A Parisian optician’s window display, 1936. Photo by Herbert List/Magnum


The scar of identity

Alexandre Kojève was an immense influence on many French thinkers. What was so compelling about his lectures on Hegel?

by Samantha Rose Hill + BIO

A Parisian optician’s window display, 1936. Photo by Herbert List/Magnum

It may well be that the future of the world, and thus the sense of the present and the significance of the past, will depend in the last analysis on contemporary interpretations of Hegel’s work.
– from Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1947) by Alexandre Kojève
The incomprehensible in Hegel is the scar left by identity-thinking.
– from Hegel: Three Studies (1963) by Theodor Adorno

Paris, France, 1933. The French newspaper Le Figaro reads: ‘It’s a wick to a barrel of powder’ beneath the headline ‘Hitler Is the New Master of Germany’. Terror sets in. The far-Right is growing. The economy is suffering. There is mass unemployment. There are workers’ strikes. Fascism begins appealing to the middle classes. In Berlin, Stormtroopers are patrolling the streets. The Gestapo is detaining people and murdering them in cellars. Refugees from Germany arrive by train daily looking for asylum. Between 1933 and 1938, more than 80,000 politicians, philosophers, communists and liberals flee from Germany to France. There is anti-German sentiment. There are anti-immigrant protests.

But intellectual life is flourishing in the cafés, institutes and academies, as refugees forge community in exile. And at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, one of France’s most prestigious research universities, Alexandre Kojève has taken over Alexandre Koyré’s seminar on The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) by G W F Hegel. Between 1933 and 1939, Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, André Breton, Gaston Fessard, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Éric Weil, Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, Raymond Queneau, Emmanuel Levinas all come to hear his lectures. A collection of the most renowned thinkers of the day, who would come to lay the intellectual foundations for 20th-century philosophy, political thought, literature, criticism, psychology and history. It is said that Kojève’s lectures were so intricate, so deft, that Arendt accused him of plagiarising. Bataille fell asleep. Sartre couldn’t even remember being there.

How is it that Kojève, this obscure figure of history, came to influence an entire generation of thinkers at this pivotal moment? How is it that his ideas continue to fuel political and cultural debates today around identity, individualism, liberal democracy and the end of history?

Biographies of Kojève are scarce. Russian-born, aristocrat, nephew of the acclaimed artist Wassily Kandinsky, French civil servant, early architect of the European Union, philosophy professor, Vedanta scholar, polymath, French resistance fighter, Soviet spy? Kojève’s life is almost too cinematic to seem real, like someone from a John le Carré novel brought to life, or the embodiment of one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s characters.

Born Aleksandr Vladimirovich Kozhevnikov in Moscow in 1902, there is little question that Kojève is one of the most important thinkers for understanding our contemporary world. Most popular pieces written about him, which appear every few years as new details of his life emerge, begin the same way: it is difficult to overstate the legacy of Kojève’s work. But then, he disappears again, into the subterranean layers of popular consciousness, intellectual history, and those who study Hegel.

Fleeing the Soviet Union after the revolution in 1920 through Poland to Germany, Kojève lived in Berlin and then Heidelberg where he wrote his dissertation under the direction of Karl Jaspers on the Russian philosopher, poet and theologian Vladimir Soloviev. (Soloviev, who had been influenced by Hegel, argued that all notions of thought could be contained in a transcendental whole.) Kojève changed his name when he moved to Paris in 1926 where he continued his studies until 1929, when the stock market crash left him in financial ruin and looking for work. It was chance that Koyré invited him to take over the Hegel seminars in 1933, which were to run for one year only, and ended up lasting six. And in 1941, after the German invasion, Kojève fled to Marseilles where he lived until he was asked to join the French economic minister’s office, helping to shape economic policy as an adviser in the construction of the postwar French government. Conscripted into the French army, Kojève never fought in the war. One author writes: ‘[H]e mysteriously failed to join his regiment.’ Another claims he joined the French Resistance. And an article in Le Monde from 2000 citing a three-page memo asserted that he was a Soviet spy for the last 30 years of his life.

Kojève confessed to having read Hegel several times in his life without understanding a word

Described by colleagues as charming, secretive and terrifying – was Kojève a protagonist or an antagonist? The record has not been settled. Was he a Soviet spy? Did he fight in the French Resistance? What did he mean when he wrote that he was ‘Stalin’s conscience’? Why was he sending letters to Stalin? Did philosophy really come to an end with Hegel? And why was it that, at this particular moment in history, against the backdrop of unfolding political catastrophe, everyone was reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit?

The French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir dedicated afternoons in the Bibliothéque Nationale (the French National Library) to reading the Phenomenology. She wrote in her diary:

I continued to read Hegel, whom I was beginning to understand. In the details, the richness of his thought overwhelmed me: but the system overall made me dizzy. Yes, it was tempting to cancel oneself out in favour of the Universal, to consider one’s own life from the End of History …

Hegel’s text was so popular that, had Beauvoir tried to check out the book a few months earlier, she would have found it in the hands of the 20th-century cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who was at work on his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’.

Kojève had discovered the work of Hegel in Germany during his student days with Jaspers, and like others was captivated by the impenetrability of the Phenomenology. To be fair, Hegel’s work is notoriously opaque. His last words reportedly were: ‘Only one has understood me, and even he did not understand.’ Theodor Adorno, a difficult writer himself, said: ‘Hegel is no doubt the only one with whom at times one literally does not know, and cannot conclusively determine, what is being talked about, and with whom there is no guarantee that such a judgment is even possible.’ The philosopher Bertrand Russell remarked that Hegel was ‘the hardest to understand of the great philosophers’. And when Kojève agreed to take over Koyré’s seminar, he confessed himself to having read Hegel several times in his life without understanding a word.

But Hegel’s opacity has never stopped people from interpreting his work, finding it insightful, inspiring and infuriating in equal measure. In one anecdote, the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre remarked of the Phenomenology: ‘Hegel had the mental age of a seven-year-old.’ The literary critic Maurice Blanchot wrote: ‘One cannot “read” Hegel, except by not reading him.’ Meaning, even if you have never read Hegel, you’ve encountered his ideas recycled in the thinking of others; as impenetrable as Hegel might seem, his work has thoroughly penetrated collective consciousness.

The opacity of Hegel’s Phenomenology avails itself to promiscuous interpretation, but no reading has been so seductive as Kojève’s. We find his interpretation of Hegel reflected in the work of a diverse array of thinkers from Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom and Francis Fukuyama to Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben and Judith Butler. Reading Kojève reading Hegel has become an academic business in itself. Indeed, Blanchot’s comment might be reworded to read: one cannot read Hegel today, except by reading Kojève.

Why has Kojève’s reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology exerted such force of influence across disciplines and political lines?

The short answer is that Kojève made Hegel accessible by bringing to the surface one of the essential elements of his work: desire. Kojève did not deny he was providing a reading of Hegel that transformed the text. His interpretation has been described as ‘creative’, ‘outrageous’ and ‘violent’. The question Kojève placed at the centre of his lectures was: ‘What is the Hegelian person?’ And he answered this question through a discussion of human desire by centring a brief section in the Phenomenology titled ‘Independence and Dependence of Self-consciousness: Lordship and Bondage’, which is popularly rendered as ‘the master/slave dialectic’. And by centring this nine-page section of a 640-page work, Kojève offered readers a way to grasp an otherwise elusive text.

Poetic in its opacity, perplexing in its terminology, Hegel’s work offers an understanding of the evolution of human consciousness where the finite mind can become a vehicle for the Absolute. But what does that mean? Kojève took the lofty prose of Hegel down from the heavens and placed it in human hands, offering a translation: this is a book about human desire and self-consciousness. Or, as the philosopher Robert Pippin writes:

Kojève, who basically inflates this chapter to a free-standing, full-blown philosophical anthropology, made this point by claiming that for Hegel the distinctness of human desire is that it can take as its object something no other animal desire does: another’s desire.

What was Kojève’s reading of the master/slave dialectic?

In Kojève’s reading, human beings are defined by their desire for recognition, and it is a desire that can be satisfied only by another person who is one’s equal. On this reading, Kojève unfolds a multi-step process: two people meet, there is a death-match, a contest of the wills between them, and whoever is willing to risk their life triumphs over the other, they become the master, the other becomes a slave, but the master is unable to satisfy his desire, because they’re recognised only by a slave, someone who is not their equal. And through the slave’s work to satisfy the master’s needs, coupled with the recognition of the master, ultimately the slave gains power.

As Kojève put it: ‘Desire is the presence of absence

What is essential for Kojève is that one risk their life for something that is not essential. The one who shrinks before the other in fear of death becomes the slave. The one willing to die – to face the inevitability of their own non-existence – becomes the master. In other words, desire is an exertion of the will over an other’s desire. Or, as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would come to say: ‘Desire is the desire of the Other’s desire.’ It is not an attempt to possess the other person physically, but to force the other person in that moment of contest to make the other give, to bend their will, in order to achieve superiority. And in this moment, Kojève writes: ‘Man will risk his biological life to satisfy his nonbiological Desire.’ In order to gain recognition in this sense, one must be willing to risk everything – including their life. It is a struggle for mastery of the self.

Instead of Hegel’s roundabout of self-consciousness that exists in itself and for itself but always and only in relation to another, Kojève gives us: self-consciousness is the I that desires, and desire implies and presupposes a self-consciousness. Thinking about the relation between the finite mind and Absolute knowledge is opaque, but desire is human. People know what it feels like to desire, to want, to crave to be seen, to feel understood. Desire is the hunger one feels to fill the absence inside themselves. Or, as Kojève put it: ‘Desire is the presence of absence.’

And it is not a consuming desire – it cannot consume the object of desire, because desire directed toward another person is a desire for recognition, and to consume them would be to negate, destroy, the possibility for that recognition. We need each other to go on existing. Or, as the author Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace (1947): ‘The beautiful is that which we desire without wishing to eat it.’ Or, as the poet Anne Carson in ‘Tango XXIX’ (2001): ‘To say Beauty is Truth and stop. / Rather than to eat it. / Rather than to want to eat it.’

Perhaps most importantly, what Kojève understood was the extent to which we humans desire to exercise some control over how other people see us differently from the ways in which we see ourselves. However tenuous or certain our sense of self-identity may seem, it is our very sense of self that we must risk when we appear in the world before others – our identity, desire, fear and shame. There is no guarantee that we will be seen in the way we want to be seen, and feeling misrecognised hurts when it happens, because it wounds our sense of self. But this risk is vital – it is part of what makes us human, it is part of our humanity. And whereas Kojève’s reading drives toward an ideal of social equality that affirms one’s preexisting sense of self when confronted by an other, for Hegel, one must take the other’s perception of the self – whatever it may be – back into their own self-consciousness. In other words, whereas for Hegel freedom rested upon the ability to preserve difference, for Kojève it rested upon the ability to preserve one’s own identity at the expense of difference.

In bringing the lofty language of Hegel down from the heavens, Kojève offered readers a secular understanding of human action, which requires each and every individual to reckon with the inevitability of their own death, their own undoing. And in doing so he shifted the focus toward the individual as the locus of social change, where history unfolds toward an aristocratic society of equals, where all difference is destroyed. Influenced by Karl Marx’s account of class struggle as the engine of history, and Martin Heidegger’s understanding of being-toward-death, Kojève’s reading of the master/slave dialectic presents another form of contest between oppressor and oppressed, where mastery over another in order to master oneself becomes the means to equality, and ultimately justice within society. Kojève adopted the master/slave dialectic in order to develop what Michael Roth called ‘a schema for organising change over time’, to think about the movement of history. And the master/slave dialectic unfolds at the level of the individual and the level of society, where the self gains recognition as a desiring subject through the endless battle for recognition that is appearing in the world with others, and the level of society where all past historical movements will be judged within a framework of right, which is the end of history.

This has been in part the legacy of Kojève. Influenced by Kojève’s reading of the master/slave dialectic, Sartre argued in Being and Nothingness (1943) that man’s freedom is found in negation. In The Second Sex (1949), Beauvoir turned to Kojève to think about women’s oppression in relation to man and the need for intersubjective recognition. Lacan’s ‘mirror-stage’ follows Kojève’s reading of Hegel to understand the role of desire as a lack in the formation of human subjectivity. Bataille turned to Kojève to argue that one could experience full self-sovereignty only in a moment of pure negation. For Foucault, it led to the belief that there is no desire free from power-relations – his central theme. And for Fukuyama, this historical contest of wills evolving along a linear temporal plane toward an equal and just society has become the much-mocked ‘end of history’ thesis – the idea that Western liberal democracy has evolved as the final form of human government in the postwar world. The postwar world Kojève himself helped to shape, before his untimely death in 1968. Ultimately, Fukuyama’s thesis captures the difference between Hegel and Kojève’s Hegel: for Kojève, the ideal of universal equality won through an endless battle for recognition was always an individualist notion that required domination when confronted by otherness. But for Hegel, human freedom could be won only through collectivity by embracing the opacity of otherness that we are constantly confronted with in ourselves, and in the world with others. It is an acceptance of that fact that self-mastery will always remain an illusion.

When Kojève was 15 years old, he was arrested and condemned to death for selling soap on the black market in Moscow. But, like Dostoyevsky, at the last possible moment, he was spared by the firing squad, because his uncle, a personal physician to Lenin, intervened at the request of his mother. Marched out to face death, one can only try to imagine what happens to a man in that moment, when he is tied to a post and the guns are raised. The story almost feels apocryphal, as though written to convey the intensity with which Kojève understood the battle between two wills in a contest for power to the death. Perhaps less quixotically, it illustrates what lies at the heart of Kojève’s work – one can never really know in advance how history will unfold, if it unfolds at all, and all we human, desiring subjects have is our ability to act within some historical context.