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


Philosophical Background of the End of History: Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx

A precondition for seeking to make a philosophic argument for the end of history certainly must be the judgment that the history of a being is of the greatest importance for understanding that being; or in other words, that the being in question cannot be adequately understood as essentially fixed in its given nature, but must be understood as something that develops and changes essentially over time. Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed such an approach to understanding human beings in his Second Discourse. Looking at the “immense space” that separates natural man from civil man, he asserted that it is “in this slow succession of things”—that is, in history scientifically or philosophically analyzed—that one “will see the solution to an infinite number of problems of ethics and politics which the philosophers cannot resolve.” The wise man will see in society only “an assemblage of artificial men and factitious passions which are the work of all these new relations and have no true foundation in nature.”[1] The philosophic poet Lucretius had depicted very great changes in human beings from early solitary life to complex societies where men exhibit inflamed passions, exaggerated fears, and irrational opinions; yet it was the nature of things (including the nature of man understood in the light of the fundamental principles of nature), not historical development, that remained the central and basic object of philosophic understanding.[2] Rousseau agrees with numerous aspects of Lucretius’s account of the original human condition, but he suggests that the understanding of development itself, rather than simply of nature, may be the key to greater human wisdom than any attained by philosophers hitherto.

Immanuel Kant (turned around or set upright by Rousseau)[3] claimed to have solved the fundamental problem of ethics insofar as it could be solved by human reason. What is the good will, the moral law, rational freedom? The only adequate answer that critical reason can give establishes and elaborates the categorical imperative to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” for all rational beings and its necessarily entailed corollary to respect the moral dignity of another rational being by treating him “never merely as means but always at the same time as an end in himself.”[4] But how can someone taking this moral stance act effectively in the world of politics—or, as one might say, on the real historical stage? While it is true that honesty is better than any policy, political experience belies the edifying maxim that honesty is the best policy.[5] Actual historical actions have been immediately moved by human passions, ambition, competition, greed, “unsocial sociability”[6]—rarely if ever by a genuinely moral motive. But might events be guided by some underlying trend toward a human world more supportive of morality, more favorable to human dignity, more respectful of human rights? Kant argued that it is not contrary to reason—indeed it is a rational hope—to view history as advancing toward an end state of the sort that one must wish for on moral grounds, whose final achievements would be a perfect civil constitution and a lawful state of perpetual peace among nations. We do not know with certainty that this is happening. Still less do we know when it might come to fruition. Indeed, Kant refers to mankind’s having passed through only a “small part” of the cycle that would ultimately actualize Nature’s objective.[7] Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to hold historical progress toward this goal to be possible and to allow that hope to influence one’s actions.[8]

Georg W. F. Hegel, in Alexandre Kojeve’s interpretation,[9] saw that history’s goal did not lie in some distant future; history had in fact come to its rational end. The key to understanding human beings had to be their history and not their nature or the nature of things simply in any earlier sense of the term, because man is not determined by nature in his essential attributes. The human being includes the element of negativity, whereby what is pres?ent or given—in the natural world, in the social world, in the person himself—can be rejected, negated, transformed (human being is not simple identity, but a threefold identity/negativity/totality, which can be thought of in the well-known pattern of thesis/antithesis/synthe- sis-which-is-a-new-thesis). In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the anthropogenetic moment (when the proto-human first becomes distinctively human) is the struggle for life and death between (future) Master and (future) Slave, for the sake of the nonvital, that is, nonbiological end of recognition. The dialectical process thus begun is the driving force of subsequent history, until ultimately all opposition between Master and Slave is definitively overcome in the synthesis of citizens equally recognized in their individual dignity by a universal and homogeneous state.[10] In publishing the Phenomenology after the battle of Jena, Hegel saw the rational Napoleonic political-legal order as, in its essential reality, the universal and homogeneous state. Hegel’s own philosophy could become definitive truth only because historical reality itself had come to its completion. Later—most notably, in the Philosophy of Right—Hegel was looking at a world in which the Napoleonic order had been done away with, and he therefore presented a political teaching that seemed rather to endorse something more akin to the Prussian constitutional monarchy than to a universal and homogeneous state. Marxists and others have faulted Hegel’s doing this as some kind of base accommoda- tionism, but as Kojeve argued (IRH 98), Hegel, convinced of the adequacy of his philosophical system (or rather, System of Wisdom) as a whole, necessarily had to consider the reality that he beheld as the end of history and therefore had to adjust some particular details of his political-legal doctrine accordingly.[11] And again according to Kojeve, Hegel was right to hold that he had articulated the final philosophy, or more precisely to have transformed philosophy, the love of wisdom, into actual wisdom, articulated, as complete knowledge must be, in a complete system.

Hegel had to insist on an end of history if he was convincingly to maintain claims of genuine knowledge about human affairs. Human beings display the element of negativity, the basis of radical freedom—a freedom that is not merely a choice among existing given alternatives, but the capacity to create new realities in the world and in themselves. What is to emerge from the negation of something that is given is not predetermined (except in at least some one aspect of what it will not be); in consequence, a process of negations whereby a being develops over time is not predetermined or foreordained, and so cannot be predicted or deduced in advance, a priori; it can be understood only after it has happened, a posteriori. The history of mankind or of Spirit, consisting of such negations, therefore has the form of a free, contingent process.[12] It can be truly understood only after the fact; the owl of Minerva, as Hegel wrote at the end of the Preface to his Philosophy of Right, begins its flight only at nightfall.

How could one show that history had ended? According to Kojeve, the one great original discovery of Hegel’s thinking is that circularity is the criterion of definitive truth (IRH 93). Absolute wisdom is a series of questions and answers, starting (for example) from the fundamental question of self-consciousness, “What am I?” (or from some other question which, through a series of answers and further questions brings one to that question). From there one is led through a logically necessary series of answers and questions ultimately back to the original question. And the consequence, as Kojeve puts it, is that “thus it is clear that all possible questions- answers have been exhausted; or, in other words, a total answer has been obtained: each part of the circular Knowledge has for its answer the whole of this Knowledge, which—being circular—is the entirety of all Knowledge” (IRH 94).[13] Circularity must manifest itself in the phenomenological description of historical reality and in the discursive presentation of all the serious philosophical arguments that have been developed over the course of history; that is, one must show in both domains that all possibilities have been passed through in the course of history (IRH 94-99). Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit shows that the development of human beings, from Master and Slave to free citizens of the universal and homogeneous state, has come to its conclusion; Hegel’s whole encyclopedic system of knowledge shows that all previous philosophical arguments find their necessary place in the definitive systematic wisdom that gives an adequate account of, and thus ends, the evolution of philosophy.

Are these Hegelian demonstrations convincing? According to Kojeve, many thinkers have resisted the Hegelian conclusion, but there has not been (and in his view cannot be) any truly new, genuinely philosophical post-Hegelian argument.[14] One of the best- known apparently “anti-Hegelian” Hegelians is Karl Marx. Again in Kojeve’s view: Marx is an intellectual who engaged in the practical project of bringing social reality into fuller correspondence with the

Hegelian end of history, through one more, and final, revolutionary moment.[15] Marx doubtless believed that his materialism was superior to Hegel’s idealism. In Kojeve’s view, however, Marx’s materialism is not a seriously tenable philosophic doctrine, because a deterministic materialism cannot give an account of the possibility of its own philosophic discourse; and contrary to Marx’s critique of Hegel, Hegel’s so-called idealism is itself fully realistic[16] and even atheistic. The Marxian claim to be a “scientific socialism,” which knows that the proletariat must necessarily engage in violent revolution, is political propaganda, not serious philosophic argument. Marx is right to think of the end of history as a realm of freedom; but the period of historical development (which Marx called man’s prehistory in the Communist Manifesto) cannot be accurately understood as a realm of necessity.

  • [1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Second Discourse, trans. Roger Masters and Judith Masters, in The First and Second Discourses (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964), 178.
  • [2] Lucretius, De rerum natura, Book V, vv. 925-1457. The Epicurean poet stressesthe naturalness of the origins of human language, of fire, and of belief in gods(vv. 1028-1090, 1091-1104, and 1161-1240).
  • [3] This famous comment by Kant, on his turn from holding speculative reasoning to be the highest human possibility toward considering mankind’s moralfreedom to be what is highest, has been thoughtfully analyzed by Susan Shell,“Kant’s Idea of History,” in Arthur M. Melzer et al., eds., History and the Idea ofProgress (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 73-96, esp. 80.
  • [4] Immanuel Kant, Groundingfor the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. James W. Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981), 30, 39.
  • [5] Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. Ted Humphrey (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), 127. My page reference is where the passage referredto should be; it is in fact mangled and a contresens appears there on account ofa saut du meme au meme. L. W. Beck’s translation of the relevant passage reads:“Although the proposition ‘Honesty is the best policy,’ implies a theory whichpractice unfortunately often refutes, the equally theoretical ‘Honesty is betterthan any policy’ is beyond refutation and is indeed the indispensable conditionof policy.” Immanuel Kant, On History, ed. L. W. Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill-Library of Liberal Arts, 1963), 117.
  • [6] This phrase comes from the explanation of the fourth thesis of Kant’s “Ideafor a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent,” Perpetual Peace and OtherEssays, 31-32. The thesis is “the means that nature uses to bring about the development of all of man’s capacities is the antagonism among them in society, as far as inthe end this antagonism is the cause of law-governed order in society.”
  • [7] Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, 36 (in the explanation of the eighth thesis, that“one can regard the history of the human species, in the large, as the realization of ahidden plan of nature to bring about an internally, and for this purpose, also anexternally perfect national constitution, as the sole state in which all of humanity’snatural capacities can be developed”).
  • [8] The ninth thesis of Kant’s “Idea for a Universal History with a CosmopolitanIntent” is that “A philosophical attempt to work out a universal history of the worldin accord with a plan of nature that aims at a perfect civic union of the human speciesmust be regarded as possible and even as helpful to this objective of nature’s.” PerpetualPeace and Other Essays, 38.
  • [9] In the context of this article, I treat Hegel only in accordance with my understanding of Kojeve’s interpretations; I do not attempt the enormous task ofevaluating the relative accuracy of Kojeve’s compared to others’ interpretationsof Hegel.
  • [10] Kojeve gives a detailed interpretation of the Master-Slave dialectic as presentedin Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, chapter IV, section A, in the first chapter,“In Place of an Introduction,” Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, trans. JamesH. Nichols, Jr. (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 3-30, hereafter cited as IRH.This interpretation was published originally as “Autonomie et dependence de laConscience-de-soi: Maitrise et Servitude,” Mesures (14 January 1939).
  • [11] Kojeve points out that in fact Hegel “detested” certain aspects of the Prussianstate.
  • [12] Kojeve insists on this aspect of Hegelian historicist philosophy, with particular clarity in his analysis of the last chapter (“Absolute Knowledge”) of Hegel’sPhenomenology of Spirit. Translating Hegel, he writes that Spirit “represents itsbecoming Spirit in the form of a free contingent process” (IRH 152). In otherwords, the historical process cannot be rationally deduced a priori, but can onlybe rationally understood after the fact, a posteriori.
  • [13] Kojeve elaborated this conception of the system of complete knowledge as circular in great detail in his posthumous writings, especially Le Concept, le Tempset le Discours (see note 15, below).
  • [14] The leading candidates as serious post-Hegelian philosophers are probablyFriedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Kojeve does not elaborate explicitgrounds for considering Nietzsche to be either not genuinely philosophic ornot truly post-Hegelian. I would surmise that, in Kojeve’s view, Nietzsche doesnot fulfill the strict Kantian and post-Kantian definition of philosophy thatKojeve adopts, in that he does not provide an adequate account of the groundsof his own rational discourse (or that that discourse is not in the final analysisfully rational). In the case of Heidegger, Kojeve explains that Heidegger’s Seinund Zeit elaborates a Hegelian phenomenological anthropology; indeed heacknowledges that it was Heidegger’s book that enabled him for the first timeto understand Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Alexandre Kojeve, Le Concept,le Temps et le Discours (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1990), 32-33. (AlexandreKojeve, The Concept, Time and Discourse, trans. Robert B. Williamson [SouthBend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, forthcoming].) But in Kojeve’s view, thelater Heidegger, unable to accept the ungratifying fact that new genuinelyphilosophical breakthroughs are impossible, turned back ultimately beyondphilosophy to something else, ultimately poetic fragments. Alexandre Kojeve,Essai d’une histoire raisonnee de laphilosophiepa'ienne, Tome I: Les Presocratiques(Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1968), 165-166.
  • [15] This view of Marx is presented in “Tyranny and Wisdom.” Marx is the intellectual who mediates between the philosopher’s (Hegel’s) understanding andthe tyrant’s (Lenin’s, Stalin’s) political action. Leo Strauss, On Tyranny, revisedand expanded edition, including the Strauss-Kojeve correspondence, eds. VictorGourevitch and Michael S. Roth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000),173-174.
  • [16] See especially the chapter “The Dialectic of the Real and the PhenomenologicalMethod in Hegel” (IRH169-259).
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