Critique of Hegelian Eurocentricism

Hegal’s Bias Against Africa

Within European continental philosophy, the idea of the enlightenment and of modernity as a European creation have roots in the racist assumptions of key late 18th century Enlightenment philosophers. David Hume, Kant, and Hegel, were instrumental in attempts to validate a civilization theory of difference predicated by racist and despotic theories of an underdeveloped East or a primitive Africa (Morton 2002). Hegel’s racist assumptions about African civilization and his dismissal of African history influenced subsequent historians. Hegel had enormous influence on both European continental philosophy, and in the development of history as an academic subject.  His lectures on world history influenced Karl Ranke, who instituted the first departments of history in modern European universities.

In Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History (Hegel 1884), coined the idea of Universal History, or what we now call World History.

It is the aim of the investigator to gain a view of the entire history of a people or a country, or of the world, in short, what we call Universal History (Hegel 1884, 4).

In these lectures he set about describing the geography and history of the world, dividing it between the Oriental World and the Western World of Greek and Germanic history.  The former was governed by tradition and ritual, the latter was the civilization of  reason.  He also set about a discussion of the old and new world.  But for Africa, which like Asia and the Americas, he never visited, he gave this opinion.

Africa proper, as far as History goes back, has remained for all purposes of connection with the rest of the World— shut up ; it is the Gold-land compressed within itself,—the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of selfconscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night. Its isolated character originates not merely in its tropicalnature, but essentially in its geographical condition (Hegel 1884, 95).

Hegel’s views on Africans assumed their was an innate physical limit to their intellect and therefore the African had an inferior consciousness compared with the German.

The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend,for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas, —the category of Universality. In Negro life the characteristicpoint is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained ….This distinction between himself as an individual and the universality of his essential being, the African in the uniform, undeveloped oneness of his existence has not yet attained ; so that the Knowledge of an absolute Being, an Other and a Higher than his individual self, is entirely wanting. The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality—all that we call feeling—if we would rightly comprehend him ; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and Mahommedanism appears to be the only thing which in any way brings the Negroes within the range of culture (Hegel 1884, 97).

How long and pervasive Hegelian ideas about Africa prevailed in mainstream history needs to be examined.  In a lecture at the London School of Economics in 1969 on comparative world history, the establishment British historian Hugh Trevor Roper, presented a rationale for upholding history of only powerful nations in which he also dismissed the entire field of African history:

We see the same process today in historic Asia and unhistoric Africa. In 1900 the colonial empires seemed “enlightened”. Did they not bring material improvement, utility, modernity? (Trevor-Roper 1969)

In that same year responses to Trevor-Roper were issued by the distinguished African scholar, Ali Marui.  Mazui sharply criticized Trevor-Roper’s earlier call for Eurocentric history and assumptions about limited expectations for African made in a broadcast in 1963. Mazrui noted and implied that although Trevor-Roper’s broadcast was sharply criticized in a piece by J.D. Fage in 1965 (Fage 1965) his ideas had still yet to be fully critiqued.

There would seem to be a direct link between the kind of ‘reporting’ perpetrated by those European explorers and a television lecture given a few years ago by Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, to open a series on ‘The Rise of Christian Europe’. He began by dismissing the history of Africa as meaningless. Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history.. .but at present there is none: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.. .and darkness is not a subject of history (Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe 1963).

Bibliography

Fage, J. D. 1965. On The Nature of African History. Birmingham, U.K.: University of Birmingham Press.

Hegel, G. W.F. 1884. Lectures on the Philosophy of History. Translated by J. Sibree. London: George Bell and Sons.

Morton, Eric. 2002. “Race and Racism in the Works of David Hume.” African Philosophy 1 (1).

Trevor-Roper, Hugh. 1963. “The Rise of Christian Europe.” The Listener, November 28: 87.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh. 1969. “The Past and the Present: History and Sociology.” Past and Present (42): 3-17.

Mazrui, Ali A. “European Exploration and Africa’s Self-Discovery.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 7.4 (1969): 661-76. Web.

Advertisements