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

TWO The Philosophic Background of Alexandre Kojeve’s “Tyranny and Wisdom”

Murray S. Y. Bessette

Alexandre Kojeve represents a fundamental, modern alternative to Leo Strauss’s call for a return to classical political rationalism.[1] First published as a response to Strauss, in a review of On Tyranny titled “The Political Actions of Philosophers,” Kojeve’s position was further elaborated in the subsequent revised and augmented second review, published together with Strauss’s work and retitled “Tyranny and Wisdom.”[2] Kojeve spelled out the philosophic foundation of the position he occupies in his lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which took place in an historic Parisian cafe between 1933 and 1939.[3] [4] Upon this foundation Kojeve subsequently built a system of knowledge that sought to update (mise a jour) Hegelian wisdom in light of contemporary developments in modern science, especially those of modern physics, and in the history of philosophy, especially in the work of Marx and Heidegger. This system— articulated during the intervening years in such works as The Notion of Authority, Outline of a Phenomenology of Right, “Christianity and Communism,” “Hegel, Marx, and Christianity,” and The Concept, Time, and Discourse—attempted to provide a comprehensive account of the development (and end) of history understood as the progress and evolution of philosophy (i.e., discourse) and as ultimately rooted in the human desire for recognition.[5]

Most, if not all, of the substantive differences between the modern and classical positions as articulated by Kojeve and Strauss respectively—from Kojeve’s seemingly odd concern with the danger of philosophic madness and the inherent limitations of subjective certainty as a criterion of truth, to their understandings of the philosopher’s relationship to the city (State or Tyrant) and the appropriate scope of philosophic pedagogy—grow out of their fundamental disagreement concerning the nature of man and of the distribution of potentialities therein.[6] For Kojeve, the anthropogenetic desire for recognition—which distinguishes human being from animal being—inevitably results in (at the extreme) the demand for universal recognition. Satisfaction of this demand that all recognize one’s autonomous value requires that all be capable (i.e., worthy) or be made capable through the transformation of their physical and psychological capacities of so recognizing that value, and hence gives rise to the commitment to the project of modern science and general enlightenment, as well as the idea of the universal homogeneous state whose authoritarian base overcomes the tragedy of the Master- Slave dialectic.[7]

Understanding the structure of Kojeve’s overall system is a necessary preliminary to comprehending fully the scope of his disagreement with Strauss. What follows is a sketch of this system. The intention is not to provide a detailed analysis of Kojeve’s critique of On Tyranny, nor to explicate fully his system, but to articulate its main features and to show their interrelation. To borrow Kojeve’s imagery, the following treats not the lines, nor what is written between the lines, but the paper on which both are written. To that end, it will first sketch Kojeve’s account of the rise of self-consciousness as a function of the anthropogenetic desire for recognition. Satisfying this desire requires man to overcome his biological desires, meaning he must risk his life in a violent struggle for the sake of a nonbiological end. This struggle culminates in the simultaneous birth of the autonomous and dependent self-consciousnesses of Master and Slave. The subsequent interaction of Masters and Slaves—to be discussed in an overview of the Master-Slave dialectic—is the engine of the historical process, driving it toward the end of history and the birth of the universal, homogeneous state wherein Master and Slave (which from the perspective of human satisfaction are both dead ends) are overcome and the satisfied citizen is born. This absolute moment, moreover, coincides with the end of philosophy (i.e., discourse) and the attainment of wisdom (i.e., absolute knowledge or concept). Thus, Kojeve’s account of philosophy and wisdom, which emphasizes their temporal nature, naturally follows and leads to a final consideration of his view of the relationship between wisdom and political power. This question of whether, in light of human temporality and finitude, the philosopher should govern, advise, or abstain from political life has been an enduring subject of philosophy, which, according to Kojeve, history has answered through the relations of philosophers, tyrants, and intellectuals, and the filiation between utopias and revolutionary ideas.

  • [1] The author thanks the editors, Timothy Burns and Bryan-Paul Frost, as wellas Jonathan Pidluzny, Scott Yenor, John Marini, and Ralph Hancock, for comments on and constructive criticism of earlier drafts of this chapter. Without exception their questions and suggestions improved the final product. Allremaining errors or omissions are my own.
  • [2] “L’action politique des philosophes,” Critique 41 (October 1950): 46-55, andCritique 42 (November 1950): 138-154; “Tyrannie et sagesse,” in Leo Strauss,De la tyrannie (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), 217-280; “Tyranny and Wisdom,” inLeo Strauss, On Tyranny: Corrected and Expanded Edition, Including the Strauss-Kojeve Correspondence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 135-176.Unless otherwise indicated, all works referenced are by Alexandre Kojeve. In
  • [3] citing Kojeve’s works I have, whenever possible, provided the page of the original French text followed by the available English translation. The most notable exceptions to this approach are the references to “Tyranny and Wisdom.”In these cases I have simply provided the page number from On Tyranny. Ihave used the following abbreviations for in-text citation: ILH, Introduction ala lecture de Hegel; EPD, Esquisse d’une phenomenologie du droit, NA, La notionde l’autorite; CTD, Le Concept, le Temps et le Discours: Introduction au Systemedu Savoir; CC, “Christianisme et communisme”; HMC, “Hegel, Marx et lechristianisme”; and OT, On Tyranny. Complete bibliographic information forKojeve’s works and their English translations is available in subsequent notes.
  • [4] These were subsequently published as Introduction a la lecture de Hegel (Paris:Gallimard, 1947); Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, trans. James H. Nichols,Jr. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969). The translation is abridged.
  • [5] La notion de l’autorite (Paris: Gallimard, 2004); The Notion of Authority, trans.Hager Weslati (New York: Verso Books, 2014); Esquisse d’une phenomenologiedu droit (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1981); Outline of a Phenomenology of Right,trans. Bryan-Paul Frost and Robert Howse (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); “Christianisme et communisme,” Critique 3-4 (August-September1946): 308-312; “Christianity and Communism,” trans. Hugh Gillis, Interpretation 19 (no. 2, Winter 1991-1992): 192-195; “Hegel, Marx et le christian-isme,” Critique 3-4 (August-September 1946): 339-366; “Hegel, Marx andChristianity,” trans. Hilail Gildin, Interpretation 1 (no. 1, Summer 1970): 21-42;Le Concept, le Temps et le Discours: Introduction au Systeme du Savoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1990); The Concept, Time, and Discourse: Introduction to the System ofKnowledge, trans. Robert B. Williamson (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press,forthcoming).
  • [6] Kojeve recognized this fact in a letter addressed to Strauss in which he said, “Ifthere is something like ‘human nature,’ then you are surely right in everything”(OT 261; cf. 262).
  • [7] In fact, updating the Hegelian system of knowledge is itself a manifestation ofKojeve’s commitment to general enlightenment (cf. CTD 63).
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