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Hegel, Fanon and the Problem of Recognition-Part l

Hegel, Fanon and the Problem of Recognition-Part l
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Ali Sobhi Harfouch*

It is no longer, better yet it has never been tenable to critique Hegel on the basis that he is a “philosopher of imperialism” or on the grounds that his philosophical works are “Eurocentric” or grounded in “racism”. These critiques amount to nothing short of inverted racism, a reification of the same colonial relations one wishes to transcend and an essentialization the mythos called “Europe”. Accordingly, in this response, I want to take Hegel seriously and in doing so I will put him in conversation with Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire. The aim is to show that, although Fanon is unique in that he does indeed critically engage with the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic, his engagement is marred by contradictions which circumvent both his political imagination and praxis of “liberation”. Ultimately, this results in a reductionist approach on part of Fanon and an impediment to the articulation of a truly emancipatory and radical politics. The paper is split into four sections. In the introductory section we will look at why we must return to philosophy, more specifically, by abandoning postcolonial responses to “Eurocentric” thinkers and re-engaging with ideals posited by the likes of Hegel. Section two will provide a cursory overview of Fanon’s response to Hegel. Section three will introduce a problematic: the inescapable ontolological-grounding of the master-slave dialectic and section four will then return to the Fanonian critique of the master-slave dialectic in light of the problematic introduced in section three.

Why Hegel? Beyond Postcolonialism:

To dismiss Hegelian philosophy on the basis that it is Eurocentric is to invert the supposedly “racist” knowledge-hierarchy of Modernity. Postcolonial discourse ostensibly displaces philosophy by negating Eurocentric philosophy and in turn they paradoxically sublimate their critique from a critique of a philosophy to a universal critique of philosophy. It is, perhaps, a postcolonial anxiety – for while the postcolonial ideologue will bemoan the long-standing inability of the subaltern to speak, this capacity is also stripped from those in the Center. And while the ideologue works to deconstruct “Europe” they essentialize the mythos of Europe by making explicit claims as to what it is and what it is not “European”. Furthermore, they negate their own autonomy when they equivocate ideas appropriated by Modernity with ideas that are fundamentally part-and-parcel of Modernity. To speak of ‘reason’ is to be Eurocentric. To speak of identity-based politics is to be Eurocentric. This has created a quandary for the postcolonial ideologue who cannot do away with humanist ideals like freedom, equality and self-dignity all of which are constitutive elements in Modern discourse but must also remain critical of the epistemic foundations of these ideals. The late Lebanese-Marxist Mehdi ‘Amil aptly notes:

It is not strange then that cultural structuralism, that characterizes the thought of Michel Foucault, would meet Nietzschean Nihilism, on a common ground [. . .] Rationalistic imperialism would reconcile itself with the anti-rational nihilism in asserting the oneness of reason, and hence, the refusal of revolutionary reason, the only opposition to the dominant reason (2006: 72)

There are several reasons why we must take the Hegelian dialectic seriously. First and foremost, the dialectic provides the basis for a [general] theory of oppression as opposed to the postcolonial theorization of one mode-of-oppression (colonization). That is to say, we can conceptualize the origins and modalities of oppression reducing oppression to colonial oppression. Paradoxically, this reduction of oppression to a singular moment (the colonial trauma) – this intersubjective relationship (the colonized and the colonizer) becomes the constitutive element in the colonized’s self-recognition, one in which the very identity of the colonized is based on a negation (that is to say, a negation of the colonizers negation).[1] Thus, the slave/colonized attains self-recognition vis-à-vis a negation of the master/the colonizer. Otherwise, the “new” man who emerges from the colonial trauma could not have been without the colonizer. To be, is to negate and to negate is to recognize (the colonizer), the “Other” remains “the theme of his action [the colonized]”. As McClintock explains: ‘post-colonial’, despite its critical deconstruction of post-Enlightenment binaries, “re-orients the globe once more around a single, binary opposition: colonial/post-colonial” (1992: 85).This new colonial/post-colonial and/or colonizer/colonized binary becomes, paradoxically, universalized and comes to serve as the new “master-narrative”.

At the level of praxis, the colonized/slave is left in a quandary. Postcolonial discourse tells us little of what those occupying Tahrir Square or Wall St. ought-to-do, how does one proceed? To speak of “strategic essentialism” is to oscillate a thin line between liberatory-emancipatory politics on one hand and pragmatic self-essentialization on another; between liberating the colonized from the confines of identity-politics to recreating an equally problematic identity-politics-based fundamentally on a negation. If, as the postcolonialist bemoans; the hegemonic colonial matrices of power are rooted in an exclusionary and racist logic of exploitative capitalism and that this logic is sustained through the State’s omnipresent and all-pervading machinations of power, what is to be done vis-à-vis the State? Perhaps, this is why the reception of Said in the Arab-Muslim world was less prophetic than its reception in Western academia (Franjie 2015).

Furthermore, the postcolonial reading of the Master-Slave dialectic reduces reality to that which is created through the reified intersubjective relations between the Master and the Slave. It does not, however, tell us about the world outside of this dialectic. It is displaces ontology through an elusive latent ontology (the ontology of no ontologies) which replaces questions of metaphysics and ontology with questions relating to power. This is fallacious in that (1) it is blind to its own metaphysics and ontology assumptions and (2) it negates the very same epistemic grounds according to which it can make such assumptions and (3) it displaces any form of emancipatory praxis-politics by failing to recognize that power: “as a quantum in which less of it is good and more of it is bad: the issue is not the concentration of power, but its accountability.” As Jason Schulman aptly notes: “a movement that rejects seeking power is ultimately rejecting the possibility of lasting radical change.”[2]Power can corrupt, it is not intrinsically corrupt – it is merely a capacity that can be used to mediate between the oppressed and the emergence of a “new order” or a capacity which can sustain a subversive order. Power, from this perspective, becomes an instrument for liberation rather than a philosophy of fatalism (à la Foucault).

To return to the first two points made above: any normative proposition on what ought-to be is predicated on a consciousness of whatis[3]i.e. the “natural” order of things, and the extent to which an oppressive reality is not in accordance with what-is. To speak of oppression, is to speak of the transgression of certain boundaries and such boundaries cannot escape ontological considerations. In other words, how is it possible for the slave to attain self-recognition or as Paulo Freire would put it, a critical consciousness, when the consciousness of the slave is determined positively or negatively by the ontological consciousness of the Master? To what extent can the slave step out of the Master-Slave dialectic in his engagement with nature and objects? Otherwise, we must claim that beyond the ontology of the colonizer-master (that is, the imputation of an epistemic perspective onto the world and conflating it with ontology) there is nothingness. The Arab’s have a name for such blindness: al-Jahl (ignorance). For the Arab’s, Jahl is not the absence of knowledge but rather knowledge which is not in accord with reality. But they went a step further, to be ignorant of one’s ignorance is Jahl Murakab (compound ignorance/double-ignorance). However, I am not sure the Arab’s have a word for a “philosophy” which makes truth-claims on the basis of professed ignorance (the “incredulity with meta-narratives”). We will have more to say about this later on.

Lastly, a note should be made as to why Fanon was chosen in reading Hegel. Frantz Fanon, unlike many of his contemporaries, took Hegel seriously albeit not seriously enough: “rather than simply dismissing Hegel as a philosopher of imperialism, [Fanon] engages the methodological core of this key thinker of European modernity – the dialectic” (Gibson 2003: 30). It is, to use Hegel’s own words, an “immanent critique”.

Section One: Fanon on Hegel and Colonial Dialectics

For Fanon, Colonial Dialectics differ from the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic because of the ways in which racism, in the colonial context, obstructs a “fully reciprocal recognition”. From the onset, it is pertinent to note that for both Fanon and Hegel, there is a fundamental difference between “merely living”/simple consciousness and a living self-consciousness. The latter can only be attained through recognition: “self-consciousness exists for a  self-consciousness” and Fanon similarly explains that: “Man is only human to the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on another man in order to be recognized by him. As long as he has not been effectively recognized by the other, it is this other that will remain the theme of his action. It is on this other, it is on the recognition of this other, that his human value and reality depend. It is this other, in which the meaning of his life is condensed” (Fanon; 216).

This recognition is critical when we note that reciprocal recognition is a phase in a more grandiose “progressive sequence” which cannot but manifest in one of these three possibilities: (1) non-recognition, in which the consciousness of the Master and that of the Slave perceive the other as an object (2) a fight to the death which results from a realization that the other, be it the Master or the Slave, poses an existential threat to one’s autonomy and (3) the subordination of one consciousness to the other. This last phase is formativein the constitution of the Master-Slave dialectic for it is only through the Slave’s recognition of the Master, that the Master attains certitude of his [false] autonomy and the subsequent progressive move in which the Slave, through his engagement with the natural world, comes to realize their own individual consciousness. The Slave’s consciousness of their own self-consciousness is thus independent in that it was not realized vis-à-vis the Master but rather, the natural world. On the other hand, the Master’s self-consciousness is dependent on the Slave. Fanon, at this critical point, intervenes to argue that the Slave’s self-recognition and independence is untenable for the Slave (in the colonial context) has not engaged in a true struggle. The Slave, was recognized, without conflict. This, for Fanon means that the Slave cannot, thereafter, prove to either himself or the Master that he is fully-human and/or independent. As Fanon goes on to point out, the Slave cannot even attain certitude of his own autonomy for he has no memory of a “fight to death” i.e. an autonomous struggle for self-recognition. The Slave reaffirms the Master’s exclusive right to give rights. This is, in its crux, the paradox facing anti-colonial national movements who seek recognition from colonial hegemons. In a self-subverting move, the anti-colonial nationalist subject(s) who bemoan the hegemony of the “Colonial West” yet reaffirms the hegemony of the Colonial center by seeking their recognition. To be, for the Turkish Muslim Subject, is to be recognized by the European Union. To be, for the Muslim Brotherhood, is to have their political legitimacy recognized by the international community. To seek recognition is to seek the impossible. The colonial hegemon is only a hegemon insofar as there is a distinct “Other”.

Furthermore, the Colonial Master does not seek the Slave’s recognition and does not perceive such recognition to be essential to his own autonomy. This can only be understood, according to Fanon, by understanding the ways in which racism creates a colonized “Other” who is essentially inferior – not fully human. And thus, what the Colonial Master wants from the Slave, is not recognition but rather labor. However, this need not mean, for Fanon, the absolute exclusion of the Slave.

Section Two: The Fight to Death and the Politics of Becoming

To further problematize the situation, the Master does indeed recognize the Slave but only does so out of his own independent will, out of a bellicose commitment to the “white man’s burden”. The recognition of the Slave, by the Master, without a “fight to death” as we have explained is, according to Fanon, the reason why the Hegelian dialectic cannot fully progress into true independence for the Slave. The “fight to death” is similar to child-birth, as Paulo Freire explains, without the pains of child-birth i.e. the “fight to death” – one is not “born” and there is no liberation. More so, for Freire the “fight to death” should not be a Hobbesian struggle or one in which the oppressed/colonized strikes in vengeance against the oppressor/colonizer –it is a process which restores humanity to both the Master and the Slave, a process which Freire goes so far as to state is the “ontological vocation” of man:

“Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one. The man or woman who emerges is a new person, viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is superseded by the humanization of all people. Or to put it another way, the solution of this contradiction is born in the labor    which brings into the world this new being: no longer oppressor nor longer oppressed, but human in the process of achieving freedom.”

Without struggle, the newly “freed” slave is thus set out into a world which has been created in the image of the Master, or what we will refer to as the “second-creator” (Jackson). It is a world constituted by the reification of paternalistic colonial relations. In speaking of a “second-creator” we refer to the ways in which the colonizers ontological consciousness/weltanschaaung, is imputed onto the world. The process of naming or even the study of semantics is extricable from the study of semantic structures underlying ontology and metaphysics: Toshihoko Izutzu aptly recognizes that:

“Semantics as I understand it is an analytical study of the key-terms of a language with a view to arriving eventually a conceptual grasp of the weltanschaaungs or worldview of the people who use that language as a tool not only of speaking and thinking, but, more important, still, of conceptualizing and interpreting the world that surrounds them. Semantics, thus understood, is a kind of weltanschaaungslehre, a study of the nature and structure of the world-view of a nation at this or that significant period if its history, conducted by means of a methodological analysis of the major cultural concepts the nation has produced for itself and crystallized into the key-words of its language.”

That is to say, the colonizers political imagination – or any political imagination – which makes truth-claims as to what ought-to be is predicated on an “invisible signifier” grounded in a distinct ontology and metaphysics which makes truth-claims on what is. It is a world, or a “totality” which “tends to totalize itself, to center on itself, and to attempt – temporally – to eternalize its present structure. Spatially, it attempts to include within itself all possible exteriority” (Dussel 1990: 49). This totalization takes place when the colonial-master re-names the slave and thereby granting the slave “recognition” and “liberation”. There is, be it by the colonial-master or the colonial-slave, no breach of the colonial-master’s ontological horizon or the material expressions of that horizon. After all, Fanon says: “the white man is a master who allowed his slaves to eat at his table” and that the “the black man is a slave who was allowed to assume a master’s attitude” (Fanon 1964: 194). This brings us to a problematic:

The precarious relationship between the invisible ontological consciousness of the colonizer and the slave’s “fight to death” becomes one in which the colonial-slave must penetrate, not only the concrete [sub-] systems of the colonial-master (e.g. the political, economic and social constellations of power) but such a break cannot but be predicated on an ontological penetration; it must emerge from both ontological and political exteriority. For to “fight” does not mean that one emerges from the womb of the colonial trauma, in which the colonizer becomes the “theme of one’s action” – on the contrary, it refers to a struggle which takes place only when one attains self-consciousness through thinking and praxis that is anterior to the Master-Slave relations. It is for this reason that Hegel explains that the Slave’s independent self-consciousness is independent insofar as it is not constituted by the Slave’s relationship with the Master but rather that which is anterior to both the Slave and the Master: the natural-world. There remains, however, a problematic which Marxist have stressed: to what extent do the intersubjective relations between the Master and Slave permeate into other relations i.e. the Slave-Nature relationship? That is to say, when the Slave turns to the natural world, to what extent is the Slave’s gaze onto that world not shaped by the reified relations of the hegemonic Colonial-Bourgeoisie order? It is insufficient, to merely state that the reification of Capitalist relations are limited those between man, for history has taught us that these reifications have even shaped the ways in which man relates to that Being which, theoretically, is transcendent to man: God. Therefore, the only way to step outside of the Master-Slave dialectic is to become consciousness of the colonizer’s ontological consciousness and the ways in which it shapes the slaves perceived reality. The slave’s inability to transcend the ontological horizons (the “world”) of the colonial-master becomes a form of “routine praxis” (as opposed to radical praxis) which Enrique Dussel describes as: “is dominating because it consolidates the existing totality; it is an ontic activity or a mere mediation internal to the world, founded in its proteycto. It is the praxis of consolidating the old and the unjust”. (Dussel 1990: 63) In contrast, a radical praxis is one which “opens a world from itself, its own road from within itself” (Dussel 1990: 63).

The Slave who works within the totality of the Master and has been recognized without a “fight to death” does not seek his autonomy and/or attain self-consciousness through his labor and his engagement with the natural world but rather he sets his gaze onto the Master, for to become “free” is to be like the Master.  Having spoken of the inextricable link between the colonizers political imagination and the ontology which informs it, we will now critically examine Fanon’s resistance-based political imagination and the extent to which that political imagination, in itself, was able to transcend the Hegelian dialectic.

Note: Part II of this essay will appear soon.

*Ali S. Harfouch was brought up in New Jersey U.S. As of 2008, after having moved to Beirut, Lebanon, a lot of his time has been devoted to writing and lecturing on issues related to political Islamic thought, Western political theory and Middle Eastern politics. He is currently completing an M.A in Political Theory from the American University of Beirut. He is also a speaker for the UK based Muslim Debate Initiative, political analyst on Revolution Observer and contributor to New Civilisation. He can be reached at

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