Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History

Article excerpt

Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. By Susan Buck-Morss. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. 151 pages. ISBN 978-0-8229-5978-6. 160 pp. $45.00 cloth. $16.95 paper.

Reviewed by Patti M. Marxsen

Imagine a crowded courtroom on a hot day. The benches are filled with men and women dressed in what appear to be theatrical costumes: fashions spanning two centuries from European tailoring and taffeta ruffles to splashy sundresses and baseball caps. The galleries above the benches overflow with a less prosperous crowd. Like those down below, they represent all shades of the color spectrum from café au kit to ebony, but these observers come dressed in rags. Let's call this the Court of Historical Philosophy or, if you prefer, simply call it Judgment Day.

On the witness stand is a somber German philosopher who died in Berlin in 1831. Before he left this world, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel authored an enormously influential book entitled The Phenomenology of the Mind (1807), in which he introduced a new kind of individual consciousness, of self and other. In reaction to Kant's belief in the concept of absolute truth, Hegel envisioned a necessary struggle of opposition - a dialectic - that was destined to move civilization forward. In Hegel's system of thought, sociopolitical resolutions flow from a rational notion of progress. Inspired by the French Revolution, he believed that solutions could only be formulated by conscious individuals acting as active agents of social change. In more ways than one, Hegel was a man of his time, and philosophy, for him, was a practical matter.

Among the topics Hegel treated in Phenomenology, and in his famous lectures at the University of Jena, were the global economy, individual freedom in the industrialized world, the division of labor to achieve efficiency, and the relationship between masters and slaves. His "Master-Slave Dialectic," often translated from the German as "Lordship and Bondage" Herrschaft und Knechtschaft), forms a key section of Phenomenology and stands as cornerstone of Hegel's theory of self-knowledge in a selfconstructed world. Clearly, Hegel was an "outside the box" thinker who argued for a certain kind of humanism. Why, then, do we have him squirming on the witness stand?

Enter: Susan Buck-Morss, professor of political philosophy and social theory in the Department of Government at Cornell University, armed with a copy of her latest book, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. Like a prosecuting attorney in our imagined courtroom, Buck-Morss has a few pointed questions for Herr Hegel. To begin with, she finds it intriguing that he was creating his theory of history and human ethics as events in Saint-Domingue evolved from the 1791 uprising at Bois Caïman to full-tilt revolution. Having confirmed that Hegel was well aware of these events, given his documented familiarity with the German publication Minerva, in which detailed reports from Haiti were published as early as 1792, Professor Buck-Morss reasons that Haiti's struggle deserves a mention somewhere in Hegel's collected works.

She also finds it curious that The Phenomenology of the Mind, a work centered on philosophical questions of human freedom, was published only three years after Haitian independence was declared on January 1, 1804. Finally, she is very nearly stunned that until recently, with the work of Pierre-Franklin Tavarès, no historian or philosopher has seemed to notice Hegel's reticence on the subject of brutal slavery in Saint-Domingue and its resolution in the form of the first black republic. "What, then, would account for two centuries of historical oblivion?" she asks, noting that "The Haitian Revolution lies at the crossroads of multiple discourses as a defining moment in world history" and stands as ". . . the crucible, the trial by fire for the ideals of French Enlightenment."

We can imagine Hegel, no doubt unaccustomed to such relentless pursuit, sitting speechless in his chair. …

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