Paulo Arantes – the advantage of dialectics

Image: Irina Novikova


Averse to saturated philosophies, disidentified from power, Arantes' critical horizon has the merit of seeking support in a historical ground full of flesh and blood beings and experiences of subalternity

If there is a tension within all thought that seeks to be totalizing, it is its relationship with history. As much as we can clearly see the forms of subjection and domination in contemporary societies, undoubtedly linked to the dynamics of global capitalism, reality (what is currently given and the potentialities that are latent to them) is still too complex and opaque, Luckily, it never offers itself in a transparent way to the interpreter, who, however, is in a hurry to capture it, fixing the meaning and establishing continuity to what appears as chaotic and discontinuous. The monstrosities that intellectual impatience has produced are well known.

The advantage of dialectics over other forms of thought comes precisely from its relationship with history. In dialectics, thinking itself, as a thought experience, takes part in historical temporalization. In other words, if reality is at the same time what it is and what it could be, emancipatory thinking is part and takes part, as an immanent critique, in the historical movement of the time it intends to diagnose – remembering that the verb diagnosis refers to other: prognosis. From this perspective, thinking presents itself as an index of history and of itself, which is the same as saying, as a privileged point of view for understanding the impasses of the time in which it takes place.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that one of the most prominent names in Brazilian dialectical thought, Paulo Arantes, has invested so much energy in a type of historical-philosophical discourse that could be called, without any impropriety, intellectual history. If this designation refers to forms of approach that are generally anti-dialectical, that carried out by Paulo Arantes is an example of dialectical intellectual history.

As he himself once reported, as soon as he retired and started the “Wednesday group” at the request of some students on the philosophy course at USP, one of the rules was that the group would not dedicate itself to the study of Philosophy. It is obvious that philosophy has not and would not leave its horizon, but, seeing from afar the dynamics of the group (of which I was never part), I suspect that what was at stake was, through dialogue with researchers who carried out empirical research in different areas of knowledge, the establishment of a firm historical ground for diagnoses and critical dialectical horizons.

This is to say that one of Paulo Arantes' merits when looking at the fate that dialectical thought had in Brazil is its strong connection with the empirical dimension of historical processes, including – it should be obvious, but it isn't – with beings of flesh and those who make history and are made by it, in particular the subordinates. From this perspective, resentment of the dialectic (1996) is not a book about intellectuals, but a book about the relationship between intellectuals and subalterns: an absent presence in the book in question, the experience of subalternity is explicit in New time of the world (2014)

A similar orientation echoes the consideration made by Roberto Schwarz in the preface to Criticism of dualist reason: the platypus (2003) about Chico de Oliveira's dialectical style: “In the style of enlightened dialectics, the threshold of changes is exact, it is not determined by a doctrinal construction, but is rather fixed within a provisional and heuristic totalization, which is intended to be linked to the actual course of things. This is a rare example of Marxism friendly to empirical research.”[1] Noting the “rare example”, Roberto Schwarz shed light on its underside, that is, the rule: an intellectual universe in which dialectics is too speculative, an excess that ultimately means contempt for the empirical and the historical.

Historians understand well the dangers involved in employing concepts that unify experience, although they are not immune to incurring reckless uses. In different ways, the risk is, given the poor treatment of the empirical, to reduce the complex to the simple and transform difficult problems into yes or no dilemmas.

One of these concepts is, for example, “left”. It should be an assumption, but it is not: any diagnosis about the left in Brazil today needs to take into account that this word cannot be reduced to this or that figure – in other words, “left” is not synonymous with “Lula”, or “Lula Government”, or “PT” (which in itself unifies diverse experiences and practices), and these are not signifiers of “left” either; rather, the term designates an extremely rich and varied universe of thoughts, practices and experiences, each with its own genealogies, so that beneath the designation “left” there is an enormous multitude of flesh and blood beings, some of which are organized ( The size of the organization does not matter here), who think in terms of radical equality, and whose practices and experiences are informed by this ideal and make a difference in the class struggle. When these people think of “left,” they are likely to think first and foremost of themselves and their experience.

Therefore, any left-wing diagnosis that reduces this universe to a part of it, that is, that takes the whole for the part – not just any part, but the one that has greater visibility and power, and that only has it because it meets material and political requirements. symbolic of visibility and power – reveals a thought identified with power. To the extent that it remains with its back to the social left (the majority of the left, given that it is no less important), it is a thought whose field of resonance – it would be more appropriate to say, of viralization – is sterile, because he does not speak of those of whom he claims to speak, and, because he does not speak of these, he does not speak to these.

A thought of this type does nothing more than confirm (and justify) what it has always presupposed: the no need for the extremes to unite, after all, there is nothing on the other side. And, in light of the objective and subjective conditions that make its enunciation possible – as no enunciation takes place in a vacuum –, this thought appears (not without irony) to be integrated into the logic of domination that allegedly wants to collapse.

In the preface of resentment of the dialectic, Bento Prado Jr. maintained that, in his late and peripheral life, that is, in Brazil and under the pen of Roberto Schwarz and Paulo Arantes, dialectics “subverted and almost became extinct”.[2] Later, in 2004, Paulo Arantes himself wrote: “[…] professional philosophy, and there is no other without doctrinal and anti-modern regression, is no longer nor can it be a figurative philosophy, that is, it is no longer capable of describing the experience real as was his ambition in the Hegel Era, and to transpose this real experience to the conceptual plane”[3].

Whether dialectics has become extinct and whether or not philosophy is capable of describing real experience and transposing it to the conceptual plane, I leave it open. What is certain is that, in his work of thought, one of the richest chapters in the experience of dialectics in Brazil, and which has no parallel today, Paulo Arantes sought real experience, and I believe that this is a key to understanding his wealth and fertility.

Averse to saturated philosophies, disidentified with power, its critical horizon has the merit of seeking support in a historical ground full of flesh and blood beings and experiences of subalternity, with those who sought (and, as far as I know, still seek today) to have real dialogue, which cannot be confused with loss of autonomy of thought or instrumentalization of thinking.[4] Whether or not we agree with his conclusions, this critical horizon, which has never ceased to be philosophical, is the one on which dialectics, if it has not yet become extinct, should rely on to achieve its true resonant force.

*Antonio David He has a PhD in Philosophy from USP and is currently pursuing a PhD in Social History from the same institution..


[1] Schwarz, Roberto. “Preface with questions”. In: Oliveira, Francisco de. Criticism of dualist reason: the platypus. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013, p. 16.

[2] Prado Júnior, Bento. "Preface". In: Arantes, Paulo Eduardo. Resentment of dialectics. Dialectic and Intellectual Experience in Hegel (Old Studies on the ABC of German Misery). São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1996, p. 10.

[3] Arantes, Paulo Eduardo. zero left. São Paulo: Conrad Editorial Brasil, 2004, p. 275. (Baderna Collection).

[4]I had contact with Paulo Arantes a few times, almost always at the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at USP. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the only opportunity I had to talk to him at length was not at college, but on one of his several visits to the MST's Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, when I worked at the movement's national office.

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