Hegel’s racism

Some of Joseph McCarney’s criticisms of my ‘Will the Real Kant Please Stand Up’ arise only because he misidentifies the issue I discuss there. As I explain in my opening paragraph, I wrote the essay to call into question the way philosophers today address – or often fail to address in a serious way – the racism of some of the most exalted figures of the history of Western philosophy. I make it clear that the aim of the essay is not to establish the racism of those figures, although I do rehearse some of the evidence for the convenience of readers not familiar with my earlier essays on the subject. It is our racism, not theirs, that my essay primarily addresses. Or, more precisely, I am concerned with the institutional racism of a discipline that has developed subtle strategies to play down the racism of Locke, Kant and Hegel, among others, with the inevitable consequence that, for example, in the United States philosophers are disproportionately white. So if, as McCarney puts it, I tend to proceed as if I had formulated an argument linking Hegel’s ‘alleged'(!) racism with his philosophy, this is because I have done so elsewhere, as I explain in note 15.

However, even if my essay in Radical Philosophy does not focus on Hegel’s racism, I am happy to take this opportunity to defend what I have said elsewhere about it, not least because McCarney’s response to ‘Will the Real Kant Please Stand Up’ exemplifies many of the tendencies I want to expose. McCarney objects to my statement in note 15 that the issues raised by Hegel’s racism are ‘ultimately no different’ from those raised in the case of Kant, but he misses the target when he attempts to counter this claim by showing that Hegel, unlike Locke and Kant, explicitly opposed slavery. [1] The paragraph to which that note is attached is not about slavery, but about the tendency of analytic philosophers to ignore historical evidence when they interpret philosophical works from past eras. My point is not that Kant’s racism is the same as Hegel’s, but that their racism, however different, raises the same set of issues for us today, not least because philosophers tend to use the same strategies to avoid addressing their racism.

One of the most common of these strategies is to ignore the specifics of the historical context, while at the same time proclaiming, without appeal to historical evidence, a ‘child-of-his-time’ defence. There is, in other words, lip service to history, but no attempt to follow through on it. McCarney himself is not immune to this tendency. On McCarney’s account, Hegel’s superiority over Locke and Kant is established
on the basis that he alone explicitly attacked the African slave trade. But it is entirely illegitimate for McCarney to juxtapose the different treatments of slavery in Locke, Kant and Hegel, as if they were contemporaries. Hegel’s rejection of chattel slavery does not have the same meaning that it would have had, had it been written in a different period. When Hegel denounced slavery, the decisive questions, at least among Europeans, were less whether slavery should be abolished and more how and when it should be abolished and whether this episode in European history should be allowed to undermine its sense of its own moral superiority. In fact, Hegel was clear both that chattel slavery should be abandoned only gradually and that the enslavement of blacks should be regarded in retrospect as a necessary moment in the transition towards a higher stage of development. [2] In my view, this places Hegel on the wrong side of the debate to which he was actually contributing, a debate of genuine political significance at the time he was writing.

Things only get worse when we turn to Hegel’s use of the travel literature of his day in order to establish his portrait of Africans in the Lectures on the Philosophy of History. In Hegel on History, McCarney defends Hegel by blaming his sources, even while showing himself to be willing to concede that the ‘histrionic temptations of the lecture theatre’ may have led him to select ‘the most lurid and blood-curdling of the tales available to him’. [3] But in ‘Hegel at the Court of the Ashanti’, which I cite in note 15, I show that Hegel cannot be portrayed as a victim of his sources. Hegel’s portrait of blacks as cannibals was not simply a stereotype that Hegel unthinkingly repeated. I demonstrate, I believe for the first time, that the stories Hegel told his students about Africans were his own invention, in so far as he took published accounts and exaggerated the details. For example, whereas Hegel’s source records that the king of Ashanti crushed the bones of his dead mother in rum and water, he reported that the bones were washed in blood. [4] Hegel also included other stories, especially about cannibalism and mindless massacres, that either are without any known source or are greatly exaggerated. McCarney has read my essay on Hegel’s distortion of his sources: he refers to it indirectly in his response but he does not take the opportunity either to answer my argument or to modify his defence. Indeed, it does not even lead him to pause when he presents us with a Hegel who respects the findings of science. The idea that Hegel’s racist portrayal of Africa can be excused because it simply followed the best knowledge of the day cannot be sustained and has been perpetuated only because historians of philosophy have not done their homework. That McCarney explicitly persists in the image of a Hegel who follows the best scientific evidence, when I have shown the contrary, is troubling.

The purpose of the stories Hegel fabricated about Africans was to support his contention that they were not yet ready for freedom. He manufactured a case against Africans to support his claim that slavery had improved blacks. It is always possible that McCarney thinks that this has nothing to do with Hegel’s philosophy, and, while I am inclined to think that this is hardly a marginal question for a philosopher for whom freedom is such a central concept, I concede that, for a certain style of philosophizing, it is a matter of course to eliminate what is subsequently regarded as embarrassing. This is another of those strategies that in ‘Will the Real Kant Please Stand Up’ I identify as a way of playing down a philosopher’s racism. To be sure, from that perspective, which has already turned its back on the historical philosopher, there is no clear criterion by which to decide what is or is not integral. So, rather than debate the importance of this case, let me introduce another which is even harder to dismiss and which again runs directly counter to McCarney’s interpretation.

McCarney understands Hegel to have said that ‘groups whose principle is a natural one, such as nations, tribes, castes and races, cannot figure as historical subjects’. My problem is not with that claim as such, but with McCarney’s suggestion that it follows that for Hegel ‘there literally cannot be a racist interpretation of history’. But it is not enough to notice that, for Hegel, the subjects of history are peoples. It is also relevant that he believes that only certain races produce peoples. Indeed, not all races even divide into specific national spirits. [5] Furthermore, in my essay ‘With What Must the Philosophy of History Begin?’, I explain that this was why Hegel judged that history proper begins only with the Caucasian race. [6] As I cite this essay in the same note, note 15, to which McCarney takes such exception, I would have expected him, in his response to my essay, to address the textual evidence that Hegel uses race as a category to exclude all but Caucasians from being historical subjects in the full sense. Even if McCarney was unaware of the clear textual evidence that I have marshalled in support of this interpretation, I would have thought that the notorious exclusion of Africa proper from world history would have alerted him to it. But this is not part of McCarney’s Hegel. McCarney writes: ‘For history is precisely, in one aspect at least, the escape of spirit from nature, its overcoming of all natural determinants such as common descent or blood relationship.’ Contrast that with what Hegel himself wrote: ‘each particular principle of a people is also subject to natural determining’. [7] In Hegel on History McCarney writes that ‘a firmer theoretical basis for the fundamental equality of human beings than Hegelian spirit provides can scarcely be conceived’. [8] I would suggest that a firmer theoretical basis might have been found had Hegel had a different account of nature’s relation to spirit than the one he actually had.

Instead of debating my textual arguments about Hegel’s racism, McCarney fantasizes about a Hegel who ‘might reasonably be regarded as a precursor of “Black Athena”’. This assertion is made on the strength of Hegel’s observation that the Greeks derived the development of their art and religion from, among other non-European sources, Egypt, while Egypt ‘probably received its culture from Ethiopia’. [9] However, it should be recalled that one of Martin Bernal’s major claims in the first volume of Black Athena is that the thesis of an Egyptian source for Greek culture, the ‘Ancient Model’, was first seriously challenged between 1815 and 1830, especially by Karl Otfried Müller in the 1820s. [10] Hegel was writing at a time when the idea that Egyptian art and religion was one of the sources of Greek art and religion was still very much alive. I am therefore at a loss to know what McCarney means when he describes Hegel specifically as a ‘precursor’ of this view. What is clear is that Hegel was having trouble reconciling the widely shared admiration of his day for things Egyptian with the growing tendency to try to correlate the hierarchy of civilizations with a hierarchy of races, given that the ancient Egyptians were at that time widely thought of as black. The African component of Egypt is very much in evidence in Hegel’s discussion, even while he insisted that Egypt did not belong to Africa proper.

Locke, Kant and Hegel did not simply reflect the prejudices of their time. They reinvented those prejudices by giving racism new forms. Locke played a role in formulating the principle that masters have absolute power and authority over the Negro slaves at a time when the form of North American slavery was far from having been decided. Kant was the first to offer a scientific definition of race, and he himself appealed to this idea of race in order to legitimate prejudices against race mixing. Hegel was a precursor of the mid-nineteenth-century tendency to construct philosophies of history organized around the concept of race, such as we find in Robert Knox and Gobineau. The fact that Locke, Kant and Hegel also played a role in formulating emancipatory ideas constitutes the problem I am concerned with. It does not make it disappear. This is because the annunciation of fine principles – the philosopher’s stock in trade – is no guarantee that one is not at the same time undermining or negating those principles.

I do not see that as an indirect result of my work in this area ‘the actual victims of racism’ will be crushed by racists newly empowered to learn that the entire tradition of Western philosophy is on their side. Nor do I share the vision McCarney’s final paragraph conjures up, according to which attention to racism within the Western philosophical canon will lead scholars to adopt a paranoid approach to the history of philosophy that will result in them becoming ‘secure in the inner conviction that, ensconced in the liberal academy, they cannot fall victim to the evils they so readily conjure up’. I do not share that vision because philosophers for the most part seem already to have that inner conviction about themselves, while ignoring the institutional racism of their discipline. I thought it was clear that I presented the failings of Locke, Kant and Hegel to encourage us to think harder about our own philosophical procedures, not in order to generate self-satisfaction. I am sorry that McCarney did not accept my invitation.


1. ^ Robert Bernasconi, ‘Will the Real Kant Please Stand Up’, Radical Philosophy 117, January/February 2003, p. 21.

2. ^ G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte, ed. Johannes Hoffmeister, Felix Meiner, Hamburg, 1955, p. 226. trans. H.B. Nisbet, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1975, p. 184.

3. ^ Joseph McCarney, Hegel on History, Routledge, London, 2000, p. 143.

4. ^ Robert Bernasconi, ‘Hegel at the Court of the Ashanti’, in Stuart Barnett, ed., Hegel after Derrida, Routledge, London, 1998, p. 46.

5. ^ G.W.F. Hegel, Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften III, Theorie Werkausgabe 10, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1970, p. 65; trans. William Wallace, Philosophy of Mind, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1971, p. 47.

6. ^ Robert Bernasconi, ‘With What Must the Philosophy of World History Begin? On the Racial Basis of Hegel’s Eurocentrism’, Nineteenth Century Contexts 22, 2000, pp. 183–4. I address an argument that is remarkably similar to McCarney’s at pp. 187–8.

7. ^ G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte, p. 187; trans. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, p. 152, translation modified.

8. ^ McCarney, Hegel on History, p. 145.

9. ^ G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte, Theorie Werkausgabe 12, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1970, p. 248; trans. J. Sibree, The Philosophy of History, Dover, New York, 1956, p. 201.

10. ^ Martin Bernal, Black Athena, Volume 1, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1987, p. 31.