It’s not just that Hegel and Rousseau were racists. Racism was baked into the very structure of their dialectical philosophy
Avram Alpert is a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program and the author of Global Origins of the Modern Self, from Montaigne to Suzuki (2019) and A Partial Enlightenment: What Modern Literature and Buddhism Can Teach Us About Living Well without Perfection (forthcoming).Listen here
Edited by Nigel Warburton
It is by now well known that some of the greatest modern philosophers held racist views. John Locke (1632-1704), David Hume (1711-76), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), G W F Hegel (1770-1831) and many others believed that Black and Indigenous peoples the world over were savage, inferior and in need of correction by European enlightenment. No serious philosopher today defends these explicitly racist views but, with good reason, they continue to study the writings of these authors. In order to hold on to the philosophical insights, scholars tend to make a distinction between the individual racism and the philosophical systems. Hegel might have been wrong for his racist writings about Africans and others, but that doesn’t tell us anything about his speculative metaphysics.
Or so the argument goes. But if we have learned anything about racism over the past few decades, it is that a focus on individual racist statements can obscure the ways in which racism continues to persist in systems. While laws in the United States, for example, may no longer overtly disenfranchise people of colour, they still enable oppression through mass incarceration. Is there any risk that something like this has happened in philosophy – that in focusing on condemning the individual racism of philosophers we have allowed systemic philosophical racism to remain intact?
Let’s consider in some detail the case of Hegel, arguably the creator of the most systematic philosophy in modern thought. Hegel certainly was an explicit racist. He believed, for example, that Black Africans were a ‘race of children that remain immersed in a state of naiveté’. He further wrote that Indigenous peoples lived in ‘a condition of savagery and unfreedom’. And in The Philosophy of Right (1821), he argued that there is a ‘right of heroes’ to colonise these people in order to bring them into a progress of European enlightenment.
It is not immediately obvious, however, that these racist remarks leave any trace on Hegel’s philosophical system. In his encyclopaedic writings on metaphysics, aesthetics, history, politics and even botany and magnetism, he worked to show how there existed a universal process of dialectical transformation. Hegel’s dialectics are notoriously complicated, but we can roughly define them as the bringing together of opposites in order to show how the contradictions between things eventually break down, and lead to the creation of a truer and more encompassing idea. One frequently cited example is what is sometimes called the ‘master-slave dialectic’, a discussion of the path to equal relations between two people that Hegel included in various writings. In these passages, Hegel shows how the opposition between master and slave fosters unbearable and unstable conditions that must eventually break down, lead to rebellion and, hopefully, create a system of equals.
From this example, one might reasonably conclude that Hegel’s philosophical system couldn’t have been racist. The critical theorist Susan Buck-Morss has gone so far as to argue that Hegel was writing the Haitian Revolution into his philosophy through the master-slave dialectic. Even if he held racist views, Hegel’s philosophical pursuit of truth led him to argue for universal justice through revolutionary struggle. If this is the case, then his philosophical system might reasonably be seen to contradict his racism. It is precisely because of such dissonance that commentators justify the distinction between Hegel’s explicit racism and the meaning of his philosophical system.
This distinction breaks down, however, if we look more deeply into where Hegel’s idea of dialectics originated. In so doing, we will find that colonial racism directly informs the very concept of dialectics. Just like systemic racism in the world today, understanding the systemic racism of philosophy cannot be done by simply looking at a single individual or set of beliefs. We have to understand the historical context of ideas, how racism informed their genesis, and how that racism continues to structure our thinking today in ways that we might not fully realise…