Hegel’s Problem with Non-Western Societies – Part Two – Haiti

The critique of Hegel’s historicism and his racist presumption have been argued persuasively by world and regional historians, including Peter Gran, The Rise of the Rich (Gran 2011, 137)Wang Hui, China from Empire to Nation-State (Hui 2014), and Susan Buck-Morss,Hegel, Haiti and Universal History (Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti and Universal History 2009), and Timothy Brennan, Borrowed Light:  Vico, Hegel and the Colonies (Brennan 2014).  In this essay I will compare the examination of Hegel by Buck-Morss and Brennan as an examination of the problem of colonialism that is notably among Hegel’s most flawed areas of speculation in his Lectures on World History.  Before we compare Buck-Morss and Brennan it is important to note the resonance that Hegel still finds in the area of history, even if in the discipline of history Hegel has been increasingly although as yet incompletely criticized. In philosophy we still find many scholars defending Hegel against his critics, notably Charles Taylor in his study of Hegel and Will Dudley in Hegel and History (2009).

A new paradigm for the study of history, art and literature as world history and as comparative history is necessary. How do we shift from the paradigm of the general and essentialized nature of Hegel and institutionalization in the profession of history, via Leopold Ranke, and a dependence on Eurocentrism, to a meaningful and relevant world history that allows for the comparisons of culture, civilization, nation and society?  One of the ways is to integrate the study of history with that of the arts and literature. One might expect philosophy would be a field that would help but we find it is still a field lodged in Eurocentric or Western Civilization exceptionalism.

Within the field of philosophy there remain recalcitrant defefenders of Hegelian essentialism and universalism.  Notably among these are Dudley, Hegel and History. Most philosophy based studies of Hegel that are kept within the Western/Continental philosophy model avoid a critique of Hegel’s flawed world history and side step any consideration of his Orientalist assumptions that gave rise to other deeply problematic theories, including that of Marx’ Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP).  An example of this Eurocentric philosophical approach is found in Jon Stewart,  Idealism and Existentialism : Hegel and Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century European Philosophy (2010).  A work that shows how to challenge this idealistic approach is Mohamed Salama, Islam, Orientalism and Intellectual History (2011).

By extension the reliance on the state as a model of analysis has come to dominate the field of International Relations (IR) which assumes the model of the Western history of nation-state and body politics to be a higher stage of development and thus a normative basis of analysis for comparison with the periphery, with failed states and other denominations of the Third World and the Non-West.

The roots of a Hegelian model and assumption of Western Civilization as the basis of rational political theory and as a paradigm for practice in International Relations are not a central part of contemporary writing in IR theory In this discussion I’d like to examine the use of a Hegelian assumption, that it is the Western model of civilization that predominates in history and rational politics, and that all relations are subject to treating other nations as outsiders.  This idea of the outsider is of course quite old in Greek thought, assuming for the moment as classical political scientists and historians do, that Greece is a source of political thought.  The notion of the outsider is found in Herodotus’ history and discussion of Sparta as outside the normative Athenian or Attic central experience.  I take as representative contemporary writers’ dependence on Hegel, Henry Kissinger, Ulrich Beck and Kees van der Pijl (van der Pilj 2007).  At first the extreme differences of these writers seems impossible to compare.  Kissinger is a practitioner and the enforcer of American Cold War era practice, when America arose into the role of the world’s policeman.  Ulrich Beck writes as a sociologist, but whose discussion of globalism I consider to be relevant to practices and theories of IR. Kees Van der Pijl represents the hope of an expansive European openness to the word, whose Atlantic systems approach I suggest is an extension of the Hegelian Western Civilization hypothesis.

Brennan’s critique of Hegel makes a comparative study of European Enlightenment philosophy and history.  By comparing Hegel as a Northern European and Prussian based intellectual with Vico, his Italian contemporary Brennan is able to study two intellectuals from European states that were largely outside of the larger colonial system of exploitation that was shared among the other Western European states:  Portugal, Spain, Holland, England and France. A reading of Brennan allows us to examines Vico’s attempt to criticize colonialism as reflective of the Italian experience of a fragmented nation-state without a systematic colonial structure, in other words the fragmented nature of Italian polities and its regionalism led to its own internal colonization of the Italian South as a subservient or tradition based socio-economic region that was a supply center of foodstuffs to the Northern Italian states.  Brennan notes that Vico was providing a critique of the system of internal colonization found in the material conditions of the regionalism of Italy, and its two islands Sardinia and Sicily that served as a tradition based region to the mixed economy of the agrarian and proto-industrial North (Brennan 2014, 14).   But Brennan’s critique and comparison of Hegel avoids the racist and essentialist doctrine of his idea of world history as stages of development.  Brennan fails to examine Hegel’s reductionist presumptions about Africa and his dismissal of African development.  Instead Brennan returns to Hegel’s idealism as a radical who seeks to end slavery, but in doing so Brennan ignores Hegel’s lack of historical understanding of African history and its varied experiences in all periods of ancient or modern world history.  Brennan assumes Hegel is sympathetic to non-Western sources and indigenous knowledge, but leaves his acceptance of Hegel as a philosophical ideal that is unwarranted in Hegel’s ahistorical approach (Brennan 2014, 86).  Despite his reading of critiques of Hegel’s essentialization about Africa Brennan is unable to escape the philosophical reification of Hegel[1](Bernasconi, Hegel at the Court of the Ashanti 2002) (Bernasconi and Cook 2003).

Susan Buck-Morss’s critique of Hegel’s racism and universal essentialism is more systematic and substantive in both theory and method.  Buck Morss begins to negotiate the border areas between the disciplines of history and philosophy, two disciplines that I argue were not engaged in a discourse with each other.  In so doing she examines claims to universal history of the larger ideas that may supercede the idea of a singular national or empire framework, for example that of the American empire.  Buck-Morss takes up the problem of New World slavery as one such theme that was necessary both for Hegel and for world historians to take up (Buck-Morss, Hegel and Haiti 2000).

Buck Morss takes up Hegel’s approach to a speculative writing on Haiti by noting the influence of his reading in 1803 of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti and Universal History 2009, 4).  The first studies of Hegel’s writing on Haiti were taken up by Pierre-Franklin Tavarès (Tavarès 1991).  Hegel was influenced by accounts of the revolt and revolution of the Saint-Domingue slaves led by Toussaint Louverture.  What Buck-Morss demonstrates is that Hegel avoided any clear and systematic review or mention of the successful revolution of slaves that led to the independent state of Haiti that was declared by Louverture’s successor Dessalines.


Bernasconi, Robert. 2002. “Hegel at the Court of the Ashanti.” In Hegel after Derrida, 41-63. London: Routledge.

Bernasconi, Robert, and Sybol Cook. 2003. Race and Racism in Continental Philosophy.Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Brennan, Timothy. 2014. Borrowed Light: Vico, Hegel and the Colonies. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Buck-Morss, Susan. 2000. “Hegel and Haiti.” Critical Inquiry 821-65.

—. 2009. Hegel, Haiti and Universal History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Dudley, Will. 2009. Hegel and History. State University of New York Press

Gran, Peter. 2011. Rise of the Rich: A New View of World History. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Hui, Wang. 2014. China from Empire to Nation-state. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Salama, Mohammad R. 2011. Islam, Orientalism and Intellectual History. : I.B.Tauris, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Tavarès, Pierre-Franklin. 1991. “La Conception de l’Afrique de hegel comme critique.”Chemins Critiques 2 (2): 153-66.

van der Pilj, Kees. 2007. Nomads, Empires, States : Modes of Foreign Relations and Political Economy. London, GB.: Pluto Press.

[1] Here Brennan cites to but does not fully examine the beginning of a critique of Hegel’s anti-African bias in Bernasconi, “Hegel at the Court of the Ashanti,” in Hegel after Derrida (London: Routledge, 2002 ), 41 – 63

Hegel’s Bias against Africa

uroWithin 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).


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.

My Readables

World Through My Lenses



Blog 500

Knowledge is to Share

US History 20th Century

Empire and Inequality

World History: 500-1600 C.E.

Empire and Inequality

Muslim and Jewish Culture in the European-Latin Middle Ages

Seeking Knowledge in the Age of Crusades and Empire