Man and His Death:
Reading Kojčve's Reading of Hegel


Talking about death, Kojčve in his reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit manifests its relation to both negativity and freedom as such: "If Death is an 'appearance' of Negativity, Freedom is, as we know, another such 'appearance.' Therefore Death and Freedom are but two ('phenomenological') aspects of one and the same thing, so that to say 'mortal' is to say 'free,' and inversely" (247). This relation, even identity, between death, freedom, and negativity is of central importance in Kojčve's anthropological rethinking of man as a dialectic (and, in a sense, total) being by way of Hegel. For Kojčve man is different from animal in that he is capable of negating his given nature (his animality) as it is and, by this action of negation, of opening to himself a temporality in which his present being is at the same time negated into the past and preserved in a future (that is dialectically based on the present in the past) as a result of his work on nature. In this sense, man denies to himself a merely natural place in cosmos, but creates for himself a historical locus. And negation is important and essential to the being of man because, as a being capable to negate even itself, man can free himself from any given or determined possibility and become, other than merely a natural being, a dialectic and historical being, a being with all possibilities. By negation, man is able not to be what he is, but to be what he is not or what he is to be. And the (human) freedom, thus created by man's negation phenomenalizes negativity itself, is an "appearance" of negativity in that, as a result of man's action of negation, freedom realizes and makes explicit the abstract concept of negativity. But this freedom is not content or substance to fill in the concept of negativity, for, by definition, freedom, just like negativity, is determined by nothing, is pure nothingness, and can only be presented in a negative way, that is, by man's realized and concrete action of negation. However, as Kojčve also mentions, besides freedom, death is another aspect of negativity. So what is death and how can we fit death into this picture along with negativity and freedom?

Death is nothing, is nothingness, but it is also, by its relation to and even identity with negativity, the very negating negativity that is essential to the human desire which, in turn, is the core of human reality and self-consciousness. Kojčve, in the very beginning of his reading of Hegel, directly points out that man is man insofar as he is at once animal and different from animal. Man is animal in negation, is negated animal. This distinction is made more clear in Kojčve's differentiation between human and animal desire. For Kojčve, man as self-consciousness can be conscious of himself only by desire rather than, for example, contemplation. Peaceful contemplation only reveals object in and by the act of knowing because the subject in contemplation is in fact "absorbed" into the object contemplated and concealed in it. Only desire can bring the subject back to knowing himself for, as Kojčve articulates, "it is in and by . . . 'his' Desire that man is formed and is revealed--to himself and to others--as an I, as the I that is essentially different from, and radically opposed to, the non-I. The (human) I is the I of a Desire or of Desire" (4). This desire to be conscious of self, to recognize self, becomes, for Kojčve, the very cornerstone for achieving self-consciousness as human reality. Now, this desire of an I to be conscious of itself is, in its essence, a negating action, an action that destroys the non-I, but at the same time assimilates and preserves this non-I in the I's (human) reality (as being preserved as thought or concept) that is created by the dialectic negation. In terms of the distinction between man and animal, this non-I is doubtless the animal life which has to be negated and transcended; in terms of man also himself an animal, this animal life as the non-I, however, has to be preserved for self-consciousness to be realized. Thus, for man who desires to achieve self-consciousness as human reality, he has to negate the non-I, his animal life as the natural given and as what it is, so as to preserve this non-I for the I to be able to become conscious of himself as being both this non-I and not this non-I. Although I am man insofar as I am animal, yet I am animal insofar as I am not. At the moment I am conscious of my life as animal, I at once negate and preserve it (both in thought and in biological reality) so as not to be what I am (as animal). My desire to have self-consciousness not only singles out my being as animal, but also by desire's negativity creates for me a distance from my animal self to free me from being mere animal and to transcend my being as what it is toward what it is not. That's why Kojčve would say this desire as an action to negate the given has "time" as its essential form, and that the I, that comes out of this self-consciousness incurred by desire, has "becoming" as its being (5). The negation of the present given into the past opens up a future, the process of which implies time, temporality, and history, all of which constitutes the very being of human reality. And by desire as negating-negativity, I can always transcend myself as what it is toward what it is not and, by this transcendence-transcending, by this becoming as my being, my (human) freedom is thus realized in reality (by my work and action). And the difference between man and animal in terms of desire is such that what animal desire (which man undoubtedly also shares) can reach is only the "sentiment" of self, the self fixed and determined by the natural given, while human desire can achieve self-consciousness for man to be a dialectical being, a being that is always free to transcend and create itself anew in time, in history (4-5).

Human desire, in this regard, is always a pursuit for self-consciousness, for self-recognition, and can only be satisfied by the self being recognized as such. Desire is never a desire for, and can never be satisfied by, a real thing. This is because if what man desires is a thing, then, as Kojčve puts it, "the I created by the active satisfaction of such a Desire will have the same nature as the things toward which that Desire is directed: it will be a 'thingish' I, a merely living I, an animal I" (4). So the only non-natural object of desire, for Kojčve, is desire itself, desire as pure emptiness and nothingness in the sense that it is no thing, can not be realized, and has no real content. Desire, by this regard, is only a desire for another desire, a desire for nothing. And this nothing as desire that is desired by human desire is none other than the self's consciousness of itself being thus recognized as a free, individual, and historical human subject rather than as an animal with the mere given nature. Self-consciousness can be such insofar as it can be recognized as such; and only when it is recognized as a being with consciousness (rather than mere sentiment) of itself, the animal (called man) can thus attain self-consciousness to be a human subject capable of creating himself and human reality anew. Up to this point, a few questions appear before us. Given desire as desire for nothing, for self-recognition, where does this recognition come from? Can it come from myself, or has it to come from others? And what is the relation of death to this desire for recognition? And the main thread running through these questions is, in fact, the issue of death under whose rubric the questions can be condensed as this: on what condition do I need to risk my life to be recognized as self-consciousness? The recognition of me, first of all, can certainly come from myself. I can recognize myself as a human subject rather than (or much more than) an animal. This is because by my desire as negating action I can always transcend myself as what I am toward what I am not or what I am going to be. As a man, I am always a being-in-itself-(as an animal life)-for-itself-(as self-consciousness). For, if my being recognized as a human subject, as self-consciousness can only be the "result" from my desire to attain self-consciousness by negating actions, it is impossible to explain why, in the first place, I would have this desire to negate myself as it is. In other words, as a being embodied in an animal life I am already a potential human being with the potential and ability to negate, to become conscious of, and to recognize my self as such. So before I become a man, a subject, in terms of self-consciousness, I am already a subject in potentiality, a subject potentially capable to recognize itself as a subject, as a man. In this sense, I am not only a being of negating negativity, but, by definition of desire as nothing, I am also free, absolutely free. I am a free being in that I can negate and transcend myself without limits, and, by my negating actions, I can always recognize myself as such with no hindrance, which simply means my desire for self-recognition can be satisfied all the time and in all ways. And, since my desire as desire for pure nothing is satisfied fully by full nothingness as my full and complete self-recognition (of which either "self" or "recognition" is , of course, no-thing), I thus manifest my freedom as absolute--determined by nothing and capable of everything. I am nothing and everything, I am one and all, which means also I am all possibilities. Be that as it may, however, this description of self-recognition from self has its insufficiency, at least, in terms of Kojčve's thinking of man.

Aside from its danger of falling into extreme solipsism or psychosis (like "I am god" or "I am absolute spirit"), this description of recognition of self by self is insufficient in terms of the Kojčvean man. Man cannot live alone as man, man is man insofar as he is a social being, lives in social reality, and can only achieve himself in human history. Man who lives alone or imagines himself as living only by himself could be possible as such only outside of human reality and history. This is the situation that is, even if not impossible, at least beyond the scope of our thinking simply because, as always already historically situated (even without our knowing it), we have no recourse to a perspective outside of history for us to think of this situation. Thus, if there is any ontology in Kojčve, it is not only about man as a being in-itself-for-itself, but also about his being in-itself-for-itself-for-others. As long as there is no other appearing in my world, in my reality, as a fully recognized being by myself I am totally free. But once others, other men, other subjects, other self-consciousnesses, appear in my world, I am, like the Sartrean for-itself, no longer transcendence-transcending, but become transcendence-transcended by another transcendence-transcending. In other words, by other self-consciousnesses appearing on the scene of my facticity, my absolute freedom is curbed by the transcendence of others, and my in-itself is fixed in other for-itself(s) which my power is capable neither to control nor to recover to myself. My possibilities become (at least, partially) dead, and my existence originally in and for itself becomes my ex-istence, that is, my being is outside of me in the hands of others and my being cannot be complete and even be possible without taking into account this being for-others of mine. And it is because of this relation of self and other that recognition of self as self-consciousness, as a human subject, cannot come totally and completely from the self even though this self is already a potential subject. My consciousness of my being has to incorporate my being for-others, my being as conscious of by others, that is, my being as recognized by others. I cannot recognize myself only by negating my being in-itself by for-itself, because I always know through the gaze and the existence of others that my being in-itself-for-others is something of me, but also outside of and beyond me, beyond the negating power of for-itself to negate. So my desire for self-consciousness, for self-recognition, is not only a desire for no-thing, a desire for desire itself (here, we may even say, this (existential) desire is pure narcissistic, it is a desire for self, and, moreover, this desire not only desires "for" self-consciousness and self-recognition, it actually "is" this self-recognition and self-consciousness), but desire is also a desire for the desire of an other (desire). This means my desire (for self-recognition) is a desire for the desire (the recognition) of (and from) an other desire (also for self-recognition). Hence a struggle, or a fight in the Kojčvean sense, for recognition. Kojčve articulates this existentiality of man as this: "the human being is formed only in terms of a Desire directed toward another Desire, that is--finally--in terms of a desire for recognition," and "to speak of the 'origin' of Self-Consciousness is necessarily to speak of a fight to the death for 'recognition'" (7). It's a "fight" because while both subjects want to be recognized as such, there can be only one of them to be recognized by another, so both will involve in a fight to decide who is going to recognize whom. It's a "fight to the death" because this self-recognition as no-thing is what makes me a man, is my being, is what can satisfy my human (not animal) desire, so I am willing to fight for it even at the risk of my (animal) life, and only by thus negating my animal life as manifested in my fight can I transcend my natural given toward self-consciousness as recognized as such by others. Then, the answer to the question "on what condition could I risk my life for self-recognition?" is this: at the moment when I am aware of my existence not merely by myself, but also in the midst of others, in the world with other subjects, other self-consciousnesses, and other desires for the same recognition as I desire--only on this condition do I have to risk my life for self-recognition. In short, as long as I am a social being, I would always feel the need to negate my animal life to achieve my being as a man. And this is my destiny as a human being, to face death and even to die to be.

Up to this point, a rough picture may be drawn on the relation among negativity, freedom, death, and desire. As Kojčve puts in the very beginning of his reading of Hegel, "Man is Self-Consciousness" (3), so to be man means to have the human desire for self-recognition as self-consciousness, this desire is thus a desire for no-thing, whose very being is constituted by the negating actions which embodies man's being as pure negativity, that is, as nothing. And by this negating-negativity to manifest human desire for nothing, man is destined to be free, to be the incarnation of freedom as nothingness. Following this, man as negativity is in fact desiring nothing, desiring freedom, and, in the long run, desiring death, which means while man's desire is a pursuit pursuing satisfaction, this satisfaction can only be satisfied by pure nothingness, by absolute freedom, that is, by death. However, it is at this very point that we are impelled to question further about death: Given this knowledge about my being as negativity in a desiring movement forever toward freedom and death, can I thus die to be? Do I have to die to be? What does it mean "to be" as and in "to be not (anymore)"? And can I really die, die a real death? Also, how am I to explain my anguish, my dread, of death, even though I am equipped with all this knowledge that touches directly upon the constitution of my being, the knowledge that fully convinces me about myself? Of course, I can die freely, die for nothing, that is, commit suicide out of purely no necessity so as to manifest my absolute freedom as determined by nothing. But, by doing this, can I really die, really be satisfied, really free, and, most importantly, can I thus "be" really?

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis.
"Man, That Night" (1947). Louis Althusser Early Writings: The Spectre of Hegel. Ed. François Matheron. Trans. G. M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 1997.

Bataille, Georges.
"Letter to X, Lecturer on Hegel . . ." (1937). The College of Sociology. Ed. Denis Hollier. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

"Hegel, Death and Sacrifice" (1955). From On Bataille, Yale French Studies 78 (1990): 9-28.

Blanchot, Maurice.
"Literature and the Right to Death" (1947). The Gaze of Orphaeus. Trans. Lydia Davis. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill P, ca 1981.

Kojčve, Alexandre.
Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Ed. Allan Bloom. Trans. James H. Nicholas Jr. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1969.

Rilke, Rainer Maria.
Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ed. and Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: The Modern Library, 1995.

Copyright © 1997 Erik Lee