Geoff Boucher at "Legacy of Hegel" Seminar, 20 November 1998

History and Desire in Kojève


Introduction: Impact and Significance of Kojève
Displacement One: Marx, History and Desire
Displacement Two: Heidegger, Death and Recognition
Displacement Three: Hegel on History and Method
Conclusion: Dialectical Method

Introduction: The Impact of Kojève

"Now, we have seen that the presence of Time (in which the future takes primacy) in the real World is called Desire (which is directed towards another Desire), and that this desire is specifically human desire, since the Action that realises it is Man's very being. The real presence of Time in the World is therefore called Man. Time is Man, and Man is Time. … Therefore the natural reality implies Time only if it implies a human reality. Now, Man essentially creates and destroys in terms of the idea that he forms of the Future. And the idea of the Future appears in the real present in the form of a desire directed towards another Desire - that is, in the form of a Desire for social Recognition. Now, Action that arises from this Desire engenders History. Hence, there is Time only where there is History. … On the last page of the Phenomenology, Hegel says, time is history whereas nature is space. … But in his other writings Hegel is less radical. In them, he admits the existence of a cosmic time. But in so doing, Hegel identifies cosmic time and historical time. This, I believe, was his basic error." (pp 133, 147)

Hegel's "basic error," according to Alexandre Kojève, was his conflation of natural and historical time, and Kojève sets out to rectify this mistake. In doing so, he produces one of the most influential interpretations of Hegel since Marx - not least because of his insistence on the need for a 'return to Hegel'. "Kojève," argues Allan Bloom in the introduction to Kojève's Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, "is the most thoughtful, the most learned, the most profound of those Marxists who … turned to Hegel as the truly philosophic source of [Marx's] teaching." It is not an exaggeration to say that Kojève's lectures at the Sorbonne (1934-1939) influenced an entire generation of French thought, including Sartre and Lacan. Kojève reads Hegel, 'after Heidegger' and finds Hegel's ontology of nature indefensible, suggesting that Heidegger's meditation on Being may be a substitute for it. The key text in Kojève's Introduction is the appendix, "The Idea of death in the philosophy of Hegel". Here Kojève expresses his judgement that "the 'dialectical' or anthropological philosophy of Hegel is in the final analysis a philosophy of death" and that "the wise man can speak of science as his science only to the extent that he can speak of death as his death". The potential complementarity of Hegel and Heidegger's work on this point lies at the basis of the extraordinary centrality of the master-slave dialectic to French thought since WWII. In the words of a contemporary reviewer, "Kojève was the first to have attempted the intellectual and moral threesome of Hegel, Marx and Heidegger which has since that time been such a great success".[1]

Kojève wants to work three displacements on Hegel's Phenomenology.

For Kojève, the thesis of the end of history is the only way to have absolute knowledge (the final and immutable truth) and a thorough-going historicism, at the same time. This leads to Kojève's last - and most interesting - assertion, that "Hegel's method is not at all dialectical … Hegel was the first to abandon Dialectic as the philosophical method".

Although I disagree with Kojève, I think all these displacements are necessary. So I want to argue that either Kojève makes a botch of the job (the first two displacements), or that he illustrates precisely why Hegel's dialectical method has to be itself historicised - rather than 'returned to'.

Displacement One: Marx (The Master-Slave Dialectic)

In his brilliant and influential Introduction, Kojève makes his treatment of the Phenomenology revolve around Hegel's great set-piece, Lordship and Bondage, which Kojève renders as "master and slave". It is no accident that Kojève begins with a quotation from Marx: "Hegel … grasps labour as the essence of man," and then places his own heavily glossed version of the master-slave dialectic at the start of his Introduction so that this chapter governs the work as a whole. This is consonant with Kojève's statement that the master-slave dialectic is the key to Hegel and that it "determined the whole of Marx's thought". Kojève's assertion is that: "in having discovered the notion of recognition, Hegel found himself in possession of the key idea of his whole philosophy. Also, it is through the analysis of this fundamental notion that one understands the role of the different aspects and elements of the Hegelian dialectic."

Kojève argues that for Hegel, human society and human 'discourse' began when men were first willing to risk their 'animal' and biological existence in a 'fight to the death for pure prestige,' for 'recognition' by 'the other'. The man who became master was willing to 'go all the way'. Yet although he master has the pleasure, they do not yet have the satisfaction of recognition by an equal: mastery is ultimately 'tragic' and 'an existential impasse'. It is the slave, who through work "negates given being" who overcomes the world: "the man who works transforms given being … where there is work there is necessarily change, progress, historical evolution". For work, according to Kojève's interpretation of Hegel, is education or development in a double sense: it transforms the world and also educates the slave.

So long as there is slavery - whether to master, god or capital - man will never truly be 'satisfied' or truly free, since true satisfaction and freedom come from being recognised as an equal by an equal, which is possible only in the universal, Hegelian state. As Kojève puts it, "the final struggle, which transforms the slave in to the citizen, suppresses mastery in a non-dialectical fashion: the master is simply killed, and he dies as a master. If idle mastery is an impasse, the future, by contrast, belongs to the laborious slave: Laborious slavery is the source of all human social historical progress. History is the history of the working slave."

The whole of "ideology" according to Kojève's interpretation of Hegel, "is a sort of ideal 'superstructure' which has a sense and a possibility of being only on the basis of a real 'infrastructure', formed by the totality of political and social struggles and of labours undertaken by man". This "aspect" of "the Hegelian dialectic" he concludes, "is materialist" and it actually "determined all of Marx's thought". But if Kojève stresses concepts that have Marxist resonances (work, struggle, ideology, and history as the history of the labouring slave), there is an important sense in which his employment of them is strictly non-Marxist.

In Marx, "men can be distinguished from animals … as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence." For Kojève, by contrast, humanity is distinguished from animal life by the struggle for recognition: "man is only human … insofar as he is 'recognised'". Moreover, this recognition is methodologically analytically prior to production, for it is the "struggle to the death for pure prestige" which the master and the slave enter freely, while work is imposed on the slave as a consequence of the slave's defeat. "Nothing," Kojève urges "pre-disposes the future conqueror to victory, as nothing pre-disposes the future vanquished to his defeat. It is by an absolute act of liberty that the adversaries create each other, in and through the struggle for prestige, freely entered into". For Kojève, it is recognition which lifts humanity from the animal world; for Marx, it is production.

Similarly, for Marx the socialist revolution means the end of the history of class struggle - which for Marx is the end of pre-history. Kojève, by contrast, emphasises revolution itself as the end of history. "Marx," Kojève maintains, "takes up … this Hegelian theme" in Capital Vol. III Chapter 48. "History properly speaking, where men ('classes') struggle between themselves for recognition and struggle against Nature through work," is for Marx "called the realm of necessity by Marx; beyond is situated the realm of freedom where men, recognising eachother mutually without reserve, no longer struggle and work as little as possible (nature being definitively subjugated)". Kojève, unsurprisingly, mentions recognition first and foremost - but what does Marx actually say?

In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus, in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. … Beyond [necessity] begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working day is its basic prerequisite.

Far from 'recognition' being the 'key idea' of this summary, and prior to work, Marx flatly says that the "realm of freedom" begins only where "labour which is determined by necessity … ceases". Freedom, for Marx, begins not simply with the suppression of the master, but with going beyond work determined by material necessity. But if work is determined by necessity, it is not something simply imposed by the master as an objectification of recognition. For Marx, production is primary; for Kojève it is secondary. Hyppolite (a left Hegelian with marxisant tendencies): "the struggle for life and death … is the root of history for Hegel, while the exploitation of man by man is only a consequence of it, this consequence serving on the other hand as Marx's point of departure."

This can be demonstrated by reference to the epigram Kojève cites as his introduction to his own Introduction. ("Hegel … grasps labour as the essence of man".) In Marx's text, however, the 'dot dot dot' is filled by a crucial qualification: "Hegel's standpoint is that of modern political economy. He grasps labour as the essence of man - man's essence in the act of proving itself: he sees only the positive, not the negative side of labour … The only labour which Hegel knows and recognises is abstractly mental labour … he is therefore able to present his philosophy as the philosophy". Hegel, then, not only draws on political economy - and does not simply "grasp labour as the essence of man" - but one-sidedly understands this by reducing labour to thought. This flatly contradicts Kojève's assertion that the "recognition" arising from the "master-slave" dialectic is the "key idea" in Hegel, and that this (materialist) side "determines the whole of Marx's thought".

Displacement Two: Heidegger (Death and Recognition)

Having abandoned Hegel's ontology of nature, Kojève is seeking for an existential basis for the phenomenon of the temporalisation of history. Because "the Concept is Time" and "man is Time," the basis for humanity's comprehension of the historical unfolding of the empirically existing concepts, which describe the real, is to be located in our existential experience. The key to this experience is the struggle for recognition; and the key to recognition is death as the possibility of the "absolute refusal of recognition". But for Kojève, Hegel's concept of 'death' is insufficiently distinguished from natural death.

The main point of Hegel's dialectic of recognition - as opposed to Heidegger's existential analysis whereby a Being individualised by its anticipation of death is considered, by virtue of its throwness, to be 'with-others' - is that "self consciousness exists for a self-consciousness". If this is true, then as a self-interpreting, self-conscious being, Being's individuality cannot be derived from its anticipation of death independently of its relations to others. Rather, Being must first, or simultaneously, be constituted as a self-conscious being through its relation with others, in a dialectic of recognition, in order that it may become the kind of being which is capable of anticipating its death as the end towards which it is thrown, and hence of constituting itself existentially as a being-towards-death. This disrupts the whole ontological problematic of being and time, for it challenges the foundational status of Heidegger's description of Dasein - a being for whom being is 'there' in the fundamentally inquisitive form of the question of the meaning of being - revealing it as a dogmatic presupposition of Heidegger's inquiry; the result of a prior commitment to 'the question of the meaning of being' which falls outside the scope of the inquiry's own critical procedures.

On the Hegelian model, being can only be 'there' in Heidegger's sense of presenting itself as the object of inquiry for a fundamentally self-interpreting entity, if this entity has previously been constituted as an entity of this kind, through a process of mutual recognition. Furthermore, it is only through this process of mutual recognition constitutive of Dasein's consciousness of itself as a self-interpreting being that Dasein can acquire a sense of death in the first place. The point for Hegelians is not only that Being is first and foremost a being-with-others, but that its being with others is constitutive of a death which, while ultimately grounded ontologically in our inscription within cosmological time, nonetheless derives its existential reality from the form of our relationship to it. Heidegger's analysis may register that it is by the deaths of others that that 'mineness' of death is confirmed, but it provides no account of whence this thing called 'death' comes, or what its existential anticipation has to tell us, ontologically, about the character of Being as a social being. In Hegel's analysis on the other hand, the dual priority of recognition over the anticipation of death appears explicitly in the depiction of the 'struggle for recognition' in which each must risk their life in order to be recognised by the other as a self-conscious being - the process leading up to the notorious master-slave dialectic.

The master and slave are allegorical forms, typifications of power relations inherent in the structure of recognition. What they mark is, on the one hand, the necessarily social character of all self-consciousness, and, on the other hand, the contradiction between dependence and independence that self-consciousness beings must consequently experience outside of an association 'in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all'; or, as Hegel puts it, 'an absolute substance which is the unity of the different independent self-consciousness which, in their opposition, enjoy perfect freedom and independence'.

The presentation of this struggle as a trial by death is somewhat obscure. In order to know itself as a consciousness, consciousness must know itself as both subject and object of knowledge at the same time. But without another self-consciousness, this is impossible, since any relation of consciousness to itself which is modelled on its relations to objects can only oscillate between an assertion of its independence from itself as the object of knowledge, and a supersession of this independence which establishes the self-certainty of the knowing subject only at the cost of demonstrating its dependence on the negated object: therefore "self-consciousness achieves its satisfaction (the satisfaction of its desire to supersede itself as an object) only in another consciousness."

The duplication of self-consciousness, their mutual recognition, and hence their mutual dependence (replacing dependence on an object) are thus all shown to be conditions of the possibility of self-consciousness, and hence, conditions of the possibility of Dasein as a self-interpreting being for whom being is in question.

The difficulty here lies in the concepts of life and death as used by Hegel; specifically in Hegel's use of death as the negation of life. Life, here is not used in the commonsense manner of physical existence. "Life' is the category which, at the beginning of chapter four of the PhG matches the reflective transition from consciousness to self-consciousness on the side of the object. Life is the "natural setting of consciousness" or what Hegel describes as "independence without negativity". When Hegel writes that the individual's "presentation of itself … as the pure abstraction of self-consciousness consists in showing … that it is not attached to 'life'" what this means is the consciousness must show that it is detached from its natural setting. Yet physical death is "the natural negation of consciousness, negation without independence, which thus remains without the required significance of recognition".

Now Hegel distinguishes between abstract negation - death in the physical sense - and dialectical negation, the negation that "preserves and cancels". This kind of negation is the kind performed by consciousness on its objects, and it is essentially epistemological in character. So in this context, it is clear that the 'negation' that occurs in the 'trial by death' is not the abstract negation of physical death, but the dialectical negation of the other's non-natural life - that is to say, the negation of their self-consciousness and independence.

Rather, insofar as this kind of literal negation of physical life is at issue here, it is present only in the 'staking of life' as an unrealised possibility. Consciousness requires a demonstration that the other is detached from the natural setting - this is furnished by the others staking of life in the free enactment of the possibility of literal, physical death. The freely embraced possibility of death symbolises the freedom of consciousness from the dictates of self-preservation. Pure being for itself manifests itself only as freedom for death. This is what one might call the existential core of the dialectic of recognition. It is in this sense that Kojève for, humanity is "death living a human life"" in achieving self-consciousness, the human being 'kills' the animal within themselves and supersedes their natural being. But this is already a shift to Hegel's second, metaphorical sense of death.

It is this second, metaphorical sense of death alone which is at issue in consciousness's seeking of the death of the other: what consciousness seeks when it desires the death of the other is its death as an independent consciousness. It is thus not the abstract negation of life that is at stake in the death which is sought, but a reduction to 'life', in Hegel's naturalistic sense. A social death: such is slavery, symbolic reduction of social to natural being. Slavery is social death. Conversely, the life won by the master is beyond mere 'life', hence Kojève's insistence that the struggle is one for "pure prestige".

In Hegel's own account, 'absolute negativity' or 'pure being for self' appears in the consciousness of the slave only in the form of the fear of death. A fear of death which is produced by the recognition of the independence of the other. Yet this recognition thereby makes consciousness aware of its own potential nothingness for the other - a nothingness it must project into the other (seeking the death of the other) if it is to establish itself as pure being for self. Pure self consciousness pure being for self thus reveals itself as a contradictory structure of misrecognition and disavowal.

In summary: self consciousness and the consciousness of death ore one and they both come from the other. They are the product of desire and they result in fear: fear of death as the fear of the refusal of recognition. In both the pervasiveness and indeterminacy, this fear is equivalent to Heidegger's existential concept of anxiety, an anxiety in the face of being in the world as such, which according to Heidegger, makes fear possible at all. However, where for Heidegger it is being's own freedom which is at stake, its character as pure possibility - to which anxiety returns it from its absorption in the world; for Hegel, it is the freedom of the other which inspires fear.

Anticipation of death, in Heidegger's existential sense, is to this extent a constitutive dimension of self-consciousness (and therefore social being). If temporality derives existentially from the anticipation of death (Heidegger) and death comes from the other (Hegel), so, it follows, does historical time. Existential temporality comes from the other. It is recognition which temporalises time. It is only self consciousness for which death has a meaning - for which death 'is' in Heidegger's sense - and self-consciousness is always socially mediated. Hegel's definition of death thus requires modification. Death is not just "the natural negation of consciousness, negation without independence", the literal, physical death with which Hegel begins. It is the natural or unnatural negation of a consciousness, negation without independence, which is both for itself and for others. For all its inherent mineness which cannot be denied, what death 'is' existentially, is mediated by relations to others - in Hegel's terms, the forms of objective spirit. Its analysis will form part of an ontology of social being.

The decision to substitute Heidegger's analysis of being for Hegel's ontology of nature, combined with the 'existential' decision to place the struggle for recognition before labour has an unwanted consequence in Kojève's reading of Hegel, let alone Marx. For Hegel, the struggle for recognition is profoundly social. Yet for Kojève (as for Heidegger) because the anticipation of death is located in the ontological structures of individual experience, death is profoundly a-social or pre-social. Kojève, despite his protestation at Hegel's "basic error", repeats Hegel's obscurity, supplementing it with a further problem: the existential deployment of death not as a social concept but as an individual reality prior to socialisation.

Displacement Three: Hegel on History and Method

Hegel shows that the desire that is directed towards another desire is necessarily the desire for recognition, which engenders History, and moves it. Time lasts only as long as history lasts - that is as long as human acts accomplished with a view to social recognition are carried out. (135) "As for time, it is the empirically existing concept itself": this sentence marks an extremely important date in the history of philosophy … those philosophers who do not identify the concept and time cannot give an account of history … the principle aim, then, of the reform introduced by Hegel was the desire to give an account of the fact of history. (132)

Yet the structure of the preceding two displacements makes this last consideration, on Hegel's view of history and methodology, come out very strangely indeed. Kojève's "wise man" is an existential Hegel, not a historical Hegel. That is why Kojève insists that: "the wise man can speak of science as his science only to the extent that he can speak of death as his death." (167) For Kojève, "Consciousness necessarily implies consciousness of death … history completes itself by man's perfect understanding of death".

Kojève links this to the dialectical character of Hegel's philosophy in remarkably consistent fashion. "Dialectic" according to Kojève involves action, negation, and therefore perturbation of the object. According to Kojève, Science perturbs the object … there is no scientific truth in the strong and proper sense of the term (177).

"The Hegelian method, therefore, is not at all dialectical: it is purely descriptive and contemplative, or better, phenomenological in Husserl's sense of the term. (171) If the thought and the discourse of the Hegelian scientist or the wise man are dialectical, it is only because they faithfully reflect the "dialectical movement" of the Real of which they are a part and which they experience by giving themselves to it without any preconceived method. (179) Hegel's method, then is not at all dialectical … Hegel was the first to abandon Dialectic as the philosophical method (179)."

"Accordingly, Hegel does not have to 'demonstrate' what he says, nor to refute what others have said. The demonstration and the refutation were effected before him, in the course of the History which preceded him, and they were effected not by verbal arguments, but in the final analysis by the proof of fighting and work. Hegel only has to record the final result of that "dialectical" proof and to describe it correctly. And since, by definition, the content of this description will never be modified, completed or refuted, one can say that Hegel's description is the statement of the absolute, or universally and eternally (ie necessarily) valid truth. All this presupposes, of course, the completion of the real Dialectic of fighting and of work, that is the definitive stopping of history. It is only "at the end of time" that a Wise man (who happened to be called Hegel) can give up dialectical method - that is, all real or ideal negation, transformation or critique of the given - and limit himself to describing the given (191)."

Conclusion: Dialectical Method

This conclusion is unavoidable. Yet it flows from an incomplete consideration of the arguments. Kojève lists a number of possible relationships between the concept and time, dismissing the non-historical relationships that had obtained in philosophy up until Hegel. This leaves only two possibilities:

The concept is time, and hence is related neither to time nor to eternity - this is Hegel's position.(102)

There is still [another] possibility. The concept is temporal. But this is no longer a philosophical possibility. For this type of (sceptical) though makes all philosophy impossible by denying the very idea of truth: being temporal the concept essentially changes: that is to say, there is no definitive knowledge, hence no true knowledge in the proper sense of the word. (102)

I would suggest that this latter is in fact the only way out of the end of history thesis. In the celebrated second preface to Capital, Marx insists that though in Hegel the (idealist) dialectic is "standing on its head" and "must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell" nonetheless in its rational form, Hegelian dialectics "includes in its comprehension an affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up." Demystified Hegelian dialectic is "revolutionary in its very essence critical and revolutionary," because it "regards every historically developed social form as a fluid movement and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence."

This suggests that the solution "the concept is temporal" is the path taken by Marx. But if this is the case, then extracting a dialectical method from Hegel can only proceed at the level of an historical critique of Hegel aimed not at producing eternal formulas but at inserting Hegel - and Marx - within an ongoing history of philosophy … one without a goal or an end.

Heidegger considers successful temporal self-fulfilment to be possible in the absence of device transcendence. Heidegger describes the anticipation of one's own future as a "Being- towards-death" , but he means that this anticipation of the "possibility of the measureless impossibility of existence" , which represents death, allows a kind of 'authentic' existence.

Rorty precis the basis of Being and Time as follows: "Heidegger would like to recapture a sense of what time was like before it fell under the spell of eternity, what we were before we became obsessed by the need for an overarching context which would subsume and explain us (...). To put it in another way: he would like to recapture a sense of contingency, of the fragility and riskiness of any human project (...)." This productive intention, continues Rorty, was undermined by Heidegger's absolution of authentic temporality and its fundamental ontological elucidation.

1 Alan Bloom, "Preface," to Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, pi.