Boaventura de Sousa Santos


  • Aram Ziai

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick. Further, he is Director of the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra and Scientific Coordinator of the Permanent Observatory for Portuguese Justice. He studied at the University of Coimbra, the Free University Berlin and Yale University and has taught at many other universities, among them the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Centro Intercultural de Documentacíon (CIDOC) at Guernavaca (Mexico). He has received a large number of fellowships and headed numerous research projects, the latest one being on ‘Strange Mirrors, Unsuspected Lessons: Leading Europe to a New Way of Sharing the World Experiences – ALICE’, funded by the European Research Council. His publications include Toward a New Legal Common Sense (2002), The Rise of the Global Left. The World Social Forum and Beyond (2006) and (as an editor) Democratizing Democracy. Beyond the Liberal Democratic Canon (2005), Another Production is Possible. Beyond the Capitalist Canon (2006) and Another Knowledge is Possible. Beyond Northern Epistemologies (2007).

How did you become a critical social scientist in the first place?

How we become what we are is a complex and serendipitous process. I can identify two kairotic moments. First, in the mid-1960s, when I arrived in West Berlin to study philosophy of law at the Freie Universität. John F. Kennedy had just visited the city proclaiming ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. I was coming from a country dominated by an obscurantist dictatorship and in Berlin I immersed myself in a university community that bred democratic values, albeit in the context of the Cold War. In the student community where I lived I gave talks against Portuguese colonialism and had some contacts with the radical student movement (SDS) that was then emerging. My girlfriend lived in East Berlin; I crossed the wall very often and thus could have a close-up view of the Cold War. The contrast was stark since, on the other side, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, the formerly ‘socialist’ republic of East Germany) it was the time of the Stalinist Walter Ulbricht and of the Robert Havemann affair, the dissenter professor. I would smuggle chocolates, books, cigarettes into the GDR, and bring back letters to be mailed in West Berlin to organize the flight of people from the GDR. This context strengthened my democratic ideals and prevented me from becoming a communist.

The second moment occurred between 1969 and 1973, when I was getting my PhD at the University of Yale. It was a time of great social ferment in the USA, the radicalization of the black movement, the resistance against the Vietnam War, the student movement, the time of the first student strike at Yale. It was then that I became a Marxist, participating in study groups to read and discuss Das Kapital. I also took courses with the last Hegelian in US philosophy departments, J.N. Finlay.

In 1970, I went to Brazil to do field work for my doctoral dissertation. My topic was the social organization and construction of parallel legality in ‘illegal’ communities, the favelas or squatter settlements. I decided to do participant observation and lived for several months in one of the largest favelas in Rio. This experience changed my life not just in terms of my political and theoretical preferences but also in terms of the epistemological and existential foundations of my identity as scholar-activist. Long hours of conversation and conviviality with people struggling for the decency and dignity of their lives in the most degrading and undignified conditions had a decisive imprint on me. I learned then that knowledge is not confined to the universities; that illiterate people may have wisdom too; that the middle classes and official bureaucracies develop gross misconceptions about the lives of people whom they fear but do not know; that there are parallel legalities in our urban societies; that clandestine left politics (it was the time of military dictatorship in Brazil) is risky and innovates very often beyond the leftist theories, whether Marxist or non-Marxist. Above all, I learned that there is more to life than the narrowly defined objectives of an academic career.

Concerning the ‘parallel legality’ you mentioned: in your writings, particularly in Towards a New Legal Common Sense, you argue for a profound reconstruction of the notion of legality. Could you briefly explain what you mean by that?

I start from the idea that both modern science and modern law lie at the core of Western modernity, the Eurocentric socio-cultural, capitalist and colonialist project of the modern period. Therefore, a non-Eurocentric critique of Western modernity must focus both on the reconstruction of modern legality and modern epistemologies which granted absolute privilege to modern science. Focusing on modern legality, the reconstruction must be carried out along the following five lines.

First, it is crucial to bear in mind the changing nature of the complex relationship between law and revolution in the modern period. Why were both the French and the American revolutions fought in the name of the law, whereas the Russian revolution was fought against the law? This analysis allows us to question the three basic principles underlying modern legal systems: the principle of autonomy, the principle of sovereignty, and the principle of unity. The autonomy of law evolves, contradictorily, to the same extent that law becomes totally dependent on the state, the latter converted into the sole source of law. The principle of sovereignty imposes a triple distinction of major political consequences: between the secular and the religious, between the national and the international and between the public and the private. Finally, the principle of unity, the idea of a measurable entity, with clearly defined borders, dominated by one single internal logic and always fully available to professional scrutiny, prevails as a powerful ideology, even if in practice the heterogeneity of the state, the workings of the global economy, the political leverage of factual powers belie it more and more.

The second line of inquiry consists in questioning the generality and universality of the modern legal system, because the modern legal construction was designed to apply only in metropolitan societies, even if claimed to be of universal scope. In colonial societies such a system was not applicable and was replaced by a totally different set of norms and principles. For instance, in the late nineteenth century, while labour law was emerging as an important dimension of social law and of the embryonic welfare state in metropolitan societies, in the colonies labour law was part of penal law (the chibalo or forced labour).

The third line of inquiry aims at building a deep conception of legal plurality in contemporary societies. Legal plurality is the claim that in the same geopolitical space (the modern state) different legal systems may coexist, even if such plurality may not be recognized by the official legal system as it contradicts the modern belief that the state is the only source of law. It has been established that legal plurality existed in the colonies (indirect rule), that it is present in contemporary post-colonial societies (as my own work has been showing), that it exists in different scales (local, national and transnational) and that its political content varies according to the context and the nature of the different legal systems present and the relationships among them. For instance, in one of my most recent projects in Ecuador I discovered that indigenous women resort to indigenous law for most aspects of their social lives but resort to state law in the event of domestic violence. The recognition of such legal plurality in the most recent constitutions in Bolivia and Ecuador is a product of the persistent struggles by indigenous movements in their quest for self-determination and cultural recognition. This kind of legal plurality undermines the monolithic, monocultural, colonial nature of the modern state.

The fourth line of inquiry addresses the whole question of the political mobilization of state law by the oppressed, subaltern, excluded social groups to further their struggles against oppression, exclusion and discrimination. This line of inquiry starts from the assumption that in our time the modern state and therefore modern state legality is a contested terrain, full of contradictions, which, under certain circumstances, might be activated in favour of the popular classes. This is what I call the counter-hegemonic use of a hegemonic instrument (the state legal system). The conception of law underlying the struggles by indigenous movements in Latin America contradicts the modern liberal idea of the autonomy of law.

Finally, the fifth line of inquiry considers human rights as one of many languages of human dignity to be found in the world, thereby questioning the idea that human rights are universal. This line of inquiry takes two different paths. One is what I call an intercultural conception of human rights. The other is an inquiry into whether the consensus about human rights talk is the product of an historical victory or of an historical defeat. After all, most people in the world are not subjects of human rights; they are rather objects of human rights discourses. Why did the liberation movements in Africa and Asia never (or very rarely) use the language of human rights to name their struggles?

Some of these movements do in fact use the language of human rights while others prefer to frame their demands in a more indigenous language — the popularity of Buen Vivir being a case in point. Under what circumstances would you recommend to social movements to strive for a ‘counter-hegemonic use of hegemonic instruments’ in order to achieve, for example, progressive improvements in state law, and when should they rather dispute the legitimacy of state law and struggle for endogenous legality, manifest perhaps in the ‘juntas de bien gobierno’ in Chiapas? Is it merely a question of having enough mobilization to achieve the latter?

In any given context, there are many factors conditioning the choice of grammar, language, or vocabulary in naming the wrong committed and the struggle against it. Social movements know by experience that very often they don't have the choice of which weapons to use. They use the ones that are at hand. After the fall of Salvador Allende (in 1973), the resort to human rights talk seemed to be the most effective one, at least in the eyes of many of the refugees. After the end of the Cold War (whatever came thereafter is difficult to characterize but it is definitely not peace), the international bourgeoisie realized that the talk of human rights was the right kind of talk to promote capitalism on a global scale and, internally, to keep such talk at a level that allowed for criticism without challenging the foundation of capitalist domination. Many social movements in some regions of the globe (probably most social movements) saw that this hegemonic strategy had some weaknesses and contradictions that might be explored in counter-hegemonic social struggles. Others, on the contrary, after a close reading of the history and current period of their country, concluded that the human rights struggles were bound to be minimal and reversible. It could only be otherwise in the case (absent in that particular country) that a minimally credible judicial system was in place and that the liberal legal culture was more than a cover up for social privilege. This was the case of the neo-zapatistas. Their strategies had also their costs, and Subcomandante Marcos (the leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation) is the first to recognize them — political isolationism, the socially disaggregating presence of a very powerful military enemy, difficulties in expanding the territories of autonomy. But we should bear in mind that most of the social movements, the Zapatistas included, use the two strategies sequentially or even simultaneously.

In your criticism of Western universalism (e.g. in Another Knowledge is Possible) one can find clear parallels to the writings of post-colonial critics like Mignolo and Dussel. Nevertheless you state that yours was an internal critique of modernity in contrast to their external one. Why?

Mignolo and Dussel are great colleagues and good friends. In my view, our differences do not lie in internal versus external critique because at this late age of ours, after centuries of modern Western hegemony, it is very difficult, if viable at all, to develop an external critique of modernity in conceptual, political and even linguistic terms. This even applies to the flourishing indigenous scholarship emerging in Latin America. In my view, our differences lie elsewhere. First, I don't think that the centrality of the Old World is to be replaced by the centrality of the New World, the American continent. Colonialism is intrinsic to Western modernity but there were different kinds of colonialism, and such differences must have some relevance for post-colonial studies. The crossings of the Atlantic Ocean were very different from the crossings of the Indian Ocean. In the latter, the Europeans were confronted by centuries' long forms of globalization and cultural exchange. My proposal of the epistemologies of the South aims at a decentred conception of the anti-imperial South in which Africa and Asia also find their place in a broader and more liberating conversation of humankind. This is the main idea underlying my new research project (

Second, my epistemological proposal takes very seriously the epistemological diversity of the world and the related idea that there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice. The central concepts are ecology of knowledges and intercultural translation. I try to give visibility to and valorize (through two procedures which I call sociology of absences and sociology of emergences) popular, subordinate, suppressed knowledges as they are part and parcel, as knowledges born in struggle, of the collective actions of the social movements with which I interact and collaborate. In line with this, I put forward the idea of the Popular University of the Social Movements at the WSF in 2003, and have been participating in several two-day workshops in which academic knowledge and movements’ knowledge engage in reciprocal learning. I don't think that my colleagues put the same emphasis on the ecology of knowledges.

Third, my work with the social movements has led me to dislike vanguard theories of any kind and to prefer what I call rearguard theories, that is to say, the reflective work of facilitating rather than guiding, of walking with the social movements and taking care of those who walk more slowly, as Subcomandante Marcos would say, of bringing in scientific knowledge in order to build more robust constellations of knowledge (academic and non-academic knowledge) in the face of challenges posed in the concrete struggles. Dussel, a philosopher I respect immensely, has dedicated much energy to developing a dialogue with German philosophers. I admire him for that, but why should this be a priority?

Fourth, although not very relevant in my view, one could engage in a sociology-of-knowledge approach to our differences. Mignolo and Dussel come from Argentina and I come from Portugal. How Southern is southern European, even when considering that for a long time Portugal was both the centre of an empire and an informal colony of England? Can there be essential differences between the theorizing of post-colonial, anti-capitalist, progressive thinkers, all of them writing in colonial languages, some of whom are descendants of the colonizer born in a metropolitan society and others are descendants of the colonizer, even though born in a colony? I think not.

If this is the case, then why is the notion of epistemologies of the South so important and what exactly is meant by that? Is it not too close to culturalist positions to suggest that ‘people in the South’, regardless of class, gender and other differences, share a non-Western system of knowledge?

The epistemologies of the South focus on knowledge born in struggle. The ‘South’ in the epistemologies of the South is not a geographical south. It is a metaphor for the life experiences of those that have suffered the systematic injustices caused by capitalism, colonialism and sexism and for the validation of the kinds of knowledge they resort to in order to resist such injustices. It is an anti-imperial South and as such it may exist in the geographical north as well as in the geographical south. The fact that it is more prevalent in the geographical south is a political determination, not an epistemological one. Such determination provides the need for the epistemologies of the South to engage seriously with non-Western systems of knowledge. The latter are susceptible to validation, not because they represent the cultural diversity of the world in abstract, but rather because they have been tools of resistance and alternative. This is the reason why they have been discredited or ignored by the epistemologies of the North. They represent cultures of resistance but not cultural resistance in the culturalist sense you assume in your question.

You already mentioned the sociology of absences and the sociology of emergences: are there not methodological difficulties if this research — on that which is produced as non-existent and that which is not yet existing — is to be empirical and not merely philosophical?

The sociology of absences is a transgressive sociology as it violates the positivistic principle that consists in reducing reality to what exists and can be analysed with our methodological and analytical instruments. From the perspective of the epistemologies of the South that I have been proposing, reality cannot be reduced to what exists because what exists is only the visible part of reality that modern abyssal thinking defines as being on this side of the line and within whose confines it elaborates its theories. Beyond that line, on the other side of the line, there is nothing of relevance and it can be therefore easily dismissed or made invisible or irrelevant. In sum, whatever is on the other side of the line is produced as non-existent. The metropolitan/colonial divide was historically constructed in abyssal terms (Pascal: ‘There are no sins beyond the Equator’). This line did not disappear with independence, as post-colonial studies have shown. It has, however, changed a lot. The sociology of absences is the inquiry into the workings of this abyssal line in our time.

The sociology of emergences is a different procedure, since it consists in analysing how the quality of a given phenomenon changes, which is only partially visible at a given moment. A phenomenon that corresponds to what Ernst Bloch calls the Noch Nicht. The sociology of emergences proceeds by contextualizing, by giving full visibility to social groups or struggles that are only embryonic, thereby symbolically amplifying their social meaning. In both cases, I am talking about empirical analyses all the more difficult because they can only be pursued by participatory methodologies.

But is research on the invisible part of reality still research? The critique of positivism is widely acknowledged, but which methodological guidelines and criteria for post-positivist research do we have, in order to distinguish fantasy from reality? How do we judge the objectivity of knowledge?

Aside from what Schopenhauer called ‘intuitive knowledge’, reality is only available to us through the theoretical, conceptual and methodological tools at our disposal. Once they become widely accepted as the only valid ones, whatever they capture as reality is converted into the only existing reality. Whatever is invisible or absent is so because it has been made invisible or absent by conventional knowledge and the positivist epistemologies sustaining it. The invisible or absent is not a transcendental reality or a fantasy; it is rather a suppressed or ignored reality by the dominant ways of knowing. In order to retrieve it, it is necessary to engage in an ‘epistemological rupture’ (Bachelard) through which we can have access to and valorize other ways of knowing. These involve other ways of producing and distributing knowledge and other methodologies. Through them, we make visible and present what has been made invisible and absent by dominant forms of knowing (positivist science, Eurocentric critical tradition and Northern epistemologies). The emergence of the epistemologies of the South is not a frei schwebende intellectual move. It has been motivated in recent years by the protagonism of powerful social movements whose struggles and narratives of resistance and alternative have been framed in ways that are unintelligible in light of the dominant Western ways of knowing, including the critical ones. Confronted with this situation one can think of two possible options: either dismiss whatever does not fit our familiar frameworks (the dominant option in the ‘global North’ in the sense I give to the term); or engage critically with the unfamiliar through demanding processes of defamiliarization with whatever has been familiar so far. The epistemologies of the South emerge from the second option. But the choice of either option is in the end a political choice. Only a malaise or uneasiness (David Hume) in light of the current exhaustion of dominant Western knowledge and politics (see the way the euro crisis is being dealt with) and the resulting non-conformism provide the ground for the basic premise of the epistemologies of the South, i.e. that there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice.

At least in the social sciences, objectivity is not the same as neutrality: it designates the ways through which a given form of knowledge is wary of capricious subjectivity in determining which side you are on in a given social or political issue. Objectivity is thus doubly relational. It is unthinkable without subjectivity and the ways the latter is socialized by recognizing a beyond-the-self realm (intersubjectivity). Moreover, it is always relative to a horizon of future possibilities contained in the present. The objective reading of the present contains, as an irreducible component, a more or less shared idea about what lies on the horizon. I don't think that there is an epistemological ‘degree zero’ (Barthes) that allows us to determine, objectively, that the Frankfurt School conception, according to which we are apart from nature and any return to nature is animalization and barbarism, is more objective than the indigenous Andean (or Hindu, Gaia) conception, according to which we are part of nature and, as such, destroying nature entails self-destruction. Moreover, the two conceptions are premised upon two very different ideas of what nature is; to decide between them has more to do with (social, political) objectives than with (gnoseological) objectivity.

Coming back to your research project, Alice, which inter alia deals with democratizing liberal democracy, alternatives to capitalist economies and ‘human rights and other grammars of human dignity’: this agenda (mirrored in your recent writings) reminds me of the post-development approaches inspired by Illich. These approaches have been accused of epistemological and cultural relativism. How would you respond to the charge?

Cultural relativism is a two-faced entity. It is a demon for positivists and Marxists of the old school. It is an angel for those liberals for whom cultural non-decidability confirms that liberalism is the only tenable philosophical position. In my theory, cultural relativism is a non-issue. There is no room for cultural relativism whenever a critical theory is premised upon the distinction between objectivity (which it strives for) and neutrality (which it abhors). But objectivity, as well as partisanship, must be built interculturally. There is not one single form of objectivity or of partisanship. Very often intercultural translation is needed to create intelligibility among the different forms of objectivity and partisanship. If there were cultural relativism, there would be no need for intercultural translation.

How do we then strive for objectivity: through intercultural translation in a Habermasian ideal speech situation?

I explained above what I mean by objectivity. Intercultural translation is one of the procedures through which it is possible to develop intersubjectivity among different ways of knowing or cultures. From a pragmatist point of view, and since the ideal speech situation is precisely that — it is ideal — we must start from the assumption that, under the modern conditions of capitalism, colonialism and sexism, there have been dominant and dominated ways of knowing and cultures, and that such inequality is the foremost challenge with which intercultural translation is confronted. However demanding, the challenge is worthy of the effort because the alternative to intercultural translation is war.

Returning to your current project, could you briefly elaborate on the concrete research pursued with Alice? How is it related to debates among Southern intellectuals and what differences and controversies could you identify in this collaboration?

So far, Alice consists of twenty-four research projects distributed over the four major areas of the project (see conducted by young researchers from the different countries involved in the project: Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, India, Mozambique and South Africa. There will be South–South comparisons as well as comparisons with some European countries: France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, United Kingdom. It is too early to define in exact terms possible debates and controversies. The double premise of the project is: the Eurocentric world has not much to teach to the wider world anymore and is almost incapable of learning from the experience of such a wider world, given the colonialist arrogance that still survives.

In what ways have the writings of Horkheimer and Foucault influenced your work? Have there been other, more important influences?

Horkheimer, Adorno and Foucault influenced me a lot and helped me to define my own way. They became to me the most brilliant examples of how a radical critique of Western modernity may fail to take the step I mentioned above: seeing beyond the abyssal line and acknowledging the existence and value of non-Western understandings of the world in the process of reinventing social emancipation. The first Frankfurt School was particularly important to me for two reasons. First, it showed to me the innovative possibilities of Marxist theorizing after Lukács's moment of optimism, the moment of the coincidence of revolutionary theory with revolutionary practice. Second, I was able to see in it the seeds of the historical dead end to which the Eurocentric modernity was leading us. Within their frame of reference, only tragic pessimism would be possible. Gradually, I developed my tragic optimism.

Foucault's influence was more complex. I even taught Foucault's theories in the US for a while. His critique was, in my view, more radical than both Adorno's and Horkheimer's. But his radicalism, taken to the extreme, would disarm or neutralize any possibility of liberation. If disciplinary power is everywhere and if resistance is also a form of power, how could we imagine a way out? What kind of message was being sent to the urban squatters fighting for a decent life or to the indigenous peoples fighting for dignity?

For me, other influences in the Western academic tradition have been Marx, Ernst Bloch, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard. Beyond both academic or Western tradition, I could list Eastern philosophies, Gandhi, the favela dwellers in Rio, the indigenous movements in the Andes and in the Amazonian region, the peasants of the cooperative of Barcouço (Portugal) where I worked for twelve years after the Portuguese revolution, the women's movement in Latin American, whether white, mestiza, indigenous or afrodescendant.

Turning from critical theory to critical practice: how did you become involved with the World Social Forum?

After my doctoral dissertation I continued my research in Brazil. In the early 1990s I did a long study on participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, which later became the mother city of the WSF, and gradually became more involved with PT (Workers’ Party) politics and the social movements. On the other hand, as I mentioned above, I was then theorizing the possibilities of counter-hegemonic globalization or globalization from below. These two factors led me into the World Social Forum from the very beginning.

Would you say that participatory budgeting — as in Porto Alegre — can be a way forward to municipal socialism and a non-capitalist order?

Participatory budgeting is a tool for deepening democracy. I once wrote that if I would have to give a definition of socialism it would go like this: socialism is democracy without end. To the extent that participatory budgeting strengthens democracy, it has the potential to contribute to a non-capitalist order. There is no single model of participatory budgeting and such potential varies from model to model. But, in general, its potential is drastically limited by the intractable problem of scale: up until now it has not been possible to experiment with participatory budgeting beyond the municipal scale.

You criticized the WSF for refusing to adopt political positions on world events, in other words, to become a political actor instead of a platform for cooperation between different social movements. What do you reply to those who argue that the history of the left has taught us to avoid homogenizing the diversity of movements and their positions?

These are two separate issues. One is the question of developing some new forms of collective political action on the basis of the WSF. The other is to believe that collective action presupposes homogenizing the diversity of the social movements.

Concerning the first one, I thought that the progressive transnational energy released by the WSF could be used to make some interventions in international politics, particularly in areas in which there was a reasonable degree of consensus. For instance, it would have been important for the WSF as such to make a proposal or a set of proposals concerning the reform of the UN. Moreover, the condemnation of the Iraq war and the mobilization against it could have been made in the name of the WSF and not in the name of the assembly of social movements meeting at the end of WSF. But this question became less and less important as different sets of movements benefited from the impulse provided by the WSF to strengthen their transnational cooperation and made it concrete in terms of collective political action. This is as true of the Via Campesina as of the World March of Women, or of the Andean Coordination of Indigenous Peoples (CAOI).

The second issue derives from the historical experience of the left in Europe and elsewhere. It assumes that only the same can coalesce with the same and in the same manner — workers with workers organized in the same type of organization and following the same political guidelines. I think that the main contribution of WSF was precisely to break with this tradition and to show the immense diversity of grammars, struggles and objectives joining in with the idea that another world is possible. I think that this contribution is irreversible and that in the last decades we witnessed many instances of collaboration among different social movements in which common partial objectives were constructed without compromising the autonomy and diversity of each movement. Just to give a close-to-home example: in the workshops of the popular university of the social movements we bring together different social movements — workers, LGBT, women, peasant, ecological, indigenous, afrodescendant and human rights. My proposal for epistemologies of the South (ecology of knowledges and interpolitical and intercultural translation) aims at strengthening the possibilities of political articulation without political homogenization.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos, I would like to thank you for this interview.


  • Aram Ziai is senior researcher at the Centre for Development Research of Bonn University. His research areas are post-colonial and post-development approaches, development theory, German development policy and global economic governance. He can be contacted at e-mail: