Leo Strauss: On Hegel

On Hegel Book Cover On Hegel
The Leo Strauss Transcript Series
Leo Strauss. Edited by Paul Franco
University of Chicago Press
Cloth $45.00

Reviewed by: Max Morris (KU Leuven)

One thing is clear regarding Leo Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel—he took him very seriously as a philosopher. We understand this not only from the fact that Hegel’s philosophy was the explicit theme of Strauss’ long-standing engagement with the Russian-French philosopher, Alexandre Kojève, but also from the fact that Strauss considered Hegel to be “the outstanding philosopher of the nineteenth century”[1] and an important contributor the development of historicism, which Strauss considered to be the primary antagonist to political philosophy in the 20th century.[2] The publication of Strauss’ 1965 lectures on Hegel’s Philosophy of History at the University of Chicago—currently under review—serves only to reinforce the view that Strauss considered Hegel to be a formidable figure in philosophy (163, 300). It is therefore surprising that Strauss never devoted any of his texts to an in-depth examination of Hegel’s philosophy. Even in his debate with Kojève, where Strauss apparently speaks of Hegel more than anywhere else in his work, he never takes issue with Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel. Throughout Strauss’ work, Hegel is considered either only in passing or as part of a genealogical sketch of modernity. Hence, the most obvious merit of On Hegel is that it grants us a more comprehensive insight into Strauss’ mature (he died in 1973) view of Hegel’s philosophy than we find elsewhere in his work.

On Hegel constitutes the fourth of Strauss’ lecture series to be published (following An Introduction to Political Philosophy, On Plato’s Symposium, and On Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra). When the content of a publication has been transcribed, the editorial work can have an immense impact on the text and must therefore come under scrutiny. The first aspect of the editorial work that strikes the reader of these lectures is the chapter names, which, it would seem, have been given by Paul Franco, the editor, as opposed to Strauss himself. In this connection, it is worth noting that “The Germanic World”, constituting the fourth and final part of the English translation of Hegel’s Philosophy of History, has not been included in the names of any of the chapters. Secondly, the editor frequently indicates when the students and/or Strauss himself laugh during the lectures in square brackets ([laughter]), but he is not consistent in this practice. For instance, on p. 83, Strauss says “you have to use strictly superficial distinctions now, like preliterate and literate, not to say underdeveloped and developed. They have found a new one: emerging and nonemerging. It is very interesting to see how here the strictly scientific motivation, no value judgments, goes along with a democratic, i.e., value-inspired motivation not to hurt anybody’s feelings”. The paradox to which Strauss alludes in the last sentence is met with a significant amount of laughter, and yet the editor fails to indicate laughter in square brackets. Another associated problem—although this is obviously not due to an error on the part of the editor—is that Strauss’ intonation cannot be discerned in the publication, unlike in the recordings, and his voice has a distinct timbre when he is joking. One such case is where Strauss says “this concept of nation [the commonsensical definition] had infinite practical consequences, as you all know, for the self-determination of nations. And especially in the case of the underdeveloped, alias emergent, nations, where you don’t know who makes them nations” (343). All of this indicates only that the reader often lacks the privilege, afforded to Strauss’ students, of being able to easily detect the cynicism of the old German lecturer.

A third and not unimportant point is that the editor has been inconsistent in showing Strauss’ emphasis. For example, Strauss says that “the Negroes, the Chinese, and the Hindus say: ‘this is the good life’” (158). The editor fails to italicize “the”, and while this does not change the meaning dramatically, it serves to detract from the central point that Strauss is trying to make here: all of these groups are making a claim about the same thing, and they are therefore not merely in conflict, but they rather contradict one another. Relatedly, certain words have been wrongly transcribed, some of which are of little or no importance, such as “clarification”, which should be “qualification” on p. 77, whereas others change the meaning significantly. For an example of the latter, Strauss asks “is Hegel another Plato or Aristotle, as he in a way claimed to be, who arrives at the time when the West has arrived at its dusk?” (99). The editor writes “task”, instead of “dusk”, and “task” in fact conveys the opposite of the intended meaning. The intended meaning, as Franco himself explains in the introduction of On Hegel, is that “philosophic understanding appears on the scene only when a civilization is in decline” (14).

Lastly, certain omissions have been made, the most extensive of which is at the end of chapter eight, where about ten and a half minutes of the recording have not been transcribed. Franco lists the topics contained in the omitted passage in note 29 on p. 390, and he excuses such omissions by indicating that they are either “unproductive or largely inaudible exchanges with students” (16). The end of chapter eight is audible, so we must assume that Franco found it to be “unproductive”. It is worth mentioning this only for the sake of indicating to the reader that he/she is not being issued with a complete transcription of the text, including, for example, certain passages which the editor did not find to be “productive”. It is unclear whether or not the editor has always exercised good judgment when making such omissions, and the fact of this dependence on the judgment of the editor will in all likelihood strike the more devout of Strauss’ followers as a problem with this publication.[3]

One significant merit of the publication, which one should not fail to mention, is that Franco provides very interesting notes to the text, which frequently include relevant transcriptions of Strauss’ earlier 1958 course on Hegel’s Philosophy of History, where the 1965 lectures are lacking in one way or another. This allows the reader not only to gain further insight into Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel, but also to understand how Strauss’ view of Hegel or his expression of it developed over time. It is on the basis of both lecture series that Franco writes the introduction to On Hegel.

Franco’s introduction can be divided into three sections: first, he contextualizes Strauss’ lectures within Strauss’ published works; secondly, he presents Strauss’ defense of Hegel; and finally, he explains Strauss’ criticism of Hegel.[4] In the first section, Franco proposes that Strauss’ lectures should be situated within three aspects of his work: his early Hobbes studies, his engagement with Kojève, and his genealogy of modernity (1). Franco notes that, in his Hobbes studies, Strauss mentions the similarity between Hegel’s master–slave dialectic and Hobbes’ fear of violent death, in terms of the foundational role that these concepts play in the two thinkers’ political philosophies, and between Hegel’s and Hobbes’ use of history as a means to guarantee the actualization of the best regime (2). In his engagement with Kojève, Hegel appears to take centerstage for the first time. Kojève critiques Strauss’ study on Xenophon’s Hiero from a “Hegelian” perspective, and Strauss’ response to Kojève would therefore seem to be a critique of Hegel. But it is patently clear—and the lectures only serve to reinforce this view—that Strauss did not consider Kojève’s position to be properly speaking Hegelian. In On Hegel, Strauss goes so far as to say that Kojève’s Hegel “is clearly no longer Hegel himself” (274). To be sure, Franco indicates that Kojève has an “idiosyncratic version” of Hegel’s philosophy (2), but he considers what Strauss says in his exchange with Kojève to be relevant to Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel. If it is true that Strauss considered Kojève to be a completely different philosopher from Hegel, then what Strauss said about and to Kojève does not necessarily have anything to do with what he thought about Hegel. If one wanted to make such an association, one would have to show what Strauss took to be the distinction and common ground between Kojève and Hegel. But I think such an effort would mask one of the merits of On Hegel—we see, for the first time, Strauss discussing Hegel’s philosophy directly and extensively. If we had the benefit of Strauss discussing Heidegger’s philosophy directly and extensively, for example, it would be a gross injustice to simply conflate this with Strauss’ discussion of Heidegger in Natural Right and History and, for that matter, his response to Kojève.

The third context in which Franco situates Strauss’ 1965 lectures on Hegel is Strauss’ genealogy of modernity (4–5). Strauss considers Hegel as part of the second “wave” of modernity, in which the ideal or best regime is reconceived in such a way as to make it necessarily realizable in the here-and-now. Instead of judging actual political affairs in accordance with an external standard of the good, Hegel sought to show how the best regime “is necessarily actualized by the historical process without men’s intending it”.[5] Nothing external to the historical process was therefore considered necessary for bridging the gap between the ideal and the actual; the general will was considered a sufficient answer to the question of the good.[6]  For this reason, it is hard to understand why, later in the introduction, Franco explains that Strauss understood Hegel to be “a believer in natural right” (10). The only evidence that Franco adduces in support of this claim is Strauss’ insistence on Hegel being a proponent of “the rights of man” (10–11). However, Strauss is clear, even in On Hegel, that Greek natural right means “the common good”, and this is to be distinguished from “the right of subjectivity” (233). “The right of subjectivity” is distinguished from “the common good” in a number of important ways for Strauss. Perhaps most importantly, the common good implies “nature as a cosmos. And in Hegel there is no cosmos” (81–2, 296). Thus, although it would seem that Franco has simply misused the term “natural right”, it is imperative that these things be distinguished from one another.

Franco then proceeds to explain how Strauss defends Hegel against many of the charges that have been brought against him. Strauss disposes of Karl Popper’s claim that Hegel was a proponent of totalitarianism by showing that Hegel “rejects Plato’s political philosophy precisely because he considers it ‘totalitarian’” (5). He defends Hegel’s empirical procedure in his philosophy of history by showing that Hegel’s objectivity is not hindered by his importation of categories: Hegel wants to understand cultures as they understood themselves, and to achieve this, he looked at their religion, namely, what they took to be the highest or most sacred (6). Similarly, Strauss argues that the standards by which Hegel distinguished between what is important and unimportant in history “are not arbitrary standards” (7), and far from being racist (7),[7] he shows Hegel’s philosophy to be entirely congruent with liberalism, constitutionalism and the rights of man (10).

However, while in On Hegel, Strauss does not explicitly criticize Hegel for his methodology in Philosophy of History, he does not, as Franco seems to suggest, simply defend it. Strauss indeed proposes that Hegel sought to understand cultures as they understood themselves (89, 241, 331). But he also indicates that, for Hegel, the philosopher is “the son of his time” and hence the philosopher must understand himself historically in order to understand himself accurately (29–30). There is a contradiction here, which Strauss admittedly does not make explicit in On Hegel, but which is certainly implied. The contradiction is brought out in Strauss’ What is Political Philosophy. Hegel may have sought to understand each culture, including each philosopher, as it understood itself, but what of those cultures or philosophers of the past that did not understand themselves historically and instead “claimed to have found the truth”? Hegel must nonetheless understand them historically and thus in a different way from the way in which they understood themselves.[8] The fact that Strauss makes both points in On Hegel, i.e., that Hegel seeks to understand cultures as they understood themselves and that he considers all philosophy to be historical, indicates that Strauss does not merely defend Hegel’s methodology. However, perhaps his failure to make the abovementioned criticism explicit is one of the ways in which he defends Hegel against the skepticism of his students, and to this extent, we may agree with Franco (6, 32).

The most interesting point that Franco makes in relation to Strauss’ defense of Hegel is that Strauss defends the morality of Hegel’s world-historical individual. A world-historical individual is, for Hegel, one of those characters in history that usher in a new age, e.g., Julius Caesar.[9] More often than not, such a character acts in base ways and brings about a shift in world history without being conscious of the necessity of their actions for that shift.[10] Hegel defends these actions by showing their necessity for the progress of history, which culminates in the modern rational state.[11] But while this bears a great similarity to Machiavelli’s procedure, as Hegel himself admits,[12] Strauss claims that Hegel’s world-historical individual is “more moral” than that of Machiavelli (8, 57). This is indeed an interesting point and one whose explanation is not entirely forthcoming in the lectures. Franco makes mention of a related discussion in the 1958 course, in which Strauss proposes that Hegel would never have excused the actions of Stalin (9). But from the passage that Franco draws our attention to, it would seem that Strauss proposed that Hegel would have only taken issue with Stalin on political grounds. In any event, in the 1965 course—and here, the dates are not entirely irrelevant—Strauss says: “I don’t know whether Hegel would have gone so far as to defend the action of Stalin” (72). Furthermore, to explain his claim that Hegel was “more moral” than Machiavelli, Strauss says that Hegel “moralizes the [world-historical individual] and thus brings about the union between the universal and particular” (57–8). In another place, however, he says that Kierkegaard, “a moralist [of all things!] who does not expect as much from politics as Hegel does”, criticized Hegel on the grounds that in his “social-political solution… the concern for purity of the heart has lost its meaning almost completely” (304–5). Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel, with which it appears Strauss agrees, clearly echoes Strauss’ claim that Machiavelli had “forgotten the soul”.[13] Thus, contrary to what Franco says, it is certainly not completely clear, from what Strauss says in On Hegel, why Strauss considers Hegel to be “more moral” than Machiavelli. To answer this question would require a comparison of Strauss’ Thoughts on Machiavelli with On Hegel, and this fact potentially indicates something of the great value of the latter.

Franco understands Strauss’ critique of Hegel as two-fold. First, there are two fundamental problems that remain unsolved in Hegel; and secondly, Hegel is ambiguous regarding whether the end of history is desirable. The first of the unsolved problems in Hegel that Strauss sees, and Franco comments on, is that Hegel was a liberal, in that he believed in the rights of man, yet he recognized that there was no solution ready to hand to the inevitable “agitation and unrest”, which would result from that (11). More importantly, however, Franco indicates that Strauss does not find an adequate solution to the “theologico-political problem” in Hegel (11). Religion is regarded as the necessary glue holding society together, yet the rational state supplants religion. “Christianity has become fully understood, i.e., religion has been transformed into philosophy taught by Hegel at the University of Berlin. The true theology is Hegel’s philosophy, i.e., it is no longer theology proper”. Thus, while it remains necessary for every citizen to be a member of some religion (252), “the modern state, the rational state, is indifferent to religion”. However, unlike religion, Hegel’s philosophy “has no comfort” for “the common people” (300). According to Franco, the problem is this: “the common people gradually lose their naïve faith, but they have nothing to replace it” (12). The glue holding society together is lost, which calls into question the rationality of the modern state.

The second part of Strauss’ critique of Hegel, according to Franco, is associated with Hegel’s notion of the end of history. Franco insists that Strauss was of the view that Hegel believed that history had reached its final stage in his time (13). According to Strauss, the primary evidence that Hegel did not believe that the end of history had come is the passage in which he claims that America is “the land of the future”.[14] “But”, Strauss rejoins, “the question is: was this of any importance to Hegel? I think one can definitely say no” (100). As Franco notes, history ends, according to Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel, when “all the fundamental problems have been solved” (14), and Hegel’s important passage on America does not “suggest that any ‘new principle of fundamental importance’ will emerge in America” (13). According to Franco, this notion of the end of history in Hegel is problematic for Strauss because Hegel is ambiguous as to whether or not it is desirable (14). The flourishing of society may be concomitant with the suppression of man’s “highest desire, the desire for knowledge” (55). As Strauss says in his “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero”, the end of history may be “the end of philosophy on earth”.[15] Yet, in On Hegel, Strauss says that, for Hegel, “religion is primary but religion is not the highest. The highest is philosophy” (78). Hence the “ambiguity” to which Franco refers (11).

Franco concludes his introduction in a somewhat problematic way. He claims that, according to Strauss, Hegel in fact recognized the primary problem concerning “the fundamental tension between knowledge and political life” (15)! As Strauss says in the 1958 lecture series, “Hegel accepted… [that] there is a fundamental disharmony between the peak of society and the peak of knowledge” (381n14). To Franco, this shows that Strauss had great “respect for Hegel as a thinker” (15). But does it not also show an important point regarding Strauss’ critique of Hegel? When we bring what Franco considers to be the two parts of Strauss’ critique of Hegel together, one notices another point of central importance, which Franco does not discuss: Hegel contradicts himself. Strauss shows that Hegel claims that history has ended, which requires that the fundamental problems have all been solved, but he also shows that Hegel accepted that there is at least one fundamental problem that remains unsolved. This contradiction explains why Strauss claims that Hegel thought that history had come to an end (100–101) and yet insists on this being “the crucial question” in Hegel (30–31). Is Strauss contradicting himself? Franco seems to take it for granted that Strauss was of the view that Hegel thought that history had come to an end, but on p. 100–101 and 122, to which Franco refers, Strauss only claims that it was Hegel’s view that “no new principle of fundamental importance will emerge” (101). This is not the same as the view that “the fundamental problems are solved” (59, 254). It is entirely possible that there will never be a “new principle” and yet a fundamental problem remains unsolved. Perhaps there are perennial problems that are unsolvable by a new principle. In other words, as Strauss says in the “Restatement”, perhaps “the human problem, and hence in particular the problem of the relation between philosophy and politics, is insoluble”.[16] Yet, society is capable of “tyranniz[ing] thought”, and “from the Universal Tyrant there is no escape”.[17] Thus, in Strauss’ mind, a perpetual, universal and totalitarian regime, which could preclude a new principle, is entirely possible, but its materialization would not necessarily coincide with wisdom, i.e., the solution to all fundamental problems. Fundamental problems may be “solved” on the political plane and yet remain unsolved in reality. “Fundamentally there can no longer be a revolution”, according to Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel, but “the trouble” with the idea that “all fundamental questions, theoretical and practical, are solved” is that “when you are at such a peak there is also at least the possibility of going down”, and “this is intimated by Hegel more than once” (58, 255, emphasis added). It is a question, albeit “an old question”, as Strauss notes in his 1960 lectures on Aristotle’s Politics, whether “the happiness of the individual is the same as that of the polis”.[18] But according to Strauss, this remains a question for Hegel (381n14).

We must therefore object to Franco’s insistence that Strauss was convinced that Hegel was of the view that the end of history had come. Both the impossibility of a new principle and the solution to all fundamental problems are inextricably linked with the notion of the end of history for Strauss (59, 100–101, 122, 254–5). While it is true that Strauss was convinced that Hegel thought there would never be a new principle of fundamental importance, he was far from convinced that Hegel considered all of the fundamental problems as solved. It seems that Strauss’ criticism of Hegel therefore goes further than Franco suggests. Strauss does not merely argue that Hegel is “ambiguous” about whether or not the end of history is desirable, but also that Hegel’s endorsement of the modern rational state, as the end point of history, removes the fundamental question regarding the relation between philosophy and politics from the purview of philosophy, without adequately answering it. In other words, in praising the end of history, Hegel assumes that philosophy and politics are not radically different things, but rather entirely compatible. Yet, Hegel believed the question of their relation to be exactly that—a question. What Franco does not recognize is Strauss’ emphasis on the relevance of Hegel’s political action, i.e., his writings and lectures, as compared with whatever may have been his private view. If Strauss is right that “religion has been transformed into philosophy taught by Hegel at the University of Berlin” (300), then this philosophy is not only theoretical, but also practical.

The most important practical implication of Hegel’s philosophy that Strauss points to in n Hegel is the destruction of the exoteric/esoteric distinction. The decisive passage reads: “Hegel and his contemporary Schleiermacher were more responsible than any other individuals for the fact that the distinction between esoteric and exoteric writing has ceased to be of any importance” (289).[19] It is hard to determine what is more remarkable—this passage or the fact that Franco fails to mention it! Strauss devoted much of his philosophical effort, throughout his life, to the revival of that very distinction, and now we know that his primary opponent in this effort was Hegel. How does Strauss think Hegel destroyed the exoteric/esoteric distinction? In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss explains this distinction explicitly and extensively. Simply stated, the distinction pertains to the way in which philosophical texts are written. Philosophers who hold “heterodox views” have not always been able to express those views publicly for political reasons.[20] To avoid persecution or, conversely, to avoid exposing the uninitiated to “the terrible truth” of philosophy, the philosopher would write “with circumspection”, i.e., “between the lines”.[21] This meant that, in the same text, the philosopher would present the truth to the philosophers esoterically and only “an approximation of the truth” to the non-philosophers exoterically.[22] To achieve this, the philosopher would employ a number of devices, such as irony, deliberate self-contradiction, etc.[23] Of course, these devices would only successfully hide the heterodox views of the philosopher from the non-philosophers—and they would seemingly only have a purpose—if it is true that “thoughtless men are careless readers, and only thoughtful men are careful readers”.[24] In some places, this “axiom”, upon which the esoteric/exoteric distinction rests, is expressed in natural terms: such philosophers “believed that the gulf separating ‘the wise’ and ‘the vulgar’ was a basic fact of human nature which could not be influenced by any progress of popular education”.[25] This quote leaves us in a good position to understand how Hegel justified his abandonment of the esoteric/exoteric distinction for Strauss.

In On Hegel, Strauss shows that Hegel “presupposed” the Enlightenment view that “by the spread of knowledge the people become enlightened and opinion is changed” (298–299). In other words, there is no “basic fact of human nature” separating the rational from the irrational or nonrational; as Strauss says elsewhere, man is “a free agent… [with] almost unlimited perfectibility or malleability”.[26] If this—“the most relevant difference among human beings”—has therefore “practically disappeared”, there appears to be no need for exoteric writing.[27] Neither will the philosopher be persecuted for his/her heterodox views, nor will the expression of such views be detrimental for non-philosophers. On the contrary, Strauss claims that Hegel believed that through enlightenment, “the rational and the actual necessarily coincide”, a state of affairs that Strauss thinks both the ancients and moderns considered under the rubric of “the best regime” (299, 322).[28] According to Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel, “the human mind necessarily progresses, and its results necessarily spread” (298). There must therefore be a time—for Hegel, his time—when this process reaches a culminating point. Put differently, the problem of the relation between philosophy and politics is resolved in history.

Now, Strauss emphasizes the fact that Hegel contradicts himself regarding the status of religion in the modern state. The modern state supplants religion, but it is nonetheless necessary for everyone to be a member of one religion or the other (252, 300, 330). Why? Because, Strauss makes clear, Hegel has no answer to this “grave problem”: “how do these people that can partake of reason only via religion still partake of reason when religion is no longer there as the most socially potent force?” (394n10). In other words, Hegel is not convinced that there is no “basic fact of human nature” preventing the actualization of the rational state. Yet, his lecture theater takes the place of the church. We come then to a better understanding of Strauss’ claim that “Hegel has no comfort for us here” (300). Strauss does not simply mean, as Franco suggests, that Hegel has no comfort for “the common man”. This smacks of Marx’s opium of the people, and Strauss’ understanding of religion is far more profound than Marx’s. What Strauss is saying—and hopefully this is already clear—is that the problem with substituting philosophy for religion is that it destroys the conduit for the conversion of the non- or potential philosopher into a philosopher. As Strauss says in On Hegel, “isn’t this the status of religion, namely, that the philosophers transform the religious truths into philosophic truths?” (253). In other words, as he says elsewhere, “philosophy, in the full and original sense of the term… [is] the attempt to replace opinions about the whole by knowledge of the whole”.[29] Hegel transforms religious truths into philosophic truths (58), opinion into knowledge, but he issues his philosophic truths as transformed religious truths in his lectures and in his writings; his philosophic truths simply replace the religious truths. Those who are not already philosophers are therefore deprived of the very conduit through which Hegel became a philosopher himself.

One may object to this reading of On Hegel by stating that, for Strauss, Socrates actualized the philosophic potential of certain individuals by himself, i.e., without the help of religion. Since I cannot adequately respond to this objection here, suffice it to say that, for Strauss, Plato employed the art of poetry,[30] and Strauss makes clear that Hegel had no time for poetry (246, 300–301). But this is not the only unanswered question that remains after reading On Hegel. Why was Hegel not able to overcome the problems concerning the relation between philosophy and politics and between philosophy and religion, according to Strauss? How does religion serve as a conduit for the conversion of the philosopher and what would constitute a viable substitute? While On Hegel provides some further insights into how Strauss understood modern philosophy, it is not a bottomless pit, like Thoughts on Machiavelli. In a word, On Hegel serves to further illuminate Strauss’ understanding of the theologico-political problem and how Hegel, in his treatment of that problem, absolutized the tradition that Machiavelli merely put in motion: “Obfuscation”.[31]

[1] Leo Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy and Other Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 58.

[2] Ibid., 26.

[3] Arthur Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2014), 294–5. To be sure, Melzer could not be counted among the orthodox Straussians, although this passage shows a typically Straussian view regarding editorial work.

[4] It should be noted that the latter two sections are based on Strauss’ Hegel lectures.

[5] Leo Strauss, “The Three Waves of Modernity” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy, edited by Hilail Gildin (Wayne State University Press: Detroit, 1989), 91.

[6] Ibid., 91–2.

[7] Any modern reader who has read just the subsection of Hegel’s introduction to Philosophy of History, entitled “Geographical Basis of History”, is liable to make such an allegation. See: G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, translated by Ruben Alvarado (Wordbridge Publishing: Aalten, 2011), 73–94.

[8] Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?, 68.

[9] Hegel, Philosophy of History, 285.

[10] Ibid., 28–30.

[11] Ibid., 91, 285.

[12] Ibid., 365.

[13] Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (The Free Press: Glencoe, 1958), 294.

[14] Hegel, Philosophy of History, 80.

[15] Leo Strauss, “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero” in On Tyranny, edited by Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2000), 211.

[16] Strauss, “Restatement”, 208.

[17] Leo Strauss, On Tyranny, edited by Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2000), 27; Strauss, “Restatement”, 211.

[18] Leo Strauss, “Aristotle’s Politics: A course given in the Spring quarter, 1960 in the Department of Political Science, University of Chicago by Professor Leo Strauss”, edited by Joseph Cropsey (1962), 340. Available at: https://archive.org/stream/LeoStraussAristotlesPolitics1960/Leo%20Strauss%20-%20Aristotle%27s%20%27%27Politics%27%27%20%5B1960%5D_djvu.txt.

[19] It is hard to understand why Strauss includes Schleiermacher here. To be guilty of this charge, one would need to have an extraordinary impact on all subsequent philosophy. While Schleiermacher may have had a significant impact in certain circles, especially hermeneutics, Hegel was, according to Strauss, “the outstanding philosopher of the nineteenth century”. Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?, 58.

[20] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1988), 24.

[21] Leo Strauss, Philosophy and Law (State University of New York Press: Albany, 1995), 37; Strauss, Persecution, 24.

[22] Strauss, Persecution, 19.

[23] An extensive list of such devices may be found in the first chapter of Strauss’ Thoughts on Machiavelli. See: Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 15–53.

[24] Strauss, Persecution, 25.

[25] Ibid., 25, 34.

[26] Strauss, “The Three Waves”, 279.

[27] Strauss, “Restatement”, 210.

[28] The distinction between them being only that, unlike the moderns, the ancients left the realization of the best regime to chance (299).

[29] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1965), 30.

[30] Leo Strauss, The City and Man (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1978), 136–7.

[31] Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 173.

Alexandre Kojève: The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov

The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov Book Cover The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov
Alexandre Kojève. Translated by Merlin, I., Pozdniakov, M.
Palgrave Pivot
Hardback 58,84 €
VII, 81

Reviewed by: María D. García-Arnaldos (Universidad CEU-San Pablo, Spain)

Alexandre Kojève fue un filósofo francés conocido principalmente por su influyente seminario sobre Hegel en la École Pratique des Hautes Études en los años 30. Estas conferencias ejercieron una influencia en intelectuales franceses difícil de medir. Es conocido también por su teoría del “fin de la historia” (teoría que F. Fukuyama más tarde desarrolló y divulgó: The End of History and the Last Man, 1992) y por su marxismo existencial. A partir de 1945 pasó a ser un alto funcionario del Estado francés, ocupación que no le impidió continuar con el trabajo filosófico, publicado buena parte de él, tras su muerte en 1968.

Alexandre Kojernikoff nació en Moscú el 11 de mayo de 1902. Poco antes de 1920 decidió dejar Rusia y acabó estudiando filosofía en Alemania. Durante su formación frecuentó tanto Heidelberg como Berlín. Aunque el neokantismo era una de las escuelas en boga con H. Rickert a la cabeza, Kojève eligió otra figura de referencia como Karl Jaspers para la realización de su tesis centrada en el filósofo ruso Vladimir Soloviev. Precisamente, en Heidelberg bajo la supervisión de Karl Jaspers completó su disertación en lengua alemana (Die religiöse Philosophie Wladimir Solowjews) en 1926. Esta disertación se adaptó al francés (La métaphysique religieuse de Vladimir Soloviev) y se publicó como ensayo en dos partes, en 1934 y 1935, mientras Kojève dirigía sus famosos seminarios sobre Hegel. El ensayo fue publicado en la revista francesa Revue d’Historie et de Philosophie Religieuses XIV, 1934, n.6, 534-54 (primera parte) y XV, 1935, n. 1-2, 110-152 (segunda parte).

Traducida ahora al inglés, The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov, es una obra que presenta el esfuerzo de Kojève de unificar la filosofía de la religión de Vladimir Soloviev. En la edición inglesa, el libro se encuentra dividido en tres apartados: una introducción de los traductores y las dos partes en que se compone la obra. En la introducción se aclara la exigente tarea de interpretación de algunos pasajes y términos del texto, así como del método seguido por Kojève. En cuanto a la obra, contiene dos secciones: la Doctrina de Dios (dividida a su vez en tres partes) y la Doctrina del Mundo.

En este breve ensayo, Kojève se propone la sistematización de la metafísica –sistematización en la que Soloviev trabajó durante años, pero que no fue capaz de articular completamente en su corta vida– aunque con un objetivo diferente. Para Kojève, se trataría de un sistema metafísico que explique el libre obrar humano enraizado en su propia historia, pero sin recurrir a Dios. La relación del ser humano con Dios y consigo mismo a través de Dios, aunque sin el concurso de Dios, será un tema constante en su pensamiento. Qué pudo haber llevado a un exponente del marxismo existencial al análisis de una metafísica religiosa; en qué medida impulsó ese acercamiento de autores pertenecientes a otras corrientes, el afán incesante de Soloviev de presentar el cristianismo en forma de sistema filosófico, como una cosmovisión en donde la fe, la filosofía y el pensamiento social se entretejen, son preguntas pertinentes si queremos conocer a dos pensadores inusuales.

Comenzamos por la primera cuestión: cómo el área de la metafísica religiosa pudo atraer a pensadores que se sumaron al marxismo. Si bien por una parte escritores de la talla de Dostoievsky y Tolstoi ejercieron una cierta influencia, dado que no eran filósofos profesionales, su alcance fue parcial. Copleston en su Historia de la Filosofía, en el volumen dedicado a los pensadores rusos, (Russian Philosophy, Vol. X, 2003, pp. 200 y ss) sugiere que, en parte, el que hubiese un espacio abierto a una nueva atmósfera intelectual distinta al materialismo y positivismo, se debió a la obra de Soloviev. A modo de esbozo, Vladímir S. Soloviev (1853-1900) fue una figura poliédrica que impulsó el desarrollo de la filosofía rusa de finales del XIX. Fue amigo de Dostoievsky e influyó en pensadores como N. Lossky, P. Florensky o S. Bulgákov. Algunas de sus obras son: Crisis de la filosofía occidental, 1874; Crítica de los principios abstractos, 1880; El sentido del amor, 1892-1894 y La justificación del Bien, 1897.

En The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov, Kojève presenta la metafísica de este pensador ruso en el conjunto de su obra, como núcleo de su pensamiento y punto de partida necesario para comprender su recorrido intelectual. Introduce dicha obra cronológicamente diferenciando tres periodos. En el primero, los escritos de Soloviev ofrecen una introducción histórica y crítica a su sistema filosófico, con el objetivo de demostrar la necesidad de una nueva metafísica que sea síntesis y superación de las metafísicas precedentes (The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov [en adelante RM], p. 15). En el segundo periodo, más breve, el pensador ruso elabora su nueva metafísica. El tercer periodo se caracteriza por un alejamiento del deseo de sistematizar esa metafísica y por abrir espacio al desarrollo de diferentes temas, todos con la característica en común de ser una aplicación de su metafísica. Soloviev murió sin haber llegado a precisar y sistematizar su metafísica en la que seguía trabajando.

Según Kojeve, la teoría metafísica de Soloviev se encuentra recogida fundamentalmente en cuatro libros: Critique of Abstract Principles (1877–1880), Philosophical Principles of Integral Knowledge (1877, inacabado), y Lectures on Divine Humanity (1887–1890), que originalmente fueron escritos en ruso y, Russia and the Universal Church (1889), que originalmente fue escrito en francés. A partir de estos cuatro textos, Kojève desarrolla lo que considera que son las características de la metafísica del pensador ruso, con el objetivo de llegar a exponer un sistema de metafísica completo y autónomo (RM, p. 18). En primer lugar, es una metafísica que tiene un carácter místico y religioso; se podría considerar metafísica teológica, ya que el objetivo de Soloviev es otorgar una formulación sistemática y racional a la revelación cristiana. Para el pensador ruso, el contenido de la metafísica proviene de la experiencia mística y el trabajo filosófico consistiría en la exposición o análisis de los elementos abstractos de su presentación. Sin embargo, aunque el conocimiento religioso tradicional y la experiencia mística individual fundamentan la doctrina de Soloviev, ambas no le resultan suficientes. A la fe y la experiencia religiosa o mística hay que unirle el pensamiento. Estos tres elementos, fe, pensamiento y experiencia mística, conforman la filosofía de la religión de Soloviev. Precisamente, el pensador ruso mantuvo hasta el final la idea de que la tarea de la filosofía no solo consiste en clarificar y enriquecer los conceptos provenientes de la experiencia mística, sino que el filósofo debe examinar sus presuposiciones y no darlas por sentado.

Además de la tradición teológica cristiana, Soloviev se nutre del Idealismo alemán (RM, p. 19); la metafísica de Schelling resuena en sus escritos, señala Kojève, aunque apenas aparece mencionado. Hay, sobre todo, profundas consonancias con el último Schelling (Investigaciones filosóficas sobre la esencia de la libertad humana y los objetos con ella relacionados, 1809).

La primera sección del libro, “La doctrina de Dios”, se encuentra dividida a su vez en tres partes. En la primera, Kojève presenta una primera etapa de Soloviev en la que este articula la noción de Absoluto en general. En la segunda etapa, lo identifica con un Dios personal y la Trinidad y en la tercera, la idea cristiana de Dios hecho hombre que completa la etapa inicial. La realidad objetiva de la idea de Absoluto, para Soloviev, se justifica solo a través de la experiencia o intuición mística que es la que aporta el contenido de esta idea. Esta intuición mística es un contacto directo con el Ser en sí mismo; es la que funda toda metafísica, pero es necesario expresarla en conceptos racionales. A la hora de sistematizar esta intuición mística (en Soloviev la idea de intuición está basada en Schelling, se trata de una percepción inmediata connatural), Kojève observa que el pensador ruso toma prestado efectivamente de otras teorías, asumiendo ciertas deducciones en forma simplificada, en vez de elaborar un profundo análisis metafísico que vaya más allá de ellas. Esta carencia aparece en la obra de Soloviev desde sus primeras afirmaciones acerca del Absoluto al que define como Omniunidad, es decir, la unidad de sí mismo y lo “Otro” distinto de sí, una unidad que abarca al ser humano, el mundo y Dios; idea que de modo análogo encontramos en Spinoza, cuya filosofía leyó de joven y del que pudo estar influenciado. En esta Omniunidad se distinguen dos polos: la unidad y la multiplicidad o totalidad. El primero es el Absoluto como tal; el segundo, es la materia prima o anima mundi, como encontramos en la Doctrina del Mundo (RM, p. 22).

Para Kojève, esta parte de la metafísica de Soloviev es una versión simplificada de la teoría del último Schelling y Jakob Böhme. El problema que tiene que solucionar no solo el pensador ruso, a su juicio, sino cualquier otra doctrina semejante, es cómo lidiar con el dualismo por una parte y el panteísmo por otra. Para evitar estos extremos, el recurso de Soloviev es adoptar la dialéctica de Schelling, lo cual le lleva a plantear como solución la identificación del “Otro” con el “Alma del mundo”, “Sophia”, o la “Humanidad Ideal” (RM, p. 24), y no con el mundo empírico. Kojève insiste en aclarar este concepto pues, aunque el pensador ruso parte del mundo empírico, lo hace sólo metodológicamente, siguiendo un método inductivo y no debe ser confundido con el materialismo. Kojève va trazando paralelismos entre Soloviev y Leibniz o Hegel. Si bien, por una parte, sostiene que hay una mayor cercanía del pensador ruso a Hegel (Lecciones sobre Filosofía de la Religión) que a Schelling; por otra, subraya que la finalidad de la doctrina de Soloviev es la de llegar a la idea de un Dios personal a partir de la noción abstracta de Absoluto. En este sentido, indica que la metafísica de Soloviev pretende ser una racionalización de las verdades religiosas dadas en la revelación pre-cristiana y es posible sistematizar tales verdades de modo independiente a los dogmas cristianos; pero, según Kojève, el pensador ruso no llega a desprenderse del cristianismo, como explica en el siguiente apartado dedicado a Teandria o Sophia.

En efecto, como Kojève aclara, el cristianismo no es solo una síntesis de verdades previamente reveladas en otras religiones, sino que aporta verdades nuevas que toman su forma completa en el Dios-hecho-hombre (Théandrie) o Segundo Absoluto. Esta es la idea en la que culmina su metafísica y es la idea bisagra entre la doctrina de Dios y la doctrina del Mundo. El problema, según Kojève, es la contradicción clara en la que Soloviev incurre y no parece haber advertido; esto es, deduce a priori el futuro del Absoluto (el Segundo Absoluto) a la vez que sostiene la contingencia y libertad de éste, sin intento de reconciliación entre la necesidad y la contingencia. Kojève indica que estas mismas características del análisis a priori atribuidas al Segundo Absoluto, se pueden aplicar al ser humano empírico (RM, p. 35). Es importante señalar que, para Kojève, la idea del ser humano así entendida en la doctrina de Dios coincide con el “contenido” del Absoluto, la materia prima, y esto no altera la idea de Omniunidad en Dios.

Kojève analiza, por una parte, en qué sentido se entiende la idea de libertad tanto en el caso del ser humano empírico como respecto de Dios, y, por otra, la centralidad de Sophia en la obra de Soloviev, quizás el aspecto más importante de su obra y de su vida (RM, p 39). Precisamente, la complejidad del pensamiento de Soloviev se puede percibir cuando tratamos de comprender el lugar que ocupa Sophia en su doctrina. Si bien es entendida como la Humanidad Ideal, por otra parte, es la humanidad “caída” en el mundo empírico, el anima mundi, como veremos en la doctrina del mundo (recordemos que para Schelling, la “Caída” es la idea de la pérdida de la unidad original). Para Kojève, podríamos entender Sophia como el nombre para el “contenido” divino concebido como Idea personal o Humanidad unitotal (RM, p. 40) pero subrayando, además, el carácter femenino de Sophia, que pone de relieve la noción de lo “femenino en Dios”. Aunque este es un aspecto altamente relevante, Soloviev solo lo usa como la determinación ontológica más general de lo femenino (RM, p. 41). Tampoco Kojève hace un análisis de este aspecto más detallado. Sin embargo, sí individualiza posibles influencias que Soloviev podría haber recibido en estos aspectos de su doctrina, fundamentalmente de Comte, Böhme y Schelling. Aquello que diferencia la obra de Soloviev de estos dos últimos, a juicio de Kojève, es la importancia que le concede Soloviev a la idea de Hombre, en cuanto ser humano coeterno con Dios y absolutamente libre respecto de Él (RM, p. 42), la Divinohumanidad. Esta idea de ser humano no se encuentra ni en Schelling ni en Böhme, pero sí en Hegel y Comte (RM, p. 43). Aunque en Comte, el ser humano no solo es igual a Dios, sino que lo reemplaza. Del mismo modo en Hegel, el ser humano se puede entender como absoluto en la medida en que no hay otro Absoluto más que el ser humano. En cambio, la antropología de Soloviev es manifiestamente cristiana, por lo que el ser humano es absoluto pero un Segundo Absoluto en virtud del primer Absoluto o Dios. Kojève lo resume así: para Soloviev, el ser humano es más absoluto que para Schelling y Böhme pero menos absoluto que el hombre para Comte o Hegel (RM, p. 43). En cualquier caso, para Kojève esta Sofiología basada en la propia intuición mística de Soloviev, es la parte más personal y original de su obra. El aspecto sobre todo original –como los traductores también subrayan en los últimos párrafos de su introducción– es que para Soloviev, el acto de pensar no es en sí mismo una acción mental, porque tampoco es una acción personal o individual, sino que el pensamiento es el nombre que damos al encuentro con lo divino; es una forma de comunicación.

En la sección dedicada a la Doctrina del Mundo (RM, p. 51), Kojève sostiene que, aunque distinta de la doctrina de Dios, el estudio de la doctrina metafísica del mundo no puede realizarse al margen de aquella. La idea que diferencia una de otra, es la noción de la “caída” de Sophia, idea que no se encuentra en la doctrina de Dios. Dicha noción, se refiere a la potencial, posibilidad ideal de separación, el llegar a la Divinohumanidad (RM, p. 52). Aunque Kojève trata de identificar nuevas contradicciones entre la doctrina de Dios y la doctrina del mundo (RM, p. 52), acaba por admitir que tomadas en sí mismas, ambas doctrinas metafísicas conforme aparecen en el sistema de Soloviev se pueden presentar sin contradicción entre ellas (RM, p. 53). Aún así, pone en evidencia una antinomia que parece habérsele escapado a Soloviev: “the antinomy implied by the notion of the becoming of a being that is eternally what it is, the progressive union in time of what is already, for all eternity, united” (RM, p. 53). Soloviev no lo aclara y Kojève tampoco, pero a partir de este punto, éste último introduce las características distintivas de las dos doctrinas: la doctrina del mundo se distingue de la de Dios por tres cosas: por el carácter de su investigación que es de orden temporal; en segundo lugar, por el objeto de investigación –la “caída”, el llegar a ser o realización de Sophia– y, finalmente, por el método.

El método de la doctrina de Dios es deductivo a priori, ya que las conclusiones a las que se llega proceden del análisis de la noción dialéctica de Absoluto, la cual es innata, inmanente o la expresión racional de la intuición mística de Dios-Amor (RM, p. 54). El método de la doctrina del mundo, en cambio, es un método inductivo, empírico y a posteriori, dada la naturaleza libre de la caída de Sophia o el Alma del mundo. Sin embargo, esta distinción metodológica según Kojève, no siempre se mantiene con rigor y aquí nuevamente aparece una cierta contradicción relacionada con la antinomia señalada antes. Para Kojève, la fuente tanto de la contradicción como de la antinomia es la idea de libertad ya que está fundada o se basa en la doctrina del Absoluto (RM, p. 56). En definitiva, la cuestión es cómo se concilia la libertad de Dios con la libertad humana. Kojève encuentra dificultades implícitas en el sistema de Soloviev de las que este último no se ha percatado ni ha aclarado, y tratará de salvar alguna de estas aparentes contradicciones. Para ello, se propone sistematizar su metafísica, como ya dijimos, pero él mismo reconoce al final que no es fácil encontrar soluciones definitivas. En qué grado consigue aclarar y avanzar los puntos discutibles del sistema de Soloviev, dejamos que el lector lo valore.

En la parte final del ensayo, Kojève indica que la filosofía de Soloviev es, en definitiva, una respuesta a la pregunta: qué debe hacer la humanidad para prepararse para el encuentro final del Alma del mundo con Dios. La solución propuesta por el pensador ruso comprende aplicaciones en aspectos, como el ético y el político, que se derivan de la metafísica, especificando el lugar del amor como camino de realización o ideal de “vida plena” (RM, p. 70); el Amor como lugar de encuentro y trasformación entre el Alma del mundo y Dios.

También hay otros aspectos derivados de su metafísica de calado social y ecuménico. Si, por una parte, la metafísica de Soloviev busca entender la realidad como una unidad, desde el punto de vista práctico, la ética y la filosofía social muestran cómo se puede superar el egoísmo de los individuos y restablecer la unidad. Soloviev trabajó, sobre todo en la década de 1880, en la unión de las Iglesias orientales y occidentales y un elemento imprescindible para ello era el entendimiento mutuo y la concordia o amor fraterno. Este aspecto a nuestro juicio es relevante, aunque Kojève no lo menciona. Soloviev nunca abandonó su interés en la transformación de la sociedad. Por eso, además de la necesidad del pensamiento se hace necesaria una acción y una política que definan el método para interceder en la vida del ser humano. Pero a Kojève, le resultan insuficientes las aclaraciones del pensador ruso en este sentido.

Al final del análisis de la metafísica de Soloviev, Kojève sostiene que la obra de este no es del todo original puesto que es, prácticamente, una simplificación de las doctrinas del último Schelling (1802-1809) (RM, p. 71). Aunque sería adecuado, Kojève no realiza una comparación en detalle pues, asevera él, sería repetir en buena parte muchas de las ideas que ya ha presentado. Además, indica que las diferencias que se podrían encontrar entre ambos no tienen relevancia filosófica, sino que obedecen sobre todo a divergencias teológicas (RM, p. 72). En las dos últimas páginas, señala que las diferencias fundamentales entre ambos son el carácter deductivo de la doctrina de Soloviev y el hecho de que este no afirma en ningún momento la posibilidad de una separación completa y final entre el hombre y Dios (RM, p. 73). En cualquier caso, Kojève subraya que la tendencia de atribuir al ser humano una libertad e independencia es mayor en Soloviev que en otros autores incluido Schelling. Pero en ambos autores, la noción de libertad plantea problemas, según Kojève. La dificultad mayor en este sentido, para Soloviev, es haber tratado de dar una solución a partir de los elementos que ha tomado prestados de Schelling.

En conclusión, Kojève se propone recrear el sistema metafísico que Soloviev no logró consumar. Hacia el final de su tratado establece una comparación fugaz entre Schelling y Soloviev. Como hemos dicho, hay muchos puntos de contacto entre ambos autores, particularmente, con el último Schelling (Investigaciones filosóficas sobre la esencia de la libertad humana), obra que Kojève señala en las notas y aunque hubiese sido oportuno, no examina con más detalle. Por otra parte, es de subrayar la importancia que tuvo para Soloviev el aspecto ecuménico, es decir, el diálogo entre las diversas denominaciones cristianas. Aunque Kojève distingue las etapas ortodoxa y católica de Soloviev, no alcanza a ver en la metafísica religiosa de éste, el espacio vital que ocupa dicho aspecto ecuménico y cuánto luchó Soloviev para llegar a ver realizada la unión entre las diversas Iglesias. No estaban los tiempos maduros.

Por último, si bien para aquellos que tienen una formación filosófica poco cercana a la dimensión mística o religiosa puede llegar a ser, cuando menos, una lectura ardua, para aquellos interesados en introducirse en la filosofía de la religión, en una mirada oriental de la metafísica religiosa o en las inquietudes filosóficas de un joven Kojève antes de su salto a la fama con las lecciones sobre Hegel, es una provechosa lectura. En efecto, la contribución de Kojève a través este pequeño volumen en número de páginas, pero de extensa temática, no solo ayuda a nuestra comprensión del pueblo ruso, sino que introduce en el debate occidental a un notable autor como Soloviev. Si apostamos por una visión filosófica multicultural, apuesta cada vez más apremiante entrado el siglo XXI, es acertado ir abriendo espacio a un pensamiento sin fronteras.

Thomas Bedorf, Steffen Herrmann (Eds.): Political Phenomenology: Experience, Ontology, Episteme, Routledge, 2019

Political Phenomenology: Experience, Ontology, Episteme Book Cover Political Phenomenology: Experience, Ontology, Episteme
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Thomas Bedorf, Steffen Herrmann (Eds.)
Hardback £96.00

Alexandre Kojève: Atheism

Atheism Book Cover Atheism
Alexandre Kojève. Translated by Jeff Love.
Columbia University Press
Hardback $32.00 £28.00

Reviewed by: Hans Krauch (Canada)

This work was compiled from an unfinished essay originally written in 1931, a part of the vast trove of documents left behind by Alexandre Kojève that publishers are finally starting to take out and disseminate to the world.  At the time this was wrote, atheism was not just blindly implemented by Soviet ideology, but it was the sign of the final death throes of faith in its fight against the Enlightenment movement.  Indeed, the Enlightenment proved victorious, though it was a Pyrrhic victory as the Enlightenment movement itself died with the Soviet Union in the last decade of the 20th century.

The introduction does a very good job at going over the general points of the book – and indeed the author of the intro is quite right to say that it does not take away from the joy of reading the original work.  The work reads like is a man struggling with these very difficult concepts, at a time when these concepts were shaping nations. Knowing the topics of atheism versus theism meant knowing the bloody history of the 20th century – with its creation and destruction of empires, nations, and people’s lives numbering in the hundreds of millions.

The topic of atheism was not merely academic as it had real world impacts, so one could detect the urgency and importance of the topic in the tone of Kojève’s writing. To be sure, the true philosopher is one that realizes that their work has real world implications, that it is important to all people – not just relegated to the world of academics.  In this spirit, Kojève can be understood to meet that criteria of philosopher quite easily.

Atheism is still quite prevalent today, and this book will shed light on today’s stance on this belief of non-belief in a way few else can. Kojève was there when the contemporary atheism movement begun and therefore has insight that contemporary academics cannot understand.  Kojève separates people into two camps – the theist and the atheist.  Of course, most of us fall somewhere in between these two camps, but in order to properly understand either he has boiled down the types into purities, then compared the differences between the two.

Kojève was not particularly interested in promoting one side or another, merely trying to figure out what they were and where they base their particular life-axioms.  From the spirit of the book, the best Kojève (or arguably anyone) can do is speak about both sides in general terms, mostly because the main concepts held by either side is, at best, understood in general terms.  He divides further the concept of the theist and atheist as ‘qualified’ – this would be one whose ideologies are solidified, extreme, and self-aware.

The qualified theist is one where God’s existence is simply accepted, and there is nothing more to say on that.  God is understood to be a thing with some kind of quality, a thing that makes God a God.  But, is God a ‘thing’? Indeed He is, however it is a thing that is very different from other things – other things that inhabit the material realm.  Therefore, a qualified theist is one that understands that God(s) have predicates.

The theist is a person who believes in God, whatever that may be, and the atheist does not believe in God, whatever that might be.  That being said, faith itself is considered irrational, so both the theist and atheist are more similar than they would like to admit.

The basic question asked in this work, though cannot be answered definitely, is “Is it possible for the atheist to claim that there is nothing beyond the world without entering into contradiction.” (Kojève 2018, xvii). The atheist is the one that mostly uses rationality as their basis of belief, but on what basis can they claim to be more rational than the theist (if proving the existence of God is unfalsifiable)?

For Kojève, how people believe to interact with the external world is very important to his conclusions.  Firstly, we have the human being in the world – this is one that interacts with the material world.  The concept of homogeneity is used, and this is to give us the notion that our own experiences are similar enough amongst other humans that we can all assume that we interact with the world in more or less the same way so that it can be described in general terms.  Homogeneity is the concept that things outside the self are similar enough for us all.

The concept of estrangement is that it only applies to human beings, and that the world presents itself to us and as such we cannot escape from this world and remain sane.  Kojève posits that things are ‘given’ to us, but it is God that does the giving (for the theist).  The theist is aware of this stuff given to us and therefore suffers anxiety.  The atheist cannot care less about such things and therefore suffers not.

The big question in this work is how can God reach thorough the realm of the outside world into our plane of reality?  It reminds me of the difficulty of passing from subjectivity to objectivity – are such things possible and how can we do this without sacrifice of quality?

Kojève’s greatest accomplishment in this work is the position on death itself.  He posits that we all agree that there is a passing to an outside world, to some degree, when we die.  This is simple enough to grasp as we can witness the death of others.  Where things become complicated is when it comes to understanding our own deaths, because we can never experience our own deaths (as it occurs after we lose consciousness, and consciousness is the sense that enables the other senses to process external information).  The concept that we cannot imagine our own demise or nothingness is very important, and one that is ought to have the highest dissemination to the world as possible.

Death is both nothingness and thingness at once, which is similar to the problem of the existence of God:  “Death is thus available to us only in its unavailability, as unavoidably enigmatic, the genuine, essential, and ineluctable mystery.” (Kojève 2018, xxii)  This is the basic human condition.  How we deal with that differs on whether or not we are an atheist or a theist.  All of us face death with horror, in one way or another. This is why the medieval art featuring people facing all kinds of horrible violent deaths with a stone, uncaring face is seen as ridiculous rather than pious, to contemporary minds.

Where Kojève goes wrong is his stance on suicide.  For him:  “…suicide is the highest expression of freedom.” (Kojève 2018, xxiii) He is not technically wrong, as overriding our own self-preservation instincts requires a strong will, but the problem is that if we cannot fully comprehend our own demise or nothingness then how is this freedom?  In suicide we aren’t merely experiencing the unknowable, but forcing it on ourselves.  We shall explore this topic further near the end of the paper.

The theist sees death as the release of the soul from the body.  The atheist sees this as simply being done with the world, and just wants to be done with living within it.  Most people believe in a little bit of both theistic and atheistic aspects of death.

Regarding suicide, is it overcoming pain and fear, or is it a submission to it?  There are those who survive suicide attempts all the time, so do know this we would have to ask them.  Suicide is also prevalent within other species – there are well documented cases of animals drowning themselves or stop eating until they die, after they lost a mate or suffered some other tragedy.  That being said, all the problems with our own lives end with our lives, for better or worse.  That doesn’t mean it has no effects on the living, however.

This problem is similar to God the infinite – another concept that cannot be proven.  The infinite, for Kojève, is the surpassing of limits, yet no such thing is possible because there is only the finite:  “No attempt at liberation from the world is possible.  Our interaction renders us vulnerable, limiting our freedom and ultimately tying us down to death.  If Kojève were to say that only a God could save us, it would be that God achieved by Kirillov in suicide.” (Kojève 2018, xxv)  If life is such a burden then why would we want to be free of its limits?  Satisfaction is found in the conquest of limits, with no challenges to overcome then nothing is there to look forward to, an existence without purpose or meaning.  Perhaps the true freedom is not freeing ourselves from limits, but from the shackles of fear of not overcoming limits.

Kojève is quite correct that both the atheist and theist want to break out of our obvious limits and achieve greater things, outside the world (or our perception of it).  He is correct that speculation cannot provide proof, but this is the beauty of philosophy.  We deal in matters that cannot be proven objectively, and in the absence of objective (material world) proof it is the best we have.  The same goes for knowing when to mark the proper end for ourselves (like Hegel’s ‘End of History’).  This question, I believe, is the same as understanding our own deaths/nothingness.  Our end is the end of life – therefore to go into understanding that we need philosophical speculation to take the first steps towards knowledge.

The concept of courage in the face of death is described as simply a cover up for our own fear.  Indeed that is the definition of courage – doing something in spite of a strong feeling of fear.  It must be stressed that fear will always exist, so denying it exists at our own deaths would be inauthentic.  So, an atheist would be one that feels they are ‘honest’ in the face of death – that after their body dies that is the end of them forever.  The theist would be one that ‘hides’ behind hope that there is some kind of life (existence) after death.

Kojève is quite right to posit that an atheistic religion can exist if they limit themselves to believing in a non-existent nature of whatever God other people believe in.  It is a matter of belief in the unfalsifiable versus the non-belief in the unfalsifiable, which brings us to another very interesting point in Kojève’s work – the discussion of atheism or theism does not belong within the realm of religion.  This discussion goes beyond the confines of religion to encompass the foundations of how we think — logic.

Kojève’s work does bounce back and forth between concepts, as if he is having a conversation with himself – talking himself into a position, then thinking himself out of it.  He understood that the atheist/theistic world views encompass the types of world they live in, and to understand those views properly is not so simple.  At this time it would be appropriate to interject into the rather odd style of writing used by the translator.  Obviously the translator has a firm grasp on the material, however there are some irregularities that would require some clarification.

For example, Love refers to God as ‘him (Kojève 2018, xxxii)’ when the proper way to refer to God is Him.  Love later quotes Kojève as referring to God as Him (Kojève 2018, 15), so the grammatical inconsistency must have been known.  It is not a catastrophic inconsistency, just one that peaks me to ask why such a thing was done in the first place. The other is the choice to refer to the generic person as she.  Indeed, in the past ‘he’ was usually used, and this style of using ‘she’ is certainly en vogue these days, for whatever reason.  I would have recommended to get away from any gender specific pronouns, if one’s goals were to avoid appearing sexist by using only one pronoun in particular over another.

The terms used are much appreciated, like ‘giveness’, but understand that these are not translation errors, but an expression of how a Russian or Frenchman in the 1930s would express such concepts of being an animated meat robot inhabiting a class M planet within a finite universe composed of matter and energy – and with all those things that go along with that.  Another language oddity here is the usage of the term ‘tonus.’ The use of it here does not match the English dictionary definition of the word; being “The normal tension of a muscle at rest.” (Merriam-Webster 2019, 1) – unless Love is inadvertently using the French word tonus, which is tone in English, and in that case the word ‘tone’ works just fine in the contexts of this text.  All that aside, we may now return to the text itself.

Concerning death and giveness, Kojève prompts some very interesting ideas.  For example, Kojève himself is quite dead today, yet his words still reach out to me when I read his works – so in a way he is not truly nonexistent in the same way his body no longer functions.  This paradox of ‘giveness’ Kojève talks about is quite interesting, perhaps we may need to accept this paradox as insolvable.  We cannot have a conversation with Kojève, as we can only read, listen and reflect on his works.  Kojève’s giveness continues after his physical death, but the living cannot present their giveness to him (in a way that affects himself as a living thing).  That is, the dead can give to the living, but not vice-versa (unless we count the living keeping the memory of the dead alive, this can be a sort of giveness, but what is it – the dead giving to the living or the other way around?).  This may not be solved, but at least it is something that will require more study in the future.

As far as we can understand life and death, death is seen at the destination at the end of all life, but this is not as important/valuable as the journey.  Skipping ahead to the destination (by dying early) does not do anyone any favors.  Journeys require destinations, but the destination itself gives little value in comparison to the experience of the journey.  For example – there is little value in simply getting 100% on a test if passing it required no learning or effort.  Indeed: “Life is not death, but without death there is no life.” (Kojève 2018, 61)  Therefore, death is the impassible limit on life, and without limits there is no life.  Therefore, we need limits in our lives for them to be considered lives.  Finitude is necessary to complete our concepts of life.  Additionally, one’s death is not entirely valueless – one may die well (self-sacrifice), poorly (by killing innocent people along with themselves), or everything in between.

Where Kojève goes awry is on his stance of suicide.  On one hand, the concept of non-existence is unthinkable to a person, yet:  “Suicide is the conscious and voluntary end of the existence of the human being in the world.” (Kojève 2018, 82)  So, how can anyone consciously and voluntarily enter into a state of existence in which they have no possible way of understanding it?  A contract is not considered valid unless both parties understand what they are agreeing to, so the person committing suicide is entering into a contract where they have no possible means of understanding it.  If one is unable to know what one is agreeing to, then that is hardly a decision one are capable of making.

This is why we have laws against underage drinking or sex – the individual may be physically capable of drinking beer or having sex, but we have learned that under a certain age of mental development people are unable to understand the consequences of those types of behavior.  Therefore, by granting any kind of positive attributes to suicide is at best naïve and worst morally repugnant as we know that there is no age in which we can be mentally competent enough to know that killing ourselves is the right choice.

Indeed, our freedom is linked to our finitude, both in the idea that yes we can drop dead at any moment and for a myriad of reasons.  I believe Kojève is saying that we can understand that we are mortal and can die at any time, but at the same time not truly know what it is like.  The freedom we have in life is knowing that there is an end, so we have this motivation to act in the here and now.  If we were immortal – what would be the rush to accomplish anything?  Free from the shackles of immortality, we strive to learn, to extend our ‘giveness’ to the outside world.

The concept of death and suicide aside, Kojève does a marvelous job of placing atheism and theism within their proper spheres.  Both sides pride themselves on their differences, but they are actually more alike than they would admit, and Kojève puts them together enough so that dialogues can be opened:  “By equating the non-atheist with the theist, I have identified all of what is not the world with God or, better, with divinity.” (Kojève 2018, 98)

Kojève is correct to posit that one’s atheism or theism infuses itself into their very work – most importantly into their science or philosophy.  It is a far too common occurrence for people to assume that because they do a thing for a paycheck, the particular ideology they prescribe to will not affect their jobs in anyway.  Every time someone kneels on the prayer mat, or consumes the host wine, or stands at attention to the national anthem – are strengthening their own ideology – and through it will influence the way we perceive and act within the world in a way they cannot be aware of.  Atheism or theism is an important part of one’s ideology, and since ideology is the unseen mover that shapes peoples thoughts and actions, then it is fair to say it influences everything we do or think.

Both the theist and atheist feel the other is lacking in something and do not truly understand the other’s position.  The theist has as a part of themselves that is something outside the material realm, while the atheist does not.  Kojève is right to claim that secularity and religion is not the same realm of understanding as atheism and theism – as those are matter of logics.  Religion and Secularism play by their own rules, by that they have their own axioms that fall outside logic itself.  Christian religious studies simply assume God exists, and from there all their work goes from that point.  The same for atheistic works – they assume no God exists and from there all conclusions are reached.  Kojève’s conclusions predate either and seek to understand where both views originate.

On further study – it would appear both are closer to the realms of religion than logic: “…the God of science is not the same as the God of religion, this is nonetheless God.” (Kojève 2018, 122)  Better understood, however, is that the beliefs of both atheists and theists are within the realm of religion, but the particular values of each are understood in the realm of logic.

We cannot describe either position exactly, as there are varying degrees of theist and atheism most of us hold onto.  Still, Kojève does a good job in describing each as best as humanly can.  All in all, this was a fine introductory text to Kojève’s positions on death, suicide, atheism and theism.  Additionally, even those unfamiliar with his other works can enjoy this text as an introduction to these concepts presented here.  Indeed, I would recommend it to anyone interested in these topics as a foundation to further study in the matters at hand.

The only drawbacks to the text are the few oddities of language usage, and that the text itself does not give us more.  It is as if Kojève was wise enough to have the concrete answers on what it means to be atheist and theist, but is hiding it from us – so we are wanting more (if we can call this a drawback).  A truly successful paper in philosophy, like art, is one that sparks the imagination, encourages debate, and leaves us open to a new slew of problems that we were previously unaware of.  Considering these criteria, this book is a resounding success.


Kojève, Alexandre. 2018. Atheism. Translated by Jeff Love. New York: Columbia University Press.
“Tonus.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tonus. Accessed 9 December 2019.

Alexandre Kojève: The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov

The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov Book Cover The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov
Alexandre Kojève
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback $69.99
VII, 81

Reviewed by: Thomas Nemeth (USA)

Kojève’s slim volume, a translation of a two-part article that originally appeared in 1934/35, while its author was conducting his famous seminars on Hegel in Paris, is itself an “adaptation,” as the translators’ put it, of a 1926 dissertation submitted as a dissertation in Heidelberg under the supervision of Karl Jaspers. This French-language article “La métaphysique religieuse de Vladimir Soloviev” was not Kojève’s first presentation of Solovyov’s ideas. He had previously published in 1930 a short piece entitled “Die Geschichtsphilosophie Wladimir Solowjews,” presumably also culled from his dissertation. Kojève was also not the first Russian to submit a dissertation to a German university on Solovyov. Fedor Stepun had already in 1910 – only a decade after Solovyov’s death – submitted a dissertation also with the title Die Geschichtsphilosophie Wladimir Solowjews to Heidelberg University.

Alexandre Kojève’s name needs little introduction to Western audiences familiar with secondary literature on Hegel. The notes from Kojève’s Parisian lectures at the École Pratique des Hautes Études on the Phenomenology of Spirit have long been available to English-speaking philosophy students. Kojève, born Aleksandr Kozhevnikov in Russia in 1902, had by all accounts a unique personality. In the same year that he completed his dissertation, he moved to Paris, where another well-known Russian émigré scholar/philosopher Alexandre Koyré happened to have established himself as early as 1912 after Husserl had rejected his dissertation. (Despite this, Koyré remained on quite friendly terms with his former mentor, who attended Koyré’s dissertation defense in Paris.) Later in life after World War II, Kojève worked in the French Ministry of Economics and from there was instrumental in establishing the European Common Market. Although a Marxist, at least of sorts, he was invited to Berlin in 1967 by radical students to whom he allegedly advised that they should turn their attention instead to learning ancient Greek!

Kojève’s book can be read from two distinct viewpoints. We can, on the one hand, comb the text for Kojève’s own positions at the time of its writing. Bearing in mind his later emphasis on the Hegelian dialectic and in particular on the master-slave riposte Kojève made famous in his reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, we can attempt to see its anticipation here. Indeed, there are good grounds for doing just that, and we find within the pages of this book a considerable discussion of the Absolute vis-à-vis the Other. Within the framework of Kojève’s concern, this is both understandable and cannot be held to be inappropriate or incorrect. Kojève’s familiarity with Schelling and Hegel as well as with the German mystical tradition is clearly evident throughout his text. Whether Kojève’s emphasis on Solovyov’s debt to those German writers is excessive or not is for the reader to determine. No one has seriously questioned, however, that Solovyov owed a great debt to Hegel and the later Schelling, even though specific references to the latter in Solovyov’s writings are virtually non-existent.

On the other hand, one can read Kojève’s book apart from its author’s later writings, taking it as what it purports to be, namely, a secondary text on Vladimir Solovyov, which is how we shall approach the book here. Solovyov is likely to be a name less familiar to an English-speaking philosophical audience. Although generally regarded as the greatest Russian philosopher of the nineteenth century, his works are almost invariably classified as belonging to religious philosophy. We find in them, especially his early writings, hardly a trace of the concerns that would rivet either the budding German neo-Kantian movement or the logic of such figures as Bolzano, Frege, or Husserl. Solovyov, instead, was deeply religious in that his beliefs were carried over into his philosophical investigations, something that cannot be said about the other figures mentioned. Solovyov did seek to express his religious faith in the form of a philosophy employing his knowledge of both the history of philosophy and philosophical terminology, suitably adapted of course. Thus, a reader coming with contemporary analytic sensibilities will look in askance at such claims as that ideal Humanity, the Soul of the World (note the capitalizations) is an individual, free, and independent being (58). Kojève, especially in his later pages, is particularly prone to such statements without comment, let alone critical assessment. Solovyov, certainly, writes in such a manner. However, should a twentieth-century philosopher let such a claim pass freely? There are countless additional statements that Kojève affirms as Solovyov’s position and that the former fails to question or to clarify. To be sure, he offers a masterful paraphrase, but it is just that and no more than that.

We see, then, that Kojève is correct in seeing the starting point and the center of gravity of Solovyov’s thought lies in metaphysics. What Kojève does not make sufficiently clear is that his characterization applies most poignantly to the early Solovyov, but, arguably to be sure, not to his later works. Indeed, Kojève focuses almost exclusively on the early Solovyov, though he does reference from time to time Solovyov’s 1889 Russia and the Universal Church, which appeared originally in French and in some proffered periodizations belongs to Solovyov’s middle period.

As with most Solovyov-scholars, Kojève sees Solovyov’s literary activity falling into three distinct periods. Doing so is in keeping with Solovyov’s own fixation on triadic schemes. Kojève in his earlier German-language essay on Solovyov’s philosophy of history from 1930 found that the first period featured a philosophy of history under the influence of the Slavophiles. During a second period a Catholic influence predominated, and the third period or standpoint, which was also the briefest, was represented by just one writing, the three conversations known in English translation as War, Progress and the End of History from 1900. This appeared just a short time before Solovyov’s death. We could object to Kojève’s particular delimitations, but we should keep in mind that his concern in this early essay was with Solovyov’s philosophy of history, not his metaphysical system. Unfortunately, Kojève was noticeably silent on just when this supposed “Catholic period” in Solovyov’s thought began, but presumably it extended until the writing of the 1900 piece.

In the book under review here, Kojève offered a different periodization for Solovyov’s philosophical works, presumably owing to the book’s different orientation – but, nevertheless still three and only three periods. Kojève finds that the first one serves as a historical and critical introduction to Solovyov’s metaphysical system, a system that he had already in his mental possession by this time. Kojève, unfortunately, fails to demarcate how long this period extended. But it surely includes Solovyov’s first major writing, viz., his magister’s thesis The Crisis of Western Philosophy, for he there declares, as Kojève notes, that a definitive metaphysical system would emerge on Russian soil in the near future. Kojève is somewhat misleading in stating that this system would, in Solovyov’s eyes, be his own. The metaphysical system Solovyov had in mind at the time of writing his Crisis text was that presented by the Eastern Church Fathers. Contrary to Kojève’s claim, Solovyov had neither a fully formed system at this early date nor would he ever if by that we mean Solovyov had already conceived all the details. For example, when he published his major systematic work the Critique of Abstract Principles he had not yet, nor would he ever, have a hammered out comprehensive philosophy of art. Kojève characterizes the second period of Solovyov’s activity to be the shortest, and during this time he presented an outline of his metaphysics. It is from the works of this period that Kojève will draw much of his discussion. The third period is the longest. However, since Solovyov apparently at this time lost much of his interest in theoretical questions and in metaphysics proper, it is of little concern to Kojève. Indeed, the latter has little to say about the works stemming from this last phase in Solovyov’s thinking. What is hard to countenance is Kojève’s dismissal of those works on the grounds that by 1890 – and thus just after the publication of Russia and the Universal Church – Solovyov had completed the elaboration of his metaphysics and would not make any changes to it important enough to mention. In light of the fact that Solovyov explicitly rewrote his ethics resulting in The Justification of the Moral Good and started a revision of his “theoretical philosophy” immediately after doing so, it is hard to assent to Kojève’s claim.

Kojève draws his discussion of Solovyov’s metaphysics from three early works in addition to the 1889 one. Although Kojève recognizes that there are obscurities, inaccuracies, contradictions, and shortcomings in Solovyov’s works, these are not often carefully indicated. Kojève also charges Solovyov’s thinking with being often abstract and superficial, more religious than philosophical. Yet, Kojève avoids philosophical, i.e., rational, and secular criticism of that thinking. As have many other commentators on these writings, Kojève sees a marked inspiration from Schelling in Solovyov’s constructions. Kojève goes so far as to say that Schelling served almost exclusively as Solovyov’s model and that the German Idealist’s philosophy lay at the root of nearly all of the Russian’s metaphysical ideas. What Kojève does not point out is the fundamental differences between Schelling and Solovyov. One of the most striking, of course, is that for the former the “positive” reconstruction of Christianity is merely the first step on the road to a philosophical metaphysics, whereas for Solovyov his elaborations are meant as an expression of the truth of Christianity. Solovyov had no intention of replacing Christianity with philosophy of any sort.

Notwithstanding the alleged influence of Schelling, we cannot be surprised that Kojève sees as well a dialectic of the “Other” in Solovyov’s metaphysics, although he finds that dialectic to be the most obscure and most abstract part of it. Those interested in Kojève’s thought for its own sake can surely find much of interest here. Most curious, though, is that instead of seeing Solovyov’s discussion as drawn from Hegel’s Phenomenology, Kojève sees it as a “simplified and impoverished paraphrase” of the relevant speculations found in Schelling, who, in turn, is largely indebted to Jakob Böhme (23). In a sense, we cannot truly be surprised. Others even more recently, such as Zdenek David, have recognized the influence of the German mystic Böhme on Solovyov and Russian religious philosophy in general. Solovyov may have first turned to Böhme through the former’s philosophy professor at Moscow University Pamfil Jurkevich and the spiritualist circle around Ivan Lapshin, a civil servant, orientalist, and father of the St. Petersburg philosophy professor Ivan Ivanovich Lapshin. Kojève, in turn, may have been alerted to this German source of Solovyov’s own metaphysics through the 1929 book on Böhme by his friend Koyré.

Kojève, of course, recognizes that there is a certain “kinship” between the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and Neoplatonic teachings, but he finds that kinship to be extremely vague. What kinship there is between the Christian doctrine and Neoplatonism can be easily explained through the influence of Neoplatonism on early Christianity, when the latter was still in its formative stages. Solovyov himself gave neither any direct indication nor any evidence of the source or sources of his own conception of the Christian Trinity. We have no basis to hold that Solovyov was directly influenced by Plotinus or any of his disciples here. For Kojève, Solovyov saw his own version of the Trinitarian doctrine arising from his idea of the Absolute independently of the Christian tradition to which he otherwise expressed such allegiance. Solovyov’s conviction in his originality in this matter is illusory and shows the extent to which Solovyov thought was permeated by dogmatism. He believed that thinking through his religious experience he could deduce all dogmatic truths including that of the Trinity. In Kojève’s eyes, the speculations of the German Idealists, rather than the Neoplatonists, served as Solovyov’s more immediate source (28).

What we have seen thus far forms a section of the book that Kojève calls “The Doctrine of God.” The next section, “The Doctrine of World” is frankly more metaphysical, if that is imaginable. Kojève provides a faithful recounting of Solovyov’s early metaphysical position, but without extended critical reflection on it from the standpoint of concrete, empirical substantiation. Solovyov’s conception of Divine Humanity is above all the “culmination and crown” of his religious metaphysics (31). Whereas we can affirm that it is the crown of that doctrine, it strains logic to hold that it, in the same breath, is also the starting point of Solovyov’s doctrine of the world. How it can be both the culmination and starting point is unclear unless we distinguish in some ill-defined manner Divine Humanity from the world. Solovyov, after all, has precious little to say about the world apart from humanity. Even more egregious, though, is Kojève’s assertion that Solovyov’s idea of Divine Humanity, being the “keystone” of his metaphysics, is, for that reason, the pivot of his entire philosophical system. Such an assertion may be true on the face of it for Solovyov’s early writings, but it needs demonstration when affirmed of the writings stemming from the last decade of Solovyov’s life.

Kojève is on firmer grounds in claiming that the presentation of Sophia in Solovyov’s metaphysics and that in his alleged mystical experience is enormous. Since the manuscript material related to Sophia has now been widely available for some years, the reader can easily confirm Kojève’s statement that many of the elements in the mysticism associated with Sophia have equivalents in Solovyov’s early metaphysics. Yet, Kojève correctly recognizes that the Sophia depicted in that metaphysical doctrine cannot be the image he supposedly saw as a vision while sitting in the British Museum’s library and which directed him to proceed forthwith to Egypt.

Kojève holds that whereas Solovyov purports to analyze the dialectical notion of the Absolute deductively to obtain his doctrine of God, the doctrine of World employs an empirical method. It is to Kojève’s credit to recognize that Solovyov does not adhere rigorously to these two respective methods in their respective domains. In fact, Kojève is, if anything, too polite. In both doctrines, the assumptions made are staggering in number. Solovyov sees the entire doctrine of God as merely a rational deduction from what is contained in a mystical intuition of divine love. He makes no allowance for those who are unable to intuit this Godly presence, and the premises for his a posteriori, inductive doctrine of the World are similarly not ones with which everyone would agree. The early Solovyov has God doing this and that spelled out in language just as questionably appropriate as the general idea being expressed. On what basis Solovyov determines that God imparts freedom to his creation and then separates Himself from that creation is anyone’s guess. Kojève, following in Solovyov’s footsteps, apparently feels no trepidation in using the word “freedom” in conjunction with the Soul of the world, but Kojève provides no non-circular definition of the term. Indeed, even an idea itself can be characterized as free! Again to Kojève’s credit, he recognizes that Solovyov is indebted to others, particularly to Schelling, which can come as a surprise to no one. Immersed as he was in the metaphysical aspects of German Idealism, Kojève finds Schelling behind Solovyov’s formulations, with the general ideas and structure being similar (71).

There is little here in Kojève’s work that we can easily characterize as phenomenological, focusing as it does on the early metaphysics of Solovyov. Kojève makes no attempt to provide a non-metaphysical reading. Certainly, Solovyov himself understood his position as definitely, even defiantly, religious. But what we, as readers, can ask is why this work at this time. The translators in their introduction admirably discuss the difficult writing style Kojève employed. To their credit, were it not for their comments the reader would likely not realize the points they make. The English is generally smooth and flows as gently as one could wish given the abstruse subject matter. Knowing something about Kojève’s writing style might tell us something about Kojève, but it does little for our knowledge of Kojève’s thoughts on Solovyov. It would have been helpful if the translators had situated this work within Kojève’s corpus and at least have compared the ideas presented with those found in his work on Solovyov in German. Perhaps that was not their intention. But if we look at this extended essay as an intended contribution to scholarship on Solovyov, we can ask what its relationship was at the time of its original appearance to other works on Solovyov in general but particularly to those in the French-speaking world.

Unfortunately, the translators also do not inform us why they singled out this work for their efforts. Is it outstanding in some special manner compared to others? Were it not for the fact that Kojève later became widely known for his Hegel-interpretation would they have translated it nonetheless? Most regrettably, the translators do not situate Kojève’s work within the body of Solovyov-scholarship in recent years. They take no account of the vast literature in either Russia or the West that has appeared particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Again, the question, then, arises: Why this work at this time? Is Kojève’s extended essay in some manner better than recent work on the same topic?

The translators’ references can be confusing or at least troublesome. Whereas the translators make the appropriate references to Solovyov’s works, these are to the now obsolete first edition of the collected works from the first decade of the 20th century instead of availing themselves of the far more accurate and detailed 21st century ongoing edition together with its detailed commentary. Additionally, the references given are always to the mentioned Russian edition even when an English-language translation exists. This poses an obstacle to anyone without knowledge of Russian but who wishes to pursue some idea further. It certainly would also have been helpful to mention the title of the individual work by Solovyov, rather than simply the volume and page number within the set of the collected works.

In conclusion, whereas the advanced student of Solovyov may find Kojève’s work unnecessary, those largely unacquainted with the ideas of the Russian religious philosopher will find this to be a splendid introduction as well as further evidence of the infiltration of German Idealism into Russia.

Alexandre Kojève: Atheism, Columbia University Press, 2018

Atheism Book Cover Atheism
Alexandre Kojève. Translated by Jeff Love
Columbia University Press
Hardback $32.00£25.00