The Intellectual Trajectory of Leonardo Polo

1926 - 1948: Early Years

Leonardo Polo was born in Madrid, Spain on February 1, 1926. He went through elementary school at the Liceo Fránces and started his secondary education in Madrid, just as the Spanish Civil War was beginning in 1936. At this time, during the Spanish Civil War, his father held the position of Vice-mayor of the city. When the Republican government urged civilians to leave the capital city of Spain, Polo's family moved to Albacete, where he spent his first two years of secondary education. During the years 1936-1937, his father, a lawyer by profession, held the position of Chief Prosecutor for the city of Albacete. At the end of the Spanish Civil War, the family returned to Madrid, except for his father, who was forced into exile first to Nicaragua and then to Chile, where he died in 1946.

Upon the return of his family to Madrid, Leonardo Polo continued his secondary education at the Cardinal Cisneros Institute. During this period, at the age of fifteen, he read Jaime Balmes' Fundamental Philosophy. The main ideas that he drew from this work were of the importance of the first principles, that these could not just be one, and that philosophy must be understood from the point of view of principles (in a doctoral course about the Logos in 1995, he would say, "philosophy is the knowledge of principle by principles"). 

The importance placed  on first principles then led him to read Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, and more specifically Part I, Question 45 , which presents creation as an accidental relation. This led Polo think that Thomas Aquinas could be corrected and expanded on this point, since if creation has to do with what is first, if it is extra nihilum, if created act of being is being insofar as being, then the relation with the Creator cannot be an accident, but rather a relation of principles. Polo would later make numerous references to Aquinas in his works, especially with regard to the real distinction between essence and act of being, and to the need to expand this distinction and apply it to the study of the human person in what Polo would eventually call a transcendental anthropology.

During this period, Leonardo Polo also read several works by Orgeta y Gasset (he especially enjoyed El espactador) and Zubiri (including the first edition of Naturaleza, Historia y Dios published in 1942). In later years, Polo would also be able to attend lectures by Zubiri on the concept in Madrid and another by Ortega y Gasset on Toynbee.

After finishing secondary school in 1945 and obtaining an extraordinary prize in the State exam, Polo decided to study law. This decision was influenced by family events. At the end of the Spanish Civil War, his uncle, Agustín Barrena, was left in charge of three law firms in which his father and his uncle Luís had once worked. A career in law would have offered him the opportunity of joining the firm with his uncle and to continue a family tradition, in spite of his own personal inclinations toward more theoretical subjects, and more concretely toward he study of mathematics. Mathematics did not, however, seem to have much of a future in a country that had just come out of a civil war. For this reason, he studied law for four years.

1949-1962: Philosophical Studies and the Discovery of the Mental Limit

In 1949, recently graduated, Polo started practicing law and, as he would later recount, soon  had to decide between making money by doing law (something which bored him) or to follow his inclinations toward theory and research. To his uncle's great disappointment, he chose the latter, and enrolled in the doctoral program for law. Of these courses, he remembers the one given by García Valdecasas, professor of civil law, with whom he held conversations about Hegel. Upon finishing his doctoral course work, Polo was faced with the choice of doing a doctoral dissertation, but also with the problem of how to make a living during those years dedicated to research. One possibility was to seek a teaching position; and he in fact prepared for a few professorial exams even though in the end he did not pursue them. 

By this time, Polo's interests were become more deeply philosophical and started to involve the development of an existential interpretation of natural right. His readings also expanded to include Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Heidegger's Being and Time, Kant's Critique of the Practical Reason, Spinoza's Ethics, as well as a number of works by Aristotle and Leibniz. It was at this time that Polo began enrolling in classes of philosophy.

In the spring of 1950, Leonardo Polo discovered what he would later call the mental limit. The detection of the limit was a clear insight that came to him all of a sudden. As he recalls: "… it suddenly occurred to me, period. I was thinking about thinking and being, and about what being had to do with thinking; then I realized that we cannot arrive at being if one does not abandon the supposition of the object, because the supposition makes the object limited and a limited knowledge cannot be a knowledge of being if this is taken in the transcendental sense." 

In other words, to become aware of the mental limit and of the need to abandon it is to notice that "one cannot separate, I repeat, being from being, it is not possible to take hold of it objectively because in this way it is "des-realized"; but if being is not real, it is nothing. The intentional consideration of being is a quid pro quo. Being agrees with itself, but, being known intentionaliter is, as the Scholastics would say, an extrinsic denomination. When I know the idea, I do not in any way affect what I know, because the idea of what I know is in my mind as intelligible in act and in reality as intelligible in potency. The real distinction between essence and being makes the question all the more serious, because if being and essence were the same, then knowing something of the essence would be knowing something of being." (J. Cruz, "Filosofar hoy. Entervista con Leonardo Polo", Anuario Filosófico, Vol. XXI, 1 (1992), 46-47)

This discovery would be the initial intuition that Leonardo Polo would later develop into a methodology for doing philosophy, which he would eventually call the abandonment of the mental limit

After two years of basic course work in philosophy, Polo received an opportunity to continue work in his research regarding the existential character of natural right with a research fellowship in Rome that he received from the Higher Council for Scientific Research (headed at that time by Alvaro D'Ors), which had just started a branch in Rome (the Spanish Juridical Institute in Rome). 

In Rome he had contact with eminent jurists like Del Vecchio and Capograssi. During these years in Rome (from the end of 1952 to September 1954), Leonardo Polo continued to develop the insight that he had received in 1950. A first phase of this involved the topic of his doctoral dissertation, "The existential character of Natural Right." However, posing the topic of the existential character of law required resolving a series of more fundamental questions, many of which were related to the intuition of 1950 and which became a long introduction that eventually became a work in itself and which would lead his research away from the juridical sciences and more toward philosophy.

Polo spent these Roman years reading, thinking intensely, and, above all, writing. German philosophy, Kant and the German Romantics, as well as Hegel and Heidegger, whom he had already known in his younger years, were a major focus of his study during this time.  A result of the activity in Rome is a large volume titledThe Real Distinction, which he did not publish as such, but would later serve as a staging base for later publications. 

The formulations that Leonardo Polo had made with regard to his 1950 intuition began to take form through the intellectual dialogue with the Idealist philosophers and with Heidegger's existentialism. For example, Polo's reading of Heidegger and of his concern for the "existent", his critic of idealism and his philosophical approach, would lead Polo to his characterization of the human persons as "being additionally" [además]. This being additionally, which according to Polo Heidegger did not see, expresses that the human person is not limited to her thinking, nor even to her acting, but rather is additionallyto thinking and action. To be additionally is "to open oneself intimately to be always constantly overflowing" (La libertad, doctoral course, Pamplona, 1990, pro manuscripto).

In 1954, Polo returned from Rome and began working at the recently founded University of Navarre, where he first taught Natural Law and then later (after the beginning of the School of Arts and Letters in 1956) Fundamentals of Philosophy and History of Philosophical Systems. At the same time, he continued his studies of philosophy at the Central University in Madrid as an external student, since his work teaching at Navarre prevented him from attending class. Technical issues forced Polo to transfer his studies to the University of Barcelona. Here he finished a short research work on Karl Marx's anthropology under the direction of Jorge Pérez Ballestar. After receiving his degree from Barcelona in 1959, Polo transferred back to Madrid for the doctoral program and began work on his doctoral dissertation with Antonio Millán-Puelles.

In 1961, Polo obtained a doctoral degree after presenting his dissertation on Descartes. In this work, he presents Descartes as a voluntarist, something uncommon at the time in Spanish academic circles, who considered Descartes more as a rationalist. This dissertation was prepared for publication and appeared under the tittle Evidencia y realidad en Descartes (Evidence and Reality in Descartes) in 1963.

1963-1967: First Philosophical Works and Teaching at the University of Granada

After finishing his doctorate, Polo prepared a series of publications based on the thick volume The Real Distinction (which he had written in Rome) as preparation for his application for academic positions at universities in Spain. Fruit of this work were El acceso al ser (The Access to Being) and El ser I(Being I), published in 1964 and 1966, respectively.

In The Access to Being, Leonardo Polo presents his idea of the mental limit (of objective thought) and develops it in dialogue and in contrast with Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger. He then announces his own philosophical proposal: that the mental limit can not only be detected, but that it can also be abandoned. Thus, Polo's philosophical methodology is not limited to simply discovering the limits of objective thought, but seeks to detect this limit in conditions such that it is possible to abandon this limit. This methodology, which Polo calls the abandonment of the mental limit, has four dimension that lead to the study of four different, but interrelated, thematic fields: (1) the study of the extra-mental existence; (2) the study of the extra-mental predicamental causes (extra-mental essence); (3) the study of human existence; and (4) the study of human essence as availing-of [disponer]. 

Starting from Access to Being, Polo planned a series of works that would cover these thematic fields. The first of these was to be Being I (on extra-mental being), followed by Being II (on the extra-mental essence of the universe), Being III (on the personal act of being), and Being IV (on human essence). Of these only Being I was published. The subject matter of Being II would eventually find its way into his Course on Theory of Knowledge (especially Volume IV) and those of Being III and IV would later appear as Transcendental Anthropology I and II.

Being I develops the first dimension of the abandonment of the mental limit which focuses on extra-mental existence. Here Polo develops a metaphysics based on a knowledge of first principles: created being as the principle of non-contradiction and as the principle of causality; and both of these distinct from, yet compatible with, the principle of identity, which is God the Creator. The study of these three principles as distinct, yet compatible first principles constitutes the central axioms of Polo's metaphysics.

The somewhat abrupt nature of the presentation of the topics in his first books, as well as their novelty baffled a public accustomed to a more scholastic style and a more "conventional" subject matter. Few accepted this new method for approaching important philosophical questions, and misunderstandings led many to brand him as a Hegelian or as lacking in "orthodoxy". Only a few sensed something of interest in Leonardo Polo's philosophy. The poor reception among philosophers of those years may be one of the reasons why Leonardo Polo did not publish other works that he had already planned (Being II and Being III), in which he was to develop his philosophy of nature and transcendental anthropology. 

Leonardo Polo did not, however, abandon his philosophical project, but continued his efforts to draw out the consequences and implication of his philosophical methodology. Years later, in an interview, Polo would recall, "… to detect the limit and abandon it can be done or not. If it cannot be done, it seems to me that it would be difficult to remain a realist, not in the sense of coinciding intentionally with the truth, but rather in gaining access to extramental being, which does not form part of what is thought. This is how I saw it, and not as a matter of originality, but rather as having found something that had to be developed, and this was a very large undertaking, and since I had thought about it in Rome, I realized that it was work for an entire lifetime. Am I going to dedicate my life to this? If I do, I run a risk: at that time I was not capable of gauging all the implications of what this meant." (Polo, Conversaciones, pro manuscripto).

At another moment, he would comment: "one danger was that I would not succeed, or, if I were successful, that I would not be accepted by the community of philosophers, which meant I would be left unpublished; or, worse, publish and have no one understand (this second possibility has been almost entirely fulfilled). The second danger was to be mistaken, that is, to address an issue in such a way that later I would have to backtrack. Not so much that I would be left more or less shunned as an author, but that I would have to recant or gather together what already existed and burn it. This danger was especially serious when considering freedom as a transcendental, because it is clear that the idea of a transcendental linked with freedom appears in many modern thinkers. Thus, I could fall into those errors or be misinterpreted. A third danger was to be misunderstood; not that I would be mistaken, but that I would be the occasion for others being mistaken. Fortunately, this danger has not really materialized." (Polo, La libertad, pro manuscripto)

Although his first works were little understood, they, along with other academic work, helped him obtain a position as professor at the University of Granada in 1966. Leonardo Polo's qualifying magisterial lecture was focussed on notion of God in Meister Eckhart, who he considered as a precursor to Hegel. 

In Granada, Polo continued deepening his knowledge of the history of philosophy and continued his philosophical reflections, often times using his classes as occasions to think through a variety of philosophical issues. 

1968-1983: Years of Silence and Teaching at the University of Navarre

In 1968, after two years at Granada, Leonardo Polo returned to the University of Navarre, where he taught a variety of courses including history of philosophy, ethics, fundamentals of philosophy, psychology or any other course that required filling in when no other professor was available. Polo also continued working privately on the implications of his philosophical methodology. In 1971 he published the article "The question of extra-mental essence" and in 1972 he finished a 500 page volume titled Transcendental Anthropology, which he did not however publish.

From 1978 to his retirement, Leonard Polo crossed the Atlantic during the summers to give brief courses in various Latin American universities among which were the Pan-American University (Mexico), the University of Piura (Peru), La Sabana (Colombia), and the University of the Andes (Chile). His knowledge and love for Latin America and its circumstances is evident in his essay Liberation Theology and the Future of the Americas, published in 1988. 

Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Polo gave a number of undergraduate and graduate courses on a variety of topics. Many of these courses would become integrated into his larger philosophical project and would serve as the basis for publications in later years. It is also during these years, both in Latin America and at Navarre, that students began transcribing notes based on Polo's lectures and then passed them from one to another. At times, these notes would be reviewed and corrected by Polo himself, and would become an important instrument for the development of his own thought and as eventual basis for publications in later years.

Examples of class notes preserved from this period give a further insight into Polo's philosophical activity during these years: investigations on Aristotelian philosophy of nature; Aristotelian philosophical psychology; several courses on the theory of knowledge (engaging especially with Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche); the rational knowledge of God; general psychology; habitual knowledge of the first principles; social justice; natural law; political philosophy; courses on liberation theology; bioethics; philosophy of education; philosophy of science (space and time); ethics; action theory; business sciences; sociology; organizational theory; philosophy of work and technology; philosophy of communication; philosophy of information sciences; philosophy of culture; philosophy of art; esthetics; philosophy of education; and philosophy of history. In addition to this, Polo also taught courses focused on specific currents and periods of the history of philosophy such as nominalism, idealism, contemporary philosophy, and Thomism, as well as specific philosophers including Scotus, Eckhart, Leibniz, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzcshe and Heidegger.

1984-1996: Publication of the Course on Theory of Knowledge

During the 1970s and early 80s, Polo published very little, but continued developing his ideas and finding clearer ways to present them, especially through courses on the theory of knowledge. In these courses, Polo made a special effort to describe his thought in continuity with classical philosophy, especially Aristotle, and in contrast with modern theories of knowledge, especially Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger. With the help of transcriptions of notes taken by his students, Polo eventually put together sufficient material for the publication and a new presentation of his philosophical method. The result was the publication of his four volume Course on the Theory of Knowledge [Volume I (1984); Volume II (1985); Volume III (1988); Volume IV/1 (1994); and Volume IV/2 (1996)] that inaugurated a new period of publications for Polo.

In the Course on Theory of Knowledge, Leonardo Polo expounds upon and redevelops his philosophy methodology (the abandonment of the mental limit) by relating and contrasting it with Aristotelian gnoseology and modern versions of the theory of knowledge, especially rationalist and idealist ones. 

The work is structured in roughly the following way: 
Volume I: The axioms of human knowledge and the study of sensible knowledge;
Volume II: Exposition of intellectual knowledge and its limitation;
Volume III: Study of the negation (or generalization) as an operation of the intellect through the history of philosophy;
Volume IV/1 and VI/2: Examination of human rational operations (concept, judgement, and reasoning) and their reach from the perspective of the mental limit. 

Polo continued to teach courses throughout this time, and much of the material included in the Course on Theory of Knowledge drew from the maturing of his thought, especially with regard to his study of the predicamental causes and of the philosophy of nature. In this regard, the fourth volume of the Course on Theory of Knowledge constitutes, in fact, the exposition of the second dimension of the mental limit (corresponding to the subject matter originally planned for Being II), which is directed to the extra-mental essence (also described as the quadruple con-causality of the predicamental causes) of the physical universe.

The publication of the Course on Theory of Knowledge marked a maturation of Polo's presentation of his philosophical method and of the consequences of this method. In it, Polo presents a clearer exposition of intellectual operations and their limit. He also develops a philosophy of intellectual habits that make possible higher operations and partial or complete abandonment of the mental limit. Throughout the exposition, Polo develops notions such as habits and the real distinction between act of being and essence that continue classical philosophy, but go beyond it. At the same time he engages Modern philosophers and seeks to correct their insights.

With the Course on Theory of Knowledge, Leonardo Polo also set the stage for the presentation of other dimensions of the abandonment of the mental limit, especially for his transcendental anthropology, which he had already been developing.

It is during these years that other works by Polo began to be published, many of which were based on classes and courses that he had given in past years. These works include Hegel and Post-hegelianism (1st edition published in Peru, 1985); Who Is Man? A Spirit in Time (1991); Keys to Nominalism and Idealism in Contemporary Philosophy (1993) [from classes given in the early and mid-80s]; Habitual Knowledge of the First Principles (1993) [from a doctoral class given in 1983]; Ethics (1993); Introduction to Philosophy (1995) [from an undergraduate class given in 1990-1991].

During this period, Polo expanded his connection with other European universities, giving courses in Rome at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and continuing his visits to the IESE Business School (Barcelona, Spain) and the University of Malaga (making twenty-two trips there between the years 1979 and 1998). These contacts and the growing number of his disciplines in Europe and in Latin America, as well as the interest developed by the publication of his Course on Theory of Knowledge and other works, gave rise to growing interest in Polo's thought throughout the 1990s. In 1992, the University of Navarre organized a philosophical conference dedicated to his thought (Anuario filosófico Vol. XXI/1, 1992) with several contributions from his growing circle of disciples.

1996-2003: Publication of the Transcendental Anthropology and Retirement

Starting from late 1980s and into the 1990s, Polo began concentrating on developing his transcendental anthropology, and the greater part of his doctoral courses were dedicated to this. In these years, Polo gave several doctoral courses on transcendental anthropology as well as courses on the transcendentals, freedom, the practical reason and activity, the will and its acts, the logos, the I, the sentiments, and the human essence. 

In these courses, Polo continued with his practice of lecturing and then taking the transcriptions of notes made by his students to further develop and clarify his thought while preparing eventual publications. In 1993, one of these courses was published as the last chapter of the Present and Future of Man (published in 1993), a work that included other earlier studies focussed on the anthropological consequences of his methodology of the abandonment of the mental limit. 

Other works published during this period include The Human Person and Her Growth (1996), On Christian Existence (1996), Anthropology of Business Management (co-authored with Carlos Llano, 1997), Nominalism, Idealism, and Realism (1997) and two shorter works - The Will and Its Acts (Part I and II), published in 1998.

In 1996, on the occasion of his retirement, the University of Navarre organized an international congress dedicated to the study of Leonardo Polo's philosophy. The interventions presented at this congress were published by Anuario filosófico (vol. XXIX, 1996) and includes more than fifty studies of various aspects of Polo's thought covering a vast range of philosophical topics.

After retirement, Polo continued working on his anthropological thought and finally published Transcendental Anthropology I in 1999 and Transcendental Anthropology II in 2003. These two works cover the subject matter that Polo had originally intended for Being III and Being IV in the 1960s, and thus brings Polo's overall philosophical project to completion. In the prologue of the first volume, Polo refers to this work on transcendental anthropology as the culmination of his philosophical work in which all his other works can finally be seen from their proper perspective:
"This book is certainly the culmination of my philosophical inquiry. What I mean by this is that the method that has led up to it no longer gives more of itself. But, since this method makes possible access to abundant thematic fruits, this book is added to the harvest that is contained, but not exhausted in other writings. Because of its double value - methodological and thematic - the summit reopens the various thematic areas: it re-iterates them" (Transcendental Anthropology I, Prologue).

Transcendental Anthropology I contains the first part of the transcendental anthropology that Polo proposes as fruit of the third dimension of the abandonment of the mental limit. In it Polo justifies the need for an anthropology that is transcendental by distinguishing between the act of being of the physical universe (studied by metaphysics) and the act of being of the human person (the subject matter of transcendental anthropology). With this, Polo seeks to study the being of the human person  on a level of act of being, but at the same time to distinguish this transcendental anthropology from metaphysics. A consequence of this is his proposal to expand the medieval theory of transcendentals to include transcendentals that are anthropological in character. From this perspective, the being of the human person is studied on a transcendental level as co-existence, transcendental freedom, personal intellection, and donal love. These personal transcendentals form the nucleus of Leonardo Polo's proposal for a transcendental anthropology.

Transcendental Anthropology II contains the second part of the transcendental anthropology that Polo proposes as fruit of the fourth and final dimension of the abandonment of the mental limit. From this perspective, Polo studies the manifestation of the person, which the human essence or, rather, the I: her body and her higher faculties (the intelligence and the will) as well as their acts and acquired habits. 

With the publication of the second volume of Transcendental Anthropology, it can be said that the major elements of Polo's philosophy had finally been made public. Meanwhile, interest in Polo's philosophy continued to grow and mature. In 1998, one manifestation of this growing interest was the start of Studia Poliana, a philosophical journal dedicated to maintaining the ever growing community of scholars interested in Polo and in new developments and publications from him. Another was the founding of the Instituto de estudios filosóficos Leonardo Polo (IEFLP) in 2004 in Malaga, Spain.

2004-2013: Last Years and Death

After the publication of Transcendental Anthropology, Polo continued correcting transcripts of past courses, conferences and articles for publication. 

One fruit of this work was the publication of Nietzsche as Thinker of Dualities in 2005. This work was based on three courses given by Polo: one on Thus Spoke Zarathustra in Peru in 1988; another on Ecce homo given in Mexico in 1994; the third a doctoral course on Nietzsche given in Pamplona in 1995. In the introduction to this work, Polo makes clear that his interest in Nietzsche involves studying  Nietzsche's anthropology from the perspective of his own proposal of a transcendental anthropology. This work therefore continues Polo's own investigations, but now in dialogue with one of contemporary philosophy's most influential thinkers.

Other works published in these years include,The Rational Knowledge of Reality (2004), The I (2004), The Predicamental Order (2005), The Kantian Critique of Knowledge (2005), Transcendental Freedom (2005), The Radical and Freedom (2005),The Human Essence (2006), Helping to Grow. Philosophical Questions Regarding Education (2007), The Predicamental Logos (2006), Primary Organizations and Businesses (2007), Person and Freedom (2007), Knowledge of the Physical Universe (2008), Man in History (2008), Lectures on Classical Psychology (2009), Course on General Psychology (2009), Introduction to Hegel (2010), The Essence of Man (2011), Philosophy and Economy (2012), Studies on Modern and Contemporary Philosophy (2012), and Lectures on Ethics (2013).

The increased pace of publications was paralleled by ever increasing and widespread interest in Polo's thought, giving rise to more than two hundred studies, thirty doctoral dissertations and dozens of books on his thought already during his lifetime.

Leonardo Polo's health deteriorated during the last years of his life. Still, his friends and disciples visited him frequently, sharing candy and a game of chess with him, and even engaging in brief philosophical conversations. During these last years he slowly continued making corrections to his last book, Epistemology, Creation and Divinity (still unpublished), which includes a chapter on Christology which he had drafted in 2005, but which he corrected and finished shortly before his death.

In 2008, when receiving the Cross of Carlos III prize, Polo wrote,
"With my work, I do not intend to say the final word regarding the great questions, but rather to open up a way so that those who come afterwards may find an effective and fruitful path for reaching the highest truths, convinced - as always - that the truth always guides our inquiries, and at the same time reinforces them when they are accepted and, being accepted, elevates them. With this, I must now say my last word: thank you!"

Leonardo Polo passed away early in the morning of February 9, 2013 at the age of 87.


Franquet, Mª José, "Trayectoria intelectual de Leonardo Polo", Anuario filosófico, Vol. XXIX/2 (1996), 303-322.
García González, Juan, Obra de y sobre Polo, 3rd edition, Bubok, Madrid 2012.
García González, Juan, Obra completa de Polo, unpublished, 2012.

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