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Reviewed by:
  • Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History
  • Patricia Anne Simpson (bio)
Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. By Susan Buck-Morss . Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. 154 pp. Cloth $45.00, paper $17.95.

The best-known and perhaps most "popularized" philosophical concept from Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit would have to be the "master-slave" (lordship and bondage) dialectic. At the same time, it is arguably the least understood, inviting all to read closely and tread cautiously when attempting to interpret the dialectic of power, dominance, and dependence in that figure of thought from Hegel's purportedly systematic philosophy of mind. For two centuries, philosophers, as well as political and cultural theorists, have debated the relative merits of a highly influential philosophical system that lacks systematic rigor but relies instead on historically specific narrative argument. Hegel's idealism would divest itself of virtually all reference to realms beyond abstract thought. The central question becomes what the status is of historical reference in Hegel's thought.

In recent years, scholars, feminist and cultural studies theorists among them, have interrogated the consequences of abstraction itself as a category from multiple perspectives: it is one manifestation of a privileged position associated with Eurocentrism and all that implies. While Marx's response constitutes one contemporary corrective or counternarrative to airless Hegelian heights, Susan Buck-Morss's essays in this volume expose the inherent violence in voiding philosophical thought of historical context. In eloquent prose, the author of The Origin of Negative Dialectics (1979) and Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left (2003), among other crucial works, continues a political project that rethinks the fundamental texts and contexts of materialist philosophy through trenchant critique of its limitations. Clarity and a type of truth emerge from the ruptures Buck-Morss identifies. [End Page 246]

In her readings, Buck-Morss refuses to explain things away. Unsatisfied with the notion that Aristotle is the source of Hegel's ideas about slavery, she embarks on a journey (she describes the writing of the first essay as a "mystery story" [3]), guided by a very practical question: what role did this particular contemporary event, the revolution in Haiti, have in shaping Hegel's thought? Her inquiry demonstrates that the revolt in Haiti was more than a moment of historical contingency; its impact on Hegel's thinking discloses the essential disjunction between philosophy and history that Hegel was rewriting in the early nineteenth century. Buck-Morss's project aims not at discrediting Hegel but at reconfiguring how we think about slavery, economics, and history by exposing how he did not. Her arguments are persuasive.

The first essay, "Hegel and Haiti," initially appeared in Critical Inquiry (2000), which the author modestly characterizes as "something of an intellectual event" (ix). The second essay, "Universal History," published for the first time in this volume, responds to the urgent discussions generated by the claims put forth in "Hegel and Haiti." These two pieces, enhanced by a preface to the book and an introduction to each essay, have the cumulative effect of in some ways overtaking Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's contribution to comprehending fully the dialectic of the Enlightenment. Why did a philosophical consideration of freedom as "the highest and universal political value" (21) coincide with the consolidation of slave labor as the basis of Western economic development? The force of abstraction, the primary delivery device of idealist philosophy, functionally erases historical referent. The layers of commentary contribute to the overall sense of contingency in the work, to the idea that in spite of any assertion of perspective, perspicacity, and totality, our contributions to a critique of universality remain fragmentary and refracted. Buck-Morss manages to adjust her focus between the sweeping wide angle and the up close and immediate to conclude that Hegel must be read with Haiti.

The essays are full of insight and surprise. The introduction to the first essay provides an itinerary for reading all that follows. It contextualizes Buck-Morss's own process of inquiry as well as the intellectual context and neoliberal conditions that prompted the writing in the post-Cold War world. "Hegel and Haiti" delivers an incisive commentary on the coordinating...


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