Museu do Ipiranga at the University of São Paulo. CREDIT: <a href=",_Brazil.jpg">Jhowcs (Public Domain/Wikimedia)</a>
Museu do Ipiranga at the University of São Paulo. CREDIT: Jhowcs (Public Domain/Wikimedia)

Brazilian Identity, Western Culture, & Institutions, with Eduardo Wolf

Jun 12, 2018

Eduardo Wolf is a professor of ancient philosophy and ethics, and a newspaper editor in São Paulo, Brazil. He discusses the similarities and differences between studies in Latin America and Europe/North America, and the struggle to find the essence of Brazilian identity--a struggle common to former colonies, he argues. He also explores the "communitarian reaction" against globalization and its focus on individual identity.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: I am happy and delighted to be connected to Eduardo Wolf. He is a professor of ancient philosophy and ethics in Brazil and also an editor of a newspaper in São Paulo. I am happy, Eduardo, that you took some time off to talk with me about the concept of the West in Latin America.

EDUARDO WOLF: It is my great pleasure to be talking to you.


Being a professor of antiquities and ancient ethics, what made you interested in the first place in this really truly European sort of Western branch of philosophy?

EDUARDO WOLF: First of all, you have to understand that our educational system is not really different from what you have in Europe or in the United States regarding those major topics we have here. So we can obviously find some differences regarding infrastructure, some major social differences in context, even Brazil in Latin America, but the major topics you have to study, we will be studying the history of European civilization, we will be studying some of the major classics in literature and arts, so it is not that difficult for a young kid in Brazil or Argentina or Chile to get interested in Aristotle or in Dante or in Shakespeare.

This I think connects to the main issue you are trying to discuss with me because we are in a sense just a part of Western civilization, but a later part because of our colonization history.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: You were just deliberately talking about how natural it comes to a kid in Brazil to stumble upon Aristotle and ancient philosophy. Surely you are aware that in other parts of the Western world the debate is how to amplify the curriculum and bring in non-Western traditions when it comes to ethics and philosophy.

What do you make out of that as you being so staunchly part of the Western realm of philosophy? What about in more native or indigenous or more open, not Hispanic, philosophy, let's say, from Latin America. Is there such a thing?

EDUARDO WOLF: I think that this is a very important question and a very interesting issue to discuss because in Brazil this is a really recent trend now. You will find in our universities in the last two decades, I would say, a strong interest in native literature and pre-colonial Brazilian history, and you will find some very new interest in Chinese and Oriental philosophy and other traditions as you were phrasing it.

But this is a recent trend in Brazil. I think I would say that it has no more than two decades, one and a half, 15 years maybe. When we see the global picture, I would say that in the United States, you guys, and in Europe, have a more longstanding tradition of focusing on other cultures in order to amplify the field of study in every issue, not only in ethics as we are talking about.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: It is interesting that you mentioned China and the Far East, because for this academic year I am lecturing in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

EDUARDO WOLF: Oh, great.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Yes, it is amazing, and you may see to a certain extent if you look into Confucianism as ethic or as philosophy, you may find lots of ancient Platonic ideas actually that have maybe gone Eastward as much as they have gone from Athens to the West, to the Occident. They have also gone very far to the East. At least, there seems to be a lot of overlap with the Confucian idea of meritocracy and equality and harmony and ethical rulership.

Is this something you have been thinking about lately, too, looking into Asian philosophy? You mentioned it.

EDUARDO WOLF: As I mentioned to you, if we consider the institutional side of this field of study in Brazil, this is really not a major concern of scholars. I would not say it is really popular. If one is looking closer to the North American situation, you would probably see that you have structured departments focused on comparative studies in these fields, and you would probably find a broader audience for these issues.

This is not the case in Brazil, probably because our system is a little bit more restrictive, socially speaking. I don't think that we have many scholars working on these issues or many people working on more the focus of éducation, as the French say, to amplify the audience of those issues. But because of this very local situation, we have younger universities. They are new in our social context and they have a more well-established way to look at philosophy from the lens of European and American traditions. This is probably the reason why this is not very well known in Brazil.

Actually, now with China and more recently with other countries, because of the economic situation and international relations we have a steady growing interest in those countries and in those cultures. Probably this will change for the better, I think, for the next few years.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: You mentioned the particular and peculiar situation in Brazil. If I as a European look at the map, then I see obviously all but you guys being Spanish speaking, and then you have Brazil as the fortress of Portuguese. I was very interested in how are the main lines of perception in Brazil in regard to the rest of Latin America, which is very often called "Hispanic America"?

EDUARDO WOLF: I don't think that we have—for instance, just to give you an example—the same sort of academic and intellectual integration that you will find in Europe. It is much easier for a European academic student to go abroad, to study in a different country, and to get in touch with different intellectual traditions, but this is not really common in Brazil or with other countries in Latin America with the Spanish tradition. I do not think that the only reason is the language.

We have more practical matters to consider. We have four universities with this tradition in Latin America. Again, in the past 20 or maybe 30 years, you will see that the scenario has changed for the better, I think. We have now some international groups working on the same topics and discussing and debating. I think this will probably change a lot of attitudes in this area in Latin America for the years to come. But right now it is not really clear why we don't have this sort of integration and with these sort of fears with other countries in the continent.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: On a personal note, like without thinking of a framework of university, what would you say if you look into what is the essence of a Brazilian identity?

EDUARDO WOLF: Brazilians are debating this since the early 19th century. This is a very important question for us. If you look at our strongest position of intellectual debate in the 20th century, economists, sociologists, literary critics, the vast majority of our most important intellectuals, they were debating exactly this sort of question: What exactly is our identity?

In order to present to your listeners maybe a comparison, you can think of Russia and the long-running debate of belonging or not to the European tradition, the West, and more. Maybe this would be a fitting comparison because on the one hand there was this strong notion that we have a peculiar identity concerning the way we have various ethnic people and the way we have this very precise history of colonization by Portuguese and not Spanish as in comparison to our neighbors in Latin America. But at the same time, you will find some major writers, researchers, politicians, and academics who were always thinking in terms of European concepts and American, modern concepts. So this struggle for an essence of Brazilian identity is part of what defines us. We don't know what it is, and it is something like a perpetual soul searching.

I will say that this is probably something that would not disturb a Frenchman, a German man, or an Englishman. But it is coming from someone who is in a former colony as in Brazil or maybe Argentina or maybe even the United States: What is the actual identity of this country? But I do not think this is a Brazilian trait. This is probably a former colony trait.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: That is very interesting. I have to inform you that at least being a German I know that the Germans have been fiercely debating the last 15-17 years about the German, they call it the "dominant" or the "prevalent" or the "leading" culture. The German term is Leitkultur.

Regardless of colony or not, I think you make a point in that. We can elaborate a bit more on that, but I would label the time we live in now, it is the age of identity where after a period of time where people were capable of bridging differences and helping by seeing differences, to defining who they are themselves, at the same time cherishing other traditions. Now we reenter a stage of isolationism and us-versus-them, and "Our identity and our country is much better than yours" and this kind of thing. I am afraid that this debate has become a global one.

What is your thought on that? You are surrounded, the United States having Donald Trump elected. We have seen, you mentioned Russia, a huge quest for its identity. How do you perceive our current age? What do you make out of the global situation?

EDUARDO WOLF: In this particular sense, I would just add to your observations and the comparison with Germany and other countries that there is a difference if we consider what identity means for people in our contemporary scenario because identity now does not mean belonging to a tradition, belonging to a territory or something like that; it has been more I would say internalized.

I like a phrase I heard a couple of weeks ago by Mark Lilla from Columbia. He was making a joke, like people now have this idea of a personal identity, and they are always concerned about their identity. Now today my identity is not okay, I think it has a cold, something like that. Because it is a very different approach if you consider this idea of identity that is driving identity politics in Western countries from what we had in the 19th century, for instance, and the idea of a national identity, cultural, broader, civilization as a factor of identity. [Editor's note: For more from Lilla, check out his 2017 Carnegie Council talk.]

Now this is very interesting because I would say that in some sense this fits perfectly with the idea of liberalism being taken to its more radical extreme because it is individuals deciding what actually constitutes its nature. But on the other hand, it is a reaction against another aspect of liberalism and modern liberal societies because it is just foreign to say no, I am not exactly the same guy as I would find in any other country because of globalization.

So in one extreme of this historical situation we have a reaction against globalization, which is another name for the expansion of liberalism as a general idea of liberal society, its institutions, its forms of economic relations, but at the same time it is part of a liberal agenda being brought at this most extreme form, I would say.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: In what sense do you mean "most extreme," because it goes hand in hand with economic and financial globalization? To what extent?

EDUARDO WOLF: I would focus more on the idea of individualism as part of this liberal tradition that is being globalized. I would focus more on this idea.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Correct me if I am wrong, but I think what you allude to is liberating in the sense that you have the chance to say, "Well, I feel German, but I also am European, and by the way I am Muslim," so you have more layers of identity that may also be at times in conflict with one another, whereas in the 19th century framework and now in the resurgence, if you will, of these sort of nationalist and pseudoreligious narratives, it is just like, "Oh, I am only this and only exclusively this."

EDUARDO WOLF: Yes. I think you are right, and I think in this sense we have this mixture because we could argue that part of this modern agenda, this contemporary agenda, is focusing on some aspects of what constitutes me. Part of this is maybe a communitarian reaction against globalization, but on the other hand there is still this idea that you can have always an individualized focus on the idea of identity.

In Brazil this is really new. It is not a strong trend yet. It has become stronger in the last few years. It is becoming a problem actually for universities, for the whole educational field, and for journalism also. But in the United States the way I can see what is happening, especially in the academic area, is that you have a stronger notion of individual identity always going hand in hand with this idea of belonging to a community. Those two things are part of the same phenomenon, I would say.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: I agree. To me it is like in that context we are now discussing it is like many people may also just have a less complex identity for themselves. So you are saying: "Oh, you know what? I am from this region, and this is the dialect I speak and the customs I uphold." But to my—and please again correct me or tell me what your views are—I think capitalism or let's say consumerism, to be more precise, is just trying to highly emphasize your specialness, if you will, which I think is more like a turn of capitalism to get people to spend more money than rather have a real conversation about who we are, what we believe, and where we belong.

EDUARDO WOLF: Yes. I think that this is a problem because part of the reaction is a reaction against the way capitalism can turn things more equalized and homogeneous from the point of view of culture and social identities. Of course, it is not an equalization in terms of economic situations and social status, but the idea of visiting São Paolo or Buenos Aires or Paris or Taiwan, I don't know, you would probably find the same forms of life.

In this sense, it is difficult to think about the forms, the way you are living your life as very peculiar and different from a way of life as regarding, for example, some other country, some other culture, some other tradition. In this sense, capitalism can actually be a force against the idea of identity.

But I think as we were discussing earlier it is more complex because both communitarianism and individualism are part of the same process, and you can either emphasize one or another, and then you have different sorts of reactions. The same thing will happen with ethnic revolts all around the world, etc. They are part of this same more complex phenomenon, I would say.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: You alluded to the fact that wherever you go, like to Paris, Buenos Aires or Taipei, you may also find quite similar patterns, at least of let's say an international culture or whatever. But I think this makes the whole world kind of like a syncretist city of ancient times. When you lived in a metropolis in the ancient times, you were already exposed to a variety of deities, a variety of customs, and you had to somehow make sense out of it. I think today there is not one single spot on the planet that has not sort of a syncretist identity, which of course then puts into relativity, if you will, religious claims or national claims. Even claims of a whole continent, is that something now as you being an expert in antiquities, is that a right observation to call the whole global village a syncretist kind of entity?

EDUARDO WOLF: Yes. I really like what George Tynan, that literary critic, (pretty sure he means Kennth Tynan - - Alex) says about this. We have a stronger notion now that we are living in an Anglo-Saxon world, Anglo-Saxon civilization which feeds an Anglo-Saxon language. We have Anglo-Saxon literature and an Anglo-Saxon way of doing academic research, etc.

In this sense, you should look at this and say, wow, it is an impoverishing experience. This can fuel this whole notion of local revolts, nationalism, and other forms to fight against this Anglo-Saxon domination. But on the other hand, you would not have to look necessarily at the bad side of this. You could say that it is a great opportunity for other countries, apart from obviously Europe.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: I would also say there is a lot of critique about the Anglo-Saxon way of life.

EDUARDO WOLF: Yes. Of course. They are really strong. In Latin America this is quite strong. It is really curious because people are leaning on this sort of contradiction, because you are going through classes at universities that are sort of the same as those you would find in Europe or in the United States, and at the same time you have local students angry with the situation: "I don't like to be taught in these terms. I would like to find what is peculiar to my country, to my state, to my region."

When those things start to get together and you see that what people are studying in Brazil and in Chile and Peru is different from what people are studying in obviously Germany and France, etc., but these sorts of contradictions are, I would say you can look at them as they reach intellectual experience and they are not so extreme.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: I was also making that remark because I think if you want to say Western culture, and we agreed right away that Latin America is part of the Western Hemisphere, so that is more communitarian, that is more Catholic than the Protestant-Anglo-Saxon world, so I would say my question would be, whatever used to be Occidental in terms of European or Anglo-Saxon in terms of like America and the United States, it has become and transcended itself also in a sort of global culture, which not necessarily does destroy other local cultures.

Looking into Europe, which is a fantastic example, where you have all these local peculiarities in terms of language and religion and customs. If you look into people like Steve Bannon, who is saying "This is a globalist agenda," what I think is global in fact is some notions, let's say, about ethics or about human rights or whatnot. I would strongly disagree to say that what we perceive as Western culture is only United States America.

EDUARDO WOLF: Of course. I agree with you. There are different ways, I would say, of belonging to what we could call in a broad sense Western civilization, and the fact that there are actually different ways of belonging to this civilization is a positive feature of this situation now. It is not like the Roman Empire or something like that.

This idea of belonging to this Western civilization, or as you were phrasing it this global culture, that can share some basic notions of human rights, individual rights, and some general ideas of how we should live our lives in terms of equality, education, health, etc., obviously this is a good feature of this globalized culture and globalized world.

Obviously, there are not only these two things to say about belonging to this civilization, but obviously at the point we are now we can look at this and say that we are richer, we are getting better, and we are offering more people—if you consider the Latin American situation, for instance—the chance to live better and richer lives being a part of this than if we had not been part of this. This is an obvious thing that must be said, but I think it is important to say it.

The other thing I would like to say is that in some sense you could argue that there are different ways, different cuts for the concept of civilization. You can have the strictest, most Eurocentric one, you can have the Greece criterion, you can have a lot of criteria, you can have different aspects of a general idea of civilization. But the most important thing is that in this global culture, in this global civilization we are living in, every little part of the globe can actually contribute to what we consider a human civilization and a human global culture. And this is a positive thing. I think at least we can agree on this term.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Speaking to a professor of antiquities, if one will, the concept of cosmopolitanism is right at hand here because those people were ridiculed first in Greece and then in Ancient Rome and also are ridiculed today by people like Steve Bannon or people who ran the Brexit campaign, who label the cosmopolitan as an elitist. It is quite ironic that people who do that have had international careers and studied at international universities, but that is just one side of the story. I think the cosmopolitan approach actually is exactly what you now describe as a human global culture, is it not?

EDUARDO WOLF: Right. I would totally agree with you. Kwame Anthony Appiah a few years ago, who had this book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, and I think this is a really interesting agenda. It is not the same sort of traditional Kantian universalism, rationalism, etc. It is a different approach, not relativistic but actually pointing, so this idea of [inaudible] respecting differences, of course, but sharing very important basic notions regarding what it means to be a human being and how we can live together, and this is only possible if we have some notion of living together, of global culture, of human nature, respecting those differences. [Editor's note: For more from Appiah, check out his 2013 Carnegie Council talk.]

And this is a very positive thing. I am expressing these positive features, but I would say that for someone like me—I am 37, I was brought up in a time in which the idea of having democracy, liberalism, individual rights as some sort of datum from reality, a basic feature of our social way of living a life, and this is something that is not actually to be taken for granted.

At some point, I think that my generation will have to reckon with this, the sort of situation we are living in right now, both in Europe and the United States, but I would also add Latin America with populism both from the right and from the left. It is clearly a sign that this general idea of a global culture, a human culture, and cosmopolitanism, this is not to be taken for granted, and we have to defend it, we have to fight in the name of these ideals. We have to find better weapons—institutions, debate, enlightened debate, etc.—to preserve this idea that we have for some time, I would say, taken for granted.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: What you just said, I could not agree more. In order to embrace this sort of culture you need empathy rather than a Harvard degree. It is not elitist, but it is carried on by a very deep human notion.

EDUARDO WOLF: Right. I would say that it is more important to have these core values internalized by each individual. This is much more important than to have just the Harvard degree, as you say, or one from the University of São Paulo or at the University of Buenos Aires. Same thing.

The other aspect of this idea that you mentioned is that the only way to have this is if we have strong institutions. This is something that I would like to emphasize. There is no way we can have those shared values and core values actually internalized by individuals if they are not living it in our societies, and the way to live that is better is to live through institutions that will perpetuate them. This is very important, I would say.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Here is the European speaking. You know when you had this Brexit referendum, you had politicians in England from the right saying, "Oh, we can be on good terms with all Europeans and live peacefully and have good economic relations," but I wonder, Oh, we never did that before the institution of the European Union. We were all Christian, but we hated each other deeply, and we fought so many wars.

So as you said, the institutions in the end ultimately or consequently perpetuate, and they lay ground for this sort of world order, if you will. So as a European I couldn't agree more. You need the institutions.

EDUARDO WOLF: Yes. I would like to hear you proposing institutions more than talking about them, because one of the things we got the impression here in Brazil and in Latin America is actually one of the problems of the European Union was that it was not able to develop institutions that local people would actually take for them, as their institutions. They would not recognize some of the most important European Union institutions as part of their lives, as something that could reflect what they are. Maybe this is a mistake, and maybe I am talking about a very specific problem that only people living in Europe could actually discuss in more detail.


EDUARDO WOLF: But the general idea would be that for the institutions to work fine, they have to be part of the lives people are actually living in their countries, in their cities, in their neighborhoods, otherwise it is not good enough.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Certainly Europe has been received to different degrees and regards, like England has always been very skeptical about the European Union, whereas Italians, for instance, for the longest time trusted the European institutions more than they trusted their own political class and political institutions for obvious reasons, because the country has been stumbling for one state crisis into the next for the last 60 years.

The Germans, on the other hand, have been highly approving of the European Union, because this was the framework that helped them to reenter the international stage and being like confined, but also in constant friendships with neighbors that used to be enemies for so long. So after the decay and the horror of the Holocaust and the Second World War Germany was actually invited back through the means of the European Union.

But I am just saying that I think you are right about there are different notions and perceptions and rates of acceptance of Europe and its institutions in the whole continent. I would strongly argue, however, that in the last 10-12 years there have been right-wing movements or those from the left exploiting the weaknesses of the European entities for their purpose, and also by basically lying, as it happened in the Brexit referendum, but also by constantly pointing out the weaknesses. I think this has changed to a degree at least, the perception of the European Union.

It is now like you would have in arguments, people would say, "But Europe is not working efficiently" or whatever. The point is that it was never designed to work efficiently. It was designed to work fairly and avoid future wars.

This is why every European language is represented in the European Union. That makes like a jobs program for translators, and this is by all means not efficient, but it is a measure for the purpose of having everybody equally at the table, which has not happened in the European history's part.

That would be just a short answer to your question, which made your situation reverse.

But it is great talking with you, Eduardo. That was quite a conversation.

EDUARDO WOLF: My pleasure. You had the pleasure to accompany me through one of the worst traffic jams in São Paolo right now. Give you a taste of what it's like here.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Oh my god. But thank you for joining in, and I thank you for being part of this series on the identity of Latin America and the West. It's been a pleasure talking with you, Eduardo. All my best to Brazil.

EDUARDO WOLF: My pleasure, and all the best to you guys there.

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