O my friends, there is no friend.”[1]

¶ Is con­vivencia friendship?  Yes, but only in the sense that there is no friend.

The story of con­vivencia – that most vexing of terms from the study of medieval Iberia – is usually told like this.  For some scholars, Jews, Chris­tians, and Muslims lived in rel­ative harmony — what has come to be called con­vivencia.  Cheek by jowl, they set aside their dif­fer­ences to build a shared, plural, and ulti­mately, flour­ishing society.  For others, there was no such thing.  Rather than cheeks, they were at each other’s throats.  Truces were tem­porary, and expul­sions were inevitable.  In other words, the story is usually told twice, in opposing and opposite ways: coop­er­ation and con­flict, tol­erance and intol­erance, friendship and hostility.

The story revolves around the remarkable philol­ogist and lit­erary scholar Américo Castro.  A student and later col­league of the medievalist Ramón Menéndez Pidal, Castro also played a prominent role in the Second Spanish Republic, the demo­c­ratic gov­ernment that held power between 1931 and 1939, the political interlude between the depo­sition of Alfonso XIII and the dic­ta­torship for Fran­cisco Franco.  Among other things, Castro served as ambas­sador to Germany.  At the outset of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), however, Castro fled to Argentina and later, the United States, where he con­tinued his aca­demic career at a variety of pres­ti­gious uni­ver­sities and even­tually became a citizen.  It was in exile that Castro wrote España en su his­toria, a work that he amplified and revised several times under the title of La realidad histórica de España.[2]  In this work, he offered a provocative reading of the Spanish past in the light of con­tem­porary crisis.  Put simply, rather than a bio­logical race, he argued that Spanish people were the product of their coex­is­tence (con­vivencia) with Muslims and Jews between the eighth and thir­teenth cen­turies.  The failure of the Spanish people to rec­ognize this fact, he argued, had put them at odds with their own history.

Of the many neg­ative responses to Castro’s work, the angriest came from the his­torian Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz.  Like Castro, Sánchez-Albornoz was a student of Menéndez Pidal and deeply involved in the Second Republic.  He served as a member of par­liament, min­ister, and ambas­sador.  And like Castro, during Franco’s dic­ta­torship, he lived in exile in Argentina.  There, he founded the Instituto de His­toria de España and the journal Cuadernos de his­toria de España.  From 1962 to 1970, Sánchez-Albornoz was also pres­ident of the Spanish Republic in exile.  After Franco’s death, however, Sánchez-Albornoz chose to return to Spain.  For all that their biogra­phies had in common, Sánchez-Albornoz vehe­mently dis­agreed with Castro.  To some extent, his vehe­mence reflected a per­sonal dys­pepsia.  He was vicious in his attacks on Castro, listing his errors with repug­nance.  In turn, a thin-skinned Castro was defensive.  He obsessed over Sánchez-Albornoz’s crit­i­cisms and con­tin­u­ously revised his work to answer those objec­tions.  To a larger extent, however, Sánchez-Albornoz’s vehe­mence stemmed from his Catholic con­vic­tions, which seemed to run against the current of his liberal pol­itics.  In his España: un enigma histórico, he argued that Castro had exag­gerated the influence of Islam and Judaism on the Spanish people and insulted the Catholic faith.[3]  Defending the position of their teacher, Menéndez Pidal, Sánchez Albornoz sought to demon­strate that the Spanish race had pre­ex­isted the arrival of scant bands of Arab invaders in 711, who left little or no trace on its essential character.

The bitter and dra­matic struggle between Castro and Sánchez-Albornoz has left a lasting impression on scholars of medieval Iberia.  And in their ret­ro­spective glances, the gulf between these two scholars has only grown wider.  Whereas Castro imagined peaceful coex­is­tence and tol­erance, Sánchez-Albornoz saw armed con­flict and intol­erance.  Whereas Castro saw the pos­itive influence of Islam and Judaism, Sánchez-Albornoz saw heroic resis­tance to the foreign invaders.  Whereas Castro fought racism, Sánchez-Albornoz pro­moted it.  Whereas Castro was a secular liberal, Sánchez-Albornoz was a reli­gious nation­alist and con­ser­v­ative.  Whereas Castro was a lit­erary scholar, with a poetic sense of history, Sánchez-Albornoz was a hard-nosed empiricist.  But the dif­fer­ences between Castro and Sánchez-Albornoz have been over­played, and these two scholars have come to rep­resent dif­ferent dis­putes than the one that they were involved in.

Although it out­strips the capacity of this position paper, I would suggest that the common under­standing of con­vivencia as friendly rela­tions is a cat­achresis.  Indeed, Castro and Sánchez-Albornoz did not dis­agree about the matter of social harmony or reli­gious tol­erance.  They did not dis­agree about the influence of Islam on Spanish identity.  Theirs was not a veiled debate over pol­itics, a choice between lib­er­alism and con­ser­v­a­tivism.  Theirs was not a veiled debate over method, a choice between inter­pre­tivism and his­toricism.  Indeed, the fact that they agreed about all these matters only inten­sified their argument, pro­voking what Sigmund Freud called a nar­cissism of minor dif­fer­ences (der Narzissmus der kleinen Dif­ferenzen), his own expression to explain the complex manner in which an indi­vidual or com­munity defined itself against another, his own attempt to grapple with what both Castro and Sánchez-Albornoz iden­tified as the problem of con­vivencia.  So, what then was con­vivencia?

Con­vivencia belonged to the peculiar derange­ments of mid-century European intel­lectual life, a wide­spread crisis of con­fi­dence in human reason brought on by the dev­as­tating effects of war, a crisis that shook the liberal con­fi­dence in reason to its core and pro­voked what Georg Simmel called a “crisis of culture” across Europe.  A deep dis­content with sci­en­tific pos­i­tivism led a number of Spanish intel­lec­tuals to engage with cri­tiques of neo-Kantianism emerging from Germany, above all, the tra­di­tions of exis­ten­tialism and phe­nom­e­nology asso­ciated with Wilhem Dilthey, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Hei­degger.  Rejecting the tra­di­tions of nat­u­ralism, logic, ontology, and psy­chol­ogism, these thinkers sought nothing less than a rev­o­lution in phi­losophy, which, they argued, had been ham­pered since Descartes by an abstract and dis­em­bodied con­ception of the mind.  For the exis­ten­tialists and phe­nom­e­nol­o­gists, the mind and the world, self and other, friend and enemy could not be held apart.  Instead, the proper and primary object of phi­losophy was “lived expe­rience.”  In enig­matic terms like Dilthey’s Erlebnis, Husserl’s Lebenswelt, and Heidegger’s Dasein, they hoped to bridge the gap between sub­jective and objective expe­rience, between indi­vidual and social con­sciousness.  They hoped to overcome the short­comings of earlier philosophy.

Although one might also speak of others, the key trans­mitter of German exis­ten­tialism and phe­nom­e­nology to Spain was José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955).[4]  Through his lec­tures on and spon­sorship of trans­la­tions of the new phi­losophy and math­e­matical physics – including Dilthey, Ein­stein, and Hei­degger – Ortega shaped a gen­er­ation of Spanish intel­lec­tuals, not only scholars but also artists like Fed­erico García Lorca (1898–1936) and Luis Buñuel (1900–1983), who sought in their own way to extract the essence of human expe­rience. Ortega’s per­sonal life also par­al­leled that of Castro and Sánchez-Albornoz.  He served in gov­ernment during the Second Republic and was forced into exile in Argentina during the Spanish Civil War.  For all these reasons, it is not sur­prising that he served as a common point of ref­erence for both Castro and Sánchez-Albornoz.  Ortega’s trans­lation of phe­nom­e­nology pro­vides a clear origin for their ideas: 

Being open to the other, to others, is a per­manent and con­sti­tutive state of Man, not a def­inite action in respect to them. … This state is not yet properly a “social relation,” because it is not yet defined in any con­crete act. It is simple co-existence [conex­is­tencia], [the] matrix for all pos­sible “social rela­tions.” It is simple presence within the horizon of my life—a presence which is, above all, more com­p­resence of the Other, sin­gular or plural.[5]

This notion of conex­is­tencia – some­thing prior to and dis­tinct from social rela­tions – is what Castro aimed to capture and advance in his own enig­matic neol­ogism, con­vivenciaCon­vivencia was not about the rela­tions between com­mu­nities, as we com­monly see it, but rather the pos­si­bility of com­munity itself. 

In the same vein, we might say that con­vivencia is another name for the paradox of friendship.  Friendship is riddled with con­tra­dic­tions.[6]  When friendship is enacted, the lines blur, as they would for an astig­matic, between passion and reason, self and other, gift and trade.  Aris­totle put it this way: “One must therefore also ‘con-sent’ [synaisthanomenoi] that his friend exists, and this happens by living together [syzēn] and by shar­ing acts and thoughts in common [koinōnein].”[7]  Friendship, too, is “living together.”  For Derrida and others, the answer to the paradox lay in the fact that friend is not a rela­tional cat­egory but an exis­tential one.[8]

¶ In other words, one cannot unravel the para­doxes of con­vivencia without unrav­elling the para­doxes of friendship.


  1. Derrida uses this aphorism mis­at­tributed to Aris­totle by Mon­taigne.  See Jacques Derrida, Pol­itics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (New York: Verso, 2005 [1994]), vii.[]
  2. Américo Castro, España en su his­toria: cris­tianos, moros y judíos (Buenos Aires: Edi­torial Losada, 1948).  A trans­lation of this work, which included some revi­sions, appeared under the title, The Structure of Spanish History, trans. Edmund L. King (Princeton: Princeton Uni­versity Press, 1954) Castro thor­oughly revised España en su his­toria and pub­lished it under a new title in 1954, which he sub­se­quently revised four more times: ibid., La realidad histórica de España (Mexico City: Edi­torial Porrúa, 1954 [1962, 2nd ed.; 1966, 3rd ed.; 1971, 4th ed.]).[]
  3. Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, España: un enigma histórico (Buenos Aires: Edi­torial Sudamer­icana, 1956); a literal and infe­lic­itous trans­lation appears as Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, Spain: A His­torical Enigma (Madrid: Fun­dación Uni­ver­si­taria Española, 1975) [hence­forth, Spain].[]
  4. José Ortega y Gasset, Obras Com­pletas (Madrid: Revista de Occi­dente, 1946–69).[]
  5. Ortega, Obras Com­pletas, VII,149–50: “El estar abierto al otro, a los otros, es un estado per­ma­nente y con­sti­tutivo del Hombre, no una acción deter­minado respecto a ellos.  Esta acción deter­minda – el hacer algo con ellos, sea para ellos or sea entre ellos – supone ese estado previo e inactive de abertura. Esta no es aún pro­pri­a­mente una ‘relación social’, porque no se determina aún en ningún acto con­creto. Es la simple conex­is­tencia, matriz de todas las posibles ‘rela­ciones sociales’. Es la simple pres­encia en el hor­i­zonte de mi vida – pres­encia que es, sobre todo, mera com­p­res­encia del Otro en sin­gular o en plural,” as cited with trans­lation in Oliver Holmes, “José Ortega y Gasset,” The Stanford Ency­clo­pedia of Phi­losophy (Winter 2017 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, URL = https://​plato​.stanford​.edu/​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​s​/​w​i​n​2​0​1​7​/​e​n​t​r​i​e​s​/​g​a​s​s​et/.[]
  6. Julian Pitt-Rivers, “The Paradox of Friendship,” Hau: Journal of Ethno­graphic Theory 6, no. 3 (1996): 443–52.[]
  7. Aristot. Nic. Eth. 1170b as cited with trans­lation in Giorgio Agamben, What is an Appa­ratus? trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford Uni­versity Press, 2009), 32–33.[]
  8. See also Agamben, What is an Appa­ratus?, 35.[]