Kojève, Alexandre (1902–1968)

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KOJèVE, ALEXANDRE (1902–1968)


Hegelian philosopher.

Alexandre Kojève is best known for a series of lectures he gave on The Phenomenology of Spirit, by G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), from 1933 to 1939 at the École Practique des Hautes Études. Kojève's auditors read like a who's who of future French intellectuals. Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, André Breton, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Queneau, Eric Weil, and others attended Kojève's seminars at various times, and many of them testified to his acumen, rigor, and erudition. Kojève's lectures were published in 1947; and this, coupled with the publication of Jean Hyppolite's 1939 translation of the Phenomenology of Spirit, introduced Hegelianism to postwar France and set the stage for its subsequent sovereign reign there.

Kojève reads human history through the lens of Hegel's master-slave dialectic, and he sees the desire for recognition as the distinguishing characteristic of humanity. Human beings demand to be recognized and respected as free and equal individuals, and it is only when individuals are mutually recognized that they can lead fully satisfying lives. At the beginning of their historical development, however, human beings, while demanding that others recognize their individual particularity, refused to offer that recognition in return, and this led to a struggle for recognition or a battle for pure prestige. At some point in this struggle, one of the warrior's desire for self-preservation overcame his desire to risk his life for recognition, and he thereafter became the slave of the victorious master, recognizing his human dignity and working for him. But while the master may have won in the short run, over the long run the slave's recognition of the master is not satisfying precisely because the master does not recognize the slave's dignity. The slave, by contrast, was able to progress historically through the very activity that distinguished him as a slave, namely work or labor: the products of the slave's work became an objective confirmation of his own reality and worth. Kojève traces the development of slave consciousness through the historical stages of Christianity and capitalism, for example: in the former, God becomes a new and absolute master, but one who now recognizes the unique individuality and worth of all persons; in the latter, private property or capital becomes the new master, but one that aids and encourages the working slave's ongoing transformation and technological conquest of nature. According to Kojève, the end of history (understood as humanity's dialectical transformation and development) occurred during the French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon. The worker-warriors of Napoleon's army were willing to risk their lives for recognition, but only in order to create the egalitarian conditions whereby all individuals will recognize one another and be recognized as dignified and autonomous citizens. The only remaining task to accomplish historically is the worldwide propagation of the fundamental ideas of the Revolution, the achievement of which will result in what Kojève calls a universal and homogeneous state. This final or end state will be universal because it will encompass all of humanity; and it will be homogeneous because all citizens will enjoy equal rights and duties through the promulgation of a genuinely equitable system of justice.

Kojève exerted a broad influence over many segments of French intellectual life. For example, André Breton (1896–1966) and the surrealists discovered in Hegel's dialectic a demonstration of the inner harmony and unity of apparently opposite and irreconcilable concepts or forces. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) borrowed a number of Kojèvean insights, including the desire for another desire, the struggle for recognition, and the master-slave dialectic. Lacan then incorporated these ideas into his interpretation of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) to explain such phenomena as the origin of self-consciousness, the constitution of human subjectivity, and the socialization of children. In literature, many of the novels of Raymond Queneau (1903–1976) can be understood as depicting life at the end of history. Not without irony and humor, Queneau's characters are generally fully reconciled or satisfied with themselves and their surroundings. With little more to do or say in the modern world, they enjoy an essentially pacific and leisured existence in which the titanic, historical struggles between good and evil are gone forever. And lastly, Kojève laid the groundwork for the emergence of existential Marxism in such thinkers as Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). Abandoning Hegel's dialectical understanding of nature, Kojève maintained that human beings alone are defined by their radical freedom to negate or change or create themselves and the world around them. This existential ontology was then grafted onto Marx's historical materialism, resulting in a philosophical position that emphasizes the free creation of human essence, the inherently alienating structures of capitalistic society, and the struggle for a future free of exploitation. In sum, Kojève is often the hidden influence that stands behind much of postwar French intellectual life.

See alsoBreton, André; Freud, Sigmund; Lacan, Jacques; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Phenomenology; Sartre, Jean-Paul .


Primary Sources

Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Assembled by Raymond Queneau. Edited by Allan Bloom. Translated by James H. Nichols Jr. Ithaca, N.Y., 1980.

——. Outline of a Phenomenology of Right. Translated, with notes and introductory essay by Bryan-Paul Frost and Robert Howse. Edited by Bryan-Paul Frost. Lanham, Md., 2000.

Strauss, Leo. On Tyranny. Revised and expanded edition, including the Strauss-Kojève correspondence. Edited by Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth. New York, 1991.

Secondary Sources

Auffret, Dominique. Alexandre Kojève: La philosophie, l'État, la fin de l'histoire. Paris, 1990.

Butler, Judith. Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France. New York, 1999.

Roth, Michael S. Knowing and History: Appropriations of Hegel in Twentieth-Century France. Ithaca, N.Y., 1988.

Bryan-Paul Frost