Alexandre Kojève’s Introduction to the History of Philosophy

Source: Alexandre Kojève, Essai d’une histoire raisonnée de la philosophie païenne. 1. Les Présocratiques (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), pp. 186–95.

Cover image from ‘After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer’. Photo by Victor Nieuwenhuijs. Via artmap.

The Evolution of Philosophy in the Pre-Kantian Period

If philosophy ‘in its potential’ is the effective discourse that poses (explicitly or implicitly) the Concept as a question or ‘hypothesis’ (sup-posing, in so posing it, only the intention of talking about it in the proper sense, i.e., in a ‘coherent’ manner), the philosophical ‘act’ is the act of understanding a discourse that (having been put forward or taken up) gives an (explicit or implicit) response to this question. Now, the Concept as such is the (one and unique) set of everything that is the (de-finite) ‘sense’ of a particular notion and/or the (de-terminate) ‘essence’ of a particular object, to the extent that this set is itself neither ‘sense’ nor ‘essence’ (being neither of them any more and/or being neither of them yet). It is therefore only possible to talk (explicitly or implicitly) about the Concept by distinguishing it (even if only implicitly) as the set of notions (whether or not they have been developed in discourse) and as the World that these objects constitute when taken as a set. In other words, if, per impossibile, ‘Everything’ was merely an Object or merely Discourse there would not be a Concept that could be spoken of at all. For in the first case there would only be an ineffable and mute ‘Essence’ of the World, whereas in the second Discourse would only have a ‘Sense’ that would not be the sense of anything and would thus mean nothing. Consequently, Philosophy can only become ‘actual’ in and through an (explicit or implicit) discursive distinction between Sense and Essence, which allows us to pose (explicitly or implicitly) the question of the Concept as that which, being ‘in itself’ neither the one nor the other, can be (or ‘become’) the essence of an object (integrable in a World-That-Is-Spoken-Of) and/or the sense of a notion that can be developed in discourse (integrable in the Universe, i.e. in a World-Where-We-Speak). 

In fact and for us (at least since Hegel), Object is distinguished from Notion or, if we prefer, Essence differs from Sense uniquely in that, in an object, the essence is ‘bound’ to its body in a bi-univocal and indissoluble, that is, necessary fashion, whereas the sense of a notion is ‘bound’ to its morpheme in a perfectly arbitrary manner, as a modification of the morpheme does not necessarily (i.e. always and everywhere) entail a modification of the sense, which remains, besides, always and everywhere the same. It would in principle make no sense at all to talk about a ‘necessary’ relationship without also talking about an ‘arbitrary’ relationship (even if only to ‘deny’ it); or, inversely, to affirm the ‘arbitrary’ character of a relationship without at least ‘denying’ the ‘necessary’ relationship, i.e. without also talking about the latter in some way. But in fact we can only talk explicitly about a single one of these, while talking about the other in a purely implicit manner. Likewise, we can talk about one in an ‘adequate’ (i.e. ‘definite’ and ‘non-contradictory’) way and about the other in an ‘inadequate’ way (i.e. ‘indefinite’ and ‘contradictory in its terms’). At any rate, at least when talking about it for the first time, it is necessary to talk about one before talking about the other.

Now, if Philosophical Discourse is necessarily addressed to somebody (even if only to the philosopher themselves), it also always and everywhere talks about something. More precisely, this Discourse (also) talks about itself, as a discourse talking about something (to somebody). Philosophical Discourse therefore (also) talks about something that is not itself and, consequently (since virtually it talks about everything to everyone), about that which is Non-Discourse, or, in other words, the Object. It is in any case easy to see that Philosophy can only, in fact, talk about Discourse in general, and in particular about the discourse that is Philosophy itself, after having talked about what the Discourse (that it talks about) talks about, i.e., about that which altogether constitutes the Cosmos or the World-Where-We-Live (in talking about it). In other words, Philosophy must begin by talking (explicitly) about the necessary and bi-univocal ‘relationship’ between Essence and Body in the particular objects we are talking about, that is, in the Object (-That-Is-Spoken-Of) as such, i.e., in every object (we speak of) whatsoever. For a certain time, therefore, philosophers could only have spoken implicitly about the arbitrary relationship between the Sense and the Morpheme of the Notion as such, or of a particular discourse that develops any particular notion. In its beginnings, philosophy could, in any case, only talk about this relationship in an ‘inadequate’ fashion, even after having attained discursive ‘adequacy’ in talking about the non-arbitrary relationship.

It very much appears that this is effectively what we see over the course of the history of Philosophy, at least to the extent that we know of it. Doubtless the beginnings of Universal History are lost in the night of the Palaeolithic era (if we do not go even further back to wooden tools). But all that we know about it (by analogy with existing ‘primitives’, for example) leads us to believe that the Discourse on the Concept which is Philosophy was preceded by discourses that spoke uniquely about ‘relationships’ that were supposed to be necessary, while ‘being ignorant of’ those that are arbitrary.

It is indeed evident that History could not have begun with a so-called ‘magical’ period in which men could only speak of ‘arbitrary’ or ‘magical’ relationships between essences of the mana type and bodies of the ‘animate’ type, or between words and their senses. For if it was so, or else if Man had not needed to work to live and had been only an Animal, or else if Work had been indispensable for his survival, the human species would have disappeared following the ‘mutation’ that had given birth to it. In actual fact the stupidest and most ‘primitive’ men have certainly never doubted that a tame pig will not transform into a tiger and that pulling on an object or calling to a person will, as a general rule, cause them to draw nearer and not move away or flee. By contrast, there is nothing to oppose a priori the idea that in the beginning men only spoke of necessary relationships, with claims relating to arbitrary relationships only coming much later. Either way, we know no one who does not, in speaking, act as if, for them, at least in certain objects the essence is bound to the body in a necessary fashion. By contrast, who has not acted as if all relationships were necessary, going as far as to say that even the relationships between senses and their given morphemes also have a necessary character.

Moreover, explicit discourses on arbitrary relationships seem always and everywhere to have come after those that talk about the bi-univocal and necessary character of the relationships in question. It seems that ‘miracles’ only began to be spoken of, or ‘discussed’, when the idea of a ‘natural law’ had effectively been formulated. In any case, the ‘miracle’ is always and everywhere spoken of as an ‘exception’, which, by definition, supposes the ‘rule’. As a general rule, by contrast, discourses on necessary relationships ‘are ignorant of’ the existence of arbitrary relationships and thus only talk about them implicitly.

At any rate, adequate discourses about bi-univocal relationships are, in fact, very old indeed, while those relating to arbitrary relationships only became adequate with Hegel. Until then, these discourses not only had an in-definite sense, but were developed in such a way that what they said in the end contradicted everything they affirmed at the start. It is therefore only possible to define the sense of the notion of the Necessary in opposition to the notion of the Arbitrary, but, inversely: it was only as the Non-Necessary that the Arbitrary could be defined discursively.

Although (explicit) discourses on the necessary relationship of Essence and Body necessarily imply discourses on non-necessary relationships, the explication of the latter will not be adequate straight away. In the beginning their implicit character initially led them to be purely and simply ‘unknown’, and then to be explicated [wrongly] as ‘negative’ discourses. In other words, arbitrary relationships were not initially spoken about at all, and subsequently they were only spoken about in order to ‘deny’ them. So, for quite a long time, people spoke of the necessary relationships between the essences and bodies of objects, but denied the existence of non-necessary or arbitrary, that is, ‘magical’ relationships. It was only after a certain point that they began to talk about both (while talking in an adequate fashion about arbitrary relationships), and it was only much later that they spoke explicitly (in an always inadequate fashion) about arbitrary or ‘magical’ relationships by [wrongly] explicating their universal character, that is, by ‘denying’ the existence of non-arbitrary or necessary, that is, ‘natural’ relationships.

In these two ‘negative’ or ‘exclusive’ cases it was impossible to talk about the Concept (given that this is, by definition, neither Sense nor Essence) and thus to develop its notion through Philosophical Discourse in the proper sense of the word. Except that in the second case Philosophy was renounced (in a ‘definite’ and thus, in principle, ‘definitive’ manner), while, in the first, one did not philosophise yet (postponing ‘indefinitely’ the beginning of Philosophical Discourse). Either way, Philosophical Discourse took flight from the start of adequate discourse on the bi-univocal and necessary character of the relationship of Essence and Body in the Object.

Philosophical Discourse, in other words, began to be developed from the very moment it was discursively admitted that, alongside the necessary relationships which had been spoken of up to that point, there were also non-necessary relationships that one would have to talk about from then on. Now, given that the discourse relating to necessary relationships was adequate, it could not have been a question of saying that certain ‘objective’ relationships were not necessary while the majority were. It is only possible to talk about non-necessary relationships by talking about something other than the Object in which the Essence is necessarily bound to the Body. In other words, what were spoken of were ‘non-objective’ or ‘subjective’ non-necessary relationships. For a long time, in fact, subjective relationships were only spoken of in the context of Man himself and, in practice, what was initially in question was uniquely the arbitrary relationship between Sense and Morpheme in (human) Discourse. But this was enough to make a Discourse developing the notion of the Concept possible. And, at a certain point, this Discourse was actualised as Philosophy.

As far as we know, all this happened for the first time in Greece, at the time of ‘Thales’. It was there, in this era, that the actually arbitrary character of the relationship between Sense and Morpheme was discursively revealed in the ‘epistemological’ form of the affirmation according to which one and the same given morpheme could have, case by case, a ‘true’ or ‘false’ sense. Doubtless this discursive form made it particularly difficult to adequately develop the notion arbitrary-relationship. For, setting aside the (neglected) case of the lie, Man was supposed always and everywhere to seek the ‘Truth’ and to avoid ‘Error’. Consequently, the arbitrary could only be defined initially as non-necessary in the sense of accidental, that is, unpredictable, so that the relationship between the sense and the morpheme of a discourse presumed to be ‘true’ was defined as ‘necessary’ or ‘natural’. This made it possible to speak of the Person-Who-Speaks as an Object(-That-Is-Spoken-Of), that is, as an Animal, whose Essence is, by definition, bound to its Body in a necessary manner, treating cases of people who ‘are mistaken’ when they speak in the same way as ‘monstrous’ objects or ‘diseased’ animals. This is what occupied Philosophy for many centuries, preventing it from ‘progressing’ as Anthropo-logy.

In any case, this fashion of talking about the Concept by admitting the necessary character of the relationship of Essence and Body in the Object and only recognising the ‘arbitrary’ character (in the sense of non-necessary or non-natural) of the relationship between Sense and Morpheme in the Notion (in Discourse) in the case of discursive ‘errors’ characterises in a ‘specific’ or ‘essential’ manner all of ‘ancient’ or ‘pagan’ Philosophy, i.e. the whole of philosophical Discourse developing the sense of the notion concept by affirming that in everything that is spoken of the Concept is an essence bound to a body in a bi-univocal or necessary manner, while it is only in that which is said that the Concept is bound in a ‘non-necessary’ manner, as a sense, to a given morpheme, with the ‘accidental’ character of this relationship resulting in the fact that it does not hold always and everywhere, the notion or the discourse being called ‘false’ in every case in which there is no relationship whatsoever between this notion or this discourse and the Concept [which is to say, in fact and for us, but wrongly, that the ‘false’ can only be a pseudo-notion or a pseudo-discourse, stripped or deprived of any sort of sense whatsoever].

This ‘Hegelian’ manner of re-presenting the history of Philosophy makes it possible to define a priori (though after the fact) an ancient or pagan period that is perfectly well defined from a ‘logical’ point of view, even if in fact and for us it actually has a rather fluid chrono-logy, given that we do not know its precise date of origin and that there are as a matter of fact still ‘pagans’ today, so that it is impossible to foresee their ‘definitive’ disappearance. And, a contrario, it is possible to define a Christian period, similarly chrono-logically ‘indefinite’ with respect to its ‘historical’ origin and its ‘probable’ end.

From its origins, Christianity has presented itself as a sort of Para-thesis situated in the Universe between the Hellenic Thesis and the Hebraic Antithesis. Saint Paul proclaimed Christian wisdom as the double negation of those contrary theses (‘unto the Greeks foolishness, unto the Hebrews a stumbling-block’). But if radical mysticism appears to have accepted the Silence to which the Pauline negation of the antithetical couple is equivalent straight away, discursive Christianity strove from the start to substitute for the neither-nor of Saint Paul the classical Para-thesis both-and, i.e. the incomplete [partiel] and more or less biased [partial] double affirmation of the contra-dictory theses supposed by Christian discourse.

From the start Christianity also fit into the Hellenistic frame in the sense that Hebrew dogma was expressed discursively as Christian doctrine in a Universe dominated by Hellenic discourse. In other words, in and through the Christian Para-thesis, the Anti-thesis of Judaism supposes as posed the pagan Thesis stated by the Greeks. It is therefore by denying Paganism that Christianity is affirmed. But it is distinguished from Judaism as a parathetical compromise in which thetical Paganism is only partially denied so as to be completed by what is retained from antithetical Judaism. The proportions taken from the one and the other have varied over time, at the rate and to the extent that the ‘contradiction in terms’ inherent to Christianity taken and understood as a discursive Para-thesis has been explicated.

From the point of view that interests us here, two Judaic myths excluded the possibility of any philosophy whatsoever. On the one hand, the myth of the creation of the world ex nihilo by an act of ‘free’ will on the part of the Parmenidean One-All-Alone affirmed (at least implicitly) the arbitrary character of the relationship between Essence and Body in everything that exists-empirically as an Object. On the other hand, the myth of the creation of Discourse by Adam, who named every single object as he saw fit, established (explicitly) the arbitrary character of the relationship between Sense and Morpheme in the Notion ‘in general’.[1] Now, if every relationship is arbitrary, there is as little sense in talking about the Concept as there is if every relationship is necessary. And, to the extent that the thetical dogma of Hellenic Science affirmed the necessary character of every relationship whatsoever, the total negation of this necessity (i.e. the ‘affirmation’ of the non-necessity of every relationship) by the dogma of Hebraic Theology constituted an authentic Anti-thesis.[2]

Monotheism in a sense predestined theological Judaism to its parathetical (Christian) compromise with scientistic Paganism, because, for Judaism, the relationship between essence and body in objects depended not (as was the case for ‘magical’ Paganism) on the arbitrariness of the essences themselves, but uniquely on that of the unique ‘transcendent’ Essence, called ‘God’. If one could, per impossibile, eliminate God from Judaism, every relationship in the World would be as necessary for this atheist Judaism as for the ‘secular’ Science of the Greeks. In other words, it would be enough to submit the will of the single God to a necessary ‘law’ to make ‘Judaic’ dogma coincide with the scientific dogma of the Hellenes. Inversely, it is enough to introduce in the ‘iron law’ (ananke) recognised by the latter an element of ‘free will’ (or of ‘conscious and voluntary’ action) to make this dogma take on a (more or less) ‘Judaic’ (i.e. theological) coloration. And Christian parathetical dogmatics strives to do precisely this.

But if monotheism predestined (religious) Judaism to undergo a parathetical ‘compromise’ with (scientistic) Paganism, Christology caused (moralising) Christianity to promote this compromise. Indeed, give or take a few ‘miracles’, the Judaic God incarnate (as Logos) underwent the necessity of the relationships in this world and consecrated them to some extent as necessary. Throughout the duration-extension of the World, essences are related in a bi-univocal and necessary manner to their respective bodies in all objects whatsoever, to the same extent that this whole was the world in which the God incarnate lived, or would have to become such a world, or indeed already was.[3] In other words, the Christian World where the Judaic God lived incarnate is a Cosmos of Hellenic science which has received an ‘end’, i.e. a goal and final term, that determines its own beginning. The Christian parathesis of the ‘telos’ which is the (‘free’) ‘Jewish’ God incarnate in a (‘necessary’) ‘Greek’ body naturally accords with the parathetical teleology of pagan philosophy inaugurated by Plato (following several ‘precursors’) and developed by Aristotle (the two of them each having a series of ‘successors’), in which scientistic ‘necessity’ is tempered by a magical, moreover residual, ‘voluntarism’. Except that, for Christian dogmatics, the incarnation itself is an act of absolute ‘freedom’ of the same type as creation ex nihilo, while the Greek telos is a (‘final’) ‘cause’ rather than an end proper (which is not a re-commencement). In any case, it is the pagan parathesis of ‘natural’ theology that, over time, opposed the parathetical Christian Theology of the Incarnation.

In any case, the dogma of the Incarnation (which sup-poses that of the Creation) caused Christianity to institute as a (third) dogma a simple error of interpretation concerning an evangelical text talking about the ‘Holy Spirit’ (in the sense, of course, of the one and unique Judaic ‘God’). Having had to distinguish between the (Biblical) Creator God and the (Pauline, if not evangelical) Incarnate God, Christian dogmatics had no reason to oppose introducing a third divine ‘hypostasis’, encouraged by the parathetical (Neo-Platonic) philosophy of the time. But once the Catholic dogma of the Incarnation had identified the Incarnate God with the Creator God, there was moreover no reason not to identify the ‘third God’ with the other two. And thus there was established the dogma of the Trinity, considered to be just as fundamental as the dogmas of the Incarnation and the Creation. It is the discursive development of the dogma of the Trinity, i.e. of the trinitarian (rather than unitary or dualistic) structure of Being-That-Is-Spoken-Of, that made it possible for (Christian or Kantian) Philosophy to be transformed into Hegelian Wisdom. But, in the meantime, i.e. during the ‘Christian’ period in the usual sense of the term, Philosophy (which remained pagan) excluded from its discourse the discursive development of the dogma of the Trinity, which opposed it as a specifically Christian Theology.

In summary, in and through Christianity, the (pagan) philosophical thetical Para-thesis, in which the Thesis of Philosophy predominated, as well as the (pagan) anti-thetical Para-thesis, which contradicted it and in which the Philosophical Anti-thesis predominated, were each posed as sup-posed by Christian Theology, which op-posed them by pro-posing in their place the dogmas of the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Trinity. And we may say that the Christian period of Philosophy is constituted by the discursive process that progressively transformed the thetical and antithetical pagan Para-theses of Plato and Aristotle into the synthetical Parathesis developed fully by Kant.

But, for a long time, the para-thetical philosophies developed by Christians (not to speak of Jews and Muslims[4]) remained thetical or antithetical, i.e. ‘pagan’ in the philosophical sense of the term and in fact more or less Platonic or Aristotelian. Beginning from the supposition of the pagan philosophical para-theses as fixed discursive facts, Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) theological dogmas were formulated to take their place, which would oppose them to the least possible extent (ecclesiastical censorship ensuring that they were not purely and simply suppressed by placing themselves in complete agreement with philosophical Paganism). When the maximum in this order of ideas was more or less attained, there followed a revision of the mutually contradictory pagan philosophical Para-theses (each of them also contra-dicting itself), which aimed to reduce to a minimum the opposition between the (pagan) philosophy that had been supposed and the (Christian) theology that it was felt necessary to propose in their place. And it was at the point that the discursive possibilities of this revision of properly philosophical and purely pagan discourses (alongside the revision of properly theological and purely Christian discourses) were exhausted that a ‘synthesis’ of pagan Philosophy and Christian Theology became possible, which soon constituted the Christian Philosophy developed fully (as an in-definite discourse, to be sure) by the great theologian of Christianity, Kant, as the great philosopher of the synthetical Para-thesis of Philosophy ‘in general’.

Thus, in opposing as a whole the Philosophy of the pagan era to that which was developed over the course of the Christian (and Judeo-Islamic) era, it is necessary to distinguish within the latter what is called the medieval period, during which Philosophy proper (i.e. the Discourse speaking of the Concept) remained pagan in the sense that it did not overcome the stage of the thetical and anti-thetical philosophical para-theses, from what has been called the modern period, in the course of which the synthetical Para-thesis of Philosophy, which can with reason be called ‘Christian’, was progressively elaborated.

Whence the subdivision of the present Section A into three Parts, which I propose to entitle in the following fashion:

  1. Antiquity and the Accomplishment of Pagan Philosophy
  2. The Middle Ages and the Setting in Opposition of Pagan Philosophy and Judeo-Christian Theology
  3. Modernity and the Early Signs [Prodromes] of Christian Philosophy

[1] Doubtless Adam did not name God himself. The tie between sense and morpheme is thus necessary in the name(s) of God (this name being consequently a sign and not a notion proper). Moreover, Adam understood the language of God before he named things. It can thus be said that, for Man, Sense is necessarily bound to Morpheme in (‘sacred’, i.e. in fact Hebrew) Discourse. But if God’s act of creating the World is arbitrary, the creation of language (by him) is just as arbitrary. The ‘Logos’ that is co-eternal to God seems to be a parathetical idea (in fact Stoic-Philonic) that pure (implicitly antithetical) Judaism did not recognise. For Judaism, God created what he wanted and called it what he wanted (regardless of whether he did so before or after the creation).

[2] Science as such is in fact the Anti-thesis of the Thesis which is Theology ‘in general’. But in and for Christian Theology, which is a para-thetical or moral Theology, it is Science which is the ‘thesis’ that is (partially) denied by the religious ‘contrary thesis’. Thetical (moral) Christian paratheses are therefore primarily scientific, while antithetical paratheses are primarily religious.

[3] From the moment at which God willed the creation of Man in his own image, he was necessarily obliged to incarnate in a human body (contrary to what certain theologians at the end of the Middle Ages, perhaps following Origen, affirmed, more or less seriously). In other words, in the ‘human nature’ of Christ, a human essence is bound in a bi-univocal and necessary manner to a human body. This makes it necessary to admit that this link is the same in any human whatsoever, being the same always and everywhere, i.e. the same after death and, ultimately, before birth. But the arbitrary character of the Incarnation, i.e. the real presence of the Spirit in the World, caused a ‘sovereign’ or ‘free’ element to be introduced into purely human Man in relation to the necessary relationship between the essence of the ‘human spirit’ and the body of the ‘human animal’. Thus, at the same time as admitting ‘secular’ Greek or scientistic anthropology, Christian Theology affirms ‘alongside’ it a ‘magical’ anthropo-theism that contradicts this anthropology.

[4] In the absence of the dogma of the Incarnation and thus of the Trinity, Jewish and Muslim theologians could only oppose (parathetical) pagan philosophy by proposing in its place the single dogma of the Creation. Since this dogma affirms the arbitrary character of all relationships that are spoken of and so excludes Philosophy as such, it renders it impossible to talk about the Concept. This is why there has never been Judaic or Islamic philosophy anywhere, even a parathetical one, only a (mono-theist) theology. Only Christianity was able to formulate (through Kant) a philosophical (synthetical) Parathesis by the introduction of an equivalent to the dogma of the Incarnation into philosophical discourse. But it was only when the dogma of the Trinity was also introduced (by Hegel) into philosophical discourse, i.e. at the moment when the whole of (Christian) theological discourse was transformed into a single and same philosophical discourse, that it was itself trans-formed (by this very fact) into the Hegelian System of Knowledge.