Interview with Cuban Philosopher Alexis Jardines

Alfredo Fernandez Rodriguez

Alexis Jardines, right.

Alexis Jardines graduated with a degree in philosophy from the St. Petersburg State University (1983) and received a doctorate degree in 2001 from the University of Havana, an institution where he works as a tenured professor.  With a stoic attitude, Alexis has learned how to endure the ostracism to which people are subjected who do not parrot the authorized line.

Currently he is working as a professor in a municipal university, considered the last rung in Cuban higher education.  There, he is my co-worker and friend, a circumstance that allowed me to conduct this interview with him.

In the Cuban academic panorama, philosophy has been the specialty with the most obscure destiny; it has been restricted to Marxism and its materialistic historical vision almost since the victory of the Revolution in 1959.

For five decades now, metaphysical thought in Cuba has suffered from a crusade waged against it, which was only overcome by what occurred in those countries belonging to the now extinct socialist bloc.  Even with this, Minerva (the goddess of wisdom) found a crack in the materialistic empire of ideas in Cuba; she disguised this as a small tropical Quixote, brought to us as Professor Jardines.  Today he responded to a few questions on a hot May afternoon.

Alfredo Fernandez: Alexis, you are the sole intellectual who writes about philosophy in Cuba. Nonetheless, outside of a small circle of admirers, friends and students in your present course, your books are ignored – or at least they’re ignored by readers.  To what do you believe this is due?

Alexis Jardines: A co-worker and friend from the Complutense University, Ignacio Gomez de Liaño, one of the most competent teachers I know— told me, after the publication of my first book in Madrid, that I was a writer for minorities.  I was left perplexed by such a severe observation.  What did he mean by that, that my book didn’t sell?

Gradually I began to realize the accuracy of his opinion.  Generally I write about dense issues and for people who know or have previous knowledge of the matter in question.  Nevertheless, I make a tenacious effort to present the material in the most intelligible form possible, without falling into the trap of oversimplification of course.

If you unite all this with the unfortunate half-century long loss of philosophical culture in Cuba, and to the almost absolute dominance of criticism and of historiography among Cuban intellectual life, you will have an approximate answer to your question.

In any case, I would dare to say that I am indeed ignored by the media and by most of the public, but not by seasoned readers.  The print runs of my books are quite small; they range between 1,000 and 1,500 copies – which are sold out immediately.  So, if my readers are few, at least they must figure among the most select.

On the other hand, there is only one publishing house on the whole island that puts out philosophical writings, so today this situation is making it impossible for me to publish.  There’s not even one journal that specializes in philosophical issues, despite Cuba having had the best philosophical journal in all Spanish-speaking America in the 1940s and ‘50s.

AF: In 1989 you wrote “Réquiem,” a controversial essay in which you revealed the true nature of Soviet Marxism and the supposed philosophical thought of Marx, Engels and Lenin.  Despite having been withdrawn from the bookstores, thousands of copies managed to be sold in less than a month with the consequent academic intellectual stir.  From what I’ve found out, this was the reason your separation from the University of Havana was requested (a step that would ultimately never materialize), the place where you worked as a professor.  What made you decide you to write an essay that seemed designed for the Cuban of 2010?

Alexis Jardines: Those were other times; 2000 copies of “Réquiem” were published. The overwhelming majority of these were snatched off the shelves in a question of 15 days. However, the curious thing is that the university itself bought a good portion of the copies that were sold at the bookstore at L and 27th streets; its purpose though was to destroy them (funds of the University of Havana’s Young Communist League were directed toward that end).

The purpose of the writing, which diverged from the framework of what I commonly wrote, was to settle my tab with the Marxist tradition of thought.  This was especially true of Soviet Marxism, which was based on the supposition that thinking creatively was an exclusive attribute of the founding fathers (Marx, Engels and Lenin).

I have my own thoughts, and Marxism —as a philosophy— is a farce; moreover, that of the Soviet brand is a farce that suffocates.  So, in order to dedicate myself to writing my own books, I published what I considered a requiem for that straightjacket.  It had to be abandoned since it lacked that which, according to Einstein, all theory should have if in fact a valid theory: an external justification and an internal end.

AF: Alexis, you promote “actual-virtual correlations” as the central axis of your philosophical system as a way of upgrading the systems of Edmund Husserl and Henry Bergson.  Given that this thought is so very different, how has it been received among your co-workers?

Alexis Jardines: Allow me a small correction.  As I present and develop them, the concepts of the actual and the virtual are the heirs of the whole western metaphysical tradition.  What happened with Husserl and Bergson is that they were the first philosophers who became conscious of the importance of these concepts.

Alfredo Fernandez with Philosopher Alexis Jardines

In fact, until these thinkers, such terms —especially as correlated concepts— simply did not figure in the history of philosophy or, since they were not absolute, in any of the important philosophical systems.  Just as the Aristotelian categories of “action” and “potential,” the “ideal” and the “material,” as well as “possibility” and “reality,” or “essence” and “existence” are all subsumed in the single idea of correlations or “actual-virtual configurations,”  without them, one simply cannot think of the current state of culture.

In terms of the acceptance of such propositions, it is only a matter of time.  Due to superficial reflection, undoubtedly, it might seem that the philosopher is a species in danger of extinction. On the other hand, the sole reason there are few philosophers in the world is that the world has decided to begin to philosophize.  I don’t know if someone else has brought this to light, but we are in the presence of a new type of knowing, one that goes beyond perfomative and paralogistic knowledge described by Jean-François Lyotard in his celebrated postmodern manifesto (The Postmodern Condition), because the dividing lines between particular and philosophical knowledge are increasingly blurred.

Contrary to Richard Rorty, I believe I see a pan-epistemological world in which knowledge, that in a Hegelian fashion seeks to know itself in itself, realizes that the world is its crystallization, as was continued in the phenomenology of Husserl, and not the other way around.  If I’m correct, my co-workers —and not only them— will still take some time to grasp the idea that history as well as the objective world exist in-and-for culture.  Therefore humans are not a result, but an absolute “prius.”

This is as worth as much as saying that we didn’t come from the “Big Bang” or from proto-human species but that —in my terms— these are “structured knowledge” in reality.  Let’s make the case for our African ancestry.  We virtually built this in the logical-discursive plane based on a situation of genetic crossbreeding that we can currently note in the form of appropriate technology.

We then demand, through hypothesis, that this theoretical construct is the cause of a biological, vital phenomenon.  The question would be how a theory could be transmuted and produce human beings?  Or, formulated in a more specific way: how are “living” individuals able to be the product of the evolution of the species (families, genera) whose nature is taxonomical-conceptual?

The great dilemma of the theory of evolution, in any one of its variants, is that in principle the species evolved —not the individuals— however, species “do not have genes.”  As you see, without an understanding of the actual-virtual nature of reality there is no way of reconciling ourselves with the epistemological fissures that act to undermine the “structure of plausibility” (Berger) of science.

AF: In your book “Filosofía Cubana (Cuban Philosophy in a nutshell). Ensayo de historia intellectual” (Essay on intellectual history) you affirm: What is being done presently in Cuba in the academic study of philosophy is neither philosophical nor Cuban.”  Supposing that you’re right, I ask: What possibilities do you see in Cuban thought for recapturing the forgotten path of creativity in the field of ideas?

Alexis Jardines: Many, provided there is respect for the basic principle of philosophizing around everything, which was clearly recognized ever since Schelling and Hegel in the freedom of thought.  Obviously this not only involves epistemological liberty, but also political freedom. On the other hand, it’s necessary to infuse trust in our future philosophers, in the fact that they can and should think with their own minds.

In this sense, Marxism (the ghastly and doctrinal Soviet model as well as decrepit western Marxism) constitutes a true obstacle.  Paraphrasing Ortega y Gasset —whose influence, has had more to do in defining our process of cultural constitution than that of whole legions of Marxists— said that what was good in Cuban Marxism was that which was Cuban, not that which was Marxist.  In my particular case, I don’t situate Marx above any authentic philosopher, but nor do I excommunicate him.  I recognize his effort as I do that of a Freud or a Lévi-Strauss – no more, no less.

AF: So Alexis, do you like Jorge Mañach believe that it’s possible to “make philosophy at 78º Fahrenheit”?

Alexis Jardines: Mañach, on the contrary, questioned it.  However, for me heat has not been a problem I can’t fight.  The real difficulty is constituted in language, and I believe what is essential is having to overcome it.  I educated myself philosophically in the Russian language.  I knew, for example, that German was ideal for philosophy, just as English seemed to be of lesser value.  But, thinking in Spanish at that time was exotic.  We didn’t have a tradition of philosophical thought in our language.

Jose Ortega y Gasset, our highest exponent, died considering himself a journalist more than a thinker – obviously he exaggerated.  So I set myself a Quixotic task, which to a large degree was also his, that of teaching philosophy to Spanish speakers.  Today I can tell you that Spanish is wonderful and that from it one can and must think of philosophy the same as or more than with any other language. My answer: yes.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Cuban Philosopher Alexis Jardines

  • in other words, the failures & limitations of Cuban society should not be blamed on Marx

  • isn’t it important that Marx above all others did not want or consider his activism or writing “philosophy”– to treat Marx as “philosopher” is to ignore the “spirit” of many of Marx’s texts, not to speak of his democratic political work

    Marx never offered a philosophical system; no wonder his text fails the standards of “philosophy” or philosophers. Marx is no obstacle to philosophy, because he has little to do with it. There is no such thing as a “Marxist philosopher”.

    A distaste for the texts or political achievements of Marx and Engels (or Lenin & Trotsky) is not possible on philosophical grounds, but on the basis of an opposition to their activism and theory.

    And for Marx , theory was especially situational & practical– nothing was certain except for the ability of humanity to try new things. And of course, nothing guaranteed that political struggle would not end in disaster

    is it really possible today to disagree with the social theory of class conflict?

    of course, dialectical materialism does have a philosophical heritage in Hegel, but unlike Hegel, Marx does not use the dialectic to predict the future, but as a metaphor for what MIGHT be possible if luck and human behavior permit

    i guess this all hinges on what you mean by “philosophy”– all i know is that Marx didn’t want his writing or work to be “philosophy”. Why then attack his “philosophy”? He certainly never struggled for the silencing or repression of “philosophers”– so how can he be an obstacle to them?

    Now if that philosopher is a capitalist exploiting labor, then Marx would have had a problem with that philosopher, and the ways in which s/he might use philosophy to justify or legitimize that exploitation.
    (Lyotard;s philosophical pessimism for example might help us learn to tolerate and ignore the exploitation of labor or the cruelty of Empire, allegedly because humans are unable to cooperate politically to oppose such exploitation/cruelty, as result of conflicting narratives and the rejection of metanarratives. Following Lyotard, humans should abandon the struggle against exploitation and cruelty– because the differend will inevitably divide us. In other words, it’s OK if the Capitalists exploit; we can do nothing to stop them, and its pointless to try. Hegel’s text is a metanarrative; Marx’s text is not because it has no certain ending, and no determinable series of events.)

    Derrida, for example, treats Marx’s writing more like poetry than philosophy– you might try that route. I love Marx’s spectro-poetics, and i have learned from Derrida how to improve my Socialist activism in the Spirit of Marx (without following Derrida’s rather naive prescriptions which shy away from the structure of organization)

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