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

Being and History

I attempt to shed some light on these ironic possibilities in the final paragraph. Perhaps it is good to begin with the avowals of Heidegger’s importance by the two authors. Both were intensely engaged with Heidegger’s thought from the 1920s onward, and it was a recurring topic of their correspondence (see OT 236-238, 243-244, 249-250, 251-252, 313-314). Strauss states that “the only great thinker in our time is Heidegger,” that Heidegger “made it possible for the first time after many centuries . . . to see the roots of the tradition as they are,” that “certainly no one questioned the premise of philosophy as radically as Heidegger,” and that Heidegger’s thought “compels us . . . to realize the need for an unbiased reconsideration of the most elementary premises whose validity is presupposed by philosophy.”[1] Precisely on the issue of the presuppositions of philosophy Heidegger has enduring merit for Strauss as a powerful instigator of questioning. Strauss also points to a connection between the inquiries of Kojeve and Heidegger after he receives the French edition of Kojeve’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel in 1948. Writing to Kojeve, he states “It is an extraordinary book. . . . With the exception of Heidegger there is probably not a single one of our contemporaries who has written as comprehensive and at the same time as intelligent a book. In other words, no one has made the case for modern thought in our time as brilliantly as you” (OT 236). Elsewhere Strauss asserts that through Heidegger “modern thought reaches its culmination, its highest self-consciousness, in the most radical historicism, i.e, in explicitly condemning to oblivion the notion of eternity” (WIPP 55).[2]

Kojeve reveals his debt to Heidegger in lectures of 1934-1935 on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (IRH 169-259). He claims “Hegel was the first to try to formulate a complete philosophy that is atheistic and finitist in relation to Man,” but that his philosophical anthropology “would probably never have been understood if Heidegger had not published his book,” namely Being and Time (1927). Heidegger in our time attempts to complete what Hegel undertook but did not succeed in completing on the metaphysical level (IRH 259n41).[3] Kojeve in another passage in the same lectures indicates how Heidegger’s philosophy addresses a “grave error” in Hegel, namely Hegel’s attempt to develop a philosophy of nature showing the dialectic at work in the biological realm to complement the dialectic of human history. Hereby Hegel pursues a philosophical monism corrected by Heidegger’s proposal of a dualistic ontology, which is “sufficient to make him [Heidegger] recognized as a great philosopher” (IRH 212-15n15; cf. 146).[4] These remarks help to underline the major transformations that Kojeve wrought in Hegel under the impress of both Heidegger and Marx.

In Kojeve’s view all philosophy since the Greeks has tended toward a monism that is unable to account for the distinctive character of the human as conscious, free, oriented toward the future, and actively negating nature as the spatial object of the temporal human. Kojeve allows, however, that Kant made a major dualis- tic breakthrough that Heidegger renews (IRH 2l5nl5).[5] In treating Hegel as initiating the true ontology of human history whose essence is labor’s transformation of the natural given, Kojeve produces a Marxist reading that takes the account of desire and labor in the Master-Slave dialectic of the Phenomenology as the key to the whole dialectic.[6]

But Kojeve is not a pure Marxist. Rejecting Marx’s materialist monism as well as Hegel’s suggestion that the Logic is the eternal logos before it realizes itself in time, Kojeve views the human dialectic within the framework of Heidegger’s radically temporal- finite account of the human as a free project of being toward death (Sorge, Angst). Yet Kojeve departs sharply from Heidegger in conceiving thought as the action of negating nature, which position has the famous consequence that when thought/action has completed its project of negation, humanity, whose essence is free negation, comes to an end (IRH 167). Heidegger regards the emergence of the technological world society as the homelessness that is the destiny of the world. All the same, Heidegger praises Marx for “experiencing estrangement” as “an essential dimension of history,” whereby “the Marxist view of history is superior to that of other historical accounts [Historie].” Heidegger expressly mentions Sartre and existentialism as failing to reach the level of a productive dialogue with Marx. In this essay of 1947 (Letter on “Humanism”), Heidegger enters into a debate with the “humanist” transformation of his thinking in the existential Marxism much inspired by Kojeve’s lectures and sweeping France in the late 1940s. This text indirectly, but largely negatively, engages with the thought of Kojeve.[7] In any case, Kojeve but not Heidegger sees the completion of history in the creation of the atheistic universal-homogeneous state and therewith the attainment of wisdom, which contradicts Hegel’s conception of the enduring importance of particular states and the continuing roles for religion and certain class distinctions. (And, one might suggest, Hegel’s view implies the permanent alienation of the philosopher.)

The crucial features of this account that figure in Kojeve’s response to Strauss’s book on Xenophon are these: the view of thought as identical with negating action, and as motivated by the desire for desire or by recognition, undergirds the account of the philosopher as fulfilled through the recognition of having achieved the ultimate action: providing the crucial insight and advice to rulers for creating the universal homogeneous state. Because there is no essential difference between thought and action, there is no essential difference between the philosopher and the tyrant. Kojeve rejects the Xenophontic and other classical accounts of the permanent tension between philosophers and political men as expressing a false utopianism, which rests in part on the conception of the philosopher as seeking happiness through contemplation of an eternal order (OT 151-153). Modern philosophy proposed new notions of tyranny as well as new accounts of the philosopher, whereby both are grounded in the universal (or Judeo-Christian or “slave”) satisfactions of labor (OT 139-143). Tyrants can be persuaded by philosophers and philosophers can be contented in political life because the two groups discover a common source of satisfaction.

Strauss in his final paragraph points to this homogenizing conception when he states what follows on the basis of Kojeve’s presupposition: “Social change or fate affects being, if it is not identical with Being, and hence affects truth.” There is no being that transcends the realm of social change or action, and hence “unqualified attachment to human concerns becomes the source of human understanding: man must be absolutely at home on earth, he must be absolutely a citizen of the earth.” It should be noted that this account of Kojeve’s presupposition does not wholly cohere with Kojeve’s claim that the philosopher as attaining wisdom and becoming a god at the end of history transcends all normal human attachments.[8]

In any case, it would seem that the satisfaction of the wise man/ god would consist in the recollection of his great accomplishment, thus in recollection of his human action, because at the end of history all negating action—the glory of the human—ceases (IRH 165-167). There seems to be no difference in kind between human and divine satisfactions. Indeed the divine condition, as merely contemplative, seems to be an inferior version of the human. To use Hume’s language, it consists in having a mere idea that only recalls or mimics an impression with less force and vivacity than the original. Strauss contrasts Kojeve’s attachment to human concerns with what follows on the basis of the classical presupposition: “Philosophy requires radical detachment from human concerns: man must not be absolutely at home on earth, he must be a citizen of the whole.” The appearance of “requires” and twice of “must” in this formulation suggests that it is a dogmatic statement of what classical philosophy understands more genuinely in a nondogmatic way. In fact one could suggest that Strauss is simply restating Kojeve’s conception of the contrast between classical and modern accounts of philosophy, exposing a certain dogmatism in Kojeve’s view of the alternatives.

But for the sake of argument, let us suppose that legitimizing the idea of philosophy as the quest for the eternal order is in doubt, due to problems in the presupposition that there is an eternal order (or in the very idea of such order) such as Heidegger would expose. Strauss criticizes “radical historicism” for “explicitly condemning to oblivion the notion of eternity” (WIPP 55) and for “the suggestion that the highest principle which, as such, has no relation to any possible cause or causes of the whole, is the mysterious ground of ‘History’ and, being wedded to man and man alone, is so far from being eternal that it is coeval with human history” (NRH 176).[9] Yet Strauss himself explicitly denies that knowledge of the whole and of eternity is available to the human. “There is no knowledge of the whole but only knowledge of the parts, hence only partial knowledge of parts, hence no unqualified transcending, even by the wisest man as such, of the sphere of opinion.”[10] Accordingly, Strauss states that the fundamental problems of concern to philosophy are “coeval with human thought,” not that they are eternal (NRH 32). Strauss essentially restates the “thesis of radical historicism” when he writes that “all knowledge, however limited or ‘scientific,’ presupposes a horizon, a comprehensive view within which knowledge is possible.” By implication the horizon or comprehensive view is not itself an object of knowledge (NRH 125; cf. NRH 26, WIPP 38-39, JPCM 122123). Strauss’s difference with Heidegger seems to revolve partly around Strauss’s view that human reason must remain open to the possibility of a ground beyond history and time, although such a ground is unavailable to human reason.[11]

Strauss rejects Heidegger’s account of the implications of such problems, as Heidegger proposes that philosophy is essentially the reflection on Being that grounds human dwelling in the world, or uncovers the true mode of being at home in the world, which in effect calls for the establishment of a new religion. In Strauss’s estimation both Heidegger and Nietzsche remain entangled in the tradition of providence as they provide new accounts of providence. Even so, Strauss clearly thinks that Heidegger in his later writing had a deeper grasp of the problem of the emerging global society than Kojeve. “[Heidegger] is the only man who has an inkling of the dimension of the problem of a world society” (“Existentialism” 316-318). To Karl Lowith he writes: “Heidegger is the strongest mind [Geist] alive today. . . . One must indeed say that he has definitively refuted all that was and is in our century.” This was written after Strauss read Kojeve’s Hegel lectures.[12] By contrast Kojeve in a review of a book by Alfred Delp speaks ill of the turn of Heidegger’s thought in the mid-1930s away from the person as engaged in resolute action toward a more contemplative account of the person.[13] Strauss writes favorably of the self-critical considerations involved in that turn, which include questioning the employment of concepts of Christian theological origin in the early writings through Being and Time (“Existentialism” 313). Furthermore, the later Heidegger compares favorably with Kojeve with regard to the status of the sacred, in Strauss’s view, as Strauss faults Hegel (perhaps wrongly) and Kojeve for following Hobbes’ doctrine of the state of nature and constructing “human society by starting from the untrue assumption that man as man is thinkable as a being that lacks awareness of sacred restraints or as a being that is guided by nothing but a desire for recognition” (OT 192). The later Heidegger departs from Being and Time in acknowledging the openness to the sacred as essential to human dwelling,[14] although he does not focus also, as does Strauss, on the tension between such openness and philosophic questioning.

Does the stance of radical detachment of classical philosophy also become questionable—does it become a problem? Or is it not still the case that the philosophic soul cannot be satisfied by the charms, pleasures, and consolations of the realm of action?[15] Indeed, cannot the problematic position of the philosopher be characterized as a kind of negativity—not the negativity of overcoming nature but that of finding the realm of human belief and convention necessarily and permanently deficient? It is striking that the paragraph does not contain a reference to an important claim Strauss makes about “the idea of philosophy” elsewhere: “The distinction between nature and convention . . . is implied in the idea of philosophy,” which distinction is fundamental to classical philosophy, both conventionalist and anti-conventionalist. Yet when Strauss writes in the paragraph that Xenophon’s thesis is “required by the idea of philosophy,” he points to the fact that the distinction is operative in Xenophon’s relative evaluations of the tyrannical life and the philosophical life.[16]

To summarize: Strauss couches the alternative of classical philosophy in dogmatic terms although he regards these terms as problematic. It is fair to say that his thought on the question of eternity is closer to that of Kojeve and Heidegger than it seems at first— but not his true thought on the nature of classical philosophy. His approach in this passage is to present classical thought in a dogmatic form that corresponds to the accounts of Kojeve and Heidegger of classical philosophy (i.e., Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy as “onto- theology”) so as to expose their presuppositions, and indirectly to point to the Socratic alternative in a procedure that is genuinely Socratic or, if one will, Xenophontic.

  • [1] Leo Strauss, “Existentialism,” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 22(no. 3, Spring 1995): 305, hereafter cited as “Existentialism”; Jewish Philosophyand the Crisis of Modernity, ed. Kenneth Hart Green (Albany: State Universityof New York Press, 1997), 450, hereafter cited as JPCM; and NRH 31.
  • [2] Heidegger is not named in the passage.
  • [3] Kojeve claims also that the anthropology of Being and Time “adds fundamentally nothing new to the anthropology of the Phenomenology Г Ethan Klein-berg observes that Kojeve’s Paris lectures on Hegel were the chief source of theFrench interest in Heidegger that led to the “existentialism” of Sartre and others. See his Generation Existential: Heidegger’s Philosophy in France, 1927-1961(Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005), 71-84.
  • [4] Strauss views Kojeve’s rejection of Hegels’ philosophy of nature as a problematicstep since the philosophy of nature is “indispensable” to Hegel’s account of history (OT 236-238).
  • [5] See OT 152 for Kojeve’s formula “Being = Truth = Man = History.” This wouldseem to exclude nontemporal (i.e., nonhuman) nature from Being, with the oddimplication that there is no ontology of nonhuman nature. One could claim thatHeidegger’s thought encounters a related difficulty. Patard also notes Kojeve’savowal of a debt to Heidegger for retrieving Kant’s dualism over against Hegel’smonism (EP 10).
  • [6] See Marx: “the entire so-called world history is only the creation of manthrough human labor.” Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in KarlMarx, Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H. Simon (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994),78. For accounts of Kojeve’s thought and its relations to Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, and others, see James H. Nichols, Jr., Alexandre Kojeve: Wisdom at theEnd of History (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Kleinberg, Generation Existential; Shadia B. Drury, Alexandre Kojeve: The Roots of PostmodernPolitics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994); Michael S. Roth, Knowing andHistory: Appropriations of Hegel in Twentieth-Century France (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988); and Vincent Descombes, Modern FrenchPhilosophy, trans. L. Scott-Fox and J. M. Harding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980). Still indispensable on the Strauss-Kojeve relation is VictorGourevitch, “Philosophy and Politics,” Review of Metaphysics 22 (nos. 1-2, September and December 1968): 58-84, 281-328.
  • [7] Martin Heidegger, Brief iiber den Humanismus’, in Wegmarken (Frankfurt amMain: Vittorio Klostermann Verlag, 1967), 170.
  • [8] See Nichols, Alexandre Kojeve, 42-43.
  • [9] See also Timothy W. Burns, “Leo Strauss on the Origins of Hobbes’s NaturalScience,” Review of Metaphysics 64 (no. 4, June 2011): 823-855, especially thefinal four pages, for a discussion of Strauss’s view of both Heidegger and Hobbesas oblivious of eternity and “enhancing the status of man and his world.” ForHeidegger the philosophic attitude is one of anxious resoluteness (Being andTime) or hopeful awaiting (in his later thought) rather than the serene resignation of classical philosophy to the mortality of all human things.
  • [10] Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964), 20.
  • [11] See Leo Strauss, “The Problem of Socrates,” Interpretation: AJournal of PoliticalPhilosophy 22 (no. 3, Spring 1995): 329-330, and HSPP 59-61.
  • [12] Leo Strauss, letter of 23 February 1950, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 3, ed.Heinrich Meier (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2008), 674.
  • [13] Alexandre Kojeve, Recherchesphilosophiques 5 (1935-1936): 415-419. See Roth,Knowing and History, 90-91.
  • [14] In a letter to Gerhard Kruger, 7 January 1930 (Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 3,380), Strauss comments that “in Heidegger’s Dasein-interpretation, a truly adequate atheistic interpretation of the Bible can, for the first time, be possible.”Although Being and Time addresses central phenomena of religious experience,such as conscience, its atheistic reinterpretation of them places the work in thelong line of modern critics of religion.
  • [15] Strauss argues in many places that even if knowledge of the whole is unavailable and human knowledge must remain “knowledge of ignorance,” it does notfollow from this that history as the realm of human action is the highest themeand object of inquiry.
  • [16] See NRH 11 for the distinction. Furthermore Strauss’s statement in the paragraph on “philosophy in the strict and classical sense” does not contain the word“knowledge.” By contrast see WIPP 11: “It [philosophy] is . . . the attempt toreplace opinions about the whole by knowledge of the whole.” Finally the paragraph has no direct reference to Strauss’s account of political philosophy as “thepolitical, or popular, treatment of philosophy, or the political introduction tophilosophy—the attempt to lead the qualified citizens, or rather their qualified sons, from the political life to the philosophic life” (WIPP 93-94). But thismeaning of philosophy certainly relates to the arguments of the Hiero. I wish tothank Timothy Burns for his helpful critical comments on this chapter.
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