Hegel and Twentieth-Century French Philosophy
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter looks at Hegel’s impact on twentieth-century French philosophy by focusing on Kojève’s influential interpretation of Hegel, which enabled Beauvoir and Fanon to adapt Hegel’s philosophy to theorize gender and racial inequalities. Kojève took the struggle for recognition and the master/slave dialectic to be the central elements of Hegel’s thought. On this basis, Beauvoir and Fanon came to understand gender and racial oppression in terms of distortions in human relations of recognition. They argue that women (for Beauvoir) and black people (for Fanon) have been excluded from full participation in the struggle for recognition. However, these existential-Hegelian views are sometimes thought to have been superseded by the anti-Hegelianism of post-1960s French post-structuralism. Against this position, the chapter explains how the post-structuralist ‘French feminist’ Irigaray takes up and transforms Hegel’s notion of mutual recognition, to recommend that differently sexed individuals accept and recognize one another in their irreducible difference.
Hegel’s thought has had immense influence on twentieth-century French philosophy and intellectual life. Having held little significance for French philosophers in the early 1900s, Hegel’s thought burst onto the intellectual scene in the 1930s through, above all, the lectures on Hegel given from 1933 to 1939 by the Russian émigré Alexandre Kojève. Kojève placed the master/slave dialectic at the heart of Hegel’s philosophy, along with exciting ideas about labor, recognition, and the end of history. Kojève’s lectures were attended by, among others, Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, the surrealist André Breton, Jacques Lacan, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, all of whom engaged with aspects of Kojève’s ideas. Those ideas also became widely known through Kojève’s 1939 commentary on the master/slave dialectic in the journal Mesures and the subsequent publication of selections from his lectures in 1947 as Introduction to the Reading of Hegel.1 Becoming important to Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre, Kojève’s ideas fed into their key formulations of existentialism. Overall, Kojève’s ideas decisively stamped virtually every area of twentieth-century French thought: psychoanalysis; religious thought; international relations theory; phenomenology and existentialism; and postcolonial thought, by way of its founding father Frantz Fanon.
(p. 698) In the 1960s the ascendancy that Kojève had given to Hegelian ideas began to wane with the rise of post-structuralism. Its key representatives, Foucault and Derrida, sought to escape what they saw as the all-pervasive power of Hegelian thought. Derrida addresses the difficulty of departing from Hegel—any critique of Hegel being liable to fall into a standpoint that Hegel has already surpassed and incorporated into his system. As Foucault puts it, “our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.”2 This post-1960s preoccupation with the dual necessity and difficulty of overcoming Hegel shows how far French thought had become permeated by Hegelianism. Even Gilles Deleuze, who detested Hegel, could not ignore his thought, but set out to craft a non-Hegelian philosophy that revolves around difference rather than the identity that Deleuze saw Hegel as championing.
Cutting across these major intellectual shifts, French Hegel scholars were active throughout the century, some of them exerting considerable influence. Jean Hyppolite’s 1939–1941 French translation of the Phenomenology of Spirit consolidated Hegel’s burgeoning popularity, to which Jean Wahl’s 1929 study of Hegel’s unhappy consciousness also contributed. But in France, Hegel’s ideas gained a much wider reception than they have had in the English-speaking world, reaching well beyond Hegel scholars and being regarded as ideas with which any serious philosopher must engage. Among recent French philosophers, for instance, Alain Badiou criticizes Hegel for reducing the pure, proliferating multiplicity of number to the unity of thought.3 Others continue to read Hegel more favorably: Catherine Malabou takes Hegel’s idea of ‘plasticity’ as a starting-point for reconsidering neuroscience and proposing an intrinsic, ‘plastic’ creativity and freedom within our brains.4
An overview of the countless elements in Hegel’s French reception would inevitably become superficial.5 Instead I will concentrate on one strand in this reception that I consider especially fruitful. This strand proceeds, through Kojève and Sartre, to the rethinkings of the ‘struggle for recognition’ developed by Beauvoir and Fanon, who conceive of sexual and racial hierarchies as deformations in human relations of recognition. The struggle for recognition should be open to all, but women (for Beauvoir) and black people (for Fanon) have unjustly been excluded from this struggle. Thus Hegel’s ideas, filtered through Kojève and Sartre, gave Beauvoir and Fanon theoretical resources for conceptualizing sexual and racial hierarchies.
Beauvoir and Fanon distinguish these hierarchies from biological differences—for these hierarchies obtain within our relations to one another as conscious subjects, not mere biological organisms—and also from the economic class relations that Marxists had long insisted have moral and explanatory priority. Beauvoir and Fanon establish (p. 699) that racial and sexual hierarchies, unlike economic inequalities, are primarily problems of recognition, not redistribution.6 Even so, these hierarchies are no less damaging than economic injustice, since—in Beauvoir’s and Fanon’s existential-Hegelian framework—it is fundamental to human existence for us to affirm ourselves as free subjects and demand that others recognize us as such. To be prevented from doing so is to be unjustly excluded from full human existence. Thanks to the French reception of Hegel, then, racial and sexual hierarchies could be conceived as distinct forms of oppression that need to be understood and challenged in their own right. Besides being innovative philosophically, this position provided theoretical support for the movements for women’s liberation, anti-racism, and decolonization that became driving political forces in the 1960s.
But has the politics of existential-Hegelianism been superseded by the anti-Hegelianism of post-1960s French thought? To address this concern, I will consider how the ‘French feminist’ Luce Irigaray, an important member of the post-structuralist generation, takes up and transforms Hegel’s notion of mutual recognition, urging that differently sexed individuals should learn to accept and recognize one another in their irreducible difference. Thus, positive engagement with Hegel as a thinker of recognition (following Kojève) informs Irigaray’s ethics of sexual difference, which is one instance of recent French thinking about difference and otherness. This indicates that Hegel, specifically as read in light of Kojève, remains important for contemporary French philosophy—not merely as an irritant but also as a positive interlocutor.
It may be objected that all this has little to do with the ‘actual Hegel’. Kojève has been accused of distorting Hegel; Sartre, Beauvoir, Fanon, and Irigaray seek to take Hegel’s ideas in new directions, rather than provide faithful exegesis of his texts. Still, their ideas have some relation to those expressed by Hegel, not least because the difficulty of his texts opens them to widely varying interpretations. Moreover, it is precisely by recasting Hegel’s ideas that Beauvoir, Fanon, and Irigaray have forged from them the critical accounts of gender and race relations that are a lasting achievement of the French reception of Hegel.
The essentials of Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel are these. Kojève translates the lord/bondsman (Herr/Knecht) relation as that between maître and esclave—master and slave. Seeing this relation as the pivot on which Hegel’s thought turns, Kojève begins his reading of Hegel with ‘desire [Begierde]’ in Chapter IV of Phenomenology. For Kojève, we have here a human being submerged in mere biological life: still essentially an animal, with merely animal desires to consume and eat living beings. The transition to truly (p. 700) human existence begins as, in consuming and thus destroying living objects, we are negating mere life. We start to establish that we are not at life’s mercy, as animals are, but ‘go beyond’ life in the name of values that we prioritize over self-preservation.7 Thus we begin to stand out from life as free agents who transcend the given (transcender le donné).
Already we see a major departure from Hegel: Kojève wrests life and desire out of the epistemological and metaphysical context in which Hegel addresses them. For Hegel, life arises from the preceding shape of consciousness, ‘understanding’. The understanding comes to conceive of its object—laws of nature and the phenomena that they generate—as ‘infinity’, an unceasing process whereby laws endlessly unfold into manifold appearances (PS 9.99/¶161). This generative process is “the simple essence of life” (PS 9.99/¶162). The understanding now sees this real movement as being essentially the same as the intellectual movement that it is making in explaining phenomena from the laws underlying them. Consciousness thereby becomes self-consciousness (PS 9.101/¶164), for in relating to the outer world as life, it is relating to something that it sees as having the same essential character as itself. This brings us to desire, in which self-consciousness consumes and destroys living beings in the effort to realize their essential identity with it and thus confirm the truth of its metaphysical standpoint (PS 9.104/¶167).
By extracting life and desire from this epistemological and metaphysical setting, Kojève frees these concepts from Hegel’s absolute idealism and from the manifold interpretive difficulties that surround the Phenomenology.8 In this way, Kojève makes Hegel’s concepts more accessible—as Kojève does, too, by resituating those concepts as elements of an account of human existence. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel begins: “Man is Self-Consciousness [Conscience de soi]. He is conscious of himself, conscious of his human reality and dignity; and it is in this that he is essentially different from animals.”9 Our vocation, for Kojève, is to be human and not merely animal, natural beings. Whereas for Hegel the desiring subject seeks to prove its identity with life, for Kojève that subject seeks to prove that it transcends nature. In place of the metaphysical complexities of absolute idealism, then, we get immediate, practical concerns with freedom and human agency.
Kojève continues by following the broad steps of Hegel’s narrative in Chapters IV and IVA of Phenomenology, within which desire gives way to the struggle for recognition. However, Kojève fills in the logic connecting these steps in his own way, which often (p. 701) differs from Hegel’s. For Kojève, desire is unsatisfactory because even in negating living beings, I remain absorbed with them and dependent upon them.10 To realize my humanity I must obtain recognition of it from other human beings who, being human, are uniquely qualified to give this recognition. But to obtain recognition of my humanity as it differs from my animality, I must risk my life. “The supreme value for an animal is its animal life… . Human Desire, therefore, must win out over this desire for preservation. In other words, man ‘proves’ himself human only if he risks his (animal) life for the sake of his human Desire.”11 By risking my life, I try to prove to the other that I value prestige and recognition over life. But the other, desiring recognition from me in turn, takes the same risks. Thus provoking one another, we find ourselves embroiled in a fight to the death.
Unless this fight ends with either or both parties dead, eventually one subject concedes that it puts life first. That loser becomes slave, while the victor becomes master. The master, having proven his status as a free agent, decides on the slave’s actions, which are all forms of labor performed on material objects to adapt them to the master’s desires. The master will not deign to do this work but only to enjoy, consume, and destroy its products. The slave, conversely, has shown that he is suited to work, for “by the refusal of risk, [he] ties himself to the things on which he depends.”12 He thus has to labor on material objects in their intractable reality.
Overarching Kojève’s differences from Hegel on the details of the master/slave dialectic, Kojève also departs from Hegel by giving that dialectic direct social and political significance. Hegel leaves us uncertain as to how the master/servant dialectic is to be related to the actual social world, but for Kojève matters are clear: master/slave relations really obtain throughout human history. Marx saw human history as the history of class struggles and relations of class exploitation. Kojève, under Marx’s influence, interprets those class relations, in which one group labors on behalf of a ruling group, as master/slave relations in his sense: “history [is] the history of the interaction between Mastery and Servitude: the historical ‘dialectic’ is the ‘dialectic of Master and slave’.”13 By giving the master/slave dialectic this direct historical application, Kojève has made it seem bold, radical, and relevant to the cause of revolution.
Just as Marx saw the progression to socialism taking place by the revolutionary agency of the working class, Kojève sees the slaves as the collective agent of historical progress. “If idle Mastery is an impasse, laborious Slavery … is the source of all human, social, historical progress. History is the history of the working Slave.”14 The goal of this historical progression is reciprocal recognition. Slaves must become recognized as the agents into which they have already made themselves by their labor; and masters cannot be adequately recognized by those—the slaves—to whom they deny human status. (p. 702) History advances, then, as slaves progressively do ‘impose themselves’ on the masters. The French Revolution was a crucial milestone, initiating the modern era in which universal recognition of each by all is becoming a reality. When this process is completed, history will end—for history is nothing more than the history of master/slave relations and their overcoming.15
Kojève no doubt found inspiration for these claims in elements of Hegel’s work, such as his view that Christian Europe is the third and last main historical stage in which, at last, all are becoming recognized as free. But Kojève’s claims add up to a position sufficiently removed from Hegel’s idealism that some have accused Kojève of simply foisting his own views onto Hegel.16 In particular, what distinguishes Kojève’s views is that he regards self-consciousness, negativity, and the desire and struggle for recognition as essential and universal features of human existence, consequently elevating master/slave relations, too, into a historical constant. In contrast, for Hegel, these are only stages in the much broader progression of consciousness that the Phenomenology narrates. Desire, recognition, and master/servant relations become superseded by later shapes of consciousness, into which they are partially incorporated (for example, private property owners reciprocally recognize one another, according to Hegel in the Philosophy of Right). Thus Hegel does not give desire, recognition, or the master/servant relation the organizing centrality that they have in Kojève’s thought. Nonetheless, those concepts do have their place in Hegel’s Phenomenology, and as such Kojève’s account of free human existence remains a form of Hegelianism. Moreover, this form of Hegelianism not only allies Hegel with the cause of human emancipation, but also challenges the economistic bias of conventional Marxism by reframing relations of economic exploitation as resting on a prior distortion in relations of recognition. This move would make it possible for Beauvoir and Fanon to pay theoretical attention to forms of sexual and racial oppression that are not primarily or exclusively economic. They did so, though, by way of Sartre.
How far Sartre’s 1943 magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, bears Kojève’s influence is disputed. Sartre did not attend Kojève’s lectures but may have read his Mesures article. Certainly Sartre informed himself about Kojève, for as Nancy Bauer remarks, “No one thinking about Hegel during those years [1930s–1950s] could possibly avoid having to take account of his [Kojève’s] interpretations.”17 Kojève’s impact shows in the simple fact that Sartre substantially discusses Hegel’s Phenomenology IVA in Being and Nothingness, (p. 703) having previously paid Hegel little mind. Being and Nothingness includes both an assessment of Phenomenology IVA and—our focus here—a critical reworking of the struggle for recognition.18 Hegelian recognition thus became a central theme of existentialism.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre maintains that reality is fundamentally divided. Reality contains, first, beings-for-self: conscious human existents who are freely self-creating and always exist toward possibilities of action. Second, reality contains being-in-itself: the brute givenness of non-conscious material stuff, which through human action and projection becomes divided into discrete objects located in causal chains. Sartre treats being-for-others as a modification of being-for-self, which arises because we always exist among other existents. The fundamental way that we encounter other existents, Sartre insists, is not to perceive them as objects. That mistaken thesis generates the problem of other minds as we try to establish that the bodies of my neighbors, passersby, and so on, contain minds like my own.19 Actually, I fundamentally encounter the other as an other subject; any perception of the other as an object is derivative. Sartre supports this claim with two imaginative examples.
In the first, I am sitting in a park. The space around me and the objects in it—benches, grass, signs, litter bins—are organized around my possible actions and interests. Then a man walks past. I do not apprehend him simply as an object toward which I may undertake various actions, as I do with the benches. Instead, my experience is that my space and objects rearrange themselves around his possible actions: “there is a total space which is grouped around the other, and this space is made with my space; it is a regrouping—in which I assist and which escapes me—of all the objects that people my universe.” My world ‘hemorrhages’ toward the other, as Sartre strikingly puts it.20 Even so, Sartre says, I am still aware of this other as an object of a peculiar kind, one that is also a subject who effects the rearrangement of space. Things change, though, if the other turns and looks at me: I become an object within his frame of reference, toward which he may act in various ways and to which he assigns a meaning within the ensemble of his projects and interests. ‘The look [le regard]’, then, is central to intersubjective relations.
This brings Sartre to his second example: a man spying through a keyhole. “Let us imagine that moved by jealousy, curiosity, or vice, I have come to glue my ear to a door and look through the keyhole.” I am completely taken up in spying—but then I hear footsteps. “I am suddenly affected in my being and … essential modifications appear in my structures.”21 I undergo a ‘radical metamorphosis’: I am now directly aware of myself as looked at. Crucially, it is not that I first perceive the footsteps (as an audible object) then infer that I am looked at; my awareness of being looked at is primary. I can be aware of being looked at by the other through his footsteps, just as I would be were his eyes trained on me.
(p. 704) In being aware of being looked at, I apprehend how I look from the other’s perspective, in an immediate “recognition [reconnaissance] of the fact that I am indeed that object that the other is looking at and judging.”22 I view myself, as the other does, from the outside, thus as an object. My future projects and possibilities are not visible to the other, who merely sees me as what I have already visibly become. In this case, in the other’s eyes I am merely this individual spying through the keyhole, nothing more. Transfixed, like a butterfly pinned to a board, I am reduced to how I appear from the third-person perspective.
There appears to have been a shift in Sartre’s analysis. In his park example, I saw the other as a kind of object that was also a subject. But in the keyhole example, this qualification has disappeared: the other simply sees me as a thing seen, just as a park bench can be seen. “For the other, I am leant over the keyhole as this tree is bent by the wind.”23 Apparently, I am reduced to an object that bears the properties that the other assigns me, rather than giving myself qualities in undertaking my free projects and actions. This experience of objectification is the most basic way that I encounter the other, Sartre asserts:
He is the one who looks at me and at whom I am not yet looking, the one who delivers me to myself … without revealing himself, the one who is present to me in that he looks at me [me vise] and not in that he is looked at; he is the pole, concrete and out of reach, … of the flow of the world toward another world… .24
Far from being primarily perceived as an object (even one infused with subjectivity), the other is primarily the one to whom I appear as an object and who therefore strips me of my freedom.
These claims underpin Sartre’s reworking of the struggle for recognition. Under the other’s look, I become a kind of slave. I am not literally forced to work for the other, but now “I am a slave to the degree that I am dependent in my being … [on] a freedom that is not mine and that is the very condition of my being.”25 I was a free agent absorbed in my projects, for example when spying through the keyhole—roughly as, for Hegel, self-consciousness was initially focused on “supersession of the independent object” (PS 9.109/¶180). But then, for Sartre, I encounter the other, and my freedom is taken away. For Hegel, though, that is true only of those who become enslaved after defeat in the life-and-death struggle. In contrast for Sartre, my transformation into an object occurs immediately when I encounter another subject.
However, Sartre reintroduces a version of the life-and-death struggle by claiming that each of us resists our objectification and fights back against the other. After all, I acquire objective status not only for the other, but also for myself insofar as I adopt the other’s (p. 705) perspective on myself. But in doing so I remain aware of myself, self-consciously. Thus even in experiencing myself as object, I necessarily remain a subject.26 So I become provoked to reassert the subjective freedom that I always retain. I look back at the other, reasserting that I am an agent engaged in projects by placing the other in my frame of reference and spatial field. I thereby affirm that I am no mere thing, but rather one who exercises negativity (language reminiscent of Hegel and Kojève). Yet the other in turn reasserts himself against me, and we become locked into an endless struggle between competing looks, each endeavoring to establish his agency at the other’s expense.
From this perspective, Sartre can explain why my perception of the other as a subjective object, as in the park example, is always derivative. In regarding the other as object, I was already trying to master him in reaction against his looking at me or having the threatening possibility of doing so. In sum,
… my own look … is stripped [dépouillé] of its transcendence by the very fact that it is a look-looked-at. The people that I see, I am fixing them into objects; … in looking at them I measure my power. But if the other … sees me, then my look loses its power.27
In this reworking of the recognition struggle, Sartre has changed the order in which events unfolded in Hegel’s narrative. For Hegel, the life-and-death struggle preceded the reduction of the defeated party to a servant. Conversely, for Sartre, the reduction of each subject to a slave prompts a version of the life-and-death struggle as each subject resists this reduction. Moreover, the struggle for Sartre need not literally be to the death, just as the slavery in question need not be literal slavery. Sartre has transposed Hegel’s narrative away from social structures and onto everyday intersubjective relations.
Sartre’s other key difference from Hegel, and from Kojève, is to insist that the struggle is endless and irresolvable. Sartre sees no possibility of each subject reciprocally recognizing the other, because in the fundamental structure of human existence the other primarily steals my freedom. This is reflected in the order of events in Sartre’s narrative. I primarily encounter the other as the one who objectifies me, thus straightaway recognizing the other as an agent—but the agent of my objectification. I then move from recognizing the other’s agency to reasserting my own agency. Thus Sartre’s narrative closes off the space in which mutual recognition might come in to resolve the conflict. Sartre is pessimistic about human relations as Hegel and Kojève are not, seeing no prospect of a harmonious post-historical society. This pessimism informs Sartre’s well-known remark “Hell is other people,” actually voiced by his character Garcin in the 1944 play No Exit, initially titled The Others.28
(p. 706) Yet there are respects in which Sartre might be considered more optimistic than Hegel or Kojève. First, for Sartre, a fundamental reciprocity structures relations between subjects: each objectifies the other, each resists. Reciprocal recognition may be ruled out, but reciprocal struggling and continual reversals of power are ruled in. Second, although Sartre says that the other’s look strips me of my transcendence, ultimately his ontology entails that the other cannot ever deprive me of my freedom, for that freedom remains necessary for my (self-)objectification and for my whole way of existing. Has Sartre thus jettisoned Hegel’s insight that human agents can only fully achieve freedom by receiving recognition from other agents? Not entirely: Sartre does hold that my lack of recognition from others who objectify me deprives me of my freedom, which I seek to regain by reasserting myself. To make Sartre’s position consistent, we may take it that the other temporarily diminishes my freedom by inflicting quasi-objective status on me and by so affecting me that I regard myself as an object. By the other’s presence, my freedom becomes turned back against itself to stymie its own exercise. But by the same token, no other can ever eradicate my freedom. This has a parallel in Hegel, for whom the other’s recognition of my agency enables me to realize more fully an agency that I already possess in nuce just in being self-conscious.29
For Sartre, then, when the other objectifies me, I can and always do fight back. My freedom may be diminished; not so my capacity to resist this diminution. Consequently, even a literal slave always remains free to decide what attitude to take to his master, for “man cannot be sometimes slave and sometimes free; he is wholly and forever free or he is not free at all.”30 This leaves unclear how, for Sartre, any individual or group can ever be oppressed. Whatever situation I am in, whatever constraints others impose on me, my basic freedom remains intact. If I bow down to the constraints, the fault is mine—I have lapsed into ‘bad faith’. Yet Sartre wanted to acknowledge and theorize oppression. Applying his account of competing looks to anti-Semitism, he claimed that anti-Semites strive to fix Jews permanently in the position of those looked at, never allowing Jews to look back.31 This is a promising approach to oppression as consisting in the fixation of a group’s members in the position of those who are looked at and objectified. But, given Sartre’s ontology of freedom, it is unclear how any individual or group ever can be fixed in that position. This problem gives Beauvoir the task of taking forward Sartre’s account of the master/slave dialectic of everyday lived relationships, while transforming this account to recognize group oppression.32
(p. 707) 31.4. Beauvoir
One of Beauvoir’s achievements in The Second Sex is to provide a theoretical account of women’s oppression. She rejects the Marxist explanation that women’s oppression is a side effect of class inequalities, which fails to grasp that oppression in its own right. She also rejects the psychoanalytic explanation with reference to penis envy, which neglects the ways that subjects confer meaning on anatomical facts. And she rejects the biological explanation that women’s reproductive function determines their subordinate status, which again neglects subjectivity. To construct her own explanation, as I shall reconstruct, Beauvoir employs Hegel’s master/slave dialectic—which, following Kojève, she locates at the heart of Hegel’s thought. Her entire reading of Hegel is informed by Kojève; she did not attend his lectures, but read his work with great interest.33
For Beauvoir, women have been defined as men’s ‘other’ across history, as they still are today.
Masculine and feminine appear symmetrical only as a matter of form, as on … legal papers… . [But actually] man represents both the positive and the neutral, to the point where in French we speak of men to designate human beings in general … [while] woman appears as the negative.34
Necessarily, to be the negative or other (autre) is to be other from something else that counts as the norm, point of reference, or comparison. Thus women are always understood in negative relation to men—as men’s inferior counterpart, opposite, shadowy underside, and so on.
For Beauvoir, this status took root during the early period of hunter-gatherer societies. Without birth control, Beauvoir says, women in this period had to spend nearly all their time on childbearing, childbirth, breastfeeding, and infant care, while men hunted. By hunting, men were able to lay claim to transcendence. Following Kojève and Sartre, by ‘transcendence’ Beauvoir means going beyond the circumstances already given to us by creating and positing new values. In doing so, we establish our status as free existents who steer our own lives. By risking their lives in hunting, men established that they were free to overcome (to ‘transcend’) the goal of individual self-preservation that is given to us in our biology. Men instead privileged new, self-created values—conquering nature, securing the clan’s future, winning glory and prowess, and so on. Men decided what to value and that they valued these values more than mere life. Meanwhile, being exhaustively occupied in gestation and child care, women could only maintain life—a goal supplied to women by their reproductive bodies without their having any choice about it. In Beauvoir’s terms, women were confined to immanence—the status of merely (p. 708) reproducing and not surpassing life. Beauvoir thus takes up Kojève’s contrast between risking life and merely preserving life, and aligns it with the division of labor between men and women in nomadic times.
In these conditions men began to position women as the other—inevitably so, because no individual or group can assert its free agency without opposing another individual or group.
No group ever defines itself as One without immediately positing the Other that opposes it. If three travelers are by chance united in the same train compartment, that is enough to make all the other travelers become vaguely hostile ‘others’. For the villager, all those not belonging to his village are ‘strangers’ and suspect; to the native of a country, the inhabitants of countries not his own appear as ‘foreigners’… . Things become clear … if, following Hegel, we find in consciousness itself a fundamental hostility towards any other consciousness; the subject can only posit himself by opposing himself—he claims to affirm himself as the essential and to constitute the other as inessential, as object.35
Although Beauvoir imputes to Hegel the thesis that subjectivity requires antagonism, for Hegel that is true only of subjectivity at the developmental stage of self-consciousness; it is Sartre who maintains that subjectivity generally requires antagonism. Sartre’s influence is also visible in Beauvoir’s claim that ordinarily the other fights back, reasserting its agency: “The other consciousness … opposes to the first a reciprocal claim.”
In hunter-gatherer times, women could not do that. Absorbed in immanence, they could not convincingly oppose men’s othering of them by reciprocating with claims to free agency. In sum, women could not struggle for recognition. Beauvoir contrasts their position with that of Hegelian slaves as she understands it.36 Slaves have lost the struggle for recognition, conceding that they favor life, and so they have been assigned their position as laborers, their proven attachment to mere life qualifying them only to work for the satisfaction of our material needs as living beings. Women do not lose the struggle in that way because they never even participate in it.37 Consequently women can only submit, unresisting, to being positioned as ‘other’ to men.
Beauvoir, then, does not simply apply Hegel’s master/slave dialectic to man/woman relations. Rather, she uses Hegel’s narrative (as Kojève reconstructed it) to identify an alternative pathway along which recognition relations can become structured, not into master/slave relations but into a form where one group—women—becomes othered by failing ever to resist objectification. By returning to Hegel and Kojève, Beauvoir can thus explain, as Sartre could not, how a group can become fixed in the position of ‘other’ despite everyone’s fundamental existential freedom. To claim freedom, one must be in a (p. 709) position to perform the actions that support this claim, which in early conditions meant risking life (as per Kojève). But the nomadic division of labor prevented women from doing that. This is “how it is, then, that … reciprocity has not been established between the sexes, that one of the terms has affirmed itself as the only essential one … [and] that women have not contested male sovereignty.”38
Once women had become ‘other’, a whole culture gradually accumulated that portrays women from men’s perspectives—across myth, religion, art, science, and so on. Positioned in contrast to men, women have been cast as beings of nature not culture, puppets of biology not agents of their own existence, and thus suited neither for the public sphere nor the life of the mind. These accreted ideas keep women in the place of ‘other’ today, although the industrial and technological advances of modernity mean that risking life is no longer necessary for demonstrating free agency. Instead, one proves agency today by laboring—broadly following Kojève’s vision of modernity in which labor and recognition are becoming universalized. For Beauvoir, this change from risk to labor potentially allows women to assert their agency at last, given the parallel development of abortion and contraception, which can free women to participate fully in paid work. However, entrenched ideas and myths about women’s nature often continue to keep women in the private sphere. Thus even today, Beauvoir concludes, women are often in no position to lay claim to the free agency that they do in fact possess. This is no moral fault on their part. Rather, women’s exclusion from the struggle for recognition is “inflicted upon” them and as such “it takes the shape of frustration and oppression.”39
At the same time as Beauvoir was theorizing women’s oppression, but independently of her, Fanon likewise took up Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, which he too read by way of Kojève and Sartre, to analyze racial oppression.40 Fanon did so in Black Skin, White Masks, published in 1952 and written while he was studying medicine and psychiatry in Lyon (he had come to France from his native Martinique to fight with the Free French in World War II). The book ranges widely, covering language, inter-racial relationships, the psychology of colonialism—and including an essay “The Black Man and Hegel (p. 710) [Le Nègre et Hegel]”—on how far Hegel’s master/slave dialectic applies to white/black relations.
Sartre’s and Kojève’s influences are apparent in how Fanon construes Hegel’s conception of recognition:
Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose himself on another man in order to be recognized by him … [First] self-consciousness reaches the experience of desire, … It agrees to risk life, and consequently threatens the other in his bodily being… . This risk implies that I surpass life [dépasse la vie] towards a supreme good … I demand that I be taken into consideration on account of my desire. I am not merely here-now, locked in thinghood, I am for elsewhere and for something else… . I pursue something other than life… .41
For Fanon, the human condition is for individuals to struggle for recognition adversarially. To be truly recognized, one must win recognition from the other through struggle rather than being granted recognition without having fought for it.42 I fight for recognition by risking my life and threatening the other person. Unless I undertake this risk, I cannot possibly be recognized as one who freely negates life in favor of ‘something else’.
Despite the antagonism of the struggle, Fanon regards it as an ideal human condition insofar as its two parties are in positions of reciprocity. “There is at the base of the Hegelian dialectic an absolute reciprocity that must be demonstrated.”43 Each tries to impose his own existence on the other, and when the other reciprocally tries to impose his existence, the first subject struggles to reverse the imposition. This struggle continues endlessly, for Fanon as for Sartre, with each party wishing to be ‘absolute’, to be the only one recognized as free. So, for Fanon, the reciprocity between the two strugglers is not that they reach equilibrium and recognize one another mutually. Rather, reciprocity obtains just when each party can keep struggling to be absolute, when I impose myself upon the other yet he fights back against me, incessantly.
Fanon deems this condition ideal, in contrast to the situation under colonialism, thus using Hegel’s and Sartre’s ideas to criticize the colonial system. Under colonialism, reciprocity is blocked: by being constructed as black, black people are prevented from ever asserting their freedom. Thus “[o]ntology is made unrealisable in a colonised … society.”44 Colonial society prevents people from living in accordance with their ontological condition, which is to struggle for recognition reciprocally. Black people are prevented from exercising negation and so from ever claiming or winning freedom. White people cannot truly exercise negation either, for they never encounter any resistance against which to prove themselves—they are never ‘othered’, at least not by black people. Still, (p. 711) if colonialism distorts human existence universally, it distorts that of black people most deeply.
As Beauvoir held that women across history have been unable to participate in the struggle for recognition, then, Fanon’s related claim is that under colonialism black people are precluded from struggling for recognition. Fanon explores this in his chapter “The Lived Experience of the Black Man [l’expérience vécue du Noir]”, much of it written in the first person, and opening dramatically:
“Dirty nigger!” or simply “Look! A Negro!” I came into this world anxious to uncover the meaning of things, my soul desirous to be at the origin of the world, and here I found myself an object among other objects. Locked into this crushing objectivity, I appealed to the other… . But … the other fixes me, through his gestures, attitudes and looks [regards], in the way that one fixes a preparation with a dye.45
Like Sartre’s man spying through the keyhole, Fanon is engaged in projects, anxious to disclose meanings in things in view of these projects (as a mountain might be disclosed as resistant in light of my project of climbing it). But Fanon finds himself looked at by the other, judged and classified as physical objects are. He appeals back for recognition. His appeal is not met; instead he finds himself fixed by the other’s gaze—fixed in the race that the other attributes to him, as when a chemical mixture has a dye added to it. Fanon finds that he is seen as black, thus not as an agent. The racial attribution is what gives the other’s look its fixity: Fanon is prevented from challenging the other’s perception of him because he cannot escape from the racial category under which the (white) other views him.
It is not that Fanon is perceived as having a race that he already biologically has. Some of his perceptible physical properties—primarily his skin but perhaps his hair and facial features as well—are taken to mark him out as black. But it is not that these properties reveal the race that Fanon has already: Fanon denies that race categories have a biological basis. Rather, Fanon is made black—in the way that the chemical mixture has a dye added to it—by being inescapably perceived in terms of certain of his visible properties and above all his skin color. Fanon adds that to become black is to acquire an ‘epidermal racial schema’. Ontologically, we each have a ‘body schema’: as embodied agents, we act in view of a tacit, practical model of the spatial field around us.46 But, superimposed upon that schema, Fanon acquires a further schema that consists in his constant inhibiting awareness of being viewed in terms of his skin color, from the outside.
Whatever actions Fanon makes in appealing for recognition, those actions are referred back to his physical appearance, to which he finds himself unavoidably tied. His actions are seen in a particular light in view of the race to which he is assigned: these actions are differently evaluated, or differently interpreted; they may even literally be perceived differently. Take, for example, the little girl Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s harrowing (p. 712) novel The Bluest Eye, set in 1930s Ohio. In one of the many distressing episodes that Pecola suffers, she is visiting the household where her mother works as a servant and she reaches out tentatively toward a berry cobbler, only to knock it over, hurting herself with the hot juice but prompting her mother to slap her to the floor and shout at her ferociously. Pecola is not seen as having hurt herself and deserving sympathy but as being incorrigible, ‘crazy’, incapable of keeping to her place.47
Here there is a revealing difference from the predicament of Sartre’s man spying through the keyhole. He was seen and judged in terms of the activity, spying, in which he was caught. The net of judgment in which he was caught centered on his activity, with reference to which he was classified as a voyeur or peeping Tom. He was a transcendence-transcended, in Sartre’s language. In contrast, Fanon argues that black people are seen, judged, and classified in terms not simply of their activities but specifically of those activities as always referred back to, qualified with reference to, the visible physical appearance of their skin. But the latter is a merely objective property. It is not the objective side of an intentional activity, but is a property that only exists inasmuch as one is seen from the outside. Just in constantly having his activities referred back to his epidermal appearance from the outside, Fanon is made black. Meanwhile those whose activities are not so referred are made white—acquiring a racial identity that is characteristically unmarked, invisible.
For Fanon, this process renders black people powerless to resist objectification. To claim recognition, I must prove that I exercise transcendence or negation. I must show that I decide the meaning of my existence, rather than its meaning being bestowed by the other. Since others are invariably looking at me, establishing my agency thus requires that I negate the meanings that others have already bestowed on me. To prove my agency is to show, in action, that I always surpass others’ perceptions of me. This the black person cannot do, Fanon reasons, because he is “locked in his body”:48 his acts are always perceived with reference to and in light of his perceptible epidermal appearance, as acts by white people are not. In that way, black people are never permitted to escape from their visibility to the other’s perspective. The possibility of their actions negating that perspective is cut off at the outset.
Racial hierarchy has a different structure from sexual hierarchy as Beauvoir understands it. For Beauvoir, across history the division of labor has prevented women from performing the kinds of action—risk, labor—that demonstrate agency at a given time. For Fanon, whatever actions black people perform, they are still fundamentally perceived in terms of their visible appearance from the outside, and thus are prevented from making convincing counter-claims to define themselves from the inside. Further indicating the difference between Beauvoir’s and Fanon’s analyses, Fanon denies that it is ideas about race that exclude black people from the struggle for recognition: “I am a slave not to the ‘idea’ others have of me, but to my appearance” (Fanon’s concern here is to distinguish colonial racism from anti-Semitism).49 For Beauvoir, in contrast, (p. 713) accumulated myths and ideas about women have led them to be more or less restricted to the private sphere and so unable to participate fully in labor and claim agency through it. To be sure, Fanon does identify accumulated meanings that the colonial nations attach to being black: backwardness, cannibalism, evil, ugliness, closeness to animals, dangerous savagery, brute strength. Overall, “in Europe the black man has one function: to represent lower feelings, base urges, the dark side of the soul.”50 But for Fanon, these meanings only attach to being black on the basis of this identity first being constituted by the look.
Although Beauvoir and Fanon give different accounts of the mechanisms by which women and black people are oppressed, they both conceive these forms of oppression as having distinctive structures in their own right.51 Refusing to reduce these oppressions to biology or economics, they turn to Hegel as filtered via Kojève to grasp these oppressions as consisting of distortions in the relations of recognition that are fundamental to human existence. Gender and racial oppression, then, are ultimately forms of recognition injustice—but they are no less real for that. However, they are particular forms of recognition injustice, different from the master/slave relation. Neither group has lost the struggle and become subjugated on that basis, as Hegelian slaves did. Instead, both groups have been debarred from participating in the struggle in the first place. So the ideal human condition from which women and black people have unjustly been excluded is, ironically, that of the struggle between looks as Sartre theorized it—ideal because of its reciprocity. Beauvoir and Fanon thus give this struggle a more optimistic, Hegelian cast than Sartre gave it. The struggle against others is not hell: much better to take part in this struggle and share in full humanity than to be stuck outside the struggle in second-class status.52
For the post-structuralist generation, Hegel is the philosopher of identity, in particular the identity-with-itself that the self-conscious subject achieves by satisfying its desires. (p. 714) Again following Kojève’s lead, the account of self-consciousness in Phenomenology IV and IVA is construed as being centrally revealing about Hegel’s overarching orientation toward identity. Against identity, post-structuralists value difference: as Deleuze puts it, in a “generalised anti-Hegelianism … difference and repetition have taken the place of the identical and the negative, of identity and contradiction.”53 For Hegel, difference seems to exist as part of or on the way toward identity—be it the difference between life and self-consciousness which the subject negates in desire, or the difference between master and servant which must cede way to reciprocal recognition. In contrast specifically to Hegel, post-structuralists set out to think of difference as ontologically prior to identity and, ethically, to avoid subordinating difference to identity. This difference assumes various more concrete guises: the differential play of power relations (Foucault), of language (Derrida) or language-games (Lyotard), pure becoming (Deleuze), multiplicity (Badiou), or sexual difference (Irigaray). It might be objected that, far from privileging identity, the characteristic movement of Hegel’s dialectic is to incorporate both what initially claims self-identity (e.g., ‘I’, self-consciousness) and what differs from it (e.g., the other) into broader, unifying structures (e.g., the ‘We’). But for post-structuralists that ‘We’ remains a ‘We that is I’ (PS 9.108/¶177), an ‘I’ that has only become ‘We’ by expanding to take in the other. This exemplifies the overall movement of Hegel’s thought: to absorb difference into the self-same.
This critique of Hegel’s conception of the self-conscious subject may seem to leave the basis of Beauvoir’s and Fanon’s theories undermined and their work discredited. But that conclusion would be too hasty. To see why, let’s consider Irigaray’s philosophy of sexual difference, an instance of positive post-structuralist engagement with Hegel. Moreover, Irigaray also engages positively with Beauvoir’s view of sexual hierarchy as a deformation in recognition relations. Thus Irigaray’s work testifies to Hegel’s continuing positive importance for French thought.
Irigaray shares Beauvoir’s conviction that women have been positioned as ‘other’ throughout Western cultural history and remain so today. The “ ‘feminine’ is always described as lack, atrophy, reverse of the sex that alone holds a monopoly on value.”54 By way of Beauvoir, Irigaray’s overall conception of women’s subordination thus comes out of the French tradition of reading Hegel. But Irigaray differs from Beauvoir on what makes women’s othering unjust. For Irigaray, its injustice is—paradoxical as it might sound—that women have been positioned as the same as men but in reverse, or ‘less so’, an inferior version of the same. Women’s status has been that of the other-of-the-same: an other constantly referred or adversely compared to the ‘same’ (i.e., the masculine position taken as norm and standard). While Beauvoir had already effectively recognized this, unlike Beauvoir, Irigaray concludes that women need to assume a new subjective position as the other-of-the-other—to cease to be men’s inferior correlate (the other-of-the-same) and assume a sui generis identity as women. That identity would be different from—other to—women’s traditional position as men’s other. Irigaray aspires (p. 715) for women to belong to a sex/gender or kind that genuinely differs from the male kind: what is needed is recognition of genuine sexual difference.
This vision clearly diverges from Beauvoir’s. Beauvoir aspires for women to join in the struggle for recognition and share with men in the continual movement between the two poles of the subject/object, self/other ambiguity. This positive valuation of reciprocity descends to Beauvoir from Hegel, via Sartre’s insistence on irresolvable antagonism. Irigaray rejects that valuation of reciprocity, as we see from her alternative vision of ideal relationships between sexed individuals in I Love to You, one of the books where she engages with Hegel most extensively.55
Here Irigaray claims that each sex should accomplish the ‘labor of the negative’ toward itself.56 To do so is to depart from our inherent tendency to negate the other: to refuse to let the other exist as other and instead try to absorb the other into the self, to declare “I am the whole.” To negate oneself is to negate that tendency and so allow the other to be other. Irigaray is indebted to a broadly Sartrean-Kojèvian-Hegelian view that each consciousness finds the other threatening to its own agency and so seeks to make that other into its mere vehicle or appendage, resulting in master/slave relations. For Hegel, though, we ultimately must recognize one another as agents and, instead of partitioning body and agency unequally between us, we must recognize that we are all embodied agents. Irigaray agrees. But she asks: must we not, then, all accept that we are sexually embodied? We do not have bodies in the neuter—we have male or female bodies (a minority of people are intersexed, but let’s bracket this). Moreover, as subjects, we are our bodies. My sexed embodiment does not sit idly by while I act, feel, think, and so on; my embodiment inevitably qualifies and affects the mode of my subjectivity.
On these grounds, Irigaray contests Hegel’s view that the two parties to the struggle for recognition are in symmetrical positions, whereby the action of each is “indivisibly the action of one as well as of the other” (PS 3.148/112). If I, a woman, am relating in some way to a man (not necessarily romantically—we might, say, be in intellectual or political dialogue), I cannot rightly assume that he will make toward me the same subjective movements that I make toward him. Yet, Irigaray thinks, I do tend to assume that the sexed other will relate to me as I do to him: I project my own form of subjectivity upon everyone else. Instead, I should cultivate my ability to be open to the other however he or she may manifest him- or herself—an attitude of wonder, as Irigaray sometimes puts it.57
Overall, for Irigaray, each sexed individual should perform upon him- or herself a negating movement—negating his or his propensity to assimilate the other sex. I do not try to transcend the other; instead I acknowledge that he or she transcends me.58 For Beauvoir and Fanon, the solution to the othering of women and black people was (p. 716) to open up the recognition struggle to reciprocal participation by all. Irigaray departs further from Hegel’s ideal of reciprocity by aspiring for sexed individuals to accept one another in their irreducible difference.
Nevertheless, Irigaray does not wholly reject Hegel’s ideal of reciprocal recognition. First, she envisages each sex exercising negativity upon itself. To be sure, she anticipates that each sex will carry out that exercise differently.59 Moreover, she maintains that the urge to assimilate the other arises for each sex along different routes (threatened by being born of mothers, young boys become accustomed to negate what is other, whereas girls never properly extricate themselves from their mothers to appreciate that others are other). But second, Irigaray explicitly states that each sex is to recognize the other as irreducibly different. This is necessary, she agrees with Hegel, to overcome master/slave relations.60 Yet this is a recognition of difference, of what is irreducibly other to the self and beyond its ken. Recognition is the way for us to value difference in its own right and as irreducibly real. If this ideal sounds non- or anti-Hegelian in that it ranks difference above identity, on the other hand Irigaray’s ideal is for sexed differences to be held together within a broader structure of reciprocal recognition—a distinctly Hegelian vision.
Thus, Irigaray’s ethics of sexual difference descends from Hegel’s vision of reciprocal recognition. This is indicative that existential-Hegelianism remains important for French thought after post-structuralism—not only as a foil against which post-structuralists define themselves, but also positively, as a source of ideas that continue to inform. To be sure, post-structuralist insights into the value and ontological reality of difference pose problems for anyone who would endorse existential-Hegelian ideas wholesale. But we should not reject those ideas wholesale either. Existential-Hegelian ideas about the human need for recognition, and how distortions in recognition are constitutive of harmful sexual and racial hierarchies, remain an inescapable starting point for thinking critically about these hierarchies and how we might overcome them.
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(1) Introduction to the Reading of Hegel was compiled by Kojève’s student Raymond Queneau, using lecture notes, transcripts, and other materials; Kojève reviewed the text and added footnotes. Queneau made the 1939 Mesures article into the opening chapter, “In Place of an Introduction.” See Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, xiii.
(5) Other accounts of Hegel-in-France include Baugh, French Hegel; Judith Butler, Subjects of Desire; Tom Rockmore, “Hegel in France”; Roth, Knowing and History; and Russon, “Dialectic, Difference, and the Other: The Hegelianizing of French Phenomenology.”
(6) On the recognition/redistribution distinction, see Fraser, “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age.”
(8) Kojève does provide a reading of the entire sweep of the Phenomenology, but he takes Chapter IV as its starting point. His justification is that absolute knowledge depends on universal human history, the building-blocks of which are human agents; and their fundamental character is set out in Chapter IV and IVA (Introduction, 33).
(9) Kojeve, Introduction, 3. For exegetical accuracy when discussing Kojève, Hegel, Sartre, and Fanon, I follow their use of masculine language, which reflects their equation of the masculine with the universal.
(17) Bauer, Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy and Feminism, 86. Later Sartre read the 1947 edition of Kojève’s lectures, which may in turn be influenced by Sartre—see Fry, Sartre and Hegel, 6. Surprisingly, and clearly falsely given the extensive discussion of Hegel in Being and Nothingness, Sartre subsequently claimed to have seriously studied Hegel only in the late 1940s.
(26) Consequently, for Sartre, I necessarily feel ashamed of how I appear to the other. My shame embodies my tacit judgement that I am more than my appearance, to which I therefore ought not to be reduced as I have been (ibid., 261–262).
(29) Hegel says, “A self-consciousness is for a self-consciousness. Only so is it first self-consciousness in fact; for only in this way does the unity of itself in its otherness first come to be for it” (PS 3.108/¶177). Unity-with-self-in-the-other is one of Hegel’s formulae for freedom or self-determination. Thus, for Hegel, self-consciousness already has freedom (unity-with-itself-in-otherness) but this only becomes so for it, i.e. becomes fully real and developed, through recognition.
(30) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 550, 441. Prefiguring Sartre, Hegel claims that “if a people does not merely imagine that it wants to be free but actually has the energetic will to freedom, then no human power can hold it back in … servitude” (E §435A). I thank Dean Moyar for pointing this out to me.
(32) For further argument that Beauvoir undertook this task, see Kruks, “Simone de Beauvoir: Teaching Sartre About Freedom.”
(33) See Lundgren-Gothlin, Sex and Existence: Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’, 273. Beauvoir began to read Hegel in 1940, under Kojève’s impact; see Bauer, Simone de Beauvoir, 86–87.
(37) As Lundgren-Gothlin puts it, “Female human beings do not seek recognition; … man, in the relationship to woman, nurtures the hope of achieving confirmation without engaging in this kind of dialectics… . Woman has not raised a reciprocal demand for recognition” (Sex and Existence, 98).
(40) It is not clear whether Fanon read Kojève directly or read Hegel through Kojèvian eyes only due to the influence of Sartre, especially his Anti-Semite and Jew. Ethan Kleinberg, though, shows that Fanon’s view of recognition is so close to Kojève’s that perhaps Fanon did read Kojève’s Mesures piece; see Kleinberg, “Kojève and Fanon: The Desire for Recognition and the Fact of Blackness.” Fanon did not read The Second Sex, but he read Beauvoir’s account of her travels in America; see Macey, Frantz Fanon: A Biography, 124–126, 367. Beauvoir read Fanon’s work only later, before meeting him in 1961. Thus the two did not influence one another; their affinities instead reflect their shared influences in Hegel, Kojève, and Sartre.
(51) The phrase “women and black people” is unsatisfactory: as many black feminists have pointed out, some women are black and some black people are women. I use this phrase nonetheless to reflect a limitation of Beauvoir’s and Fanon’s views: Beauvoir takes white women as the norm, Fanon takes black men as the norm.
(52) Actually, in Beauvoir’s ideal condition each subject asserts its agency and admits its being-for-other, which together make up its ambiguity. In this way each subject opens itself to the look while looking back as well. Fanon stresses more how central agency is to the human condition. However, he vacillates over the merits of Négritude, the literary and political movement to revalue black culture and identity. Fanon fears that Négritude may further trap black people in their race. But he also wonders whether, since this racial status is inescapable anyway, Négritude might be the only way for black people to reclaim subjectivity by making their race itself something whose meaning they freely define (Fanon, Black Skin, 101–119).
(55) On Irigaray’s engagement with Hegel, see Stone, Luce Irigaray and the Philosophy of Sexual Difference, ch. 5.