Alexander Kojève on Consciousness and Master Slave Dialectic

In the Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, Alexander Kojève offers a conceptual account of human history.  He opens his account by meditating on the development of consciousness. What is the nature of human consciousness? What does it mean to be conscious of one’s existence, and how might it be different from animals, who are also conscious beings? Most importantly, for Kojève, what historical and social consequences can be drawn from understanding the emergence of human consciousness?

Kojève notes that the “Man is a Self-Consciousness” (pg3). In this, he is essentially distinct from animals. The self-consciousness is ascertained the moment he says “I.” This “I,” is not revealed through contemplation. Nor is it revealed through the analysis of the reason, thought, or understanding. Such endeavours have no consequences whatsoever for understanding the birth of the subject, “I,” and subsequent human reality. Contemplation reveals the object, not the subject because the object of contemplation absorbs the subject. The knowing subject is, perhaps unknowingly, lost in the object of their knowledge. For such reasons, the true nature of self-consciousness or “I” cannot be known or revealed while the subject remains in a state of imaginary relationship to the self.

To know the human subject is to locate the “I” in the symbolic order. Or, as Kojève puts it, “by understanding the origin of the “I” revealed by speech” (pg3). The nudge in the symbolic is through the advent of Desire. The desire animates the subject from passive quietude to disquieting action. The desire is what constitutes the subject as “I” by moving it so say “I….” (I exist, or I am hungry) (pg3).  Before the advent of desire, the subject and the object exist in pure harmony. But desire brings division by revealing that object and subject are opposed to one another. The “I” is radically opposed to the “non-I” (pg4). The human “I,” to quote Kojève, “is the I of a Desire or of Desire.” (pg4). Once the desire enters, it must be satisfied. The desiring subject is moved to action for the sake of satisfaction. The move entails the act of negating, including destruction and transformation of the object of desire. To satisfy hunger, the object must be destroyed. For example, animals are displaced from their natural habitat and slaughtered for human consumption. The “I” consumes and subsumes the “non-I.” It is fundamentally opposed to the “non-I.”

Yet, on the other hand, the negating action is not purely destructive. While the action destroys and overcomes objective reality to satisfy the desire from which it is born, it simultaneously, by that very destruction, creates a subjective reality of its own. This subjective reality includes preserving its existence by overcoming external reality through the process of assimilation and transformation. The “non-I,” the foreign object, is overcome and subjected to the “I,” to the desiring self-conscious being. The satisfaction of desire is achieved because the object, “the non-I,” has the same nature as the “I.” Essentially this “non-I” is a living thing too, but not self-conscious. This is a crucial difference between humans and animals. While humans can dream and desire beyond their given reality, animal consciousness and desires are bound and limited to their given existence. Animals do not transcend their given reality. They simply interact with the given objects, not transcend them. On the other hand, human consciousness is constantly trying to transcend the given reality. For Kojève, the animal reality is limited to the “Sentiment of self” (pg5). They desire the other to satisfy sentimental needs, but they do not desire the desire of the other.

In contrast, human desire produces free historical individuals, “conscious of its individuality, his freedom, his history, and finally, his historicity” (pg6). It does so because the desire is directed toward the desires of the other (similar to the Lacanian dialectic of desire). In other words, humans don’t simply desire each other, but they desire the desire of the other. To put it differently, humans don’t merely want the other, but they want the want of the other. In comparison, the animal will want the other. On this basis, Kojève can claim that “human history is the history of desired Desire” (pg6). Another characteristic of human Desire is that it wins over the (animal) desire to preserve life. It transcends self-preservation. Up until then, humanity is still under the burden of animal life. It is only by taking a risk that the human reality is created and is essentially different from the animal’s natural reality. By taking a risk, humans satisfy their desire, which in the first instance is the desire of the other.

Human history is born at this junction of desire. If human reality is fundamentally driven by desiring Desire, then there is a value attached to Desire. Consequently then, for Kojève, it matters what other desire. More importantly, it matters that they desire what I am or what I represent. Because the desire of another is valuable, their desire must recognize me. One can easily make a connection here with identity politics, which is essentially a politics of recognition.

To explain this logic, Kojève retells the Hegelian parable of two independent consciousnesses, also knows as a master-slave dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit. At the conceptual start of history, we have two human beings. These two individuals encounter one another, each wanting to be recognized by the other as the exclusive bearer of dignity and worth. Up until this point, there is no mutual recognition. These two individuals are risking their – animal, natural, conscious-self – lives in a fight to the death for recognition. The fact that they are willing to put their animal existence on the line in desiring recognition shows that they are more than just animals. Each of them wants to transcend their given existence and rise above the given condition in which they find themselves. They desire to be an exclusive bearer of the dignity that they do not currently have.

We may object at this point to how this might be different from animals. For animals too fight for resources till death. Kojève would answer this by saying that animals fight for something that is given: food, water, resources. They do not desire or fight over what does not exist. Whereas, when the two first human beings fight for recognition, they desire something that does not exist. They are desiring the recognition of the other. They are desiring the desire of the other. It is a distinct human tendency to desire something that does not exist. The object of desire only comes into being through struggle and perhaps the primordial violence – a fight for recognition between the first conceptual individuals.

There are three possible outcomes of this fight. First, the two individuals are dead at the end of the fight. This is a dead-end. Second, what if only one individual dies? In this instance, there is no one to recognize and value the other individual. The corpse is not going to recognize the winner. So, in the first two instances, we get no movement and hence no history. But in the third instance, one of the individuals recoils out of fear of death. The desire to live makes him retreat to the natural state. As a result, that individual retreats and freely grants the winner what he wanted – recognition. The loser recognizes the winner as a bearer of dignity.

According to Kojève, this constitutes the first time in our history a new phase stratified between the master, who was recognised and slave, who gave the recognition. For Kojève, master and slave are not natural categories, as is for Aristotle, rather they are historical categories. They are historically constituted in this free, spontaneous moment of freely given recognition. But as history unfolds, the master is not satisfied. He did not get what he wanted because he doesn’t want the recognition of the inferior slave. He wants to be recognised by someone worthy of granting him that recognition. So, the master finds himself in an impasse.

By contrast, the slave is doing what the master wants him to do. He is productive, acquiring new skills and learning new skills to transform the natural world through his labour. In transforming the natural world, the slave realises that he is not naturally bound to his animality. That he is, in fact, free with respect to nature. In this regard, he will transcend his natural environment through his labour. This newly gained insight, Kojève argues, gives rise to a new self-consciousness that gets the motor of history going.

In the end, there is a dialectical reversal of history. For Kojève, history belongs to slaves, not to masters. The position of the master is fixed; he cannot transcend the world around him. He remains deprived of satisfaction. On the other hand, the slaves transcend and transform their surroundings through labour, creating a world in which they will be free.  In transforming the world by his work, the salve transforms himself, creating a new condition that will permit him to take up once again the liberating fight for recognition (pg29).

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