Alexandre Vladimirovich KOJEVE (born Kojevenikov) (1902, Moscow 1968, Bruxell) was born into a well-to-do bourgeois family (his uncle being the painter Wassily Kandinsky). After the Bolshevik Revolution (during which time he was arrested for selling soap on the black market and nearly executed were it not for the intervention of some influential relatives), Kojeve escaped from Russia in 1920 and spent the first half of the decade in Germany, where he completed his dissertation on the religious philosophy of Vladimir Soloviev under the supervision of Karl Jaspers. Toward the end of 1926, Kojeve traveled to Paris where he continued his studies; and in 1933, he took over Alexandre Koyre's seminar on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, lecturing on this one book until 1939. Kojeve's seminar on Hegel achieved an exceptional notoriety: not only was his interpretation of the Phenomenology recognized as compelling (albeit controversial), but the persons who attended and were subsequently influenced by his lectures reads like a veritable who's who list of future French intellectuals. Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, Andre Breton, Gaston Fessard, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eric Weil, and many others attended Kojeve's seminar at various times, and many of them attested to his rigor, acumen, and great erudition.
In 1940, Kojeve was drafted into the French army but did not see any combat; and being unable to leave France the following year, he spent the course of the war in Marseille, during which time he wrote and worked for the Resistance in various capacities. After the war, Kojeve's lectures were collected, edited, and published by Raymond Queneau; and this, coupled with the publication of Jean Hyppolite's translation of the Phenomenology of Spirit from 1939 to 1941, helped to set the stage for the introduction and subsequent sovereign reign of Hegel and Hegelianism in post-war France.
Kojeve, however, did not return to academia. With the help of former student Robert Marjolin, Kojeve instead secured a job in the Direction des relations economiques exterieures, and for the next twenty years, he was according to everyone who worked with him the eminence grise of French economic policy. He was involved in diplomatic events and treaties whose significance continues to define our century. After helping to implement the Marshall Plan, he was involved in promoting the European Economic Community (now the European Union); he was a central participant in the negotiations leading to the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization); and he took a keen interest in encouraging Third World development (what is now routinely referred to as the North-South split). And he admitted in a 1968 interview that he truly 'adored this work. For the intellectual, success takes the place of accomplishment. You write a book, it is a bestseller, that's all. Here it is different. There are accomplishments. I have told you the pleasure that I experienced when my tariff system was adopted. This is a superior kind of game.' Nonetheless, it is not as if Kojeve abandoned philosophy altogether: as his multi-volume and mostly posthumously published corpus reveals, he was active in the evenings and on the weekends composing his 'update' of the Hegelian system of science. He died in 1968 while giving a speech in Brussels before a meeting of the Common Market.
Kojeve's interpretation of Hegel is both original and arresting: he reads human history through the lense 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 we are mutually recognized that we can lead fully and genuinely satisfying lives. At the beginning of our historical development, however, human beings, while demanding that others recognize their individual humanity, refuse to offer that recognition in return, and this leads to a struggle for recognition or a battle for pure prestige. At some point in this struggle, Kojeve argues, one of the warrior's desire for self-preservation overcomes his desire to risk his life for recognition, and he thereafter becomes 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 dignity of the slave. The slave is able to progress historically through that very activity that distinguished him as a slave, namely work or labor: the products of the slave's work become an objective confirmation of his own reality and worth.
Kojeve traces the development of slave consciousness through such historical stages as Christianity and capitalism: 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 which aids and encourages the working slave's on-going transformation and technological conquest of nature. According to Kojeve, the end of history (understood as humanity's dialectical transformation and development) occurs during the French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon. The worker-warriors of Napoleon's army are willing to risk their lives for recognition, but only in order to create the egalitarian conditions whereby all individuals will recognize and be recognized as dignified and autonomous citizens. The only remaining task to accomplish historically is the world-wide propagation of the fundamental ideas of the Revolution, the achievement of which will result in what Kojeve calls a universal and homogenous state. This final or end state is universal because it encompasses all of humanity, with no arbitrary distinctions or advantages based on nationality, race, class, or sex; and it is homogenous because all citizens will enjoy equal rights and duties through the promulgation of a genuinely equitable system of justice.
Of course, Kojeve was fully aware that with the end of history, so too comes the end of humanity properly so-called, and in 1968, Kojeve added a long and famous footnote to his lectures on Hegel stressing the implications of this fact. The full satisfaction of human beings through mutual recognition means that human beings will become or only remain alive as clever animals in the end state, and consequently all 'human' activities will once again become purely natural as we live in a state of abundance, security, and full contentment. Although Kojeve never said so explicitly, it would seem that the completion of history might entail the reign of Nietzsche's last man.
As the above synopsis reveals, Kojeve was responsible for coining what are two of the most worn out and misunderstood phrases of our time: 'the end of history' and the 'end state.' By the end of history, Kojeve did not mean that wars and revolutions would be eliminated in the foreseeable future; nor did he mean that newspapers would lack sundry material to fill their pages. By the end of history, Kojeve meant first and foremost the end of the history of the development of politics. Kojeve begins from the premise that philosophers are not content simply to understand the world: in order to test the truth of their teachings, they must actively seek to change and improve the prevailing political and social environment. Philosophers will therefore publish their ideas to an ever wider audience in the hopes that someone will act upon their advice and demonstrate its validity, and political leaders (often through the mediation of intellectuals) seek out and implement this advice in order to earn even greater honor and glory through their actions and deeds. Because philosophers are best able to grasp their historical epoch in thought, and because political leaders are best suited to act upon these teachings in an efficacious manner, the salubrious interaction between philosophers and politicians makes it possible for human beings to create an ever more perfect and satisfying reality through the negating actions of political struggle and economic work, the twins motors of all historical progress. Through political struggle, we can construct a political order whose fundamental tenants and architecture articulate and make manifest a genuine common good: all persons can enjoy equal rights and freedoms in a state that in turn recognizes everyone as an essential member of the whole.
Kojeve argued that this final and fully satisfying political order would necessarily or inevitably be both 'universal' and 'homogenous.' The state was universal and encompassed all of humanity because Kojeve could see no philosophic justification for why people should be disadvantaged simply on account of where they were born; and it was homogenous in the sense that invidious distinctions such as social class, race, nationality, and gender would no longer be used to define and thereafter to discriminate against an individual. Through economic work, Kojeve argued that modern science and technology would continue to exploit with ever greater efficiency and ingenuity the power of nature for the relief of man's estate, and this, in turn, would help to secure the ever growing and widening material prosperity of all citizens throughout the world. In the universal and homogenous state, wealth would be equitably distributed, people would live long and healthy lives, and everyone would have the opportunity to pursue those activities they found most fulfilling.
If all of this sounds like heaven on earth, it is but Kojeve emphasized that it was heaven on earth, without the crutch of religion. Kojeve found in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit a convincing and wholly atheistic account of human history and progress, an account which demonstrated that human beings and human beings alone determine their future and that this is the future human beings wanted above all else. As individuals can live in full consciousness of their mortality, the tension between politics and religion can finally be overcome, and genuine philosophic knowledge that which undergirds and informs the end state can be and will be willingly disseminated to the people, there being no need any longer for such things as 'noble lies.' With all previous contradictions within self-consciousness having been resolved, we now at last stand poised to live in a universal and homogeneous state as fully satisfied individuals. In other words, now that all existential possibilities have been exhausted, the philosopher's relentless quest for wisdom has culminated in wisdom itself. The end of history, then, is not only the realization of a fully just political order, but it is also the very condition for the appearance of the wise man or sage, a life which resembles the divine. Although the sage is the highest human type, the wisdom of the sage is potentially available to anyone who would take the time to read Hegel (or rather Hegel as corrected and updated by Kojeve).
If all of this sounds extreme, one should pause to consider whether or not this is simply the stated and ultimate goals of modernity and Enlightenment philosophy. Phenomena such as Islamic extremism, nationalism, religious fundamentalism, neo-nazism, radical environmentalism, and so on, will slowly wither away, being nothing more than desperate, last ditch efforts by reactionary individuals, groups, and states in response to the global expansion of technology and the ideals of the French Revolution. But when the push of History comes to shove, people will be persuaded that a Kojevean future is the best and brightest of all, and no one will seriously advocate returning to some pre-modern form of government. Inevitably, nation-states will give way to ever larger trading blocks, and these, in turn, will slowly consolidate as humanity unites under a single form of government, sustained and supplied by the wizardry of modern science and technology. It is not an exaggeration to say that Kojeve understood the full implications of globalization a full half century before it became both a buzz word and a subject of contention. Of course, Kojeve was fully aware that the victory of modernity had occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or self-consciousness, and that it had as yet not been made manifest in the world itself. It is perhaps for this reason that Kojeve turned away from academics and spent his adult life helping to bring about the universal and homogenous state as a high-level French civil servant.
Kojeve and Kojeve's Hegel exercised an unusually broad (but often unrecognized) influence over many aspect of French intellectual life, and therefore over post-war European thought in general. For example, Andre Breton and the surrealists discovered in Hegel's dialectic a demonstration of the inner harmony and unity of apparently opposite and irreconcilable concepts or forces: Hegel suggested how knowledge and its object, subjective experience and the external world, were interrelated and interlocking, and therefore capable of synthesis. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan borrowed a number of key Kojevean concepts and insights, including the desire for another desire, the struggle for recognition, and the master-slave dialectic; he then incorporated these concepts into his interpretation of Freud to explain such phenomena as the origin of self-consciousness, the constitution of human subjectivity, and the socialization of children. In literature, many of Raymond Queneau's novels are often understood (and were so understood by Kojeve himself) 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, these individuals enjoy an essentially pacific and leisured existence, living in what one might call an 'eternal present' or 'Sunday of life' in which the titanic, historical struggles between good and evil are gone forever.
And lastly, Kojeve can be seen as laying the groundwork for the emergence of existential Marxism in such thinkers as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre. Abandoning Hegel's dialectical understanding of nature, Kojeve maintained that human beings alone were defined by their radical freedom to negate or to change or to create themselves and world around them. This anthropomorphic or existential ontology was then grafted onto Marx's materialism and historicism (which also figured prominently in Kojeve's writings through his emphasis on work), resulting in a philosophical position that stressed at one and the same time the free creation of human identity and subjectivity, the inherently alienating structures of capitalistic society, and the struggle for a future free of oppression and exploitation. In sum, Kojeve is often the hidden influence that stands behind much of post-war French intellectual life.
Kojeve A. Introduction a la lecture de Hegel. Paris, 1947; Premiere edition 1947, Seconde Edition, Gallimard, 1968
Kojeve A., Essau d'une historie raissonee de la philosophie paienne. Tome 1-3. Paris, 1968; 1997
Kojeve A. Kant. Paris, 1973
Kojeve A., L'idee du determinisme dans la physique classique et dans la physique moderne. Paris, 1990
Kojeve A., La regle du Jeu. Paris, 1990
Kojeve A. Le concept, le temps et le discours. Paris, 1991
Kojeve A., L'empereur Julien et son art d'ecrire. Paris, 1997
Kojeve A. Les peintures concrtes de Kandinsky. Paris, 2002
Kojeve A. La notion d'autorite. Paris, 2004
Kojeve A., Auffret D., L'idee de determinisme dans la physique lassique et dans la physique modern, Paris, 1990
Kojeve A., Bibard L. L'atheisme. Paris, 1998
Auffret D., Alexandre Kojeve. La philosophie, l'Etat, la fin de l'histoire. Paris, 2002
Kojeve A. Outline of a Phenomenology of Right. transl. by Bryan-Paul Frost and Robert Howse. Rowman and Littlefield, 2000
Kojeve A. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lecture on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Edited by Allan Bloom, transl. by James H. Nichols, Jr. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1980
Kojeve A. Outline of a Doctrine of French Policy. transl. by Robert Howse and Patrick Forthergill. Policy Review, No. 126, 2004. pp. 340
© Bryan-Paul Frost, Ph.D., Prof.
University of Louisiana at Lafayette