by Gail M. Presbey, Professor, Philosophy, University of Detroit Mercy
Dr. Antón Donoso was a teacher and scholar devoted to studying North American, Latin American and Iberian philosophy, along with Marxism from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He explored the works of Jose Ortega y Gasset, Julian Marais, John Dewey, Miguel de Unamuno and others. He was active in philosophical societies that promoted the study of Latin American philosophy, and often wrote review articles that introduced English-speakers to the key new ideas from Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. In a series of journal articles he traced the influence of philosophies across continents, such as Dewey’s influence in Iberia and South America (Donoso, 2001), or Ortega y Gasset’s philosophical influence on Latin America (Donoso, 1972). These were also the themes he loved to share and explore with his students at University of Detroit Mercy.
Antón had a very long history at our university, teaching many students and holding many administrative positions as well. He was an undergraduate at University of Detroit, getting his B.A. in Philosophy in 1955. He went to University of Toronto and completed his Master’s degree there two years later, writing on Aristotle’s Poetics. He was hired as an instructor at University of Detroit in 1959, while he was still working on his dissertation for his Ph.D. (on John Dewey’s philosophy), which he finished at Toronto in 1960. In 1964 he became a Fulbright scholar and went to Argentina. In 1966-67 he was a Visiting Scholar at Fordham University for a year. Having been promoted to Associate Professor in 1965 and Professor in 1968, he held the position of Philosophy Department Chair for many years (1968-71 and 1975-80), continuing as Chair of Humanities (1980-82) and Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts (1982-83). He was declared Professor Emeritus in 1996.
During those years at our university he published 135 works, with 48 being journal articles, chapters, or translations. He started his publishing career with journal articles on the legal philosophy of American philosopher John Dewey. Within a few years he was writing on Spanish philosophers Miguel de Unamuno, Julian Marías, and Jose Ortega y Gasset. He was enthused by the works of Unamuno who had explained that philosophy was autobiographical, as each of us struggles to find unity in our lives and our conception of the world (Donoso, 1968). In Ortega y Gasset he found a thinker who rebelled against the “tyranny of reason over human life” and instead advocated incorporating reason “into life,” while focusing on human history and the perspectival character of human knowing (Donoso, 1969). He co-translated essays of José Ortega y Gasset with Marjorie Reas. Anton explained that he had met Marías on a bus in Mexico, as they were both participating in the Thirteenth International Congress of Philosophy in 1963. This chance meeting was fortuitous, as his philosophical interests led to a book length monograph on Marías. Marías had been mentored by Ortega y Gasset, but Anton noted in his book on Marías that he had creatively extended Ortega y Gasset’s philosophy, coming up with insights such as conceiving countries as forms of co-living. We humans are co-living with humans of different generations, and each generation had certain binding observances — that is, beliefs, customs and usages. The empirical structure of life on earth was of great interest to him, and he examined cities to find out how people lived together with each other as interindividuals as well as socially. He was always emphasizing our need to find meaning in our life’s circumstances. Marías also described his love of traveling as a stranger, noticing the strangeness of the new place, being open to new experiences; and he contrasted this kind of world traveling with tourism (where the tourist does not leave the comfort of traveling with others like him or herself). Marías recounted his travels to Peru and Colombia in 1951, Brazil in 1954, and Argentina, and Anton writes about the “stupor” that Marías said he felt when confronted with the vastness of South America. Anton recounts Marías’ journeys to India, Israel, and the United States, and describes how these travels influenced Marías’ philosophy (Donoso, 1982). I wonder if Anton was attracted to Marías’ philosophy of travel, since he also went many places, not only living in Argentina during his Fulbright but also other international travels.
Prof. Donoso also wrote on Marxism and Soviet philosophy, with a special interest in forms of Marxism that emphasized human freedom. He was published in Philosophy Today, The Personalist, and International Philosophical Quarterly. From the beginning he wrote and published in both English and Spanish, and his articles were published in journals from Puerto Rico and Argentina. He authored articles introducing readers to works on Latin American philosophy. He also wrote on the reception of Dewey and other pragmatist philosophers from the United States in other Spanish-speaking countries including Spain, Cuba, Argentina, Chile and Mexico. Additionally, he wrote 87 book reviews and abstracts, reviewing many books in his fields of Spanish and Latin American philosophy as well as pragmatism, Marxism and existentialism.
Dr. Donoso was very active in several professional societies. He was a founding member and a leader in the Society for Iberian and Latin American Thought (SILAT). He published a well-known account of the group’s founding and mission in Los Ensayistas, an Argentinian journal. In the article he explains that the beginnings of the society can be traced to a conference sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in February 1972, organized by Harold E. Davis of American University. Antón was among the scholars who gathered to develop teaching materials on Latin American Thought. The gathering was interdisciplinary, with scholars from philosophy, political science, history and literature participating. Antón was one of three scholars chosen to generate a bibliography of Latin American Thought from the submitted materials. Soon afterward, at a meeting of the Latin American Studies Association in Atlanta, Georgia in March 1976 over which Dr. Donoso was presiding, SILAT was founded. Antón prepared a draft of their constitution. As he wrote in his article for Los Ensayistas, the “long-cherished hope of many of us to cooperate more closely in our studies and research was realized at last” (Donoso, 1976). He was made editor of the SILAT newsletter and bibliography. When Prof. Greg Pappas heard of Dr. Donoso’s passing, he explained, “Antón was important in carrying forward Latin American philosophy in the USA” (Pappas, 2018).
To look at his life’s journey, one would have to note that he was born in Philadelphia in 1932 to an Italian-American mother and a father who emigrated to the U.S. from the province of Badajoz in Spain. Having attended school in a two room schoolhouse in Western Pennsylvania, he would often ask his teacher, Miss Scanlon, for the higher level work of the older students. He often boasted that this early schooling at Scanlon Hill Schoolhouse was among the best education of his life. He came to Detroit for one semester of school in 1942, but then went back to Pennsylvania for a year, before returning to Detroit and enrolling in Cass Technical High School where he studied Chemical and Biological Sciences. He graduated in 1950, and then decided to join the Third Order Regular of St. Francis in Loretto, PA, located in a town very near where his grandparents lived. There he was introduced to studies in philosophy. When he left the Franciscans he came to University of Detroit for his philosophical studies. There began his long career mentioned above.
The above overview of Antón’s life was told to me by Antón’s loving companion Paolo Zancanaro. As Paolo has explained, “Antón and I shared a life together for 41 years, since Autumn 1976. We legally married on October 5, 2012, Antón’s birthday, at St Mary of the Harbor in Provincetown, Cape Cod” (Zancanaro, 2018). For their last 18 years together Paolo and Antón lived in Vermont, in the mountains, in a restored 1840s farmhouse. They had many happy years there. Paolo helped Antón in the last years of his life as he had his first stroke in October 2011 and several health challenges after that, up to the end of his life in January 2018. Reflecting on Antón’s life, Paolo said that Antón “was a loving, caring and kind scholar. He cared about his students and was passionate about learning and scholarship. Who doesn’t remember how animated Antón was in class and how selfless he was with his time for students? I still recall students, not in his class, standing outside the door listening to his lectures. (He sometimes invited them in to sit down.)” Antón also thanked Paolo for reading two drafts of his manuscript on Marías, a sign of their shared intellectual interests and support for each other (Donoso, 1982, Preface).
Other memories of Antón’s teaching style and his lifelong friendships were shared by Mohammed Valady, who received his B.A. in Philosophy from University of Detroit in 1980, and his M.A. in Philosophy from University of Windsor in 1982, going on for his Ph.D. in Texas. As Valady explained, “Our friendship lasted for 40 years…. I liked him from the first second I met him. He showed genuine and consistent interest in my studies and careers. I was, among other things, struck by his exemplary enthusiasm for philosophy. Without him, I would not have become familiar with Spanish philosophy, in particular Ortega. As you know, he had a captivating and memorable teaching style. Last but not least, he was a consummate gentleman. In a word, he was a rare person, mentor and friend.”
Judith Emery, one of his earliest students from 50 years ago who remained his lifelong friend recounts what it was like to be his student. “He constantly inspired and effected enthusiasm in and out of the classroom. He was untiring in his response to the curiosity of his students and was always willing to help lead them in the direction of their particular interests. His course, Philosophy 166 was a favorite of students. Donoso would explicate different schools of contemporary philosophy and explain them so brilliantly that once that particular school was covered, the students would feel converted to that school only to have the same experience at the end of the next group. . . He was above all a good man, a kind man with a great generosity of spirit, a great sense of humor and a tremendous ability to connect, understand and relate to others. ”
As mentioned at the time of his receiving Emeritus professor status, the university noted that he had won the Outstanding Teacher of the Year award in 1963, 1964, and 1965. When giving Dr. Donoso the Emeritus rank in May of 1996, university President Sr. Maureen Fay wrote, “You have engaged thousands of students over the years in the unending quest for knowledge. You inspired them, you challenged them, you caused them to analyze and question. You have given your students a great deal of your own time and personal resources to help them in their studies. You have always been there for a student in need” (University of Detroit Mercy, 2018).
Judith Emery noted that even after retirement, Antón remained active in reading all the most recent works in philosophy. When she would talk with him and mention a philosophical topic, he could easily mention so many recent titles he had read that she would be filling several pages in her notebooks with his suggestions.
I also remember my teacher Antón Donoso, who has been a good friend and mentor to me for many years. He introduced me to the writings of John Dewey and Jose Ortega y Gasset. I remember that Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life made a big impression on me as an undergraduate. He also had us read books on Marxist humanism and Jacques Maritain’s emphasis on the “common good.” Dr. Donoso encouraged me to major in philosophy and to go on to graduate school in philosophy, even as he counseled me that it might be difficult to actually pursue a career in philosophy (due to a shortage of jobs). As luck would have it, I was able to get my Ph.D. at Fordham University and to be consistently employed as a professor ever since graduation. Antón often said that he wanted me to return to University of Detroit (now Mercy as well) and teach for the department. When I would come back to the Detroit area to visit my parents I would see him, and he would repeat this request of me. Finally in 2000, after Antón had already retired, there was an opening in the department and I was hired. He gave me many books on Aesthetics and Philosophy of Feminism to help me prepare for teaching. In 2011, as he was whittling down his extensive book collection, he shared many of his books with myself and a colleague. Many of these books are in the Carney Latin American Solidarity Archive of our library, and others are now held by Eduardo Mendieta at Pennsylvania State University who is sharing them with other scholars interested in studying Latin America.
Antón continues to be an influence on me as I teach in the department, and even more recently as I have been asked to take on Latin American history as an additional specialization. His service to our university was so longstanding, I can only imagine that there are countless students who could attest to the importance of his influence and scholarship in their lives. While he has departed from us, his works live on and we will continue to benefit from his insights.
I would like to thank Gregory Pappas, Judith Emery, Mohammed Valady and especially Paolo Zancanaro for sharing their memories of Antón with me and for allowing me to quote their 2018 email correspondence to me in this article. Additionally I thank Paolo for sending Antón’s CV and other information.
Donoso, A. “Philosophy in Brazil.” International Philosophical Quarterly 6 (1966): 286-310.
Donoso, A. “Philosophy as Autobiography, A study of the Person of Miguel de Unamuno.” Personalist 49 (1968): 183-196.
Donoso, A. “Truth as Perspective and Man as History: The Thought of Jose Ortega y Gasset.” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 43 (1969): 139-147.
Donoso, A. “Stalin’s Contribution to Soviet Philosophy.” International Philosophical Quarterly 5 (1965): 267-303.
Donoso, A. “The Influence of José Orgeta y Gasset in Latin America,” in Harold E. Davis (compiler), Conference on Developing Teaching Materials on Latin American Thought for College Level Courses, (Washington D.C.: The American University, 1972).
Donoso, A. “Philosophy in Latin America: A Bibliographical Introduction to Works in English.” Philosophy Today 17 (1973): 220-231.
Donoso, A. “The Society for Iberian and Latin American Thought (SILAT): An Interdisciplinary Project.” Los Ensayistas 1 (1976): 3-42.
Donoso, A. “The Notion of Freedom in Sartre, Kolakowski, Markovic and Kosik.” Philosophy Today 23 (1979): 113-127.
Donoso, A. Julian Marias. Twayne World Author Series. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982.
Donoso, A. “The Notion of Culture in Dewey and Ortega,” in Philosophy and Culture, Vol. 4, ed.Venant Cauchy (Montreal: Editions Montmorency, 1988), 706-711.
Donoso, A. “John Dewey in Spain and in Spanish America.” International Philosophical Quarterly 41, no.3 (2001): 347-362.
“University Honors: Anton Donoso,” University of Detroit Mercy website, last accessed April 2, 2018, http://libraries.udmercy.edu/archives/special-collections/index.php?record_id=406&collectionCode=honors_hon