Home Philosophy Philosophy, History, and Tyranny: Reexamining the Debate Between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve
The Conditions of Absolute Wisdom
To this point we have been examining the definition of the wise man. Lurking in the background has been the question of whether this ideal is realizable. The overcoming of slavery had historical preconditions; so, too, does absolute knowledge. We must therefore examine the conditions that are necessary and sufficient for the actualization of wisdom. The first and foremost of these is that history must have progressed to the point where wisdom can exist. But what does “progressed” mean? Progress, as Kojeve defines it, can be identified as follows: “there is progress from A to B, if A can be understood from B, but B cannot be understood from A” (ILH 281n2 [87n3]). The adult, or one seeing the adult, may understand the child, but the child, or one seeing only the child, could never understand the adult; A is subsumed in B. History must, that is, have developed sufficiently that either all possibilities have been realized or all possibilities can be identified and understood. This is one of the meanings of the end of history: nothing fundamentally new will ever occur again; every event, every thing, can be understood as an instance of something preexisting, whether in actuality or in possibility. History’s end means no more surprises. This soft formulation of the end of history grants that one can know truly that which is possible and that has not yet occurred or been realized. It also would allow one to grant Hegel’s claim to wisdom, presuming his entire system is comprehensive and coherent, what Kojeve calls “circular” (ILH284 ; cf OT
162 and 169). A system is circular (i.e., comprehensive and coherent) if each of its premises are established by the analysis of the system. In principle, one can begin to explicate a circular system at any point within it, taking for granted the necessary premises at the point chosen, premises that will be established at the end of the explication. To once again borrow Kojeve’s formal mode of expression, a circular system can be represented as follows: Presume A. If A, then B. If B, then C. If C, then D. . . . If Z, then A. In short, for a system to be circular as Kojeve understands the term, nothing must fall outside of it and everything must be accounted for within it. While circularity is the only guarantee of the totality or absolute truth of the purported wisdom of the wise man, unless this ‘knowledge’ accords with reality, that is, unless the subjective totality is realized in the totality of objective reality or the given, then it cannot be knowledge.
This prompts the question: What state of empirical reality accords with absolute wisdom? According to Kojeve, “the reality that transforms this total and circular knowledge into truth is the universal and homogeneous state . . . therefore, the Philosopher can attain
absolute knowledge only after the realization of this State, that is to say, after the completion of History” (ILH 284 ). There are a few things worthy of note here. First, in Kojeve’s atheistic Hegelianism, the universal, homogeneous state replaces the biblical God as the guarantor of the truth of wisdom. Unless the universal, homogeneous state is realized, the truth of absolute wisdom remains uncertain or hypothetical (because not in accord with reality), and thus, in the strictest sense cannot really be wisdom. Second, because absolute wisdom depends on the establishment of the universal, homogeneous state, wisdom and freedom are actualized together through revolution and are inherently revolutionary. Taking these two insights together, Kojeve tells us that Hegel “only asserted that the germ of this state was present in the world and that the necessary and sufficient conditions for its growth were in existence” (ILH 290 ). Moreover, one who “knows that he cannot be a Wise Man because the State in which he exists is not perfect [can . . . ] then have the idea of a perfect state and try to realize it” (ILH 289n1 [96n8]). In short, “This idea [of a perfect state] can be transformed into truth only by negating action, which will destroy the World that does not correspond to the idea and will create by this very destruction the
World in conformity with the ideal” (ILH 290 ). Or, Hegelian philosophy can become Hegelian wisdom only if and when the universal, homogenous state is established (HMC 365 ).
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