28 Jun 2014

Rajiv Malhotra on Hegel

But it was Hegel, among all German thinkers, who had the deepest and most enduring impact on Western thought and identity. It is often forgotten that his work was a reaction against the Romantics’ passion for India’s past. He borrowed Indian ideas (such as monism) while debating Indologists to argue against the value of Indian civilization. He posited that the West, and only the West, was the agent of history and teleology. India was the ‘frozen other’, which he used as a foil to define the West.

It was thus that Hegel attempted to construct an identity for the German people, in part through their encounter with India. As a founding father of the Enlightenment and one of the most towering figures of European thought, he developed a powerful and influential philosophy of history which included the past, present and future of all civilizations on a single template.

It is true that in the course of his education Hegel developed a strong distaste for the Abrahamic religions, perceiving their provincial, anti-philosophical aspects and the way in which so much of their wisdom was bound up in the culturally specific (and, in his eyes, primitive) milieu of the ancient Middle East. At the same time, Hegel had so deeply absorbed the history-centrism of the Abrahamic traditions and their grand salvation narrative that he essentially (and perhaps unwittingly) recreated it, though in more secular and seemingly more universal terms.

While breaking with religion and adopting a purely secular Greek rationality, his grand narrative mirrors, in many ways, the salvation history of Judeo-Christianity. The Weltgeist or World Spirit is, in effect, the protagonist of this history, and the West is extraordinary because it is destined to lead this journey while all other civilizations must follow or perish.

Hegel’s World Spirit is a synthetic unity encompassing all humanity. It privileges the West, and those who do not fit into his scheme are not a part of history, though the Spirit may use them, just as plants, animals, land, etc., are used. Although all humans have a geography, not all have a history in this sense. Lack of history is due to a deficiency in agency, that is, the freedom and ability to take action and bring about change in the world. This journey of the Spirit progresses through a series of stages until it reaches the highest form of self-realization, called the Absolute Spirit (Geist). The Spirit produces specific forms, ‘and these forms are the nations of world history. Each of them represents a particular stage of development, so that they correspond to epochs in the history of the world’.

Spirit evolves from lower to higher forms; hence, Hegel places the various nations at different stages of evolution. This is God’s plan, he explains: ‘World history is nothing more than the plan of providence. The world is governed by God; and world history is the content of his government and the execution of his plan.’

The unity he proposes is racist, with westerners (whom he thinks of as a race, to be contrasted with Africans, Asians, Native Americans, etc.) at the centre of the cosmos vis-a-vis other cultures. Conveniently ignoring whatever facts do not support the thesis, he constructs a lopsided chronology of events to show Europe and America as the twin pinnacles of human evolution. He declares this template of chronologies to be ‘universal history’, asserting, for example, that ‘universal history goes from East to West. Europe is absolutely the end of universal history. Asia is the beginning.’ He postulates a stage called ‘Prehistory’ into which he lumps all those nations which are not among the chosen ones in world history. Hegel dismisses the Native Americans as ‘obviously unintelligent’ and speaks of them as ‘unenlightened children’ distinguished only by ‘inferiority in all respects’. He also proclaims that India ‘has no history’.

Furthermore, because God is rational, ‘the overall content of world history is rational and indeed has to be rational; a divine will rules supreme and is strong enough to determine the overall content.’ According to Hegel, only the West has been endowed with reason and thus is in the driver’s seat as part of God’s plan. Hegel sees the rational West as destined to be the central agent of history - like the engine of a train. Others are relegated to the past; their day is over, and so they are excluded from the future.

The Spirit is thus explicitly Western. Other cultures are either thrown away in history’s dustbin, if they belong in history at all, or forced to emulate the West. Otherwise, they are trampled. World history and philosophy are seen as one single development, and the World Spirit is a single progressive movement in a linear trajectory.

Hegel has a peculiarly phobic and blind reaction to Asia in general and India in particular He laboriously criticizes Sanskrit and Indian civilization, arguing with European Indologists with the aim of assimilating some ideas (such as absolute idealism) into his own philosophy while postulating India as the inferior other in order to construct his theory of the West. Asia’s place in history is as an infant, whereas the West is mature and everyone’s eventual destination.

(Rajiv Malhotra, Being Different, published by Harper Collins (2011), pp 313-315)

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