Saturday, February 7, 2015

Martin Luther King Jr. and Continental Philosophy

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Diagram of Hegel's System
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great civil rights leader and champion of nonviolence. But beneath his views on race and oppression lies a philosophical schooling that began at least in graduate school, during which time he took courses at Boston University and Harvard on not only the History of Philosophy and the Philosophy of Religion, but also a yearlong seminar on Hegel.

Dr. King's list of courses, from The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., page 18.
While hints at his education in the history of philosophy can be found, for example, in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail (which references such philosophers as St. Augustine, Martin Buber, and Socrates), his having been a student in philosophy played a central role in making him the man we know today. In other words, Dr. King not only fought White America, but he did so by turning the ideas of dead white men against the oppressive practices of living white men.

As Dr. King wrote in his autobiography:
Just before [his advisor] Dr. Brightman's death, I began studying the philosophy of Hegel with him. This course proved to be both rewarding and stimulating. Although the course was mainly a study of Hegel's monumental work, Phenomenology of Mind, I spent my spare time reading his Philosophy of History and Philosophy of Right. There were points in Hegel's philosophy that I strongly disagreed with. For instance, his absolute idealism was rationally unsound to me because it tended to swallow up the many in the one. But there were other aspects of his thinking that I found stimulating. His contention that "truth is the whole" led me to a philosophical method of rational coherence. His analysis of the dialectical process, in spite of its shortcomings, helped me to see that growth comes through struggle.
In his Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King argues, using Hegel, that rather than having to choose either passive acceptance of oppression or violently opposing it, there is a "third way":
The third way open to oppressed people in their quest for freedom is the way of nonviolent resistance. Like the synthesis in Hegelian philosophy, the principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites—acquiescence and violence—while avoiding the extremes and immoralities of both.
Thanks to the King Library and Archives in Atlanta, we can read hundreds of Dr. King's notes on not only Hegel, but also on Kant, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche. Here are some samples:

Apparently Kant was not the only one awoken from a "dogmatic slumber"
A discussion of Existentialism
An analysis of Anxiety
The "two assumptions" that "are important in a study of Kierkegaard"
Happiness in Spinoza and Nietzsche
A quote from Nietzsche in a 1966 sermon 
An exam Dr. King gave his students at Morehouse College (#4 is about comparing and contrasting Gandhi and Marx)
An outline for a sermon on history, with references to Hegel, Marx, and Plotinus

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