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]