Cunliffe on Hegel, Haiti and Universal History by Susan Buck-Morss


Cunliffe’s criticism of Buck-Morss:


“Instead of seeing the multiple perspectives from which Hegel’s dialectic can, should and has been read as an affirmation of the vast depths of the Haitian revolutionary experience, these perspectives are reduced to garbled echoes of the founding of Haiti.”


But he likes her idea: “the ‘new humanism’: ‘rather than giving multiple, distinct cultures equal due … human universality emerges at the point of rupture’ and ‘Common humanity exists in spite of culture and its differences’ (133).”


“The thrust of [Hegel’s] project was an attempt to absorb the impact of modernity by offering a philosophical response to the French Revolution and the unfolding of the modern division of labour.”


Hegel conceived of history as a spirit, a determining force shaping human actions, manifesting itself in the struggles between people and classes. Slavery—Feudalism—Capitalism  


Relevance to Contemporary Philosophy:


the Other’: the master-slave dialectic still exerts immense influence over contemporary philosophy… the dynamics unleashed by the struggle for recognition between master and slave. For Hegel, this struggle ultimately results in mutual reconciliation and equal recognition, forming a balanced civil society crowned by a constitutional monarchy. In Hegel’s original formulation, the Other was merely a transitory shape assumed by the historic development of consciousness.


Identity Politics Today: “[T]oday’s more urbane theorists are not as naïve as to believe in the idea of any ultimate reconciliation between the strong and the weak, let alone of the superseding of inequalities of power.”


the master-slave dialectic:


two individuals initially confront each other in a ‘life-and-death struggle’ in which ‘it is only through staking one’s life that freedom is won’ (Hegel 1977, p. 114). The servant’s failure to risk his life leads to his subordination to the lord. Second, Hegel famously gives priority to the slave in his dialectic, as the servant transforms himself from the passive, obedient extension of his master’s will into an active, self-aware agent. The initially bold and decisive lord meanwhile slides into slothful self-absorption through his dependence on the labour of the bondsman.”

“[T]he logical possibility of transcending slavery entirely arises. For Hegel shows that the logic of the master-slave relationship necessarily transforms its constituent terms (that is, the individuals who comprise the relationship). Each moment in Hegel’s dialectic occurs independently of any disposition or goodwill on the part of its subjects. The reconciliation of the master with the slave results not from any magnanimity towards the master, but because Hegel maintains that freedom built on the subjugation of others eventually implodes – autonomous individuals need the recognition of equals to be truly free.

Marx vs. Hegel: “Marxist appropriation of Hegel, which is often presumed to see the dialectic as an idealised vision of the proletariat gaining political self-awareness through its labour. This view itself is fallacious (albeit common, see Arthur, 1983). Marx’s concerns properly begin where Hegel’s end (that is, after the resolution of the master-slave dialectic and the achievement of formally recognised [ie. political] equality within civil society.)