Friday, January 28, 2011

Hegel's History

If reading Hegel's excerpt on race is an understandably jarring experience, representing a moment in which a historical way of thinking is largely opaque to the modern reader, then much of its shock value derives from the degree to which parts of Hegel's civilizational narrative of Western History are still present in common historical interpretations. The example which is most striking to me is his brief mention of Indigenous American peoples as "a vanishing, feeble race," and rather it is people of the European race who will create civilization on this new continent. Although almost all modern historical interpretations of what is termed the "Conquest" shy away from the overt racism of Hegel's work, and many works from the second half of the 20th century, largely eschew acceptance of European civilizational myth, I would argue that the idea that the indigenous people vanished is deeply, and falsely, imbedded in the shared historical consciousness. Our own class discussion in which the notion of Native American life was perceived by some to be vanished and/or extinct indicates that Hegel and other's ideas about the encounter between European and Indigenous Americans is still active and alive in how we think about the past.

The ways in which race and assumptions of racial superiority are interwoven into how we as 21st century people think about this encounter is a topic of great interest, but as interesting is the ways in which Hegel's account dialectical account of history shape how we think about the past. Extrapolating (perhaps inaccurately) from what we talked about in class, it seems that the linear process of history is unwritten by a notion of conflict; encounters between different ideas, people, and even races initially result in a negation, and then eventually in a sort of synthesis. If as we have seen the concept of race is an invention, than my question is to what extent is the concept of racial conflict also an invention? Is Hegel's dialectical understanding history an accurate representation of the process of history? To what extent does assuming that human interactions are inherently conflictive change how we act? Does it create conflict where there isn't any?


  1. Kimberly,

    You pose some great questions. In regards to whether racial conflict is an invention I believe the answer is a resounding yes. Phenotypic differences on their own (devoid of artificial historical significance) provide no reason for conflict between humans, nor do cultural differences. These differences only result in violence when one or both groups desires something out of the other, such as land, labor, and/or resources. Once this occurs race then often becomes the device with which the people who would gain from such conflict motivate others in their society to attack the other group. Racial conflict is in no way inevitable or "natural."

    Up to the point of conflict i would argue that race doesn't even exist. Instead, it's just "these people look different than us," or "these people eat different food than us" - observations which can be completely neutral. The vocabulary of Black, White, Indian, etc. only comes about with conflict. For example, "Indian" was a term that was supposed to signify all of the contemptible characteristics of Native Americans that supposedly justified their murder by white Europeans. Racial labels then seem to be nothing more than complicated ways of saying "enemy".

    In response to your question about whether Hegel's dialectic is an accurate representation of history, I must say that your Native American example is a very interesting one. Regarding the historical "negation" between whites and blacks in America, for instance, I believe that there is a noticeable "synthesis," a noticeable mixture of cultures and histories, despite the fact that "negation" certainly continues. When we consider the Native Americans, on the other hand, they don't seem to have been at all "synthesized" with European culture. Instead, their culture has been largely wiped out. You are right to say that Native Americans have not vanished, but it is a matter of fact that as a people they are greatly diminished. Of those that remain, most have adapted significantly to the white European/American culture that waged war on their ancestors, while with European/American culture has adapted a comparatively negligible amount of Native American culture.

    Thus, the negation between these two cultures does not appear to have produced a "synthesis," but rather an almost complete erasure of one by the other.

    That was pretty long-winded but I hope it made sense. Let me know what you think!


  2. Colin I agree very much that desire for resources precedes racial conflict. These interests spur a blind assumption that these people are inferior and deserve to be civilized by the white man in exchange for their resources. Concerning Hegel's dialectic, I wonder if the resulting synthesis is always positive? We discussed the notion of progress in class, and Hegel purports that through the method of dialectic the spirit progresses. I wonder what it is that determines the outcome that results. It seems to me that out of the forces at work, morality holds no power in itself. That is, what is right does not take precedence over what is wrong, this is at the discrepancy of the one in power. Should we assume that whatever the dialectic renders is progress solely on the grounds that it has been produced out of the dialectic? To me the notion of progress is completely relative and a product of cronocentrism (the term I coin for a belief that one's time period is superior to the past). The product of this is an unfounded notion that events of the past have progressed in a positive manner and that the state of things now is better than before. This sort of thinking blinds one from negative practices that go unnoticed. Its true, many efforts are being made toward progress, who doesn't want that? But many people such as the Native Americans and today many third world countries are exploited without concern for their personal progress.

  3. @Colin

    Your point about conflict co-opting race as justification is gets to the heart of what I was saying. I think the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are really good examples of this: whatever the gee-political, economic and/or personal impulses behind these wars may be, I would say that race (and Islam) have been used as ways to justify the U.S. democratizing mission. Underwriting these interventionist wars are assumptions about Arab-Muslim peoples as a race, as a civilization, as a culture, which make the costs of war (civilian deaths, destruction etc.) acceptable to us. Which is to say, that we (our government, our media, we as citizens) create racial conflict, but I think the causes of this conflict are not racial, as you point out.

    @Cole: I think it's pretty apparent from the Master/Slave example that in Hegel's dialectic synthesis is not always a positive thing. Also, I am not really sure where you are going with the morality-power argument. It seems like Hegel's account of history as progressive isn't linked by necessity to moral progress. Using Ferrell's example of the development of modern medicine, there are some qualitative improvements that have occurred as a result of better medical technology. But having better medical technology doesn't change the sorts of basic moral questions at play: what is our responsiblity to others? when should human life be defended? Hmmm...I dunno if that is where you were going with your questions but in any case...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.