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The Inexistent in the Ontology of Alexandre Kojeve.

Abstract: Departing from the question of 'absence as given' (or the 'non-given' as 'presence' to conscious experience), the work of Russian-French philosopher Alexandre Kojeve opened up Western ontology of being ('of which one speaks' [l'etre dont on parle]) to the foundational premises of 'Oriental wisdom'. This article identifies two major articulations or moments in Kojevean ontology. The 'inexistent' as a constituent element of the doctrine of the given was first outlined between the early 1920s and early 1930s in his Descartes-Buddha thought experiment and in his close study of Vassily Kandinsky's introduction of sonic effects in 'concrete painting.' In his post-war manuscripts, Kojeve resumed and completed the ontological plane of his philosophical system in a comprehensive survey of Western ontologies from the pre-Socratics to Kant, matching the 'temporal' modes of being (eternity, the eternal, the temporal, and time) with their logical articulations as identity, difference, (the Kantian) discourse and absence. The article highlights the implications of this line of thought on three major concerns in Kojeve's 'philosophy of the inexistent': theism and atheism, political freedom, and the question of knowledge.

Keywords: Kojeve, ontology, wisdom, the inexistent, doctrine of the given, atheism, freedom, science
"I see one, two, three, but where, friend Timaeus, is the fourth? " - Plato, Timaeus (1)

Alexandre Kojeve is a peculiar case in contemporary continental philosophy. The handful of years he spent lecturing on Hegel or Pierre Bayle in the 1930s are outnumbered by more than two decades during which he took on an obscure diplomatic role as a civil servant in the French Fourth republic (Barre, 2007; Bossuat, 1995; Marjolin, 1999). Aside from occasional review essays and an edited version of his lecture notes on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, there is not one single book to his name in his lifetime. A few elements from his philosophy are known to us in the guise of edited posthumous fragments which have mostly been understood as an erroneous, idiosyncratic and deliberate distortion of Hegel's work with some hints of Heidegger and Marx (Cooper, 1984; Drury, 1994; Fukuyama, 1993; Roth, 1995). The influence of 'Eastern' philosophies on the work and thought of Alexandre Kojeve is hardly ever discussed or even acknowledged. (2) Also less known is the fact that he developed the general outlines of his philosophical system between the early 20s and the early 30s, i.e., well before the start of his famous seminar on Hegel. Contrary to the argument popularised by his biographers (Auffret, 1990; Filoni, 2010) and the very few who tried to explore his manuscripts (Hesbois, 1984; Pirotte, 2005), this system is neither an 'impossible book' nor an 'unfinished and interminable' oeuvre. In Kojeve's three-plane 'System of Knowledge', the phenomenology of 'empirical-existence' and the ontology of the 'inexistent' are held together by the energology of 'objective-reality', an intermediary plane which was intended as a corrective to the shortcoming of western metaphysics. This article is a glimpse of the ontological plane of the 'System of Knowledge' and the hidden intellectual undercurrents that inform its early developments.

The Descartes-Buddha Thought Experiment

Kojevnikov left revolutionary Russia with his Friend Georg Witt in obscure circumstances. They crossed Russia's borders to modern day Poland around the 19th of January in 1920. The two young exiles will spend six months between Minsk and Warsaw before their final illegal border crossing to Berlin. Their journey out of Russia was not lacking in hardships and dangers. Suspected of being a Bolshevik spy by Polish authorities and during an eventful journey punctuated by a few weeks spent in prison while taken ill with typhoid; Kojevnikov lost a suitcase containing, among other valuable belongings, a diary which he started since the eve of the approaching Revolution in Russia. The Philosopher's Journal will later be reconstructed from memory in Frankfurt around 1920. This early Russian manuscript outlines the founding principles of Kojeve's ontology as it took shape in his 'mature' writings.

Several entries in the Journal evoke a firm determination to create a philosophical system, but it is not clear what prompted this obsession with systems, and neither are there any specific indications as to what this fantasy system would look like or what purpose it would serve. Be that as it may, most of the Journal's philosophical entries seem to be orbiting around the 'in-existent', or closer to the Russian term, the 'non-existent' [phrase omitted]. This term is meant to describe an autonomous field of philosophical investigation whose aim is to generate a set of concepts on which the system can subsequently be founded. "The philosophy of the non-existent" [phrase omitted] and its axiomatic principles, Kojeve writes, "run through my thoughts like a red thread." (3) It is the blood vessel of a system that is not one yet.

In December 1922, Albert Einstein was in Kyoto Japan, recounting the circumstances of a thought-experiment he conducted a decade earlier. He "was sitting on a chair in [his] patent office in Bern, [when] suddenly a thought struck [him that] If a man falls freely, he would not feel his weight" (Einstein, 1982, p. 47). On different heights, and in the winter of 1925, Erwin Schrodinger took his mistress to the Alps on a "late erotic outburst" to finalize his ground-breaking wave equations (Moore, 1994). Meanwhile, Heidegger was exploring the conceptual slopes of his philosophy of nothingness while skiing!

In the early hours of June 12, 1920, Kojeve was conducting a different thought-experiment at the end of a late studious night at the library of Warsaw. He pictured himself a witness to an ongoing conversation between (a portrait of) Descartes and (a bronze statuette of) Buddha. In this surreal encounter of western theist reason with 'oriental' radical atheism, no agreement seemed to have been reached as to the most adequate axiomatic proposition towards a universal philosophical system of knowledge. Descartes argued the point that his cogito is the only valid equivalent of a geometrical axiom for the practical purpose of achieving this goal. He seemed quite confident that there has never been any significant objection to the conclusion of his meditations towards foundational epistemological axioms, even though Buddha's sarcastic tone and stoic detachment seemed to suggest otherwise.

On the few occasions when Buddha 'spoke', he reminded his interlocutor that existence is predicated on being, and that thought is determined by the real. The Cartesian two-term relation (thought/ existence, and their respective negatives) are redistributed in a quadruple relation where thought, existence, being, and the real are respectively coupled with the negative premises of the unintelligible, the inexistent, non-being, and the non-real.

Certainties founded on the linear relation of thought to existence and existence to thought may no longer be tenable in the diagonal axes of the double quadruple structure evoked in Buddha's 'words'. But what difference does it make when one says (with Buddha) that being is real in place of saying (with Descartes) that thought is existence? How do the deductions of the cogito change when read vertically and then diagonally in a quadruple rather than binary relation? What issues will a diagonal reading of the intersecting X of [being [right arrow] thought] with [real [right arrow] existence] reveal or delineate?

Kojeve does not provide any clear answers to such questions in his thought-experiment of June 1920. But judging by Descartes's growing discomfort at Buddha's 'words', nothing seems to make sense any more.
[If] every thought potentially entails the [concrete] realisation of
that which is thought [in the real and as such]; this very same
thought, when it posits non-being as concrete antithesis of being, it
also makes itself unintelligible and inexistent. [...] The concept of
non-being is the product of thought, and if all that is produced by
thought is real, then non-being, too, is real. (4)

It was at this point that Descartes became very agitated. "Are you telling me that when I think I do not exist, or that when I exist I do not think? Such reflections," he claimed, "are nothing but pure sophistry." (5) The thought-experiment is abruptly terminated with this statement. Not only does thought seem to lack onto-logical awareness of itself (as thought thinking that which is thought in thinking while it thinks), it is also unable to grasp the barred being in and of (its own) existence, which is visible only on the diagonal axis of the quadruple relation.

A week later, Kojeve revisits the suspended Descartes- Buddha dialogue, and seems particularly preoccupied with the relation of the real to existence more than with that of being and thought. He then concludes his reflections on the philosophy of the inexistent in the summer of 1920 with a brief note on its terminology. His concern, as it emerges from this set of entries in the Journal, was that a philosophy of the inexistent, by which he also means his preliminary attempts to define the content and grounds of ontology, can lead to absurd propositions such as "the in-existent exists" in relation to an "inexistent reality." (6) He seems, however, unconvinced about this line of thought. Is the inexistent a mere discursive effect with neither a revealed empirical existence nor a concrete objective reality?

Some of the Journal's entries where Kojeve tarried with the inexistent as a problem of terminology rather than one of method or logical deductions seems to suggest that he began to dissect the square within the square (or the two quadruple relations) along their diagonal axes, into four triangles, each with a different synthetic term and unique plane. Kojeve speculated that questions deduced from, or resting on, existence (or non-existence), may be different in nature and scope from other ontological regions whose constituent elements converge towards thought (or the unintelligible), the real (or the non-real), and being (or non-being).

Ontological Questions

Kojeve's 1935 review essay of Alfred Delp's interpretation of Heidegger is unequivocally explicit about the uncompromising political implications of the philosophical atheism he deduced from his close study of Buddhist thought. Any "theologising" interpretation of Heidegger's "destruction" of western ontology, Kojeve claims, would be as erroneous as any attempt to find a path to god via Hegelian "mediation".

Kojeve's first objection to Delp is that Hegelian substance is Heidegger's Vorhandensein, respectively transformed into the dialectical negative and Dasein. Both notions reveal spatial being as temporal. Only this temporal being can "pose the totality of the possible (that is to say the inexistent in space and in rather than outside the world) as particularity which endures in time" (Kojeve, 1935, p. 36). The enigmatic Heideggerean Dasein is nothing other than the Hegelian negative qua essentially a being-in-the-world (in-der-welt-sein) and not spatial being in eternal identity with itself, one which is fixed in a prescribed topos once and for all. (7)

According to Kojeve, Heidegger's crucial contribution to a new philosophy has something to do with what he describes as "resolute acceptance of ontological dualism, which is essential and irreducible difference between human-being (Dasein) and naturalbeing (Vorhandensein)" (Kojeve, 1935, p. 37). The problem, though, is that neither Hegel's nor Heidegger's ontological categories were sufficiently conducive to an "atheist" system. Hegel's (monist) ontology was to Kojeve's mind a "failure" because it "it did not explain his anthropology or his phenomenological description of finite man as annihilator and negator." We thus ended up with a long span of time during which western ontology was unable to "find a way beyond the impasse of Hegelian ontology [...], but guided by Husserl [...] Heidegger reopened the ontological question [which Hegel left suspended]" (Kojeve, 1935, p. 38). The problem though is that Heidegger's corrective to Hegel did not provide modern philosophy with an adequate ontology, because his aim was to eliminate all that is related to negativity, and by so doing, he was also, unwittingly refuting the work of his own Dasein.

The ideological rift between Kojeve and Koyre can only be grasped in the latter's decade long campaign to boycott all attempts to disseminate Heidegger's work in France. When Koyre finally brought himself to read Heidegger again in the mid-40s, he wrote and lectured about him to denounce his obscure empty verbiage (Gerede), the weakness of his Dasein, and the misguided "man" it procreated; one who is "without metaphysics and without religion." (8) Conversely, Kojeve argued that Heidegger's "man" was not man enough and not atheist enough. Unlike Koyre, he did not gloss over the Dasein with a softer veneer of "concern" (Sorge) for the whole humanity, or seek solace in Sartre's Dieu manque.

The aim of Delp's Tragische Existenz, according to Kojeve, was to convert philosophers to believing in resurrection or survival after biological death. Kojeve is prepared to accept the challenge, but Delp, like all Jesuit fathers who at the time flocked to attend his lectures in Paris, "will have to show [him] the possibility of remaining a philosopher after this conversion. [Kojeve] will need to be reassured about the possibility of continuing to understand himself" as a human being that can reveal divine being while remaining "different from and opposed to an immortal and eternal being [...], i.e., one who is spatial with four dimensions" (Kojeve, 1935, p. 42). Unconvinced about remaining a philosopher after a theological conversion to theism and to the ever-after, Kojeve proposes a truce with the the Cartesian divine.
Let's admit that my thought as a finite being is itself finite, while
God's thought as infinite thought can be infinite [...], but this only
means that my finite thought [...] cannot understand the infinite
thought which reveals to God his infinite being. There is nothing
astonishing about this, when the finite as such does not understand the
infinite. If a finite as such neither demonstrates nor understands the
infinite, it does not have the right [...] to negate the infinite while
negating the possibility for the infinite to understand itself as
infinite (Kojeve, 1935, p. 43).

Transcendent infinite being can only come into being if it negates itself first (in and as time and discourse) in-the-world, and then either struggles or works to realise some form of self-consciousness, that is to say, validate its being and existence in-the-world. In the meantime, and in anticipation of such events, the only choice, the truly free choice, is between theism and atheism. This choice remains, historically speaking, free and open, while it bears no direct consequences on biological life or subjective consciousness.

We can now see the Buddhist-Cartesian square within the square as two paths leading in two directions that can never meet. Atheist philosophy "departs from the cogito-sum and leads necessarily to the finitude of the ego cogitans, and for this line of thought, all that thinks is finite, while the infinite can be thought without being able to think itself" (Kojeve, 1935, p. 43). Conversely, theist philosophy "presupposes the existence of the infinite, and it departs from the (ego) cogito-sum only to move on straight away to the (id) cogitate-est, and it notices that nothing is opposed to the supposition that this cogitate is the cogitatio of an infinite being" (Kojeve, 1935, p. 43). In other words ontology can either be anthropological or divine, but while the former is temporal and discursive, the latter may be thinking and therefore existing but there is neither a being on which its existence rests nor a real to support its thought.

Similarly, in his 1942-43 lectures on Parmenides, Heidegger situates the ontology of atheism between "the oblivion of being" and being's coming into "recollection" as the condition for "Western man [to] secure the most preliminary of all that is preliminary: that is, an experience of the essence of Being as the domain in which a decision about the gods or the absence of the gods can first be prepared" (Heidegger, 1998, p. 113). It is, therefore, important to distinguish philosophical atheism from the more vulgar and misleading usages of the term. The ontology of atheism is, on the one hand, being recollected from its oblivion, and on the other, the event of an ontological decision. The ontological choices which require a radical decision rather than a compromise are, therefore, as follows: "either God (or immortality) without freedom, or freedom without God (that is to say without immortality) [...] a choice between the consciousness of freedom (and free consciousness), or consciousness of servitude (and servile consciousness)" (Kojeve, 1935, p. 44).

The Introduction of Time in Being after Kandinsky's Art Theory

Kojeve's early engagement with visual art allowed him to expand the scope of the philosophy of the inexistent beyond its resistance to terminological or discursive formulations. Already at this point, the initial concern that the inexistent may well be a discursive effect is dissipated in the silent contemplation of the work of art.

Kojeve understood that the idea of the inexistent is present in art both as constituent element and totalising principle. "The art of the In-Existent [became] the path towards the philosophy of the In-Existent." (9) But what does art mean here? Is it used in the sense of the system's totalising principle which in-exists in the constituent elements of that which it sums up, while being their concrete and real sum? Is it a vague mystical notion which anticipates Jasper's Umgreifende [Encompassing], as "the source from which all new horizons emerge, without itself being visible as a horizon?" (Jaspers, 1995, p. 18).

Unlike Jasper's unknowable Encompassing or its ever-receding being, Kojeve's inexistent does not only want to speak about itself in a precise terminology, but it also wants to be determinable object of knowledge in a finite and closed (circular) system. In his close reading of Kandinsky's art theory as outlined in Point and Line to Plane (1926), Kojeve will redefine the inexistent as a temporal rather than (just) discursive notion.

Kandinsky's synthetic art rests on his theory of (primary) forms, where "point" and "line" interact with the "plane". He identified temporality and sonic tension in the concentric point and the exponential movement of line to basic plane as the primary concern of his art theory. He believed this relation to be the epitome of a radical continuity between an overlapping set of laws in art and nature. The rhythmic energy in his aesthetics, the "leap out of the static self-contained repose of the point [itself inhabited by temporal rhythmic tension from within] into the line's dynamic [tension from without]" (Kandinsky, 1947, p. 57) underscores the paradox of the obliteration of time in painting. But this energy is not limited to the canvas or a work of art taken in abstraction. While the inward and outward development of artistic creation is boundless; "the pure form," Kandinsky suggests, must "place itself at the disposal of the living content" (Kandinsky, 1947, p. 112). Living facts must be studied and understood both as isolated phenomena and in their interaction with, or relation to, one another. "It is the task of philosophy to draw conclusions from this material, and it is a work of synthesis of the highest order" (Kandinsky, 1947, p. 146). Kojeve was not only a dedicated advocate of his uncle's work against the spirit of the time, he radicalised his call for a universal and homogenous art theory in his own political doctrine of the universal and homogenous state.

In the summer of 1936, the Nazi guardians of Volksaufklarung and Propaganda were hard at work preparing the infamous Entartete Kunst exhibition of 1937 which will display, among other artworks, more than fifty items of Kandinsky's paintings. At around the same time, his nephew was writing a pamphlet in defense of what he calls 'concrete art'. In retrospect, this important manuscript, published posthumously as Kandinsky's Concrete Paintings (in 1992 and 2001), captured Kojeve's desperate attempt to distance his uncle's art from the stigma of 'degeneracy' in Nazi Germany, and from its equally damaging counterpart in the minds of Western European art critics, who believed Kandinsky's art to be excessively subjective and abstract. However, what interests us in Kojeve's manifesto for concrete art is not its explicit subject matter or its ominous historical context but rather its oblique definition of the very grounds of his ontology as autonomous plane of concrete being. When read alongside the Warsaw thought-experiment, one can see that its primary object is the notion of the 'real' or the 'concrete' in the fourfold relation of the Cartesian cogito. It is the Kandinskyan proximity of being to the real which seems to have taken precedence in Kojeve's thought over the Cartesian proximity of being to existence.

The "abstract" object dissociated from its concrete objective reality, Kojeve claims, belongs with a degenerate aesthetic form of transcendence, while the notion of the beautiful in art is nothing, and represents nothing in addition to being unreal, in the sense that it does nothing. The ontological notion of the beautiful in painting is exclusively predicated on the notion of 'surface' or 'plane'. "It is in the plane and in the plane alone that the equilibrium which conditions its support is beheld, and that is where the balance of forms and colors is achieved" (PCK: 11) The painting's surface or plane becomes visible when forms and colors find their regulating equilibrium in and as this surface, or as the unique plane of the canvas.

In defence of his uncle's art, Kojeve demonstrates that the degenerate art of the abstract must be distinguished from the total art of the concrete. The very same argument works perfectly well in the context of Kojevean ontology. A degenerate ontology of abstract being is radically different from the total ontology of concrete non-representational being. Kojeve will express this same line of thought in his philosophical writings by substituting the notion of the concrete in art with the notion of the concrete "concept" in philosophy, which is revealed in a concrete total system, but obliterated in forms of philosophical realism and philosophical idealism. These philosophical variants would be the equivalent of abstraction and subjectivism in visual art.

The deconstruction of the Cartesian ego, whose existence is validated in and as thought, did not provide much guidance as to how and when, if at all, ontology qua autonomous plane is or becomes uni-totality of the system itself. However, Kandinsky's concrete and total painting shifted Kojeve's attention from difficulties which pertain to the autonomous plane of ontology or to the terminology of the inexistent, to a different set of questions. Although the 'total painting' is situated beyond the void of abstraction and subjectivism, its uni-totality is neither discursive nor representational, while being both objective and concrete. By analogy, systematic totality can be non-representational and 'silent' without becoming absolute idealism or absolute realism. But if this important observation can resolve the problem of terminology from the point of view of the system, does this mean that the plane of ontology and all its constituent elements are also non-discursive?

In the course of his roving about the blind spots of Cartesian loud thoughts and the silent 'thing' which haunts Kandinsky's concrete painting, Kojeve picked up two valuable notions: from the former, the discursive (rather than cognitive) dimension of being in relation to existence; and from the latter the (sonic) temporality of being in forms exponentially propelled out of themselves in relation to the unique and finite plane of the real.

But what exactly is this 'Being' whose being depends on existence and the real? Kojeve's ontology is an attempt to understand and respond to this question where thought is neither the centre of ontology nor of the system's unitotality. The primordial question of this ontology does not seek to determine 'what' being is, but rather 'where' it is situated in relation to thought, existence, and the real.

Thought (T) is no longer the guarantor of the real, and neither does its existence validate being while it claims for itself a transcendent counter punctual position in the correlation of existence to the real. Consequently, thought (T) looks like a free-floating term suspended between existence and the real. As for being, it appears as a (Kandinskyean) point propelled outside itself in autonomous vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines, which constitute the three autonomous spheres of existence, thought and the real.

The ontological questions are defined at the junction of existence and the real. Once we determine where being is, we can then ask three ontological questions: 1) what is being and thought, 2) what is being and existence, and 3) what is being and the real? The answer to each question delineates three connected regions of being posited in theological, epistemological and political terms.

Throughout the 1930s, Kojeve used his lectures on Hegel as a cover to elaborate on these three regions of being. He essentially focused his ontological work on pinning down each region of being, albeit in a schematic way, to temporal modes of being. In his post-war writings, which have often been dismissed as mere play and vacuous intellectual dilettantism, Kojeve added and completed the third and last constituent element of his ontology where he matched the three regions of beings and their specific temporal modalities with their corresponding discursive modes of being.

The Theatre of Western Ontology from Parmenides to Hegel

After a lapse of more than three decades, the unresolved differences between Descartes and Buddha re-emerge in Kojeve's post-war writings, but this time, with a slightly different twist. The prescribed roles for this theist-atheist standoff are the same; and while Buddha is still there, in the lead role of the eternal veteran atheist, Descartes who seemed to have delivered a poor performance in Warsaw is dismissed and replaced by Parmenides. With such venerable ontologists, the stage is set for a three-act opera seria with one rather rowdy intermezzo, where Kant will engage in bourgeois risk-free skirmishes with ancient, modern, and even post-modern sceptical buffoons.

First, enter Parmenides. He is the first philosopher who said that "Being was not and will not be, because it is whole in the now (nunc), one, and indivisible." This Being is, according to Kojeve, conceived in the a-temporal mode of eternity, "which is not the integration of the totality of time, but its total absence" (Kojeve, 1990, p. 198) Being is in this case "given-spatiality" in absolute identity with itself. The first temporal mode of being, albeit paradoxically a-temporal, is, therefore, eternity.

When translated in its corresponding discursive terms, eternity is the ineffable whose inexistence is never put into doubt. But even though Parmenides speaks about being in the mode of eternity only to say that nothing can be said about it, his paradoxical silence is pointing at what "the philosophical tradition calls since the 17(th) century: Ontology" (Kojeve, 1990, p. 71). His poem begins and ends with silence, "it says nothing and contradicts nothing" but it contains "an ephemeral pseudo discourse in the middle" (Kojeve, 1968, p. 229). His strange performance, however, earned him the venerable title: "father of Western ontology". But while Parmenides was saying that nothing can be said in what looks like the instrumental overture of western operatic ontology, he most likely did not even notice that he was sharing the stage with Buddha and his disciples.

A similar description of the being identified in the poem of Parmenides can be found in narratives of Indian wisdom. A student visits the Buddhist sage several times and seems agitated with endless questions. Each time he is sent back to study but comes back with more questions, until decades later he finally comes back to sit next to the silent sage without saying a word. He is immediately greeted with an approving smile. "He finally understood that Brahma is silence, and that he appears to man only in and by silence" (Kojeve, 1968, p. 231). The ineffable eastern ontology of identity and silence is, however, different from its western counterpart despite the fact that they are both similar in their final conclusions. In western ontology silence is informed by "the intention to speak" and "Parmenides [...] remains a philosopher despite his renunciation [of discourse]" (Kojeve, 1968, p. 234) while in 'oriental' wisdom silence is absolute. The oriental ontologist seems to have no intention to speak.

In the absolute and a-temporal silence of Act I, other protagonists entered and exited the stage in silence, such as Spinoza. There was even a cameo appearance of Hegel himself but nothing much is said or revealed about the purpose of him being there. We are now about to witness the second chapter of the history of (western) being.

The ontology of absolute identity and the unique signifier is inadequate. It describes only one aspect of being, because it does not speak at all in the east, while in the west it speaks only once and then quickly retreats in silence for all eternity. It is not possible to even argue against ineffable ontologies of ineffable being because having a conversation with them would simply be a contradiction in terms. We even saw how god revealed himself as Spinoza!

Heedless of such absurdities, Plato engaged with Parmenides and his goddesses, knowing perhaps in advance, that neither of them will ever speak to him, lest he learns the lesson of the Brahman scholar and comes to sit next to them in silence. But Plato puts his predecessors' intention to speak into a philosophical dialogue. his question to Parmenides in its simplified Kojevean version comes down to whether the ontological discourse on "Being-One" is possible as philosophical discourse if Eternity is not related to the eternal outside time. While Eternity is given-spatiality which is identity that homogenises being, the Eternal is "Spatial-temporality without Temporality properly speaking [...] it is a 'parathesis' of Etern-ity and the Tempor-al [...], and as such it is a transitionary 'stage' towards the trans-formation of Eternity into Spatial-Temporality" (Kojeve, 1968, p. 105). Without any hope to receive an answer from Parmenides or his Goddesses, Plato defines 'One' as that which is common to all Being, and doubles this ineffable Number or indivisible Being with a corresponding ontological notion outside the sphere of Ideas. Plato's "Given-Being is Two: Same, and Other" (Kojeve, 1990, p. 216). Plato is the philosopher of difference, a term which, Kojeve insists, needs to be reserved exclusively for the sphere of the ontological discourse (Kojeve, 1990, p. 275).

Enter Plato's student Aristotle, trailing behind him those infamous chickens and such other low forms of life, which he spent most of his time observing and classifying, much to the chagrin of his master. He corrects Plato's ontological formula. Being is eternal related to eternity in and not outside time. Plato's dyadic difference is now multiplied into forms, types, genres and matter. This dizzying swirl moves around an immutable mover or cause.

Parmenides lifts a finger and points at the ineffable being of Aristotle's chickens. Buddha is still smiling. No one knows what Spinoza is saying or thinking. He is God! Plato knows that Aristotle's chickens correspond to an idea of ideas. He engages in a long and silent mathematical demonstration, whose ultimate result is the mathematical "symbol" chicken. Aristotle, unashamedly, classifies his master's symbols into a taxonomy of "signs".

Plato's concept (being) took the form of (1) morphemes devoid of meaning, which are silent or non-discursive while Aristotle's being became (2) morphemes whose meaning cannot be detached from their objective support because they pertain to vital or non-human phenomena. But in this instance, and besides Platonic "symbols" and Aristotelian "signs", disciples of both schools also produced an eclectic ontology of pseudo-notions, or (3) morphemes with contradictory meaning. These three discourses on being were fully understood and substantially described for the first time for western philosophy in Kant's ontology of discursive being. But this painful and long overdue transition in the history of (western) ontology from the dyadic and then multiple beings to a homogenous discursive one was punctuated by a long and seemingly interminable interlude.

Neo-Platonic eclecticism brought into the discourse of ontology the first symptoms of temporality, which is related to nothing inside or outside time. The 'aristocratic garden' where ancient (or pagan) philosophers retreated to settle their discursive differences morphed into the (Christian) bourgeois 'Republic of Letters'.

Enter Kant. He engages in a quixotic fight with the temporal as defined by ancient and modern sceptics who know neither eternity nor time. They speak interminably with no punctuations. They never pause and Kant is unable to get a word in, as they are all speaking over one another. Kant is a bourgeois. He concludes an eternal peace with temporality. Given-Being as becoming is not just given, it is difference and identity rather than difference or identity only. Kant exits the stage in peace, and leaves the neo-Kantians to deal with the pseudo-notions of the Neo-Platonic. They all follow him and want to provoke him to say something, but he never looks back, as he already has his eyes on the starry skies above and the moral law within. The interminable debate about the eternal related to eternity and time fades away along with temporality. The stage is now deserted.

Enter Hegel. He is pensive, brooding over the drama of being and its long journey in time and discourse. He engages in a soliloquy on recollection. Being is discursive. It is concept, and the concept is time. That is what everyone else was trying to say. "The whole history of [Western] philosophy" consists of successive "discursive errors" which pertain to "Being-Two and the Eternal after Plato" (Kojeve, 1990, p. 200). Hegel changed the course of Western being when he demonstrated that "ontology as a discourse on Being is not one or two, but three" (Kojeve, 1990, p. 192). The concept of Being can no longer be related to anything outside itself nor reflect on anything other than itself. Hegelian ontology (of absolute knowledge) no longer needs anything to support its being, and can explain, understand and remember its absence from being. The synthetic constitutive element of the discursive ontology of given-being "does not speak about presence but about its Absence [...]. The ontological discourse speaks about the absence of the ontological discourse, i.e., about its own absence from given-Being about which this discourse speaks" (Kojeve, 1990, p. 287). Negativity transformed into "remembrance of being" is neither identity nor negativity but rather a (nonrelational and non-representational) spectral being. The ontology of absence speaks about the end of philosophy in and as discursive wisdom or system of science.

Kojeve ends his project of "updating" Hegelian ontology after The Logic with the end of philosophy and the beginning of "absolute science" or what he also calls in his writings "Wisdom". A chilling statement concludes his post-war writings: "announcing an ontology means that what has been explained discursively is not our being in Being (or our presence in it), but only our Reflection on Being (and our absence, or the presence of our absence in it). We do not know where or when or by whom such an explanation was made" (Kojeve, 1990, p. 295).

Kojeve's playful narrative on the philosophical discovery of discursive being as described, first, in the last lectures on Hegel and then in his post-war manuscripts, contains valuable clues on the constituent elements of his ontology which consists of three regions of being: freedom, the knowable, and the transcendent (divine), respectively matched to four temporal and discursive modes of being.

The relational ontology of temporalized being is unhinged from given-spatiality, while the relational ontology of discursive being is unhinged from pure thought. The being-of-which-one-speaks is being that Western ontology preoccupied itself with for centuries without naming it as such or speaking about it even when it says that it is ineffable (in its mysticism), or measurable (in its science). As such, Kojeve describes the history of ontology as a gradual transition from inadequate or erroneous temporal and discursive modes to adequate [truthful] ones.

In summary, the aim of Kojevean ontology is, first, to define historical being and historical freedom; and, second, to delineate the sphere of knowledge and then determine the origin of theology. In other words, if we understand what the Concept (being) is, and in which set of (spatial-temporal) relations it exists, we can determine: (1) what type of knowledge is possible, (2) whether we are free or not, and (3) which god (or whose god) we are dealing with. In the broader context of the system of knowledge, Kojeve's ontology is primarily and essentially a political ontology whose declared aim, from the start, was to work towards an atheistic, that is to say, historical-anthropological system of knowledge. As developed and finally formulated in a comprehensive way in the first half of the 50s, Kojeve's ontology brings together his early reflection on the notion of the inexistent, first encountered in "Eastern philosophies" and post-revolutionary Russian "concrete aesthetics", with Western philosophical reflections on "Being". His ultimate aim, one can argue, was to formulate a universal and homogenous ontology where non-being is no longer excluded from being, or relegated to thinking or the unthought and unintelligible. Concrete ontology must reveal the Concept (= Time) which is common to all that we speak about.


(1) Kojeve uses this opening line from Plato's Timaeus as epigraph to his 'Second Introduction to the System of Knowledge: the Logical Introduction of Time after Plato', published posthumously in Le Concept, le temps et le discours, 1990, p. 171.

(2) Biographical references to Kojeve's philosophical education tend to focus mostly on his studies with Heinrich Rickert (1863-1936) in Heidelberg and Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) in Berlin. However, and in addition to his engagement with debates in contemporary German philosophy, Kojeve devoted a substantial amount of time to the academic study of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism with illustrious Sinologists and Indologists like Max von Walleser (1874-1954), Bruno Liebich (1862--1939), Ernst August Krause (1879-1942), Helmuth von Glasenapp (1891-1963), and Otto Franke (1863-1946). These biographical references have been sketched out in Filoni's Le Philosophe du dimanche, pp. 139-154.

(3) Cited in Auffret, Alexandre Kojeve: La philosophie, L'Etat, la fin de I'Histoire, 84

(4) The Philosopher's Journal, IIIa "Descrates and Buddha" (Warsaw 12 June 1920) cited in Filoni, Le philosophe du dimanche, 79, and in Auffret, Alexandre Kojeve: La philosophie, L'Etat, la fin de l'Histoire, 114

(5) Cited in Auffret, Alexandre Kojeve: La philosophie, L'Etat, la fin de l'Histoire, 115

(6) The Philosopher's Journal, IIIa, "On the Terminology of the Philosophy of the In-existent" Rome, 10 August 1920, cited in Filoni, Le philosophe du dimanche, 101

(7) Kojeve's mentor in Paris, Alexandre Koyre, identified a different genealogy of ideas informing the philosophy of Heidegger. He believed that Heidegger took the idea of existence from Kierkegaard and the idea of being-in-the-world from Husserl (Koyre, 1998, p. 538).

(8) Cited in Paola Zambelli's introduction to Alexandre Koyre, Present Trends of French Philosophical Thought. In Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 59, N. 3 (July 1998), 523-524.

(9) "On the In-Existent in Art and on the Art of the In-Existent" (Rome, 12 August 1920), cited in Auffret, Alexandre Kojeve: La philosophie, L'Etat, la fin de l'Histoire, p. 104. The note evokes the original painting of a "Madonna Nursing" whose post-card reproduction left Kojeve with an acute sense of loss and frustration. However, one must not interpret the Journal's 'Rome notes' on art as a mystical experience of some sort. Kojeve will later devote his philosophical writings to expose the reactionary element of 'silent experience' in the three non-discursive forms of theological sentiment, Newtonian science, and (Kantian) moral consciousness. Those 'early writings' reflect, with great intensity, the same discomfort with ineffable states of contemplation. In the Journal, one can already see that the choice of ontology of difference and becoming over contemplative ontology of identity is unequivocal.

Hager Weslati

Kingston University, UK

Correspondence to:

Hager Weslati, Ph.D.

Department of Journalism, Publishing and Media Kingston University Penrhyn Road Kingston-upon-Thames KT1 2EE, UK Email:


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[Hager Weslati. The Inexistent in the Ontology of Alexandre Kojeve. China Media Research 2017; 13(4): 48-56]. 6

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