To the existential mood of his writings Zea then added an ingredient common to Ramos and other Mexican writers, i.e., psychoanalysis of Mexican culture. His survey of Mexico did delimit future alternatives in that Mexico had suffered an inferiority complex from her experiences with Europe and the United States. Mexico could only achieve her realization through an awareness of her past imitative condition. Through a knowledge of her own history, Mexico could liberate herself from subconscious resentments which had thwarted Mexico’s self-expression.

This, then, was the speculative thought which pervaded Zea’s histories of positivism. The exercise of positivism during the days of Díaz was an artificial and soul-damaging experience. Like Ortega, Zea really believed in metahistory, rather than history proper. His histories suffered not so much from that which plagues most history writing, namely presentism, but rather from futurism.

Because of the inadequate methodology employed by Zea in his research, it is unfortunate, although understandable, that Zea’s histories should have become the archetype for subsequent writings on Mexican positivism. It would be unfair and incomplete to present a critique of Zea without attempting to derive several lessons about how intellectual history writing of his type could be improved and redirected in the future. The following observations make no claim to either originality or authority in any final sense, but are only intended as suggestions for intellectual historians who believe that they can approximate objectivity:

  1. The historical significance of any idea in any historical circumstance is an open question subject to investigation. No formula must assume that ideas are strictly passive or mere reflections of social circumstances, nor can any mode of analysis simply assign “influence” or “causation” to ideas without an attempt at demonstrating the same. Zea not only committed himself to the historicist assertion concerning the passive and reflective role of ideas, but, in spite of the apparent contradiction, also asserted a special active role for positivism in the history of Díaz’ Mexico, based, for the most part, on the inadequate testimony of Agustín Aragón (an orthodox positivist) and Justo Sierra.

  2. As in all history writing, intellectual history writing should employ proper internal criticism of available documentary material. Since the possibility exists that positivism as a formal ideology had only a very limited and academic role to play in Mexico’s history, any investigation of documentation should be very inclusive and note instances of negative results. If one implies that positivism was the political and official philosophy of Mexico, then extensive treatment of political publications (such as La Libertad, El Impartial, El Mundo Ilustrado, El Mundo, etc.), as well as the private and public writings of the several so-called Científicos (i.e., in addition to Sierra, the writings of Limantour, Pablo and Miguel Macedo, Francisco Bulnes, Joaquín Casasús, Ramón Corral, Manuel Flores, Enrique Creel, etc.) should be worthy of investigation.

  3. If ideas be considered as intellectual devices by means of which a social group deals with the events it experiences and if therefore the social context of ideas be a proper object of analysis, then no approach is complete which does not attempt to develop a valid model or framework. Unlike Zea’s speculative and ontological model, this framework should be more historical and/or sociological in nature. Conceptual schemes, whether chronological, structural, or functional, should be considered only as aids to research and should never be given the status of “objective realities,” apart from their use as aids in investigation. A major difficulty of Zea’s works was that his research started with the methodological assumptions of “historicism” and “perspectivism,” but in the process of writing these investigative assumptions were transformed into a theory of being.

  4. Any approach to the history of thought, like Zea’s, which examines ideas apart from questions of their social origin and influence and is characterized by a philosophical or literary approach, should be considered as “philosophy of ideas” rather than as intellectual history proper. In this respect the value of Zea’s works is found in his contributions to contemporary “nativist” trends in Mexican philosophy and to modern social psychology.

  5. And finally, terminology in the discipline of intellectual history writing (which is infamous for its glossary of “influences,” “currents,” “the Mexican Mind,” and “the Spirit of the Age”) should be constructed carefully. Before the historical impact of positivism can be measured, the historian should be aware of the object of his investigation and not define positivism in a diffused way, so that as an ideology it is indistinguishable from Social Darwinism, social evolution, physical determinism, or scientism.

By way of conclusion, it must be stated that the present effort to evaluate Zea’s works does not call into question his integrity as a historian or his high standing in the community of scholars. Rather it has been based on the assumption that history writing is a partial and continuous process characterized by constant revision of open questions. The fact that Zea’s studies are worthy of a critical audience testifies to the importance and significance of his classical contribution to the field of historical thought in general.


Comte’s philosophy of science was formulated in a six-volume work, Cours de Philosophie Positive (Paris, 1830-1842), and his Religion of Humanity appeared in the four-volume Système de Politique Positive (Paris, 1851-1854). For some of Comte’s writings available in English see The Positive Philosophy (3 vols., London, 1896) and A General View of Positivism (London, 1865). An excellent account of the Religion of Humanity can be found in John Stuart Mills, Auguste Comte and Positivism (Ann Arbor, 1961), 125-200.


One writer has gone further to suggest that the influence of positivism dominated many of the social studies in Latin America throughout the twentieth century, including much contemporary thinking. See Harold E. Davis, “Trends in Social Thought in Twentieth-Century Latin America,” Journal of Inter-American Studies, I (January 1959), 58 ff.


From the listed titles in the bibliography of Emeterio Valverde Téllez it is obvious that most of the early writings relating to positivism were purely philosophical, theological, or polemic in content. See Valverde Téllez, Bibliografía filosófica mexicana (México, 1907). For examples of the polemics of the 1880s see the following: Porfirio Parra, “La lógica Bain y los profesores sus enemigos,” La Libertad, July 16, 1880; Hilario S. Gabilondo, “La lógica de Tiberghien en la Escuela Nacional Preparatoria,” La República, October 9, 1880-November 9, 1880; José de Jesús Cuevas, “El positivismo en México,” La Voz de México, October 20, 1885.


See especially Aragón’s Essai sur l’histoire du positivisme au Mexique (México and Paris, 1898) and his many articles and editorials which appeared in Mexico’s positivist journal, Revista positiva, I-XIV (México, 1901-1914).


Samuel Ramos, Historia de la filosofía en México (México, 1943). See also his earlier work, El perfil del hombre y la cultura en México (México, 1934), the purpose of which is to study “Mexican circumstances” in order to provide a basis for the future reconstruction of Mexico. The latter work appears in English as Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico (Austin, 1962). A few of the basic works whieh flowed from the prolific pen of Leopoldo Zea during the decade of the forties are: El positivismo en México (México, 1943); Apogeo y decadencia del positivismo en México (México, 1944) ; Esquema para una historia del pensamiento en México (Lima, 1946); “El positivismo y la nueva moral hispanoamericana,” Filosofía y Letras, XVI (October-December 1948), 259-276; Dos etapas del pensamiento en Hispanoamérica (México, 1949), translated as The Latin-American Mind (Norman, 1963) ; and “Positivism and Porfirism in Latin America,” in Ideological Differences and World Order, ed. by F. S. C. Northrop (New Haven, 1949), 166-191. Needless to say, the major schemes outlined by Zea’s El positivismo en México and Apogeo y decadencia have remained intact and are repeated in the later works, including the very recent article “El positivismo,” in Estudios de historia de la filosofía en México (México, 1963), 243-267. The latter citation has recently been translated into English as Major Trends in Mexican Philosophy (Notre Dame, 1966).


For examples of Mexican writers see the following: Elí de Gortari, “Ciencia positiva política ‘científica,’” Historia mexicana, I (April-June 1952), 603-616; Elí de Gortari, La ciencia en la historia de México (México, 1963), 305-308, 337; Víctor Alba, Las ideas sociales contemporáneas en México (México, 1960), 73-96; Abelardo Villegas, “Esquemas para una historia de la filosofía en México,” Revista de historia de las ideas, I (1959), 191-215. The more important English writings include the following: The Spanish translation of Harvey Salem’s article, “Algunas consideraciones sobre el positivismo en Hispanoamérica,” Centro, No. 1 (June 1965), 28-37; Sam Schulman, “A Study of the Political Aspects of Positivism in Mexico,” (unpublished M.A. thesis, University of New Mexico, 1949); Patrick Romanell, Making of the Mexican Mind; A Study in Recent Mexican Thought (Lincoln, 1952), 42-66. It should be noted that this bibliographical listing refers to the Díaz era in particular and does not attempt to take into account those writings which treat positivism in its pre-Díaz or post-Díaz expressions.


For a discussion of Ortega’s influence upon Ramos see Romanell, Making of the Mexican Mind, 163-166.


For his ideas of “imitativeness,” “inferiority,” and the “necessity of nativist philosophy,” see Ramos, Profile of Man and Culture, 15-43, 54-72, 151-156.


Ramos, Historia, 119-124, 127-135.


My use of the term “historicism” requires some explanation. The ambiguous nature of the term is well known to most inquirers. However, unlike E. H. Carr in his What is History? (New York, 1962) 119, fn. 8, I feel no obligation to avoid using the term simply because Karl R. Popper has robbed it of any precise meaning in his Poverty of Historicism (London, 1957). I use the term in Mannheim’s sense, i.e., the belief which denies the validity of absolute principles in history and insists upon the relational nature of ideas to social or historical circumstances. For a discussion of the various meanings of historicism see Dwight E. Lee and Robert N. Beck, “The Meaning of ‘Historicism,’” American Historical Review, LIX (April 1954), 568-577.


John L. Phelan surveys a group of Mexican writers who seek to discover a national ethos in his essay, “México y lo Mexicano,” HAHR, XXXVI (August 1956), 309-318.


See above, footnote 5.


Zea, “Positivism and Porfirism,” 166-177.


Ibid., 177. See also Zea, “El positivismo,” in Estudios de historia, 243-246.


Zea, “El positivismo,” 248.


Zea, “Positivism and Porfirism,” 180. See also Zea’s Esquema, 20-22.


See Zea, “Positivism and Porfirism,” 180-183; Zea, “El positivismo,” 253-260; Zea, Esquema, 21-23; Zea, Apogeo y decadencia, 89-100. For Zea’s discussion of the Asociación Metodófila “Gabino Barreda” see El positivismo en México, 159-186.


Zea, “Positivism and Porfirism,” 183-185; Zea, “El positivismo,” 260-263.


Zea gave extensive treatment to the Parra-Vigil polemic in his Apogeo y decadencia, 103-202.


Apogeo y decadencia, 207-216; “Positivism and Porfirism,” 185-188; “El positivismo,” 263-267; Esquema, 22-24.


See either of Zea’s works, El positivismo en México, 188ff or Apogeo y decadencia, 15.


Zea, Apogeo y decadencia, 259-268; Zea, “Positivism and Porfirism,” 189-191; Zea, Esquema, 24-28.


Zea, El positivismo en México, 24-27.


Ibid., 25.


Ibid., 30.


For a critique of Mannheim’s philosophy of history see Charles Frankel, The Case for Modern Man (Boston, 1959), 117-145.


The classical sociological analysis of the Díaz era was done by Andrés Molina Enríquez. See Los grandes problemas nacionales (México, 1909). A recent study of A. González Cosío is in agreement with the traditional picture. This work noted that a small national bourgeoisie used its privileged position to work against the interests of the peasant, the proletariat, and even the discontented elements of the middle class. A recent important social study is Moisés González Navarro, El Porfirato. La vida social, Vol. IV of Historia moderna de México, ed. by Daniel Cosío Villegas (México 1957), 3-184.


See Stanley J. Stein, “Latin American Historiography: Status and Research Opportunities,” in Social Science Research on Latin America, ed. by Charles Wagley (New York, 1964), 95 ff.


John L. Phelan makes this observation about several Mexican writers in “México y lo Mexicano,” 317.


Alfonso García Ruiz, “El positivismo en México, por Leopoldo Zea,” Revista de Historia de América, XVI (December 1943), 223; Stanley J. Stein, “The Latin-American Mind, by Leopoldo Zea,” Political Science Quarterly, LXXX (March 1965), 156; Moisés González Navarro, “Educación y trabajo en el Porfiriato,” Historia Mexicana, VI (April-June 1957), 620-622.


Charles C. Griffin, “América en la historia, by Leopoldo Zea,” American Historical Review, LXIII (April 1958), 710.


Zea, El positivismo en México, 22.


The first two quotations were taken from John Stuart Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism, 190, 124. Mill’s comment to Littré was quoted in Walter M. Simon, European Positivism in the Nineteenth Century (Ithaca, 1963), 188.


As quoted in Mill, Auguste Comte, 102. For a discussion of Comte’s and Spencer’s theories see Kenneth E. Bock, “Theories of Progress and Evolution,” in Sociology and History, ed. by Werner J. Cahnman and Alvin Boskoff (New York, 1964), 21-41.


“Scientism” can be defined as the thesis that the methods of the natural sciences should be used in all areas of investigation including the humanities, philosophy, and the social sciences. See Simon, European Positivism, 3-4.


See José Ives Limantour, Correspondencia, 1848-1911, 402 1., García Collection of the University of Texas Library. Also see Limantour’s “Discurso . . . pronunciado en la ceremonia de clausura del Concurso Científico Nacional,” Revista positiva, I (February 1, 1901), 54-63. Walter Simon was forced to conclude on the basis of negative results that the diffusion of positivism in Europe was less wide than the disciples themselves believed it was. See Simon, European Positivism, 283-320.


See Romanell, Making of the Mexican Mind, 166-175.


See Phelan, “México y lo Mexicano,” 314.


Ibid., 314-315. See also Merrill Rippy, “Theory of History: Twelve Mexicans,” The Americas, XVII (January 1961), 223-239.

Author notes


The author is Assistant Professor of History at Moorhead State College.