Dialectics and complexity in Mesoamerican conceptions of subjectivity

Public talk for the College of Arts and Letters Student Council (CALSC) of the University of the Philippines, Saturday, October 25, 2020

David Pavón-Cuéllar

Citar esta entrada como / Cite this entry as: David Pavón-Cuéllar, "Dialectics and complexity in Mesoamerican conceptions of subjectivity", En lugar de la psicología, 24/10/2020, https://sujeto.hypotheses.org/1321.


Mexico and several Central American countries occupy the cultural space of Mesoamerica. Here, since three thousand years ago, some of the most important cultures of humanity arose and developed, among them the Olmec, the Toltec, the Mayan and the Nahua-Aztec. Although they are very different, Mesoamerican cultures have shared territories, originated from each other, and have constantly interacted for thousands of years, which explains their deep similarities and affinities.

Mesoamerican cultures have also lived the same history. Since the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, they have suffered the same colonial and neo-colonial, capitalist and imperialist violence, which has damaged and mutilated them. However, even in the worst conditions, they have managed to resist and survive to this day, preserving a large part of their cultural heritage.

The heritage of Mesoamerican cultures includes specific technologies, knowledge and beliefs, as well as unique forms of work, consumption, food, clothing, social interaction, community organization, education of children and healing of diseases. Among the many components of the cultural heritage of Mesoamerica are the conceptions of subjectivity that I wish to refer to now. These conceptions correspond roughly to the psychological ideas of modern Western European cultures, but differ from them for many reasons, including the Mesoamerican principle of not objectifying subjectivity, not confining it to an individual inner world, or abstracting it from everything else.

Mesoamerican subjectivity

The human subject, as conceived among the original peoples of Mesoamerica, is characterized by several aspects that I have been studying for some years. First, Mesoamerican subjectivity is variable, changing throughout existence, as it is not fixed in a static identity. It is also multiple, many and not just one, not having to be the same, identical to itself, in all its manifestations. Furthermore, in its depths, Mesoamerican subjectivity is constituted by the outer world, by the community and by nature. It is open to what surrounds it. It is inessential by itself. It is presented as a historical product and overflows any individuality.

Although not reducible to the individual, Mesoamerican subjectivity is unique, totally different from the others. This does not mean that it is isolated. On the contrary, everything in it is relational, being inseparable from its horizontal links with other subjective entities, not only human subjects, but also animals, plants and even inanimate things, all appearing as living branches of the same tree, that of the natural totality. This makes the Mesoamerican subject follow an imperative of humility, appreciating himself as much as any other animate or inanimate being.

Mesoamerican subjectivity is also characterized by valuing life as such, by itself, without subordinating it to anything else, and without dissociating it from the death that inhabits it. If Mesoamerican people seem obsessed with death, it is because of their representation of death as a principle of life, but also because of their materialistic and monistic notion of themselves, because of their awareness that their soul is nothing other than their bodies that will disappear. However, in addition to knowing themselves as bodies, Mesoamerican people know that they are part of a totality that continues to live when they die, a totality in which we see the living and the dead, the masculine and the feminine, and other opposites complement each other. Thinking about all this requires complex and dialectical thinking that I would like to focus on now. Let us start with the dialectic idea of health in Mesoamerica.


The Mesoamerican concept of health is that of a balance between the opposite vectors of subjectivity, such as living and dead, day and night, male and female. As López Austin (1980) has explained, people in Mesoamerica “kept their balance so as not to injure themselves or harm people” (p. 301). The imbalance damages, disintegrates and destroys, and that is why it must be corrected.

Now, even if balance is restored, the opposite vectors do not cease to oppose each other. It is not possible, for example, to overcome the opposition between the feminine and the masculine. The tension and contradiction between the two vectors is permanent.

The masculine force may impulsively dominate over the feminine, but it does so at the expense of itself, weakening and exhausting itself with its domination, allowing the feminine vector to prevail over the masculine. It is as if the force of femininity were balance itself, which is broken under the effect of masculinity and then re-established with the renewed power of the feminine. López Austin (2015) sees here a “perpetual struggle” by which both the “universal dynamism” and the regular cycles of night and day, the rainy and dry season, “death and life” are explained (p. 29). Everything is moved and regulated by tension, by opposition, by conflict, by dialectics.

Mesoamerican thought is deeply dialectical. Its vision of what exists is that of beings that constantly oppose and fight with each other. The incessant conflict is illustrated by León-Portilla (1956) with the myth of the children of the dual masculine-feminine principle Ometéotl, the brothers Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcóatl, who appear as “forces in tension”, who “fight, eliminate each other and reappear again on the battlefield of the universe” (p. 133).

The entire universe, nature and human life, is a battlefield in which the forces personified by Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcóatl fight. These forces, like masculinity and femininity or other opposing vectors, operate in all objective and subjective beings, dissociating and tearing them internally. Nothing is exclusively what it is, because it is also the opposite.

In Mesoamerican dialectics, death inhabits life just as the masculine is inextricably linked with the feminine. The opposites link and intertwine in their struggle. A mythical metaphor of this idea, according to López Austin (2015), is that of Malinalli, made up of “two ropes that turn in a twist”, one made of water and the other of fire (p. 47). Opposites lock onto each other, either dynamically, as lovers or as day and night, or statically, with precarious balances or with mixed entities such as Ometéotl with its double masculine and feminine gender.

The dialectic also operates in aspects that Mesoamerican people attribute to subjectivity. As we have seen, the subject is at the same time one and multiple. The most intimate interior is the most external. Although I am an individual, I am a community expression. I am alive, but haunted by the death that gives me life. I have only one sex, but my health is in the balance with the other sex.

The contradiction is assumed in Mesoamerican thought. This dialectical thought is the same that has allowed native peoples to adopt what is foreign, what is European, without renouncing what is their own. The indigenous knows how to be European without being one, how to be even mestizo in a way that preserves the indigenous, maintaining the tension and opposition between what is their own and what is foreign, but also appropriating what is foreign and complicating it with the Mesoamerican dialectic. This is what the Mazahuas continue to do, for example, in their oratorios in which certain Christian images simultaneously represent what they represent and the opposite of what they represent, the European and the Mesoamerican, the divine and the demonic, “the good and the bad at the same time” (Cortés Ruiz, 1972, p. 113). These contradictions and others, condensing the historical drama of the original peoples, internally divide the most diverse Mesoamerican mental and cultural configurations, which, due to their contradictory nature, can only be thought dialectically.

Mesoamerican dialectical thought is a means of knowing the contradictory reality without trying to harmonize it or to reconcile it with itself. This reconciliation is discarded by the original peoples of Mesoamerica. For them, as we have seen, the contradictory vectors can be balanced, but not overcome their contradictions or resolve them in a higher synthesis.

The dialectic of Mesoamerican native peoples recalls Adorno’s “negative dialectic” in the European tradition. It describes a contradictory movement without resolution or positive synthesis, without unity or balance. It is a dialectic of insurmountable and insoluble contradictions.

There is no overcoming or resolution of contradictions for a very simple reason: because they are constitutive of reality. This reality is essentially contradictory in its complex totality. This is how it is known by Mesoamerican thought, which, unlike European thought, does not tend to simplify, mutilate or fragment its object.


The complex totality of reality is accepted and assumed by Mesoamerican thought. This thought does not fractionate the real whole to facilitate its study. The indigenous people of Mesoamerica do not give in to the temptation of ease that has been so beneficial for the development of science and technology in the European world.

León-Portilla (1956) has already observed that “unlike the forms assumed by the cognitive processes of those who live in the context of the Western world, the Nahuas did not divide their knowledge into different compartments” (p. 85). This division is avoided because it betrays the truth inherent in total reality. As Patrick Johansson (2005) has well pointed out, Mesoamerican indigenous people understand that truth “concerns the totality of being and cannot be fragmented” (p. 526). To fragment the truth is to tear it apart, destroy it, lose it.

For Mesoamerican thought, specialization distorts knowledge and can only produce one-sided, partial and simplistic views. These visions, which lose sight of the complex totality of reality, are the ones that predominate in Western thought. They are the visions of physics, biology, medicine, sociology, psychology, and all the other specialized sciences that deal only with a sector of the complex whole.

The Western rejection of a total vision such as the Mesoamerican allows enormous progress in specific knowledge and its technological applications, but this always has an incomplete, simplistic, false side, alien to the truth of the complex totality, which partly explains devastating effects on the world and on humanity. The whole does not matter because scientists only care about the part that they deal with. What exists for science is only the part, but not the whole.

The vision of totality is lost to Western specialists. On the contrary, as Guillermo Bonfil Batalla (1987) warns us, the Mesoamerican people “have to know enough about many things and develop their different capacities for multiple tasks” (p. 58). This makes them perhaps more qualified for psychology than professional psychologists who do not know almost everything about the world that is condensed into the subject they deal with.

The professional psychologist is only qualified to possess a body of strictly psychological knowledge. This raises the question of whether anything can be known about psychology when almost everything about the body, food, community, animals or various plants is ignored. The Mesoamerican indigenous answer would be negative. Mesoamerican people know that the careful observation of a tree teaches us many things about human subjectivity that cannot be learned otherwise, which, of course, is absurd under the Western criterion of specialization that prescribes us to concentrate on the point that we are interested in and abstract it from everything else, as if the rest did not define the point, as if the point could be something without the rest.

The Western rejection of a total vision such as that of the indigenous people condemns us to choose only one unilateral vision, one science, one profession. It is for the same reason that we choose one religious faith, either polytheism or monotheism, Catholicism or Protestantism, humanism, modern rationalistic scientism or postmodern esoteric animism. Unlike these one-sided views, Mesoamerican native peoples have adopted Christianity, have combined it with their own beliefs and have always been as animistic as polytheistic, monotheistic and humanistic, and so on.

The indigenous people of Mesoamerica are monotheists because they believe in a single god, be it the Christian or the Zapotec Piyetao, the Mayan Hunab Ku, the Nahua Tloque Nahuaque, or any other. However, at the same time, they are polytheistic because this single god unfolds into many other gods that are many and one at a time. But the Mesoamerican people are also animists because these gods in turn branch out into all things, which makes everything divine. As Múñoz Camargo (1594) summarized it in his time, the indigenous people “attribute a god to each thing” (p. 149). These God, as plural as singular, are also in the human being. They live through humanity, which translates into a deeply humanistic and rationalistic conception that has a more philosophical than religious character.

It is as if all the unilateral visions of Western thought were integrated and transcended in the Mesoamerican vision of the complex totality. This view is also found in Mesoamerican conceptions of subjectivity, preserving them against psychological reductionism. The mind is also always the body and the world. The physical and the mental are not dissociated to simplify the total and complex reality. This reality is known as such.

Of course, Mesoamerican thought distinguishes aspects of the totality, but avoids fragmenting the totality and concentrating on some aspects, disconnecting them from others. It also avoids emphasizing some aspects at the expense of others. For example, in the subjective sphere, as Holland (1963) has noted among the Tzotzil Maya of Chiapas, “nocturnal events are as real and valid as consciously acquired knowledge” (p. 266).

Mesoamerican people give the same credit and the same cognitive value to waking consciousness as they do to dream life. Dreams are as worthy of attention as daytime experiences because they are part of the same reality that must be known in its complex totality. This non-partial or unilateral desire for knowledge is what makes the Mesoamerican conception of the psyche that of several completely different souls coexisting in each subject, instead of being the conception of a single kind of mind, as happens in each one of the different currents of Western philosophy or psychology.


Instead of reducing the subject to its individual or collective being, to its behavioural or cognitive or affective existence, the Mesoamerican indigenous people acknowledge several types of souls in each subjectivity. The Nahuas, for example, recognize the individualizing “tonalli”, but also the impulsive and generative “ihíyotl”, and also the cosmic and community “teyolía” that internally links each subject with everything that exists (López Austin, 2015, pp. 101-106). One must even wonder, with Martínez González (2007), if in reality “it is not about different psychic entities, but about different aspects of a complex and dynamic soul” (p. 20).

Perhaps our fragmenting thought of European roots sees different souls in Mesoamerican subjectivity when in reality there is only one psyche whose multifaceted and contradictory totality is difficult for us to think with our poor psychological categories. What is certain is that our psychology is too simplistic and reductionist for the complex dialectic way in which Mesoamerican subjectivity conceives itself. This subjectivity transcends and goes beyond everything that naive psychologists think about it, but not beyond everything that Mesoamerican people think about themselves.

The self-consciousness of the indigenous of Mesoamerica is unfathomable for Western psychologies such as behavioural, cognitive, humanistic or any other. Each psychological paradigm can only study an aspect of some of the psychic entities distinguished by the Mesoamerican conceptions of subjectivity. It is clear, then, that these conceptions have greater descriptive and explanatory potential than psychology, at least to study the indigenous of Mesoamerica, the one who has known how to resist against the colonial processes of cultural annihilation, the one who has not become as crude and rudimentary as the object of psychology.


Adorno, T. W. (1966). Dialéctica Negativa. Madrid: Akal, 2017.

Bonfil Batalla, G. (1987). México profundo. Una civilización negada. Mexico City: Random House Mondadori, 2012.

Cortés Ruiz, E. (1972). San Simón de la Laguna. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista y Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1990.

Holland, W. R. (1963). Psicoterapia maya en los altos de Chiapas. Estudios de Cultura Maya, 3, 261–277.

López Austin, A. (1980). Cuerpo humano e ideología. Las concepciones de los antiguos nahuas. Mexico City: UNAM, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, 2004. 

López Austin, A. (2015). Las razones del mito. La cosmovisión mesoamericana. Mexico City: Era.

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Martínez González, R. (2007). El alma de Mesoamérica: unidad y diversidad en las concepciones anímicas. Journal de la Société des Américanistes 93(2), 7–49.

Múñoz Camargo, D. (1594). Historia de Tlaxcala. Monterrey: Agencia Promotora de Publicaciones, 2010. 

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