Book Plug: Hegel’s Introduction to the System. Encyclopædia Phenomenology and Psychology. (Introduction, Translation, and Commentary by Robert E. Wood).

Hegel's Introduction to the System_RWoodAnyone who has put in the time and effort to read Hegel knows how incredibly difficult and dense his texts are and thus what a welcome gift a lucid commentary would be. Dr. Robert E. Wood has provided such a gift in his newly published translation of and commentary on Hegel’s “Phenomenology” and “Psychology,” entitled, Hegel’s Introduction to the System. Not only does Wood’s translation offer new insights, but also his decision to insert his commentary after particularly difficult and noteworthy passages allows the reader to engage in an ongoing interplay—or as Gadamer would say—a “dialogue” with the text and with Wood, who has devoted a lifetime of scholarly energy and passion to the study of Hegel’s thought.

The book consists of four parts. In Part I, Wood begins with an introduction to Hegel’s life and thought. In Part II, he sketches a helpful overview of the Logic, Philosophy of Nature, and the Philosophy of Spirit. In Part III, the “heart” of the text, we have Wood’s translation and commentary on key sections of the “Philosophy of Spirit,” viz. the Anthropology, Phenomenology, and Psychology. Then in the concluding section, Part IV, Wood provides an overview of the final sections of the “Philosophy of Spirit,” viz. Objective and Absolute Spirit. Wood has also taken the time to compile a helpful selected bibliography consisting of (1) works that offer a basic orientation to Hegel or that focus on a particular part of his work, and (2) works that focus specifically on themes in Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit.

On a final and more personal note, I had the great pleasure to study under Bob Wood at the University Dallas. One could not encounter a more generous scholar whose love for philosophy and an ongoing pursuit of truth is so manifest and contagious. Wood’s love for teaching comes through in his text as well, and I encourage those teaching the relevant courses on Hegel to assign this text, which will offer tremendous help to students as they wrestle with and come to understand, as Heidegger put it, Hegel’s “greatness.”

Resistance Through Re-narration Available Online at African Identities: Journal of Economics, Culture, and Society

For those interested, my essay, “Resistance Through Re-narration: Fanon on De-constructing Racialized Subjectivities,” African Identities: Journal of  Economics, Culture, and Society 9:4 (Dec. 2011): 363-85. DOI:  10.1080/14725843.2011.61441o, is now available for online viewing


Frantz Fanon offers a lucid account of his entrance into the white world where the weightiness of the ‘white gaze’ nearly crushed him. In chapter five of Black Skins, White Masks, he develops his historico-racial and epidermal racial schemata as correctives to Merleau-Ponty’s overly inclusive corporeal schema. Experientially aware of the reality of socially constructed (racialized) subjectivities, Fanon uses his schemata to explain the creation, maintenance, and eventual rigidification of white-scripted ‘blackness’. Through a re-telling of his own experiences of racism, Fanon is able to show how a black person in a racialized context eventually internalizes the ‘white gaze’. In this essay I bring Fanon’s insights into conversation with Foucault’s discussion of panoptic surveillance. Although the internalization of the white narrative creates a situation in which external constraints are no longer needed, Fanon highlights both the historical contingency of ‘blackness’ and the ways in which the oppressed can re-narrate their subjectivities. Lastly, I discuss Fanon’s historically attuned ‘new humanism’, once again engaging Fanon and Foucault as dialogue partners.

Part II: Frederick Douglass and Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic: The Un-Liberating Effect of Slave Labor

With a basic sketch of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in place [see part I], I want to bring Douglass’s account into conversation with Hegel. After Douglass’s act of physical resistance or more strongly put, his act of violence, Covey never again physically abuses Douglass.  For Hegel, the master/slave relationship comes into existence when one person chooses to preserve his life rather than fight the other and risk his life. The one opting for life over death becomes the slave. Contra Hegel’s account of the docile slave who surrendered himself to his master’s will, Douglass confronts his master and is willing to risk his life in order to gain freedom. In his narrative, Douglass himself interprets the fight with Covey as a decisive moment in his struggle for freedom.Slaves Working in Fields

The battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave.  It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before.  It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.  My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.  I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.[1]

According to Douglass, something beyond intellectual freedom—literacy and so-called “inner freedom”—was required for his “resurrection” from “the tomb of slavery,” his on-going social death experienced from sunrise to sunset. As an embodied, political being, Douglass’s experience of freedom was necessarily limited so long as Covey and the all-pervasive socio-political apparatus of chattel slavery had dominion over his body, controlling, monitoring, and defining his every spatio-temporal move. As I highlighted earlier, Douglass’s personal history including significant temporal markers and events—his birth date, the identity of his father, the death and burial of his mother—was erased, covered up, and controlled by the white other. When he resolved to stand up to Covey—an embodied representative of the larger socio-political racialized apparatus—Douglass began to re-write his own story and to forge his own historical and temporal markers.  His preface to the Covey episode indicates that he himself understood the fight as momentous, historic, and transformative. “The circumstances leading to the change in Mr. Covey’s course toward me form an epoch in my humble history. You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”[2] In short, Douglass’s re-narration of this event suggests that not only was some form of physical resistance or force needed for his own sense of freedom, but it was also needed so that Covey might recognize him as an other, as a human being with volitional and rational faculties capable of producing deliberate and purposeful acts of resistance.[3] The (white) panoptic gaze inscribed in his body through multiple lashes of the whip and forced inhumane labor, the gaze internalized through his brokenness and reduction to an animal-like state, was at last cast off, deflected, turned aside.  In Douglass’s words, “I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.”[4]

Frederick Douglass SpeakingMy final point with respect to the Hegel/Douglass dialogue is to highlight the fact that in Douglass’s narrative, the slave does not attain freedom or recognition of his humanity through his labor for the master. To the contrary, Douglass says that the excruciating labor regime and brutality he endured under Covey’s supervision tormented his body and soul and depressed his spirit. “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!”[5] Rather than unveil over time the truth of his humanity, Douglass’s forced labor for the master’s sake, worked in a systematic and calculated way to extinguish—or at least attempt to extinguish—his higher capacities and thus to reduce him to an animal-like existence.[6] His work for Covey produced neither indifference to nor detachment from desire, but instead ignited and augmented a desire for freedom, a spatio-temporal existence defined and fashioned by his value as a (rational, volitional) human being and not by the economic value or any other benefits extracted from his subjugated body only to be handed over for the enjoyment of his master. Although on Douglass’s account acquiring skills through labor does not bring about a reversal in the master/slave relationship, he is quite cognizant of the way in which the master’s identity is (as Hegel claims) dialectically related to the slave’s. How so? Covey decides against turning Douglass in for a public whipping. Douglass’s explanation for Covey’s seemingly inexplicable decision is that his master’s reputation as a slave-breaker was on the line.  The master had failed to break the slave; consequently, for Covey to surrender Douglass to the civic authorities would be to admit his failure and to lose his highly valued reputation.


[1] Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave/My Bondage and My Freedom/Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.  New York:  Library of America, 1994, 65.

[2] Ibid., 60.

[3] I personally have no desire to promote acts of violence; however, if we take Douglass’s account at face value, we must wrestle with his claims that violence was a necessary component to his freedom.

[4] Ibid., 65.

[5] Ibid., 58.

[6] In fact, Douglass describes his first six months of Covey’s work regime as one of the most difficult periods of his enslavement.  “If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey.  We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail or snow, too hard for us to work in the field.  Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night” (ibid.).

Part II: Joerg Rieger and Frederick Douglass on the “Myth of Individualism” and the Eruption of Alternative Subjectivities From the Underside

Slave Revolt Published in The Abolitionist 1802Although elsewhere I bring Douglass’s insights into conversation with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, here I want to focus on how Douglass’s observations converge and resonate with Rieger’s thoughts on the myth of the (autonomous) individual. Rieger is in no way suggesting that the humanity, subjectivity, or agency of a marginalized or oppressed person is or can be totally eradicated by the dominant culture, narratives, or “master” subjectivities.  Rather, like Douglass, Rieger’s point, which presupposes and affirms human solidarity, is that we are both socially constructed and self-constructed.  Thus, on the one hand, Rieger emphasizes how under the current rule of Empire “subjectivity is being actively colonized at the level of the cultural, the emotional, and even the spiritual,” and those in the dominant position of privilege can “happily encourage others to take things into their own hands—to become active subjects, in other words—without having to be too worried that this will ever become a reality,” thus strengthening “the myth that the powerful have gained power by becoming active [autonomous] subjects themselves […] and putting blame on all others who fail.”[1] Yet, on the other hand, Rieger stresses the agency and creative possibilities of human beings, even when they find themselves in demoralizing, inhumane, and oppressive socio-political contexts like chattel slavery or colonialism.

The good news […] is that, despite all its efforts, Empire is never able to control and co-opt subjectivity and desire totally and absolutely. A first sense that subjectivity cannot be co-opted grows entirely out of an observation of the ambivalence of the status quo. The Empire’s power and influence may be substantial and all-encompassing, but are never absolute, never without ambivalence. Even subjectivity that has seemingly been erased by Empire keeps erupting, at times in unexpected places. It is a significant datum of history that even slaves—people who were not supposed to have any subjectivity at all—were able to reassert their subjectivity, rise up, and challenge the Empire. The Judeo-Christian traditions are founded on such a slave uprising in the Exodus and on many other stories of resistance by people who were considered lacking subjectivity in the ancient world.[2]South Carolina Slaves Unknown Artist

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and countless other “erupting” subjectivities refused the pre-scripted (racialized) narrative of the dominant culture and chose instead various paths of resistance, (re)scripting their identities, (re)asserting their humanity, and gifting us with living memorials of hope to encourage us in times of doubt and despair.  In light of the double construction of subjectivities—that is, our social and self-construction—there are no autonomous self-made subjects; yet, there is no reason to conclude that social construction and agency are mutually exclusive or that the former necessarily eradicates the latter.


[1] Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key, 138.

[2] Ibid.

Socially Constructed “Blackness” and (Hegelian) Racialized Refrains “Out of the Mouths of Babes”

In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon recounts his experience on a train of being “fixed” by a white other—an other which happened to be a child who had already been habituated to see blacks as defined by the white imagination.  As the child’s refrain, “Look! A Negro!”[1] crescendoed forth and came to a close with a fearful questioning of the “Negro’s” next move, Fanon not only experienced the gaze of the white other, he also began to see himself through the white gaze.[2]Tracks

I cast an objective gaze over myself, and I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics—and they burst my eardrums with cannibalism, backwardness [l’arriération mentale], fetishism, racial defects, slaves and above all, and above all:  “Y a bon Banania.”  On that day I was disoriented, incapable of existing outside with the Other, the White man, who mercilessly imprisoned me.  I carried myself far away from my Dasein [de mon être-là]—very far away—and constituted myself as an object.  What was this for me, if not a separation [décollement], an uprooting [arrachement], a hemorrhage which congealed with black blood over my entire body.  Nevertheless, I did not want this reconsideration, this thematization of myself. I wanted quite simply to be a human among other humans.[3]

As Fanon takes up the white view of himself, he experiences its all-encompassing reach.  That is, his becoming a white-defined black other involved more than his present encounter with the child on the train; in essence, he entered into the white erasing and re-scripting of black history.  Not only is his present fixed by the white other, but his past is fixed as well.  The child’s unison refrain gives rise to polyphonic lines of “cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism” and the like.

Even if it is the case that the child, because of his lack of cognitive development, is an unwilling or non-culpable participant in furthering racism and racial discourse; nonetheless, the effect—un-reflective racism in children—is a reality that confronts the black other on a daily basis and forces him to experience his phenotypic differences as conceived by the white imagination.  As Fanon explains, “I am overdetermined from the outside.  […] The white gaze, the only valid one, is already dissecting me.  I am fixed.  Once their microtomes are sharpened, the Whites objectively cut sections of my reality.”[4] Fanon’s body, particularly his ever-present, always uncovered black skin, brimming with manifold white-determined meanings, takes on a life of its own.  This second-self is created through discourse—a socially constructed subjectivity—a kind of reverse shadow whose form creates a path upon which Fanon must walk. As the encounter with the child continues and the refrain sounds once again, “Look, a Negro!  Maman, a Negro!”, the boy’s mother, somewhat nervously, cries, “Ssh! You’ll make him angry.  Don’t pay attention to him, monsieur, he doesn’t realize you’re just as civilized as we are.”[5] As Kant, Hegel and other Western philosophers have asserted, the Western tradition, for which white European culture becomes the surrogate, is the standard for determining whether a nation has a culture or could possibly become cultured and civilized, and thus enter into world history.

Kant, paving the way for Hegel, claims that true history begins with the Greeks and that non-Greek peoples are validated only through contact with the Greeks.  On Kant’s estimation, the (non)histories of non-Greeks are simply “terra incognita,” an amorphous X, lacking (Western) form and thus unable to appear as intelligible.  He then turns to the Jews to illustrate how a nation may enter a state of historical and cultural recognition.

This happened with the Jewish nation (volk) at the time of the Ptolemies through the Greek translation of the Bible, without which one would ascribe little credibility to their isolated records.  From that point forward (if this beginning has been properly ascertained) one can pursue its narratives.  And thus with all the other nations (Völkern).[6]

In his lectures on the philosophy of history, Hegel takes up this same line of thinking; however, in order to justify his position, he provides an elaborate narrative in which Geist’s presence or absence indicates whether a nation has historical, cultural or socio-political significance.[7] One might go as far as to claim that the mother’s remark to Fanon has its own genealogical history which is consonant with the Western philosophical tradition; her awareness of this history matters little.  Approached in this manner, echoes of Hegel’s depiction of Africans as cannibalistic can still be heard in the child’s cry, “Maman, the Negro’s going to eat me”.[8]

All of these discourses—whether philosophical, pseudoscientific, or everyday chatter on a public train—comprise the many pieces of Fanon’s “black” self, woven together by the white other.


[1] The French reads, ‘tiens un nègre’, which can also be translated, ‘Look! A Nigger’.  Perhaps various English translations have presented a kinder, gentler version, thus concealing the ‘sting’ produced by the child’s repeated utterance.

[2] See also Bart van Leewan, ‘To What Extent is Racism a Magical Transformation?’ Journal of Social Philosophy 38 (2007), 296 ff.  Van Leewan discusses the ‘gaze’ from the perspective of the racist in order to give an account of the motivational structure of racism.  In addition, van Leeuwen’s essay offers several practical anti-racism strategies (see especially, 303–5).

[3] My translation.  Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs, 90-1.

[4] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 95.

[5] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 93.

[6] Immanuel Kant.  ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim (1784)’, trans. Allen W. Wood, 107–120, at 118. Anthropology, History and Education. Ed. and trans. Günter Zöller and Robert Louden.  (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2008), 118.

[7] Robert Bernasconi has devoted several manuscripts to the study of Hegel and his Eurocentrism.  See, for example, Bernasconi, ‘With What Must the Philosophy of World History Begin?  On the Racial Bias of Hegel’s Eurocentrism’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts 22 (2000):  171–201.  See also, Bernasconi, ‘Hegel at the Court of the Ashanti’.  In Hegel After Derrida, ed. by Stuart Barnett, 41–63.  London:  Routledge, 1998.

[8] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 93.

Du Bois, Hegel, and the Structural Context of Black Double-Consciousness

A guest post by Blake Emerson, a first year doctoral student (JD/Political Science) at Yale University.  Blake blogs at Radical Negative.

American political discourse has had difficulty grasping the reality and gravity of racism. Our political theory, economic system, intellectual history, and cultural norms all circulate around notions individual autonomy and responsibility. Analyses and remedies to racism have thus focused upon individual agency and culpability. Racism, so the story goes, is the attribute and fault of the bigot. Racist actions are only those actions that intend to harm other individuals by virtue of their membership in a certain ethnically and/or physically defined group. The enemy to racial equity in this narrative is thinking in terms of groups, and assessing the value of others by their group membership. The panacea, then, is to judge people solely by their individual virtues and vices. According to this liberal principle, the end of racism requires the repression of racial categories from public discourse. The law and attendant public values aim to be color-blind. They intend to wipe race off the political and social map, in hopes of engendering a cognitive tabula rasa with respect to interpersonal interaction, exchange, and moral assessment.

The color-blind filter forecloses conceivable political analyses and solutions that might consider collective outcomes as significant, or might think of agency, discrimination, and culpability as residing in anything other than the solitary embodied mind. The atomized, color-blind lens places us behind a veil of ignorance—one more insidious, but perhaps not altogether genealogically distinct from John Rawls’ instrument of normative political reasoning. Thus America law generally avoids questions of race, and, for the most part, is only cognizant of racism when individuals or institutions demonstrate an explicit intent to discriminate. Liberal political theorists, likewise, conclude that the only instances of racism that should concern us are individual acts of prejudice. And they find our institutions more or less adequate to address these blemishes on liberal perfection.

American political thought is deeply complicit in this color-blind discourse. Our failure to recognize and engage the magnitude of the problem of race arises in part from a deeply engrained philosophical sensibility, enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and rooted in British empiricism and social contract theory, which takes the individual as sole unit of analysis, responsibility, and political justice.  Within this theoretical frame, we cannot adequately articulate why racial disparities that cannot be traced to the intentions of individual actors demand new thought and new politics.

The racial equity field has therefore begun to shift the debate away from this atomistic liberal focus. Theorists in the racial equity field have developed the notion of “structural racism,” recognizing that traditional liberal theorizing has not come to terms with perpetual and plastic conditions of racial inequity. In building this theory, racial equity practitioners have brought the reality of systemic racism in America to bear on our theoretical discourse. Theoretical discourse must now respond with an adequate conceptual housing entertain and critique the workings of racial injustice. Roughly, this will require an account of racism that focuses on the implicit logic of institutions, processes, and practices that produce racial disparity, rather than the expressed intent of those processes.

As a first step towards elucidating this mode of analysis, I propose to turn to an alternative philosophical tradition, upon which American academic discourse has touched, but whose critical and normative energies remain largely untapped. I argue that G.W.F. Hegel’s social phenomenology and political metaphysics provides fertile ground for a more robust analysis of the problem of race than liberal theory can provide.

Hegel’s thought can be brought to bear directly upon questions of race through its impact on W.E.B Du Bois’ mode of racial critique, which has left an indelible mark on American race theory. Shamoon Zamir has already outlined the ways in which the logic of the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk mirrors the dialectic of self-consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit (Zamir: 1995, 115-168). In “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” Du Bois employs Hegel’s logic to explicate elite African American Consciousness at the turn of the century. Susan Buck-Morss gives further credence to the profitability of an Hegelian conversation on race with her hypothesis that Hegel’s master-slave dialectic in the Phenomenology suggests a radical politics informed by the Haitian Revolution (Buck Morss: 2000). If Hegel’s dialect of self-consciousness is inflected with historical fact of slavery, it should not be a surprising that Du Bois found its dynamics relevant to the condition of African American consciousness during reconstruction. In inspiration and in application, then, Hegel’s Phenomenology is implicated in questions of race, as it relates to slavery.

Zamir and Buck-Morss’ work connecting Hegel’s Phenomenology with slavery and racial consciousness is most valuable for the critical purchase it gives the question of race on Hegel’s political thought, and, conversely, for the purchase it gives Hegel’s political thought on the problem of race. I therefore take up Zamir’s understanding of Dubois’ Hegelian notion of black double-consciousness in order to determine the conditions of the possibility of that consciousness.

Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness draws on Hegel’s insight that unequal power relations between subjects create failures of recognition that split, torture, and deny freedom to self-consciousness. In the dialectic of Lord and Bondsman, self-consciousness seeks to achieve recognition through another self-consciousness. Elsewhere, Hegel will describe such relations of recognition as essential to freedom. Therefore, we can read self-consciousness’ epistemological efforts in the Phenomenology as an element of a broader effort to achieve freedom. At this particular stage in the dialectic, recognition fails because the relationship between the two self-consciousness is not equal; one is enslaved to the other. Successful and complete recognition would require that each self-consciousness see the other as equal to itself, and therefore adequate to the task of recognizing and reflecting itself. The unequal relation of slavery creates a circumstance in which the master sets the terms of recognition, and therefore undermines the reciprocity that is essential to it. The master comes to define the identity and the consciousness of the slave, such that the slave is not recognized as independent by the master. He is defined by his inferior position.

Du Bois’ analysis of black double consciousness during Jim Crow takes up this notion of unequal recognition to describe how racial power relations in America do violence upon the black psyche:

the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,–a world which yield him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,–an American, A Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keep it from being torn asunder (Souls, 8).

While Hegel’s dialectic describes this unequal relationship as slavery, Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness refers to the condition of black consciousness after emancipation. Du Bois therefore suggests that the social and political conditions in America after slavery nonetheless reproduced power relations that mirror slavery in their dynamics and consequence. To understand these racial structures we must look beyond the fact of an unequal power relation between self-conscious subjects. We must locate and define the structures that create such a power relation. This requires that we turn from a subjective account of race to a structural account. In Hegel’s system, we must move from the phenomenology of consciousness to the explication of the moral, economic, political and social structures that enable human freedom. Where race has influenced and corrupted these freedom-conducive structures, we can identify specific sites of structural inequity that must be addressed. In this way, Du Bois’ application of the master and slave dialectic indicates that an analysis of subjective self-consciousness alone cannot grasp the wider and more powerful operations of racism.

I intend to analyze these conditions through Hegel’s account of human freedom in Elements of the Philosophy of Right. There, Hegel describes requirements for a just society that align with the liberal norms and political and economic structures that exist in modern American society. To the extent that racial exclusion colors and informs the concrete embodiment of Hegel’s norms and structures in the circumstances of American history, such exclusion calls into question the integrity of the liberal state, particularly its principle of color-blindness. Reading the racial history of America through the lens of Hegel’s account of ethical life, civil society, and the state, I argue that racist intentions can be attributed not only to individuals, but also to our political, social, and economic institutions. To explain how racial hierarchy continues to flourish in American life even in the absence of slavery, I analyze how Hegel’s political structures abstract and represent the individual intentions of members. My aim is not to offer an exhaustive racial critique of the Philosophy of Right, but rather to point out analyses and vocabulary within the text that could flesh out existing theories of structural racism, and the political thought those theories demand.