- Hegel and the Third World: The Making of Eurocentrism in World History by Teshale Tibebu
In Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, the early nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) denounced human enslavement in seemingly unequivocal terms: “Slavery ought not to exist,” Hegel wrote, “as it is by definition unjust in and for itself” (201). But as Teshale Tibebu reveals in Hegel and the Third World: The Making of Eurocentrism in World History, Hegel’s recognition of the basic injustice of slavery was undermined by a “racist philosophical anthropology” that ultimately justified the subjugation of allegedly inferior non-western peoples by white, male, European Protestants (xi). For Hegel, freedom is the goal of history—“world history is the progress of the consciousness of freedom,” (135) he insisted—but freedom is only possible in the context of a political, religious, and socio-economic system that allows for self-knowledge through independent self-reflection, one that permits “the subject to follow its own conscience and morality” (136) and to recognize the universal dignity of all humankind. According to Hegel, this system had its antecedent in classical Greece and found its modern expression in the bourgeois capitalist order of [End Page 227] Protestant Prussia. As Tibebu demonstrates with remarkable detail, Hegel deemed the world outside the European West as permanently incapable of generating such a system from within. Hegel, Tibebu writes in his conclusion, therefore “invested a significant part of his formidable intellectual power to rationalizing Europe’s global domination of the Third World” (324). He created a Eurocentric philosophy of human history that excused not only New World slavery and modern colonialism, but also the disappearance of the original Native American populations, as moving the world toward the ultimate end goal of universal human freedom.
Tibebu’s purpose is to reveal the single-minded racism that informs Hegel’s philosophy of world history, and the author does not mince words, at times likening Hegel’s attitudes to Hitler’s. But Hegel and the Third World is no hatchet job. Tibebu prefaced his chapters on Hegel’s perceptions of Africa, Asia, and the Greco-Germanic world with a thorough analysis of Hegel’s foundational theories of the relationships of nature to spirit and lordship to bondage. This is necessary, Tibebu shows, because Hegel’s belief that freedom entails the spirit’s liberation from “the dictatorship of nature” (31) through independent self-reflection and through “the refashioning of nature through work according to human needs” (55) structures his racism. For Hegel, Protestant European male capitalists represent the apex of humanity precisely because they can do these things, and Hegel arranged the rest of the globe’s peoples on a hierarchical scale according to the degree to which they could not. For Tibebu, it matters little that Hegel’s racism was “geocultural” and not “biological”—meaning that he attributed racial differences to environmental conditions rather than to unchanging biological essences—or that Hegel held out the possibility of progress for most non-Europeans if they came under European control (181). Even with these qualifications, Hegel’s racism was poison for the “third world,” Tibebu argues, fueling stereotypes about Africans, Asians, and Native Americans that justified their colonization, enslavement, and even annihilation.
Tibebu addresses these stereotypes at length in the second half of the book. In chapter 6, “Africa: The Domain of the Senses,” he shows how Hegel relegated the populations of what he called “Africa proper”—Africans outside Egypt and beyond the reach of the Mediterranean—to the lowest ranks of humanity: as slaves to nature who live by instinct and as cruel, inhumane brutes who lack self-control (173). Indeed, Hegel designated the true African as an “animal man,” without an awareness of God, morality, or [End Page 228] law, and Tibebu attributes great significance to the fact that he reserved this label for Africans alone (179). The populations of “Africa proper” also play no role in Hegel’s version of world history. The philosopher saw true history as...