Kojève: Consciousness and Desire

Serpent-EveThis short text is quoted from Kojève, Alexandre: Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Basic Books, New York, 1969. Beginning and End.

Man is Self-Consciousness. He is conscious of himself, conscious of his human reality and dignity; and it is in this that he is essentially different from animals, which do not go beyond the level of simple Sentiment of self. Man becomes conscious of himself at the moment when – for the “first” time – he says “I.” To understand man by understanding his “origin” is, therefore, to understand the origin of the I revealed by speech.

Now, the analysis of “thought,” “reason,” “understanding,” and so on – in general, of the cognitive, contemplative, passive behavior of a being or a “knowing subject” – never reveals the why or the how of the birth of the word “I,” and consequently of self-consciousness – that is, of the human reality. The man who contemplates is “absorbed” by what he contemplates; the “knowing subject” “loses” himself in the object that is known. Contemplation reveals the object, not the subject. The object, and not the subject, is what shows itself to him in and by – or better, as – the act of knowing. The man who is “absorbed” by the object that he is contemplating can be “brought back to himself” only by a Desire; by the desire to eat, for example.The (conscious) Desire of a being is what constitutes that being as I and reveals it as such by moving it to say “I….” Desire is what transforms being, revealed to itself by itself in (true) knowledge, into an “object” revealed to a “subject” by a subject different from the object and “opposed” to it. It is in and by-or better still, as “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.

The very being of man, the self-conscious being, therefore, implies and presupposes Desire. Consequently, the human reality can be formed and maintained only within a biological reality, an animal life. But, if animal Desire is the necessary condition of Self-Consciousness, it is not the sufficient condition. By itself, this Desire constitutes only the Sentiment of self.

In contrast to the knowledge that keeps man in a passive quietude, Desire disquiets him and moves him to action. Born of Desire, action tends to satisfy it, and can do so only by the “negation”, the destruction, or at least the transformation, of the desired object: to satisfy hunger, for example, the food must be destroyed or, in any case, transformed. Thus, all action is “negating.” Far from leaving the given as it is, action destroys it; if not in its being, at least in its given form. And all “negating-negativity” with respect to the given is necessarily active. But negating action is not purely destructive, for if action destroys an objective reality, for the sake of satisfying the Desire from which it is born, it creates in its place, in and by that very destruction, a subjective reality. The being that eats, for example, creates and preserves its own reality by the overcoming of a reality other than its own by the “transformation” of an alien reality into its own reality, by the “assimilation,” the “internalization” of a “foreign,” “external” reality. Generally speaking, the I of Desire is an emptiness that receives a real positive content only by negating action that satisfies Desire in destroying, transforming, and “assimilating” the desired non-I. And the positive content of the I, constituted by negation, is a function of the positive content of the negated non-I.

If, then, the Desire is directed toward a “natural” non-I, the I, too, will be “natural.” 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. And this natural I, a function of the natural object, can be revealed to itself and to others only as Sentiment of self. It will never attain Self-Consciousness.

For there to be Self-Consciousness, Desire must therefore be directed toward a non-natural object, toward something that goes beyond the given reality. Now, the only thing that goes beyond the given reality is Desire itself. For Desire taken as Desire – i.e., before its satisfaction – is but a revealed nothingness, an unreal emptiness. Desire, being the revelation of an emptiness, the presence of the absence of a reality, is something essentially different from the desired thing, something other than a thing, than a static and given real being that stays eternally identical to itself. Therefore, Desire directed toward another Desire, taken as Desire, will create, by the negating and assimilating action that satisfies it, an I essentially different from the animal “I.” This I, which “feeds” on Desires, will itself be Desire in its very being, created in and by the satisfaction of its Desire. And since Desire is realized as action negating the given, the very being of this I will be action. This I will not, like the animal “I,” be “identity” or equality to itself, but “negating negativity.” In other words, the very being of this I will be becoming, and the universal form of this being will not be space, but time. Therefore, its continuation in existence will signify for this I: “not to be what it is (as static and given being, as natural being, as `innate character’) and to be (that is, to become) what it is not.” Thus, this I will be its own product: it will be (in the future) what it has become by negation (in the present) of what it was (in the past), this negation being accomplished with a view to what it will become. In its very being this I is intentional becoming, deliberate evolution, conscious and voluntary progress; it is the act of transcending the given that is given to it and that it itself is. This I is a (human) individual, free (with respect to the given real) and historical (in relation to itself ). And it is this I, and only this I, that reveals itself to itself and to others as Self-Consciousness.

Human Desire must be directed toward another Desire. For there to be human Desire, then, there must first be a multiplicity of (animal) Desires. In other words, in order that Self-Consciousness be born from the Sentiment of self, in order that the human reality come into being within the animal reality, this reality must be essentially manifold. Therefore, man can appear on earth only within a herd. That is why the human reality can only be social. But for the herd to become a society, multiplicity of Desires is not sufficient by itself; in addition, the Desires of each member of the herd must be directed – or potentially directed – toward the Desires of the other members. If the human reality is a social reality, society is human only as a set of Desires mutually desiring one another as Desires. Human Desire, or better still, anthropogenetic Desire, produces a free and historical individual, conscious of his individuality, his freedom, his history, and finally, his historicity. Hence, anthropogenetic Desire is different from animal Desire (which produces a natural being, merely living and having only a sentiment of its life) in that it is directed, not toward a real, “positive,” given object, but toward another Desire. Thus, in the relationship between man and woman, for example, Desire is human only if the one desires, not the body, but the Desire of the other; if he wants “to possess” or “to assimilate” the Desire taken as Desire – that is to say, if he wants to be “desired” or “loved,” or, rather, “recognized” in his human value, in his reality as a human individual. Likewise, Desire directed toward a natural object is human only to the extent that it is “mediated” by the Desire of another directed toward the same object: it is human to desire what others desire, because they desire it. Thus, an object perfectly useless from the biological point of view (such as a medal, or the enemy’s flag), can be desired because it is the object of other desires. Such a Desire can only be a human Desire, and human reality, as distinguished from animal reality, is created only by action that satisfies such Desires: human history is the history of desired Desires.

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