Subjective Certainty and Recognition, Philosophy and the Quest for Truth
Kojeve’s “Tyranny and Wisdom” is roughly divided into three parts. In the first part (OT 136-147), Kojeve deals most directly with Strauss’s interpretation of the Hiero, and he purports to show that this dialogue can better or best be understood in terms of the broad outlines of Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic, especially when it comes to Xenophon’s utopian and theistic suppositions. In the second part (OT 147-167), Kojeve discusses the philosopher’s pedagogic activity, tracing it to the need to verify his ideas and to overcome the problem of subjective certainty as well as to the desire to achieve universal recognition and satisfaction from any and all possible interlocutors. And in the third part (OT 167-176), he sketches out the historical relations between philosophers and tyrants, demonstrating how that dialectical interaction eventually leads to the universal and homogeneous state, the final and best—and therefore only just—political order as verified through human struggle and work. Let us begin with the middle part, as it seems to yoke together the first and last parts: the desire for recognition is the key to understanding Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit while the problem of subjective certainty requires the philosopher to enter the political arena and to offer advice, which (after properly modulated by intellectuals) becomes a driving and progressive force historically. The question of subjective certainty (and all that it implies or entails) is also that theme to which Strauss repeatedly returns: If one looks at his first and last mention of this subject (OT 195-208), then it takes up more than one-third of the entire “Restatement” and nearly half of the section dedicated to his specific response to Kojeve. The debate in many ways pivots on this question and its enormous ramifications.
Let us begin by sketching out Kojeve’s general characterization of philosophy and wisdom. According to Kojeve, the truth is revealed in the study of human history, and historical success rather than nature is the standard by which to judge political phenomena. The philosopher who mistakenly turns to nature assumes that
Being is essentially immutable in itself and eternally identical with itself, and that it is completely revealed for all eternity in and by an intelligence that is perfect from the first; and this adequate revelation of the timeless totality of Being is, then, the Truth. Man (the philosopher) can at any moment participate in this Truth, either as the result of an action issuing from the Truth itself (“divine revelation”), or by his own individual effort to understand (the Platonic “intellectual intuition”), the only condition for such an effort being the innate “talent” of the one making this effort, independently of where he may happen to be situated in space (in the State) or in time (in history). (OT 151-152)
Unfortunately for such a philosopher, Hegel has conclusively demonstrated that this “theistic” conception of the truth is false: whatever nature is, it is not where Being or the truth resides. Being creates itself and is discursively revealed in and through man’s historical development, and unless a philosopher wants to be left behind by the truth, he must be fully attached and attracted to the world of politics. Objects that are beyond “the range of social and historical verification” are “forever relegated to the realm of opinion (doxa),” and only the philosopher who turns to and fully comprehends the historical dialectic will discover that his ceaseless quest for wisdom has culminated in wisdom itself (OT 152, 161, 167-169). The wise man or sage is a fully self-conscious and thus omniscient human being, and this god-like condition is in principle open to any person who takes the time to read Kojeve’s and Hegel’s writings. While philosophers wallow “in a world of questions” and vainly “seek to solve them,” the sage gives definitive answers to the most pressing questions in politics and political philosophy (OT 167, 147).
This Hegelian understanding of philosophy (and wisdom) leads Kojeve to conclude that there is no essential difference between the motivation of the philosopher and the politician: “both seek recognition, and both act with a view to deserving it.” While love is directed toward who a person is, recognition is directed toward what a person does, and according to Kojeve, a philosopher wants to be admired or recognized for his actions (and not his being) just as much as a politician (OT 156-158). In fact, the man of thought or speech may need to be admired much more than the man of action. A man of action is admired when he succeeds in his undertaking, regardless of what others think about that undertaking; the success of a philosopher or intellectual depends exclusively on what others think of his doctrines or books (OT 162n6). A philosopher who wants only to be recognized (or believes that he can be recognized only) by a select few is acting on the basis of an undemonstrated prejudice, one “that is at best valid under certain social conditions and at a particular historical moment.” The number of persons capable of honoring the philosopher is in principle not different from those capable of honoring the politician, and there is no reason a philosopher would want to “place an a priori limit” on the number of persons who could honor or recognize him. According to Kojeve, there is simply no way to prove Strauss’s contention that the philosopher philosophizes for the intrinsic pleasure of philosophizing and not for the sake of being honored by others: “By what right can we maintain that he does not seek ‘recognition,’ since he necessarily finds it in fact?” Inasmuch as the philosopher is in fact recognized and admired when he communicates his teaching to others, one cannot know whether he is indifferent to this admiration and interested solely in his own selfadmiration or self-improvement (OT 157-162).
But Kojeve notes that there is another reason the philosopher is interested in the recognition of others, a reason that helps us to see how Kojeve understands the relation of the philosopher to the state and to civil society. Even if one grants the “theistic conception of Being and Truth,” Kojeve asks how a philosopher can ever know whether his thoughts are objectively true, that is, whether his subjective certainty of the truth of a particular idea actually corresponds to the objective standard of Being or the truth (OT 152-153). Now a philosopher who never communicated his knowledge could not be certain that his ideas were in principle no different from those of a madman; consequently, a philosopher will find it necessary to speak to others and to convince them of what he knows. But while the existence of philosophic friends or disciples eliminates the problem of madness, it does not solve the problem of subjective certainty: despite their agreement, this limited group of philosophers could unknowingly share a similar prejudice. A genuine philosopher will therefore leave his cloistered circle of friends and speak to or write for an ever-larger group of people. This movement away from a cloistered life and toward a more public life is necessitated because the only way a philosopher can objectively (i.e., historically) demonstrate the truth of his ideas is if he successfully convinces others to adopt his doctrines (OT 153-155, 162163). Philosophers cannot rest satisfied with simply “talking about their ideas: in order to make certain that they have correctly comprehended the strengths and weaknesses of their historical epoch, they must offer a political program that improves, goes beyond, or negates the current political reality. In other words, the truth of all theoretical or philosophical ideas is demonstrated practically or politically, and the philosopher who confines himself to the level of theory alone will never be able to overcome the problem of subjective certainty. As a philosopher will want to present his doctrines in a pedagogically efficacious manner, he necessarily becomes an indispensable agent for historical progress and the development of self-consciousness.
In short, if philosophers gave Statesmen no political “advice” at all, in the sense that no political teaching whatsoever could (directly or indirectly) be drawn from their ideas, there would be no historical progress, and hence no History properly so called. But if the Statesmen did not eventually actualize the philosophically based “advice” by their day-today political action, there would be no philosophical progress (toward Wisdom or Truth) and hence no Philosophy in the strict sense of the term. (OT 174-175)
All philosophers have either written treatises—and therefore offered advice—about the government and the state or, as Plato with Dionysius, Aristotle with Alexander, and Spinoza with De Witt, personally intervened in political affairs (OT 157, 163-164, 167, 173-176).
Not surprisingly, Strauss’s characterization of philosophy is markedly different from Kojeve’s. For Strauss, philosophy is neither a doctrine nor a method but a way of life: philosophy is awareness of the genuine problems confronting human beings rather than knowledge of the solutions to those problems. The philosopher wants to know the nature and causes of the whole, or of “the eternal order,” and as such he will severely depreciate human things and concerns as well as man’s “‘historical’ procession.” Strauss admits that in the course of a philosopher’s investigations, he may become “inclined toward a solution” to a fundamental problem; but at the moment he is more certain of a solution to a problem than of that solution’s problematic character, that philosopher becomes a sectarian (OT 196-199, 201-202). As Strauss says elsewhere: “Because of the elusiveness of the whole, the beginning or the questions retain a greater evidence than the end or the answers; return to the beginning remains a constant necessity.”18 Although Strauss claims that philosophy is the best way of life, he does not believe that all persons are capable of philosophizing: not only do many persons lack the natural capacity to philosophize (e.g., the analytic ability to make an argument, a good memory to recall the argument’s previous steps, and the courage to follow it through) but most persons are too attached to the particular concerns and cares of everyday life to be willing to contemplate the “eternal beings, or the ‘ideas’” (OT 199).
And indeed, it is precisely Kojeve’s “presupposition” that “‘Being creates itself in the course of History’” that creates and fosters such an existential disposition: “unqualified attachment to human concerns becomes the source of philosophical understanding: man must be absolutely at home on earth, he must be absolutely a citizen of the earth.” Strauss, however, assumes that “there is an eternal and unchangeable order within which History takes place and which is not in any way affected by History.” The philosopher will seek to become a “citizen” of this order or whole, and he will therefore never feel quite comfortable or settled in this world and might be quite content to be a stranger in it. To turn to history rather than nature as the standard by which to judge political phenomena would be to turn to an unstable morass of half-truths and unexamined opinions (OT 212-213).
Strauss thus observes that the philosopher’s genuine motivation and purpose are quite contrary to those identified by Kojeve. Strauss concludes that inasmuch as a person is truly aware that he is ignorant of the most important things, he will realize that the most important task is to seek knowledge about these very things. In other words, because a person’s soul is “ugly or deformed” when he claims to know things that he does not know, a potential philosopher will turn to philosophy in an attempt to make his own soul well-ordered (OT 201-203). This passionate quest to know the eternal order distinguishes the philosopher from the politician, who is very much attached to the cares and concerns of this world. The politician has an overwhelming desire to be loved by all persons “regardless of their quality,” and he necessarily addresses himself, especially in his capacity as an educator or legislator, to all his subjects. The philosopher, by contrast, addresses himself to a small circle of competent friends and is interested in educating a certain kind of human being above all, namely, the potential philosopher (OT 198-200, 203-204; cf 88-89, 97). None of this is to deny that the philosopher, “in principle,” is better able to rule than a statesman, nor is it to deny that “high ambition” is often characteristic of a potential philosopher. But Strauss maintains that as long as the potential philosopher is concerned with being recognized by others, and as long as his ambition has not been fully transformed into “full devotion to the quest for wisdom,” that potential “philosopher” will remain at best a sophist. Unlike that of the politician, the self-satisfaction or self-admiration of the genuine philosopher is not dependent on the admiration of others, and the desire to be recognized by others has no necessary relation to the quest for knowledge (OT 201-205). According to Strauss, political virtue and the love that motivates the politician is but a “mutilated” version or mere “shadow” of philosophic virtue and Socratic eros, and this difference between the philosopher and the politician means that the philosopher will be the happier of the two (OT 203, 191, 197-199).
Although we have noted that Strauss and Kojeve agree that political philosophy is first philosophy, Strauss would emphatically disagree that the political arena is where the truth of an idea is demonstrated. While Strauss readily acknowledges the problem of subjective certainty and sectarianism (OT 195-197), he does not think that a philosopher must therefore strive to convince as many people as possible of the truth of his ideas. The philosopher can be reasonably certain of his own progress philosophically if he discovers over and over again that the many nonphilosophic persons with whom he converses contradict themselves or become angry and leave. Thus, the philosopher is not acting on the basis of a prejudice when he addresses himself to a small circle of competent friends but according to the experience of all genuine philosophers (OT 204205). As the philosopher need not become politically active in order to solve the problem of subjective certainty, his philosophic politics or pedagogy will be different from that described by Kojeve. The philosopher will be concerned with defending philosophy before the city—with convincing citizens that philosophy is not dangerous or subversive but helpful and supportive of the existing laws and the regime (OT 206-207). To the extent that the philosopher is political, his political activity will hardly be as revolutionary as Kojeve suggests, but will have much more modest ends, such as not hurting others or trying to mitigate certain evils as far as it is in his power to do so as a philosopher (OT 200-201). In fact, for Strauss, the term “political philosophy” not only describes the subject matter under investigation, but it also, and perhaps primarily, indicates the “politic” way in which the philosopher philosophizes. There are irreconcilable differences between philosophy and politics, and to believe that the one is in the service of the other is to invite the destruction of philosophy and the radicalization of politics through the introduction of ideology (OT 205-207).
In order to assess the adequacy of Strauss’s response more fully, let us examine the following two key passages in the “Restatement.”
The philosopher will certainly not be compelled, either by the need to remedy the deficiency of “subjective certainty” or by ambition, to strive for universal recognition. His friends alone suffice to remedy that deficiency, and no shortcomings in his friends can be remedied by having recourse to utterly incompetent people. (OT204)
If the philosopher, trying to remedy the deficiency of “subjective certainty,” engages in conversation with others and observes again and again that his interlocutors, as they themselves are forced to admit, involve themselves in selfcontradictions or are unable to give any account of their questionable contentions, he will be reasonably confirmed in his estimate of himself without necessarily finding a single soul who admires him. (Consider Plato, Apology of Socrates 21d1-21d3.) The self-admiration of the philosopher is in this respect akin to “the good conscience” which as such does not require confirmation by others. (OT 205)
Strauss is in complete agreement with Kojeve that the problem of subjective certainty is a serious one, and that the philosopher is aware of and will try to remedy it (OT 195-196). Where Strauss takes issue with Kojeve is over the means by which and the extent to which the problem of subjective certainty can be mitigated. Although the philosopher must try to test his opinions—especially the opinion that philosophy is the best way of life—the truth of these opinions does not depend on others acknowledging them as such. A philosopher can be reasonably certain of his opinions if he engages in conversations where his interlocutors contradict themselves again and again or cannot give an adequate account of their own opinions and actions, and/or if his philosophic friends, in discussing these opinions and issues over and over again, continue to reach similar conclusions. Furthermore, given the radical differences between the philosopher and the vast majority of other human beings, there is a very legitimate reason not to expect but a small handful of individuals to agree with or even to admire the philosopher. Even if Strauss agreed with Kojeve that truth is the revelation of a reality in speech, truth as such does not require verbal agreement by others in order for it to attain the status of truth. It may be enough for a philosopher to convince a few of his most intelligent friends of the compelling nature of his arguments and/or to show potential philosophers the superiority of the philosophic way of life. Consequently, as long as the philosopher has engaged in conversations in which his interlocutors demonstrate their confusion and ignorance or become angry and leave, as well as has friends with whom he can speak and whom he has helped to turn to the philosophic way of life, he can be reasonably confident of his own self-estimation. It may be that for Strauss the problem of subjective certainty is a perennial one, and that it is not possible to have 100 percent certainty about the truth of one’s opinions. But to the extent that subjective certainty can be mitigated, Strauss argues that it can be done by a philosopher in ancient Greece as well as in modern Europe, and it does not require a large number of individuals agreeing with or recognizing the philosopher.
Kojeve’s position, by contrast, might be described as “more expansive”: if the philosopher must have recourse to at least one other person in order to mitigate or to overcome the problem of subjective certainty, then there is no intrinsic reason why he should artificially limit the number of persons capable of being persuaded of the truth of his ideas (OT 162). Contrary to Strauss, Kojeve does not think “the masses” are utterly incompetent judges, and they are as capable as anyone else of judging the truth or falsity of the philosopher’s opinions (OT 157-158). This is not to say that everyone can be a philosopher or a sage himself, or that everyone has the same level of intelligence; rather, it is to say that at the end of history, citizens will know that the basic structure and principles of the universal state honor and confirm the personal dignity of each particular individual. The political wisdom of the philosopher or sage will be embodied in the institutions and laws of the end state, and the fundamental tenets of this wisdom will be learned anew by every successive generation of citizens. Thus, once a critical mass of individuals understand that the end state is in fact the best or most just political order, they will provide the internal support and cohesion necessary to keep the state stable and strong. The state will recognize or confirm the individual’s self-certainty as an essential member of the whole; and the individual, seeing that the state does not exclude or is not hostile to the realization of his own particular interests, will support and thereby confirm the justice of the end state. One might say that Kojeve is in complete agreement with Hobbes’s indictment of Aristotle and other such “vain” philosophers: the belief that men are by nature unequal is a prejudice, and all men are equally capable of prudently conducting their own affairs rather than being ruled by another (Lev. 13:1-2, 15:21; De Cive 1:3, 3:13). Kojeve would certainly ask Strauss how he knows that the masses are utterly incompetent judges if he also claims that philosophy is the quest for wisdom rather than wisdom itself. Indeed, he would likely ask Strauss the much larger question of how he knows the many things he seems to know throughout his writings: If philosophy is genuine awareness of the problems rather than the solutions to those problems, then why is Strauss so certain, for example, that philosophy is the best way of life? Or that philosophers do not desire recognition? Or that Being does not create itself historically (OT 212-213)? In the final analysis, are not all of Strauss’s objections to Kojeve’s political philosophy more or less questionable assertions; and if this is the case, then how does Strauss’s own position not degenerate into a certain kind of hope or even faith that classical political philosophers have correctly understood the nature of politics and philosophy, and the relation between the two? Kojeve’s position may seem extreme, but it does have the virtue of offering a verifiable, objective standard whereby the truth or falsity of an opinion can be determined. According to Kojeve, unless the problem of subjective certainty can be completely overcome, the philosopher is forever doomed to hold opinions that can never be categorically proved or disproved. Philosophy would be futile if it did not culminate in wisdom itself, and the only possible attitudes the philosopher could adopt would be faith, or skepticism and nihilism, both of which render meaningless the idea of as well as the search for the truth (OT 152; ILH485n1, 504n1; HMC 347).
Strauss denies this conclusion. Philosophy is neither dogmatic, skeptical, nor decisionist, but “zetetic” (i.e., “skeptic in the original sense of the term” [OT 197]). According to Strauss, philosophy is not “futile” even if it remains the quest for the truth rather than possession of it. “Genuine knowledge of a fundamental question, thorough understanding of it, is better than blindness to it, or indifference to it, be that indifference or blindness accompanied by knowledge of the answers to a vast number of peripheral or ephemeral questions or not.” Moreover, Strauss would certainly question Kojeve’s claim that genuine philosophic knowledge and public opinion can coincide at the end of history. Strauss would more than likely wonder whether modern philosophy or philosophers have not begun to believe their own noble lies: in other words, whether the philosophic pedagogy (or propaganda) that philosophers have engaged in since the time of Machiavelli on behalf of the improvement of politics and the relief of man’s estate has not begun to be taken for the truth pure and simple. Have the ongoing efforts by modern philosophers to play a more active role politically made them forget the distinction between their public or salutary teaching, on one hand, and the genuine philosophic truth, on the other? Will the end state really embody and give expression to the truth, or has philosophy been vulgarized to the point where the principles and propaganda of the end state are now mistaken for the truth (cf OT 206)? Kojeve, of course, brushes these objections aside: human beings and human beings alone determine what is true; and although agreement as to what is true may take several centuries, now that history is in principle over, everyone can come to see and to understand that the principles of Hegel’s philosophic system (or Hegel as modified by Kojeve) are or will be made manifest in the universal and homogeneous state. In short, Kojeve’s “unqualified attachment to human concerns” can be traced back to these issues (OT 213).
At this point, it would seem that the debate ends in somewhat of a stalemate, with Kojeve and Strauss simply asserting rival understandings of philosophy and of the philosopher on the question of subjective certainty and recognition. But if we return to the aforementioned questions concerning the moderns, Kojeve might certainly wonder whether the same concerns Strauss raised against him could be leveled against Strauss when it comes to his understanding of the ancients. In discussing how the human soul is most akin to the eternal order, and how the philosopher “cannot help loving well-ordered souls,” Strauss makes the following singular admission:
Still, observations of this kind do not prove the assumption, for example, that the well-ordered soul is more akin to the eternal order, or to the eternal cause or causes of the whole, than is the chaotic soul. And one does not have to make that assumption in order to be a philosopher, as is shown by Democritus and other pre-Socratics, to say nothing of the moderns. If one does not make the assumption mentioned, one will be forced, it seems, to explain the philosopher’s desire to communicate his thoughts by his need for remedying the deficiency of “subjective certainty” or by his desire for recognition or by his human kindness. (OT202)
In this remarkable passage, Strauss more or less concedes that both pre-Socratic and modern philosophy can be fully understood on Kojeve’s own terms. It is perhaps for this reason that throughout the “Restatement” Strauss almost always refers to philosophy in the “strict and classical” sense of the term (OT 212) and that almost all of the examples and references he draws on to refute Kojeve are taken from Socrates and the Socratics: indeed, the only modern whom Strauss seems to cite approvingly is the “philosopher Montesquieu” (OT 206). Kojeve could easily cry foul—that Strauss is unnecessarily restrictive in his understanding of philosophy and that his narrow set of examples hardly do justice to the totality of the historical record. In fact, Kojeve could go further and argue that Strauss’s understanding of classical thought does not even do full justice to the classics themselves. Is it at all clear that Xenophon (as revealed in the Anabasis and elsewhere) was utterly uninterested in recognition and the glory associated with founding “new modes and orders”? How does one fully explain Plato’s repeated trips to Syracuse as well as Aristotle’s activities at the Macedonian court? And finally, how does one explain the example of Aristophanes’, whom Strauss surely considered a thinker of the very first order? Aristophanes’ very poetic (and thus public and political) activity reveals both an incredible thirst for recognition or honor and a keen desire to become the civic educator of Athens and to convince the Athenians of the superiority of his advice. Is Socrates the exception that proves Strauss’s rule or
is he merely an exception? Perhaps there may be other philosophers who conform to Strauss’s description—but if they never transmitted their teachings to others, or were never written about by others, then as Kojeve rightly indicates we would never know of them (cf. OT 140-141, 158-161).
Let us approach these ideas from another angle. In distinguishing the political man from the philosopher, Strauss argues that the philosopher is “radically detached from human beings as human beings” and that as such he tries “to make it his sole business to die and to be dead to all human things.” Of course, Strauss must also explain how or why the philosopher is constantly in the market place, or to say the same thing, how his detachment from human beings and concerns is compatible with an attachment to the same (OT 200). But many of Strauss explanations or claims seem highly problematic. For example, why would the philosopher be interested in ameliorating in any way “the evils which are inseparable from the human condition” (OT 201)? Why would the philosopher not be like the true pilot in Socrates’ image of the ship of state (Rep. 488a-489d), who tries his best to remain unnoticed as the sailors quarrel (often violently) among themselves and with the shipowner to see who should pilot the ship? Or again, why would the philosopher on Strauss’s account necessarily be concerned with cultivating potential philosophers (OT 201-202)? Is not the potential philosopher capable of leaving the cave on his own, regardless of when and where he was born (Rep. 518c)? And most importantly, how does Strauss’s description of radical detachment square with his repeated claim that political philosophy is first philosophy? It would seem that the literary output and themes of Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle (to say nothing of the moderns) tend against the claim that they are dead to human things and that they lack any and all ambition. Just the opposite would seem to be the case.
We reach more or the less the same conclusion by starting from Strauss’s contention that a philosopher “must not be absolutely at home on earth, he must be a citizen of the whole,” or of the eternal and immutable order (OT213, 201-202). But to say nothing of how Strauss knows that the whole is either eternal or ordered, what precisely does it mean to be at home in this whole rather than to be at home or a citizen of the earth as Kojeve maintains? Unless the whole can in some sense be shown to be caring and thus providential (“theistic” in Kojeve’s terminology), how can we be at home in a cold, indifferent, and potentially even hostile universe, one that neither acknowledges nor is aware of our deepest needs and hopes? Would it not make more sense to construct an edifice here on earth that responded as closely as possible to our worldly desires and ideas, and to make this the primary and fundamental source of human understanding and knowledge: As Socrates famously declares in the Phaedrus (230d), only the human beings of Athens have anything to teach him while the animals and plants do not. At the end of the day, Strauss seems to ascribe a motivational purity of soul to philosophers, which by his own admission is not necessarily true of the moderns and pre-Socratics, and which is not at all clearly displayed by the classics. None of this is to say that Kojeve wins this issue by default: Neither position could be true, or they could both be partially true of certain philosophers at certain times. Still, Kojeve would certainly require that if Strauss’s description of philosophy is to be persuasive it must be more firmly and accurately grounded historically.
-  Kojeve notes that a philosopher’s “'politico-philosophical advice” will often have tobe modified and adapted in order to be applicable to the current historical reality. The task of bringing about a “convergence” between the philosopher’s theoretical advice and the current state of affairs belongs to various “intellectuals”(OT 175). In the apt words ofJames W. Ceaser, Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997),217, “Kojeve proposes what amounts to an ‘invisible hand’ of historical movement that coordinates the activities of the producers of ideas (philosophers), themiddlemen (intellectuals), and the consumers (tyrants and statesmen).”
-  See Leo Strauss, An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss,ed. Hilail Gildin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), 3-4, 77-78.
-  Strauss, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, 5.