Buck-Morss, Hegel and Haiti

Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History is a remarkable book. The core of it originally appeared as ‘Hegel and Haiti’ in Critical Inquiry. (That link takes you directly to the piece, though I’m not sure it should.)

The essay is, in itself, quite something, and to be honest the rest of the book paled in comparison. There is a substantial second essay entitled ‘Universal History’, which replies to some of the criticisms and broadens the argument, and some framing discussions. But it is the basic piece that captured my interest. Now I know little about Haiti, though I did like Peter Hallward’s Damming the Flood, and have written on Hegel only in passing (i.e. in my discussion of Lefebvre’s reading of him in Understanding Henri Lefebvre).

But this book appealed principally because of his contextualising approach to the history of thought. Summarising rather crudely, Buck-Morss argues, through a reading of Hegel’s correspondence, that he was an avid reader of newspapers. By looking at the papers he read, especially one (somewhat astonishingly) called Minerva, and their content at key periods in Hegel’s development, she is able to trace some hidden influences on his thought.

The key period is from 1804-5, and the key event the Haitian Revolution, which she describes as “the crucible, the trial by fire for the ideals of the French Enlightenment. And evey European who was part of the bourgeois reading public knew it”.

For a full year, from fall 1804 to the end of 1805, Minerva published a continuing series, totalling more than a hundred pages, including source documents, news summaries, and eyewitness accounts, that informed its readers not only of the final struggle for independence of this French colony-under the banner Liberty or Death-but of events over the previous ten years as well.

Now the famous master-slave relation, so crucial to The Phenomenology of Spirit, was written in Jena in 1805 and published in 1807. As well as the Haitian link Buck-Morss stresses that 1807 was the year Britain abolished the slave trade. She opposes this to the “intellectual historians of German philosophy” who find its source only in “the writings of other intellectuals”. She notes that on other aspects – the debt to Adam Smith’s theory of the economy and the French Revolution – the contemporary context for Hegel’s work is widely accepted. But why just these areas?

Given the facility with which this dialectic of lordship and bondage lends itself to such a reading, one wonders why the topic Hegel and Haiti has for so long been ignored. Not only have Hegel scholars failed to answer this question; they have failed, for the past two hundred years, even to ask it.

She suggests only one writer before her, Pierre-Franklin Tavarès, had linked Hegel and Haiti, and he did it for the later Hegel. But Buck-Morss shows how the later Hegel turned away from the emphasis on freedom that she finds in the Phenomenology to the later work such as The Philosophy of Right and The Philosophy of History which is more conservative. She also has some interesting things to say about why Marxists might have missed this, suggesting that for them, slavery was a premodern institution and, in Europe at least, outside of their narrative. There are some comments on the exceptions like Eric Williams and C.L.R. James.

Now I’m not qualified to judge on the argument, though it appears extremely plausible. But not everyone responded positively. My favourite line was a report of a suggestion from a philosophy professor to Buck-Morss that even if she were right, it still wouldn’t change how he taught Hegel (p. 16).

It got me thinking, again, about another philosopher and newspapers. This is Heidegger. In 1924, in his lectures on Aristotle, Heidegger suggests that ‘the human is a living being that reads the newspapers’ (GA18, 108). It’s an attempt at a German, contemporary, perhaps even slightly humorous (as much as Heidegger ever gets) translation of Aristotle’s zoon ekhon logon, usually translated as the human as the ‘rational animal’, but for Heidegger the living being who holds (and is held) by language/speech. But given Heidegger’s politics, it’s worth reflecting a little on what was in those papers in 1924 – the economic crisis, the Ruhr occupation, and the troubles of the young Weimar republic. That course, especially, with its argument about being-in-the-polis seems to me to give the lie to any claim that Heidegger was apolitical until the 1930s. This is developed in more detail in my Speaking Against Number, where I briefly mention the newspaper remark, but don’t really do much with it.

[Update: also an interesting remark on p. 101 about the word ‘factory’ and its colonial roots]

This entry was posted in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Buck-Morss, Hegel and Haiti

  1. kb says:

    i do like this article, but it seems to practice the sort of historicism of which critical theory, especially literary theory, has been skeptical.

    • stuartelden says:

      Perhaps you could elaborate? Or maybe this explains why critical theory has never really resonated with me, while more historical approaches have. As for literary theory, well I guess it depends what kind of literary theory.

  2. Dean says:

    Her anachronistic indictments of eighteenth century thinkers both direct and indirect are problematic. She notes that Montesquieu ‘justified “Negro” slavery on pragmatic, climactic, and blatantly racist grounds’ (p. 828 n24). She says Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy demonstrate his ‘prejudice against African culture and more racist statements about Negroes’ (p. 854 n104), and argues that ‘Hegel was perhaps always a cultural racist if not a biological one’ (p. 864). Why make such statements? What is the intellectual pay-off?

    As I look at this again, I see that she anticipates and rejects the anachronism charge out of hand:
    ‘Today’s intellectual historian who treats Rousseau in context will follow good professional form by relativizing the situation, judging (and excusing) Rousseau’s racism by the mores of his time, in order to avoid thereby the fallacy of anachronism’ (p. 831, emphasis mine).

    Solid historical scholarship *should* avoid anachronism. Perhaps this point is irrelevant, though, since Buck-Morss seems more concerned with bolstering a very particular reading of Europe’s colonial history than striving for historical accuracy and understanding.

    In addition, her remark on p. 863 concerning Hegel and Africa is simply astounding:
    ‘What *is* clear is that in an effort to become more erudite in African studies during the 1820s, Hegel was in fact becoming dumber’ (emphasis in original). How can someone make such a claim and get away with it?

    • Dylan says:

      We all have different perspectives. Dean believes something is problematic when others may not. Indirectly that speaks to her point about the power of universal history to dictate how the past is represented and understood. For Caribbean people this is certainly not problematic. For many it speaks to our viewpoint about the hypocrisy of modernity and liberalism.

  3. Dean says:

    In short, she attributes more weight to her argument than the evidence she presents would allow. There is evidence there, but whether it lends itself to her reading with as much ‘facility’ (p. 849) as she claims is far from clear.

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks Dean. Well, I agree about the need to try to avoid anachronism, but the quote you mention (p. 831) on this seems to me to draw a broader issue out. It continues

      “Or, today’s philosopher, who is trained to analyze theory totally abstracted from historical context, will attribute a universality to Rousseau’s writings that
      transcends the author’s own intent or personal limitations in order to
      avoid thereby the fallacy of reduction ad hominem. In both cases, the embarrassing
      facts are quietly allowed to disappear.”

      It seems clear to me that Haiti is part of the context for Hegel, and that a care for historical accuracy and understanding is part of her motivation. The point about Haiti for Hegel is that in the early 19th century he was writing on slavery with a particular context in mind. It’s only later, Buck-Morss suggests, that his politics becomes more reactionary. ‘Dumber’ might be a bad choice of word, but the point is more subtle than that.

      You ask – “Why make such statements? What is the intellectual pay-off?” I don’t have the complete answer to that, of course, but it seems to me that this kind of work is worthwhile in terms of providing a more broadly based account of a thinker than the texts alone, read in isolation from context, could allow. Robert Bernasconi’s work on Kant and race seems to work in a similar way. Hegel cannot be reduced to context, of course, but nor can he be removed from it.

      • Dean says:

        I am not trying to justify an approach to the history of ideas that ignores context. Also, I agree that Hegel should be put into context, though he should not be reduced to it, as you say (the same goes for Kant, Leibniz, etc.).

        Buck-Morss was certainly making a bold move in making this argument, and her language amplifies the argument’s jarring character. I don’t know if scholars have done more work since this piece appeared to understand Hegel’s relation to Haiti or his political context in general, but I think the provocative nature of her argument invites—or perhaps even demands—further work in this area.

        The evidence she presents is not strong enough for me to accept the argument. Still, if other scholars doing similar work solidified the evidentiary base and thereby helped demonstrate slavery’s salience for Hegel’s understanding of the dialectic, I would certainly concede. At the same time, even if scholars showed that slavery was pivotal for Hegel’s understanding of the master-slave dialectic, this new finding would have to be reconciled with, or understood alongside, Hegel’s deep roots in Greek philosophy.

        The crucial point for me is how to do justice to text and context. I know this is something you also grapple with, and I think anyone trying to do a non-reductionist history of ideas has to confront this problem. I don’t think Buck-Morss reduces Hegel to context, but she leans in that direction.

        Figuring out how to best balance text and context is of course very tricky, and I think the primary aim should be to work on finding this balance in one’s analysis. To show that slavery was crucial for Hegel’s formulation of the master-slave dialectic in a non-reductionist way is a significant task in itself, and one that likely requires more than one scholars’ efforts. I don’t see the need to go beyond that. Why don the judge’s robe and make moral judgements about Hegel’s views on race, or anything else? In short, while I see the intellectual pay-off in working to excavate the importance of Hegel’s context, I don’t see the pay-off in handing down sentences, as it were. I understand this puts me at odds with many scholars who label themselves critical, but this is a position I will continue to hold firm to. To demonstrate slavery’s significance for Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is itself a critical endeavour.

  4. Matt Farish says:

    Dean, I sense a conversation about this when you return to Toronto! I should say, first, that sadly I know next to nothing about Hegel. But when I read Buck-Morss’s article a few years ago I thought it was one of the most provocative and intriguing essays I’d encountered in a long time. So, from my perspective, as an amateur when it comes to the early 19th century, four quick points to continue the conversation.

    One, I disagree that her claims are anachronistic, if we set them, for instance, within the large scholarship on race, racism, empire and the Enlightenment. In other words, if done carefully, I see no problem with discussing Hegel’s ‘racism’, for that is what it was (even strictly speaking). Moreover, his racism was consequential, and not unanimously shared.

    Two, the “pay-off” for these claims seems to me to be very clear, given what she sets out to do in the essay. Indeed, if we follow her, she suggests that Hegel, more than some of his contemporaries, gave a great deal of thought to _actual_ slavery and the historical significance of the Haitian revolution. It’s essential that we place this argument alongside her discussions of Hegel’s racism, since her point is not just that Hegel was a racist, but the more interesting one that his racism (which was in some ways unsurprising) limited the emancipatory potential of his thought — freedom in word only, if you like.

    Three, at least from her presentation of recent Hegel scholarship (particularly in the longer book), she is clearly striving for a _less_ anachronistic, or at least much more contextual, reading of Hegel. That positioning — the apparently rather daring nature of her essay — needs to be given some consideration.

    And four, while ‘dumber’ is a pointed word, and clangs a little in the ear, it merely serves to punctuate her more extensive argument about Hegel’s conservative drift. My sense is that you’re partly appalled, Dean, because ‘it’s Hegel’. I don’t know how Buck-Morss would reply, but my response is, ‘precisely’.

  5. stuartelden says:

    Thanks Dean. Not sure I have much to add. I’d agree that the balance is important; but it’s difficult. And yes, tracing sources and influences can, in itself, be critical. I’m maybe more willing to use that work to pass judgments, but as you say these need to be substantiated.
    The book, as opposed to the article, does go a bit further. Also got me thinking – is there a good biography of Hegel? What’s the Pinkard one like? The Leibniz and Kant ones in that series were both excellent.

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