An earlier post highlighted Alexandre Kojève’s presentation of Hegel’s rich conception of labor, freedom, and human self-creation. This account is contained in Kojève’s analysis of the Master-Slave section of Hegel’s Phenomenology in Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the “Phenomenology of Spirit”; link.
Here are the key passages from Hegel’s Phenomenology on which Kojève’s account depends, from Terry Pinkard’s translation in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit:
Hegel on the Master-Slave relation
195. However, the feeling of absolute power as such, and in the particularities of service, is only dissolution in itself, and, although the fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom, in that fear consciousness is what it is that is for it itself , but it is not being-for-itself. However, through work, this servile consciousness comes round to itself. In the moment corresponding to desire in the master’s consciousness, the aspect of the non-essential relation to the thing seemed to fall to the lot of the servant, as the thing there retained its self-sufficiency. Desire has reserved to itself the pure negating of the object, and, as a result, it has reserved to itself that unmixed feeling for its own self. However, for that reason, this satisfaction is itself only a vanishing, for it lacks the objective aspect, or stable existence. In contrast, work is desire held in check, it is vanishing staved off , or: work cultivates and educates. The negative relation to the object becomes the form of the object; it becomes something that endures because it is just for the laborer himself that the object has self-sufficiency. This negative mediating middle, this formative doing, is at the same time singularity, or the pure being-for-itself of consciousness, which in the work external to it now enters into the element of lasting. Thus, by those means, the working consciousness comes to an intuition of self-sufficient being as its own self.
196. However, what the formative activity means is not only that the serving consciousness as pure being-for-itself becomes, to itself, an exist- ing being within that formative activity. It also has the negative mean- ing of the first moment, that of fear. For in forming the thing, his own negativity, or his being-for-itself, only as a result becomes an object to himself in that he sublates the opposed existing form. However, this objective negative is precisely the alien essence before which he trembled, but now he destroys this alien negative and posits himself as such a negative within the element of continuance. He thereby becomes for himself an existing- being-for-itself . Being-for-itself in the master is to the servant an other, or it is only for him. In fear, being-for-itself is in its own self . In culturally formative activity, being-for-itself becomes for him his own being- for-itself, and he attains the consciousness that he himself is in and for himself. As a result, the form, by being posited as external, becomes to him not something other than himself, for his pure being-for-itself is that very form, which to him therein becomes the truth. Therefore, through this retrieval, he comes to acquire through himself a mind of his own, and he does this precisely in the work in which there had seemed to be only some outsider’s mind. – For this reflection, the two moments of fear and service, as well as the moments of culturally formative activity are both necessary, and both are necessary in a universal way. Without the discipline of service and obedience, fear is mired in formality and does not diffuse itself over the conscious actuality of existence. Without culturally formative activity, fear remains inward and mute, and consciousness will not become for it [consciousness] itself. If consciousness engages in formative activity without that first, absolute fear, then it has a mind of its own which is only vanity, for its form, or its negativity, is not negativity in itself , and his formative activity thus cannot to himself give him the consciousness of himself as consciousness of the essence. If he has not been tried and tested by absolute fear but only by a few anxieties, then the negative essence will have remained an externality to himself, and his substance will not have been infected all the way through by it. While not each and every one of the ways in which his natural consciousness was brought to fulfillment was shaken to the core, he is still attached in himself to determinate being. His having a mind of his own is then only stubbornness, a freedom that remains bogged down within the bounds of servility. To the servile consciousness, pure form can as little become the essence as can the pure form – when it is taken as extending itself beyond the singular individual – be a universal culturally formative activity, an absolute concept. Rather, the form is a skill which, while it has dominance over some things, has dominance over neither the universal power nor the entire objective essence. (Hegel, Phenomenology, 115-116)
Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel
Here are the primary passages that represent the heart of Kojève’s interpretation of this section.
Work, on the other hand, is repressed Desire, an arrested passing phase; or, in other words, it forms-and-educates. Work transforms the World and civilizes, educates, Man, the man who wants to work — or who must work — must repress the instinct that drives him “to consume” “immediately” the “raw” object. And the Slave can work for the Master — that is, for another than himself — only by repressing his own desires. Hence he transcends himself by working — or perhaps better, he educates himself, he “cultivates” and “sublimates” his instincts by repressing them. On the other hand, he does not destroy the thing as it is given. He postpones the destruction of the thing by first transforming it through work; he prepares it for consumption — that is to say, he “forms” it. In his work, he transforms things and transforms himself at the same time: he forms things and the World by transforming himself, by educating himself; and he educates himself, he forms himself, by transforming things and the World, Thus, the negative-or-negating relation to the object becomes a form of this object and gains permanence, precisely because, for the worker, the object has autonomy…. The product of work is the worker’s production. It is the realization of his project, of his idea; hence, it is he that is realized in and by this product, and consequently he contemplates himself when he contemplates it…. Therefore, it is by work, and only by work, that man realizes himself objectively as man. Only after producing an artificial object is man himself really and objectively more than and different from a natural being; and only in this real and objective product does he become truly conscious of his subjective human reality. Kojève 24-25
The Master can never detach himself from the World in which he lives, and if this World perishes, he perishes with it. Only the Slave can transcend the given world (which is subjugated by the Master) and not perish. Only the Slave can transform the World that forms him and fixes him in slavery and create a World that he has formed in which he will be free. And the Slave achieves this only through forced and terrified work carried out in the Master’s service. To be sure, this work by itself does not free him. But in transforming the World by this work, the Slave transforms himself too, and thus creates the new objective conditions that permit him to take up once more the liberating Fight for recognition that he refused in the beginning for fear of death. And thus in the long run, all slavish work realizes not the Master’s will, but the will — at first unconscious — of the Slave, who — finally –succeeds where the Master — necessarily — fails. Therefore, it is indeed originally dependent, serving, and slavish Consciousness that in the end realizes and reveals the ideal of autonomous Self-Consciousness and is thus its “truth.” Kojève 29-30
However, to understand the edifice of universal history and the process of its construction, one must know the materials that were used to construct it. These materials are men. To know what History is, one must therefore know what Man who realizes it is. Most certainly, man is something quite different from a brick. In the first place, if we want to compare universal history to the construction of an edifice, we must point out that men are not only the bricks that are used in the construction; they are also the masons who build it and the architects who conceive the plan for it, a plan, moreover, which is progressively elaborated during the construction itself. Furthermore, even as “brick,” man is essentially different from a material brick: even the human brick changes during the construction, just as the human mason and the human architect do. Nevertheless, there is something in Man, in every man, that makes him suited to participate–passively or actively–in the realization of universal history. At the beginning of this History, which ends finally in absolute Knowledge, there are, so to speak, the necessary and sufficient conditions. And Hegel studies these conditions in the first four chapters of the Phenomenology.
Finally, Man is not only the material, the builder, and the architect of the historical edifice. He is also the one for whom this edifice is constructed: he lives in it, he sees and understands it, he describes and criticizes it. There is a whole category of men who do not actively participate in the historical construction and who are content to live in the constructed edifice and to talk about it. These men, who live somehow “above the battle,” who are content to talk about things that they do not create by their Action, are Intellectuals who produce intellectuals’ ideologies, which they take for philosophy (and pass off as such). Hegel describes and criticizes these ideologies in Chapter V. (32-33)
The central ideas here are —
- Work transforms and educates the worker.
- Work requires the delay of consumption.
- Work transforms the world and the environment.
- The self-creation of the human being through work is essential to his or her reality as a human being.
- By merely directing and commanding work, the master fails to engage in self-creation.
- The master cannot be truly free.
- Human beings create history through their creative labor.
- Human beings create and transform themselves through labor.
- History is human-centered. History is “subject” as well as “object”.
- Those who merely think and reflect upon history are sterile and contribute nothing to the course of history.
These comments add up to a substantive theory of the human being in the world — one that emphasizes creativity, transformation, and self-creation. It stands in stark contrast to the liberal utilitarian view of Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham of human nature as consumer and rational optimizer of a given set of choices; instead, on Kojève’s (and Hegel’s) view, the human being becomes fully human through creative engagement with the natural world, through labor.
It is interesting to realize that Kojève was a philosopher, but he was not primarily an academic professor. Instead, he was a high-placed civil servant and statesman in the French state, a man whose thinking and actions were intended to create a new path for France. He is credited with being one of the early theorists of the European Union.
Kojève’s account of labor and freedom is, of course, influenced by his own immersion in the writings of the early Marx; so the philosophy of labor, freedom, and self-creation articulated here is neither pure Hegel nor pure Marx. We might say that it is pure Kojève.
Jeff Love’s biography of Kojève is also of interest, emphasizing the Russian roots of Kojève’s thought; The Black Circle: A Life of Alexandre Kojève. Love confirms the importance of the richer theory of human freedom and self-realization that is offered in Kojève’s account, and notes a parallel with themes in nineteenth-century Russian literature.
Kojève’s critique of self-interest merits renewal in a day when consumer capitalism and the reign of self-interest are hardly in question, either implicitly or explicitly, and where the key precincts of critique have been hobbled by their own reliance on elements of the modern conception of the human being as the free historical individual that have not been sufficiently clarified. Kojève’s thought is thus anodyne: far from being “philosophically” mad or the learned jocularity of a jaded, extravagant genius, it expresses a probing inquiry into the nature of human being that returns us to questions that reach down to the roots of the free historical individual. Moreover, it extends a critique of self-interest deeply rooted in Russian thought, and Kojève does so, no doubt with trenchant irony, in the very capital of the modern bourgeoisie decried violently by Dostoevsky in his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions.
(Here is an interesting reflection on Kojève as philosopher by Stanley Rosen; link.)