Roy Lotz's Reviews > Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit

Introduction to the Reading of Hegel by Alexandre Kojève
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it was ok
bookshelves: footnotes-to-plato, prose-style, introductions-and-textbooks

Generally speaking, there is a tendency to underestimate the difficulties of satisfaction and to overestimate those of omniscience.

Alexandre Kojève is easily one of the most influential thinkers of the last century. This is peculiar, considering that his reputation rests mainly on his interpretation of Hegel, an interpretation which he developed and propounded in a series of lectures in 1933-39. Many who attended these lectures—Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Lacan, to name just two—went on to be important intellectuals in their own right, reinterpreting Kojève’s ideas for their own purposes.

Kojève’s thinking extended beyond the lecture hall, shaping his whole intellectual milieu—deeply affecting Sartre, who may never have attended the lectures—and even extended to the United States. This was largely thanks to Leo Strauss, who sent his disciples to study under Kojève. One of these disciples was Allan Bloom—of The Closing of the American Mind fame—and, in turn, Bloom taught Francis Fukuyama, who heavily relied on Kojève for his controversial bestseller, The End of History and the Last Man. Once again, Kojève was influential.

It is too bad, then, that I found his most famous book to be of little merit. Frankly, I failed to see anything of serious interest in these pages: either as textual interpretation or as philosophy. Admittedly, the former did not surprise me. By common consent Kojève was a heterodox interpreter of Hegel, mixing Hegel’s ideas with those of Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger to create something quite different from what Hegel intended (whatever that was). But I did not expect this book to be so devoid of intellectual interest. Indeed, I am somewhat at a loss as to why or how it became so influential.

For one, Kojève’s writing style will be irksome to any who prize clarity and concision. He is boorishly repetitious, persistently vague, and pompously obscure. Every other word—when it isn’t an unnecessary foreign expression—is capitalized, italicized, wrapped in scare-quotes, or set aside in parentheses, as if simple words and commas were not enough to convey his subtle message. Meanwhile, his meaning, stripped of its pretentious shell, is either a banal truism, nonsense, or obviously wrong. This, by the way, is so often the case with turgid writers that I have grown to be deeply suspicious of all obscurity. In academic circles, dense prose is easily self-serving.

I cannot make these accusations without some demonstration. Here is Kojève on work: “Work is Time, and that is why it necessarily exists in time: it requires time.” Or Kojève on being: “Concrete (revealed) real Being is neither (pure) Identity (which is Being, Sein) nor (pure) Negativity (which is Nothingness, Nichts) but Totality (which is Becoming, Werden).” Another insight on the nature of existence:
One can say, then, that Being is the being of the concept “Being.” And that is why Being which is (in the Present) can be “conceived of” or revealed by the Concept. Or, more exactly, Being is conceived of at “each instant” of its being. Or else, again: Being is not only Being, but also Truth—that is, the adequation of the Concept and Being. This is simple.

Very simple.

As I said above, Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel is distinctly implausible. Kojève sees the Master-Slave dialectic as the key to Hegel’s whole system, whereas it is only one stage in Hegel’s Phenomenology, and Hegel does not frequently refer back to it. This focus on the issue of subjection, alienation, recognition, and work allows Kojève to read Hegel as a quasi-Marxist. Kojève also has lots of things to say about space, time, mortality, and freedom, most of which is derived from Heidegger and which are totally alien from Hegel’s thought. Kojève’s originality is not in any ideas unique to him, but to the conglomeration of these German philosophers that he conveys in these lectures.

I found all this to be academically slipshod. The attempt to make Hegel into a quasi-existentialist, deriving freedom from the cognizance of death, is especially unconvincing: Hegel was anything but an existentialist. Generally speaking there are not nearly enough citations of Hegel, nor is there any discussion whatever of Hegel’s background, development, or intellectual influences. Thus as an introduction to Hegel, the text is basically useless.

Even more intellectually irresponsible is his habit of deferring to Hegel’s text right when any argument is necessary. Statements like these are common: “Once more, I am not concerned with reproducing this deduction here, which is given in the entirety of the first seven chapters of the Phenomenology. But I shall say that it is irrefutable.” He does this quite often, merely asserting something and than insisting that, to prove it, one must read and understand the whole Phenomenology of Spirit. (This habit of deferring to infallible texts, by the way, is a typical move in religious arguments, and has no place in philosophy.) As a result, this book is one bloated series of unfounded assertions—seldom citing the text or providing anything resembling an argument—which makes it worse than useless.

Now, in case you think I am being overly harsh, let me quote one section where he does seem to be making an argument:
Let us consider a real table. This is not a Table ‘in general,’ nor just any table, but always this concrete table right here. Now, when ‘naive’ man or a representative of some science or other speaks of this table, he isolates it from the rest of the universe: he speaks of this table, without speaking of what is not this table. Now, this table does not float in empty space. It is on this floor, in this room, in this house, in this place on Earth, which Earth is at a determined distance from the Sun, which has a determined place within the galaxy, etc., etc. To speak of this table without speaking of the rest, then, is to abstract from this rest, which in fact is just as real and concrete as this table itself. To speak of this table without speaking of the whole of the Universe which implies it, or likewise to speak of this Universe without speaking of this table which is implied in it, is therefore to speak of an abstraction and not of a concrete reality.

This argument is part of Kojève’s general thesis that only holistic knowledge (which he calls “circular”) is true “Knowledge.” Putting aside the dreary, bombastic pointing out of the obvious—made to seem non-obvious with the use of insistent italics—this passage, insofar as it makes any point at all, is obviously incorrect. Kojève is saying that it is impossible to refer to concrete reality without having a complete, total knowledge (knowing everything about the table involves knowing everything about everything). This is false. To show this, as well as to demonstrate that philosophy need not always be written so badly, I will quote Bertrand Russell:
The fact is that, in order to use the word ‘John’ correctly, I do not need to know all about John, but only enough to recognize him. No doubt he has relations, near and remote, with everything in the universe, but he can be spoken of truly without taking them into account, except such as are the direct subject-matter of what is being said. He may be the father of Jemima as well as James, but it is not necessary for me to know this in order to know that he is the father of James.

Now, if this book were truly as devoid of value as I am making it out to be, it would lead to the question of how it became to popular and influential. Well, I can only guess. Perhaps Kojève’s dazzling obscurity, along with his sexy combination of the works of Marx and Heidegger—the two most influential thinkers in France at that time—allowed him to touch the Zeitgeist, so to speak. The attempt to reconcile a philosophical understanding of freedom and death (taken from Heidegger) with an understanding of oppression, historical progress, and work (taken from Marx and ultimately Hegel), may have given Kojève’s students an exciting impetus in the hectic days after the Second World War, when Europe was busy rebuilding itself. To any Kojève enthusiasts out there, please do let me know what you see in him. I remain blind.
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Reading Progress

March 2, 2015 – Shelved
March 2, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
June 2, 2016 – Shelved as: footnotes-to-plato
Started Reading
June 25, 2017 – Finished Reading
June 26, 2017 – Shelved as: prose-style
October 12, 2017 – Shelved as: introductions-and-textbooks

Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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message 1: by Matt (new)

Matt "scare-quotes". I love that :)

message 2: by Roy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Roy Lotz Matt wrote: ""scare-quotes". I love that :)"

Then you'll love Kojève!

message 3: by Matt (new)

Matt Roy wrote: "Matt wrote: ""scare-quotes". I love that :)"

Then you'll love Kojève!"

No, no. I love the name you gave it, not the thing itself.

message 4: by Roy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Roy Lotz Ah, unfortunately I can't take credit for the name! It's a common expression in American English.

ἀρχαῖος (arkhaîos)(RK) It arrived in the mail last week!!! Now what am I to do? The book which is on my shelf, "the book", is not the "same book" which you have read but I believe it "to be" "identical" in content with "the book" which you just panned in "the review". Damn. Thanks Roy.

message 6: by Roy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Roy Lotz Many people "like" it and Some People "love" (lieben) the "book" (das Buch).

message 7: by Christopher (new) - added it

Christopher Huge time saver, I'll likely give this one a miss completely. I'd been tipped that this is not the Hegel companion that does the best to demystify Hegel...any recommendations?

message 8: by Roy (last edited Jun 26, 2017 12:26PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Roy Lotz Christopher wrote: "Huge time saver, I'll likely give this one a miss completely. I'd been tipped that this is not the Hegel companion that does the best to demystify Hegel...any recommendations?"

Unfortunately, there is not any non-controversial interpretation of Hegel. I have heard many excellent things about Terry Pinkard's The Legacy of Idealism, but I haven't read it yet. I thought the Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer and the chapter on Hegel in Frederick Copleston's History of Western Philosophy were quite helpful, although their interpretations are somewhat "traditional" (not that this is necessarily bad). But I think the biggest help was just reading most of the relevant philosophers who influenced and were influenced by Hegel. Hegel is a dish best served last, if served at all. I also recommend starting with Hegel's Philosophy of History, which is considerably easier than the Phenomenology.

message 9: by Brad (new)

Brad Lyerla I am taking this book off my list. Copleston and the Very Short books are more my speed anyway. Thanks.

message 10: by Roy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Roy Lotz Thanks for reading!

message 11: by Brad (new)

Brad Lyerla I marked it as 'to read', but feel conflicted after Roy's review.

Elenabot Generally, I admire the insightfulness of your reviews. However, I am not sure about this one. I have found many of these same criticisms levelled at Heidegger, and usually it boils down to nothing more than our being indoctrinated into the stylistic and methodological assumptions of the Anglo-American Analytic tradition as to what constitutes clarity, rigor, and good style. Our aesthetic assumptions lead us to be uncharitable with thinkers who clearly favour a style that fuses philosophy with literary modes of expression. I finally get to read Kojeve's work for myself, and so I shall see if your intuition that his turgidity conceals a vacuity of meaning, or if, instead, it is a matter of irreconcilable assumptions about what philosophy ought to look like that leads you to be so uncharitable.

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