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

Kojeve’s Treatment of the End of History

How does Kojeve understand this Hegelian claim about the end of history? He considers it an essential element in Hegelian philosophy—indeed, it is fair to say that he emphasizes it, and resolves possible ambiguities in Hegel’s writings in favor of the assertion that history is over (as well as in favor of taking Hegel’s system as a whole as atheistic). The circle of dialectical development must be completed on two levels: the level of historical reality as humans live it; and the level of philosophic discourse that seeks to speak coherently about the world in which men live and about which they speak.

If, as Kojeve interprets Hegel to assert, the end of history is the universal and homogeneous state, can one plausibly claim that this end has been attained? Through at least 1946, Kojeve took a position like that of Marx: that the actual real attaining of that state still lay in the future. The clearest statement to that effect comes from an article published in 1946 entitled “Hegel, Marx, and Christianity.” The key passage is this:

If there has been from the beginning a Hegelian left and right, this is also all that there has been since Hegel. For if one abstracts from the remnants of the past which Hegel knew and described (“liberalism” included) . . . one observes that there has been strictly nothing outside of Hegelianism (whether conscious or not), whether on the plane of historical reality itself, or on that of such thought or discourse as has had historical repercussions.

In our time, as in the time of Marx, Hegelian philosophy is not a truth in the proper sense of the term: it is less the adequate discursive revelation of a reality, than an idea or an ideal, that is to say, a “project” which is to be realized, and therefore proved true, through action. . . .

One can therefore say that, for the moment, every interpretation of Hegel, if it is more than idle talk, is nothing but a program of struggle and one of work (and one of these “programs” is called Marxism). And this means that the work of an interpreter of Hegel takes on the meaning of a work of political propaganda. . . . It may be that, in fact, the future of the world, and therefore the meaning of the present and the significance of the past, depend, in the final analysis, on the way in which the Hegelian writings are interpreted today.[1]

This statement is quite clear, and compatible with the view that he stated during the last year of his course on Hegel (1938-1939), in the second of two lectures given the title “Philosophy and Wisdom,” that the universal and homogeneous state was not yet a reality; that therefore Hegel’s philosophy was not simply the truth; but that it was not thereby an error, but had the character of an ideal or a project which could become a truth through human action that transforms the real in accordance with the ideal (IRH 97-98). Kojeve thus seemed to argue for a more activist role of the philosopher than Hegel himself did.[2]

Kojeve went on to examine whether Hegel’s system of knowledge or wisdom at the end of history measured up to the criterion of circularity, and this, he says, is “infinitely more important.” “In the first case—end of History, perfect State—what is involved is a verification offact, that is to say, of something essentially uncertain. In the second—circularity—what is involved is a logical, rational analysis, in which no divergence of opinion is possible” (IRH 98).[3] Given the uncertainty connected with establishing matters of historical fact, it is not altogether surprising that Kojeve came to change his mind on the questions of whether the end of history has been attained. He gave a brief, jocular account of the evolution of his thinking about the end of history in an interview given shortly before his death and published shortly thereafter.[4] When he first read the Phenomenology of Spirit, he stated, he thought the notion of an end of history was nonsensical; but when he had come to understand the book, he considered it to be a philosophical insight of genius. At that time, he considered that Hegel was off by 150 years: the end of history was not Napoleon understood by Hegel, but Stalin understood by Kojeve—even though he had not had the advantage of seeing Stalin ride by under his window.[5] Later, however, he changed his mind on this key matter of fact: he considered that Hegel had been correct to assert that history ended in 1806. As he put it in the famous long footnote that he added to the second edition of Introduction a la lecture de Hegel, his observations in 1948 led him to understand that:

The Hegelian-Marxist end of History was not yet to come, but was already a present, here and now. Observing what was taking place around me and reflecting on what had taken place in the world since the Battle of Jena, I understood that Hegel was right to see in this battle the end of History properly so-called. In and by this battle the vanguard of humanity virtually attained the limit and the aim, that is, the end, of Man’s historical evolution. What has happened since then was but an extension in space of the universal revolutionary force actualized in France by Robespierre-Napoleon.

He went on to explain that all the subsequent wars and revolutions had simply had the effect of bringing “the backward civilizations of the peripheral provinces” into line with the most advanced “European historical positions.” And he stated that the process of eliminating vestiges of the prerevolutionary past is more advanced in the North American extensions of Europe than in Europe itself (IRH 160-161). Thus his later position seemed to affirm more strongly still his adherence to Hegel’s teaching as the final and true outcome of the history of philosophy.

But things are a bit more complicated than that, for to the same lecture on “Philosophy and Wisdom,” which raised the question of the end of history and called for examining whether Hegel’s system does in fact measure up to the criterion of circularity, Kojeve added this footnote:

It is not sufficient that the Phenomenology be circular: the Logic (or the Encyclopaedia) must be so too; and, what is much more important, the System in its entirety, that is to say, the entirety of the Phenomenology and the Encyclopaedia, must also be circular. Now, it is precisely there that the noncircularity of Hegel’s system is perfectly obvious. But here I can say so only in passing and without proof. (IRH 98)

Kojeve elsewhere indicated some very important disagreements with Hegel’s system. Most importantly, whereas Hegel had a monist ontology (in which the dialectical, identity/negativity/totality mode of being applied to nature as well as to the human world), Kojeve took a dualist position: he believed that the Hegelian dialectical ontology was definitively true and thus completed philosophy in regard to the human world, but that it cannot apply to nature (see esp., IRH 212-l5nl5). He rejected Hegel’s whole philosophy of nature, calling his physics “magical” (IRH 147n36).[6] At one point, he suggested that a fully satisfactory philosophical system might require the Hegelian dialectical ontology for the human, historical, world; Platonic for the geometric structure of the universe; Aristotelian for the biological realm; and Kantian for the physical or rather dynamic structure of the world (IRH 147n36).[7] Later, in a letter to Leo Strauss, he wrote about how he used to believe that the classical criterion of identity could apply to nature, but that he had now come to realize that our natural science is not discursive but only algorithmic, that is, a silence articulated in mathematics.[8] However that may be, Kojeve nonetheless continued to insist that Hegel ended the evolution of philosophy by transforming philosophy into a System of Knowledge. That system, however, clearly needs updating, and Kojeve devoted his philosophical leisure after the war to the project of producing such an updating.[9]

This attempt to update the Hegelian system of knowledge was never completed by Kojeve. He did write extensive introductions to the system, however, of which we have five volumes. The first volume, Le Concept, le Temps et le Discours, presents a preface, an overall introduction to the whole project, and the first two introductions to the system: a “First Introduction to the System of Knowledge: Psychological Introduction of the Concept (after Aristotle),” and a “Second Introduction to the System of Knowledge: Logical Introduction of Time (after Plato).”[10] Next comes the third introduction, which would have been a (“reasoned”) history of philosophy as a whole, from Thales to Hegel, and would have had the title: Historical introduction of the concept into time as philosophical introduction of time into the concept (the situation and role of Kant in the history of Philosophy. The first half of this third introduction consists of three volumes, with the title Essai d’une histoire raisonnee de laphilosophiepaienne, of which the first, Les Presocratiques, was published during the last year of Kojeve’s life, and the other two posthumously. The second half of the third introduction appears not to have been completed; what has been found and published is a volume on Kant.

The first half of Volume I: The Presocratics provides a general introduction to this third introduction, in which Kojeve develops first a “chrono-logical schema” of the types of philosophical positions and then a “chrono-logical schema” to show that the actual philosophers of history can appropriately be fitted into the logical schema. In many places along the way he notes that, in an introduction, he is showing but not proving (montrer, non pas demontrer) the final true account of philosophic discourse; the purpose is to prepare one for what is to follow in the third introduction proper, that is, the reasoned history of philosophy, which itself can be proven to be what Kojeve and Hegel claim it is only by the system of knowledge or system of wisdom itself. Only discursive Wisdom can demonstrate that philosophy has a definite meaning, against the argument of skeptical scientism that the so-called philosophy is nonsense or contre-sens.[11]

It seems strange that Kojeve considered that the Hegelian system of knowledge needed very substantial updating—and some of that would involve quite fundamental matters—and yet continued to assert that Hegel’s thought is the final and definitive philosophy or system of knowledge. The reason for this appears to be that he held that the basics of the Hegelian system completed, logically and historically, the evolution of philosophy. Just as in the real world he could claim that history was over, despite the enormous detailed tasks to be accomplished before a truly universal and homogeneous state exists in reality; so on the level of philosophical discourse, he could claim that Hegel’s system was basically final, despite the considerable philosophical work yet to be done to complete the system.[12]

But as Pierre Hassner has reminded us, one should not forget Kojeve’s playfulness, irony, delight in the most paradoxical formulation, and fondness for putting people on.[13] With these qualities in mind, one might take Kojeve’s claim to absolute wisdom as an exercise in the negation of Socratic irony. Socrates claimed to have no wisdom beyond knowledge of his ignorance. He considered wisdom regarding the whole of nature to be something divine, beyond the human, and his own knowledge of ignorance to be a merely human sort of wisdom. Kojeve claims with Hegel to have attained wisdom and thus to have moved from the human to the divine status. But the Kojevian wisdom, unlike Hegel’s, applies only to the historical human world (including the history of the development of sciences of nature); regarding the whole of nature itself, we gain power through mathematical algorithms but do not have discursive knowledge;[14] hence our place in the whole remains in a decisive sense mysterious to us. Rather than a claim to be taken with strict literalness, Kojeve’s claim to absolute or divine wisdom should perhaps be taken as a provocative way of bringing to light the strict criteria of what philosophy’s ultimate goal must be and affirming its possibility against the easy-going relativism so characteristic of the twentieth century. From this point of view, one would view Kojeve, as Strauss did, as still a philosopher.[15]

  • [1] Critique (nos. 3-4, 1946): 339-366. An English translation by Hilai! Gildenappeared in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 1 (no. 1, Summer1970): 21-42.
  • [2] And from one point of view, more activist than Marx. Although Marx urgedintellectuals to go over to the side of the proletariat, he also asserted that theproletarian revolution must happen in any event (the meaning for him of scientific rather than utopian socialism). Because Kojeve maintained that history is afree contingent process, he left a more evidently indispensable role in the realmof political action for philosophers.
  • [3] Kojeve must mean that in principle no difference of opinion is possible; in fact,as everyone knows, the Hegelian system is sufficiently difficult to understandthat scholars do indeed differ not only on its completeness but also on manyother aspects of what it means.
  • [4] “Entretien avec Gilles Lapouge: ‘Les Philosophes ne m’interessent pas, je cher-che des sages’,” La Quinzaine litteraire 53 (1-15 July 1968): 18-20. (“Interviewwith Gilles Lapouge: ‘Philosophers do not interest me, I am looking for wisemen’.”)
  • [5] As Hegel had witnessed Napoleon ride by under his window, in Jena.
  • [6] For a discussion of Kojeve’s engagement with physics, see James H. Nichols,Jr., Alexandre Kojeve: Wisdom at the End of History (Lanham, MD: Rowman &Littlefield, 2009), 16-19 and 101-105.
  • [7] In the typescript but not in the printed text, Kojeve went on to write: “But Iconfess I do not know how one could combine these conceptions which seemto exclude each other.” Emmanuel Patard, “Remarks on the Strauss-KojeveDebate and its Presuppositions,” in Modernity and What Has Been Lost: Considerations on the Legacy of Leo Strauss, eds. Pawel Armada and Arkadiusz Gornisie-wicz (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2011), 118.
  • [8] On Tyranny,256 (Kojeve’s letter of 19 September 1950).
  • [9] The title of a recent biography by Marco Filoni, Lephilosophe du dimanche: Lavie et la pensee d’Alexandre Kojeve, traduit de l’italien par Gerard Larche (Paris:Gallimard, Bibliotheque des Idees, 2010), reflects the fact that after the war,Kojeve’s work for the French ministry of finance as counselor in the Directiondes relations economiques exterieures left him time to engage in philosophy onlyon weekends. The novelist (and friend of Kojeve’s) Raymond Queneau dubbedhim “le philosophe du dimanche” (“the Sunday philosopher”) for this reason.But the reference to Sunday also makes one think of the day of rest after the sixdays’ work of creation is over, and so of Kojeve’s Hegelian view that the creativework of history had been completed. “Le philosophe du dimanche” likewise
  • [10] evokes one of Queneau’s novels in which the influence of Kojeve is especiallyprominent, Le dimanche de la vie; its title comes from a passage in which Hegeldiscusses Dutch paintings of everyday life: “C’est le dimanche de la vie qui egal-ise tout et qui eloigne toute idee du mal. Des hommes de si bonne humeur,qui se livrent de tout leur coeur a la joie, ne peuvent etre reellement mauvaisou meprisable.” (“It is life’s Sunday which makes everything equal and whichpushes away every idea of evil. Men of such good humor, who give themselvesover to joy with all their heart, cannot really be bad or contemptible.”) 27. Kojeve, Le Concept, le Temps et le Discours.
  • [11] Kojeve, Essai d’une histoire raisonnee: Les Presocratiques, 56. Many similar statements could be cited.
  • [12] Concerning the work of elaborating a dualist ontology, he suggests that Kantmade a start and that since then only Heidegger has posed the question. “As forthe dualist ontology itself, it seems to be the principal philosophic task of thefuture. Almost nothing has yet been done” (IRH 215).
  • [13] Pierre Hassner, “Le Phenomene Kojeve,” Commentaire (no. 128, Hiver 20092010): 877-879.
  • [14] Kojeve wrote to Strauss that “one can speak only about action; about nature, onecan only be [mathematically, aesthetically etc.] silent.” On Tyranny, 255-256(letter of 19 September 1950).
  • [15] On Tyranny, 185-186.
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