Feijoo y Montenegro, Benito Jerónimo

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Feijoo y Montenegro, Benito Jerónimo (1676-1764): Spanish, Philosopher.

Benito Jerónimo Feijoo y Montenegro was the most outstanding Spanish philosopher of the eighteenth century. He was born in Casdemiro (Orense) on the 8th of October 1676. He began studying philosophy at the Real Colegio de San Esteban de Ribas de Sil, and at the age of fourteen entered the Benedictine monastery of San Julian de Samos. After studying at various Benedictine schools and at Salamanca, he obtained his doctorate from the University of San Vicente in Oviedo. From 1710-1721, he was a professor of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Santo Tomas in Oviedo. Due to his poor health he retired in 1739. He died on the 26th of September 1764 and was buried at the church of Santa Maria Real de la Corte in Oviedo. A man of profound learning, Feijoo was fifty years old when he published his first work entitled: Aprobación apologética del escepticismo médico. This book was based on two basic premises: scholasticism is not heresy; and, scholastic doctrine as it is taught and practiced in Spanish Universities and other teaching centers is useless. In his writings he attacked old systems of teaching and offered suggestions for reforms. Feijoo’s two greatest works are Teatro crítico universal (1727-39), and the Cartas eruditas (1742-60). Other works by Feijoo include two volumes of Ilustración apologética, two volumes of Demostración, and a one volume book entitled Indice.

Feijoo wrote in a serious tone and rigorously employed scientific examination. Due to his criticism, many universities adopted new and better methods of teaching medicine, physics and logic. In the eighteenth century his works were considered a revelation bordering on revolution because his writing was free of the prevailing religious dogma found in Spanish society and because he chose to write on a variety of themes using the form of a discussion. His essays are amply documented in a firm and sure tone that was based on reason and experience.

The essays written by Feijoo fall into three major categories: (A) essays that refute errors and superstitions of the times, (B) essays that divulge scientific information, and (C) essays with a philosophical content. Within these categories there are ten major classifications of essays: (1) various arts, (2) astronomy and geography, (3) economics and politics, (4) psychological problems, (5) physics and mathematical sciences, (6) biology, medicine and natural sciences, (7) literature, aesthetics and linguistics, (8) history and criticism, (9) moral issues, dogma, religion and superstitions; and, (10) national issues.

Feijoo differed from his cultural contemporaries because he believed that the best source of reference is experience, and that the value of opinions depended on quality and not quantity. This idea was expressed in the first article of his Teatro (“Voz del pueblo” ). “Voz del pueblo” was censured by many, causing him to write additional essays in defense of his ideas. One such essay was Examen de milagros, in which he stated that the only true miracles are those that can be proven, and that unproven miracles lead to superstitious practices. That is to say, one should not give a natural explanation to a miraculous event, nor classify an event as a miracle that can be explained as a logical intervention of Nature.

As a critic of literature, he stated that true genius intuits the rules, and that this intuition cannot be taught in schools. As a critic of music, he believed that good music is that which is pleasing to the ear because that which is pleasing to the ear cannot oppose rules of art. Therefore, pleasing music can only displease those critics whose knowledge of music is limited or misunderstood. This same understanding spirit is revealed in his study of linguistics. In Sobre la introducción de voces nuevas, he argued against the prevailing belief that Spanish or any other language has a complete vocabulary, i.e. that no foreign words introduced into another language are necessary nor possible, thereby ignoring the multiple ways of expressing ideas. In El paralelo de las lenguas castellana y francesa he argued that all languages are equal and fit the ability and the genius of the person who is speaking or writing.

In his time Feijoo was the highest representative of the Spanish spirit of enlightenment. His desire for truth, correcting errors and prejudices, his thirst for knowledge and his use of intuition laid the basis for the subsequent development of Spanish philosophy.

Further Reading:

Azorin (J. Martinez Ruiz): La inteligencia de Feijoo, 1913

M. Angeles Galino Carrillo: Tres hombres y un problema: Feijoo, Sarmiento y Jovellanos ante la educacion moderna, 1953.

Christine Bridges-Esser

Lamar University