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Juri Bottura ESPEA 2012

A STRATEGY FOR THE RECEPTION OF EUROPEAN SCIENTIFIC CULTURE


AT THE BEGINNING OF THE 20TH CENTURY:
THE CASE OF ALBERTO TORRES AND THE PROBLEM OF RACE

Mi dissertation project concerns the thought and the agenda of Brazilian reformist
agrarianism in the core decades of the 20th century, with a special emphasis on the 1930s and the
activities of the Sociedade dos Amigos de Alberto Torres, founded in 1932. The study of this
political tradition, which postulated the transformation of Brazil from an intervention on the
countryside and on what today we would call the environment, should begins from the period
of its theoretical formation, and thus could not overlook the central figure of Alberto Torres
(1865-1917). The fluminense politician and intellectual became, in the years of the crisis of the
First Republic and in the uncertainties that followed the 1930 Revolution, a reference point for a
significant number of actors on the Brazilian public scene. Therefore, an inquiry into the work of
Alberto Torres, and in particular into its contents and methods, is a priority. In this paper my
intention is to highlight the discursive strategy that the author developed in the construction of
his critique of the Brazilian status quo by means of an eclectic reception of the European cultural
and scientific debates of the time.
Alberto Torres fundamental texts, O problema nacional brasileiro and A organizao
nacional, were published in 1914, but were the result of the combination of inedited pages with
essays that appeared on the press of Rio de Janeiro from 1910 on.1 The complexity and the
erudition of the two volumes, in spite of a certain lack of systematic cohesiveness, show the
authors ambition of claiming his intellectual stature within the Brazilian, and especially carioca,
cultural circles of the time. In this context, Torres main goal is twofold: on the one hand, to
establish his authority via an insisted reference to the most advanced international scientific
literature; on the other hand, to employ the acquired position of prestige and credibility to
disqualify not only the ideas that he considered obsolete and harmful for Brazil, but also their
bearers.
The most evident example of Torres strategy is his approach to one of the central themes
of the political-intellectual agenda of the Brazil of the First Republic: the problem of race. As

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historiography already recognized, 2 Alberto Torres was of the pioneers in the critique of the
scientific racism that prevailed among the Brazilian elites of the period. The steps through which
he refuted a doctrine that condemned Brazil, in his opinion, to a condition of pessimism,
fragmentation and backwardness are emblematic not only of the authors personal intellectual
profile, but also, more in general, of the challenges and the contradictions that characterized the
intellectual life of 1910s Brazil.
Torres starting point is his polemic against the cluster of what he called aristocratic
doctrines, i.e. the different European theories that claimed a racial determinism and a
hierarchical vision of human groups. The authors critique entails diverse names such as
Gobineau, Malthus and Nietzsche, as he considered them unified by a common struggle: the
reaction, usually by means of scientific arguments, to the idea of equality proclaimed by the
Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Against this school of thought, Torres logic splits into
two directions, both in a tense relationship with the sources and the models that he discussed.
The first accusation, essentially political, calls into question the instrumentality of
scientific racism, and in particular its use as a justification for the oligarchic and expansionistic
policies adopted by the 19th-century European powers. In Torres own words:

This period is precisely the one in which the idea of human equality, already
consolidated in the political realm, started to take hold in the economic realm,
with the education of workers and the growth of the urban proletariat. This era
witnessed the demand for the suppression of the monopolies and the social
advantages of the privileged classes, and the beginning of modern times colonial
expansion that put in contact the cultured nations with the less advanced races.
Top-level leaders and colonizing races asked science to provide legitimacy for the
rights of hierarchy and subordination.3

Together with this political argument, Torres put forward a scientific and intellectual
point, as he went into details in the scientific and philosophical debates of the time, and indicated
the most recent novelties of theoretical reflections and research result.
In the general context of a strong influence of the environmental school of the German
geographer Friedrich Ratzel and of the new cultural anthropology of Franz Boas,4 Torres allowed
considerable space in his texts to show his superior expertise in the most diverse areas of
knowledge. As a consequence, the authors argumentation paid equal attention, just to mention
two examples, to the discoveries of Egyptologists and classical archaeologists who

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underscored the high level of civilization attained by non-Arian peoples5 and to the content
of the anthropological and philosophical reflections of the French poet and critic a
distinguished spirit, in Torres view Remy de Gourmont. In this last case, the explicit
reference is to the essay Une loi de constance intellectuelle, published in installment in the
prestigious Parisian literary review Mercure de France in 1907 and then printed in volume the
following year.6 The central element in Gourmonts work quoting from Torres [the] thesis
according to which the anatomic formation of the human brain, and the consequential
consolidation of its functions, was completed in the prehistoric period, during which [humans
beings] discovered the earliest abilities [needed] for material and relational life7 is here
directly functional in the critique of any hierarchic view on the intellectual capacities of different
human races.
The function of Torres display of his own erudition is not limited to the work of
demolition of the racial determinism in favor of the possibilities for change and progress in
Brazil. The authors audience, of course, was the Brazilian elite, whose majority positions on the
racial problem only represented a manifestation of its broader limits, i.e. its alienation from the
reality of the country and its blind dependence on imported interpretive and behavioral models. 8
The explicit critique of European racist theories, therefore, should be read as an indirect attack,
certainly clear to the reader of the time, against the self-destructive tendencies of the Brazilian
intelligentsia, whose disdain for the ethnic and cultural profile of the Brazilian people was
regarded by Torres as one of the main causes of the countrys backwardness.
It is thus evident that the assault on the elites, as bearers of a pessimist and regressive
vision, did not entail for Torres an adhesion to a nationalism that was insensitive to international
cultural and scientific debates. The author neatly explained in the following paragraph what path
should have being covered:

Our intellectual curiosity and our interest in assimilating foreign productions and
studies, and our aspiration to a fusion with the [dominant] mental society of our
age, should lead us to expand the range of our harvest of knowledge, and thus to
replace our passive attitude, which took us to receive the ideas of other peoples
that the fate, or the political instinct, brought us, with an autonomous work of
conscious choice and selection. To learn with Germans, Americans, French,
English and, when possible, with Brazilians: this is the ideal formula of our
mental cosmopolitism.9

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The cosmopolitan aspect of Torres intellectual project, in spite of its intense nationalist
component, should not be ignored, and should be also related to one of the non-secondary goals
of the author, i.e. the integration of Brazil in the Concert of the Nations as a solid and credible
country.10 Torres further asserted the propositional and pragmatic character of his agenda through
the rejection of any theory of decadence imported, once again, from Europe, and through the
affirmation of the primacy of politics, as this passage attests:

This lack of blossoming of Politics and State brought the progress of human spirit
to the current situation of failure, and inspired the declaration of the incapacity of
human through and reason to solve individual and social problems, as in the
theories about the unpredictability of the future [Henri Bergson, Lvolution
cratrce, 1907] and the inexistence of the external world [Henri Poincar, La
valeur de la science, 1905], [] according to which we would believe that
behavior problems must be left to a philosophy of skeptical indifference, or to the
condemnation of society and the State, of government and politics: either a
declaration of anarchism, or a reverse to the spiritual government of Providence
by means, of course, of its representative on Earth.11

In conclusion, Alberto Torres strategy produces, at the same time, both an innovation and
a contradiction in the modalities of the dialogue with European culture. On the one hand, the
proud affirmation of an erudition updated to the most recent debates was in the end functional to
the critique of the passive reception of foreign sources frequently obsolete and always used
with conservative purposes that Brazilian elites displayed until then. On the other hand, Torres
optimism with relation to the possibilities of an authentically Brazilian civilization was
grounded on the trust in the benefits of an in-depth knowledge of national reality, and a new
organic politics incarnated in a strong state that finally tackled the countrys atavistic problems.
However, this very confidence in a new method applied by new instruments ended up resting on
the same principle that the author fiercely condemned in the European theorists of biological
determinism: the subordination of science to the goals of politics.

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1
Alberto Torres, O problema nacional brasileiro. Introduo a um programma de organizao
nacional, 3 edio (So Paulo; Rio de Janeiro; Recife; Porto Alegre: Companhia Editora Nacional,
1938 [1914]) and A organizao nacional. Primeira parte. A constituio, nova edio. (So Paulo;
Rio de Janeiro; Recife; Porto Alegre: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1938 [1914]).
2
Thomas E. Skidmore, Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1974). 118-123.
3
Torres, O problema nacional brasileiro, 132.
4
Ibid., 67-68 e 128-131.
5
Ibid., 128-129.
6
Remy de Gourmont, Promenades philosophiques: une loi de constance intellectuelle (Paris: Socit
du Mercure de France, 1908).
7
Torres, A organizao nacional, 143.
8
This is a leitmotiv of Torres work: see for example the criticism towards our half-science on loan
(O problema nacional brasileiro, 45) and towards the dependence on French culture, an heritage of
Portuguese colonization (Ibid., 77-79).
9
Ibid., 66.
10
The author devoted his two earliest publications in volume to international political problems: Vers la
paix: tudes sur l'tablissement de la paix gnrale et sur l'organisation de l'ordre international (Rio
de Janeiro: Imprensa Nacional, 1909) and Le problme mondial: tudes de politique internationale
(Rio de Janeiro: Imprensa Nacional, 1913). He also discussed his concerns over the international
insertion of Brazil in A organizao nacional, 276-292.
11
Ibid., 20.