This is an important book at a significant time. It makes some incisive points on how the Anglophone world has refused to, and continues to ignore, the contributions of ‘far-reaching philosophical systems’ that arose outside the so-called western traditions. Hegel was one such philosopher, who, the authors argue, suffered from the vices of his era, including that of racism, orientalism, chauvinism, religious bias, pride of cultural superiority, and anti-semitism. The authors, intriguingly, go a step further and argue that Hegel dismissed ‘Indian thought with acerbic contempt’ because `that which was most impressive to Hegel about Indian philosophy also posed a grave threat to him` (p. 80). It reminded him of the painful fact that a substantial part of his cutting-edge philosophy ‘culminated in no more than those precious insights already enjoyed by distant philosophers centuries before’ (Ibid). Hegel made great efforts to distinguish the construct of the Brahman—as the Absolute—from his own ‘philosophy of the emergence of the Absolute’.
Three decades of postcolonial theory in India and elsewhere seems to have fructified in not only laying a claim to the rich traditions of Indian philosophy but also in mustering the courage to expose the possible lack of magnanimity of western philosophers in acknowledging some of the contributions to the philosophical systems that could have preceded their own understanding and elaborations.
However, the more intractable problem could be one of what I would refer to as the problem of retrieval. If we continue to teach Greek philosophers in spite of many of them lending active or tacit support to the system of slavery, or teach and read J.S. Mill as a philosopher of liberty, in spite of his racist attitude to those beyond the western shores, what prevented us from retrieving the rich philosophical systems within what is being referred to as Indian philosophy? Why did Indian philosophy and systems of knowledge come to be undermined or equated to Brahminic Hinduism? In fact, the authors point out that, ‘for Hegel, (that) the oriental empire was yet to develop its rational objectivity of self-conscious substantiality, freedom, as also the condition of stable, organized law. Again, this presentation reduces the plurality of Indian history, religions, regimes, and politics to those captured in the mainstream of Brahminic Hinduism, which is a partial and misleading presentation of India’ (p. 77). The objective spirit for Hegel is in essence the evolution of the ‘principle of subjectivity and self-conscious freedom‘, which the ‘oriental spirit‘ could not attain as caste divisions reduced the potential to achieve ‘civic and legal regulations’. If the plurality that the authors refer to signifies philosophical systems untouched by Brahminic Hinduism, there is a need to both pursue and retrieve those systems, and also find a possible explanation why it did not happen, and Hegel perhaps is not alone in this. The book could certainly have been more enriching in addressing the problem of retrieval, keeping Hegel as the reference point. In a sense, the book under review makes an important beginning in this direction.
There could be various entry points in framing Hegel’s engagement with Indian philosophy. The authors point out that for decades, philosophers and historians from Karl Popper to Walter Kaufmann have suggested that ‘the Nazis got their racism from Hegel’ or that Hegel contributes to ‘the formula for modern racism’. There is likely much truth in these views as well. Hegel had dogmatic judgements not merely about India but also about Africa in claiming that, ‘Africa has no history and is therefore irrelevant to his comprehensive philosophy of world history’ (p. 18). Hegel’s critique of the Oriental Spirit having a static nature emerged not merely from his racist prejudice but also his understanding of history being one with telos and an ultimate aim. In contrast, Ernesto Laclau points out that ‘history cannot be conceived therefore as an infinite advance towards an ultimate aim. History is rather a discontinuous succession of hegemonic formations that cannot be ordered by a script transcending their contingent historicity’ (2005; p. 226). Eurocentrism and racism are closely linked to Hegelian teleology but I am not sure if we have made complete sense of this interface. Would making a fuller sense of this interface between an episteme founded on the ideas of teleological history and universality as a pure ‘uncontaminated instance’ and the proposition regarding a stagnant oriental spirit allow us to reframe Hegelian philosophy in any meaningful sense? The authors, however, make a steadfast claim that ‘Indian thought really haunted Hegel somehow. In this reinterpretation, we argue that it represented a sort of nagging twin that he badly needed to shake off throughout the development of his philosophy’ (p. 4).
The authors in their reinterpretation point out that Hegel distinguished his own philosophy from that of Indian philosophy around two definitive points. First, around the motif of freedom as against the omnipresent role of caste in all of Indian history, politics, art, religion and philosophy and the second is the idea of insufficient mediation—dialectical and progressive—as against the stasis of Indian thought. The subject-object relation holds the key to understanding the Hegelian approach to social and historical processes. For Hegel, the actions of the subject, in the ultimate analysis, have to be located, sutured to the objective conditions which he/she lives in. Instead of understanding human action as a product of unrelated sources, as the authors lucidly explain, ‘for Hegel, what is essential is that all of these are manifold expressions of the character of a community of people, of their Spirit. That is, the linkages between these different (even ostensibly opposed) aspects of human life taken as a whole are, for Hegel, the key to understanding the whole, which the Phenomenology claims to fathom’ (p. 7). Thus, Hegel concludes that in a hierarchized society like India, where Brahmins dominate the rest through scriptural sanction, the philosophy they produced must be contaminated, stagnant and undialectical. The process of history is to finally achieve complete self-knowledge, or in other words complete social transparency of the historical processes. It is in this that the subject finally enjoys the essence of freedom.
The authors again explain this fairly abstract point in rather lucid language that the goal of the political, then, is ‘coterminous with the end of history’. In contrast, ‘the Orientals’ Hegel argues, ‘have not attained the knowledge that Spirit—Man as such—is free; and because they do not know this, they are not free’ … The German nations, under the influence of Christianity, were the first to attain the consciousness, that man, as man, is free: that it is the freedom of Spirit which constitutes its essence’ (quoted from pp. 10–11). The authors, in their reinterpretation, in effect, make two points in opposition to that of Hegel. Firstly, that Hegel’s own ideas and philosophy are much closer to Indian thought than what Hegel actually acknowledged, and that these ideas in Indian thought emerged much earlier. Secondly, that all of Indian philosophy cannot be reduced to Brahminic Hinduism, and that merely from the sociological fact that Brahmins dominated and denied the same freedom to others, cannot possibly be the ground to be dismissive of Indian philosophy, because philosophy can gain a certain autonomy from social dynamics.
The authors must be congratulated for introducing Hegel’s philosophy in lucid terms, which is otherwise mired in intractable and fairly abstruse language. The book has two sections, the first titled Reinterpretation, introduces and provides the authors’ arguments, while the second section carries Hegel’s own texts on India. This is an important attempt at demystifying the hegemony of ‘Western Philosophy’ but this in no way should obstruct and provide justification for not initiating internal self-reflection that Hegel would have referred to as dialectical progress.
Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, Verso, London, 2005.
Ajay Gudavarthy is Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His forthcoming book is an edited volume titled Revolutionary Violence versus Democracy (Sage, Delhi, 2017).