Alexandre Kojève on Spinoza*
*From Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (p. 117-123)
As I have already said, Spinoza's system is the perfect incarnation of the absurd. (And that is why, when one tries to "realize" his thought, as we say, one experiences the same feeling of dizziness as when one is faced with a paradox of formal logic or set theory.)
Now, a particularly
curious thing: absolute error or absurdity is, and must be, just as "circular"
as the truth. Thus, Spinoza's (and Parmenides') absolute Knowledge must
be symbolized by a closed circle (without a central point, of course):
Figure 12. Indeed, if Spinoza says that the
Concept is Eternity, whereas Hegel says that it is Time, they have this
much in common: the Concept is not a relationship. (Or, if you like, it
is in relation only to itself.) Being and (conceptual) Thought are one
and the same thing, Parmenides said. Thought (or the Concept) is the attribute
of Substance, which is not different from its attribute, Spinoza says.
Therefore, in both cases—that is, in Parmenides-Spinoza and in Hegel—there
is no "reflection" on Being. In both cases, Being itself is
what reflects on itself in and through, or—better yet—as,
Concept. Absolute Knowledge that reflects the totality of Being, therefore,
is just as closed in itself, just as "circular," as Being itself
in its totality: there is nothing outside of the Knowledge, as there is
nothing outside of Being. But there is an essential difference: Parmenides-Spinoza's
Concept-Being is Eternity, whereas Hegel's Concept-Being is Time. Consequently,
Spinozist absolute Knowledge, too, must be Eternity. That is to say that
it must exclude Time. In other words: there is no need of Time to realize
it; the Ethics must be thought, written, and read "in a trice."
And that is the thing's absurdity. [Plotinus, however, accepts this conse-
This absurdity was already denounced by Plato in his Parmenides. If Being is truly one (or more exactly, the One)—i.e., if it excludes diversity, all diversity—and therefore all change— i.e., if it is Eternity that annuls Time—if, I say, Being is the One, a man could not speak of it, Plato remarks. Indeed, Discourse would have to be just as one as the Being that it reveals, and there- fore could not go beyond the single word "one." And even that.. . . For Time is still the crucial question. Discourse must be intemporal: now, if he has not the time, man cannot even pronounce a single word. If Being is one, or, what amounts to the same thing, if the Concept is Eternity, "absolute Knowledge" reduces for Man to absolute silence.*11
I say: for Man. That
is, for the speaking being that lives in Timeand needs time in order to
live and to speak (i.e., in order to think by means of the Concept). Now,
as we have seen, the Concept as such is not (or at least does not seem
to be) necessarily attached
The Ethics is made in accordance with a method of which an account cannot be given in human language. For the Ethics explains everything, except the possibility for a man living in time to write it. And if the Phenomenology explains why the Logik appears at a certain moment of history and not at another, the Ethics proves the impossibility of its own appearance at any moment of time whatsoever. In short, the Ethics could have been written, if it is true, only by God himself; and, let us take care to note—by a nonincarnated God.
Therefore, the difference
between Spinoza and Hegel can be formulated in the following way: Hegel
becomes God by thinking or writing the Logik; or, if you like, it is by
becoming God that he writes or thinks it. Spinoza, on the other hand,
must be God from all eternity in order to be able to write or think his
Ethics. Now, if a being that becomes God in time can be called "God"
only provided that it uses this term as a metaphor (a correct meta- phor,
by the way), the being that has always been God is God in the proper and
strict sense of the word. Therefore, to be a Spinozist is actually to
replace God the Father (who has no Son, incidentally) by Spinoza, while
maintaining the notion of divine transcendence in all its rigor; it is
to say that Spinoza is the transcendent God who speaks, to be sure, to
human beings, but who speaks to them as eternal God. And this, obviously,
is the height of absurdity: to take Spinoza seriously is actually to be—or
Spinoza, like Hegel, identifies Man (that is to say, the Wise Man) and God. It seems, then, that in both cases it could be said indifferently either that there is nothing other than God, or that there is nothing other than Man. Now in point of fact, the two assertions are not identical, and if the first is accepted by Spinoza, only the second expresses Hegel's thought. And that is what Hegel means by saying that Spinoza's System is not a pan-theism, but an a-cosmism: it is the Universe or the totality of Being reduced to God alone, but to a God without World and without men. And to say this is to say that everything that is change, becoming, time, does not exist for Science. For if the Ethics is, in fact, concerned with these things, how or why they appear in it is not known.
With the use of our symbolic circles, then, the difference between Hegel's and Spinoza's Systems can be represented in the following manner:
Let us start with
the theistic System. In its pure form, it is Plato's System. But in general
it symbolizes possibility II (see Figure 13). For Aristotle, several small
circles must be inscribed in the large circle to symbolize the relation
of Eternity and Time (Figure 14); but these circles ought to have fitted
together; in the end, there would again be the Platonic symbol with only
one small circle. (That is to say: all truly coherent theism is a mono-
theism.) As for Kant, the same symbol can serve; but the small circle
must be drawn with a dotted line, to show that Kant's theology has, for
him, only the value of an "as if" (Figure 15). In short, the
symbol of the theistic System is valid for every System
Hence the symbol
is the same in both cases: a homogeneous closed circle. And this is important.
For we see that it is sufficient to deny that the Concept is a relation
with something other than itself in order to set up the ideal of absolute—that
We shall see later what this means. For the moment, I want to underline once more that the symbols of both systems are identical. They differ only in their source (which is not seen in the drawing): doing away with the small or the large circle. And again, this indeed corresponds to the reality. It is understandable that a temporal Knowledge could finally embrace the totality of becoming. But it is not understandable that an eternal Knowledge could absorb everything that is in Time: for the simple reason that it would absorb us ourselves. It would be the absolute Knowledge of Bewusstsein, which would have completely absorbed Selbstbewusstsein. And this, obviously, is absurd.
I shall stop here. To know what the identification of the Concept with Eternity means, one must read the whole Ethics.
Let us proceed, or return, to Kant. Kant agrees with Plato and Aristotle (in opposition to Parmenides-Spinoza and Hegel) that the Concept is an eternal entity, in relation with something other than itself. However, he relates this eternal Concept not to Eternity, but to Time.
We can say, moreover,
that Kant defines the Concept as a relation precisely because he sees
the impossibility of Spinozism (just as Plato had done to avoid the impossibility
of Eleaticism). Perhaps he did not read Spinoza. But in the "Transcendental
*11 Plato accepts this: the One is ineffable.
*12 Just as there are nontemporal movements, as Descartes correctly remarks.