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date: 26 February 2020

(p. 247) Continental Philosophy and Race

Abstract and Keywords

Hegel’s philosophy of history and his treatment of race are inextricably entwined. Reflection on this entwinement reveals the complexities of any attempt that aims to mark the limits of Hegel’s thought and Hegel scholarship while at the same time recovering Hegelian insights. Considering Hegel’s conceptions of history and race in the Anthropology and the Lectures on the Philosophy of History helps assess Susan Buck-Morss’ s Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. Buck-Morss defends a reconstructed notion of universal history despite her own important account of the problematic entwinement of history and race in Hegel.

Keywords: Hegel, universal history, race, Haiti, Buck-Morss, Marxism, class analysis, racism, dialectical materialism, existentialism, anxiety, bad faith, heterophobia, white Negro, Foucault, biopower, genealogy, normalization, scientific racism, Africana philosophy, black existentialism, phenomenology, race, Afro-pessimism

As suggested in the volume introduction, the dividing line between so-called continental and analytic philosophy is not as sharp in philosophy of race as in other subfields of contemporary philosophy. Nevertheless, when race is explored through Hegel, Marx, Sartre, Fanon, and Foucault, there is a marked change in observable terrain from when the train travels through the official and alternative histories of philosophy, philosophy of science, or American philosophy.

Continental philosophical methodology in a study of any kind of human experience has the potential to yield phenomenological insights. Phenomenological insights about racial identities and interactions can reveal how human beings subjectively experience self, other, and self and other in relationship. The point here is that continental philosophical approaches to race have the potential to analyze real, concrete human situations in individual life and society, instead of approaching the subject abstractly, within a practice of strict objectivity. That is, full recognition is given to the existing human subject, who is actually or potentially the author and designer of the social and physical scientific investigations that would otherwise be a source of truth—real live human beings create science.

The continental approach to race is able to yield deep moral and existential truths about race relations and racism that might otherwise require literary brilliance that would not be as trustworthy for veracity. A couple of well-known examples by Jean-Paul Sartre and Franz Fanon, which happen to mirror one another, will help make this general point before delving into the specifics of this part. In Anti-Semite and Jew, despite Sartre’s general claims that his philosophical perspective of existentialism cannot provide an ethics, he describes the flawed (p. 248) character of the French anti-Semite. The anti-Semite bases his self-worth on something he was already born with, instead of on the process and results of his own choices and actions—he objectifies himself: “His virtue depends upon the assimilation of the qualities which the work of a hundred generations has lent to the objects which surround him; it depends on property. It goes without saying this is a matter of inherited property, not property one buys” (Sartre 1948, 23). Fanon, by contrast, writes about how European whites have objectified him. In describing his reaction to the famous passage in which a little boy reacts to him with alarm—“Look, a Negro! Maman, a Negro!”—Fanon writes, “My body was returned to me spread-eagled, disjointed, wrapped in mourning” (Fanon 1952, 93). Today, as over half a century ago, Sartre and Fanon’s readers intuitively understand that the human subject is not a thing, so that when people render themselves effortlessly superior things or render others automatically inferior things, something has gone badly wrong in human relations.

The contemporary continental focus on the living, feeling, changing, choosing, human subject has its most powerful antecedents in philosophers who based the whole world on the human mind or spirit. Nevertheless, as we saw regarding Kant in Part I, there is nothing inherent in philosophical idealism that predisposed thinkers to support racial egalitarianism. Indeed, Hegel, in perhaps the most intense associations of race with [the spirit of] geography in the modern period, wrote about Africans in terms that are shameful and shocking today:

From the earliest historical times, Africa has remained cut off from all contact with the rest of the world. It is the land of gold, forever pressing in upon itself, and the land of childhood, removed from the light of self-consciousness history and wrapped in the dark mantle of night.

(Hegel 1997, 31)

Apart from this view of Africa, which Hegel extended to its inhabitants, he has not generally been considered an existentialist, or even as in this case, a negative existentialist of blackness. Indeed, Søren Kierkegaard used Hegel as a bad example for his own existentialist philosophy. So, methodologically, as well as in content, Hegel does not appear to be a possible friend of antiracist continental approaches. However, as Rocío Zambrana explains, extensive use has been made of at least one of Hegel’s insights that historically applies to race relations, namely the relation between history and freedom. For Hegel, freedom is an historical development requiring autonomy in the Enlightenment sense that entails recognition by “the other” (another person who is different from oneself in some important way). Freedom cannot be exempt from the laws of nature, but “modes of individual and collective self-understanding, and their institutional embodiments, are said to be free, to make possible a free life, if they are products of self-articulation, rather than products of nature.” According to Hegel, slavery occurs among Africans because they do not have aptitude for culture. Mere victory in war can result in enslavement which then has the form of what Hegel considers an “absolute injustice.” But, based on interpretation of his early work on the revolution in Haiti and his meaning of universalism, Zambrana argues that Hegel did not always locate Africans outside of history and thereby incapable of freedom. And she thereby calls for present Hegelians to build on that potential universalism in his thought.

Insofar as Marx is said to have applied a Hegelian analysis to material inequalities, it may seem as though Hegelian methods could be useful for considering poverty as an inequality accompanying racial hierarchy. Stephen Ferguson believes that from a Marxist perspective, the overuse of race as a primary analytic category in social explanation “may obscure the (p. 249) political struggles of the black working class.” But Ferguson does not want to go so far as to claim that all forms of oppression are ultimately a matter of, or reduce to, economic class. He follows the black Communist Doxey A. Wilkerson in drawing a distinction between a biological fact of race and social myths of racial inequality. The biological reality or nonreality of race is not the whole story, however. Rather, “the ontological status of race can only be disclosed through the examination of the real, material relations, social institutions and social practices that give rise to the necessity for racial categories and take the form of racist ideology.” Ferguson emphasizes that race is primarily a social category that cannot be abstracted from racism. But the anatomy of racism is an integral part of the economy of capitalism, so that class differences within racial groups must be recognized.

Jonathan Judaken relates race to existentialism as a mid-twentieth century world view. His analysis is anchored on Normal Mailer’s “The White Negro” and Albert Memmi’s Pillar of Salt. Judaken draws from cultural critics who did not write fiction, to show how these texts were moments in a passage from understanding racism as an individual problem or subject, to a political and economic condition. Mailer used his figure of the American hipster to associate his criticism of bland “Father Knows Best” culture with existentialism. Rejecting the prevailing idea that racial essence determined identity, Mailer slightly revised Sartre’s “existence precedes essence” to “Man is then not only his character, but his context.” James Baldwin criticized Mailer for his appropriation of black identity for white “hipness,” because he did not go below the surface of black stereotypes as hypersexual criminals and psychopaths.

Relevant to Baldwin’s critique of Mailer was the shift in Sartre’s view from his treatment of anti-Semitism to antiblack racism. Whereas Sartre had criticized the anti-Semite in terms of individual vice, in considering antiblack racism, through the influence of Frantz Fanon, he took a more political approach. Sartre came to insist that the freedom of blacks required the freedom of all humankind. As part of that position, Sartre criticized Memmi’s location of racism in individual psyches, as well as his refusal to recognize the connection of racism with an economic system. Although Memmi ultimately adopted a more Marxist perspective in response to Sartre, he continued to insist that racism ultimately rested on a Sartrean idea of bad faith, as well as anxiety about, and fear of, the other.

Ladelle McWhorter turns to Foucault to consider the intellectual trajectory from scientific racism to neoliberal biopolitics, and how racism survived its scientific demise toward resurrection in new forms of oppression. As a genealogist, McWhorter cautions that racism “exists only in its various historical manifestations in (usually institutionalized) practices, including the rationalizing practices that give those practices their sense, and it changes as networks of power change.” Thus, McWhorter traces the history of “race” as a product of institutions. In the eighteenth century, “race” meant linear descent but by the nineteenth, it was primarily a matter of appearance, followed by differences in development. After World War II, within educated communities, racism came to be regarded as a form of ignorance. Over this period, modern societal practices of normalization through discipline were perfected, for schools, military camps, hospitals, asylums, and prisons. Also, sexuality came to be socially formed and technologized as “biopower,” which through eugenics was a new powerful tool of racial discipline—before Hitler (Nazi race theory directly placed the idea of human breeding for the good of society in very bad repute). Since Foucault wrote, neoliberalism has produced explanations of inequality based on individual traits, rather than wider social, political, or economic systems. And although this new individualism may involve less (p. 250) discipline against whole categories of human beings, there is a customized, niche-consumption division of populations that favors those who can contribute and consume more, while at the same time disciplining and controlling subgroups who are less engaged with the mass system.

Lewis Gordon approaches the assumption that phenomenology is a product of Western “continental” thought, with considerable skepticism. Gordon focuses on Africana existentialist, but not transcendental, phenomenology. Although he does not view these two approaches as opposed, he distinguishes between them insofar far as “existential phenomenology asserts a fundamental incompleteness at the heart of our relationship with reality, whereas transcendental phenomenology explores the conditions by which such claims about knowledge are possible.” Gordon goes on to introduce and explore several related Africana phenomenological insights, in a critique of Afro-pessimism. The Afro-pessimistic claim that blackness is social death raises the question of why the fundamental foundation of the social world should be the “attitudes and perspectives of antiblack racists.” Also, Gordon claims that the posit of social death is itself a form of bad faith (mauvaise foi) because existing (standing out) as not existing (not standing out) is a conundrum. Furthermore, such ideas of nonexistence preclude that equality between members of different groups which is necessary for there to be ethics and morals. That is, if we do not share the same humanity, then we cannot impose obligations on others, morally evaluate them, or make demands for ourselves to others.

Fanon, Frantz. [1952] (2008). Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.Find this resource:

Gordon, Lewis R., ed. (1996). Existence in Black. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Hegel, Friedrich Georg Wilhelm. (1997). “Geographical Bases of World History.” In Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader, edited by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, 110–149. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1948). Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate. New York: Schockten Books.Find this resource:

Stewart, Jon. (2003). Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource: