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"Alexandre Kojève and Universal Emancipation": An Essay by Jeff Love (Keywords: Hegel; Master-Slave; Freedom; Servitude; Biography)

Artwork by Joanna Borkowska

From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 1 ("Nothing").

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Precocious polymath, “Sunday” philosopher, architect of the Common Market, Stalinist and likely Soviet agent – Alexandre Kojève was all of these. Born in 1902 in Moscow, he is probably most famous for the lectures he gave on G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) at the École des hautes études in Paris between 1933 and 1939. These lectures exercised an extraordinary influence on French intellectual life, not only in the interwar period but well after the end of the war: they constitute an essential stage in the introduction of Hegel to France, and philosophers as different as Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida reflect their influence, if only in negative form. That these lectures were so influential is hardly surprising given Kojève’s audience, almost a “who’s who” of French intellectual life at the time, including Raymond Aron, André Breton, Georges Bataille, Henry Corbin, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Raymond Queneau. Indeed, Kojève owes publication of the lectures as a celebrated “commentary”, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1947), to Queneau’s insistence. Kojève himself had apparently no intention to publish them but refused to advise Queneau against publication, claiming in a letter to his friend Leo Strauss that to do so would “amount to taking oneself seriously”. Kojève published only one other large volume in his lifetime. Scant publication conceals the breadth and extent of his writing, however. For one who did not take himself seriously, he left behind a large cache of unpublished texts in French, German and Russian, 21 boxes at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Among these one may count a book-length manuscript on quantum physics, a draft treatise on atheism, a long manuscript on law, a number of reviews and occasional writings on a broad variety of themes, from the mathematical continuum to Buddhism, and a large (933-page) manuscript on philosophy written in Russian, entrusted to George Bataille in 1941 and discovered in the Bataille archives only in the late 1990s. Most of these works were published after Kojève’s death in 1968, but some, like the 933-page Russian manuscript, still await publication.


Kojève is thus a decidedly unusual figure. He was an inspired teacher who detested university routines and intellectuals. He was a philosopher who claimed later that the game of bureaucracy was far superior. He affected an ironic tone and enjoyed the provocative, paradoxical and apparently eccentric. He was to some degree an intellectual dandy but with a seriousness, as shown by his work itself, that belies the poses he created to shock friend and foe alike.


In what follows, I would like to give some more expansive biographical information to situate Kojève better in the complicated contexts of his life before moving on to a discussion of his most characteristic doctrines and their influence. 




Kojève was born into an affluent and talented Moscow family – his uncle was the famous painter Vasily Kandinsky – at a time of immense artistic and intellectual vitality, the so-called “silver age” of imperial Russian culture. The silver age was in particular a period of philosophical and theological ferment brought about in large part by the pervasive influence of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s genre-shattering novels and two of imperial Russia’s most influential thinkers, Vladimir Soloviev, the “Russian Hegel,” and Nikolai Fedorov. The list of significant thinkers who followed in their footsteps is long, containing names still familiar outside Russia primarily to specialists: Nikolai Berdiaev, Sergei Bulgakov, Pavel Florensky, Ivan Il’in, Lev Karsavin, Dmitri Merezhkovsky, Vasily Rozanov, Lev Shestov. That Kojève does not figure among them has to do with his relative youth and the peculiar turn his life took after the revolution of 1917. Kojève nonetheless shares much with them, especially his impressive erudition, for this was an age of polymaths, and a theologian like Florensky, to take but one example, was also an accomplished mathematician, with multiple languages as well as a dizzying array of scientific and cultural interests.


Kojève left Russia in the aftermath of 1917. He was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks but managed to survive, lingering in Russia until 1920 when he fled to Germany with a friend. Kojève established himself primarily in Berlin, though he attended university in Heidelberg as well. At Heidelberg, Kojève studied with the well-known neo-Kantian Heinrich Rickert as well as Karl Jaspers. He also pursued extensive studies of ancient Greek philosophy in addition to religions of the East, in particular Buddhism and Daoism, and Eastern languages: Chinese, Sanskrit and Tibetan. He obtained his Ph.D. in philosophy and oriental languages (Chinese and Tibetan) under Jaspers in 1926. His over 650-page dissertation was entitled The Religious Philosophy of Vladimir Soloviev. Kojève moved to Paris in the same year with his wife, Cécile Shoutak, continuing his studies with an intensive investigation of mathematics and quantum physics that led to his large work The Idea of Determinism in Classical and Modern Physics which he submitted to the faculty at the Sorbonne for a degree he never obtained (for reasons that remain obscure given that the work was held in high regard). Kojève lived extravagantly in the late 1920s due to prudent investments, but the crash of 1929 ruined him, and he cast about for work for almost three years until he took over Alexandre Koyré’s seminar on the religious philosophy of Hegel in 1933 at the École de hautes études. Kojève was supposed to teach for only one year, yet such was his popularity among a small but ardent group of students that he continued the seminar until the eve of World War II. After the fall of France, Kojève fled to the south of France and lived near Marseille where he wrote two important works, On Authority (1942) and Outline of a Phenomenology of Right (1943). He joined the French resistance in 1944; according to some sources, he had already begun assisting Soviet intelligence in 1941.


After the war, Kojève was invited by his former student, Robert Marjolin, to join the Directorate for Foreign Economic Relations and soon became a powerful figure in the French government. He worked closely with the future French Prime Minister Raymond Barre and with leading functionaries like Olivier Wormser and Bernard Clappier who collectively directed French foreign economic policy in the 1950s and early 1960s. Kojève was particularly interested in trade (especially the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)) and strongly advocated for European integration. He was giving a speech to a delegation from the European Common Market on June 4, 1968 when he collapsed suddenly, dying on the spot from heart failure. During his years as a high government functionary, Kojève continued to write philosophical works primarily in a Hegelian vein, producing three substantial texts: a manuscript on Kant from 1952, an Introduction to the “System of Science” from 1953 called The Concept, Time and Discourse, and three volumes of his Attempt at a Reasoned History of Pagan Philosophy, his largest single work at over 1300 pages; of all these he published only the first volume of Attempt at a Reasoned History of Pagan Philosophy in 1968. He also engaged in his famous polemic concerning tyranny with Leo Strauss. 



While Kojève is known as a Hegelian thinker, his interpretation of Hegel has always been controversial. There are three main sorts of reception of his commentary in the academy. Some scholars, a manifest minority, think his interpretation is basically a sound and insightful one. Many more consider his interpretation arbitrary or even harmful, a misguided synthesis of Hegel, Marx and Heidegger. Still others, like Raymond Aron, perceive in Kojève’s apparently wilful distortion of Hegelian thought the expression of Kojève’s own thought. Although these concerns are no doubt salient ones, they remain problematic because they all assume that there is a true and correct Hegel. To prove that such a Hegel exists is of course no easy task: at the very least, after almost 200 years of debate, no one view has achieved dominance. But it would be remiss if I did not mention the strikingly selective nature of Kojève’s commentary. He devotes scant attention to most of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, preferring to linger on two brief chapters which absorb almost all his attention: Section A of Chapter IV containing the now famous (largely because of Kojève) discussion of the master and slave, and Chapter VIII that deals with absolute knowledge. These two chapters of roughly 31 pages (in the Meiner edition) form the alpha and omega of Kojève’s commentary of some 597 pages and he spins his most characteristic doctrines out of them.


These doctrines may be initially boiled down to two interlocking theses:


1)     All human activity results from a struggle to the death between two parties, a putative “master” and a “slave”;

2)     The loser in this struggle, the slave, creates history which is nothing else than the work of bringing history to an end in the acquisition of final truth, or wisdom, in a universal and homogeneous state.


Let me give a more detailed account of each of these theses. The struggle between master and slave is the central thesis of the commentary, its constitutive allegory. Dispute begins over some object and it leads to a fight in which the master defeats the slave. However, the master does not defeat the slave by direct force. To the contrary, the master defeats the slave because the slave refuses to fight. The master is the one prepared to die whereas the slave is not. The slave chooses servitude over death; that is, the slave chooses certain servitude over possible death in an all-out fight.

For Kojève, desire is profoundly negative – human beings are an “absence” negating what they encounter as they assimilate it. 


But why does a fight take place? Kojève’s explanation is crucial to his thinking. The fight takes place as a result of human desire. For Kojève, desire is profoundly negative – human beings are an “absence” negating what they encounter as they assimilate it. Kojève illustrates his point with homely examples. He describes animal desire as the simple appetite for food to satisfy hunger, claiming that this desire negates its object by transforming the object in the process of ingestion. The plant is thus transformed by ingestion into nutrients which maintain the animal’s existence. All animal desire is transformative in this way but Kojève insists that distinctively human desire is different from animal desire. This difference becomes evident if we consider the object of desire. The animal takes for an object whatever can satisfy its hunger – the animal’s desire is strictly material. Human desire, however, is distinguished by the fact that it is not directly material but the desire of the desire of another. This clumsy locution describes a fundamental shift: human desire does not relate to an object but to another human being as a being with its own desires. Moreover, human desire is further distinguished by the difference in the type of negation involved. Rather than negating the material object in an act of ingestion, human desire negates another desire by supplanting it or, as Kojève emphasizes, by forcing one party to recognize the desire of the other by adopting it as its own: I negate your desire by compelling you to recognize my own as yours.


Why is it so? Kojève holds that we cannot be sure of our own reality until we have eliminated all opposition to it. This is a radical claim, and it merits careful comment. Kojève creates an analogy between animal and human desire in this particular respect: both result from an overwhelming desire for self-preservation. In the case of the animal, ingesting food is necessary for the continuation of the animal’s existence, the basic motive of all animal activity that remains unquestioned. In the case of the human, the desire for the desire of others is based on the need to assert one’s own desires over those of others as a way of securing one’s reality, that the way one lives is indeed the real and only way – that one has come into possession of the full and final truth.


The full and final truth is universal recognition: one way of life prevails over all others such that no rival way of evaluating things remains. Human desire is hegemonic. It cannot be satisfied until it has become uniform or homogeneous, insofar as all other human varieties of desire have been transformed into one uniform variety, which is then the full and finally true desire having been recognized by all. The form of social organization appropriate to this conclusion is the universal and homogeneous state.


The slave, though defeated, seeks to supplant the master through work, thereby creating history as a narrative of emancipation from the master, but, more profoundly, as emancipation from death, the ostensibly “absolute master”. The fear of death that first emerges from the fight drives the slave forward, and progress is the work of the slave to vanquish death by securing his hegemony over the earth or “reality” itself. This work emerges most fully as technology, and the technological conquest of death is the aim of the slave who seeks to become master of this world. When this mastery is achieved history comes to an end, and the sage or wise human being is born as the one for whom there is literally nothing left to do. All possibilities of human being as a kind of slave-being are exhausted in the ascent to mastery and final wisdom in the universal and homogeneous state.


In this account, I have done nothing to diminish what may appear to be blatantly eccentric aspects of Kojève’s thought. Does he take his view to be “true”? Whence this seemingly arbitrary narrative of master and slave based in Chapter IV of Hegel’s Phenomenology? Why should we take it to be history? Is it not rather an astonishing reduction, or an allegory? The questions are manifold. Kojève’s thought is easy to reduce to a caricature or an object of ridicule when viewed against the confident conventions of Anglo-American thought or stolid “common sense”. Kojève was of course completely aware of this, but he persisted in affirming his doctrines, claiming alternatively that history had already come to end with the Napoleonic state or, more disturbingly to some, that history had come to an end with Stalin’s hegemonic state. One may be tempted to take Kojève for a mere provocateur, which he surely was, but I think there is a good deal more to his doctrines. For, nested within them, is a questioning of freedom that is far-reaching and timely.



The connection of human creation and culture, including that of the philosopher, with the slave’s desire for freedom is hardly new. For Kojève, the master has no culture: he is little more than a natural object, inert in victory over the slave. The master is, in Kojève’s words, an “impasse”. In Kojève’s allegory, the master represents the Greek, the slave the Christian way of being – and they are not complementary but opposed.


The Greek way for Kojève regards human beings as natural objects that come to be what they always already are; the highest extent of Greek thought is indeed theorein, the recognition and contemplation of what does not and cannot change. Kojève associates this view with the modern tendency to system that turns human beings into objects satisfied in contemplating themselves as such – he identifies no individuality in Greek thought or any concept of freedom. The latter are both born with the advent of Christianity, the world view that corresponds to that of the slave. Christianity is haunted by the fear of death, just like the slave, and Christianity affirms as its central purpose the emancipation of the slave in everlasting life. For Kojève, then, Christianity is the world view of dissatisfaction that exhorts the slave to change the world in order to emancipate himself from it and, most of all, from death itself. Succinctly put, Kojève’s endless admiration for Hegel is due to a singular – and crucial – point: that Hegel, unlike all his predecessors, does not relegate freedom to an afterworld or a “beyond” but insists on the realization of freedom in this world. Hegel is not a philosopher who pursues a truth that is always “underway” or “yet to come” but has the immoderate boldness to declare the advent of truth itself.

Hegel is not a philosopher who pursues a truth that is always “underway” or “yet to come” but has the immoderate boldness to declare the advent of truth itself.


Kojève clarifies this point by indicating that Hegel’s finality in the philosophical tradition is marked by his claim to the final truth: the conquest of nature by the human mind or the subject becoming substance whereby subject and object, mind and body become one, which, as Kojève maintains, is the central movement of the Phenomenology. Yet, the conquest of nature brings with it an extremely important consequence: the end of man understood as a slave, as the ostensibly “free” historic individual pursuing his own interests foremost of which is self-preservation. To the contrary, the retention of self-interest for Kojève is the hallmark of slave-being as unable to overcome or emancipate itself from self-preservation, the fear of death that first creates slave-being. Here is one of Kojève’s most intriguing assertions: that as long as human beings preserve their need to preserve themselves, they remain slaves. Only the complete disregard for servitude brings emancipation. If this is so, however, emancipation is equivalent to death or, indeed, suicide – as Kojève notes, wryly, “life is but a mediated suicide”.


In context, Kojève is surely a left Hegelian, but of a peculiar sort, for the recognition of God in man creates a finite, self-erasing God – the foremost aim of human life in Kojève is to end human life.




In light of the foregoing, it may seem astonishing that Kojève exercised any influence at all. Yet, French thought in the period after the end of World War II shows traces of pervasive influence, not only in the largely hostile attitude to Hegel as the foremost proponent of a totalitarian or closed system of thought, but also in the emphasis on the “death of man” or the “death of the author” as well as on the subject as a subject of desire, to cite the title of Judith Butler’s well-known book. Of course other influences were at play in these by now well-worn tropes of French thought in the 1960s, but it would be unfair to rule out Kojève’s influence.

Nationalism as a reaction to universalism, in the guise of liberation, returns to an affirmation of self-preservation, hence a deeper servitude and refusal to overcome servitude


The other main conduit of post-war influence has been through the students of Leo Strauss in the United States. If Kojève’s influence in France was registered, often negatively, on the left, in the United States it was registered, negatively as well in many quarters, on the right. Strauss’ students recognized in Kojève’s end of history the advent of the Nietzschean last man, the human being for whom nothing matters, who leaves heroic struggle behind for comfort and peace.


Not all was so negative, however. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 came declarations of the end of history that explicitly referred to Kojève in an apparently more positive light. The most famous of these was Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man which declared liberal democracy to be the final form of global political organization and, as such, the end of history as ideological struggle.


This thesis no doubt seems quaint in our age of revived nationalism. One cannot help but return to Kojève himself and his incisive claim that the primacy of self-preservation is the hallmark of the slave. Nationalism as a reaction to universalism, in the guise of liberation, returns to an affirmation of self-preservation, hence a deeper servitude and refusal to overcome servitude. Whether one agrees with Kojève or not, it would be hard to argue that the conflict between self-preservation as the fount of nationalism, and global capitalism as a system capable of relieving our estate through technological progress is not an instant of a more extensive struggle between the mordantly ironic desire for full emancipation and for an escape from emancipation into the platitudes of self-preservation, self-interest well understood.

Do we accept our servitude, recognizing that all attempts to overcome it end in futility, or do we seek to abolish it, once and for all, in an act of self-erasure?


Kojève puts us before this question: Do we accept our servitude, recognizing that all attempts to overcome it end in futility, or do we seek to abolish it, once and for all, in an act of self-erasure? If one does not accept self-erasure, then one is condemned to endless struggle against an implacable foe. In refusing to end history, to erase oneself, one is simply condemned to repeat its delusions without end – Sisyphus renewed. Why retain the human if endless struggle is its lot?    


Jeff Love is Research Professor of German and Russian at Clemson University. He is the author of The Black Circle: A Life of Alexandre Kojève (2018), Tolstoy: A Guide for the Perplexed (2008), and The Overcoming of History in War and Peace (2004). His most recent work is a translation of António Lobo Antunes’s novel Until Stones Become Lighter Than Water (2019).


From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 1 ("Nothing").

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