Posted on October 12, 2020

Philosophy’s Systemic Racism

Avram Alpert, Aeon, September 24, 2020

It is by now well known that some of the greatest modern philosophers held racist views. John Locke (1632-1704), David Hume (1711-76), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), G W F Hegel (1770-1831) and many others believed that Black and Indigenous peoples the world over were savage, inferior and in need of correction by European enlightenment. No serious philosopher today defends these explicitly racist views but, with good reason, they continue to study the writings of these authors. In order to hold on to the philosophical insights, scholars tend to make a distinction between the individual racism and the philosophical systems. Hegel might have been wrong for his racist writings about Africans and others, but that doesn’t tell us anything about his speculative metaphysics.

Or so the argument goes. But if we have learned anything about racism over the past few decades, it is that a focus on individual racist statements can obscure the ways in which racism continues to persist in systems. While laws in the United States, for example, may no longer overtly disenfranchise people of colour, they still enable oppression through mass incarceration. Is there any risk that something like this has happened in philosophy – that in focusing on condemning the individual racism of philosophers we have allowed systemic philosophical racism to remain intact?

Let’s consider in some detail the case of Hegel, arguably the creator of the most systematic philosophy in modern thought. Hegel certainly was an explicit racist. He believed, for example, that Black Africans were a ‘race of children that remain immersed in a state of naiveté’. He further wrote that Indigenous peoples lived in ‘a condition of savagery and unfreedom’. And in The Philosophy of Right (1821), he argued that there is a ‘right of heroes’ to colonise these people in order to bring them into a progress of European enlightenment.

It is not immediately obvious, however, that these racist remarks leave any trace on Hegel’s philosophical system. In his encyclopaedic writings on metaphysics, aesthetics, history, politics and even botany and magnetism, he worked to show how there existed a universal process of dialectical transformation. Hegel’s dialectics are notoriously complicated, but we can roughly define them as the bringing together of opposites in order to show how the contradictions between things eventually break down, and lead to the creation of a truer and more encompassing idea. One frequently cited example is what is sometimes called the ‘master-slave dialectic’, a discussion of the path to equal relations between two people that Hegel included in various writings. In these passages, Hegel shows how the opposition between master and slave fosters unbearable and unstable conditions that must eventually break down, lead to rebellion and, hopefully, create a system of equals.

From this example, one might reasonably conclude that Hegel’s philosophical system couldn’t have been racist. The critical theorist Susan Buck-Morss has gone so far as to argue that Hegel was writing the Haitian Revolution into his philosophy through the master-slave dialectic. Even if he held racist views, Hegel’s philosophical pursuit of truth led him to argue for universal justice through revolutionary struggle. If this is the case, then his philosophical system might reasonably be seen to contradict his racism. It is precisely because of such dissonance that commentators justify the distinction between Hegel’s explicit racism and the meaning of his philosophical system.

This distinction breaks down, however, if we look more deeply into where Hegel’s idea of dialectics originated. In so doing, we will find that colonial racism directly informs the very concept of dialectics. Just like systemic racism in the world today, understanding the systemic racism of philosophy cannot be done by simply looking at a single individual or set of beliefs. We have to understand the historical context of ideas, how racism informed their genesis, and how that racism continues to structure our thinking today in ways that we might not fully realise.


If we look to two of Hegel’s immediate predecessors in the dialectical method – Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) and Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) – we can see how the method itself was influenced by colonial history as much as by Plato or magnetism. Rousseau had a profound influence on Hegel. And he, like Hegel, was an omnivorous reader of accounts from colonial ethnographers and missionaries. Unlike Hegel, however, he thought that he was reading about people leading idyllic lives. In his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1755), Rousseau drew on missionary accounts from places such as the Antilles to describe how Indigenous peoples in the Americas lived in a near-perfect equality and tranquility. While Europeans had grown alienated and unjust, Rousseau saw that easygoing equality had been the natural way of life in the Americas.

He didn’t believe, however, that Europeans should return to this natural way of living, nor that the peoples of the Americas could remain in their supposedly natural state now that contact with Europe had occurred. The ‘Caribs’, as Rousseau called them, would have to become more rational, while the Europeans would have to become more instinctual. {snip} In other words, Caribs and Europeans would have to combine opposing elements – instinct and reason – and combine them in a new way of being – becoming rational by instinct – that would overcome the problems of each in a new, third mode of being. Rousseau called this the creation of a ‘savage made to inhabit cities’. Sound familiar? Two seeming opposites combine to create something new: it’s dialectics avant la lettre.

To see in better detail the explicit racist logic that will later become abstracted into the system of dialectics, we can consider one renowned anecdote from Rousseau’s Discourse about a man who trades his hammock in the morning to a French coloniser and then wants it back at night. Rousseau writes:

His [the Carib’s] soul, agitated by nothing, is given over to the single feeling of his own present existence, without any idea of the future, however near it may be, and his projects, as limited as his views, hardly extend to the end of the day. Such is … the extent of the Carib’s foresight. In the morning he sells his bed of cotton and in the evening he returns in tears to buy it back, for want of having foreseen that he would need it that night.


{snip} These other human beings, with their sophisticated ethics of exchange and gift-giving, become one-dimensional characters who have no concept of time. What matters for the history of dialectics is what Rousseau does philosophically, based on this racist error. Rousseau at once envies and criticises these invented men. He believes that most human misery comes precisely from thinking into the future:

Foresight! Foresight, which takes us ceaselessly beyond ourselves and often places us where we shall never arrive … O man, draw your existence up within yourself, and you will no longer be miserable …

It is because he believes the Caribs have no foresight that he says they are happy and ‘agitated by nothing’.

But Rousseau also knows that, without future-oriented thinking, there can be no planning or progress. Social life requires us to substitute ‘justice for instinct’, as he says in On the Social Contract (1762). Somehow, according to Rousseau, we must find a way to have the future thinking that makes justice possible, without losing the sense of being present that brings us ease and joy. We must, in other words, learn to combine the seemingly opposed terms of instinct and rationality in order to synthesise a way of being in the world where we are neither so present as to neglect the future nor so alienated from the present as to destroy our happiness. We need, in other words, a dialectical process to occur between the French and Caribs. And this whole way of thinking, this groundwork of dialectical thought, has a fundamental origin in Rousseau’s racist thoughts about how the peoples of the Antilles are too stupid to know in the morning that, come evening, they will need a hammock to sleep on.

Perhaps, the sceptical reader might say, that’s just a problem with Rousseau. It has nothing to do with dialectics as such, and has no clear relation to the racist things that Hegel writes. But if we follow the history of the dialectic as it moves from Rousseau into German thought, it is quickly apparent that, although increasingly generalised, this colonial racism comes with it. One of the major articulators of the dialectical process before Hegel was Schiller, the poet-philosopher. In his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), a very important text for Hegel’s dialectical philosophy, Schiller explicitly takes up Rousseau’s task of trying to find a way to connect instinct and rationality across cultures.

Schiller, like Rousseau, believed that a gap had formed between the instinctual life of ‘natural humans’ and the rational life of Europeans. And, like Rousseau, he wanted to find a way to combine what was good in instinct with what was good in rationality. {snip}


Although Schiller’s language is more abstract than Rousseau’s, his racist assumptions are the same: there are some peoples too immersed in instinct (lawless ‘savages’) and some too lost in reason (unfeeling Europeans), and the goal is to combine each of their best parts while negating the worst.


The problem is that Hegel believes that Black and Indigenous peoples have a ‘dormant’ dialectic, are stuck in nature, and thus cannot begin the dialectical process toward self-conscious freedom. This is why he says there is a ‘right of heroes’ to colonise – it is only through colonisation by Europe that others can become part of the march of human freedom. Thus, pace Buck-Morss, the Haitian Revolution for Hegel is simply when European ideals have achieved freedom for others through colonisation:

In Haiti they [Black people] have even formed a state on Christian principles. They show no inner tendency to culture however. In their homeland [Africa] the most shocking despotism prevails … Their spirit is quite dormant, remains sunk within itself, makes no progress …

Here we can clearly see the inextricability of colonial racism, the system of dialectics, and how Hegel theorises ‘abstract’ notions such as self-consciousness, progress and freedom.

The result of equal freedom might be good, but the entire movement of Hegel’s system toward this end begins with the racist ideas of Rousseau and his claims about the lack of thought from Indigenous peoples supposedly trapped in the ‘state of nature’ until Europeans arrive. {snip}


If we truly are committed to antiracism in philosophy, we will certainly need to deal with the explicit racism of individual thinkers, the lack of diversity in the philosophy curriculum, and the lack of diversity in philosophy faculty and students. But we’ll also have to take a hard look into the subtler forms of racism that inform our concepts and ideas. Dialectics is not the only concept that developed through the racism of its time. Ideas of autonomy, aesthetics and even freedom were also generated through the same process of showing how European life was different from those who were deemed savages. {snip}… that doesn’t mean these notions will have to be discarded, only that we will have to unpack their racist histories and set them on more equal grounds. The result is not the loss of the Western canon, but the actual improvement of philosophical thought. Philosophical systems can be powerful tools for guiding us away from the depredations of the present and into the reparations of the future. But we can’t make that move without first coming to terms with their systemic racism.