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Rafael Vizcaíno, finding a personal path into the field of philosophy

​​Rafael Vizcaíno
Rafael Vizcaíno, a philosophy professor, pursues research that pushes against what he calls the discipline's “centuries of Eurocentric narratives that have been imposed on the rest of the world as if they are universal truths.” (DePaul University/Randall Spriggs)

The first time Rafael Vizcaíno read Miguel de Unamuno, it felt as if the threads of his life and his interests were weaving together.

Vizcaíno was a teenager in the Chicagoland suburbs when his high school Spanish teacher handed out Unamuno’s “San Manuel Bueno, Martir,” or “Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr,” as homework. Up until this point, Vizcaíno had been drawn more by what he read in his spare time — existential literature from Camus and Dostoevsky — than by anything that came from his teachers.

Yet Unamuno “talked to me as no one else had done,” recalls Vizcaíno, who is now an assistant professor of philosophy at DePaul. 

Reading the short story of a village priest who believes not in God and Jesus but in the power of religion to nurture and heal — and, more, reading it in Spanish, his native language — was "like having a bomb explode in my head," he says.

The repercussions of this assignment echo even today for Vizcaíno. What Unamuno revealed, he explains, was how philosophy and literature can blur and blend into one another.

“The fact that Unamuno’s philosophy cannot be neatly dissociated from his literary expression allowed me to thread the border between philosophy and literature in a way that challenged each individual field,” Vizcaíno says. “I knew, more than anything else, I wanted to continue to ask those big existential questions about meaning itself.”

This quest would take Vizcaíno to Northwestern University, where courses during his freshman year on “Psychology and The Meaning of Life”, “Existentialism” and “Unamuno’s Philosophy and His Influence” solidified his interest in philosophy.

After earning his MA and PhD from Rutgers University, Vizcaíno joined the DePaul faculty last fall.

“This is my dream job. The Vincentian spirit of the university complements my scholarly interests in religion and secularism, as well as my commitment to social transformation both inside and outside the university,” he says. “That DePaul is also on its way to becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution is yet another important factor for me in terms of the kinds of impact I hope my teaching will make.”

He also was drawn by the Faculty Recruitment Incentive Program, which aims to bring talented academics of color to the university. The largest factor in his decision, though, was DePaul’s unique commitment to both Latin American philosophy — Vizcaíno’s primary area of research — and European philosophy.

In some ways, his work challenges the work of the discipline by pushing against what he calls philosophy’s "centuries of Eurocentric narratives that have been imposed on the rest of the world as if they are universal truths."

Such narratives are being rejected, Vizcaíno posits, which is putting philosophy on life support, a subject now generally of interest only to academics. 

"Only by clearing the field, by redoing the history of philosophy, may a truly global philosophy emerge, one that will be able to speak to the problems of the present," he adds.

Vizcaíno was born in Mexico, where his father was a math professor until his death. Several years later, his mother moved the family to Illinois.

"Starting in not only a new high school but also a new country was a wakeup call that I needed to take my education seriously again,” Vizcaíno recalls. “When you start a new life from scratch, in a new country with no safety net, you put in the work that is needed to prevent failure, even if it means working double or even triple.”

While Vizcaíno came to the United States with strong math and science skills, he needed extra instruction in English. His development would be watered by his leisure reading: politically minded works such as Orwell’s "1984" and Ellison’s "Invisible Man," and the existential writers who grabbed his interest. In time, Vizcaíno would achieve native proficiency in English and learn to read in German, French and Portuguese.

​He largely skipped over Spanish-language writers until Unamuno was assigned to him. For many migrants to the United States, Vizcaíno explains, returning to one’s first language can be difficult, due to ever-present pressures to assimilate into the broader culture.

“I didn’t know what I was missing until reading something in Spanish,” he says. “I cannot emphasize enough how important it was for me.”

Not much later, Vizcaíno picked up a biography of Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista insurgency in Chiapas, Mexico. Marcos, he learned, had studied philosophy at the country’s prestigious university UNAM and would even teach the subject. It was a revelation.

“Until then, philosophy was to me an individual’s existential endeavor about the meaning of life,” Vizcaíno says. "The book brought me down from the clouds to the ground of practice, history and politics. Things really started coming together from then on.”

Scott Butterworth is an editor o​f Newsline.