Critique of not so Pure Reason

Keywords: philosophy, filosofía, humanities, humanidades, developing countries, development, desarrollo, academics, academia, poverty, pobreza, word, palabra, latin-america, latinoamerica, Sandra Salcedo. 


Humanities the same than Social Sciences have done a lot analyzing and criticizing the models that arrive and are applied in our countries. However, it is still a vacuum in proposing and constructing structures to get a better life for those that inhabitate the poorest regions of the planet. This is an invitation to imagine who we want to be, how we want to live and how to build the place and the life we aspire for us and for future generations.



In “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, Freire talks about the word that, as we know it, is constituted by the two elements reflection and action. If the word is deprived of one of these dimensions, let’s say the action, the reflexive component goes automatically through a change and becomes verbalism -“an alienated and alienating blah”. Thus, it changes into an empty word unable to transform the world.


We know that the educational effort is more than the simple transmission of knowledge. The main goal of an educative process is to provide those who want to learn with the necessary tools and skills to let them inhabit and transform the world they live in. In this incredible process the one who learns and the one who teaches are united, giving way to a unique desire to embrace the world. It is a symbiotic and reproductive act.


Years ago when I finished my studies in philosophy, like widely expected, everybody took different paths, confused and afraid about what to do with a knowledge that matched little or not at all with our environment. The question “and now, what?” was going around between those who had left the Faculty of Humanities. The less risky answer and the one that many accepted willingly was the one that invited us to remain in the same place that we were, even though looking for a position, more or less comfortable between the lecture rooms and the offices of our former teachers.  Those who took the option of exploring new fields more technical and practical, (although my own experience diluted later these paradigms) lost their membership of the academic and intellectual circle. Eyes of suspicion and a little of unconscious envy, followed their steps through these unknown fields.


Since then a question mark frames my vision of the faculty of Humanities. It asks what can be really expected from those who feel the vocation to follow the way of the Humanities in the poorest countries of the world and the challenges that one has to face in those contexts. Trying to come up with an answer, this essay describes in first place, four of the unavoidable fences that are set up on the road of humanists in this side of the world; second, it outlines the need to establish a sort of cause-effect relation between ideas and actions in order to transform in a constructive way our world. Finally it gives some reasons to start again considering imagination as an ethical and political tool that could join the efforts put on thinking and building the world we want to live in.



I think therefore I do


Passing through the way of Humanities means to choose the word as origin and destiny. It is the word in the sense as Freire understands it, as reflection and action. In most of our countries it seems that Humanities have been restricted and confined to the first of these dimensions and, as a consequence, they usurped the capacity of the word to create and generate. Indeed, exclusively taking the reflexive component of the word has determined our poor action within the reality of our countries. Those who walk along this way will not find difficult to admit the disproportionate value that is given to the reflexive process and the little attention that is paid to the development of concrete and constructive actions. Thinking the words that someone else already thought seems to be more important than creating own words and transforming the world from our own specific place.


Of course, this is not a critique against the reflexive process. That would be too easy. On the contrary, it is rather a call to pay attention to the necessity of transforming our thoughts into concrete actions if we really want reflection to be part of the process of creation. To allocate to the word just the reflexive level and to deprive it of the richness of action is like longing to make music, learning the theory, buying the piano but never putting even a finger on it. The results are unable intellectuals in adapting themselves to the world who also overestimates the classrooms due to this incapacity. As consequence, we find castrated professionals in imagination and creativity who are strict followers of thoughts that, in spite of being stimulating, will never give rise to anything new and contribute even less to the urgent, concrete and effective answers that need to be given in our countries.   



The logic of the impossible


When thinking about Freire’s “fear of freedom” or Lederach’s “peace as a mystery” a phenomenon I had been observing intensively during these years comes to my mind. It shares the paradox with the above mentioned of having something supposedly desirable as an object. However, because of certain reason, it becomes into something which generates terror and rejection and so gets difficult or even impossible to reach that object.


The logic of the impossible is the mental structure resulting from being exposed to opposing forces in terms of directions as well as velocities. Even though these forces seem to appear one after another and one as a consequence of the other, they take place in a simultaneous manner. They are originated from internal and external factors. This concurrence of forces results concretely in fragmented subjects that are not able to connect what they want to be with the tools they have to do it converting themselves in passive subjects of the existence of someone else.


Let’s say we have a subject called Ramón Olivares, 45, who lives in Bolivia within a context of extreme poverty with realities and not the statistics they entail: collective depressions, high indexes of frustration, limited access to education, suffering and illness, hunger and death.


After the fourteen hours of his daily work Ramón arrives to his house where the only entertainment is the television with its flashy advertisements selling something that not only Ramón does not have but that he cannot even imagine to own someday. His son studies at the university but Ramón finds it almost impossible to come up with the monthly fees.  In the morning, during breakfast, the young boy talks about political strategies and the military attacks against different states. Neither their names nor their thousands of victims mean anything to Ramón. He never went to university but worked in the countryside until his twenties. At arrival in his office after a two-hour walk due to another strike of the bus conductors he has to listen to the long – winded speech of his boss telling him once again that if he does not know to use the internet he will have to look for a new job. The truth is that Ramón does not even read Spanish fluently as his mother tongue is Aymara. His boss is not fluent in Spanish either but this is irrelevant. Ramón knows quite well that knowing to use the internet is indeed important in this age of globalisation and interconnectedness, in this era of technology and mass media. But Ramón understands only little or nothing at all about these concepts and even less about how it exactly has an effect on him and his life. Today’s headlines tell Ramón that the economy keeps on growing and that Bolivia’s level of development is rising. Ramón feels nothing.


This conjunction of forces results in a certain schizophrenic behaviour which paralyses the subjects from making them feel and believe that the control they possess over these situations is practically zero. It rather converts them into beings incapable of imagining, creating and realizing forms of life that are more peaceful and of a better human quality. This curse within thinking is one of the anchors that have thrown the poorest countries of the world into a standstill of submission and silence for decades. The shortage of leaders and the reduced capacity of projection and transformation from the vast majority is another consequence of the logic of the impossible. The sole critique is a disguise that conceals outdated thinking that does not long for a real change.


Consequently, the logic of the impossible leads to a un-skill of the common people. However, it is also present in leaders and politicians who find it impossible to carry out concrete and creative actions which again may provide a solution to the problems of our countries. The same goes for the intellectuals who are meant to generate innovative and accurate responses to the challenges that confront countries in the so called third world. Turning individuals into subjects of their own existence and into active transformers of reality has been and still is the urgency of our time. Accompanying these goals, it is now necessary to invert the logic of the impossible and to turn it into the logic of the possible. This will happen by finding a new way of thinking that transcends the most violent realities and highlights concepts and practices that again allow us to step out of poverty, both mental and physical.



All that glitters is not gold


The answers that will help us to get out of the violence and poverty will not come out from the richest and developed countries alone. Not only because of the fact that many of them became and still are the richest countries of the world by the impoverishment of others and in consequence, there is some kind of interest to keep the present order. The real reason to say this is that the experience of misery and death that the most conflicted countries have had to go through, is our biggest tragedy but also our chance to formulate honest proposals that will not compromise other interests than a better life for people. The experience of violence and poverty is the actual life experience of some countries and that is why to be part of building the lanes that will give freedom from this so long state of suffering is not just a demand or an option but is part of our responsibility as citizens of these sites of the world.


It is a mistake to assume that the socio – economical products that result from particular and foreign worldviews can be actualized in our region as they were conceived and practiced in the place where they come from. It is only after a long time, and having been beaten in too many occasions, that we realize that those formats must be rethought and reformed once they cross the boundaries of our countries in order to make them effective and applicable to our concrete realities.


Anyway, it would be unfair and childish if we do not recognize some of the benefits that certain models could bring in favour of the development of Latin America or Africa[1] but it does not mean that we have to install them like software to any computer. This would only bring a chain reaction of consequences and radical positions like the ones that we have already suffer with Shining Path, the sacks in Argentina, the expropriation of media in Venezuela and so many others.


Now, it is fair to ask if, critics, reforms, rejections or free new ideas should not be part of the work that carry out people that dedicates to the human and social sciences in our countries. Is it not from Humanities and Social Sciences from where should result part of the Third World response to a system that is not working and is resulting in chaos and misery for most of the people in front of our eyes?


We have to ask ourselves about the viability of those projects that come from the North and with the same force that gravity has, are incrusted in our countries: we have to rethink and interpretate them with the tools that Humanities give us but in the light of the experience of living in this side of the world, knowing our people, wills, strengths, weakness, times and spaces. This is the unique and original knowledge that makes the difference between the proposals that “arrive” and the ones that we are able to re – create. This is the filter with which we have to see the actions that we call political, economical and ethical.



Illiterates for peace


As Johan Galtung pointed out correctly, one of the areas where limitations within education dealing with the world can be seen more clearly could be the poor development of capacities for the construction of peaceful societies by peaceful means. The ignorance in this field is of general nature and it does not merely affect the lowest levels of the population but especially leaders and politicians who talk at the same time about democracy and the death penalty.


If we talk about direct violence we cannot forget that responding to situations of conflict with concrete, creative and constructive[2] answers is the result of a long process of perseverance and learning. For their part, those who respond to violence with new forms of violence are the ones who can neither imagine nor create better answers in order to turn the mentioned critical situations into new and elevated points of departure. Humanities in general and philosophy in particular operate with valuable tools in promoting the construction of a more peaceful society. Among the latter, the most important ones are its vocation for dialogue and the word, always understood as reflection and action.


If we talk now about structural violence we have several economic and development theories that are exacerbating poverty and exploitation. They consider the drama that is experienced in the poorest countries of the world as distant and diffused side effects. Indeed, some people are already doing a good job at making it explicit and at putting the conditions of life that result from the blind application of these theories into the core of the debate [3].


The step that is still missing is the one that will open a dialogue and set up a new agenda of tendencies and proposals that, de facto, will be applied in the next years to revert this situation by peaceful means. We need humanists and social scientists that would not only describe the phenomenon but also propose how to get out of this situation with imagination, compassion and perseverance.


This essay is an overview of three big challenges that humanists have to take into account if we really want to transform the world and our vocation into meaningful acts. Such a project should not paralyze us but wake us up once we admit deep down in our souls that the answers to violence and misery of our people are our answers and that we find them within our thinking as well as in our actions. To build structural and direct peace, acts are needed. Straight afterwards, we will have to be shaken outside, giving birth to reflection and action led by compassion, imagination, creativity and perseverance.



And, how do we do that? Some ideas


There is no reason to get surprised if we realize that the answer to this question is “through action”. Such kind of virtues and abilities as compassion, imagination, creativity and perseverance, are only actualized by the act of using them. For that reason it is important to put within students and studious those stimulus that will wake in the best way this capacities up. In the next lines the reader will find two basic tools for the development of these abilities.



Narrative Imagination


In Cultivating Humanity, Martha Nussbaum brings up to discussion the importance of narrative imagination. It means the ability developed through the reading of literary texts to imagine, know and identify ourselves with the feelings and attitudes of characters that even though could exist in real life not so many times we empathize with them. It results in a new dimension of seeing the world and those who inhabitate it through the experience of literature.


If something is left after the phenomena of violence is the experience of the victims. This is an experience that is impossible to be transfer not only because the lack of words to name what has been experienced but also because of the limitation to imagine and to feel sorry by those who have not been the victims.


This is how the narrative imagination appears as one of the ideal tools to approach to the testimonies of the victims of violence (including poverty). At the end, what is expected to be result from the narrative imagination is nothing else but compassion and responsibility, both ethical responses that should accompany the discourse of the victim. Immediately after a critical reading of these testimonies will lead the reader to a better understanding of the complexity of the discourse and the facts that the victim is relating: its historic meaning, literary, ethical and political, depending the area of humanities we will to approach from.


Can we sincerely think and act in favor of peace without understanding and feeling compassion for the suffering of the other? Is not it one of the first steps to transcend our ignorance in terms of how to reach peace by peaceful means? To understand the other we have to imagine him first.



Moral Imagination to create new realities


In The Moral Imagination, John Paul Lederach takes this term to express the capacity to imagine something that is deep rooted in the challenges of the real world and at the same time to be able from that of giving birth something that does not exist yet. In the case of peace building, he explains it as the ability to imagine and generate constructive responses and initiatives that, even though rooted in the challenges that everyday life violence imposes to us, transcend and finally break with the structures that destructive patterns and cycles have established.


These critical points that induce us to change our perspective and give birth to something radically new, transform constructively “the human issues” making it possible to get released of the statu quo called violence, exploitation or hunger through new paths towards horizons that were not imagined before.


I found in the moral imagination something that one way or another all human beings have experienced but just in few occasions we apply and develop in the educational field. Doing so would imply, as Lederach reminds us, to make those moments that characterized moral imagination not to relay on a technique or a particular recipe. Instead of that, to find the sources in the creativity, intuition and “handcraft” that distinguishes the artistic process. 


In this sense, I want to call our attention on some of the virtues of the moral imagination such as its generative potential, the possibilities that it gives to create and re-create new things, to link those known and to re-cognize those that we considered obsolete. The moral imagination formulates an additional and new question to humanities; it is not “what?” (peace, ethics, politics, language etc) but “how?” and answering to this question demands an original exercise to thinker’s minds: to give responses characterized by being creative, constructive and concrete.

The logic of the impossible is the first to be affected by the moral imagination. It is from the own contradiction and using its opposite strengths that the moral imagination come up and from what it is fed. Something like using gravity forces to start flying.



I imagine therefore it exists. Conclusions.


To imagine is the beginning of everything. Nothing is without being imagined before, at least in the field of human creation. What comes to be and was not imagined previously is called luck or accident and is the manifestation of that kind of things upon the ones human beings have less or nothing to do about.


Nevertheless, there is a different kind of things, the kind of things that we imagine and we later do. In that sense, if we don’t imagine the world we want to build, the changes we think we need or the place we want to leave for future generations, there is no option to build it. Following this line, imagining our world could be considered as an ethical and political original step that outlines the place we would like to arrive at some point.  


Summarizing what has been said until now, responses to improve the reality of our countries cannot be still just a spontaneous reaction to the social or political conditions we have to deal with. Real responses should be part of a process of creation that begins imagining what we want to be and continues with the conviction that it is possible to do it. If humanists assume as part of their role to support on the efforts to transcend violence or to transform poverty into better conditions of life we have to start considering the fact that reactionary palliatives are not enough anymore and a drastic, creative and perseverant change is needed. A change that has to be expressed in action and not only in words and that demands a clear process that includes as main phase the explicit use of imagination.


In the previous pages I have tried to show some of the obstacles and just two of the ways in which imagination can be applied within the framework and goals that humanities set. Both of them described as part of the effort to explain how imagination comes to be the starting point to create new realities. In that sense, the transcendental role of imagination for our time urges to be stressed in the political and ethical arenas. Without it, as we have already seen, the discourse takes the risk of getting stuck in a net of dried criticism and the labyrinth of pure abstraction.





Paulo Freire, Pedagogia do Oprimido. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1987.

Martha C. Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity. A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. United States: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Jean Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination. The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Johan Galtung, Peace by Peaceful Means. Sage Publications Ltd., 1996.






1 Comment so far
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Querida Sandra
Dear Sandra

I’ve just read this essay, too quickly for making a sound comment, but anyway…

Acabo de leer este artículo, demasiado rápido para ser capaz de enviarte un comentario bien pensado, pero bueno…

The issue that you address is very important, and not only in the academic world.

El tema que abordas es de suma importancia, y no únicamente para el mundo académico.

As you know, I’ve spent more of my life trying to be non-violent actively more than understanding the issue from academic research.

Como sabes, he decidado más tiempo de vida intentanto ser noviolenta de manera activa que tras un acercamiento académico.

However, the relevant questions remain the same.

Sin embargo, las preguntas con relevancia son las mismas.

Imagining and creating a different world, indeed, implies changing our language.

Imaginarnos y crear un mundo distinoto significa, como indicas, un cambio de lenguaje.

For example, in stead of associating Bolivia with poverty, I would suggest to start from the huge wealth richnesses of the country and its populations.

Por ejemplo, en vez de asociar Bolivia con pobreza, propondría partir de las enormes riquezas del país y sus poblaciones.

From there it will be easier to explain the relations between power relations and the distribution of wealth, with a direct connection to options for change and action.

Desde ahí es más factible llegar a explicar las relaciones entre las relaciones de poder y la distribución de las riquezas, con un vínculo directo a opciones para el cambio y la acción.

Please continue to write. A big hug from Cochabamba.

Siga escribiendo, amiga. Un fuerte abrazo desde Cochabamba

Comment by Theo Roncken

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