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Home arrow Philosophy arrow Philosophy, History, and Tyranny: Reexamining the Debate Between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve

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Kojeve, Hegel, and Heidegger

Strauss met Kojeve in Paris in 1933, before either of them had established his academic reputation, and registered for the course that Kojeve taught at the University of Paris on Hegel’s Phenomenology.[1] The meeting occurred, importantly, shortly after what Strauss called the “reorientation” his thought had undergone in the early 1930s, when he moved from seeing a return to classical political philosophy as impossible to seeing it as both possible and necessary for the grounding of the rational life.[2] Strauss found in Kojeve an intelligent and serious representative of the thought of Hegel, whom Strauss considered the most comprehensive exponent of modern philosophy. (Strauss even appears later, in a lecture on “The Problem of Socrates,” to agree with the Hegelian understanding of spiritedness or thumos: “As desire for superiority, spiritedness becomes in the case of sensible men the desire for recognition by free men.”)[3] Strauss’s admiration for Kojeve’s course on Hegel can be seen in a remark made in a winter 1956 course that Strauss taught on “Relativism,” in which he told his students that Kojeve’s Introduction a la lecture de Hegel—the published collection of edited notes from Kojeve’s Paris course—was “the only real commentary, at least on large parts of the book.”[4] Strauss admired above all Kojeve’s return to “the original Hegel.” As he later put it (on the occasion of the English translation of Introduction a la lecture de Hegel), Kojeve “alone dared to contend that the properly understood Hegelian system is the true and final philosophic teaching at a time when there was practically universal agreement that Hegel’s system had been refuted by the late Schelling, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, to say nothing of natural science and history.”[5]

The “properly understood” Hegelian system incorporated, most importantly, the thought of Martin Heidegger into an analysis of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Strauss himself had sat in on Heidegger’s classes at the University of Freiburg and had spent a good deal of effort studying Being and Time, and so was well prepared for what Kojeve was arguing. For as Kojeve himself tells us, he looked at Hegel’s Phenomenology under the influence of Being and Time and the anthropology it explicated, particularly its account of “being towards death.”[6] We may summarize Kojeve’s use of Heidegger’s thought in the service of Hegel as follows. What Heidegger dubs “The Call” to authentic being-towards-death Kojeve presents as a two-part call, first a call to the Slave’s consciousness of himself as changeable, and second, a call to the Slave to attain through his self-transformation the autonomy he sees in the Master. The consciously changeable self calls himself from enslavement to autonomy, and achieves it in late modernity. Kojeve thus strikingly takes Heidegger’s atheistic, Das- ein interpretation of the experience of the conscience—which Heidegger had presented over and against life in modern regimes—and refigures and redeploys it in such a way as to yield an explanation of the satisfying character of the rational self-consciousness and autonomy of scientific man at the end of History, in modern regimes.

But what does this redeployment mean, specifically? In the first place, Kojeve came to understand the Hegelian Slave’s self-negation and transcendence through History as arising out of the Slave’s awareness or semi-awareness of himself as changing and indeed as change, an awareness induced by “the fear of death, the fear of the absolute Master.”

By this fear, the slavish Consciousness melted internally; it shuddered deeply and everything fixed-or-stable trembled in it. . . . In his mortal terror he understood (without noticing it) that a given, fixed, stable condition, even though it be the Master’s, cannot exhaust the possibilities of human existence. . . . There is nothing fixed in him. He is ready for change; in his very being, he is change, transcendence, transformation, “education”; he is historical becoming at his origin, in his essence, in his very existence.

Fear of death initially induces a trembling awareness, a new consciousness in the Slave that there is nothing fixed about him or his place, and hence prepares him to change himself. The same Slave sees in the Master “the ideal of autonomy, of Being-for-itself, of which he finds the incarnation, at the very origin of his Slavery,” a Master who embodies what the Slave wishes to be.[7] And he sees with his mind’s eye a Master who “is ready to go to his death, which is equivalent to nothing (or is equivalent to the nothing), being pure nothingness.”[8] One sees that for Kojeve as for Heidegger, awareness of death is understood as alone capable of eliciting a serious life of devotion and dignity. But Kojeve sees that awareness as the key to the movement of human history toward the modern universal and homogeneous state. As the Slave recognizes, awareness of death informs the Master’s original sense of dignity and, eventually, the Slave’s. For while the Slave is at first unaware of “the ‘seriousness’ of his [own] liberty, of his human dignity” (ILH29 [24]; cf 522 [253]), history’s transformation of him permits the Slave “to surmount his dread, his fear of the Master, by surmounting the terror of death” (ILH 180 [53]). Through a “long and painful” transformation, the Slave gradually comes to face death as nothingness and thereby acquires his autonomy, his morally serious being. The Slave “will not cease to be a Slave as long as he is not ready to risk his life in a Fight against the Master, as long as he does not accept the idea of his death. A liberation without a bloody Fight, therefore, is metaphysically impossible” (ILH 182 [56]). The Slave’s acceptance of the idea of death clearly means his acceptance of his death as a possibility, not as an ultimate, certain necessity—whether he wins or loses in any bloody battle.

In sum, Kojeve’s updating of Hegel includes an attempt to demonstrate that Hegel’s fundamental thesis of rational self-consciousness is not defeated by Heidegger’s new thinking—his emphasis on the thinking subject, mortal man—but is instead capable of taking Heidegger’s thinking into account and being enriched and illuminated by it. Kojeve would show that a properly updated Hegelianism comprehends Heidegger’s thought and he would thereby rescue rationalism from its alleged self-destruction. Hegel’s thought could withstand the deep critique of rationalism launched by Schelling, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and leading up to Heidegger, and so Hegel’s thought could be what Hegel had called it: the final teaching, or wisdom, from which there was no ascent but only a descent.

For Strauss to be at all impressed by Kojeve’s effort to rescue rationalism meant that Strauss himself had found the most important development since Hegel, radical historicism, to have been a mistake. That development’s deepest exponent was Heidegger. If Kojeve had attempted to overcome Heidegger’s attack on theoretical reason by using Heidegger’s anthropology in a sympathetic rereading of Hegel, Strauss had arrived at an understanding of modern philosophy and its trajectory that called into question the fundamental Heideggerian notion of the historicity of human existence. He argued that the alleged historical consciousness had been not discovered but merely invented, that (in Strauss’s gentle, nonpolemical formulation) historicity is a problematic interpretation of certain phenomena that admit of another interpretation. In fact, he understood historicism as not a genuine or sound position but instead as a “pseudo-philosophy,” the result of taking for granted a development out of modern philosophy, which, if fully understood, proved to be fundamentally accidental and unnecessary, if at the same time a very powerful obstacle blocking access to a recovery of the ancients and hiding the radical character of their thought. Not surprisingly, Strauss was at this time, in his courses at the New School and in his writings, focused on both the writings of the ancients, especially of Xenophon, and the problem of historicism, in whose emergence Hegel and Hegelianism had played an important part. Strauss’s exposition of historicism was made possible by his recovery of classical political philosophy and helps to illuminate in turn his understanding of classical political philosophy and the urgency of its recovery. If we are to understand what was at issue between Kojeve and Strauss, we must first try to grasp Strauss’s understanding of the emergence of historicism out of modern thought, and the alternative that Hegel, on one hand, and the ancients, on the other, represent to historicism.

  • [1] In his first year in Paris (1932-1933), Strauss was registered for courses at EcolePractique des Hautes Etudes under his fellow student of Husserl, AlexandreKoyre, on Nicholas of Cusa and on Hegel’s religious philosophy (as well as acourse under Louis Massignon on Nasr ben Mozalim’s Waq’at Siffin and SimonVan den Bergh on philosophy and theology in Averroes). In his second year inParis (1933-1934), he was registered for Kojeve’s course on Hegel’s religiousphilosophy according to The Phenomenology of Spirit and modern Russian religious philosophy (as well as Massignon’s course on the first religious struggles inIslam according to al-Dinawari and on the sura Ya-sin, XXXVI, of the Koran,and Strauss’s brother-in-law Paul Kraus’s course on the Mu’tazilite school). SeePatard 82n263.
  • [2] For the best introduction to that reorientation of Strauss’s thinking, see Reorientation: Leo Strauss in the 1930s, eds. Richard S. Ruderman and Martin D. Yaffe(New York: Palgrave, 2014).
  • [3] Leo Strauss, “The Problem of Socrates” [1958 University of Chicago lecture],in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, ed. Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1989), 167.
  • [4] Strauss added that “certain dubious and questionable assumptions [Kojeve]makes regarding Hegel do not affect the interpretation of the particularpassage(s) to any significant degree” (p. 19 of original typed transcript of lecturerecording).
  • [5] Strauss requested Allan Bloom to say this in his preface to James Nichols’English translation of Kojeve’s Introduction a la lecture de Hegel (letter to AllanBloom, 22 August 1961, Leo Strauss Papers, Box 4, Folder 4, typed copy,Patard 807n57). See also his reference to “the older Schelling, Kierkegaard andMarx” in his review of Karl Lowith’s Von Hegel bis Nietzsche, in What Is PoliticalPhilosophy? (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1959), 268.
  • [6] Alexandre Kojeve, Le Concept, le Temps et le Discours (Paris: Editions Gallimard,1990), 32-33. Heidegger himself had taught a lecture course on The Phenomenology of Spirit in 1930-1931. The first German publication of that course wasedited by Ingtraud Goerland (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann Verlag, 1980).The English translation is Martin Heidegger, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit,trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1988).
  • [7] Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction a la lecture de Hegel (Paris: Editions Gallimard,1947), 27-28, hereafter cited as ILH. The passage appears in the (abridged)English translation by James H. Nichols, Jr., Introduction to the Reading of Hegel:Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,[1969] 1980), 21-22. Subsequent references to the Nichols’ translation willappear in brackets.
  • [8] Alexandre Kojeve, Esquisse d’unephenomenologie du droit: expose provisoire (Paris:Gallimard, 1981), 272; cf. 243 (Outline of a Phenomenology of Right, trans. Bryan-Paul Frost and Robert Howse, ed. Bryan-Paul Frost [Lanham, MD: Rowman& Littlefield, 2000], 236; cf. 213). See also ILH 178 [51] and 180 [53].
 
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