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Racism and rationality in Hegel's philosophy of subjective spirit

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The eurocentrism of Hegel's philosophy of history is well known. Hegel's reputation has not benefited from many of the claims in the Philosophy of History; such as the one that African history, having no development, has contributed nothing to world history. Because of the general lack of attention that Hegel's philosophy of subjective spirit has received, it is little known that this eurocentrism is based, in part, on the racism of the philosophy of subjective spirit. Only here does Hegel systematically treat the biological category of race. Reading through this section one can find passages about racial distinctions which seem initially to be rather ambivalent, but taken as a whole are decidedly racist. Much of what Hegel says about the ‘inferiority’ of African culture and the ‘justification’ for the slave trade finds its foundation here. This paper is an exhibition of the relevant passages of the ‘Philosophy of Subjective Spirit’ and an attempt to link them to Hegel's other claims about African culture and the slave trade. I will argue that Hegel's philosophy of spirit is tainted by the unusual (for Hegel) causal role which he gives to a biological category, namely race. I will argue further that his philosophy of spirit is not necessarily racist, only contingently so, that is that his racism does not follow from any of his fundamental claims about spirit. Hegel's account of spirit makes his racism possible, not necessary. The source of his racism can be traced to the general ideology of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, understanding how Hegel could hold racist views is important for understanding features of his political philosophy. It shows both the problems of the Hegelian conception of person hood and exemplifies the conservative bias built into his method of political philosophy generally
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Publication date: 01 February 1992

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