According to José Emilio Burucúa, professor of modern history at the Buenos Aires University, the concept of identity can be deceptive and dangerous, often a trap of political despotism, without the search for a possible balance between individual and collective identity. Here is his historical-linguistic path to research on MaTerre’s identity

Individual and collective identities: tragic conflict or coincidentia oppositorum?


My perspective as a historian of modern European culture is based on some political experience acquired in my country. In Argentina the permanent call for the recovery of our national identity (which is a very confused and misleading category) represented the favourite intellectual recourse of Peronism, an Argentinian hegemonic movement that I have always fought.

I must confess I have some concerns about philosophical and anthropological discourse about identity, because I always see at its basis some political despotic trap and a trivialization of its terms.

But now there is a new challenge for me; the project Aenigmata, which recollects some texts written by Paolo Heritier and Sergio Rostagno, with the moving presence of Rocco Scotellaro, invited me to explore a new conceptual horizon in order to find a possible balance between individual and collective identity, as announced in the title of this text. I am taking a historical path, made of some specific reference points, to reach some temporary and modifiable conclusions. I must admit this unexpected perspective, that diverges quite a lot from my initial point of view, starts to fascinate me, and leads me to look for a concidentia oppositorum between human freedom and his socio-cultural determination.


  1. It’s Benjamin Constant who deserves the credit for a clear and precise idea about the fundamental difference between ancient and modern freedom. While modern freedom implies an individual action, which gets up against the collective constraints, in the past, human beings were free to act only within the polis and the civitas, in order to preserve the common good and peer’s political and religious society. It was obvious that, within the polis, the desideratum aimed at merging individual public actions and the necessary and superior conatus of the community. Since when the civitas started to grow, by incorporating not only Mediterranean poleis, but also the Eastern domains and the barbaric communities of the West, the balance began to falter and then the civitas collapsed under imperial rule of lands.

One of the most evident signs of its collapse was Cato’s suicide occurred in june 46 BC: Cato killed himself because he could not tolerate freedom due to Caesar’s final triumph during the civil war. We have inherited the concept of nationes from the ancient World, which is very similar to the current meaning of nations for what concerns public cultural identity, but it has nothing to do with the political matrix of civitas. In the first book of De Officiis (paragraph 53), Cicero puts nations (people who share the same race gens and language lingua) halfway between the universal society and the citizens of the civitas with their «public places, temples, streets, laws and rights, political elections and meetings». Somehow, in the Middle Ages, individual integration in civitas implied its membership in a Christian community, establishing the Christ Believers Church. Starting from the 11th century heresies occurred as a result of concerns between individuals and Christian communities. The word nationes maintained the same Ciceronian meaning of race, habits and language, and it indicated researchers of the same race who worked together in medieval colleges and universities after the 12th century.


  1. The word «identity» finally appeared in the historical and philosophical language towards the end of the 18th century. In the second chapter of Transcendental analytics of concepts (Critique of Pure Reason, paragraph 16, second edition, 1787), Kant used the notion of identity to affirm that «the complete identity of the self» is the foundation of the transcendental subject. Starting from that moment, that subject inferred categories of the understanding and started to build its knowledge of the world. For Kant, identity corresponds solely to self-conscious man who is trying to discover the system of nature, and the differences between good and evil in moral practice. By contrast, in the same period, in Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (second part, book n. 8, 1785), Johann Gottfried Herder provides a panoply of possible words to illustrate human cultural differences (identities) all around the World, according to time and space of action: Gewohnheit (habits), Tradition, Lebensweise (way of life), Genius der Völker  (genius of the people).

Ninety years later, this line of thought led to Nietzsche’s exhortation regarding the necessary search for a non-universal Kultur, strongly settled in German historical past (The birth of Tragedy, chapter 24, 1872). This Kultur should give a differential character to its own people, in order to let them build a great reality. In this way, a dichotomy between the autonomous, universal man and a community who choose for its members has been placed with an unparalleled radicalism. Where could we find a third way that balances the solipsism of freedom and the oppression of native culture?

Let’s take a step back. In Phenomenology of Spirit, chapter 5 (1807), Hegel distinguished between two forms of ethics: the Sittlichkeit, a set of norms that an individual receives from its native cultural tradition, and Moralität, a set of rules of conduct, found and acquired thanks to self-analysis and the exercise of free research as an individual. Hegel also believed that both of them should be overcome by a synthesis described as a new form of Sittlichkeit, explicitly exposed in a guaranteed corpus drafted by government bodies.

In Hegel’s mind, it corresponded to the Prussian State just before the Restoration; it is interesting to note that Kant in his Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, thesis n.4 (1784), revealed that the antagonism within the society is the natural cause of the introduction of a new legal order among humans. Indeed, the ungesellige Geselligkeit, «asocial sociability», which is the ability to resist and revolt against social imperatives, paradoxically lies at the origin of  the «development of all human abilities». His thesis n. 5 established well-balanced individual and collective data, that will be those of post-revolutionary liberal and democratic societies.

Quoting Kant: «The highest purpose of nature, i.e. the development of all natural capacities, can be fulfilled for mankind only in society, and nature intends that man should accomplish this, and indeed all his appointed ends, by his own efforts». Probably, the perpetual and joyful oscillation of our spirit around the ungesellige Geselligkeit will prevent the laceration of our double identity. It will avoid the tragedy of our internal Janus, who strives for autonomy and follows the inherited root of our ancestors at the same time.

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José Emilio BURUCUA was full Professor of Modern History at Buenos Aires University from 1986 until 2004. From 2004 onwards, he has been full professor of Problems of Cultural History at the National University of San Martín (UNSAM). He has published books and papers on the history of perspective, the historical relationships among images, ideas, techniques and materials of colonial painting in South America.
Visiting professor at the universities of Oviedo, Cagliari, the Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles), and Collège de France, Directeur d’Études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, he is an associate fellow of the IAS de Nantes and member of the National Academy of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires and National Academy of History (Argentina).

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