Hegel has been studied in France ever since he was first published. However, Hegelian philosophy was of marginal interest to French thought until Alexandre Kojève’s 1933-37 lectures thrust him into the intellectual limelight (Rockmore, 1995, pp. 32-33). Given that Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) was not translated into French until 1941, Kojève’s own idiosyncratic reading of Hegel was initially able to reign relatively unchallenged. Leaving debate about intellectual fidelity aside, these lectures provide the context through which to understand the relative chasm that exists between French and English philosophy today. Ironically, the quirk of history by which French thought embraced the idea that philosophy has a history, namely Kojève’s lectures on Hegel, is itself an example of the importance of history in understanding philosophy.
Kojève was a Russian émigré who received a Germany education before finally becoming a French citizen (Rockmore, 1995, p. 32). This personal history reveals why Kojève’s own philosophy has such a distinctly German flavour. Shadia Drury explains, “The clue to understanding Kojève’s Hegelianism is to recognise the fact that he reads Hegel through the lenses of Marx and Heidegger simultaneously” (Drury, 1994, p. 12). Thus, the Hegel Kojève introduced to France is not Hegel per se, but rather Hegel as interpreted by Kojève.
How true Kojève was to Hegel’s own philosophy is a subject of much debate. To some, Kojève was a “conceptual terrorist” (Rockmore, 1995, p. 34) who illicitly presented “his own theory under the guise of an interpretation of Hegel’s text” (Rockmore, 1995, p. 34). For others “Kojève was simply the only real Hegelian of his time” (Rockmore, 1995, p. 34). Whatever the case, this is not the argument that interests me. Rather I am intrigued by how French philosophy only took up Hegel en masse more than a century after his initial publication. The story itself demonstrates that philosophy does not take place in a vacuum. Philosophy is done in a social, cultural, and historical world where the who, what, why, when, where, and how provide integral clues to our overall understanding.
Kojève was lecturing in France when conditions were ripe for a serious challenge to be mounted against the Cartesian rationalism dominant at the time. I thus concur with Rockmore’s claim that Kojève’s reading of Hegel “has continued to influence not only French Hegel studies, but the French philosophical debate as a whole for several decades” (Rockmore, 1995, p. 32). Furthermore, I argue that Kojève’s lectures helped inaugurate the divergence between the French and English philosophical traditions as a whole. As David West identifies, “contributors to the continental tradition are almost always invariably ‘post-Hegelians’, in the sense that they either develop or react against, but rarely ever simply ignore the thought of Hegel” (West, 2010, p. 2). That the French took up Hegel – through Kojève – thus explains their contemporary affinity with German – rather than English – philosophy.
The French introduction to Hegel not only marks France’s divergence from the Anglo-American philosophical traditions, but is in itself an example of the defining feature of the split, namely an attention to historicism. Although translated into English in 1910, Hegel has never been an important philosopher in the English speaking world. There is no Kojève equivalent in the English context. It is thus quite ironic that the historical twist that introduced a historical awareness to French philosophy – Kojève’s lectures on Hegel – is in itself a small example of the importance of recognising the historical situatedness of thought and existence. The context in which philosophising is done, and how said philosophy is presented, inevitably shapes how philosophy will be received.
French philosophy is part of the continental tradition because Kojève successfully introduced Hegel to France. But for this historical twist of fate, the intellectual topology of contemporary philosophy might have looked quite different. In light of the ongoing rupture at the heart of our field, philosophers of all stripes would do well to ponder the history of our internal divisions and work together towards bridging this (largely artificial) divide. We still, however questionably, proclaim to be the only true lovers of wisdom. To live up to this lofty claim, we must recognise, that as philosophers, our work is inextricably embedded within a particular cultural context. It is laughable to claim that you can philosophise ahistorically.
Drury, S. B. (1994). Alexandre Kojeve : the roots of postmodern politics / Shadia B. Drury. Basingstoke, England: Basingstoke, England : Macmillan.
Rockmore, T. (1995). Heidegger and French philosophy : humanism, antihumanism, and being / Tom Rockmore. London: London : Routledge.
West, D. (2010). Continental philosophy : an introduction / David West (New ed.. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge : Polity.