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Eurocentrism of Hegel

Eurocentrism of Hegel, Marx, Mueller, Monier Williams, Husserl
by Rajiv Malhotra

Copyright 2001 The Infinity Foundation


During the colonial era, the naïve assumption of Western superiority was given authority by thinkers such as Hegel, who developed a “universal” theory of history, which was, in essence, a theory of European history in which the rest of the World was taken to be objects rather than subjects. For Hegel, as Said has pointed out, Asia and Africa were “static, despotic, and irrelevant to world history.”1 Hegel’s view of history was highly influential, on both Marxist and humanist historiography. His rather extreme ethnocentrism should thus not be swept under the rug, but analyzed as a central aspect of his thought. Since Hegel, Ethnocentrism has often blinded the West to the parochialism of its supposed “universals”.

Particularly egregious are the attempts by thinkers such as Hegel to define as universal features that are, in fact, quite culturally specific. This includes his “universal history”, which saw Europe and America as the pinnacles of human evolution. Hegel wrote, for example, “universal history goes from East to West. Europe is absolutely the end of universal history. Asia is the beginning.”2

This idea was clearly a justification of Western colonial exploitation. But Hegel took the idea even further. Since his “history” is solely defined in Eurocentric terms, any act committed by the Europeans, no matter how reprehensible, is justifiable as a necessary step in human evolution. Hegel wrote that:

“Because history is the configuration of the Spirit in the form of event, the people which receives the Spirit as its natural principle…is the one that dominates in that epoch of world history…Against the absolute right of that people who actually are the carriers of the world Spirit, the spirit of other peoples has no other right.”3

Hegel saw the evolution of human history as a unified totality, proceeding via the evolution of the “world spirit”. The “world spirit”, for Hegel, was Western, with other cultures subsumed to the dustbin of history, forced either to adapt to the West or be trampled underfoot by this “world spirit”, which in Hegel’s writing appears as a complex metaphor for the reality of Western aggression. Even within the West, Germany occupies a special destiny. Hegel writes4:

“The Germanic Spirit (germanische Geist) is the Spirit of the New World (neuen Welt), whose end is the realization of the absolute truth, as the infinite self-determination of liberty that has for its content its proper absolute form. The principle of the German Empire ought to accommodate the Christian religion. The destiny of the Germanic peoples is that of serving as the bearer of the Christian principle.”

All non-Europeans are mere objects in the hands of the Europeans, under this theory of history. When applying his theories to Africans, Hegel arrived at the following blatantly racist conclusions5:

“It is characteristic of the blacks that their consciousness has not yet even arrived at the intuition of any objectivity, as for example, of God or the law, in which humanity relates to the world and intuits its essence. …He [the black person] is a human being in the rough.”

Colonialization was the teleological imperative by which consciousness in the form of the superior Europeans must appropriate the others. He wrote6:

“By a dialectic which is appropriate for surpassing itself, in the first place, such a society is driven to look beyond itself to new consumers. Therefore it seeks its means of subsistence among other peoples which are inferior to it with respect to the resources which it has in excess, such as those of industry. This expansion of relations also makes possible that colonization to which, under systematic or sporadic form, a fully established civil society is impelled. Colonization permits it that one part of its population, located on the new territory, returns to the principle of family property and, at the same time, procures for itself a new possibility and field of labor.”

Hegel also applied this “logic” specifically to his analysis of India. He depicted the British colonialization of India as an inevitable stage in his process of “evolution”. He wrote:

“The British, or rather the East India Company, are the masters of India because it is the fatal destiny of Asian empires to subject themselves to the Europeans.”7

Reading through Hegel’s works, it is apparent that he based conclusions such as this on the rather warped assumption that India has no history. His clearest statement to this effect occurs as follows:

“If we had formerly the satisfaction of believing in the antiquity of the Indian wisdom and holding it in respect, we now have ascertained through being acquainted with the great astronomical works of the Indians, the inaccuracy of all figures quoted. Nothing can be more confused, nothing more imperfect than the chronology of the Indians; no people which attained to culture in astronomy, mathematics, &c., is as incapable for history; in it they have neither stability nor coherence. It was believed that such was to be had at the time of Wikramaditya, who was supposed to have lived about 50 B.C., and under whose reign the poet Kalidasa, author of Sakontala, lived. But further research discovered half a dozen Wikramadityas and careful investigation has placed this epoch in our eleventh century. The Indians have lines of kings and an enormous quantity of names, but everything is vague.”8

This is an important passage for two reasons. First, this assumption has been very influential, and its consequences continue to be felt today. Secondly, Hegel gives this as the reason why he had lost respect for India’s cultural heritage. Yet his conclusion is baseless, and can be critiqued on several points. Classical Indian astronomy was no more inaccurate than the classical Greek Ptolemaic system, which Europe followed until the seventeenth century, and in many respects the former was more accurate. Regarding the Vikramaditya era, it is true that there were several kings with that name in Europe (just as there were many kings named Louis, Charles, etc. in Europe), but it does not follow from this that the Indians confused them. There in fact never was confusion concerning the Vikramaditya era, starting 57 BCE, and Hegel is absolutely wrong that this era begins in the eleventh century. One might argue that there never was a king of that name who lived at that time, but one could also argue that there was no Christ born at the year zero, but such a critique would not “prove” that the West has no history; the history based on such a chronology would still be sound, regardless of the status of the legendary founder of the era. It is interesting that he takes this rather inconsequential reason for carte blanche dismissal of Indian wisdom, as if the contents of a text are false merely because it is misdated!

Such mistaken views concerning Indian history (or lack thereof) are at the root of much of the dismissal of India and things Indian. Also, once it is established in the minds of an oppressed people that they have no history of their own, other than what has been gifted to them by the oppressors, then it also legitimizes (and glorifies) historical scholarship by the oppressors. In fact, many a Macaulayite today is grateful to the colonialists for having given him a sense of his own history which, the Macaulayites were programmed to believe, they never had of their own. As goes history, so go identity and values. This re-engineering is how Indians were conditioned to believe that their tradition requires them to be world negating, to leave materialistic progress to Europeans as it was against their own ethos. In fact, since giving up wealth could be seen as very pious, why bother if colonialists took it over?

Karl Marx:

The false perception that India was a stagnant, ahistorical land was further perpetuated by Karl Marx. Marx described India as being caught in what he called the “Asiatic Mode of Production”. He posited that India was trapped in a stagnant, unhistorical economic state in which “Oriental despots” wielding absolute power governed unchanging, stratified villages. His analysis was flawed by a serious ignorance of the actual economic history of India, and of the numerous underlying causes of decline. (This is why to this day, Marxists do not wish to encourage scholarship on India’s Traditional Knowledge Systems, as the historical record clearly refutes the belief that there was no progress on the materialistic front from within the indigenous culture.) From a certain perspective, the greatest despots in India were not Oriental but Occidental, i.e., the British.

These words were written in “The Future Results of British Rule in India’ on August 8, 1853 in the concluding of a series of articles on India, that were published in the ‘New York Daily Tribune’. In a letter to Engels, Marx claimed that he had written these casual pieces primarily for financial reasons and that India was “not his department”9:

“India, then, could not escape the fate of being conquered, and the whole of her past history, if anything, is the history of the successive conquests she has undergone. Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history, is but the history of the successive intruders who founded their empires on the basis of that unresisting and unchanging society… From the Indian natives, reluctantly and sparingly educated at Calcutta, under English superintendence, a fresh class is spring up, endowed with the requirements for government and imbued with European science. Steam has brought India into regular and rapid communication with Europe, has connected its chief ports with the whole south-eastern ocean, and has re-vindicated it from the isolated position which was the prime law of its stagnation.”

Max Mueller:

The predator-prey mentality of foreign rulers and scholars working on the ancient texts of India did not fail to influence the famous Max Mueller. This is reflected in one of the letters by Prof. Mueller addressed to the Duke of Orgoil, the then Secretary of State for India. Mueller wrote on 16th Dec. 1868:

“The ancient religion of India is totally doomed and if Christianity doesn’t step in whose fault will it be.”

Furthermore, in a letter addressed to his wife in 1868, Prof. Max Mueller wrote:

“I hope I shall finish that work and feel convinced that though I shall not live to see it, yet this edition of mine and translation of Vedas will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India and on the growth of millions of the souls in this country.”

In the same letter, he further observes:

“It [Veda] is the root of their religion and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, the only way of uprooting all that has been sprung from it during the last three thousand years.”

The text of his letters is self-explanatory to the fact that scholars like Max Mueller often started studying Sanskrit with ulterior motives. The modern condition demonstrates that he was more or less successful in his vision.

Monier Williams:

Monier Williams another important European scholar who was hard pressed by the Church. He wrote10:

“When the walls of the mighty fortress of Brahmanism are encircled, undermined and finally stormed by the soldiers of cross, the victory of Christianity must be signal and complete.”

In his preface to his famous Sanskrit-English Dictionary, as the Professor of the prestigious Boden Chair at Oxford, Monier Williams reveals the objective of founding the Chair for Sanskrit studies by Col. Boden as to convert the natives of India into Christianity. He writes thus11:

“I must draw attention to the fact that I am only the second occupant of the Boden Chair, and that its founder, Col. Boden, stated most explicitly in his will (dated Aug. 15,1811) that special object of his munificent bequest was to promote the translation of the scriptures into Sanskrit; so as to enable his countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian Religion.”


The prevalent view of most modern Western scholars is that European tradition is not simply one cultural tradition among others. The European self identity is predicated upon its distinct achievements in philosophy and pure theory, and as such, has a unique global mission to fulfill.

Husserl claimed: “Europe alone can provide other traditions with a universal framework of meaning and understanding. They will have to Europeanize themselves, whereas we, if we understand ourselves properly, will never, for example, Indianize ourselves. The Europeanization of all foreign parts of mankind is the destiny of the earth.”

Eurocentrism Today:

Enrique Dussel has written a remarkable book on Eurocentrism, focusing on the European conquest of America and the subsequent ‘construction’ of history to depict it as the miracle of European triumph. He writes12:

“The traditional Eurocentric thesis, flourishing in the United States, modernity’s culmination, is that modernity expanded to the barbarian cultures of the South undoubtedly in need of modernization. One can only explain this new-sounding but age-old thesis by returning to medieval Europe to discover the motives which produced modernity and permitted its dissemination. Max Weber first posed the question of world history Eurocentrically13:
“Which chain of circumstances has resulted in the fact that on Western soil and only there, cultural phenomena have been produced which, as we represent it, show signs of evolutionary advance and universal validity?” Weber continues14: “Neither scientific, artistic, governmental, nor economic evolution has led to the modes of rationalization proper to the Occident.”

Europe possessed, according to this paradigm, exceptional internal characteristics which permitted it to surpass all other cultures in rationality. This thesis, which adopts a Eurocentric (as opposed to world) paradigm, reigns not only in Europe and the United States, but also among intellectuals in the peripheral world. The pseudo-scientific periodization of history into Antiquity, the Middle (preparatory) Ages, and finally the Modern (European) Age is an ideological construct which deforms world history. One must break with this reductionist horizon to open to a world and planetary perspective – and there is an ethical obligation toward other cultures to do so.

Chronology reflects geopolitics. According to the Eurocentric paradigm, modern subjectivity especially developed between the times of the Italian Renaissance and the Reformation and of the Enlightenment in Germany and the French Revolution. Everything occurred in Europe.”

References Cited:

  1. Edward Said,Culture and Imperialism(New York: Vintage Books, 1993), p. 168.
  2. Hegel,Samtliche Werke. J. Hoffmeister and F. Meiner, eds. (Hamburg, 1955), appendix 2, p. 243; op cit. Enrique Dussel,The Invention of the Americas (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 20.
  3. Hegel,Samtliche Werke. J. Hoffmeister and F. Meiner, eds. (Hamburg, 1955), appendix 2, p. 243; op cit. Enrique Dussel,The Invention of the Americas (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 20.
  4. Hegel,“The Philosophy of History”, rev. ed., trans. J. Sibree (New York: Colonial Press, 1900), p.341.
  5. Hegel,Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction: Reason in History, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge University Press, 1975), p.138.
  6. Enzyklopadie, #248, English translation:“Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), p. 151.
  7. From Hegel’sEinleitung in die Geschichte der Philosophie(J. Hoffmeister, ed., Hamburg: F. Meiner, 1962), op. cit. Roger-Pol Droit, L’Oubli de L’Inde, Une Amnésie Philosophique, Presses Universitaires de France, 1989, p. 189.
  8. From Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.Lectures on the History of Philosophy. E. S. Haldane, trans. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995, vol. 1, pp. 125-126.
  9. Halbfass, Wilhelm:“India and Europe, An Essay in Understanding”. State University of New York Press, Albany (New York), 1988, pp. 137-138.
  10. Monier Williams,‘Modern India and Indians’, p. 247.
  11. Monier William, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, 1899, Preface, p. ix.
  12. Enrique Dussel,“The Invention of the Americas: Eclipse of “the Other” and the Myth of Modernity”, Translated by Michael D. Barber, pp. 9- 2.
  13. Max Weber,“Soziologie, weltgeschichtliche Analyzen, Politik(Stuttgart: Kroner, 1956), p.340.
  14. ibid., p.351.
  15. Wilhelm Halbfass,“India and Europe: An Essay in Philosophical Understanding”. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1990:167. The English version from original German was published by SUNY Press, Albany, N.Y. in 1988.

Copyright 2001 The Infinity Foundation