Study For Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences, or The Genius of America Encouraging the Emancipation of the Blacks (1791-92) by Samuel Jennings. Courtesy the Met Museum/New York

Essay/
History of ideas

Study For Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences, or The Genius of America Encouraging the Emancipation of the Blacks (1791-92) by Samuel Jennings. Courtesy the Met Museum/New York

Philosophy’s systemic racism

It’s not just that Hegel and Rousseau were racists. Racism was baked into the very structure of their dialectical philosophy

Avram Alpert

Study For Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences, or The Genius of America Encouraging the Emancipation of the Blacks (1791-92) by Samuel Jennings. Courtesy the Met Museum/New York

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).

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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.

It would be wrong to say that the entire history of dialectics is imbued with racist thinking. Socratic dialectics, for example, are primarily about the internal contradictions and possibilities of concepts that need to be teased out through dialogue. There is also what is sometimes called ‘Buddhist dialectics’, often associated with a Tibetan interpretation of the work of Nagarjuna (c150-250 CE), which work to show the ultimate emptiness – the lack of essence – of all conventionally real entities. The roots of Hegel’s thinking on the topic include his readings in Plato and Neoplatonism (and possibly Indian philosophy), as well as his study of the science of magnetism – the idea of opposing poles that structure an ordered natural world. Indeed, for Hegel, the dialectical process is at work everywhere. Just as not everything about the current prison system can be understood through racism, so Hegel’s philosophy is more than this. But it is equally true that we can’t understand the prison system or Hegel’s system without reference to racism.

If we look to two of Hegel’s immediate predecessors in the dialectical method – Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) and Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) – we can see how the method itself was influenced by colonial history as much as by Plato or magnetism. Rousseau had a profound influence on Hegel. And he, like Hegel, was an omnivorous reader of accounts from colonial ethnographers and missionaries. Unlike Hegel, however, he thought that he was reading about people leading idyllic lives. In his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1755), Rousseau drew on missionary accounts from places such as the Antilles to describe how Indigenous peoples in the Americas lived in a near-perfect equality and tranquility. While Europeans had grown alienated and unjust, Rousseau saw that easygoing equality had been the natural way of life in the Americas.

He didn’t believe, however, that Europeans should return to this natural way of living, nor that the peoples of the Americas could remain in their supposedly natural state now that contact with Europe had occurred. The ‘Caribs’, as Rousseau called them, would have to become more rational, while the Europeans would have to become more instinctual. (‘Carib’ is a category from colonial-era ethnography that combines various groups in the Antilles, so it is hard to replace with a more correct term. Many of the people being described would have called themselves Kalinago.) In other words, Caribs and Europeans would have to combine opposing elements – instinct and reason – and combine them in a new way of being – becoming rational by instinct – that would overcome the problems of each in a new, third mode of being. Rousseau called this the creation of a ‘savage made to inhabit cities’. Sound familiar? Two seeming opposites combine to create something new: it’s dialectics avant la lettre.

Rousseau at once envies and criticises these invented men

To see in better detail the explicit racist logic that will later become abstracted into the system of dialectics, we can consider one renowned anecdote from Rousseau’s Discourse about a man who trades his hammock in the morning to a French coloniser and then wants it back at night. Rousseau writes:

His [the Carib’s] soul, agitated by nothing, is given over to the single feeling of his own present existence, without any idea of the future, however near it may be, and his projects, as limited as his views, hardly extend to the end of the day. Such is … the extent of the Carib’s foresight. In the morning he sells his bed of cotton and in the evening he returns in tears to buy it back, for want of having foreseen that he would need it that night.

This anecdote is based on a story told by the missionary Jean-Baptiste du Tertre in his 1667 account of the peoples of the Antilles. Du Tertre was based in what is today Guadeloupe. What is noteworthy about his version of the story is that he gives us a context for it that Rousseau doesn’t. According to du Tertre, the problem is not that the people he meets are unable to think into the future; it is simply, and more logically, that they have a different concept of exchange than the French. Whereas for the French, a trade is final, for them it is only temporary. Du Tertre writes: ‘The Caribs wish the French would have the attitude that Caribs have among themselves. That is to say that the French should give generously everything which is asked of them.’ In this account, it is the French who are foolish to trade for a sleeping hammock during the day, when it is of little use. It is also simply boorish of the French not to reciprocate the generosity of the Caribs when in their land.

All of this context disappears from Rousseau’s account. These other human beings, with their sophisticated ethics of exchange and gift-giving, become one-dimensional characters who have no concept of time. What matters for the history of dialectics is what Rousseau does philosophically, based on this racist error. Rousseau at once envies and criticises these invented men. He believes that most human misery comes precisely from thinking into the future:

Foresight! Foresight, which takes us ceaselessly beyond ourselves and often places us where we shall never arrive … O man, draw your existence up within yourself, and you will no longer be miserable …

It is because he believes the Caribs have no foresight that he says they are happy and ‘agitated by nothing’.

But Rousseau also knows that, without future-oriented thinking, there can be no planning or progress. Social life requires us to substitute ‘justice for instinct’, as he says in On the Social Contract (1762). Somehow, according to Rousseau, we must find a way to have the future thinking that makes justice possible, without losing the sense of being present that brings us ease and joy. We must, in other words, learn to combine the seemingly opposed terms of instinct and rationality in order to synthesise a way of being in the world where we are neither so present as to neglect the future nor so alienated from the present as to destroy our happiness. We need, in other words, a dialectical process to occur between the French and Caribs. And this whole way of thinking, this groundwork of dialectical thought, has a fundamental origin in Rousseau’s racist thoughts about how the peoples of the Antilles are too stupid to know in the morning that, come evening, they will need a hammock to sleep on.

Perhaps, the sceptical reader might say, that’s just a problem with Rousseau. It has nothing to do with dialectics as such, and has no clear relation to the racist things that Hegel writes. But if we follow the history of the dialectic as it moves from Rousseau into German thought, it is quickly apparent that, although increasingly generalised, this colonial racism comes with it. One of the major articulators of the dialectical process before Hegel was Schiller, the poet-philosopher. In his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), a very important text for Hegel’s dialectical philosophy, Schiller explicitly takes up Rousseau’s task of trying to find a way to connect instinct and rationality across cultures.

Schiller, like Rousseau, believed that a gap had formed between the instinctual life of ‘natural humans’ and the rational life of Europeans. And, like Rousseau, he wanted to find a way to combine what was good in instinct with what was good in rationality. To accomplish this would

be a question of abstracting from man’s physical character its arbitrariness, and from his moral character its freedom; of making the first conformable to laws, and the second dependent upon sense-impressions … [and combining them] with the aim of bringing into being a third character …

Although Schiller’s language is more abstract than Rousseau’s, his racist assumptions are the same: there are some peoples too immersed in instinct (lawless ‘savages’) and some too lost in reason (unfeeling Europeans), and the goal is to combine each of their best parts while negating the worst.

Hegel was fascinated by the word that Schiller used to describe this process of combining by negation: the German Aufhebung, often translated as ‘sublation’, which means at once to cancel and to preserve. In Hegel’s writings, the definitions of sublation are often dense and abstract. (For example, of the sublation of being and nothing: ‘Being is being, and nothing is nothing, only in their contradistinction from each other; but in their truth, in their unity, they have vanished as these determinations and are now something else.’) Nevertheless, we can clearly see how those abstractions relate to the colonial history sketched above. The act of sublation is what Rousseau wanted to do to the Caribs: to cancel their lack of foresight, preserve their presentness, and thereby raise them up into a more ordered form of life that remained happy and egalitarian. He wanted the same thing for Europeans: to cancel their excessive foresight, preserve their focus on justice, and thereby raise them up into a happier form of life that preserved order and reason. This process ultimately required combining elements of each culture: Schiller’s ‘third character’ – the ‘savage made to inhabit cities’.

Self-consciousness is possible only when enslavement is overcome and two equals recognise each other

Magnetism and Plato might very well be on Hegel’s mind as he develops his system of dialectical sublation, but there is no escaping the fact that his dialectical philosophy of human interaction is inseparable from the racisms he inherited and espoused, even as he made them abstract and systemic. We can see this process at work if we go back to his master-slave dialectic. In one version of this story, Hegel uses it to try to explain the origin of self-consciousness. He explicitly sets the story within the context of ‘the state of nature’, the state where Rousseau’s Caribs are supposedly stuck. He wants to understand how ‘self-consciousness makes the transition from the condition of being immersed in desire and singularity into that of its universality’. In other words, how did the human species that began with people such as Rousseau’s Caribs, become philosophers such as Rousseau, Schiller and Hegel? How did they move from being stuck in the present to being able to speak of universal truths for all time?

According to Hegel, at some point the immersion is broken when two people, formerly alone in the wilderness, suddenly confront each other. Seeing another human sets off the possibility that I can be viewed as an object. In order to assert my subjectivity and stave off becoming an object to the other, I try to make them an object first. This is the origin of mastery and servitude – whoever wins the struggle becomes the first master. Over time, however, by making someone else an object, the winner has lost the essence of their own subjectivity: the possibility of being recognised by another person. True self-consciousness will be possible only when enslavement is overcome and two equals can recognise each other. In this process, the negative traits are cancelled, the insight of subjectivity is preserved, and both subjects are lifted up into a new self-consciousness as equals.

The problem is that Hegel believes that Black and Indigenous peoples have a ‘dormant’ dialectic, are stuck in nature, and thus cannot begin the dialectical process toward self-conscious freedom. This is why he says there is a ‘right of heroes’ to colonise – it is only through colonisation by Europe that others can become part of the march of human freedom. Thus, pace Buck-Morss, the Haitian Revolution for Hegel is simply when European ideals have achieved freedom for others through colonisation:

In Haiti they [Black people] have even formed a state on Christian principles. They show no inner tendency to culture however. In their homeland [Africa] the most shocking despotism prevails … Their spirit is quite dormant, remains sunk within itself, makes no progress …

Here we can clearly see the inextricability of colonial racism, the system of dialectics, and how Hegel theorises ‘abstract’ notions such as self-consciousness, progress and freedom.

The result of equal freedom might be good, but the entire movement of Hegel’s system toward this end begins with the racist ideas of Rousseau and his claims about the lack of thought from Indigenous peoples supposedly trapped in the ‘state of nature’ until Europeans arrive. Dialectical thought becomes a general system, defined in Hegel’s mature works less through reference to civilised and savage peoples than through abstract categories such as being and nothingness. The task of understanding the systemic racism of philosophy, however, is to follow the movement from explicit to structural racism. Contrary to what some of Hegel’s defenders say, it is the very abstraction of Hegel’s racist ideas into a universal system of thought that is the problem because it hides these racist origins. To use dialectics without acknowledging this history runs the risk of carrying this racism unintentionally into our concepts, and thus into our beliefs and practices. Is there an antiracist path to these dialectical insights about universal equality?

After the Second World War, the philosopher, poet and long-time leading politician of Martinique, Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), sat down to read Hegel’s philosophical masterpiece, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). Upon finishing it, he enthusiastically showed it to his friend Léopold Senghor (1906-2001) – also a philosopher and poet, and the long-time leader of Senegal: ‘Listen to what Hegel says, Léopold: to arrive at the Universal, one must immerse oneself in the Particular!’ In Hegel’s abstract philosophy, Césaire had found a philosophical accomplice in the project of Négritude, the movement of championing of Black thought and aesthetics that Senghor and Césaire had helped to found in Paris in the 1930s. Hegel’s philosophy made the same point they had been making: that their embrace of Blackness was part of the movement of universal human advance, not a capitulation to a narrow identity.

Césaire and Senghor were not alone among anticolonial thinkers in finding meaning in Hegel’s work, and especially this dialectical philosophy, in which seeming opposites – such as ‘universal’ and ‘particular’ – could find their common ground through a new synthesis. The revolutionary leaders and writers Frantz Fanon (1925-61), C L R James (1901-89) and Amílcar Cabral (1924-73) would all also find meaning in Hegel’s work. What does the history I have laid out mean for Senghor, Césaire, Fanon and others in their use of dialectics? Did they accidentally carry Hegel’s racism into their thoughts?

I don’t believe they did. Although these thinkers didn’t directly address the racist history of the dialectic going back to Rousseau, they still grasped the central problem of Hegel’s thought. We can see this where they criticise the underlying racist logic, while at the same time preserving the value of dialectical thought. This is, of course, a very dialectical way to deal with the racism of dialectics. It seeks to negate the racist contradiction at the heart of dialectics in order to create a new way of thinking that can actually move history forward. Contrary to what Hegel believed, it wasn’t Africans and Caribbeans who were stuck in history, but Hegel himself with his racist worldview. To move history forward means to actively work against racism. This is the sublation of dialectics of itself, creating an antiracist path to preserve, cancel and uplift Hegel’s insights.

Dialectical thought, even in the service of antiracism, risks carrying this racist history into our thinking

Senghor, Césaire and Fanon achieved this dialectical movement by refusing the basis of Rousseau’s racist ethnography. They restored what even the missionary du Tertre knew, but the philosophers did not: that the peoples of the Americas and Africa had their own complex lives and logic. Thus Césaire:

The great reproach that we justly level at Europe is that it broke the momentum of civilisations that had not yet reached their full promise, that it did not permit them to develop and to realise the full richness of the forms held within them.

And Senghor:

I believe … that ‘Négritude is dialectical’; I do not believe that it will ‘cede its place to new values’. More precisely, I believe … [it] constitutes … an ensemble of essential contributions.

And Fanon:

The dialectic that introduces necessity as a support for my freedom expels me from myself … My Black consciousness does not claim to be a loss. It is. It merges with itself … For there is not one Negro – there are many Black men.

Whereas Rousseau and Hegel assumed that Black and Indigenous peoples were not dialectical on their own, Senghor, Césaire and Fanon insist that dialectics, properly conceived, can begin only if we understand the internal complexity of all peoples. Once that is achieved, we can move from the colonial logic of cultural difference to what Césaire and Senghor called the ‘[rendez-vous] of giving and receiving’ between cultures. For example, instead of the French imposing their model of trade on to the Antilles, both peoples could have learned about different models from each other. Instead of a dialectical process that can be brought only from Europe to elsewhere, this alternative model enables a richer and ever-evolving set of possibilities for how to arrange human life. Slavery, racism and hatred in this system are never justified, but the dialectical progress toward ever-greater freedom and equality is preserved.

As these writers thus show, dialectical thinking is not inherently racist, nor should it necessarily be discarded in the name of some other philosophical understanding of history. Nevertheless, philosophers need to acknowledge that the modern origins of dialectical thought can be directly traced to the explicit racism of philosophers such as Rousseau and Hegel. This explicit racism, as is common, became implicit when it was abstracted into the concepts that these philosophers developed. When we use dialectical thought today – even in the service of antiracism – we risk carrying this racist history into our thinking if we don’t acknowledge and come to terms with it.

An analogy with the New Deal in the US might help to clarify what I mean by this. As the historian Ira Katznelson has shown at great length, the New Deal was a monumental economic success for the communities it supported. To a significant extent, however, it didn’t include Black Americans in its largesse. Its record with Indigenous peoples was mixed as well; and with Japanese Americans, of course, it was abysmal. The result was that the modern American welfare state put a dent in general economic inequality while exacerbating racial inequality. Dealing with this legacy means rectifying the racial injustice, not abandoning the economic advance. Similarly, with dialectics, the aim is to root out its racial injustice and set the concept on more secure footing, not abandon it as a whole.

If we truly are committed to antiracism in philosophy, we will certainly need to deal with the explicit racism of individual thinkers, the lack of diversity in the philosophy curriculum, and the lack of diversity in philosophy faculty and students. But we’ll also have to take a hard look into the subtler forms of racism that inform our concepts and ideas. Dialectics is not the only concept that developed through the racism of its time. Ideas of autonomy, aesthetics and even freedom were also generated through the same process of showing how European life was different from those who were deemed savages. As Senghor, Césaire and Fanon show, that doesn’t mean these notions will have to be discarded, only that we will have to unpack their racist histories and set them on more equal grounds. The result is not the loss of the Western canon, but the actual improvement of philosophical thought. Philosophical systems can be powerful tools for guiding us away from the depredations of the present and into the reparations of the future. But we can’t make that move without first coming to terms with their systemic racism.

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).

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