Kojeve’s Hegel and Hegel’s Hegel

The starting point for understanding how Kojeve’s interpretation of Hegel departs from the original is the centrality that he assigns to the Master-Slave dialectic, making it the beginning of man’s negation and transformation of nature in the pursuit of freedom. In reality, that encounter occupies a brief few pages well along into the Phenomenology of Spirit, is not identified by Hegel for its central importance, and is arguably no more than, if as important as, the Unhappy Consciousness with which this section of the book ends. Indeed, I would argue that the internalization of the Master-Slave encounter within the Unhappy Consciousness as the inner calling from God (the true Master) to man is for Hegel a deepening and sublimation of self-consciousness that transcends the merely outward struggle between Master and Slave. Moreover, this whole sequence of “shapes”—Master, Slave, Stoic, Skeptic, Unhappy Consciousness—is presented by Hegel at this stage in the Phenomenology of Spirit as still largely from within the viewpoint of “consciousness,” that is to say, from the viewpoint of the modern Cartesian self that assumes the priority of the individual. Later on, when the full sweep of history has been introduced with the appearance of Spirit, Hegel takes us back through the same sequence, but now within the broader context of the ancient polis, and culminating in the late Roman Empire. He is explicit that this second account of the sequence is the fuller one, because the opposed selves of the earlier sequence are now thoroughly contextualized within the realm of the political community and “customary being” (Sittlichkeit): “Earlier we saw the Stoical independence of pure thought pass through Scepticism and find its truth in the Unhappy Consciousness. . . . If this knowledge appeared then merely as the one-sided view of consciousness as consciousness, here the actual truth of that view has become apparent” (POS sec. 483).[1] In Hegel’s cumulative presentation, the “Master,” properly considered, was never an individual, but emerged originally as a communal historical force from ancient Greek religion, chthonic and Olympian.

It is by no means clear, moreover, that history progresses through the Slave, as Kojeve argues: the first historical appearance of “freedom,” as opposed to the mere “independence” of the Master, comes not with the Slave, but with Stoicism, in many ways an aristocratic morality. Finally, for Hegel, modern man is not, as Kojeve argues, simply a synthesis of Master and Slave as Bourgeois, but of the whole “wealth of shapes” including Master, Slave, Stoic, Skeptic, and Unhappy Consciousness crystallized in the nineteenth-century cultural battle between science and Romanticism, or between Kant (the internalization of Jacobinism) and Goethe or Schiller (the Beautiful Soul) that will, once sublimated, usher in the reappearance of God in History in a new era of mutual forgiveness. Of course, in fairness to Kojeve, he never claims to interpret Hegel as Hegel would have interpreted himself, but is propounding a new reading for altered historical conditions that might arguably make Hegel’s philosophy more consistent with itself, by banishing the mystification of Spirit and replacing it with the historical action of man. That is a plausible rereading, but clearly a “Left Hegelian” or Marxist one. Kojeve would be the first to concede, I think, that his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel should not be used as a crib for the original.

Kojeve writes as if man is the “nihilator” in history, rather than Spirit, Hegel’s name for the whole, which contains within itself, as “the labor of the negative,” the transformative and destructive energy of historical creation actualized through its human avatars. Kojeve, we might say, combines the reductionist materialism of Marx with the historical and cultural breadth of Hegel. Kojeve sees sheer “nothingness” as the continuing historical essence of man (IRH 48), whereas for Hegel, history’s accumulated “wealth of shapes” has enriched us teleologically through Bildung. Kojeve in effect borrows the “nothingness” of Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, the only being directly touched by the innermost character of all Being: that it is not any fixed thing, is nothing or finitude. But whereas Heidegger used this concept to argue that, in its bottomless nothingness, Das- ein could never be “filled up” by a positive doctrine of the progress of history like that of Hegel (BT sec. 285, 374), Kojeve maintains that this innermost nothingness is the very engine of historical progress itself.

For Kojeve, the progress of history is purely anthropocentric, borrowing, as I have suggested, the nothingness of Dasein from Heidegger but uprooting it from any larger connection with Being (or with Hegelian Spirit). For Heidegger, the “notness” of Dasein is where Being as such touches human existence and radiates through it into a historical “clearing” through the reciprocal encounter between Dasein and Sein. Kojeve, however, turns Dasein into nothing more than a human subject, filling his inner void through the outward and literal conquest of nature. In an analogous manner, Spirit in its indeterminateness was for Hegel the source of our capacity to negate nature in the pursuit of freedom. But at bottom, the labor of the negative is not human labor, but rather the subjective pole of Spirit (the “unity of Subject and Substance,” that is, “the truth” about the whole [POS sec. 17]) that operates through its human avatars, progressively transforming the world as Spirit’s own odyssey of self-actualization. For Kojeve, by contrast, man alone negates the sheer inert fodder of nature. Kojeve identifies man with “self-consciousness” (IRH 3), an individual human subject. It is man, initially the Slave, who creates history, art, and culture, including ideologies like Hegelian Spirit (IRH 49, 138). But for Hegel, Spirit alone is truly self-conscious, progressively so as history unfolds teleologically—at bottom, the self of which I as a human being am aware is the self-consciousness of Spirit operative through me. Whereas for Hegel, Spirit’s longing for reconciliation (Substance) and the negation of nature (Subject) operate in tandem through man, bringing about both greater freedom and greater harmony as history evolves, for Kojeve, history is entirely an outward, positivistic, aggressive and uniquely human transformation. In fact, Kojeve’s closest philosophical cousin is not Hegel at all, but, I would argue, Fichte, the ultimate proponent of man’s untrammeled will to conquer and reshape nature, with man having no intrinsic connection to nature, which is nothing more than “the material of our moral duty rendered sensuous.” Hegel believed that his own ontology of the unity of Subject and Substance in Spirit had anticipated and headed off this voluntaristic extremism, which also fed the Jacobin tendency in modern politics to impose a rational pattern on human nature by direct action and revolutionary will, regardless of the constraints of precedent and tradition. As Fichte was to Jacobinism, so might we say Kojeve was to Stalinism.

The sharpest divergences between what Strauss acknowledges to be Kojeve’s Hegel in contradistinction with Hegel are, not surprisingly in light of what has preceded, over the status of revelation. In Hegel’s formulation of the “concept” of Spirit in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, under the pole of “Subject” is located the modern project for the conquest of nature, modern science and political liberalism, culminating in Kant’s ethic of individual moral autonomy. Under the pole of “Substance” is located the contrary longing for reconciliation, love, beauty, community, and harmony between man and man and man and the world, characteristic of classical thought, but also including religious revelation, and culminating in Spinoza. The realms of Subject and Substance also crystallize respectively as “morality” (typified by Rousseau’s General Will and Kant’s Categorical Imperative) and “communal being” or Sittlichkeit, beginning with the chthonic and Olympian gods of the Greek polis. The conflict in Greek tragedy between the divine law of the gods and the “ethical” law of burgeoning philosophic rationality and universality is the first historical actualization of the interplay between Subject and Substance. The divine law of the old hearth religion and “the community of the dead” is the welling up and evolution of “life” out of mere nature into the divine law, buttressing Strauss’s criticism of Kojeve for failing to realize that by life Hegel meant much more than mere nature—it is more akin to the life-world of Spinoza. The welling up of life as the oldest chthonic religion of the ancestors displays a continuous evolution from nature into civilization. Yet, for Kojeve, the realm of the divine law and family life is nothing more than “biological” existence pitted against the emergent rationalism of historical progress through the negation of nature (IRH 61-62). For Hegel, Spirit expresses itself both as the divine law and the ethical law. For Kojeve, reason, actualized as the negation of nature, is exclusively on the side of the latter.

There is no way of surely establishing what kind of believer Hegel was, but there is surely no evidence at all for Kojeve’s assurance that his philosophy was atheistic, any more than one could say this with complete certainty about Spinoza. While Hegel’s Christianity may have been a kind of deism or pantheism that was not in keeping with any traditional understanding of revealed religion, there is no reason to suppose, given his voluminous writings on religion (and the approval of his works by the Lutheran Church of Germany), that he did not take it completely seriously. Hegel’s religiosity may not be traditional revelation, but neither is it the case that, as Kojeve asserts, “according to Hegel—to use the Marxist terminology—Religion is only an ideological superstructure that is born and exists solely in relation to a real superstructure” (IRH 32), that is, a mere ideological justification for the pursuit of power. Not only, as we earlier observed, is the Unhappy Consciousness arguably more important for human development than the Master/Slave encounter, but the Phenomenology of Spirit as a whole culminates in a genealogy of religion from the most distant past down to the present. The way forward, in other words, is the way back—“God manifested” in History (POS sec. 671). The Marxist reductionism of Kojeve’s approach, reducing the realm of life to mere biological and physical stuff, is nowhere more evident than here.

  • [1] See also Waller R. Newell, “Origins of Enchantment: Conceptual Continuitiesin the Ontology of Political Wholeness,” in Logos and Eros: Essays HonoringStanley Rosen, ed. Nalin Ranasinghe (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press,2006), 176-189, and “Redeeming Modernity: The Ascent of Eros and Wisdomin Hegel’s Phenomenology,” Interpretation 37 (no. 1, Fall 2009): 3-28.
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