Murray Bessette has supplied us with a very expert summary of “the other” Strauss-Kojeve panel. I heard from our Ralph and others that it was very good and even entertaining. I didn’t go because it was at the same time as the NSF panel. And, of course, in accordance with the rule I stated below. There is a lot to talk about here:
The encore began with Frost making the best case he could that Kojève actually won the debate. For his sake (and because he issued such a disclaimer at the panel), I must emphasize that his considered opinion generally runs in the opposite direction. In fact, Frost noted that unlike in the case of Strauss (where the existence of Straussians is manifest), one would look around in vain for Kojèveians. As a very brief editorial aside, this fact in and of itself is interesting in light of Kojève’s contention that the proof of the truth of one’s position is one’s ability to persuade others of its validity (i.e., the worldly success of a doctrine is taken as the proof of its truth). Strauss may get the better of Kojève on Kojève’s own grounds! Regardless, one of the key points emphasized by Frost was that the debate between Strauss and Kojève often has the character of a contest: it is an agon “between two mutually exclusive alternatives and not always a debate within one perspective to prove or disprove it.” The demands of understanding the debate, then, are uncommonly high, because it requires the reader to understand both and then to make the comparison between them independently. Ultimately, according to Frost, the debate between Strauss and Kojève boils down to the question of the motivation of the philosopher. According to Kojève, the philosopher (like the tyrant) is motivated by the desire for universal recognition. As a result of this desire to be admired and to deserve to be admired, the philosopher communicates his wisdom. Furthermore, such communication (provided it is persuasive) serves as a guarantee against madness and overcomes the limits or dangers of subjective self-certainty. As Frost highlights, Kojève questions the very possibility of refuting this contention when he asks, “[b]y what right can we maintain that he does not seek ‘recognition,’ since he necessarily finds it in fact?” Frost concluded by observing that it is neither clear that Strauss won, nor that Kojève lost, meaning that the debate is still live for its readers.
The second paper (my own) examined the philosophic background of Kojève’s position in his critique of Strauss. While the paper itself is wide ranging, my comments focused upon what I take to be the nerve of Kojève’s body of work: the master-slave dialectic. In particular, I spoke about the relationship of mastery and slavery to the given circumstances in which they arise, and intended thereby to indicate why Kojève (unlike Strauss) is such a strong proponent of the unlimited progress and development of modern science and technology. In a highly condensed and simplified version of the argument, the distinction between master and slave is not the result of an essential difference, of something masterly in one and slavish in the other. Rather, the slave who submits, according to Kojève, “does not believe in his victory,” and this disbelief is the result of the natural (i.e., biological, physiological, psychological, etc.) differences between the homo sapiens who struggle for recognition. If any particular slave had happened to struggle with someone smaller or weaker, slower or stupider, less skilled or more cowardly, he very well could have prevailed as master. The fact that slavery is related to the particular circumstances of the struggle opens the possibility of changing the outcome by changing the circumstances. This is the work of the slave. It is not that we can equalize everyone in terms of size, speed, strength, skill, and strategy, or even that we will handicap those with advantages (like in Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”), but rather we will arm the disadvantaged so they can compete more effectively in the struggle. In short, technological progress (Kojève’s example is the progress from an ax to a gun) will level the playing field, making mastery more difficult to maintain, and eventually leading to the overcoming of the master-slave dialectic and the birth of the citizen in the universal, homogeneous state.
Up third was Daniel Burns, of the University of Dallas, who treated the audience to an investigation into the place of the Bible in the Strauss-Kojève debate. Burns noted Strauss’s curious characterization of Voegelin and Kojève’s critiques as commonly rooted in the triumph of the Biblical orientation over the classical, and tried to show the place of the Bible in the latter. The main thrust of Burns’s presentation concerned the overcoming of subjective certainty and the essentially asocial nature of madness, that is, that one is mad only if one is absolutely alone in believing something to be true. According to Burns, Kojève would identify all prophets, including biblical prophets, as mad were it not for the fact that they had persuaded others of the validity of their revelations. This fact reveals the limitations of sects and schools as guarantors of truth; any sect or school may simply share a false opinion. Kojève, rather, seeks a definitive solution to the problem of subjective certainty, which requires the conversion or elimination of all sects and schools, and the universal recognition of the truth that happens to be Hegelian. This definitive solution only emerges at the end of history in the universal, homogeneous state, wherein revolutionary action (and thought!) will be impossible. According to Burns, the mutual recognition of the citizens in the universal, homogeneous state denies an oracular status to any and all of them. In a sense, all oracles and prophets will be humanized, and as a result, anyone who believes himself to be touched by the divine will find himself alone and can rightly (according to the definition) be dismissed as mad. In this way, and in this way alone, can the biblical orientation be overcome.
The final paper of the panel, presented by Alexander Duff of Boston College, examined the absent presence of Heidegger in Strauss’s “Restatement.” The main thrust of his presentation was that Strauss criticizes Heidegger for missing the true starting point of philosophy, which leads to a failure to see its real independence from politics. That is, in mistakenly beginning with “everydayness” and asserting that we “proximally and for the most part” desire comfort, Heidegger blinds himself to real human phenomena that deviate from this mode, in this case, tyranny. The tyrant (who, according to Duff’s reading of Strauss, stands in for the citizen and politics as such), is characterized by the refusal of comfort and the love of strenuous quarreling in both love and war. Thus, Duff concluded, Strauss subtly reveals the insufficiency Heidegger’s starting point and thereby shows the insufficiency of his analysis.
Obviously, this panel lacked the diversity that comes with having a Canadian Semi-Kojevian. So I hope the CSK will persuade us that case for Kojeve is stronger than these guys seem to think.