The Amputated Father: Kojève’s Theory of Revolution and Authority

With Agamben’s recent invoking of Kojève’s idea of the Latin empire against the German dominance in Europe, and with the recent translation of the short manifesto on authority Kojève wrote amidst the Second World War, it is worth revisiting exactly what sort of theory of revolution Kojève was concerned with.

My review of The Notion of Authority: A Brief Presentation, published by Philosophy Now, looks at how revolution without the guarantee of the father’s divine authority is re-thought by Kojève. In short, I find this study on authority relevant today, but it must be put into conversation with psychoanalysis, something that Kojève did not examine. Below is a version of my essay.

Book Review: Alexandre Kojève The Notion of Authority: A Brief Presentation, translated by Hager Weslati and introduced by François Terré, Verso Books: London and New York, 2014, 107 pp.

Title: “The Amputated Father: Kojève’s Theory of Revolution and Authority”

notion-book cover

The recent English translation of Alexandre Kojève’s, The Notion of Authority: A brief Presentation is an important addition to philosophical studies of authority and an essential text for understanding Kojève’s political thought. While Kojève’s influential lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit left an indelible mark on continental figures such as Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Jean Paul Sartre as well as American philosophers such as Leo Strauss, his text on authority was written primarily for a European political and diplomatic audience amidst the Second World War. The book presents a framework for understanding authority from a philosophical point of view, and a blueprint for thinking revolution outside of the model of what he names ‘divine authority.’ It contains a comprehensive introduction by François Terré, a jurisprudence and legal scholar who is responsible for the original French publication of the text.

Kojève’s study should be put into conversation with Hannah Arendt’s essay, What is Authority? and Herbert Marcuse’s Study on Authority, both of which provide important mid-twentieth century philosophical accounts of authority. Kojève’s study is less speculative than these other studies as it presents a clear definition of authority from metaphysical, phenomenological and ontological positions, and not merely a hermeneutical account of authority as found in Arendt and Marcuse. While Arendt and Marcuse favored grounding authority in the negative, Kojève sought a positive definition of authority, one that would be usable for his political present. The debates between Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin on the state of exception also informed the ideas of this text, and given the ongoing current interest in these questions, Kojève’s text remains relevant for a wide continental audience.

As the text provides a schematic blueprint for understanding authority, it is essential that the key terms and definitions be summarized. After providing a brief summary of the text, I will analyze how Kojève constructs a model of authority that forecloses divine authority, or the authority of the Father, and show how this vision is conceived of as a revolutionary project. Surprisingly, the centrality of the father’s authority does not provoke a reflection on psychoanalysis even though Kojève was no doubt familiar with Freud’s conception of the father’s authority in situating the social bond. Marcuse would identify the unit of the family as, “one of the key bulwarks of revolution,[i]” and similarly, Kojève presents a vision of revolution able to persist with the amputation of the father’s “divine authority.”[ii] This review aims to develop the key ways in which this vision of revolution without the guarantee of the father’s divine authority is developed in the text.

Kojève quickly moves to define authority in the opening of the text as, “that which can ‘react’, that is to say, that which can change according to what or who represents (‘embodies’, realizes, or exercises) Authority.”[iii] Authority thus belongs to the person who can effect change and not to the one subjected to change, which is why “authority is the possibility of acting without making compromises.”[iv] In short, authority is acting on others without those others being acted upon, despite their being capable of doing so. This definition of authority implies that a truly authoritarian act does not encounter opposition from those it imposes upon, and as such, authority is unlike a right, where opposition can be had.

Kojève identifies four ‘pure’ types of authority that include the authority of the father, master, leader and judge. Each of these four types of authority has a distinctive ontology, metaphysics and philosophical school of thought that refined it over time. The most original form of authority is divine authority, which is developed by the Scholastics and embodied in the authority of the father over the child, but for most of history it was the rule of God over all. For the Scholastics, every human authority has a divine essence, but with the death of God, although Kojève does not develop this, the Father replaces the divine mode of authority. The authority of the father is ultimately a theological type of authority as the father is placed into the original cause of the universe and as Kojève writes, “the ontological proof of God is an attempt at an ontological analysis of the same Authority of the Father-cause.”[v]

The second pure type of authority is that of the master, developed in Hegel’s theory of consciousness and the master slave dialectic. Hegel’s theory of authority is the most fully developed philosophical account of authority, however its weakness lies in the fact that it reduces the relationship of authority to master and slave alone. As is well known, the master slave dialectic in Hegel is one where the slave has chosen submission over death while the master is ready to risk his life to be recognized. Hegel saw all forms of authority as derivative of that between master and slave and mastery that arises in the struggle to the death for recognition. Hegel’s theory of authority has no place for a theory of the leader or the father, and is thus the most important contribution to authority ever developed philosophically.

The third pure type of authority is the authority of the leader developed first by Aristotle. The leader includes figures such as “the Soothsayer, the Prophet and the Oracle” and “the director, supervisor, Master over the Pupil, the Prophet, etc.” The authority of the leader is based on a future-oriented project or idea that the leader presents. While the authority of the leader includes the election of a candidate, it is important to note that the election of a candidate in a democratic election is not what grants authority, but authority is already present in the candidate, the election simply manifests this authority. Therefore, authority must not be confused with the external signs of recognition.

The fourth pure type of authority is the authority of the judge, which Kojève identifies with Plato’s theory of justice. For Plato, power that does not rest on justice is a pseudo type of authority, and anything other than authority as justice is just brute force. Overall, each of the four types of authority is ontologically incomplete because they were developed originally as a way to account for authority in a universal sense. Hegel’s ontology of negativity and totality can only account for the ontology of the master in the same sense that Aristotle’s prime mover theory can only account for the ontology of the leader.[vi] Overall, there are sixty-four possible combinations of authority based on the four pure types and eleven compound types from these four.

With this framework developed, Kojève presents a brief, and perhaps incomplete set of ideas for revolution, which entails an overthrow of divine authority and for the proper balance of the different types of authority in this context. To perform this amputation of the father, Kojève re-defines the relation of the whole to the parts of society, and as such seeks to create a mode of authority that is not contingent upon social contract theory. Secondly, he proposes a new metaphysical combination of the authority of the judge with that of the master to overcome the authority of the father, which finally entails a temporal change to the status of authority this offers a new definition of revolution that is anti-utopian and no longer grounded on a future-oriented project or a divine foundation.

Kojève attacks social contract theory and Rousseau for privileging the majority with a sui generis type of authority that privileges the whole over the parts. For Kojève, social contract theory is based on a “combination of the father and the judge, but it is never invested with the character of the authority of the leader.”[vii] The reason that he prefers the authority of the leader over the authority of the general will is because it is perceived as too tied to tradition and to the preservation of identity with itself. The notions of authority implicit in Rousseau’s idea of the general will are therefore the authority of the father doubled with that of the judge. To solve this persistence of the father’s authority at the heart of social contract theory, he proposes a re-definition of the social on the metaphor of the organism.

“We cannot speak of the Authority of the Whole over its Parts except in so far as society (or the State) is thought of analogous to an organism. It is therefore this analogy that must guide the phenomenological analysis of the Authority attributed to the ‘general will’.”[viii]

Since social contract theory relies on a biological idea of the whole of the masses as a material reality, this leads to a society based on heredity and the oppressive authority of the father. Thus, what the authority of the general will and the struggle over the whole and the parts misses is the struggle of the master over his slave. In a dialectical sense, what Kojève is seeking to overturn are three aspects of social contract theory: firstly, to reintroduce of the authority of the master and the leader. Secondly, because the master’s struggle to the death and the risk it presents to existence is what brings about revolution or war, this is what brings about the figure of the leader – it is thus necessary to have a stage of mastery in the realm of the state. The master is a temporary moment in the eventual embodiment of authority in the figure of the judge. Thirdly, there is a danger in social contract theory that if we move to the authority of the majority over that of the whole, the authority of the judge disappears and the transmission of authority either takes place through heredity, election or nomination.

Since all authority must envision a world in which reaction is not possible, Kojève totalitarian leaders such as Stalin and Hitler are not necessarily exerting the authority of the father but of the leader, but they lack the authority of the judge to temper their future-oriented political project. Since they do not posses authority in the eternal mode, but they possess only a primacy on the future, the judge must balance the authority of the leader as the judge is outside of time but is not bringing the authority of an eternal establishment of authority as the father’s authority does.

“The suppression of the Authority of the Father has a character that is unequivocally ‘revolutionary’: the ‘constitutional’ theory is born out of the spirit of revolt and revolution, and it generates the (‘bourgeois’) revolution in as much as it is realized.”[ix]

Paradoxically, it is through revolution that the authority of the father returns in bourgeois revolutions. The bourgeoisie want to forget their origins a commoners, to disown their shameful past and they amputate the father.[x] The amputation of the authority of the father necessarily leads to the emergence of the authority of the leader and this is the origin of the era of bourgeois domination. But ultimately, this present-oriented mode of authority fails because it is what Kojève calls “non-human”; it does not have a past or a future, food and sex are paramount and such a society will bring about the end of history as Kojève defined it in his lectures on Hegel.

Kojève’s vision of revolution is thus developed in an antithetical relation to bourgeois revolution, and entails a combination of the Master, Leader and Judge and the foreclosure of the Father. As Kojève states:

 “The Authority of the Leader, isolated from that of the Master, takes a ‘utopian’ character: the legislation that is separated from its execution constructs a ‘Utopia’ with no ties with the Present (that is to say, it fails to remain in force in the Present), and it drags along with it in its downfall the Authority that has produced it – and, with it, the State itself in its ‘separated’ form.”[xi]

There is little of Kojève’s vision of revolution that is applicable to today’s revolutionary situation, and what he calls the ‘révolution nationale’ is proposed for the situation of Vichy occupied France. Revolution is thought dialectically in the idea of “a complete negation of the given-present” and one that is “carried out without any solution of continuity with the totality of the past.”[xii] This leader-directed vision of revolution is founded in a program that is both anti-utopian, because it is against the present, and also against the divine authority of the father as it refuses any return to a glorious past that would ground the meaning of revolutionary calls to action.

Importantly, one should not read this vision of revolution as identical to the conservative Révolution nationale implemented by Marshal Petain under the Vichy government, which held the motto of “Work, family, fatherland.” Kojève’s notion of revolution is anathema to Petain’s conservative program as it clearly remained tethered to the authority of the past and to the paradigm of the father. At the same time, the fact that Kojève supports a state that is founded on the “Master-Leader” authority model implies that the state must be founded on the risk of the master slave dialectic. While Kojève refuses to cede the authority to go to war with a single head of state or “Marshal,” it is a progressive sign that he places war-granting authority in the hands of what he calls the “manifest assembly,” a congress-like body composed by the people.


[i] Marcuse, Herbert A Study on Authority, Verso Books: London and New York, 2008, 76.

[ii] For further speculation about Kojève’s relation to psychoanalysis in this text, see Avital Ronell’s Loser Sons: Politics and Authority

[iii] Alexandre Kojève The Notion of Authority: A Brief Presentation, trans. Hager Weslati and introduced by François Terré, Verso Books: London and New York, 2014, 7.

[iv] Ibid, 9.

[v] Ibid, 26.

[vi] Ibid, 57.

[vii] Ibid, 41.

[viii] Ibid, 41.

[ix] Ibid, 64.

[x] Ibid, 64.

[xi] Ibid, 75.

[xii] Ibid, 101.


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