Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Bryan-Paul Frost reviews The Black Circle

Jeff LoveThe Black Circle: A Life of Alexandre Kojève. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 376 pp. 

Review by Bryan-Paul Frost

23 April 2019

Alexandre Kojève is best known for a series of lectures he gave at the École Pratique des Hautes Études on G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) from 1933–1939. Many of those who attended his lectures were to become France’s leading intellectuals in the post–World War II era, including Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Eric Weil, among other notables. Jeff Love is, of course, well aware of Kojève’s debt to Hegel (and Karl Marx), but in this book he wishes to reveal a hitherto unexplored influence—an “extraordinary omission” (p. 2)—namely, his Russian thought and context. At first blush, this should hardly come as a surprise: after all, Kojève (né Aleksandr Vladimirovich Kozhevnikov) was born into a well-to-do bourgeois family in Moscow, and his uncle was the painter Vasily Kandinsky. Not only did Kojève correspond with his uncle and write several articles on the nature of abstract art, but his 1926 dissertation (under the direction of Karl Jaspers) was on the religious philosophy of Vladimir Soloviev.

Interestingly, the book begins with a discussion of Platonic “perfection or divinization” (especially in the Phaedrus and Symposium), which Love argues “played such an important role in Russian religious thought” (pp. 4–5). Thereafter, Love begins a critical discussion of those thinkers that he believes are most influential on Kojève: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Fedorov, and Soloviev. Part 1 is largely an interpretation of their thought, but there are few sustained and detailed references or linkages to Kojève himself. Hoping to find these linkages fleshed out in parts 2 and 3, what we find instead is an overarching interpretation of Kojève’s thought as a whole, often (but not exclusively) based a selection of texts that Love rightly argues have been neglected because they have not been translated into English and/or have only been available at the Fonds Kojève at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (see pp. 12–14). In fact, references to Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Hannah Arendt (among others) seem to begin to eclipse references to the Russian context; and even when that Russian context is brought forth, Love sometimes appears to undermine his own case. For example, it is very difficult to see how Kojève—an avowed and determined atheist—was fundamentally swayed by Soloviev’s emancipative call for a divine humanity and community (pp. 72–89) or Fedorov’s doctrine of universal resurrection (pp. 90–100) (except in the loosest possible sense of a thoroughly secular redemption through violent human struggles that culminate in the universal and homogeneous state at the end of history) (see esp. pp. 123–24, 145–46, 186–87, 275–78). Or again, is the theme of madness as described by Plato or Dostoevsky in part 1 of the book the same as Kojève’s description? Kojève associated madness with the problem of subjective self-certainty: how can a philosopher, who does not communicate to others his beliefs, and/or who does not convince others of those beliefs, be certain of the truth of those beliefs? In other words, how does he know he is not mad if he keeps his ideas completely to himself? This hardly seems to be what Plato and Dostoevsky are speaking about when they talk about madness, the former referring to the erotic quest for wisdom and the latter to criminality, murder, and/or suicide. In this respect, it would have been helpful if Love had spent more time on Kojève’s debate with Leo Strauss in On Tyranny (1948), where the issue of madness or subjective certainty is presented with striking clarity.

One of the problems is that Love seems to conflate interest and influence. There is no doubt that Kojève was interested in Russian thinkers—but whether there was any deep and lasting influence remains uncertain. Although Kojève published parts of his dissertation on Soloviev, he did not publish anything substantial on the other Russian thinkers Love mentions. Love does indicate that Kojève refers a total of three times in two separate writings to Dostoevsky’s character Kirillov in Demons—but not even three swallows necessarily make a summer. (Indeed, if there was a Russian thinker that might have influenced Kojève, would it not have been Leo Tolstoy—after all, Kojève claimed that history came to an end [more or less] with Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory at the Battle of Jena in 1806.) Ultimately, Kojève must be understood as a true polymath, and his field, to put it succinctly, was universal history and philosophy: he spoke, read, and published in a number of different languages, was as conversant in literature as in quantum physics, and had a keen interest in Eastern thought and religion.

It must be stressed that despite the above remarks, there is much to admire in this book. Throughout parts 2 and 3, Love raises a number of penetrating questions about the consistency and cogency of Kojève’s thought as a whole, and he is especially illuminating when it comes to his understanding of the character of wisdom and the necessary conditions for its realization (see esp. chaps. 5–6). This book is therefore recommended to those scholars who wish to confront a fresh perspective on Kojève’s thought as well as to be introduced to a series of Russian thinkers with whom he was most certainly familiar. Nevertheless, if there is a “largely hidden Russian context” (p. 6) in Kojève’s capacious philosophic understanding and erudition, that case still needs to be demonstrated more fully.