Friday, 9 March 2012

Our review of a biography of Alexandre Kojève

This is a review of Marco Filoni's The Sunday Philosopher, the most recent biography of French Hegel scholar Alexandre Kojève (1902-68), which supplements the work of Dominique Auffret on the same subject. The review was originally posted on the email list in 2011:

Le Philosophe du Dimanche

Alexandre Kojève (above) gave some very influential lectures on Hegel's  Phenomenology of Spirit in Paris in the 1930s that were later published as  Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1946) though he later worked as a  senior Eurocrat. Other of his writings have been published in French over  the last 20-odd years. I have just finished reading Marco Filoni's The  Sunday Philosopher: the Life and Thought of Alexandre Kojève which first  appeared in Italian in 2008 (and now as Le Philosophe du Dimanche. Paris: Gallimard, 2010) - Italians produce quite a lot of work on the history of  philosophy these days, probably for reasons of funding and training - and here is a review of it.

It was interesting for me to find  out more about a philosopher who wasn't an academic. I also felt the same  sense from Kojève that I got from Hegel originally that something important  is being said. I'm not sure what this consists of. Some philosophy is important because it is the ideology of an influential group: Rawls' Theory of Justice for example, is important because it's a principal ideology of the American political-military class. Then there are places where important things are traditionally said: in Europe, the Sorbonne is one of these, but of course much that is said there is ephemeral. Then there is literary influence: Kojève influenced existentialism and Sartre was one of his hearers. Over and above all that though, the content of what is being said somehow holds your attention as identifying and shifting the ideas that  you and others live your life by.

Here are some of the main points I drew from the book:

Who was Alexandre Kojève?

Alexandre Kojève (1902-68) was brought up in well-off bourgeois circles in pre-Soviet Russia near Moscow with connections to the salon culture of the ruling aristocracy. If you know Tolstoy, you know that these people typically learnt French and Kojève also had some German. There had been receptions of Comte's positivism in Russia in the 1870s (think Lenin's Materialism and Empirico-Criticism as a response) as part of a modernising push and Nietzsche thereafter, but by the early 1900s there was a shift in interest to religion, meaning orthodox Christianity and Buddhism. The leading Russian philosophers of the say were Merejowski, who wrote a book on Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Leon Shestov and Vladimir Soloviev. Kojève later wrote a doctoral thesis on Soloviev. Apparently Dostoyevsky had read Kant on free will. Kojève had a developed interest in Buddhism and knew some Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese.

Kojève fled Russia at the time of the red terror and studied in Germany for several years before settling in France by 1926 where he knew Alexandre Koyré who had moved from Russia to France in 1911 and also wrote an important essay on Hegel. He became a French citizen in 1937, shortened his
name from Kojevnikov to Kojève and worked as a Eurocrat for France till his death. Unfortunately, Filoni's narrative peters out around 1945 at the  start of this. From this time, Kojève became the philosophe du Dimanche of the title and many of his manuscripts have been published only since his  death.

The context of the lectures on Hegel

One of Filoni's achievements is to put Kojève's lectures on Hegel in the context of his other work that was unpublished until recently. This includes a long essay on Atheism (1931) that preceded the course on Hegel. I found this disappointing as Kojève had a fairly deep religious sensibility and his 'atheist' conclusion doesn't seem worthy of the amount of thought that had gone into it. In fact, he says at one point that he is 'both atheist and theist' (for God is an object of thought, but is not a 'something'). Part of the explanation is Kojève's interest in Buddhism. He conceives of God as 'other' than the world and then identifies this 'other' (arbitrarily, it seems to me) with 'nothing' rather than 'something' (two subordinate Hegelian categories, you note). However, it does have the merit of focussing Kojève's attention on the world of mankind where we live and act and have our being.

One of the main influences he took out of Germany was that of Heidegger, particularly Being and Time (1926) and his reading of Hegel stresses themes found in Heidegger: desire (Begierde in Hegel, Sorge in Heidegger), work (verstehen-comprehension in Hegel and Arbeit in Heidegger) and anxiety (present in Heidegger's Angst and implicit in Hegel's struggle to death). The equivalences are only approximate of course. Despite this, Kojève's reading of Hegel was Marxist and he even described it as propaganda.

In the lectures, Kojève identified the 'end of history' with the advent of Napoleon, thereby bowing to his adopted homeland. According to Filoni though, he described Stalin for a time as 'Napoleon industrialised'. After the war, he worked on European reconstruction with the elements of  liberalism and paternalism that gave rise to the modern European Union. In  literature, he said, there is only success, but in administration there is  achievement. Filoni observes that Kojève lectured also on Pierre Bayle in  the 1930s and interpreted his scepticism as the result of the birth of the  market economy and the privatisation of literary activity. This was highly  interesting but pretty unconvincing, I thought. The manuscript on Bayle has  now also been published.

After the war, he corresponded with German legal philosopher Carl Schmitt and prior to that, wrote a Sketch of a Phenomenology of Law (1943, also posthumously published). He knew Schmitt's Concept of the Political (1926), but where Schmitt is more Hobbesian, Kojève follows Locke and sees the dispassionate observer of the struggle between two parties as the source of law (this sounds a bit like Adam Smith, BTW).


I think Kojève's interpretation of Hegel is still worth studying and Filoni  fleshes out its religious and political context, most importantly the essay  on Atheism that preceded it and the Marxist Heideggerian content. It is  still alive in popular culture through the 'end of history' slogan that  Francis Fukayama popularised and as the ideological underpinning of the  European Union that Kojève worked on along with Jean Monnet. It's practical  significance is broader than just French intellectual history in other  words.

Of course there has been a lot of work on Hegel since Kojève and his French contemporary Jean Hyppolite died in 1968, but a lot of this lacks the sense of public significance that Kojève put across and presents itself as purely 'academic', as contributing to a futile task of documentation as an end-in-itself. (A leading contemporary French Hegelian is Bernard Bourgeois and I am thinking perhaps unfairly of the two Cambridge collections of Anglophone Hegel scholars edited by Frederick Beiser.)

So the book has just been revisiting the ambitions of my youth in a way, but I'd still recommend Filoni's book as possible stepping stone to future manifestations of intellectual vitality in philosophical anthropology and European cultural history that draws inspiration from Hegel and his interpreters.

Marco Filoni outlines some of Kojève's main ideas and themes in this youtube video: