Skip to main content

Mexico and the Enlightenment Conference Report

Mexico and the Enlightenment

Palazzo Pesaro Papafava, Venice, 20 March 2008

Conference Report

The purpose of this colloquium was to locate Mexico within a history of the Enlightenment. It is a striking feature of many analyses of the Enlightenment that Spain and its colonies are accorded at best a minor role. For example, in his 2001 Radical Enlightenment Jonathan Israel described Madrid as an ‘isolated region’, cut off from the main European currents of intellectual debate.1 This view was widely shared by the 18th-century philosophers located at the bright epicentre of Enlightenment itself. In their celebrated Encyclopaedia Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert described Spain as a torpid backwater whose inhabitants preferred to loll about drinking chocolate, rather than engage in philosophical enquiry or further the cause of useful knowledge.2 Spaniards themselves lamented their isolation from modern intellectual debates, and the European view of the inhabitants of the Americas was even less flattering. Far from following philosophical and scientific developments, they spent their days sunk in ‘barbarous luxury, pleasures of a shameful kind, a stupid superstition, and romantic intrigues’, in the view of writers such as the Abbé Raynal.3 ‘The further from Paris, the darker things got’, in Roy Porter’s words.4

Nonetheless it is clear that Spain and its colonies in fact formed part of the wider process of Enlightenment. José Elizalde, the former rector of the University of Mexico and censor to the sixth volume of the Spanish scholar Benito Jerónimo Feijóo’s Teatro crítico universal (1726-1740), noted in 1734 that Feijóo’s work had ‘fundamentally transformed thinking not only in Spain itself but also in the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru and even as far afield as the distant Philippines’.5 In other words, as Elizalde observed, Spain’s American colonies did not stand aloof from intellectual developments in Europe. Rather, ideas and practices associated with the Enlightenment entered Spanish America by a variety of routes. In Mexico, Bourbon administrators engaged in the delicate balancing act of simultaneously ‘bringing the ideas of the Enlightenment to Mexico’ and preserving or indeed reinforcing existing social hierarchies.6 Writers lauded the exploration of scientific and natural phenomena, deplored the populace’s fondness for ‘irrational’ entertainments such as drinking pulque, and discoursed on ways to improve Mexico’s overall level of knowledge and education—always within a tidy and hierarchical social framework. Within the Enlightened paradigms that exercised increasing influence on the colonial government, even the public exhibition of a deformed Indian boy could be defended as a contribution to science. When María Gertrudis Pérez sought permission to charge spectators to view her disabled son, Mexico City’s corregidor informed the viceroy that ‘ according to the observation of experts, the presentation of this phenomenon can contribute to the objectives of physics as well as the other sciences and natural disciplines’.7 Confronted with such overwhelming arguments, the viceroy of course granted permission and the boy went on display.

So it is difficult to defend a history of the Enlightenment that dismisses regions such as Mexico simply as isolated backwaters. Clearly, Mexico engaged in its own version of Enlightenment, and one of the goals of the colloquium was to chart the distinctive contours of the Ilustración mexicana. Brian Hamnett’s paper, which opened the colloquium, situated the Mexican and Spanish enlightenments within a broader discussion of absolutism, enlightened despotism, and Spanish colonial policy. His remarks provided a framework within which to locate Spanish American engagements with the intellectual and political currents that shaped eighteenth-century enlightened thinking.

A second aim was to consider whether and how the Mexican Enlightenment shaped the development of the broader European Enlightenment. We know that Mexican savants such as Francisco Xavier Clavijero sought to engage European philosophers in a dialogue; it is after all more than fifty years since the publication of Antonello Gerbi’s magisterial study of the so-called dispute of the new world.8 But what was the impact of such attempts at dialogue? The colloquium explored this question through several case studies of Mexican thinkers who participated in European debates about the nature of knowledge. Iris Montero discussed José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez’s response to the treatment of new world fauna in eighteenth-century French encyclopedias, and Silvia Sebastiani explored the impact of Clavijero’s writings on William Robertson and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Andrew Laird discussed the creation of a distinctive ‘Mexican’ Latin by creole and indigenous writers, who drew on both European traditions of learning and indigenous nomenclature. Niccolò Guasti and Antonella Romano offered concluding remarks about the successes and perils of such attempts at comparative intellectual and cultural history.

The event was attended by the speakers and Rebecca Earle, who delivered opening remarks, Fiona Clark, Frank Eissa-Barroso, Helen Cowie, Deborah Toner and Andrea Cadelo. Invaluable administrative support was provided by Chiara Farnea Croft.

Rebecca Earle

26 March 2008

1 Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2001), 3 (quote), 11.

2 The Encyclopedia of Diderot and D’A lembert Collaborative Translation Project, See the entries on ‘Spain’ and ‘Vanilla’. The ‘Vanilla’ entry for example notes that ‘for their part, the Spaniards, satisfied with the riches they have taken from them, and more accustomed to a happy ignorance and lazy life, have scorned the lure of natural history and those who have succumbed to it’.

3 Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies, 10 vols. (London, 1798), VII:189. See also David Brading, The First America, the Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492-1867, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1991), 440-4; and William Robertson, The History of America, book 8, in The Works of William Robertson, 8 vols. (Oxford, 1825), VII:340, 342.

4 Roy Porter, The Enlightenment, Macmillan (Basingstoke, 1990), 52.

5 Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 534. For digital editions of Feijóo’s work see the Biblioteca Feijoniana at

6 Juan Pedro Viqueira Albán, Propriety and Permissiveness in Bourbon Mexico, trans. Sonya Lipsett-Rivera and Sergio Rivera Ayala, SR Books (Wilmington, 1999 [1987]), 9.

7 Viqueira Albán, Propriety and Permissiveness, 169.

8 Antonello Gerbi, The Dispute of the New World. The History of a Polemic, 1750-1900, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, 1973 [1955]).