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Idolatry as an Ontological Question: Native Consciousness and Juridical Proof in Colonial Mexico

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Is it possible to regard idolatry as an epistemically objective notion in colonial Spanish America? In order to address this question, this essay will adopt two separate strategies: a traditional narrative historiography, and a conceptual stance inspired by contemporary Anglo-American analytical philosophy. In historiographical terms, this essay will present two case studies: the successful prosecution of Zapotec ritual specialist Diego Luis by an ecclesiastical judge in 1654, and the unsuccessful prosecution of several Zapotec idolatry suspects by a civil judge in 1666. These two case studies illustrate two antipodal native responses to idolatry extirpation: a full confession of idolatry, and the systematic denial of allegations of idolatry. It will be argued here that native consciousness of certain practices as idolatry was the one cognitive phenomenon that enabled the emergence of a collective intentionality that rendered idolatry into an epistemically objective fact. In other words, colonial idolatry emerged as a coherent category only when both native and ecclesiastical minds willed it into existence.

Affiliations: 1: Bard College


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