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LOST IN AFRICA: Hegel

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T he first time I had a copy of Hegel’s writing on Africa in my hands and read it, I was struck by how short it was. A few pages only. Clearly, Hegel did not want to think of Africa for much longer than he needed to. One can’t really fault him. He had his eyes on a much grander project. And there was Africa blocking his vision. He saw Africa as an impediment that had to be cleared away to make space for an idea he helped invent: the idea of world history.  Hegel wanted to erect a magnificent world-historical edifice that would run from ancient Asian civilizations all the way up to Europe.

But if this edifice is so big, why did Hegel not just find a way to fit everyone in? Why did he have to place someone outside and why did that someone have to Africa? The first question is easiest. Hegel had no choice but to leave someone out. It is a rule of thought that Hegel did not make himself but inherited from an old philosophical tradition. Take for instance the simple idea of a house. A house is a house to the extent that it can keep somethings and some people inside while keeping other things and other people outside. A house is defined by exclusivity or by its ability to exclude whatever it believes to be the outside. If we think of Hegel’s world history as a kind of edifice, we can kind of see why for him to preserve the integrity of the whole set up, he just could not include everything and everyone. Someone just had to get bounced. Photographs behave in a similar way. As we all know from having been photographed, cameras always have a frame. Frames are great because they put things in focus, but they can do that only because they leave stuff out. Africa, in a sense, is the stuff Hegel’s world historical camera refuses to enframe so that it can frame a world history. But the good thing is that, as I hope to show in a series of posts, this process of exclusion is not the only way to do history.

Why Africa? As a Nigerian might say, this question is the koko. It is the heart of the matter. For this reason, my response would be drawn out over several blog posts and would take different forms. I want to draw a picture of Hegel’s Africa framing History as the picture of the world. I want also to think of those who over time have tried to think with and against Hegel. Hegel and his Africa are certainly ghostly in the sense that they have simply refused to die a complete death despite the passing of time. They haunt writings from diverse fields of African thought. Strange bed fellows like Conrad and Achebe and the Negritude Philosophers and Soyinka’s Ogun were all trying in their own unique way to converse with Hegel, whose claims about Africa they found both astonishing and displeasing.

The puzzle continues….

 

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

4 Responses to “LOST IN AFRICA: Hegel” Subscribe

  1. Iretomiwa February 7, 2012 at 4:03 am #

    “Hegel had no choice but to leave someone out.”?

    As per world history, Hegel sees Africa’s “cultural development” as totally primitive or almost non-existent and he provides evidence to buttress his arguments. I’m hoping in your series of posts, you’ll be able to shed some light on some “cultural developments” (an African philosophy or ideology? a religion like Islam, Buddhism? a scientific invention? etc) that originated here prior to European colonization.

    Nice blog! I’ll be looking forward to those posts.

  2. Ainehi Edoro February 9, 2012 at 6:22 am #

    Iretomiwa,

    Thanks so much for visiting Brittle Paper. Your comment is insightful. The other posts on Hegel and Africa may not be what you are looking for, but it’ll be interesting nonetheless.

  3. Fabbeyond January 3, 2019 at 9:04 am #

    Actually Hegel is speaking about southern Saharan Africa aka black Africans (negroid morphological southern Saharan Africans )

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. POW! WOW!: How Do You Imagine Africa? | Brittle Paper - June 1, 2012

    […] Hegel was a German philosopher writing mostly in the early 19th century. When he said that Africa was a savage place, he was way out of his depth. He had in mind a weird mix of things he’d read about Africa from Herodotus to Pliny to medieval travel stories, 16th century encyclopedias, and some very shady anthropological studies of his day. He put all these together and came up with an Africa of beastly humans. Hegel’s Africa, as frightful as it is, is a magical nowhere. (For more on Hegel’s removal of Africa from world history, read HERE). […]

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