Greg Johnson Interviews F. Roger Devlin on Alexandre Kojève & the End of HistoryF. Roger Devlin
The following text is the transcript by V. S. of my conversation with F. Roger Devlin about Alexandre Kojève (1902–1968) and the end of history. To listen to the audio in a player, click here. To download the mp3, right-click here and choose “save target or link as.” To subscribe to our podcasts, click here.
Greg Johnson: I’m Greg Johnson. Welcome to Counter-Currents Radio. Our guest today is F. Roger Devlin who is the author of Alexandre Kojève and the Outcome of Modern Thought as well as many essays and reviews published in scholarly journals such as The Occidental Quarterly and also at Counter-Currents and by American Renaissance.
So, welcome to the show!
Roger Devlin: Hello! Glad to be here.
GJ: It’s good to have you on. I want to talk about your first book, which is Alexandre Kojève and the Outcome of Modern Thought. Your second book is going to come out next year with Counter-Currents and it will be on, basically, the state of the sexes in contemporary America. It’s going to be called Sexual Utopia in Power.
FRD: That’s right.
GJ: Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel was something that I first read in 1990. I’m looking at my copy of the abridged English translation. I bought it on August 28, 1990. I have to say this was one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read — intellectually one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read.
FRD: Yeah! I myself picked up the original French version for, I think, five bucks at a used book store in the French Quarter in New Orleans in the late ’80s and I was just swept up in it the way you were. It’s a fascinating book. It provides a great deal of just plain intellectual pleasure for anybody of a philosophical bent.
GJ: Exactly. And it’s really not hard to see why the book has had such tremendous influence, because it’s so fertilizing to the imagination.
FRD: Yes. Very suggestive.
GJ: So, tell us who Alexandre Kojève was.
FRD: Alexandre Kojève was born Aleksandr Vladimirovič Koževnikov in Moscow in 1902 into a wealthy middle-class family. He experienced the revolution of 1917 close-up and the Bolshevik seizure of power. He was arrested by the Cheka, Lenin’s secret police, for trading soap on the black market during the civil war years and was denied admittance into the University of Moscow because of his class origin. He fled Russia in 1920. He returned once and was able to smuggle some family jewels across the line, and that’s how he supported himself for about 10 years in Western Europe pursuing his studies, mostly in Germany where he got a doctorate in philosophy. He wrote his dissertation on the Russian thinker, Vladimir Solovyov. His Doktorvater was Karl Jaspers. Then he moved to Paris in 1927 and when the stock market crashed he was pretty much wiped out and made his living reviewing books for a time.
In 1933, I suppose it was, he was asked to take over a seminar by the eminent philosopher of science, Alexandre Koyré, who was leaving to take a post abroad. The seminar was on Hegel, so for a period of about six years, Kojève led this graduate seminar on Hegel and devoted it to a close reading of The Phenomenology of the Spirit, which to some extent he was commenting on, but also to a considerable extent he kind of made Hegel’s text a starting point for his own philosophical reflections.
Some famous thinkers were in these seminars on Hegel, including Raymond Aron, the liberal sociologist and political philosopher; Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French phenomenologist; André Breton of the Surrealist movement, a poet and writer; Georges Bataille, another writer who was very famous at the time; a Jesuit priest, Gaston Fessard, who was one of the Church’s principal intellectuals in the 20th century; and Raymond Queneau, a comic novelist.
Queneau assembled the notes from Kojève’s seminar and published them before the end of the ’30s under the title Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. This book is Kojève’s most important philosophical statement. It’s an interpretation of Hegel that also develops a lot of kind of independent views of Kojève’s own and it’s one of the more important philosophical works of the 20th century. It incorporates ideas from Marx and Husserl and Heidegger to interpret Hegel’s phenomenology. It also gives a kind of philosophy of history among other things. It makes a great deal of use of a particular chapter in Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, which is the struggle for recognition which ends in the existence of a master and a slave which are representatives of ruling and ruled classes in human history.
GJ: The most famous idea that circulates around is the idea of the end of history. Can you talk a bit about that?
FRD: That’s become something almost like a tagline that’s attached to Kojève. It’s really not something that’s original with Kojève. It’s found in Hegel’s phenomenology. The expression that Hegel actually uses in the last chapter of The Phenomenology of Spirit is “the abolition of time,” which certainly sounds at least as absurd on the face of it as “the end of history.”
Kojève and Hegel were both historicist philosophers. That’s something that perhaps we can get into later. They saw humanity as developing in the course of its history, so that, for example, certain ideas may have been true in antiquity but are no longer true today because human beings have changed between antiquity and today. Now, this historicism is usually a kind of relativist philosophy since human beings are constantly changing their circumstances and changing their ideas. So, it would appear that for a historicist there could be no such thing as a definitive truth about human beings. It would appear that way unless history is a finite process. If it is, then when you reach the end of the process you can give a full and timeless account of human beings and of all the various ideas that they have evolved throughout their history, and the final one that includes all of humanity’s possibilities would then be the answer to philosophy, a system of wisdom or a final and definitive account of human beings.
GJ: The idea that man, in a sense, makes himself through history basically is a denial that there’s a fixed human nature.
FRD: That’s right.
GJ: And yet, if the process of history’s unfolding is finite, where lies this finitude? Is this the finitude of human nature? I remember Hegel in The Philosophy of History talks about how at the beginning of history one man is free and then some men are free and then at the end of history all men are free.
GJ: And those are the only possibilities. There are three possibilities. There’s no fourth possibility. There is an objective order of possibilities there, and my question is: isn’t that akin to what someone like Aristotle would call human nature?
FRD: Yes. Yes, it is. The doctrine of human nature was developed by the ancients. Oddly enough, the first man to propose that there was such a thing as a fixed human nature was not a philosopher but the historian Thucydides, who remarked early on, I believe in the preface to his history, that future generations would be able to learn from the history of what we call the Peloponnesian War because future generations would basically be the same as the people of Thucydides’ own time, that there was a constant human nature that had a certain fixed number of possibilities so that past history would never become irrelevant to human beings.
Plato and Aristotle later developed this into a complete philosophical doctrine according to which human beings are born with a certain nature, with certain finite capacities and they were best served when they tried to develop their natural capacities than try to work against them or try to change human nature.
This was the kind, I guess you could call it, the philosophical orthodoxy of the Occident throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but it began to be challenged in the 17th and 18th century by thinkers such as Hobbes and Rousseau who contended that man makes himself in the course of history, that he is a kind of pure potentiality when he starts out, but creates certain institutions which then eventually come to define him. Hegel’s contribution, and Kojève following Hegel, is simply that the historical process must be finite if it can ever be understood, if it can ever be finally intelligible and so that’s what leads you to the doctrine of the end of history and eventually arrives at a certain unsurpassable set of institutions and ideas. Hegel believed that had occurred during his own lifetime.
GJ: It’s interesting. The ancients did recognize there was a distinction between nature and convention. I remember Herodotus highlights the differences between the laws and customs of different societies and yet they also had the notion of an unchanging natural order. With Plato and Aristotle you get an unchanging human nature.
GJ: But at the same time there is this realm of human convention, customs, laws, languages, things like that. Couldn’t an Aristotelian today say something like this to Kojève or Hobbes or Rousseau, who were pushing a historicist line? Yes, of course, man creates institutions and customs, and there is, it seems, a realm of human freedom where the human imagination can create things that weren’t possible before. And yet this process could be understood as the actualization of man’s nature. And the historical process, if it does come to an end, would come to an end precisely because finally the institutions and conventions that we have created fully accord with our inner nature.
Why couldn’t an Aristotelian take all of that developmental history, all of that rich sensitivity to man’s freedom, the realm of freedom, changing customs and conventions, and still maintain a basic commitment to a kind of Aristotelian notion of human nature?
FRD: Yes. That’s right. The simple answer is that it is possible to do that. Yes. In fact, there’s no such thing as a critical experiment that could give you some sort of empirical answer as to whether historicism or the theory of human nature are true. But what Kojève says is that the ultimate criterion for the end of history having been reached is what he calls a system of science. If man can produce a complete and exhaustive account of the world around him, but it would always be open to a human nature theorist to say that all of this is simply a development of potentialities which were given at the beginning.
Ultimately, it comes down to this, I think: the ancients had a kind of realist understanding of potentiality. Just as the ideas of Plato are eternal, human beings are born with a certain finite set of capacities and these are developed over historical time and so what you get in the end is not so much the end of history as the final realization of man’s nature.
More generally, it’s always the case that a worldview can explain other worldviews within its own terms. So, I don’t think it’s possible to finally verify historicism and falsify the theory of human nature or the other way around.
GJ: Right. It does interest me that a lot of, say, existentialists in the 20th century set up their idea that existence precedes essence based on the rejection of a Platonic or even Aristotelian notion that order and form, essence, are eternal.
FRD: That’s right.
GJ: It strikes me that one could still believe, in some kind of Darwinian view, that species evolve over time.
GJ: And yet at the same time believe that as far as we’re concerned, even though our species might have evolved through some kind of contingencies, our nature is fixed relative to our acts of will, that there’s an objective order of human nature that we can’t simply change by deciding. However, there is a possibility that human nature can be changed through human action, but it would have to be changed through changing our biology.
FRD: Right. Eugenics, essentially.
GJ: Eugenics. And Plato actually talked about eugenics in The Republic.
GJ: If it’s the case that in the past, through whatever criteria, say aesthetic criteria or economic criteria or whatever, encouraged the breeding of a certain type and discouraged other types then that is a way in which human action has shaped human nature. Of course, now we’re on the brink of having mapped the genome. We’re at the brink of genetic engineering.
GJ: At that point, it would seem like human nature can be created in a sense. Man is at the point of being able to create himself.
FRD: Yes. Now, Plato, I believe, probably conceived of his eugenics program as a way of getting humanity to approach ever closer to an unattainable ideal of human perfection.
On the modern view, there’s a wonderful book. I reviewed it once for you, I believe, when you were editor of TOQ called The 10,000 Year Explosion, which discusses how the human genome has changed over historical time, so that human nature does differ, at least slightly, today from what it was in Antiquity and it also opens the possibility that different human races have slightly different human natures. All of them being human, you know, all of them being speaking animals, human beings more or less capable of reasoning, but different in their qualities because of their different evolutionary histories. That’s quite possible.
I suppose ancient thought could be somehow altered to take that in, but it’s also highly compatible with historicist thinking.
GJ: Right. I think that one can be a kind of natural historicist, if you will, looking backward and seeing that there are contingencies that have created natures that didn’t exist for all eternity, namely our nature, that certain actions and conventions might have shaped the development of our nature. But now we’re sort of at the brink of a much more general capacity to shape our nature.
S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, who really wants to maintain a kind of classical ethics based upon human nature, really looked upon this in horror, because the very foundations of classical ethics, namely a fixed human nature, were suddenly up for grabs, and for him it looked like the future was nihilist. Existentialism was going to come true through genetic engineering.
FRD: Yes. And I think that Gilbert Keith Chesterton also criticized eugenics on the same grounds.
GJ: Well, the genie is out.
FRD: Yes, right. It’s kind of difficult to reverse gears at this point, right?
GJ: Yeah, and it is interesting though, because one of the things that is probably going to shape our decisions to shape our posterity are going to be aesthetic ideas about what’s beautiful.
GJ: I wonder if something like a form of Platonism is going to creep back in that way, that there are these oddly fixed aesthetic ideas that are mathematically definable about what the beautiful human being is, and maybe those are the things that are ultimately going to shape the future.
FRD: And more importantly, what is desirable human behavior?
FRD: I expect that maybe the first people who experiment in this manner are going to be the Chinese, and they have a lot of good qualities, but they’ve never created the kind of system of scientific investigation such as we have in the West. So, what they’re going to come up with I don’t know, but it’ll be something that probably wouldn’t please very many people in the Occident. People are ever more cooperative, for example, but who think in some ways ever more narrowly. I can imagine that happening.
GJ: But there would have to be some kind of leadership caste.
GJ: It starts to look like an ant hill or a termite mound where the rulers look like different species from the workers. But, of course, Plato was pointing in that direction, too.
FRD: Yes, that’s right.
GJ: In The Republic, the guardians are going to look like very different breeds of dogs from the workers.
GJ: So, let’s talk a little bit about this end of history idea, because as I understand it the end of history in Kojève also developed. There was development after history ended. At least in his ideas of it.
FRD: Yes, in Kojève’s own biography he went through different phases of thinking about the end of history. Just as there can be different theories of human nature, there can be different ways of thinking about the end of history. It’s not a single sort of hidebound way of thinking or ideology.
At first, when Kojève was giving his seminar on Hegel he was something of a Marxist and he thought that Hegel was simply wrong about history having ended with the French Revolution and Napoleon. Instead, he saw the revolution that had engulfed his own land, the Russian Revolution, as being a further stage of history and the end of history as being something that had not been achieved, but which Stalin, despite the criminality of his actions, was attempting to do, something that Stalin was attempting to bring about. So, he saw the end of history at that time as lying still in the future, and it is foreshadowed in some significant way, particularly by Bolshevik Russia more than by the West. That’s the first version of the end of history. We could call it the Soviet vision of the end of history.
Now, Kojève, after he finished his seminar on Hegel and after it was published, continued to cling to the idea of an end of history, but he didn’t stop thinking and over the years through the experience of the war and becoming even a kind of administrator in the French government after the war he changed his views and he came to understand that Hegel had been right and that history had in fact ended at the beginning of the 19th century and that the Russian Revolution was simply a repetition on a kind of larger scale of the ideas of the French Revolution. That’s an easily defensible theory, by the way. Although the Bolsheviks considered the French Revolution to have been a bourgeois revolution as opposed to their own proletarian revolution, when they actually came to study the French Revolution it was hard to point to any specific thing the Bolsheviks themselves were doing which was not anticipated in some way by the French Revolution, especially during the time of Robespierre’s terror of the Convention and the regime that existed in the years 1793 and 1794.
So, anyway, Kojève came to agree with Hegel that the end of history had occurred, and he also came to think that the ideals of Marxism had been more fully realized in the United States than in the Soviet Union or in any other Western country. For example, there’s this passage in Marx where he talks about the communistic world after the revolution being a place where you can hunt in the morning and fish in the evening and practice literary and philosophical criticism in the evening around the fire. This is something that, yeah, it sounds kind of utopian, but if you try to look for where it has been most clearly realized in the 1950s anyway the answer would seem to be in the United States with its very high standard of living and high degree of social mobility. So, Kojève’s second interpretation of the end of history could be called the American interpretation and he actually expressed this view in a long footnote to the reprint of Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, which I think came out in about 1947 or 1948. This long footnote became one of his most important mini-works. It’s like a mini-essay form of a footnote of about 2 pages in small type, maybe 3 pages in ordinary type, outlining his view that America had achieved the end of history and, as he once put it, Henry Ford was the only orthodox Marxist of the 20th century. Modern capitalists are the ones who really gave the proletariat all of these possibilities, all of this leisure to engage in different kinds of activities.
GJ: Was Kojève the first person to advance the thesis then that capitalism and communism were basically converging?
FRD: Oh yes, this is definitely a form of the convergence theory. I don’t know whether he was historically the first person to do that, but his second or American theory of the end of history was a kind of convergence theory where he thought that the Russians might be politically in some ways ahead of America, but America from a practical point of view had realized Marxist ideals to a greater extent than the Soviet Union itself. So, yes, it’s a convergence theory.
GJ: That’s interesting. The third phase of Kojève’s understanding of the end of history could be called his Japanese phase. Can you talk a little bit about the Japanese phase?
FRD: Yes. In the late ’50s, Kojève, who did a great deal of traveling, visited Japan and became fascinated by Japanese culture. He came to the theory that Japan had in effect since the Tokugawa period, since the period of isolation that began around 1600, gone through an experiment in the end of history, as he called it, had created a culturally fixed form of society which had some weird sort of Platonic characteristics such as the tea ceremony and flower arranging. A kind of empty formalism came to characterize Japanese culture. Although Japan had never been through the various phases of history that have occurred in the West. They had, he thought, come to realize a kind of post-historical culture which allowed what he would have called “the preservation of the certain form of negativity” to continue.
This is a little difficult to explain, but Kojève in his American version of the end of history seemed to share some of the European snobs’ typical views of the United States as a materialistic society where the end result of historical struggle was a society in which everyone was well-fed and well-clothed, which also could be seen as a falling off really from the historical existence of man as an existence of work and struggle, of risk of one’s existence and negation of one’s animal desires.
FRD: The end of history on this view was seen as a kind of ultimate satisfaction of animal desires. Therefore, it is a kind of return to animality.
GJ: Right. He actually talked about the end of history as the abolition of man and the triumph of the well-fed animal.
FRD: Right. Or what Nietzsche called the Last Man.
GJ: The Last Man. It’s the vision of the America of hamburgers and gas-guzzlers with tailfins. It’s the well-fed bourgeois American who is, for all of his wonderful machines and longevity and health and welfare, really very much culture-free or if he’s got culture it’s a synthetic, manufactured pop culture.
The Japanese have a post-historical existence which retains essentially aristocratic values of formal culture, luxury, basically non-bourgeois values including things like the sacrifice of life for honor.
GJ: For a bourgeois man, there’s nothing worth giving up his life for. In Japan, even though they have this period of post-historical peace they still had a sense of these aristocratic values that manifested themselves in luxury, cultural formalism, and also in the gratuitous death over honor. It strikes me that what that indicates though, just reading Kojève’s value judgments about the end of history, is that he might have been a Marxist and he might be cheering on this process of globalization . . . I mean, he’s also a theorist of globalization and homogenization.
FRD: Right. Especially during the second period.
GJ: He coins this term, the “universal homogeneous state.”
FRD: Yes. That’s what we’re all supposed to be moving towards. That’s the real end of history. Although we have all the ideas, it remains to realize them in practice and the end result of realizing the final system of philosophy would be what he calls the “universal homogeneous state.” A world-state where everybody’s alike and everybody’s interchangeable. Pretty pessimistic view, originally.
GJ: Well, of course, we’re all supposed to be enthralled with this and feel that it’s morally uplifting.
GJ: You look at the United Nations crowd. That’s what they want.
FRD: Many people who probably do not read Counter-Currents very often see this as a wonderful ideal, as the triumph of humanism and rationality. It’s what our elites believe, really.
GJ: Kojève, one of the prophets of this, looks upon it and speaks about it in the most negative terms, which makes me wonder where his heart really was.
FRD: He may have really contradicted himself in this way. In his early phase, he did definitely talk about the end of history and the universal homogeneous state as something to be struggled and sacrificed for like an orthodox Marxist. Then he seemed to take this American view of the end of history as something which had occurred but which was mostly negative, which marked the end of humanity and man as the satisfaction of animal desires. In the third or Japanese period, he seemed to have gotten over his extreme pessimism at least. He thought it was possible to preserve some kind of humanity even in the post-historical epoch.
I don’t know whether or how these ideas might be resolved. Perhaps they’re just timeless possibilities just as there are different possible interpretations of theory of human nature that people can argue over forever.
GJ: If history begins with the struggle to the death over honor and then Kojève comes up with the idea that even in the post-historical era one can maintain this essentially aristocratic mentality, the struggle until death over honor, that really opens up the possibility that history can begin again.
FRD: Yeah, but, you know, in the Japanese form what you get instead of a struggle over honor is a suicide.
FRD: That’s the post-historical equivalent of the struggle over honor.
GJ: Right. They weren’t allowed to duel anymore.
FRD: Right. The master and the slave had become the same person, so all you can do is commit hara-kari and that takes the place of the struggle between two consciousnesses trying to achieve recognition.
GJ: But it strikes me that the danger of Kojève’s attempt to preserve these kinds of aristocratic values in a post-historical context is precisely this: if you preserve those values, those values could get loose and upset the end of history and start history over again, which is why when you look at somebody like Hobbes or somebody like Hume they are so utterly opposed to giving much reign at all, if any, to spiritedness and honor. They really think that this is the most dangerous thing for the world that they’re going to try to create. They might need it from time to time, at least the army needs to have it to go in and pacify some new colony or something, but you can’t let this become the reigning value of society or the liberal project comes to an end.
GJ: So, it does seem that what Kojève is at least planting the seed of or at least the possibility of is that history is not linear. You look at somebody like Mishima, right? I think he was trying to start history over in his own way.
FRD: Yeah. Kojève did say at one point that he was quite sure that, for example, the Athenian polis could never exist again in the future. So, I don’t think he did himself believe in any possibility of the restarting of history, but that may not answer the philosophical question. The ancients suggested that there could be such things as natural disasters which destroyed all historical memory after which human beings would go through the same sequence of forming different political regimes again. That seems to be a philosophical possibility. I wouldn’t discount it anyway.
GJ: Let’s go back to his biography.
FRD: Yeah, sure. Let’s talk about the war and afterwards. I think we left him, for the most part, right on the eve of the war with Queneau publishing the Introduction to the Reading of Hegel.
Kojève was active during the war. He moved to the south of France. He was not in the armed resistance, but he was a part of the larger resistance. He could speak fluent German having studied in Germany and having lived there for quite a few years. He was given missions of assuming a false identity and trying to get information from the occupying forces at great risk to himself.
When he wasn’t doing that, he wrote a big, big, long treatise called Outline of a Phenomenology of Law, which has only fairly recently been translated into English. A big work in the philosophy of law.
Then after the war, he got a job with the French government and worked as a kind of bureaucrat and administrator. He was working for the Ministry of External Economic Affairs. Trade policy and that sort of thing. He helped to found the European Economic Community, which later has grown into a kind of monster under the name of the European Union.
But you can see that this later biography of Kojève is certainly consistent with his second view of the end of history. After history ends and work and struggle are over and endless Americanization becomes the program for the future of mankind, the only thing for a man to do really is to . . . There’s really no more politics. Politics kind of loses its interest and morphs into a kind of administration and so he became an administrator.
GJ: It’s been claimed that Kojève actually worked for the Soviets.
FRD: Oh, yes. That’s a sheer claim. No actual evidence has been brought forward to substantiate that, although he did sometimes say that if he had stayed in Russia he could have just as well become a bureaucrat in the Russian state.
When he visited Moscow in the 1950s after Stalin’s death, he met with his mother, and he discussed how his life might have developed if he had stayed in the Soviet Union. Her opinion was that, “You would have been shot at least twice by now.” Which is very likely the case, although he pointed to the example of Mikoyan. There were political survivors in Russia who seemed to be able to survive under every possible regime. It can’t be said that he had any ultimate loyalty to the French state, a thinker of his character. He was a philosopher who was interested in the history of the whole world.
FRD: But I don’t think there’s any good evidence that he ever in fact betrayed any trust during the period of his employment.
GJ: It is very interesting that not only was he a theorist of globalization and a theorist of convergence, but he actually worked to bring these things about concretely in the political realm.
FRD: That’s right. He once joked that he wanted to revive the Roman Empire as an international soccer team since work and struggle are replaced by ritualized games, imitations of struggle, such as soccer. He kind of foresaw the development of sports fandom as a replacement for the serious games of war and politics.
GJ: Let’s talk about Kojève’s intellectual legacy. Just like Hegel who had Left Hegelians and Right Hegelians following him, Kojève had Left Kojèvians and Right Kojèvians.
GJ: The Left Kojèvians are really French post-modernists.
GJ: For me, when I was reading people like Lyotard’s The Post-Modern Condition, I thought this was the most extraordinary essay because it just seemed to be completely groundless, this view of this totalitarian meta-narrative that we had to escape into irony and play.
FRD: You didn’t know where he was coming from.
GJ: Yeah, and then I read Kojève and suddenly it became clear.
FRD: It all became clear. Right! Kojève is often an unacknowledged influence in French post-war thought. He influenced Sartre; he influenced Jacques Lacan; and he influenced Foucault. They seem to often take the worst parts of Kojève’s ideas. For example, Foucault took over Hegel and Kojève’s historicism, but without the rationality, without the end of history, and so we’re trapped inside a kind of unfruitful skepticism and relativism.
GJ: With people like Foucault and Lyotard, they basically have this cartoon of rationality, modernity, and so forth that turns out to be the Kojèvian cartoon, and then they set this horrible scarecrow up, and they reject it. If this be reason, then I want to embrace irrationality.
FRD: Right, right.
GJ: If this is where seriousness leads, then we need to embrace play. We need to be ironic. So, you get all of these tropes of post-modernism: the rejection of meta-narrative, the embrace of contingency, irony, and play. Those are all really reactions to Kojève’s Hegel, which embraces seriousness and struggle and leads to this dehumanized end of history that they want to basically escape. In a way, what they’re doing is starting history over. They’re fleeing into historicism, but it’s a historicism with no exit. Man is always incomplete. The play, the games always go forward. There’s a sense though that you can understand that.
So, when I read Kojève suddenly French post-modernism didn’t seem so extravagant and groundless. It was a reaction to something else that was quite extravagant.
Now, the Right Kojèvians basically boil down to the Straussians. So, talk a bit about the Straussian appropriation of Kojève.
FRD: Alright. Kojève and Strauss knew each other. Strauss went to Paris before proceeding to Great Britain and the United States and the two men met there and they began a correspondence when Strauss moved to England and began his study of Hobbes. Kojève and Strauss began a philosophical correspondence that lasted until Kojève’s death in 1968. This correspondence, by the way, has been reprinted in the latest, third edition of Strauss’ On Tyranny. It includes the whole Kojève-Strauss correspondence. It’s a quite interesting correspondence.
Strauss, of course, remained loyal to the legacy of ancient philosophy. It’s difficult to say what Strauss’ philosophy was, but he was clearly more sympathetic to the classical doctrine of human nature, and his philosophical practice ended up becoming something like a Talmudic style close reading of the classics of political philosophy, especially the ancient and medieval, the pre-modern classics of political philosophy. Strauss, of course, had a lot of admirers and followers known as Straussians, and there are East and West Coast Straussians.
As with the French post-modernists, they’re something like epigones. They’re much less interesting than Strauss himself, and I find that the Straussians’ political views are disappointingly conventional. They’re basically a bunch of Neo-Cons. But Strauss himself was a serious thinker, and I guess you could say he represents one of the possibilities for reviving ancient thought in the modern era.
GJ: It’s interesting that one of Strauss’ students, Allan Bloom, studied some with Kojève. So did Stanley Rosen, I think.
FRD: Yes. Stanley Rosen. Yes.
GJ: And one of the students of Bloom was Francis Fukuyama, who created The End of History and The Last Man, which is a popularization of Kojève.
FRD: Let me tell that story a little bit. As we have discussed at length, there are different ways of interpreting the idea of the end of history, and when Communism collapsed it was obvious that this could be explained in Kojèvian terms as part of a convergence theory that Eastern Europe was going to start assimilating to Western, late liberal democracy, and so Fukuyama gave this little lecture; he was invented to give a lecture on the subject, and he delivered an idea that was already pretty clear implicitly in Kojève’s own writings.
It was published in Irving Kristol’s Public Interest, I think it was, and it became a hit. It provoked a lot of responses, and eventually Fukuyama was given an offer to write a book, offered an advance by The Free Press. And he expanded his thesis into a book called The End of History and the Last Man, which was published in 1992.
He didn’t acquire practically any disciples, but he certainly stirred up a lot of discussion. It was something that actually got Washington political wonks thinking philosophically for a brief period during the early Clinton years.
GJ: It is a very exciting and interesting book. I think it’s well written. He tried to pull another Closing of the American Mind, and he almost succeeded.
FRD: He brought in Plato’s idea of thumos as one of the constituents of the human soul. He actually got people talking about philosophical ideas, which is something of an accomplishment in itself whether or not you believe in the end of history.
GJ: The ironic thing for me is that although Strauss was a believer, basically, in classical philosophy and had a very, very dim view of this idea of the end of history, today’s Straussians are basically all about building the universal homogeneous state.
FRD: That’s right.
GJ: And using the United States as the arsenal and England as Airstrip One for doing it.
FRD: That’s right! They seem to be trying to realize the second version of the end of history, the Americanization of the world. Most of them are kind of dim bulbs and probably couldn’t give any very good account of the real difference between Kojève and Strauss, but what they are in effect are second phase Kojèvians. They want America to be the nucleus of the universal homogeneous state, the end state of history and they see war as almost a tool of administration. Kind of bringing the provinces into line with the latest ideas in the capitol and making social democrats out of Muslim fanatics and tribalists in the jungles of Africa. Their goal is a world where everybody thinks alike, where everybody is basically a kind of Last Man, a perfect consumer, someone pliable to administration by the trained elites of the new world order.
It’s a pretty grim idea, and yet you can see how it has an intellectual pedigree that’s rather respectable going back to Kojève and even Hegel himself.
GJ: Roger, I really have enjoyed this conversation. This, I think, is going to be a very good interview. I think it’s a lot of food for thought for our listeners, and I really would like to invite you back and maybe next time we can talk about Leo Strauss.
FRD: Perhaps so. If you had trouble understanding the ideas we were talking about but are interested enough to learn more, you can take a look at my book Alexandre Kojève and the Outcome of Modern Thought.
GJ: Thank you very much, and I will talk to you again for another broadcast at Counter-Currents Radio.
FRD: Alright. Thank you, Greg!
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