Susan Buck-Morss: “Hegel and Haiti”


In 2000, historian Susan Buck-Morss published “Hegel and Haiti,” where she sought to transcend disciplinary, temporal and spacial boundaries by reading Hegel’s master/ slave dialectic in a transnational context.[1] Buck-Morss claims that Hegel began thinking about the relations between masters and slaves as a result of the Haitian Revolution, but philosophy scholars have not considered his work outside abstract ideas. The reason for this is, she claims, results from the specialization of knowledge and lack of communication between disciplines. Because of this disciplinary shortsightedness historians and others have allowed the Enlightenment ideal of Universal history to continue. Universal history is a teleological theory that humanity is set on a common course to universal freedom, but with growth of cultural history, Atlantic history, etc. we can see that Universal history is nothing more than a Eurocentric grandnarrative—black slaves, for instance, were excluded from this history.

Although this is a review of her 2000 article, it is worth mentioning Buck-Morss’ book Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009).[2] “Hegel and Haiti” serves as the heart of her book—verbatim—but she adds and introduction providing indispensible background and a second essay, where she responds to her critiques and espouses a form of new humanism. Her main argument is that history needs to be more inclusive of the narratives previously left out. This position reflects those help by Paul Gilroy, W.E.B. Dubois, and Jean Francois Lyotard. In fact, her work is very much inspired by postmodernism, but it is just as poignant today as it was in sixteen years ago.

Buck-Morss asserts that Enlightenment thinkers used slavery as a metaphor “connoting everything that was evil about power relationships.”[3] Freedom, for these writers, stood-out as “the highest and universal political value.” Ironically, narratives of Universal history, common to Enlightenment thinkers, grew at the same time that chattel slavery expanded in the Americas. This contradiction lies at the center of Europe’s global ascendancy and the rise of modern liberal capitalism.[4] “The exploitation of millions of colonial slave laborers was accepted as part of the given world by the very thinkers who proclaimed freedom to be man’s natural state and inalienable right.”[5]   How could contemporaries not see the incongruity between the rhetoric of freedom and the practice of slavery? Even more important, for Buck-Morss, why have scholars today overlooked this obvious contradiction? How can modern writers, fully cognizant of the facts, [construct] Western histories as coherent narratives of human freedom”?[6] The answer, Buck-Morss argues, can be found in the relationships between disciplines–or rather lack of relationships. For instance, Hegel is considered part of perennial philosophy, but studied only as a philosopher engaged in abstract thought; history appears to have no influence on the man who wrote about the influences of history! “The greater the specialization of knowledge… the easier it is to ignore discordant facts.”[7]

A bit of background: Enlightenment and Enlightenment-inspired philosophers from Locke to Hegel venerated freedom. According to Buck-Morss, philosophers often used slavery as a metaphor for “everything that was evil in power relationships.”[8] They were aware of the horrors of slavery, but American chattel slavery was strangely left out of the philosophies—even though they believed their philosophies to be universal i.e. applicable to all people (men, actually). Enlightenment philosophers espoused their idea of universal freedom, the slave trade expanded exponentially. The philosophy of freedom and capitalism emerged in this context. “The exploitation of millions of colonial slave laborers was accepted as part of the given world by the very thinkers, who proclaimed freedom to be man’s natural state and inalienable right.”

A bit of philosophy: Universal history is the belief, common to Enlightenment thinkers, that history is teleological. For instance, Kant believed that human history moved toward political liberty, while Hegel believed that human history moved along stages, these stages terminated in spiritual liberty. “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept.”[9] The master/ slave dialectic is how Hegel explains the movement of history. The master and slave, according to Hegel, share a symbiotic relationship. The master cannot live without the slave or the slave without the master. But the slave is the one who makes material changes in the world and soon the master finds that he is more dependent on the slave than the slave is on him. The slave has more agency in the world and creates history. According to Buck-Morss “the slaves achieve self-consciousness by demonstrating that they are not things, not objects, but subjects who transform material nature.”  Liberation, according to Hegel, does not come from above, it comes from the slaves who risk their lives for freedom “And it is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained.” Buck-Morss adds, “the goal of this liberation out of slavery cannot be subjugation of the master in turn, but, rather, elimination of the institution of slavery altogether.”[10] Whether Hegel used “master” and “slave” metaphorically is irrelevant, because as she states in the beginning of her essay, “by the eighteenth century, slavery had become the root metaphor of Western political philosophy, connoting everything that was evil about power relationships.” Given that Hegel produced his work around the same time as the Haitian Revolution, she wonders why scholars have not connected his writing and the events.

By reading Hegel’s master-slave dialectic in relation to Haiti, she shows that his idea was not born in an abstract vacuum, but instead came from a man who was engaged with the world (at least through the newspapers). In this way, Hegel’s philosophy was universal (until he fell silent about it).  For Buck-Morss Universal history should be discarded and replaced with universal history—history that includes the contradictions of European Enlightenment philosophy and the narratives of “those without history.”

–Todd Burst

[1] Buck-Morss, Susan. “Hegel and Haiti.” Critical Inquiry. 2000, 821–65.

[2] Buck-Morss, Susan, Susan Buck-Morss, and Susan Buck-Morss. Hegel, Haiti and Universal History. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

[3] Ibid., 821

[4] Ibid., 822-3

[5] Ibid., 822

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Buck-Morss, Susan. “Hegel and Haiti.” Critical Inquiry., 2000, 821–65, 821.

[9] Haym, Rudolf. Hegel und seine Zeit: Vorlesungen über Entstehung und Entwickelung, Wesen und Werth der Hegel’schen Philosophie. Gaertner, 1857, 62.

[10] Buck-Morss, Susan. “Hegel and Haiti.” Critical Inquiry., 2000, 821–65, 849.





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