Kojève’s «Dialectique du maître et de l’esclave». Notes on the Wirkungsgeschichte of a Traitorous Translation

Di Mariana Teixeira

In: Hegel and/in/on Translation XLIX , No. 1-2 ( 2020 )

Sezione Saggi / Articles


This paper addresses Alexandre Kojève’s rendition of The Phenomenology of Spirit and his interpretation of the ‘master-slave dialectic’, which had a deep and lasting influence on subsequent generations of philosophers in France and elsewhere. Kojève’s translation-commentary has many idiosyncrasies regarding word choices, sentence structure, and even the omission of whole paragraphs of Hegel’s text. This last feature has important philosophical consequences because the parts of section IV.A missing in Kojève’s translation recount the master-slave relationship from the viewpoint of absolute knowledge (‘for us’). Thus limited to the standpoint of natural consciousness (‘for it’), the Phenomenology appears for Kojève as a work of philosophical anthropology where the slave’s labour, motivated by fear of death before the master, impels him to engage in a struggle with the master for the recognition of his autonomy achieved by dominating nature. Although Kojève’s rendition can be depicted as ‘faulty’ in many ways, one can also argue that it has had fruitful effects for the Hegelian reception in France: not only did it prompt generations of young philosophers to engage with Hegel and read him for themselves, but it also resonated with, and responded to, its own social and philosophical environment: contrary to his own claims about ‘the end of history’, Kojève triggered a number of open-ended readings of the ‘master-slave dialectic’ that would shape history to the present day.