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Enrique Dussel

Rafael Vizcaíno offers a biographical introduction to the philosophical work of Enrique Dussel, a major figure of the decolonial turn. Separate from his theology, Dussel’s philosophy of liberation offers crucial reflections for contemporary political theology.

Enrique Dussel is recognized as one of the most important Latin American intellectuals of the late 20th to early 21stcenturies. An early contributor to liberation theology, leader in the concurrent field of liberation philosophy (filosofía de la liberación), and respected historian in his own right, Dussel ambitiously works across fields, geographies, and world history like no other figure of his generation. It is not for nothing that Linda Alcoff (a pioneer in the study and dissemination of liberation philosophy in the United States) has recently called Dussel “the Hegel of Coyoacán” (2018).

As part of what Nelson Maldonado-Torres has called the “decolonial turn” across the humanities and social sciences (2011), Dussel’s work has seen a global resurgence over the last two decades. The critique of Eurocentrism that liberation philosophy has steadily mounted since its inception now finds itself in the halls of many universities outside of Latin America, demanding the teaching and studying of forgotten traditions of thought against the rigid canons that have reigned supreme since the founding of the modern university. It is a quest to decolonize the university. On this front, Dussel’s work remains as useful today around the world as it was during the Latin American social struggles of the 1970’s.

In this brief biographical introduction to his work, I track Dussel’s vast career through a series of signposts, each of which revolves around a theoretical concern, often in conversation with a specific social and political context. Such a chronological overview of Dussel’s trajectory will help to articulate the main ideas and concepts in his work. Afterwards, I will point to two interrelated ways in which Dussel’s work contributes to contemporary discussions in political theology (understood as the genealogical investigation of the links between religion and politics in modernity): (1) providing the task of epistemic decolonization by way of a non-Eurocentric history of political theology, and (2) an articulation of the coloniality of modernity and its secular-religious complex.

Dussel’s Trajectory

Born in Argentina to a family of 19th-century German immigrants, Dussel’s youth consisted of a strong, but traditionally Eurocentric, education. A student of Western philosophy with training in Latin, Greek, German, and French, Dussel departed Argentina in the late 1950’s to pursue his doctoral degree in Spain. This journey would mark the first big stage of Dussel’s career: the questioning of the place of Latin America in world history and the history of philosophy. 

The itinerant experience of the young Argentine traveler crisscrossing Europe and Middle East here grounds the search for the Western roots of Latin America. Symbolically tracing back the origins of the Conquest, Dussel first finds himself in Spain, and soon after in Israel, where he learned Hebrew and lived for two years. After completing his philosophy doctorate, Dussel relocated to France to concurrently enroll in a licentiate in theology and in a second doctorate (this time in history). Dussel wrote his first series of interventions in this period. Characterized by a slight Heideggerian influence, the monographs’ topics included the colonial history of the Latin American Church, the place of Latin America in world history, as well as Semitic, Hellenic, and Christian humanist traditions.

The second major stage of Dussel’s trajectory began when he returned to Argentina in the late 1960’s. The social uprisings of this period elicit in Dussel an ethico-political turn to unite the search for a Latin American philosophy with the popular struggles for liberation in the region. Liberation theology emerged, and soon after, liberation philosophy, both of which are discourses that embody radical theoretical ruptures, reflecting in theory what is happening on the ground (the fight against dictatorship). On the one hand, liberation theology reacted against an orthodox theology that in practice justified the exploitation of capitalist society. On the other hand, liberation philosophy rejected a Eurocentric narrative that silenced and oppressed the vast majority of the world’s population. Both discourses then diagnose social domination with an ethico-political commitment to a praxis of liberation.

This second major period is perhaps the most prolific time in Dussel’s career, as it entailed the consolidation of both intellectual movements. The characteristic publications of this stage are Dussel’s Metodo para una filosofía de la liberación (1974) and a groundbreaking five-volume Filosofía ética latinoamericana, which would be summarized most succinctly in the classic Filosofía de la liberacíón (2011a). This second period in Dussel’s trajectory abandoned the early Heideggerian influence, to now formulate the method of liberation philosophy in an ethics of alterity strongly influenced by Emmanuel Levinas (with whom Dussel had studied in France). Liberation philosophy would, ever since, idiosyncratically deploy the concepts of “totality” (Eurocentric modernity) and “exteriority” (the colonial underside).

This stimulating period came to an end with the political persecution of students and professors in Argentina, a scheme that resulted in the deaths and disappearances of thousands of people. Dussel himself was placed on a list of professors targeted by right-wing militants. One night, a bomb detonated in his home. The event began the third major stage of Dussel’s trajectory: exile. The upside of this persecution, however, would be the spread of liberationist thinking across the continent.

Settled in Mexico by the late 1970’s, Dussel established dialogues with philosophers from various traditions all around the world, a circumstance that would mark an important shift in the conceptual frameworks of Dussel’s work. Most notably, throughout the 1980’s, Dussel initiated a conversation with Marxism that produced three influential volumes on Marx’s economic manuscripts, as well as Las metáforas teológicas de Marx (1993), a landmark examination of Marx’s usage of theological metaphors. Such innovative readings of Marx strengthened the analysis of material oppression in Dussel’s work, an aspect that had been missing in his earlier, more phenomenological and metaphysical approaches.

By the early 1990’s, another important discussion emerged, this time, with the Frankfurt School, especially the works of Karl-Otto Apel (2004) and Jürgen Habermas. Such dialogue reframed, for one last time, the crucial ideas and arguments of Dussel’s work. In particular, the pragmatic and linguistic turns of Apel and Habermas subsumed the 1970’s Levinasean ethics and the 1980’s Marxist critiques of capitalism, which helped Dussel to deliver his magnum opusÉtica de la liberación en la edad de la globalización y la exclusion (1998). This is a work of tremendous ambition and theoretical formality that grounds ethical inquiry in a non-Eurocentric world history and that inserts the commitment to a praxis of liberation back into the task of normative philosophy. It is thus an indictment of the present state of the field of ethics, in which a focus on the formalization of norms has allowed for the undertheorization of material oppression and the praxis needed to alleviate it (as is the case in Habermas’ discourse ethics).

The aftermath of Ética de la liberación marks the last signpost of Dussel’s trajectory. Coinciding with the rise of postcolonial studies in Latin America (particularly the current that would solidify into decoloniality) and historical situations in the region such as the Zapatista insurgency in Mexico or the Pink Tide in South America, this final stage can be characterized as the time of epistemic decolonization. This last and current stage of Dussel’s work primarily seeks to accomplish in political philosophy what the prior 1990’s phase did in ethics. Thus far, Dussel has delivered two massive tomes of a Política de la liberación (a non-Eurocentric world history and a normative philosophy) with the last and third volume currently in its last stages of completion. 

Politico-Theological Contributions

Due to a certain dismissive reproach in some philosophical circles against liberation philosophy’s close relationship with liberation theology, Dussel has strongly maintained a strict division of labor between his theological writings, his historical research, and his philosophical work. Such strict separation has unfortunately discouraged attempts to study religion and its intersections within the broad framework of liberation philosophy. I argue, however, that embracing political theology’s “zone of indistinction” (Kotsko 2013), as an interrogation of the theology/philosophy and religion/politics binaries, opens up fruitful venues to embark on such study. Such broadly construed politico-theological perspective within liberation philosophy can then reciprocate various contributions to contemporary discussions in political theology, such as a non-Eurocentric vision of world history and the task of epistemic decolonization for which the Latin American movement is characterized. The decolonial critique of Eurocentrism then enables the exploration of the coloniality of modernity and its secular-religious complex. 

To be sure, the beginning of such account would have to start with the sole attempt to generate a philosophy of religion within liberation philosophy, the fifth volume to the 1970’s Filosofía ética latinoamericana, subtitled, “An Antifetishist Philosophy of Religion” (1980). Such project echoes the Marxist critique of commodification as well as the Christian denunciation of idolatry to diagnose “fetishization” as the origin of domination. In this view, fetishization entails the self-totalizing creation of profane divinities that negate the alterity of the Other. Like Marx, for whom the “the criticism of heaven” turns into “the criticism of the earth” (1975), for Dussel, the unmasking of fetishization (the atheism of the profane fetish) is also the first step towards a praxis of liberation (the affirmation of the negated Other). The early Levinasean influence is obvious here, as Levinas defines religion as “the bond that is established between the same and the other without constituting a totality” (1969).

One of the problems with this formulation, of course, is its uncritical reproduction of a Eurocentric construction of fetishization that, in my view, runs the risk of sabotaging a commitment to epistemic decolonization. The task therefore calls for a more careful reassessment the metaphysical premises at the core of liberation philosophy, perhaps not unlike the way the 1990’s Ética rewrote the earlier 1970’s tomes in the context of normative ethics. The new “philosophy of religion” in question cannot depart from problematic Eurocentric premises, but instead it ought to establish a South-South dialogue (especially between Latin America and Africa— the latter being the locus classicus of fetish discourse) that can properly build a decolonizing account of religion’s critical resources for liberation, especially in the political sphere. This is where the non-Eurocentric world history of politics provided in Vol. 1 of Política de la Liberación, which decenters the conventional narrative of secular-political modernity, coupled with the politico-theological gesture of “indistinction,” would come together most fruitfully. In my own work, I am beginning to outline such task (2021).

One contribution to contemporary politico-theological discussions that emerges from such account is the identification of modernity as a colonialist “myth” (Dussel 1995), as one of those profane fetishes that demand our compulsory worship. Through such diagnosis, liberation philosophy advocates for an atheism of the god of modern philosophers that recovers and affirms what has been sacked and subjugated in its name. This is indeed the aim of decolonization— which here entails an investigation into the politico-theological par excellence: how a colonial Christendom transformed into secular modernity. One innovative component of this project concerns the aforementioned theological reading of Marx advanced by Dussel in his Las metáforas teológicas de Marx. Because this text remains unavailable in English (though a translation has apparently long been in the making), this aspect of Dussel’s work has received very limited attention beyond certain quarters in Latin America. It is my conviction, however, that in such reading of Marx, one finds the most solid grounds to put liberation philosophy on the postsecular footing that is needed to embark on the politico-theological horizon.

Annotated Bibliography:

The reader might find it useful to approach Dussel’s work through one of the four items listed below. I have selected these following three criteria: (1) they are available in English, (2) they are either accessible or comprehensive, and (3) they are philosophical.

  • Politics of Liberation (2011b) – translation of Política de la Liberación (Vol. 1): Historia mundial y crítica (2007).
    • Non-Eurocentric world history of politics, from the Neolithic to the Zapatistas. 
  • Twenty Theses on Politics (2008) – translation of 20 tesis de política (2006).
    • Summary of Vol. 2 of the Politics of Liberation (which remains untranslated). Very accessible introduction to Dussel’s work.
  • Philosophy of Liberation (1985) – translation of Filosofía de la liberación (2011a/1977).
    • Synthesis of the five volumes of the 1970’s Filosofía ética latinoamericana. Continues to be considered the classic statement of liberation philosophy. Most complete introduction to Dussel’s work. 
  • Ethics of Liberation (2013) – translation of Ética de la liberación en la edad de la globalización y la exclusión (1998).
    • Bold critique of the major ethical thinkers of modernity (from Kant to Habermas), and also the most systematic articulation of the ethics of liberation to date. Arguably Dussel’s most ambitious and impressive work.

Works Cited

Alcoff, Linda Martín. 2018. “The Hegel of Coyoacán.” boundary 2 45 (4): 183-201. https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-7142789.

Apel, Karl-Otto, and Enrique Dussel. 2004. Ética del discurso y ética de la liberación. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Trotta.

Dussel, Enrique. 1974. Método para una filosofía de la liberación: Superación analéctica de la dialéctica hegeliana. Salamanca, Spain: Ediciones Sígueme.

—. 1980. Filosofía ética latinoamericana V: Arqueológica latinoamericana: Una filosofía de la religión antifetichista. Bogotá, Colombia: Universidad Santo Tomás.

—. 1985. Philosophy of Liberation. Translated by Aquilina Martinez and Christine Morkovsky. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 1977.

—. 1993. Las metáforas teológicas de Marx. Navarra, Spain: Verbo Divino.

—. 1995. The Invention of the Americas: Eclipse of “the other” and the Myth of Modernity. Translated by Michael D. Barber. New York, NY: Continuum.

—. 1998. Etica de la liberación en la edad de la globalización y la exclusión. Madrid, Spain: Trotta.

—. 2006. 20 Tesis de Política Mexico City, Mexico: Siglo XXI.

—. 2007. Política de la Liberación: Historia mundial y crítica. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Trotta.

—. 2008. Twenty Theses on Politics. Translated by George Ciccariello-Maher. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2006.

—. 2011a. Filosofía de la Liberación. Mexico City, Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica. 1977.

—. 2011b. Politics of Liberation: A Critical World History. Translated by Thia Cooper. London, UK: SCM Press. 2007.

—. 2013. Ethics of Liberation in the Age of Globalization and Exclusion. Translated by Eduardo Mendieta, Camilo Pérez Bustillo, Yolanda Angulo and Nelson Maldonado-Torres. edited by Alejandro Vallega. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 1998.

Kotsko, Adam. 2013. “Genealogy and Political Theology: On Method in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory.” Political Theology 14 (1): 107-114. https://doi.org/10.1179/pol.14.1.k21342q8025j0212.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press. 1961.

Maldonado-Torres, Nelson. 2011. “Enrique Dussel’s Liberation Thought in the Decolonial Turn.” TRANSMODERNITY: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1 (1): 1-30.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. 1975. Marx and Engels Collected Works Volume 3: Karl Marx – March 1843-August 1844. London, UK: Lawrence & Wishart.

Vizcaíno, Rafael. 2021. “Which Secular Grounds? The Atheism of Liberation Philosophy.” APA Newsletter on Hispanic/Latino Issues in Philosophy 20 (2): TBD.

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