Year One: A Philosophical Recounting

Review of Susan Buck-Morss, Year One: A Philosophical Recounting

Buck-Morss imagines universal history outside of its traditional parochialism.

By Nasrin Olla

Philosophers of the enlightenment such as Rousseau, Kant and Hegel imagined their projects as universal in reach and scale. Whether these philosophers were writing about the social contract, the foundations of moral law or the progression of spirit, the idea that the whole world could be understood from a universal perspective was taken for granted. In the twentieth century, postcolonial theorists have argued that this ‘universal perspective’ was inspired by specific, local or provincial European imaginaries. Reading postcolonial theory, one has learned to be cautious of the way universal modes of thought risk imposing one culture’s values and norms onto all other cultures. Yet in an increasingly divided yet ‘globalised’ world we might ask: Are there ways of recuperating universal forms of inquiry from this dubious history? If so, how would we navigate the risk of imposition and reduction? What kind of philosophical project could be both global in its reach and sensitive to particularity, contingency and difference? What kinds of projects could create new visions of universal thought and history? For the last two decades, the philosopher and historian Susan Buck-Morss has been tackling precisely these questions.

In Buck-Morss’s hands, universal history does not name a desire for sameness, homogeneity or subsumption, but an attentiveness to moments of commonality that cut across national, cultural and racial divides. In Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2005), Buck-Morss argued that the 1791 Haitian revolution – the first successful campaign for freedom by enslaved peoples – was an event of universal significance. Hegel, for example, learns about the revolution in the journal Minerva and the vision of freedom developed in the Phenomenology of Spirit is created in the shadow of the struggles of enslaved Haitians. The Haitian revolution, for Buck-Morss, challenges the idea of an isolated and uncontaminated Western modernity and is one of the key sources of a global modernity….