Kojève, Alexandre

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Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968)

Born Aleksandr Kozhevnikov to a wealthy family of industrialists in Moscow, Alexandre Kojève garnered acclaim as a philosopher only after his emigration to Western Europe in 1920. His lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, held at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris from 1933-1939, are thought to have greatly renewed interest in Hegel in the West and inaugurated the “generation of three H’s”: a constellation of postwar French philosophers whose work sought to synthesize Hegel, Heidegger, and Husserl. After the Second World War, Kojève served in the French Ministry of Economy and Finance, where his theory of the post-historical state, allegedly inspired by Stalinism, is often considered to have played some conceptual role in the formation of the European Union. In the aftermath of the Cold War, Kojève’s interpretation of the “End of History” in Hegel’s Phenomenology has since seen renewed interest from the perspective of post-Soviet philosophy, in light of a growing critique of teleological thinking in the philosophy of history.

 

The “Russian” Period: Emigration, Vladimir Solovyov, and Atheism

Kojève emigrated shortly after the October Revolution at the age of eighteen, yet his political allegiances remained ambivalent throughout his life—he once paradoxically described his own conversion to communism in a Soviet jail, having been arrested for trading soap on the black market. Instead of emigration for political reasons, the nascent philosopher justified his relocation abroad through his philosophical studies at the University of Heidelberg. At Heidelberg, Kojève studied under Karl Jaspers and Heinrich Rickert and wrote his master’s dissertation on Vladimir Solovyov’s philosophy of history.

Although his dissertation on Solovyov did little more than summarize the religious philosopher’s work, it was published as his first article, in French in 1927 and in German in 1930. The article was positively received by the émigré philosophical community, with figures such as Fyodor Stepun and Nikolai von Bubnoff writing to congratulate him and Georges Florovsky even inviting him to join the Russian Society in Paris, of which Nikolai Berdiaev and Lev Shestov served as President and Vice-President, respectively. In the dissertation, Kojève outlined three major periods in the development of Solovyov’s thought: an earlier Slavophile period, a Catholic or ecumenical period, and a later historical period embodied in Solovyov’s final work on the figure of the anti-Christ, Three Conversations. In the first two periods, Kojève sees Solovyov articulating a theogonic principle, whereby the kingdom of God is incarnated on earth in the theory of Godmanhood and fallen Sophia. Humanity slowly reveals to itself the Absolute—in the Slavophile period, Solovyov uniquely tasked the Russian people with this revelation, whereas the ecumenical period attributed this revelation to Christendom more broadly. Kojève was most interested, however, in the third later period, in which he argued that Solovyov had abandoned his belief in humanity’s reconciliation with a religious Absolute:

Solovyov no longer believed that history leads in a steady progression to the realization of “total life,” of the “kingdom of God on Earth,” or that with this realization history finds its natural conclusion. He now in fact takes the opposite position, that history ends in the construction of an earthly empire which however is only a caricature of a theocracy, because it is run by the principle of evil embodied in the figure of the Antichrist. […] One sees that history is for Solov’ev no longer the gradual surmounting of the evil principle but rather a perpetual strengthening of it. (“Die Geschichtsphilosophie Wladimir Solowjews”)

Kojève interpreted this pessimistic, final period of Solovyov’s philosophy as a decisive move toward a definition of the historical, although what the definition was remains unclear, given Solovyov’s death shortly after the publication of Three Conversations.

The connection between the historical and a disbelief in religious thought, nevertheless culminated in Kojève’s posthumously published manuscript Atheism. Written in Russian in 1931 but published for the first time in French in 1998, Atheism illustrates a clear trajectory from Kojève’s early interest in Solovyov to his later atheist, anthropological interpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In the manuscript, Kojève claimed that all atheist thought emerges originally from a religious worldview, rather than vice versa, and sought to articulate his theory of an “atheist religion.”

According to Kojève, and in language that later paralleled in his seminars on Hegel, personhood is formed through interrelation: each person understands themselves in relationship to what is not them. Extending this construct further, Kojève claims that humankind begins with a religious worldview, in that it articulates God as “the ultimate Other” to themselves, yet the first step toward atheism is to deny the existence of this other:

As for the atheist, for him God is not something. It is nothingness, and between myself and God there cannot be a relation, nor anything in common, since I know to a certain extent that I exist (I am a something), whereas God simply doesn’t exist. (L’Athéisme, 72)

The paradox for Kojève lies in that the atheist must necessarily acknowledge God in order to deny God’s non-existence—the very act of negation implies the existence of that which is negated. For Kojève, then, both the atheist and the theist are united in this “path toward God” as an Other, and the “atheist religion” is understood as the conscientious negation of this path.

Kojève’s intent was to establish an atheist anthropology, in which human existence is grounded in nothing but its own immanent being. By denying the existence of God (the ultimate Other in that it is completely unqualifiable and foreign) the atheist thereby establishes an equivalency with all other things, in that these things are qualifiable like the atheist themself. Borrowing from Heidegger the notion of Being-in-World, Kojève therefore claims that the atheist worldview creates a homogeneous, immanent community with the material likeness of things which are not God:

In seeing outside of myself other people, I cease to perceive the world as something completely foreign to me, as something other, radically different from this something that I myself am. I can fear an “empty” world, that is, it could seem to me “foreign,” but the fear disappears (or becomes something else, dread without object transforms into concrete fear before an enemy, etc.) as soon as I recognize another person: I see immediately that my fear is in vain, that the world is not as strange to me as it seemed before. (92)

In Atheism, Kojève therefore followed through on Solovyov’s late transition toward a historical world, embodied in the Anti-Christ, in which (Kojève claims) a transcendental relation with God has become impossible, yet a material, earthly community is established in its wake.

 

The Hegel Seminars: 1933 to 1939

Undoubtedly his greatest legacy in French philosophy, Kojève’s seminars on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit mark in many ways a continuation of his interest in an “atheist anthropology” from his early years. Kojève inherited the seminars from his friend and in-law Alexandre Koyré, another Russo-French philosopher who played an influential role in the dissemination of phenomenology in France. Koyré studied with Husserl in Germany and served as the editor of Recherches philosophiques, a philosophy journal responsible for publishing Heidegger, Levinas, Sartre, and others. In 1933, Koyré accepted work through the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the University of Cairo and bequeathed his teaching position to Kojève, who was familiar with the material after having previously attended the seminars.

When Koyré led the seminars, the topic was “The History of Religious Ideas in Europe,” and in its section on Hegel, Koyré traced Hegel’s mature later period out of an early period of religious idealism and German Romanticism. In parallel with his thesis on Solovyov, Atheism, and Koyré’s interest in Hegel’s philosophical development, Kojève in his own seminars interpreted Hegel’s philosophy of Absolute Spirit as a secularization of Christian anthropology, claiming that “according to Hegel, one cannot realize the Christian anthropological ideal […] except in ‘eliminating’ Christian theology” (Introduction à la lecture de Hegel, 224).

Kojève’s interpretation of the Phenomenology of Spirit relied overwhelming on its fourth chapter, in which Hegel described the formation of self-consciousness and the dialectic of Lord and Bondsman. If in Hegel, the Lord and Bondsman dialectic signals a struggle for recognition, in which the Lord momentarily “succeeds” in forcing the Bondsman to recognize his independence by risking death, Kojève instead chose to interpret this dialectical relationship as the struggle for desire. Kojève notably canonized the translation of Hegel’s dialectic to Master and Slave and transformed recognition of the Master by the Slave into the human subject’s desire to be desired by another being. When, for example, a knight risks his life in accordance with chivalric code, he has risked death in order to be desired by others: a princess, other knights, and society writ large. The supremacy of the Master, however, is but a fleeting moment in the dialectic, as the Slave ultimately holds over the Master the power of recognition. In resonance with Marx, Kojève moreover attributes to the Slave the motor of history through his labor: by being forced to recognize the Master, the Slave works and therefore propels forward historical development by negating the givens of the world through action.

Kojève follows Hegel in tracing the dialectical development of these contradictory relationships across history, claiming their various manifestations to be indicative of the development of Absolute Spirit. Unique however to Kojève’s interpretation is the anthropomorphizing of Spirit: the various stages of negation and sublation in Hegel’s dialectical progression of Spirit ultimately turn out to be for Kojève the human being itself. This progression concludes with the image of modern, atheist and scientific man, who is satisfied, has overcome an opposition of Master and Slave by embodying both, and therefore no longer struggles: “History ends when Man no longer acts in strict sense of the word, that is, when he no longer negates or transforms the natural and social given through bloody Struggle and creative Work” (Introduction, 547).

The vague nature of Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel encouraged diverse definitions of the end of History. Nevertheless, Kojève outlined that at the end of History, the modern human would be the embodiment of Absolute Spirit in the form of anthropomorphized wisdom: if the historical process was symbolized by the philosopher (in the desire for wisdom), the modern human is the sage who has come to embody this wisdom. Solovyov’s Anti-Christ, and the “homogeneous community” in Atheism, all presaged this teleological figure, yet this view of the end of History held the widest resonance in political theory.

 

Debates on the Political and the Universal State

After World War II, Kojève took up an advisory role in the French Ministry of Economy and Finance, thanks in large part to the recommendations of French politicians who had attended his seminars on Hegel. His role in pursuing the reduction of tariffs within the European Economic Community has spurred rumors that his political philosophy inspired the foundation of the European Union. Regardless of the veracity of these claims, in the post-war period Kojève found himself on opposing sides of debates within political theory.

At the heart of the debate lay the very nature of what defines the political. In his The Concept of the Political (1927), Carl Schmitt had defined the political as the distinction between friend and enemy, with the political state’s coalescence dependent upon an opposition to an external enemy. In the most important work of Kojève’s later period, An Outline for a Phenomenology of Right (1943), Kojève relied on this definition of the political by Schmitt, claiming:

For there to be a State the following two conditions must be met: 1) there must be a Society in which all members are “friends,” and which treats as an enemy every non-member whoever it may be; 2) in the interior of this Society a group of “governors” must clearly distinguish themselves from the other members who constitute the “governed.” (Esquisse d’une phénoménologie du droit, 143).

This opposition of friend and enemy within the political sphere paralleled the struggle for recognition within Kojève’s Master/Slave dialectic. In 1955, however, Kojève began a correspondence with Schmitt concerning the possibility of a political order without conflict. In their exchange, Schmitt asked Kojève whether in Hegelian philosophy an eternal enemy is possible, given the passing nature of the Master/Slave dialectic as a placeholder for societal conflict. Kojève responded by claiming that history is the “history of enmity between peoples” and that this enmity ends when history has concluded (“Correspondence,” 107). In this line of argumentation, therefore, the political could not exist after history.

According to Kojève, the post-historical state is the guarantor of the resolution of conflict: in his Outline of a Phenomenology of Right, Kojève defined legal right as the role played by state as a “disinterested intervention of a third,” arbitrating a juridical conflict between two parties (Esquisse, 24). Once history has concluded, a universal, homogeneous state will play this role and eliminate all conflict whatsoever, effectively eliminating the political. While this concept of the political has regularly encouraged comparisons with the European Union, and its resolution of conflict between its various states, scholars on Kojève such as Boris Groys, Jeff Love, and Hager Weslati have instead attributed Kojève’s philosophy of the post-historical state to Stalinism.

From his early years up until his death, Kojève called himself a “Marxiste de droite” and claimed to be “Stalin’s consciousness,” one who saw in Stalin the herald of the End of History just as Hegel had seen it in Napoleon. Through archival research, Weslati has discovered a letter written in 1940 by Kojève and intended for Stalin. In the letter Kojève claimed that his interpretation of Hegel was written as a philosophical descriptor of Stalinism, and heralded in Stalin “a new opportunity for revolutionary action that will ‘Sovietize’ (that is to say, unify) the realized consciousness of ‘the man of action’ with the revealed self-consciousness of ‘discursive wisdom’” (“Kojève’s letter to Stalin,” 10). Siarhei Biareishyk situates Kojève’s End of History in the context of Stalin’s “socialism in one country,” whereby the

advent of post-historical time […] is signaled by the coincidence (identity) of form and content, being and consciousness, thus engendering a condition where change is impossible, precisely because the motor of this change—the disjunction between material conditions and consciousness—has been eliminated. Needless to say, such a coincidence for Stalin is only possible under the societal conditions of socialism/communism, when a homogeneous state as classless society has materialized. (248)

Love has similarly claimed that Kojève “develops a concept of freedom as the radical extirpation of individual interest” (“Alexandre Kojève and philosophical Stalinism,” 264).

 

The “End of History” and Post-Soviet Reception

While Kojève’s End of History arguably has the strongest connection to both the European Union and the Soviet Union under Stalin, the most well-known use of Kojève’s theory of the end of history was that of Francis Fukuyama, who in the 1990s claimed the End of History and that liberal democracy would be the definitive, enduring political form worldwide after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fukuyama’s citation effectively introduced Kojève to an American audience, where he would also find relevance as a political philosopher due to his friendship with Leo Strauss. The end of the Cold War, however, simultaneously introduced Kojève to a receptive post-Soviet audience, itself grappling with the collapse of the Soviet regime as a teleological project and the new assumption of inevitable liberal democracy in Russia.

Philosopher Sergei Prozorov has sought to reconceptualize Kojève’s philosophy of the end of history in order to describe the inoperability of the post-Soviet state. If, for Kojève, history concluded when humankind no longer labored, and therefore no longer negated the givens of the world, Prozorov attributes this inaction less to a state of completion but rather to a breakdown in the very sense of societal progress:

the end of history is not an event that takes place in accordance with its own inherent logic outside our experience but is rather a possibility that is permanently available to social praxis in the here and now, to anyone in any context. In order words, history does not end by fulfilling its logic but is rather brought to an end in the social practices that suspend its progress. (Ethics of Postcommunism, 8)

Prozorov argues that post-Soviet society was inoperable due to its disaffection toward social progress, having effectively exhausted its teleological view of praxis from the Soviet period. Prozorov imagines this exhaustion through the image of Kojève’s Slave, asking “what if we imagine, for a moment, a figure of the Slave who was stopped working without at the same time taking up the fight for recognition” (11). Rather than viewing this abandonment of work pessimistically, Prozorov instead sees in it an opportunity to ask “what politics might be in the absence of any mobilization of humanity for historical tasks of bringing about a bright future” (“Why Giorgio Agamben is an optimist,” 247).

Kojève’s philosophy of the end of history has therefore been heavily adapted so as to speak to an aversion to teleological thinking in the post-Soviet sphere. Oksana Timofeeva, for example, has accused Kojève’s philosophy of anthropomorphism, given that labor in Kojève’s philosophy is thought to be unique to humanity. Arguing instead that humans are not the only animals which negate the givens of the world, Timofeeva reads the work of Andrei Platonov through Kojève, Giorgio Agamben, and Georges Bataille in order to attribute to the natural world its own form of historical development: “bare life is the life of animals and plants, but also the life of people who from this very life create happiness and communism […] everything great, including revolution, is made from this meager, weak substance” (Istoriia zhivotnykh, 162).

Lastly, philosophers such as Artemy Magun have relied on Kojève’s philosophy of history to reignite the possibility of radical politics and revolution in contemporary Russia. In his Negative Revolution (2008), Magun relies on Kojève’s belief in labor as a negation of the givens in order to define the term negative revolution. Magun employs the term “negative revolution” to highlight the role of symbolic destruction in the creation of the new: “society first unites and destroys—almost unanimously—the symbolic façade of the Old order” in order to then construct a new regime (Otritsatel’naia revoliutsiia, 88). His theory of revolution, inspired by political resistance under Putin, finds direct parallel with Kojève’s dialectical philosophy of history, in which first “the Revolutionary acts consciously not to establish an (ideal) World, but rather to destroy the given World” (Introduction, 170).

Trevor Wilson, December 2020

 

Bibliography

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