By Susan Buck-Morss
Pittsburgh, Pa. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009
ISBN # 978-0-8229-5978-6

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2012

The book contains two separate but closely related essays. The first is “Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History.” This is a daring, exciting and fascinating essay. I learned a lot from it, was challenged in my understanding of both the history of intellectual movements and its relationship to academic disciplines, and in my understanding of European and even American views of the role of slavery in the 17th to early 19the century. However, while challenged and fascinated, I am not convinced that Buck-Morss has made her case adequately. Nonetheless, it seems that others are likely to pick up the main theses and move them forward in more convincing manners.

Curiously the primary theme seems not to be our understanding of Hegel, or our understanding of the place of Haiti in history, nor even in the notion of universal history. Rather, it seems to be the thesis that the manner in which the intellectual “disciplines,” as they have developed in western universities since the 18th century, have brought about a certain tunnel vision which actually distorts our understanding of historical reality.

Hegel’s understanding of Haiti’s situation, and his writing on dialectical history is a primary case study to defend her more central thesis. Along the way there are at least three major themes which can grab the reader:

1. This theme about the nature of disciplines actually systematically “distorting” our knowledge of history.
2. The issue of accounting for the “roots” of Hegel’s theory of history, or at least a view that says that his knowledge of Haiti’s process from the 1790s to the 1820s had an important influence on his understanding of history.
3. Lastly, Buck-Morss argues that the common understanding within our intellectual tradition of Haiti and its revolution, is warped by the limits of this academic system of disciplines and their systemic limits.

I must admit that the first claim about intellectual disciplines is one I was not much familiar with and really never developed any strong sense of caring about that claim. Yet, at the same time it does seem this is the central thesis which has attracted the attention of others.

Hegel is a philosopher I have read and studied with care and even taught his work, especially the famed dialectical of history which plays an important role in this essay. It seems to me that Buck-Morss presents a strong set of circumstantial evidence that makes her suggestions of Haiti’s influence on Hegel to be plausible. Nonetheless, that also didn’t interest me very much. I remain mainly interested in the defensibility of Hegel views than having an interest in what influenced him.

However, the third view is where my own interests are strongest, and what convinced me to read this book and try to think along with Buck-Morss. I found it a quite useful way to understand the Haitian Revolution and the views of the revolution which has influenced the way that many still think of Haiti today.

During the period of the 200th anniversary of Haiti’s revolution (1991) I wrote four essays about the Haitian revolution and tried to understand how people today think about the revolution. I came to similar conclusions as Buck-Morss that suggests that an intellectual lack of understanding of the Haiti revolutionaries and the role of continued international resistance to allowing Haiti to exist on the international scene was the major factor in profoundly retarding its development into a modern state.

Lastly, in thinking about this first essay of the two in the book, I found that Buck-Morss goes farther than I have been willing to go. She appears to me to put more power into the hands of intellectuals in shaping the outside world’s view of Haiti and ignores the tremendous power that both economic interests in the U.S. and European commercial world played, and the role, especially in the U.S., of the attempt to protect the emancipation movement from entering into the United States. I guess I would wish we lived in a world where the intellectual community was the major factor in setting the terms of understanding that drives human history, but I think my view of the worlds sees economic and self interests to be more powerful drives.

Nonetheless, I learned a great deal from the main essay and my view of academic disciplines and my knowledge of Hegel’s sources of inspiration are enriched as well.

The second essay is entitled UNIVERSAL HISTORY.

I found this essay less interesting and not very convincing. I don’t think my finding that is necessarily any weakness in the author. I came to the book not much interested in universal history. I have read a good deal of Hegel, and know his dialectical argument for the development of history, but have never been much convinced by his version or the Marxian materialist version either. My attraction to the book and first essay was it’s understanding of the Haitian Revolution and the arguments that suggest at least one important reason why it has never been given the prominence in historical study that it has always seemed to me it deserved.

Thus this second essay was quite far from my own interests and I could never be excited enough by the “frame” (dialectical history) of the argument to give it much credence.

Even though Buck-Morss’s argument didn’t convince me of her project of Universal History, it was, for me, a provocative argument on at least two fronts:

1. A view that the place of the Haitian Revolution in the intellectual history of the period has never been fully recognized.
2. An argument that part of the reason for this is the rigidity of academic disciplines which force data into relatively narrow and limited structures, often setting the stage (as with the Haitian Revolution) for some particular event to never be fully understood or acknowledged.

However much I tried to follow the argument, too much of the evidence seemed to me to be circumstantial and suggestive rather than very solid. There were lots of strong “maybes” or “that’s an interesting view. . .” but the stronger level of evidence that would have convinced me seemed usually to be lacking. In the end I found the essay to be an interesting challenge with a set of fascinating suggestions, but just not a convincing argument.

What bothered me most was an emphasis that suggested that were intellectuals to better understand the world -- which the tight current focus of disciplines retards (and I agree with her on that), then the world of thought would somehow inspire the world of events, and we would, in an Hegelian dialectical fashion, create a better world. It is this end and process with which I find myself most unsympathetic. One of my friends, an historian himself, rightly points out "there were no good old days." I concur with that fully. However, there have been changes, especially in the past 300 years in the material situation of millions of us, especially in the western world. Unlike Buck-Morss, and unlike an Hegelian analysis, I see most of those positive changes coming from shifts in the material conditions of humans led by new knowledge of medicine, technology, modes of productions and other, mainly scientific advances. I see little evidence that human "morality" has progressed much at all.

I recently read the 1906 play, Major Barbara, by George Bernard Shaw. One of the main characters in the play is a very successful capitalist, an arms manufacturer, who has used some of his wealth to create a nearly utopian village for the workers at his factory. However, he criticizes the critics of his capitalist world by saying that each of them constantly compromises his or her values to accept many advantages which they wouldn't have in older and less successful modes of production. This is not, on my part, a defense of capitalism. In no way do I support the concept. However, I think the industrialist does point out a great deal of hypocracy in the cries of opponents who pick and choose they benefits they choose to live with. Is the world of the past 300 years "better" than the past? It certainly is different, and I'd rather live now than then, but "better"? How so? At what price have we arrived at this so-called "advanced" world? The price, among other things, is the creation of the most powerful killing machines in human history, and bringing the entire eco-system of the plant to the point of a danger of our own, and all other living things, extinction.

I found Buck-Morss's analysis of the Haitian Revolution to be right on. But, her view that only if the intellectuals were to do more "moral" (and I don't even know what that is) analysis, then the world too, might well take on a more moral shape. This is what I doubt. We will grow and change, and it is likely to be the sciences and technologies that drive it, not our views of morality.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu