Newton da Costa

Image: Lenora de Barros
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By GUSTAVO CAPONI*

The philosopher who changed and expanded the map of the transcendental, developing paraconsistent logics on which so many logicians around the world work today

“I woke up, went to Balvanera, \ on a late night, \ that someone left the name \ of one Jacinto Chiclana” (Jorge Luís Borges).

It wasn't in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Balvanera. It was three hundred kilometers away, in a bar in the center of Rosario. It was, in any case, a long time ago and already past midnight; in the winter of 1980 or 1981. It was at a table surrounded by a thick fog of black tobacco; and on the table there was an empty bottle of cheap red accompanied by a few glasses of 'gin': the whiskey of the oppressed.

Then, in this climate conducive to strong statements, and in the course of a long conversation about the beforehand Kantians, someone announced that they had expired; and to justify this assertion, four things were mentioned that Kant's analysis had not foreseen: non-Euclidean geometries; Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle; Gödel's theorem; and the paraconsistent logic of a Brazilian called Newton da Costa.

I don't remember how that conversation ended, or that night. It is clear, however, that I survived it; and, seven or seven years later, I went to do postgraduate studies in Logic and Philosophy of Science at Unicamp. There was a lot of talk about Newton da Costa; but strangely I never got to meet him in person.

To do this, I had to wait for him to come live in Florianópolis and join the postgraduate program in philosophy at the Federal University of Santa Catarina. I ended up being a colleague, then, of that almost mythical character whose name someone dropped in that “late night”: good things that life sometimes gives us; but unfortunately it also takes off.

This April, in the autumn of Florianópolis, Newton da Costa passed away: the most important, most recognized and most relevant name in Brazilian philosophy. It is now possible to speak about him, with complete truthfulness and without any exaggeration, that will live forever in his works, which will not cease to be a reference in the field of mathematical logic; and it can also be said that he will live on in the work of those who continue and continue to reflect and research along the paths he opened in his long and fruitful career.

Newton da Costa was one of the last survivors of “Brazil Bossa Nova”: that ambitious and fearless Brazil that, one day, without arrogance and always with great delicacy, took the floor and spoke as an equal to the world. And I'm not thinking here about geopolitical arrogance or solemn diplomatic positions. I think about art, science and philosophy.

I think, for example, of Oscar Niemayer who, since the unexpected Brasilia, marked the architecture of the entire planet. This Brazil whose “apartment samba” entered the history of jazz through the main door and without presenting a passport. A Brazil in which a group of population geneticists could break with Theodosius Dobzhansky, the Pope of the 'drosophilists' who sponsored them, and say: “flies are a small thing for us, let's talk about human populations”. A Brazil in which Nelson Papávero was involved in the consolidation of phylogenetic systematics, forming a school, without waiting for others, in other latitudes, to guarantee the hegemony of this program in which they were betting.

And it was in that same country that Newton da Costa, without the wonders of Germanic depths or Parisian ruptures, but with the lightness of João Gilberto's songs, dared what justified his name flying over that table rosarina in the early eighties: he changed and expanded the map of the transcendental, developing these paraconsistent logics on which so many logicians around the world work today.

This was the Brazil that the dictatorship “hurt, but did not kill”; and perhaps it was through this wound that Brazil lost some of its resourcefulness and cordial audacity. In honor of Newton da Costa we should say 'no more nostalgia!'; and recover the beat and swing he knew he had.

*Gustavo Caponi is a professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).


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