On Kojève

It’s just plain bizarre that Matt Zeitlin and myself share an interest in Alexandre Kojève:

Chris Hayes mentions Alexandre Kojeve, the Russian-French Hegelian who is a key influence on Francis Fukuyama and his End of History thesis. Fukuyama develops the theoretical side of his argument — that liberal democracy is the fulfillment of human governmental evolution — using Kojeve’s idea that, as Chris puts it, “[the]constitutive feature of what it means to be human is the desire for recognition.” Fukuyama contends that liberal democracy allows the most recognition for individuals, and thus is the natural endpoint for capital H History. And while Fukuyama is very persuasive and presents his point well, the methodology always troubled me.
How do we know that humans desire recognition? Sure Kojeve says so, and Fukuyama is able to construct a plausible historiographical extrapolation of that theory, but besides their assertions, there’s no great way to verify their conception of human nature. Hobbes said that humans desire security, Rousseau said that humans are, as Mark Lilla put it, “theotropic” (desiring religion), Marx thought that man was fundamentally productive and so on and so forth. Some political philosophers just sidestep this debate, or at least don’t make a conception of human nature axiomatic the same way, say, Hobbes does. Rawls’ assumptions about human nature is that in his highly abstract veil of ignorance, people will use maximin reasoning. Nozick just starts out with Lockean natural rights and moves on from there.
But putting aside Rawls and Nozick, how do we sort out these competing claims about human nature?

For the time being, it looks like Evolutionary Psychology is the way to go. So from now on, if you have a political theory that’s based around a specific conception of human nature, you must talk about alleles. Peter Singer agrees, and Robert Wright has gotten the closest to using evolutionary psychology and theory as a basis for large scale political and social thought. Kojeve and Fukuyama, haven’t really managed this feat, and so I’m forced to put their theory of politics and history into the “sounds interesting, but not really verifiable in a systemic way” pile.

I haven’t gotten around to reading The End of History and the Last Man yet, but I think the Kojève end of this is slightly wrong. Kojève is, as Matt says, a Hegelian; his main work is a set of lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Kojève philosophy is, at the end of the day, just a quirky interpretation of Hegel. And Hegel’s most notable feature was his idealism; as much as Marx tried to create a materialist Hegelianism, the dialectic worked only because it applied to ideas, the only thing that’s truly real in Hegelian thought. So when Kojève talks about liberal capitalism being a logical endpoint of the dialectic, what he means is that the idea of liberal capitalism won the ideological debate; this explains his claim that history ended with the French Revolution, despite the fact that the vast majority of the world wasn’t yet democratic then. Kojève isn’t making an empirical claim that democracy will triumph because people inherently want recognition; he’s saying that it’s won an ideological debate. So I think he would have objected to justifying his views with ev-psych, since he would say that such materialist reductionism is base and counterproductive.
This isn’t to say that his conclusion isn’t supported by ev-psych; I think Robert Wright’s Nonzero provides an excellent evolutionary psychological explanation of the rise of man from hunter-gatherer society to the liberal democratic society we have today. But I think that Kojève and Wright work in different realities, and that Kojève would have objected to merging them.

2 thoughts on “On Kojève

  1. Well, idealism is dumb. It’s hard to have a useful theory of history if you can’t say why certain ideas win an ideological battle. So yes, ” Kojève and Wright work in different realities, and Kojève would have objected to merging them.” And this is why I think Wright is a much more useful thinker than Kojeve. The entire idea of seperating ideas from the people who have them seems like a fruitless journey that only a philosopher could ever embark on.
    But yeah, read the End of History, one of the most unfairly maligned and misunderstood books out there. The last third, where he discuess what the End of History will look like is especially good.

  2. Well, idealism is dumb. It’s hard to have a useful theory of history if you can’t say why certain ideas win an ideological battle. So yes, ” Kojève and Wright work in different realities, and Kojève would have objected to merging them.” And this is why I think Wright is a much more useful thinker than Kojeve. The entire idea of seperating ideas from the people who have them seems like a fruitless journey that only a philosopher could ever embark on.
    Agreed. They’re both right, but Wright is right for the right reasons.
    But yeah, read the End of History, one of the most unfairly maligned and misunderstood books out there. The last third, where he discuess what the End of History will look like is especially good.
    It’s funny: I’ve read and love one Fukuyama book (America at the Crossroads), I have one sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read (Our Posthuman Future), and four on my Amazon wishlist (EoH, State-building, Trust, The Great Disruption). I think that’s basically his entire bibliography. But considering how often I name-check Fukuyama as someone whose foreign policy views are similar to mine, I should really read EoH.
    By the way, I got my copy of America at the Crossroads at the Nobel Peace Prize museum in Oslo, and the European edition is hilarious. It’s renamed “After the Neocons” and has a burning American flag on the cover. Somehow I don’t think Fukuyama approved the latter change.

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