Hegel’s Dialectic and Haiti

Hegel’s dialectic allows us to think and ask questions about the world in ways that encompasses a key set of fluid relations. As I understand it, these are the relations between the ideal and the material, which is implicitly also a relation between people and things (including nature), as in the object worked on by the intellectual and physical labor of the Slave. Another key relation is that among and between people themselves, as in the master-bondsman, an innately social and inter-subjective relation as well as one, as I see it, of power. What’s more, Hegel demands that we grasp these two sets of relations (people-things and people-people) as internally connected to and mediated by each other.

The obvious illustration of this last point is the Slave’s recognition of his/her own selfhood through the objectification of his/her physical-mental labor. In the process, two selves exist, but true mutual recognition of two individual self-consciousnesses does not. The Master abstains from recognition, and a struggle to the death must settle the matter. Through the Slave’s risking of life, the Master concedes, and the relation dissolves altogether. The progression makes self-consciousness—and, furthermore, reason—the requisite steps in Hegel’s view of how universal freedom is realized.

Still, I’m unsettled (or confused) about what in Hegel’s conceptual schema invests the Master with the constitutive wherewithal to determine the relation in the first place. Buck-Morss cites Hegel to explain the Masters’ position of power by virtue of their material wealth: “the extent of their possessions (that is, ultimately in terms of money)” (53, fn 91). Sure, money buys property, including slaves, but is Hegel simply assuming a priori the internalization of “thinghood” by the slaves themselves? I ask this not in the interest of showing Hegel’s own racism—that much is clear—but for the sake of interrogating the conceptual model of the Master-Bondsman dialectic.

The reason I’m dwelling on this point is that dialectically inspired research can sometimes be frustratingly vague on fundamental aspects of their explanations; for instance, the role (a force really) of “social necessity” in Marx’s work. The same critique could be leveled against approaches that apply theories of assemblages or complexity. I’m totally partial to dialectical methods, because I think they bear closest resemblance to how collective life across a gamut of analytical scales is actually configured and organized—i.e. through a series of complexly related, structured, contingent, and mutually shifting relations and forces. It has an openness and indeterminateness that parallels the world itself. But maybe this question of constitutive, relational power in the Master-Slave scenario helps think through some of that dialectical vagueness, which is sometimes crudely described as “everything is related to everything else.” Yes, there are key relations; in Hegel’s allegory of the dialectic, power would seem to be one of those key relations. But where or how does it come about? Maybe the answer is simple.

Finally, I know Buck-Morss delves much more deeply into the question of why it matters that Hegel distilled his dialectic from the Haitian Revolution in the section on “Universal History.” Beyond being exemplary work of relational-historical geography and correcting a glaring scholarly oversight, what else is significant about her findings and her political project? And beyond its clearly important historical-conceptual discovery, what, if anything, does it teach us about Hegel’s dialectic? These questions are in no way meant disparagingly.

Hegel, GWF. 2009 [1807]. The Phenomenology of Spirit (The Phenomenology of Mind). Digireads.com.

Buck-Morss, Susan. 2009. Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

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