Hegel’s prejudice against the Chinese Part 1: ‘The Undisciplined Child’

Huangpu district at night, Shanghai, China.

I’ve been going through Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind and found a couple of troubling passages, which I will be citing in full, while splitting my post into two different parts, since the quotations themselves are to be found in two separate places in the book.

The text is taken from the Wallace & Miller translation, while the book itself comprises the third and final part of Hegel’s more broader project of his Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Science (Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse), more precisely the final and third edition from 1830. The text itself was intended mostly as a textbook to accompany his lectures.

The first part, where he basically directly compares the Chinese to an underdeveloped mind of a child, can be found on the page 58 of the previously mentioned translation. The real problem of the following passages is that simple common prejudice is packed into the phraseology of refined philosophical language and used as a concrete example for the development of an entire anthropological theory concerning the development of a child. The entire passage was placed by Hegel into the very beginning of the book, more precisely titled SECTION I: SUBJECTIVE MIND (§§387-482), Subsection A: Anthropology, The Soul):

“With regard to one of the two aspects of education, discipline, the boy should not be allowed to follow his own inclination; he must obey in order to learn to command. Obedience is the beginning of all wisdom; for through obedience the will that does not yet know the true, the objective, that does not make this its goal and therefore far from being genuinely independent and free is still immature, accepts within itself the rational will coming to it from outside and gradually makes this its own will. On the other hand, if one allows children to do as they please, if one commits the additional folly of handing over to them reasons for their whims, then one falls into the worst mode of education, children develop a deplorable absorption in particular likes and dislikes, in peculiar cleverness, in self-centred interest,—the root of all evil. By nature, the child is neither evil nor good, since it starts without any knowledge either of good or of evil. To regard this unknowing innocence as an ideal and to yearn to return to it would be silly; it is without value and of short duration. Self-will and evil soon emerge in the child. This self-will must be broken by discipline, this seed of evil must be annihilated by it.

With regard to the other side of education, instruction, it is to be noted that this rationally begins with the most abstract thing that the child’s mind can grasp. This is the alphabet. This presupposes an abstraction to which entire races, for example, even the Chinese, have not attained. Language in general is this airy element, this sensory-unsensory, by increasing knowledge of which the child’s mind rises more and more above the sensory, the individual, to the universal, to thinking. This growing capacity for thinking is the greatest benefit of primary education. But the child only gets as far as representational thinking; the world is only for his representation; he learns the qualities of things, becomes acquainted with the circumstances of the worlds of nature and mind, develops an interest in things, but does not yet cognize the world in its inner connectedness. This knowledge comes only with manhood. But it cannot be denied that the boy has an imperfect understanding of the natural and the mental. One must therefore describe as an error the claim that a boy as yet understands nothing whatever of religion and right, that therefore he must not be bothered with these matters, that on no account must ideas be forced on him, but on the contrary he must be provided with experiences of his own and one must be content to let him be stimulated by what is sensorily present. Even the ancients did not allow children to dwell for long on the sensory. But the modern mind involves a wholly differ­ent elevation above the sensory, a much deeper absorption in its own inwardnes, than the ancient mind. Therefore, the supersensory world should now be presen­ted to the boy’s imagination at an early age. This happens in a much higher degree through the school than in the family. In the family the child is accepted in its immediate individuality, is loved whether its behaviour is good or bad. In school, on the other hand, the immediacy of the child no longer counts; here it is esteemed only according to its worth, according to its achievements; here it is no longer merely loved but criticized and guided in accordance with universal determinations, moulded by the objects of instruction according to fixed rules, in general, subjected to a universal order which forbids much that is innocent in itself because it cannot be permitted that evetyone does it. The school thus forms the transition from the family into civil society. But to civil society the boy has at first only an indeterminate relationship; his interest is still divided between learning and playing.”

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