Positivism in Latin America

Based on the writings of French philosopher and social reformer Auguste Comte, positivist doctrine swept large parts of urban Latin America in the late 19th century, from Mexico City to Buenos Aires, profoundly influencing intellectual currents, economic and political trends, state ideologies, forms of state organization, urban planning, immigration policies, literary styles, and related developments.

Comte’s philosophy of positivism, an elaborate, opaque, and in some respects bizarre body of thought, built on the rationalism of the scientific revolution and Enlightenment to posit three stages in intellectual history: theological, metaphysical, and positive.

The third stage, which in Comte’s view humanity was on the cusp of achieving, was characterized by direct empirical observation, scientific experimentation, and purely rational thought.

In Latin America, positivism was appropriated by ruling liberal regimes to promote modernization through government by intellectually enlightened elites. In practice this meant the promotion of economic liberalism, which meant free trade, privatization of church and Indian lands, foreign investment, exportled growth, European immigration, and the adoption of modern technologies.

It also meant the suppression of political liberalism in the forms of free speech, freedom of assembly, and other rights of citizenship. Positivist doctrine also dovetailed with the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and others, which divided humanity into racial hierarchies, with some races more suited to survival than others.

In practice, this meant the promotion of racist ideologies positing white superiority and Indian, black, and “mixed-race” inferiority. Since positivism posited women’s irrationality and intellectual inferiority, it also reinforced gender inequalities.

Emblematic here was the regime of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, which adopted positivist doctrine under the banner of “Order and Progress,” a doctrine pursued via the policy prescriptions of his circle of advisers known as los científicos (loosely, “the scientific ones”). As leading Mexican científico Justo Sierra famously remarked, the path to national development might require “a little tyranny” along the way.

In Brazil, positivism translated into active opposition to the reigning monarchy and to slavery, both of which were interpreted as primitive, antiquated, decidedly nonmodern institutions, especially by members of the military whose power was enhanced as a result of the Paraguayan War. The army’s overthrow of the monarchy in 1889 was followed by a string of military-supported technocratic governments deeply influenced by positivist thought.

Positivism in Brazil also translated into active support of coffee cultivation and other forms of export production, emulation of things French, and state policies intended to promote European immigration in order to “whiten” the population.

In Argentina, positivist doctrine found tangible expression in the revamping of the capital city of Buenos Aires in the 1890s to evoke the broad boulevards, parks, plazas, and stately buildings of Paris, prompting city boosters to dub their capital “the Paris of South America.” Similar facelifts transformed other South American capitals in the Parisian model, including Caracas (Venezuela), Santiago (Chile), and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).

Across much of Central and South America, elites actively promoted European immigration to improve their nations’ “racial stock,” strengthen links with Europe (especially France), and promote national modernization.

These elite-led modernization efforts, in the name of “progress,” were accompanied by press censorship, rigged elections, political cronyism, and the suppression of political dissent, in the name of “order.”

Positivism remained highly influential throughout much of Latin America until the ascendancy of populist politics in the 1910s and 1920s, though many transmuted vestiges and variants endured well into the 20th century.