Alexandre Kojève was born in Russia into a well-to-do family; he was the nephew of the painter Kandinsky.footnote1 In 1920, at the age of eighteen, he left Moscow in order to study in Germany, first in Berlin and then in Heidelberg. In 1926 he moved on to Paris, registering as a student at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, where he attended a course on Hegel’s religious philosophy given by a fellow-Russian, Alexandre Koyre, whom Kojève had previously met in Heidelberg. In 1932, Koyre repeated the course, which Kojève once again attended, and then, at the end of the academic year, Koyre quit Paris for the University of Cairo. Before he went, however, he asked Kojève to take over as leader of the Hegel seminar and Kojève agreed, teaching it consecutively for the next seven years, up until 1939. Among those who attended during this period were Georges Bataille, André Breton, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Lacan and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Kojève’s seminar on Hegel, particularly his interpretative reading of passages from Phenomenology of Spirit, was to have a startling effect on French intellectual life. Kojève is best known today for his presentation of the Hegelian idea of the ‘End of History’, given fresh prominence by Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book on The End ofHistory and the Last Man. Here, however, I want to concentrate specifically on Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel’s theory of the gaze and the master–slave dialectic.

Hegel wrote Phenomenology of Spirit in 1806 just as Napoleon approached Jena, where the great philosopher taught at the University. He completed his text on the very same day that the cannon began to sound, outside the city walls. Jena was the site of Napoleon’s historic victory over Prussia, leading soon afterwards to his triumphal entry into Berlin and his establishment of French hegemony over the continent of Europe. For Hegel—and for Kojève—the timing was symbolic, the coincidence of the cannon’s roar and the pen laid down. The year 1806 saw a turning point not only in world history—Napoleon’s accomplishment of the first crucial stage in the generalization of a new system of law and a new type of state, based on the concept of the citizen rather than the subject—but also in the history of philosophy. Now, for the first time, Hegel conceptualized the world as a historic rather than a natural totality, one which could only be understood in terms of an intersubjective process of change driven by humans themselves, rather than as a ready-made entity presented objectively to humans as a given. At Jena in 1806, Hegel himself believed, the instrument of world history—Napoleon—coincided with its philosopher—Hegel; deed with thought, action with understanding.

The foundation of Hegel’s Phenomenology was his theory of the human gaze. Summarizing Kojève summarizing Hegel, it could be put like this: the human being is self-conscious, conscious of himself, of his human reality and dignity; and it is thus that he is essentially different from animals, which simply have a feeling or sentiment of selfhood. Man, Hegel believed, becomes conscious of himself at the moment when—for the ‘first’ time—he says ‘I’. To understand man by understanding his ‘origin’ is, therefore, to understand the origin of the ‘I’ revealed by speech. For it is desire which brings the human, absorbed by the external object, back to himself: the (conscious) desire of a being is what constitutes that being as ‘I’, and which reveals itself as such by moving it to say: ‘I . . . ’.

Human desire, however, as opposed to animal desire, only becomes truly human when it is directed towards another desire, rather than simply towards an object. Thus, as Kojève puts it, interpreting Hegel:

In the relationship between man and woman, for example, desire is human only if the one desires, not the body, but the desire of the other . . . that is to say, if he wants to be ‘desired’ or ‘loved’ or, rather, ‘recognized’ in his human value, in his reality as a human individual. Likewise desire directed toward a natural object is human only to the extent that it is ‘mediated’ by the desire of another directed towards the same object; it is human to desire what others desire, because they desire it. Thus, an object perfectly useless from the biological point of view (such as a medal or the enemy’s flag) can be desired because it is the object of other desires. Such a desire can only be a human desire, and human reality, as distinguished from animal reality, is created only by action that satisfies such desires: human history is the history of desired desires.footnote2