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Philosopher of the possible dialog

Bento Prado Jr. brought the philosophy of literature and of other human sciences closer, resized it in Brazil, and became respected all over the world

CAIO GUATELLIIntellectual discretion in proportion to his talent was what distinguished Bento Prado Jr., one of the most important Brazilian philosophers, who died on January 12, 69 years old.  The story goes that because of his moderation, he took refuge, from 1977 and until the end of his life, in the interior of São Paulo, precisely in the University of São Carlos, where he lectured. Strictly speaking, since 1969, he had been deprived of teaching at the University of São Paulo (USP) by the military dictatorship, which had forged his retirement when he was 31 years old, as it had done with another 29 professors. His extreme discretion could also explain the fact that only in 1985 did he decide to publish his first book.

And it was like this, in the same reserved manner, that he spent the last New Year’s Eve, along with Paulo Eduardo Arantes, a former pupil and disciple and, in particular, a friend for over 40 years. They with were their wives and with another couple of friends. At ease at home, Prado Jr. made fun, told a few jokes and smiled. Everybody knew that his state of health was precarious. But only a certain tiredness, some difficulty in breathing, was noted in him. From Arantes, he won the 50 year commemorative edition of Grande Sertão: veredas [The Devil to pay in the Backlands] by Guimarães Rosa, one of his favorite books and to whom he dedicated an important article in 1967.

Together, before turning over the calendar, they watched the DVD that accompanied the book, which brings, amongst other testimonies, one by Antonio Candido. With a certain nostalgia, Prado Jr. said that he intended to write once again about the writer from Minas. And he commented on a trip that he wanted to do shortly. Arantes did not see him again in person. They both, however, talked to each other every day. Almost two weeks afterwards, in a rapid acceleration of the disease, the master disappeared for ever, leaving his unique legacy in the country’s philosophy. He also left three children – Raquel, Cristina and Bento Prado Neto – and his wife, Lúcia.

Graduated at USP, Prado Jr. wrote few though fundamental articles, essays and books about his passions: literature and philosophy. He was also a translator. He had the rare gift of looking at the whole to understand it, to untangle it and to make it be understood. As a philosopher, he acted as a writer of articles, without ever sounding arrogant or overbearing. He would propose dialogs, he would seek ways. He became known for his writing, which combined a style of its own and refined irony. All this, without ceasing to be a dedicated Palmeiras fan and having accumulated recollections of a bohemian past in the bars of the center of São Paulo in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

If the military took away his post at USP, his capacity for production did not cool down. As a qualified professor, Prado Jr. wrote a thesis about the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), Presence and Transcendental Field: conscience and negativity in the philosophy of Bergson, defended in 1965, which remains as an international landmark on the theme. The book was only to be launched in 1988, by Edusp, with an edition by his colleague Renato Janine Ribeiro – in 2002, it was translated and published in France. His bibliography was to have only another three volumes: Alguns Ensaios [Some Essays] (Max Limonad, 1985) and Erro, ilusão, loucura [Error, Illusion, Madness] (Editora 34, 2004). He also organized Filosofia da Psicanálise [Philosophy of Psychoanalysis] (Brasiliense, 1991).

For philosopher Oswaldo Porchat, a retired professor from USP and the founder of Unicamp’s Logic and Epistemology Center (CLE), Prado Jr. was a rare case of someone who lived philosophy 24 hours a day. The two were great friends and neighbors in the 1960’s, in the Higienópolis district, when they talked to each other practically every day. “Our companionship was one of the most marking experiences of my life connected with philosophy”, he observes. With his colleague going to São Carlos, personal contact became difficult, but they would talk by telephone regularly. “Philosophy was the food of his life. To such a point that, at any moment, situation or place, on any pretext, he would begin to investigate facts and things philosophically.”

Prado Jr., he added, became a model philosophical interlocutor, someone capable of listening, interacting, trying to understand, reflecting, thinking, proposing paths, and, by means of dialog, listening to what the other party had to say. He also knew how to be elegant in his treatment of the thinking of other philosophers. “The encounters with him were extremely fertile from the philosophical point of view, something not very common to happen.” Another aspect highlighted by Porchat was his colleague’s capacity for mobilization, to discuss philosophy by means of themes coming from other areas. “He was a person of great culture, capable of making it reverberate in his philosophical thinking.”

Personal filePrado Jr. became a model philosophical interlocutor, capable of listening, trying to understand, thinking, indicating pathsPersonal file

In an article soon after the philosopher’s death, Renato Janine Ribeiro observed that many of Prado Jr.’s ideas and concepts, transmitted orally, could be recovered from class annotations, excerpts from conversations and from his writings ? probably, a part of the material is unpublished. Sometimes, he would offer his pupils a gift of articles that had never been published, after long conservations. He described him as a great conversationalist, who had a facility for imagining new ideas. Ribeiro recalled the identification of Brazilian philosophers with French philosophers – these, some of the most inclined to literature and to the arts, which helped to establish or to reinforce the ties between philosophizing and artistic creation.

Not by chance, Paulo Arantes dedicated to the master his indispensable A French Overseas Department – Studies about the formation of the USP philosophical culture (Paz e Terra, 1994). Prado Jr. is highlighted in three chapters of the book – which, besides reconstituting historically the implantation of university philosophy at USP, seeks to elucidate the place occupied by philosophy in the formation and functioning of the Brazilian cultural system. The philosopher appears as one of the exponents of the generation that arose in the 1960’s, which, inspired on French techniques and methods, came to philosopher for his own account and risk. Oswaldo Porchat, José Arthur Gianotti and Ruy Fausto were part of this group.

In O Bonde da Filosofia [The Tram of Philosophy], Arantes tells of the three years of teaching philosophy at Rua Maria Antonia (1965 to 1968) and highlights the importance of Prado Jr. in this period. In A Timidez da Filosofia [The Timidity of Philosophy], he observations about an essay of the professor, published in the magazine Discourse in 1988, after remaining unpublished for 21 years – Romance, Moral e Política no Século das Luzes: o caso de Rousseau [The Novel, Morals and Politics in the Century of Lights: the case of Rousseau. “It looks like a lie, but there are still timid philosophers in Brazil. Bento Prado is the most eminent of them”, he observed. “The Muse of the Department” relates him to the USP philosophy of literature in the 1960’s.

Without hiding his admiration, Arantes defines him as someone who, in the middle of that decade, was “an island of literature surrounded by philosophy on all sides”. Not that he lacked the indispensable professional appetite for technical problems; much to the contrary, he complied to the letter with the commandments of the modest but efficient French university model, which in that same decade had just consolidated itself in São Paulo’s largest university. “Well, we shall see that Bento had rigged up a particular system of communicating vessels between these two compartments.”

Even when he was ill, Prado Jr. worked until he concluded the last semester of 2006, as a professor and supervisor. He was committed to a research to show points of contact and common roots between the French phenomenology of the last century and the Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy.

In an article of 2003, his former pupil and an ex-master’s degree student under his supervision (1967) Marilena Chaui wrote that, with him, she learnt the meaning of a formative teaching philosophical existence: “I learnt with him that there is philosophical teaching when the professor does not put himself between the student and learning”. If there is philosophical teaching when the student also becomes a professor, says Chaui, this occurs because the professor is nothing other than the sign of an infinite quest, open to all. In other words, she adds, with Prado Jr. she discovered the sense of liberty that presides over teaching and learning.