Notes on Hegel on Africa

21 03 2011

These are some of the infamous passages by G.F.W. Hegel in his Philosophy of History in which he writes the following:

The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality-all that we call feeling-if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and Mahommedanism appears to be the only thing which in any way brings the Negroes within the range of culture…

At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it-that is in its northern part-belong to the Asiatic or European World. Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilization; but, as a Phoenician colony, it belongs to Asia. Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.

This was written in the early 19th century, and of course a lot has changed in Africa since then. All the same, reactions of modern readers usually fall along the lines of one of two tendencies: either they agree with Hegel to a certain extent, citing the chaos that Africa has experienced over the last two hundred years, or they denounce Hegel as a racist, and cite the great achievements of African civilization.

Of these the second tendency is the most interesting one to address. The reasoning goes that thinkers like Hegel cannot see the true glories of African civilization, the “alternative” or “micro-“ histories that anti-dialecticians like to cite when deconstructing dominant Western paradigms. These are the same people who come up with ideas for alternative capitalisms, or create cultural nationalist movements (such as the black nationalists of the ghetto) who pretend that white European civilization has been overrated and irrelevant to the “black struggle”. The line of thinking is thus that there was nothing wrong with African civilization, just the European perception of it.

The other line of thinking is perhaps one accepted more tacitly, but it is nevertheless one that is far more prevalent. Africa is a hopeless backwater, and European colonization was the best thing that ever happened to it. While it is a good thing that they are doing things like accepting European religion, we should not get our hopes up too much regarding the general uplifting of those societies out of dire poverty. Hegel is basically right even today: in terms of the world stage, Africa is manifestly unimportant.

There is a serious error in the reasoning of both tendencies, one that misses the essential point to Hegel’s idea of History. First of all, Hegel, and later the Marxists, do not have a moral reading of history, or rather, while they do make moral judgments in their writing, it is not the overwhelming factor that determines their assessment of a particular area or epoch. Things happen because they have to happen, because the laws of motion of society create conditions in which History must move in a certain direction. It no longer is a matter of “is it right that such and such happens?”, but rather a question of “what happens when such and such happens?” There is no real way to stop the juggernaut of History, so one must merely analyze what happens and figure out where to go from there.

In the case of Africa, and the general interaction between “traditional” societies and modernity, the question is not one of how can such societies survive the vicious onslaught of oppressive European cultural imperialism, but how these societies will change when confronted with European technologies, media, and ideas. It is not an issue of not being grafted into the European ideal and judged by it, for all of this has already happened. Even asking the question of the rights of a traditional culture is already a white European question: the owl of Minerva has already flown. Everyone is already in this historical process, and it is unnecessary to concoct obfuscations to create “alternatives” in the midst of it.

Let me affirm here that Hegel is indeed a racist, but not because I cling to an essentialist view of things. Hegel cannot imagine Africans as historical actors, and in that sense was a product of his time. But Africans have been actors on the historical stage, being able to fight for their own well-being and move forward the general idea of Freedom in the West. Haiti was the first successful slave rebellion in history, and served as a fatal wound for slavery in the New World. It was the general strike of the slaves in the Civil War that brought the economy of the South to a screeching halt. It was the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers, the anti-colonial struggles in the same Africa, the struggle against apartheid, and so on, that have best embodied the Enlightenment ideals of self-consciousness in the face of oppression. Reactionary ideas of “alternative civilizations” do no justice to any of these struggles of Africans at home and in the diaspora.

Perhaps one general flaw in Hegel’s view of history is to put too much stock in the “great man” theory. Really, the great men are usually hollow vessels for the masses who make History and move it forward.


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7 responses

10 10 2013
amosnduka

AFRICA is the home of mankind and world and civilization must have first originated from Africa ,but since European scholars like Hegel were racist they undermined us.

23 08 2012
Afcham

That is because he understood that the Black American had absorbed American racism, and they were imbued with European racist concepts about themselves. Black Americans are constantly bombarded with mainstream racial concepts and tacit Eurocentric racial concepts. After all the modern concept of race is European and is proselytized just like religion.

10 03 2012
Edmund Kohrt

That’s not me a driven businessman, but a driven artist. I never consider money. Beautiful things generate profits.
It always takes me greater than 3 weeks to arrange an excellent impromptu speech.

22 03 2011
Leah

I’ve always found it interesting that when the Black Power movement started, Elijah Muhammed (prophet of the Nation of Islam) forbade his followers to wear Afros, daishikis, and other pan-African symbols. Given that the NOI was/is known as a black nationalist movement this may sound odd. However, according to NOI literature, the “so-called Negro” is of “Afro-Asiastic” origin, (which I interpret to mean a mix of Arab, Moorish, and Ethiopian cultures), as opposed to Western Sub-Saharan Africa. In other words, even Elijah Muhammed thought he was too good for Africa.

22 03 2011
The 27th Comrade

I hope I am not the only one hoping that civilisation does not really take root in Africa, apart from some forms of allotropic and surgical medical techniques and the Christian faith, because this being-civilised usually comes with failure to breed. And God forever forbid that Africans fail to breed; that the place with the highest genetic diversity, which would once again regenerate humans should we ever radiate them into oblivion, should fail to breed.

21 03 2011
john burnett

Some years ago (1961) Jahnheinz Jahn wrote a book called *Muntu: African Culture and the Western World*, which i still think is one of the best things ever written on this issue of ‘how these societies will change when confronted with European technologies, media, and ideas’.

What I notice living here in Africa is that although everybody (in some countries anyway; the same could be said mutatis mutandis for francophone and lusophone regions) speaks english, nobody has any clue at all to english (or american) culture. I caught myself talking about the ‘yellow brick road’ the other day, with someone who had never heard of, much less seen, Oz. There’s an apartment building near me named Xanadu. Not one person I’ve talked to in this neighborhood has any idea of what that refers to. There’s also a porn shop down the road named Pleasure Dome. Equally absent is any idea that the apartment and the porn shop are surreally linked by the same poem. There’s a former coffee shop down on Rockey Street named ‘Apple Crumble’— same green formica® today as 30 years ago, when mom might have gone there for an actual apple crumble cake— but now the workers have no idea about that, and coffee is not on the menu. Instead, they serve pondu and mealie pap. David, virulently anti-homosexual, often wears a t-shirt with a big pink triangle on it. I don’t have the heart to tell him. Sometimes it’s just more fun to sit back and watch it all unfold. And in this environment, absolutely anything is likely to happen, because one thing i can say about africans is, when they take a mind to something, they can be creative— and they don’t care who’s looking!

21 03 2011
Turmarion

Jared Diamond, in his fascinating (and Pulitzer-Prize winning) Guns, Germs, and Steel, discusses the relative backwardness of Sub-Saharan Africa. Any summary does it no justice, but the main themes are the lack of any domesticable draft animals below the Sahara (e.g. for all their genetic similarity to horses, zebras are literally untamable) and the desert and jungle barriers to rapid cultural diffusion. The cultural stagnation was thus real, but resulted not from inferiority of the Africans peoples, but of bad geographic and environmental hands dealt them.

Things happen because they have to happen, because the laws of motion of society create conditions in which History must move in a certain direction.

This is emblematic of where I disagree with Hegel, and in the same vein, with Marx. Since history runs only once, and can’t be re-wound, tweaked, and observed again, we can never really be sure just how inevitable historical processes are. It seem, in any case, that the Hindu and Chinese civilizations were, at least at certain points, the equal or superior of European civilization, but followed very different courses. This, to me, indicates the lack of generalizability of Hegel’s (and Marx’s) dialectic. Btw, Diamond talks about the issues involved with those civilizations, too, in the aforementioned book.

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