“Stanley Cavell, Leopoldo Zea, and the Seduction of an ‘American’ Philosophy”


Paper Submission: Word Count: 3454 + References.  


Abstract: What, if any, are the shared characteristics between American philosophy as conceived, on the one hand, by Stanley Cavell, and on the other, in Leopoldo Zea’s Latin American philosophy?  Focusing on Cavell’s The Senses of Walden and “An Emerson Mood,” and on Zea’s work from the 1940’s and 50’s, especially “Philosophy as Compromise” and Towards an American Philosophy, I argue that both Zea and Cavell can be considered “circumstantialist” thinkers (an idea one finds in the Spanish philosopher and social critic Jose Ortega y Gasset).  My claim is supported by Cavell’s preoccupation with what he calls “nativism” in philosophy, which I associate with what Zea calls “originality,” terms that refer to ways in which philosophical thinking can be legitimated as uniquely American when it is born of the American circumstance.  I also suggest what that circumstance might be.    





In The Making of the Mexican Mind, Patrick Romanell (1952) offers what he calls the “secret imaginative background” of American philosophy:

on the one hand, the tragic sense of life rooted in Latin American existentialism and, on the other, the epic sense of life rooted in Anglo-American pragmatism.  However distinct these two philosophies of the good life may be…they complement each other and share a common faith, namely, a humanistic attitude towards life, together with an heroic conception of man. (27; my emphasis). 


Romanell is optimistic that the virtues of Latin American existentialism and Anglo-American pragmatism are enough for an adequate reconstruction of an American philosophical tradition.  While it is fair to conceive American philosophy, including both the Hispanic and the Anglo tradition, should defend “a humanistic attitude towards life, together with an heroic conception of man,” this conception says little about the uniquely “American” aspects of this philosophy.[1]  Similarly, referring to Latin American philosophy as “existentialism,” or equating American philosophy with “pragmatism”—as it is usually done— misses what is most original to philosophy in the Americas. 

One finds in Stanley Cavell’s reflections on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau the strongest indication that (North) American philosophy cannot be entirely captured within the parameters of “Pragmatism.”  Likewise, it is in the Mexican philosopher Leopoldo Zea’s historicist account of Latin American philosophy that one encounters a thinking that is beyond a mere “existentialism.”

The purpose of this paper is to highlight some (remarkable) similarities between Cavell’s and Zea’s views on the constitution, manifestation, and understanding of “American” philosophy.  We understand American philosophy—loosely following Cavell’s and Zea’s lead—as the product of an involved reflection into the American circumstance, a circumstance conditioned by the discovery, colonization, and nationalization of the Americas, together with the American people’s heroic desire to connect, continuously and urgently, with themselves and their destiny as Americans.  This (rather broad) depiction of American philosophy is gathered from Cavell’s and Zea’s efforts to show that what they imagine as American philosophy is really philosophy.  To this end, they make claims that evoke a “circumstantialist,” and indeed pluralistic, position on the nature of the philosophical.   Cavell (2003), for instance, flirts with a circumstantialist, or perspectival, philosophical approach, when he writes:

It is hard to imagine anything more offensive to our pride of intellectual cosmopolitanism than such a call to nativism, or ethnocentrism.  One cause of this offense, I should guess, is that it says again that philosophy is not a science, which is the cosmopolitan, anyway international, means of communication.  But a complimentary cause is that it asks us to consider what it is native to us to do, and what is native to philosophy, to thinking. (p. 24)


We find this thought in Zea’s 1952 essay “Philosophy as Compromise”:


We fear that if we take off the pompous veil of universality that refers to everything in general but to nothing in particular [a todo se refiere pero que a noda senala en concreto], nothing will remain of us but a supposed impotence. (1952, p. 184) 


And as to what Cavell calls “nativism,” Zea (1982) writes:


When the Latin American thinker asks himself whether there is an original Latin American (philosophy), he does so only in relation to what the word “original” means in its widest acceptance: place of origin.  (p. 4)


Indeed, what’s “offensive” about both Cavell and Zea is their acceptance of “such a call to nativism,” to origins.  Offensive because Philosophy (with a capital P) ought not begin or end with the circumstances, which Philosophy tells us can be relative and accidental.  But, as I will show, both Cavell and Zea defend their offense by revealing the virtues of native or original thinking in spite of the grandiose desires of Universal philosophy.[2] 


1.  Cavell’s Circumstantialism


What is meant by “circumstantialism”?  The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset is the best known exponent of this doctrine.  In his Meditations on Quixote of 1914, Ortega writes (2000): “Man reaches his full capacity when he acquires complete consciousness of his circumstances.  Through them he communicates with the universe” (p. 41), thus, “the re-absorption of circumstance is the concrete destiny of man” (p. 45).  A circumstantialist approach to philosophical thinking, to philosophy, would thus emphasize the significance of either 1. the circumstances in which a particular thinking takes place, or 2. the manner in which the circumstances are absorbed by the thinking in question.  An ancillary claim of this paper is that Cavell is precisely preoccupied with both 1 & 2. 

Cavell has been instrumental in the induction of Emerson and Thoreau into America’s philosophical pantheon, one which boasts of such figures as James, Royce, Mead, and Pierce.  It has not been an easy task.  Because of their un-philosophical credentials, Cavell has had to convince the philosophical establishment that Emerson’s and Thoreau’s thinking is indeed philosophy.  To do this, however, he has been “forced” to claim that Emerson and Thoreau were not just philosophers, but “American” philosophers thinking and expressing a uniquely American philosophy.  He was forced to make this claim because Emerson and Thoreau themselves forced him into making this claim by being American philosophers.  Consequently, in the process, Cavell’s own reflections on Emerson and Thoreau evidence the American philosophy that he has been forced into defending.

Always elusive, Cavell avoids spelling out any criteria for an American Philosophy.  In The Senses of Walden, a work dedicated to unearthing the eccentricities of Thoreau’s hermetic text, Cavell (1972) is forced to ask:

Why has America never expressed itself philosophically? Or has it—in the metaphysical riot of its greatest literature? Has the impulse to philosophical speculation been absorbed, or exhausted, by speculation in territory, as in such thoughts as Manifest Destiny? Or are such questions not really intelligible?

(p. 32)


These questions are not rhetorical or by any means unintelligible.  Has America been obsessed with wealth, growth, and conquest, and other positive interests, that it has forgone its opportunity to express itself philosophically?  The answer is no.  In fact, Thoreau’s Walden presents itself as an instance where an American concern, such as building a home by Walden pond, or tending to the soil, gives birth to philosophical speculation.  Here is a case of the circumstances being absorbed by philosophical thinking, rather than philosophical thinking being absorbed, or exhausted, by the circumstance, e.g., a concern with nation-building.

Thus Cavell imagines American philosophy as a lived experience, arising from an engagement with a set of uniquely American circumstances, those he finds in Walden.  But just as philosophical thinking bursts forth from one’s circumstance, it must necessarily returns to that circumstance so as to vindicate—or emancipate— the thinker, the writer, or the laborer from the guilt of tying philosophical thoughts down to particular (not universal) concerns.  Hence, Cavell writes, “All our fields await emancipation—geography and places, literature and neighborhood, epistemology and eyes, anatomy and hands, metaphysics and cities” (1972, p. 80).  Why would “all our fields,” including philosophy and medicine, await emancipation”?  The simple answer has already been suggested: philosophy and medicine must arise and conform to the American circumstance.  Just like a disease native to the American frontier would require an antidote capable of curing that particular disease, the idea is that the American existential condition likewise requires a form of philosophical thinking capable of addressing that particular condition.  Hence, to consider the circumstances when thinking of America’s philosophical, medical, or literary future is already the liberating step.  American philosophy would thus be a liberating, emancipating, philosophy: liberating the American mind from ancient (European) vices: a preference of the map over the field (place and geography), the novel over its characters (literature and neighborhood), universal structures of experience over what actually experiences (epistemology and eyes), science for practice (anatomy and hands), and abstraction over the everyday (metaphysics and cities).  The suggestion here is that philosophy must return to the everyday, to the cities; this is what Cavell realizes “is most offensive to philosophy” (op. cit).

In The Senses of Walden, Cavell is engaged with an American writer whose immersion in the soil and spirit of America represents the undeniable relatedness of being human with that human’s circumstance.  And it is, undeniably, philosophy.  The reason for rejecting Thoreau’s visions as philosophical could be due to something one could call America’s inferiority complex. Cavell notes: “American culture never really believed in its capacity to produce anything of permanent value—except itself.  So it forever overpraises and undervalues its achievements” (pp. 32-33).  The suggestion is that—historically—America’s relative newness is to blame for its habit to “over-emphasize” and “devalue” its creations, especially its literature and philosophy.  Thus Cavell insists that America take a second hard look—like the hard look taken by Thoreau and Emerson—and hear its own voice, it’s “serious speech” (1972, p. 33), which expresses its most characteristic convictions.  

Cavell makes this call again in “An Emerson Mood,” pointing out the American tendency to undervalue our native philosophical insights, what he calls “visions.”  He says,

our philosophies, or visions, [‘do not believe in each other’] which is why the ideal of a pluralism of philosophy, however well meant, is so often an empty hope. (2003, p. 26) 


Philosophical pluralism is an “empty hope” because we are incapable of measuring our philosophical contribution with our own, so to speak, American measure.  His call is to have our philosophical and our nonphilosophical visions “believe in each other.” How can they believe in each other, however, if we ourselves are conflicted as to what mood qualifies as a philosophical mood, especially when compared on an alien (i.e., European) standard?  Cavell hints at a resolution to this question by equating philosophy with “vision.” America as “the land of the future,” as Hegel quipped, is a land of visions, of visionaries.  These visions are uniquely American, as they relate to the future and destiny of the nations of the “New” continent.  Indeed, where else could one find visionaries but in a land lacking a sense of place in the historical stage.  Zea, as we will see, shares a similar intuition, proclaiming: “We feel as bastards who profit from goods to which they have no right.  We feel as if we are wearing something else’s clothes: they are too big for our size” (Gracia and Zaibert, 2004, p. 222).  

Reading Cavell one notes an echo of urgency—or is it desperation?—perhaps grounded on the notion that America has always expressed its “vision” in the process of its discovery and its continual re-invention.  But this sense of urgency is also present in Thoreau.  Cavell quotes a passage from Walden: “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as a chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up” (1972, p. 35).  Cavell goes on to say that Thoreau’s use of this “archetype of American folklore,” (p. 36) the chanticleer, is meant as an allusion to philosophy’s own archetypes, as in Socrates’ rooster.  We could also say that for Thoreau the bothersome crow of the rooster is meant to shock his neighbors into wakefulness.  Indeed, Cavell writes: “The purity of the Chanticleer’s prophesy is that he can speak only to waken and to warn” (p. 38). This statement reminds one of Marx, who writes, “So as to give them courage, we must teach the people to be shocked by themselves” (McLellan, 1987, p. 66).  Thus the crow of the rooster is philosophy itself, while the rooster is Thoreau.  One could argue that Cavell is pointing to a raison d’être of American philosophy, in its native or original version, namely, to instill in its audience a sense of urgency, a need for (internal or external) change.  “It is a matter of taking back to yourself an authority [that] you have been compelled to invest elsewhere,” writes Cavell (2003, p. 31).  Indeed, we will see how this sentiment is at the core of Zea’s thinking. 


2.  Zea’s “Latin American” Philosophy

Philosophers in Latin America have struggled for centuries to secure a place for their culture and their philosophy in the annals of Universal history.  Thus, blanketing Latin American philosophy as an existentialism—as Romanell does—reinforces the view that philosophy in Latin America cannot be anything but an imitation of European ideas.  Such is the view of Augusto Salazar Bondy, who writes “To review the process of Hispanic American philosophy is to relate the passing of Western philosophy through our countries, or to narrate European philosophy in Hispanic America” (Gracia and Zaibert, 2004, p. 388). As Bondy sees it, the existence of philosophers in Latin America does not justify saying that there is a Latin American philosophy.[3]  Zea disagrees. 

Zea’s position is straightforward: the simple act of reflecting on the Latin American experience is enough to give rise to a uniquely Latin American philosophy.  This claim is made on circumstantialist grounds—as in Cavell—but it does not imply that Latin American philosophy will be relativistic. On the contrary, it will have universal aspirations.  As with Cavell’s Thoreau, the Latin American philosopher will aspire to heroic heights. Zea writes,

One must attempt to do purely and simply philosophy, because what is Latin American will arise by itself.  Simply by being Latin American, philosophers will create a Latin American philosophy in spite of their own efforts at depersonalization.  Any attempt to the contrary will be anything but philosophy. (Gracia and Zaibert, 2004, p. 368)


Ultimately, Latin American philosophy is justified sub specie circumstantiarum, as Ortega suggested.  But more than that, visionaries such as Thoreau, Emerson, Cavell, Zea, and, yes, even Bondy, are model representatives of that philosophy, which is necessarily original, or native, to the Americas.

But what are the Latin American circumstances?  Bondy, in his critique of Zea, puts it best:

the decisive factor in our Hispanic America is underdevelopment, the dependency and bonds of domination, with the peculiar qualities that allow us to define it as a historical phenomenon…[and thus] Our thought is defective and inauthentic owing to our society and our culture. (Gracia and Zaibert, 2004, p. 396) 


Underdevelopment as a historical phenomenon, dependency, and domination characterize the Latin American circumstance, and, necessarily, the Latin American individual. Zea (1952) describes this individual as “truncated, divided, cut off….diminished, reduced, and for the same reason, inferior, insufficient, resentful” (178). Hence the question: how is philosophy to arise from such a “defective and inauthentic” cultural situation? Zea believes that these circumstances are precisely the only circumstances in which philosophy in Latin America is to originate.  Zea’s recommendation is to “accept” the past, or Latin American’s historical underdevelopment and dependency; to own up to it so as to—to use a Hegelian term—sublate it.  The sublation would constitute a change in perspective and with it a new possibility for existence. “The adapting of our projects to our reality would necessarily change the horizon of our possibilities,” writes Zea (1952). “With this change,” he continues, “another mode of our being would be made manifest.” (p. 191).

In Zea, philosophy’s purpose is to awaken and inspire, to motivate humanity in general and Latin Americans in particular.  This requires, however, a re-connection with the reality of America, a reality rooted in the violence of the conquest and the colonization.  This reality must be confronted and assumed so that it can be overcome; it is a matter of “taking back to yourself the authority,” as Cavell says (op. cit.).  The inability to learn from the past is at the heart of the spiritual and material underdevelopment of the Latin American nations.  Zea puts it thus (1952):

the cause of our frustration has been our failure to respond to our reality.  By not assuming it we have negated all of its possibilities.  By not adapting our projects to it we have left many of its possibilities unrealized (ineditas)….Of this failure we [Americans] are responsible; recognizing this will be one of the first steps towards our vindication. (p. 189) 


This passage conjures up images in Walden, where we see Thoreau responding to his reality, adapting to its meteorology, and vindicating himself as he sits down to write.  This ability for vindication is what the Latin American lacks.  Reality, including the violence of the conquest and colonization, the birth and fall of nations, and everything constitutive of the Latin American circumstance, is clouded in borrowed idealisms incapable of flourishing in the soil of the Americas.  For history to reveal America’s authentic possibilities for the future, the past (reality) must first be “assumed” and “adapted.”  Zea observes (1952):

We know we are heirs to two great cultures, those same cultures that we are willing to undervalue…. the Spanish and the Aztec. An inheritance that we feel more like a weight [lastre] than as an asset [ayuda]” (p. 186).


Once this inheritance is accepted, what philosophers might envision in a land of possibilities is occasion for hope. Ultimately, the means to actualize these possibilities lay in communication, community, and dialogue. 



3.  Conclusion: Encounters


The way to bring about a change in America’s negative, or passive, evaluation of itself is education (which ought to shock and awaken).  Cavell writes in “An Emerson Mood”:

The first step in attending to our education is to observe the strangeness of our lives, our estrangement from ourselves, the lack of necessity in what we profess to be necessary.  The second step is to grasp the true necessity of human strangeness as such…. (2003, p. 54)


To be educated one must first bare witness to the uncanny, the contingent; what follows is education as the mechanism that reveals the possibilities of existence.  Philosophy’s task is to make both of these steps possible: to awaken and to educate.  But if this is philosophy’s task, then it is necessary that philosophy absorbs the circumstances. 

Both Cavell and Zea share the view that philosophy does not have one beginning, somewhere in Thales’s olive orchards, but that it can begin again, continuously originate, as long as there are thinkers to think the difficult thoughts.  Their aim is to recover this encounter (between the thinker and the thought) as philosophy, but particularly, as an American philosophy. 

The struggle begins with recovering one’s sense of place in America which requires confronting that lack of confidence in our own thoughts that characterizes America’s historical consciousness.  Cavell observes, for instance, that

America’s best writers have offered one another the shock of recognition but not the faith of friendship….  Perhaps this is why, or it is because, their voices seem to destroy one another.  So they destroy one another for us.  How is a tradition to come out of that? (1972, p. 32)


Cavell’s point is this: the America circumstance is not one conducive to the creation of an authentic philosophical “tradition” since the voices which speak philosophy do not hear themselves, and in not being heard, parish.  Cavell’s is a call for community, participation, friendship, and a recognition that is less shocking. 

Zea makes a (somewhat) similar point.  Latin American voices destroy each other, but not because they do not hear each other, rather because what they hear is a faint echo of a stronger voice.  “Our being,” writes Zea (1952), “is felt as something which necessarily needs completion with something outside itself, but that nevertheless belongs to it or has belonged to it” (p. 174).  What “nevertheless belongs” to the being of the Latin American is the presence of the European.  However, through centuries of oppression, beginning with the conquest and colonialization, this presence marginalized both Latin Americans and their ideas so that, in the present condition of underdevelopment and dependency, they find themselves ontologically and historically incomplete.  Likewise, Cavell acknowledges America’s marginal circumstance in The Senses of Walden: “No one’s occasions are exactly those of another, but our condition of improvement are the same, especially our outsideness and, hence, the world’s presence to us” (60).  Indeed, by virtue of being the “New” world, by being the land of visionaries, and the land of invention, America is “outside,” marginal.  But, both Zea and Cavell are optimistic.  While the histories of North and South America tell of a radically different experience, Cavell’s observation stands: our condition of improvement is the same. America, as the land of the future, can and will express itself, and will do so from its own condition of “outsidedness,” underdevelopment, marginality, and incompleteness.   As Zea puts it (1992), philosophy “must ensure the participation of a native born American who…plays a part in the development of a culture that he considers to be his own.  This is primarily the concern of an individual who wants to be more than an echo of a given culture, but rather a person who wishes to participate in it” (p. , 4)























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[1]Throughout this discussion, I am assuming, of course, that qualifying philosophy as “American” is not any more offensive then calling it German or French.  This is a separate, albeit related, discussion that I wish not to take up here. 

[2] In fact, in 1945 Zea famously argued for this thesis in his work Towards an American Philosophy (En torno a una filososfia americana).  Of course, the critics were not far behind (most notably amongst them, the Peruvian philosopher Augusto Salazar Bondy) accusing Zea of forgetting the universal aspirations of philosophy in favor of a nationalistic form of ideological chauvinism (see Bondy 1978).  The same critique could be leveled against Stanley Cavell’s conception of “American” philosophy, a conception grounded on the idea that, to quote James Conant, “philosophy necessarily exists on a different cultural basis in America” (Goodman, 2005, p. 62).  I am, however, unaware that such a critique has been levelled.  So there must be something right about Cavell’s argument.  If there is, what is it?  What has Cavell done to convince his readers of the existence and possibility of an “American” philosophy that Zea did not do so as to convince his readers of the existence and possibility of a “Latin American” philosophy?  This last question motivates the present essay. 


[3]This is, in fact, the general consensus amongst critics of Latin American philosophy.  For examples of this critique see Bondy or Gracia, who echoes Bondy’s complaint: “when Latin Americans look for philosophical views to adopt, or even criticize, they turn away from Latin America and pay attention rather to those European and North American philosophers” (Salles and Zaibert, 2006, p. 22).