Enrique Dussel: a need to recognize the underside of modernity

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

On a frigid Jan. 14, after having been snowed-out of one lecture, renowned scholar Enrique Dussel found his way up to YDS to present a talk entitled “Modernity: The Origin of Two Different Traditions, the Protestant and the Catholic.” Argentinean by birth and now professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Dussel is internationally known as a founder of the “Philosophy of Liberation” movement. Schooled in liberation theology, he is an intellectual discussed by philosophers and theologians alike.

The day’s lecture focused on the use and misuse of what is classically called “modernity.’” Dussel’s claim is that the major “developments” of modernity—the finding of the Americas, the development of the printing press, the Copernican Revolution—trace their roots outside the West, though scholars typically characterize the accomplishments of modernity as strictly Western phenomena.

In short, Dussel argues that the West implicitly views itself at the center of the world and world history. His alternative thesis is based on the hypothesis that modernity only began when Europe opened up to the rest of the world, an opening initiated by two key events: Columbus’s invasion of the Americas, and the Reformation.

Under scrutiny, troublesome elements of modernity emerge, according to Dussel: the coupling of Christian mission with colonialism; capitalism as a tool for extracting wealth from the colonies; and geo-centrism, which sees the West as “the center of the global process,” the source of all modern philosophy and theology. On this last point, Dussel insisted that the geo-centrism of the West explains why Western thought did not seriously challenge colonialism, slavery, or capitalism for so long, and, also why Western powers put the then-dominant Arab/Chinese trade world (what Dussel calls the “Old World Economy”) under blockade.

One development that helped open the door to the Reformation—frequently overlooked, in Dussel’s view—was that northern Europe ceased needing the Mediterranean as its primary trade venue and, therefore, could afford to loosen its ties with Rome. Thus, with the onset of the Reformation and the industrial revolution, northern Europe modernized while southern Europe lagged behind. According to Dussel, Luther’s emphasis on individual justification made it possible for the self, rather than the community, to be seen as the principle object of not just religious but political and economic concerns as well.

In Dussel’s opinion, the emergence of modern civilization has also spawned what he calls “the underside of modernity,” an underside consisting of those marginalized by modernity— the colonized, the exploited, and those excluded or pushed to the periphery of modernity. Seen that way, modernity’s “success” is achieved at a terrible cost: ubiquitous oppression of its underside. This, Dussel agued, is unacceptable, and he argued that Christians—who throughout modernity regularly advanced such oppression—have the responsibility to work to counter this oppression that modernity has created.

Dussel ended his lecture with a nuanced reading of the Apostle Paul as an example of how Christians should in relation to modernity. Following the lecture, he had lunch with students, a seemingly fitting end to the warm, welcome, and provocative presence he brought to one of the snowiest days of the year.

Posted: 02/04/2011