A review of Outline of a Phenomenology of Right, by Alexandre Kojève

Alexandre Kojève deeply influenced French intellectuals through his Paris seminar (1933-39) on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, from which, thanks to novelist Raymond Queneau, came a book (1947). Much of that work appeared in English, such as Introduction to the Reading of Hegel in 1968, the year Kojève died. Now Kojève's biggest and most political book is ready for English readers' attention, in a painstakingly careful and accurate translation done by Bryan-Paul Frost and Robert Howse.

In calling Outlining of a Phenomenology of Right Kojève's most "political" book, I use that term in its ordinary, broad meaning. In this book, however, Kojève himself sharply distinguishes the juridical form the political, and defends (in a somewhat Kantian manner) the autonomy of the juridical. According to Kojève's behavioral definition of right, the juridical arises when a disinterested and impartial third party intervenes to annul one person's action that obstructs another's. By contrast, he follows Carl Schmitt in understanding the political as essentially connected to the State, which rests on the fundamental distinction between friends (fellow-citizens) and (actual or potential) enemies, as well as on the internal distinction between governors and governed. The political as such lacks the disinterestedness and impartiality that the juridical requires. But full actualization of right requires that the impartial intervener be irresistible; in practice the intervener must be supported by the State's power (or right and law must have become the State's business). Hence the State comes to be involved with doing justice, and matters juridical intermingle with matters political. All these distinguishable but interrelated spheres of human life—political, moral, religious, juridical, aesthetic—undergo roughly parallel historical developments. Thus the detailed investigation into right, law, and justice makes this book also Kojève's most detailed treatment of politics.

Kojève's left-wing, atheist variant of Hegelianism argues that specifically human life first emerges in the struggle for recognition, with risk of life, between potential Master and potential Slave. The resultant distinctively human activities of fighting and work propel subsequent history, culminating in the universal and homogenous State. American readers have most likely heard of this argument from Francis Fukuyama's adaptation of it to present circumstances in The End of History and the Last Man.

Kojève's book, written in 1943 but published posthumously in 1980, interprets the history of law, right, and justice in the light of this Hegelian position. Aristocratic justice arose in the world of masters as a justice of equality (not between masters and slaves, but among the masters), status, identity. The justice that dominated the consciousness originally of slaves and then of the bourgeois was one of equivalence (originating from the equivalence of risk of life plus mastery to security plus slavery), exchange and contract, difference. Both conceptions are ideal types; real life in political society contains some of both, history moves towards a final synthesis in the citizens' justice of equity (which for Kojève means the socialist conception of justice). 

This translation merits high praise for its scrupulous care and precision. It is sufficiently literal to give the reader confidence that Kojève's argument has been faithfully conveyed, but sufficiently well-polished to be no less readable than the French. The editor has added helpful notes to identify writings and events or to specify Kojève's references more precisely.

The translators' introductory essay provides sound guidance to basic lines of Kojève's argument. Two aspects of Kojève's treatment of right and law resonate with particular strength today. First, how different national systems can be harmonized peacefully, as they come to recognize each other's legitimacy, and thus how movement toward the universal system of law may proceed along paths other than universal conquest or world-wide revolution. Second (despite some recent roll-back of welfare state benefits) is the evolving "socialist justice of equity"; much of what welfare states aim at is prefigured in Kojève's conception.

Outline of a Phenomenology of Right is as fundamental a treatment as John Rawl's A Theory of Justice, and more comprehensive, in linking right, law, and justice with a full account of their historical development. To this reader, Kojève's book is by far the more rigorously argued, profound, and challenging.