This volume brings to English readers Leopoldo Zea’s pioneer study, El Positivismo en México, first published in 1943 and followed a year later by Apogeo y decadencia del positivismo en México, what Zea calls part two of his work on positivism. Since the two volumes were in effect a serial publication of a single study, a fact made manifest in the integral one-volume reedition of 1968, it is unfortunate that the entire work does not appear in English. In some ways, the real strength of Zea’s work is in part two. The book unfortunately omits the revealing prefaces of the 1943 and the 1953 editions, and its bibliography is taken from the 1968 edition, thus including a number of items relevant only to the original part two. The translation is adequate but shows some carelessness and lack of finesse. The present volume is enhanced, however, by Zea’s new introduction, in which he responds to three of his North American critics and also restates his original argument, dressed up in contemporary terminology—“dependency,” “neocolonialism,” and the bourgeoisie’s role as “intermediary.”
This work, like much of the Mexican “history of ideas” genre, is difficult to review, because one does not know whether to treat it as a substantive study of positivism in Mexico or as an early contribution by Zea to the philosophy of lo mexicano. Zea’s principal intent is clearly philosophical. In this regard, he tells us he is not concerned with positivism as a system, per se, but only with its adaptation to Mexican circumstances, of which it, in turn, became a reflection. Yet since the work is much cited by historians as the standard treatment of Mexican positivism, let us examine it as such, mindful that we are perhaps doing the author an injustice.
Zea focuses substantively on the ideas of Gabino Barreda, Benito Juárez’s minister of education, who introduced positivism to Mexico in 1867. Zea also devotes a section to the ideas of José María Luis Mora in the 1830s, and other sections of the book to a few essays by Barreda’s followers in the late 1870s and by his son Horacio later. Zea notes that there were two principal aspects of positivism in Mexico, the educational and the political. Presumably, part one (this volume) emphasizes educational ideas, and part two political ideas. In reality, the organization of the integral work is more chronological than topical, because the major educational controversies of the early 1880s, between positivists and Krausists or liberals, are dealt with in part two.
Gabino Barreda attempted to refashion higher education in accord with Auguste Comte’s system, which meant exposing all pre-professional students to a uniform curriculum based on Comte’s hierarchy of the sciences. Most of the essays, reports, and speeches Zea analyzes deal with this effort or with a defense of it against the attacks of “old” liberals and Catholics, who saw it as contrary to freedom of conscience. In fact, Zea’s discussion leads us to a central theme of the post-Reforma period, the relationship between the new positivism and the heritage of liberalism. Zea is correct in noting a tie between the doctrinaire liberal theories of Mora and the positivism of Barreda and his followers. Zea’s discussion seems skewed, however, and Mora’s statements often appear out of context, because he presents Mora as a “precursor” of positivism. The relationship should be reversed. Positivism, as a philosophy applied to education, and its political aspect, called “scientific politics” by contemporaries, were an overlay or graft upon what was in 1867 the dominant liberal ideology of México’s elite. For example, Gabino Barreda’s famous Oración cívica was essentially an independence-day speech in the classic liberal mold, with only a few brief passages casting Mexican history into Comte’s three stages—theological, metaphysical, and positive or scientific. Zea really never meets the relation between liberalism and positivism head-on, though he does hint at it frequently.
Zea’s book as a substantive history of ideas is marred by his method. The present-day reader is struck by Zea’s overt dependence upon the sociology of knowledge, which he applies in heavy-handed fashion to Mexican ideas (the Spanish edition of Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia was published in Mexico in 1941). Positivism, argues Zea, flourished in Mexico because the bourgeoisie, seeking political and economic order after the great upheaval of the Reforma, found in it a convenient justification of their interests. Barreda was a spokesman for the bourgeoisie, just as Comte was in France, and just as Mora was at an earlier stage in Mexico. Zea never defines the term “bourgeoisie,” which he draws from Justo Sierra, a contemporary. The book is devoid of social analysis, and even biographical detail on Barreda and his followers is scanty. Historians may have been attracted to the book because of their instinctive sympathy for the sociology of knowledge, but closer examination reveals an absence of the social and institutional context that is its cornerstone. The anomalous result is that through Zea’s pages the undefined social abstraction “bourgeoisie” runs parallel to a series of autonomous and disembodied ideas. Social class and ideas do not really intersect.
Moreover, the documentation upon which the study rests is remarkably thin and not always critically used. For example, the last section of the book is based on Horacio Barreda’s defense of his father’s ideas as not being in conflict with liberal and constitutional principles. Is Zea using these two essays of 1908-1909 as secondary sources to support his own interpretation of Gabino Barreda, or as primary sources that perhaps reflect an evolution within positivist theories themselves? The reader is left confused.
It is all too easy to discover defects in a pioneer work published over 30 years ago, and in one whose author rejects the suppositions and methodology of the craft as practiced by most historians of the western world. Substantively, the book did open up the study of ideas in a totally neglected period; it put the documents (however few) before the reader; and it pointed to certain fundamental themes. Besides the relationship between positivism and liberalism in part one, one could cite Zea’s emphasis in part two upon the tie between the ideas of Justo Sierra’s La Libertad group in 1878 and those of the científicos in 1892-1893. To find the lasting significance of the book, however, we must turn to the author’s principal intent and to the assumptions that underlay it.