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The Notion of Authority by Alexander Kojève

Daniel Tutt finds The Notion of Authority authoritative.

This recent English translation of Alexander Kojève’s The Notion of Authority (originally published in French in 1954) is an important addition to philosophical studies of authority and an essential text for understanding Kojève’s political thought. Although Kojève’s (1902-1968) influential lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit left an indelible mark on continental philosophers Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and American philosophers such as Leo Strauss, this book was written primarily for a European political audience during the Second World War. The text is best read alongside later philosophical studies on authority, especially Hannah Arendt’s essay, What is Authority? and Herbert Marcuse’s A Study on Authority, as all three texts sought to bring authority back to political and social life in ways that don’t justify oppression, patriarchy, or traditionalism.

Despite their titles, the books by Arendt and Marcuse don’t offer a philosophical definition of authority, whereas Kojève offers both a definition and a schema for understanding every type of authority. Kojève first quickly defines authority overall, and then moves to three distinct categories of analysis of it, in phenomenological, metaphysical and ontological terms. The scheme Kojève ultimately develops is almost scientific. He notes that there are sixty-four total combinations of authority, including four pure types, and eleven compound types from these four. He then follows this with deductions concerning authority in politics, ethics and psychology.

Kojève’s central definition of authority is that “authority is held only over that which can ‘react’, that is to say, that which can change according to what or who represents (‘embodies’, realizes, or exercises) authority” (p.7). For Kojève, all authority has its ultimate origin in what he calls “divine Authority” or “the authority of the father”, and he defines divine authority as “anything that can act on me without my having the possibility of reacting on it” (p.12). In essence, authority is acting on others without those others acting back, despite their being capable of doing so (which is why “authority is the possibility of acting without making compromises” p.9). The key point of this definition is that a truly authoritative act does not encounter opposition from those it imposes upon, and as such it is unlike exercising a right, where opposition can be encountered. Exercising authority and using force are therefore also mutually exclusive, because when someone uses force they have effectively erased their authority. It is essential to note that while Arendt and Marcuse favored a negative definition of authority, Kojève sought a positive definition – one that would be ultimately usable in his political present during WWII.

The Four Pure Types of Authority

Syria’s Assad as model of father, master, leader and judge

Kojève identified four ‘pure’ types of authority: the authorities of the father, master, leader and judge. Each of these four types has a distinctive ontology and metaphysics, and a philosophical school of thought that refined it.

The seminal form of authority is divine authority, a concept developed by scholastic philosophers in the Middle Ages. For most of Western history, authority has primarily meant the rule of God over the individual, which was exemplified in the authority of the father over the child. Or put another way, the authority of the father is ultimately a theological type of authority, since in exercising his authority the father stands in place of or representing the original cause of the universe, as a sort of God-substitute. For the scholastics, every human authority had a divine essence or source. With the death of God, the secular authority of the father (figure) has replaced the divine mode of authority, although Kojève does not develop this idea.

The second pure type of authority is that of the master, as developed in G.W.F. Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Hegel’s theory is the most fully developed philosophical account of authority. However its weakness lies in the fact that since Hegel saw all forms of authority as deriving from that between master and slave, it reduces the authority to the relationship of master and slave, and has no place for a distinct theory of the father or the leader.

Hegel’s most important contribution to understanding authority comes in the role he places on ‘risk’. In Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, mastery arises in the struggle to the death for recognition: the slave has chosen submission over death, while the master is ready to risk his life to be recognized. However, the slaves will not submit forever. The authority of the master presupposes the possibility of war and bloody revolution, and with them it thus presupposes its own ultimate disappearance (p.82). A risk of death thus brings mastery about.

In Kojève’s system, because the master’s struggle to the death and the risk it presents brings about revolution or war, it also brings about the figure of the leader, Kojève’s third pure type of authority. For Kojève it is thus necessary for a developing state to have a stage of master-slave relationships. The concept of the authority of the leader was developed first by Aristotle. To Kojève the leader includes figures such as “the Soothsayer, the Prophet and the Oracle” and “the director, supervisor, Master over the Pupil, the Prophet, etc” (pp.19-23). The authority of the leader is based on a future-oriented project or idea that the leader promotes. Although the authority of the leader might come about through their election, it is important to note that the election itself is not what grants authority, but authority is already present in the person being a candidate: the election simply manifests this authority. Authority must not be confused with the external signs of its recognition.

The fourth pure type of authority is the authority of the judge, which Kojève aligns with Plato’s theory of justice. For Plato, power that does not rest on justice is only a pseudo-authority, and any power other than ‘authority as justice’ is merely brute force.

None of the four types of authority individually give a complete account of authority – just because they were each originally developed as a way to universally account for authority. But Hegel’s ontology of negativity and totality can only account for the master’s authority, in the same way that Aristotle’s prime mover theory can only account for the authority of the leader (p.57) and the scholastics’ and Plato’s understanding for the other two. However, a complete theory of authority must account for all four pure types together.

Authority and the State

In the remainder of this review, I’ll explain how Kojève tries to understand how a state could work without divine authority/the authority of the father.

He begins by attacking ‘social contract’ theory – the idea that in order to enjoy its benefits, the members of a society enter into an unwritten agreement to obey the laws of that society. In particular, in his Social Contract (1762), through the idea of the ‘general will’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau gives the majority a type of authority that privileges the whole of society over its parts. To Kojève, social contract theory relies on the idea of society being grounded in its material (economic) reality, which in turn means society being based on heredity, and have under the oppressive authority of the father.

In fact, the notion of authority implicit in Rousseau’s idea of the general will is the authority of the father doubled with that of the judge. As Kojève puts it, social contract theory is based on a “combination of the father and the judge, but it is never invested with the character of the authority of the leader” (p.41). Kojève prefers the authority of the leader over the general will, which to him is still too tied to tradition and the preservation of group identity.

People revolting against authority
Riot pic © Sadrobot 2011

Kojève is seeking to overturn three aspects of social contract theory. Firstly, he wants to introduce a new role for the authority of the master and the leader in society. Secondly, the master’s struggle to the death brings about revolution or war, and so a stage of master-slave relationships is necessary for society. Rousseau’s authority of the general will lacks the struggle of the master over his slave. Thirdly, one danger in social contract theory is that if we accept the authority of the majority, the authority of the judge disappears.

Actually, the judge sets himself against the authority of the other three types, because if they were just, the judge would not be needed (p.51). In his metaphysical section on authority, Kojève notes that all temporal modes of authority are set against its eternal, divine mode, since in accordance with his definition of authority, all authority must derive from a state in which reaction against it is finally not possible. So the source of the authority of the judge, like that of the father, is outside of time. Totalitarian leaders such as Stalin and Hitler do not have the eternal authority of the father but the temporal authority of the leader; however, unfortunately, the authority of the judge does not temper them. They may not possess authority in the eternal mode, but they do possess a primacy through their vision of the future (which Kojève favors in the case of Stalin (p.49)).

The leader gains his power through revolution (albeit bourgeois revolution). The bourgeoisie want to forget their origins as commoners, to disown their shameful past, and so they amputate the father authority (p.64) by getting rid of the monarchy and the church: “The suppression of the authority of the father has a character that is unequivocally ‘revolutionary’: the ‘constitutional’ theory is born out of the spirit of revolt and revolution, and it generates the (‘bourgeois’) revolution in as much as it is realized” (p.64). This notion of bourgeois revolution should be read as Kojève’s development of the Hegelian idea of the end of history and the last man [please see the other book review, Ed]. The amputation leads to the authority of the leader, and the era of bourgeois domination commences in a fascination with only the present (this is why concerns of food and sex are paramount to the bourgeoisie). However, ultimately this present fails because it does not have a past or a future.

What becomes of the authority that remains after the amputation – that is to say, authority that has been deprived of the ‘father’ element? Concerning the different types of authority that may remain, Kojève notes that “the variant of ‘Master and Judge’ gives us the Leninist Bolshevik type of authority, while the variant ‘Leader/Judge’ gives us the Hitler version of authority, while bourgeois imperialism is ‘Judge and Leader’” (p.68). Another problem that arises in the context of amputated father-authority is that, if upon eliminating the father element the judge sets itself against the master(s), this results in a reversion to ‘class justice’. Any revolution without the stability of the leader, the master and the judge is doomed to failure, since it does not have balance. The need for a balance is evident when Kojève writes: “The authority of the leader, isolated from that of the master, takes a ‘utopian’ character: the legislation that is separated from its execution constructs a ‘utopia’ with no ties with the present (that is to say, it fails to remain in force in the present), and it drags along with it in its downfall the authority that has produced it – and, with it, the state itself in its ‘separated’ form” (p.75).

Nuremberg 1935
Totalitarianism in action: Nazi rally at Nuremberg

The solution Kojève offers to the problem of imbalance of authority – which should be read as approximating to the situation in Vichy Nazi-occupied France – he calls the ‘révolution nationale’. This leader-directed vision of revolution is not utopian, because it is against the present and refuses to rehash a glorious past. But importantly, one should not read this vision of revolution as identical to the Révolution Nationale of Marshal Petain under the Vichy government, which had the motto ‘Work, family, fatherland’. Petain’s notion of revolution is anathema to Kojève’s vision since it clearly remained tethered to the authority of the past and the paradigm of the father. At the same time, the fact that Kojève supports a state that is founded on the ‘Master-Leader’ authority models implies that the state must be founded on the risk from the master-slave dialectic: that is, on revolution. But it is a progressive sign that he places war-granting authority in the hands of what he calls the ‘manifest assembly’ – a congress-like body composed of the people – and so does not defer completely to the authority of powerful individuals.

© Dr Daniel Tutt 2015

Daniel Tutt is Professor of Media Studies at the Global Center for Advanced Studies.

The Notion of Authority: A Brief Presentation, Alexander Kojève, Verso Books, 2014, 224pps, $17/£15, ISBN: 9781781680957

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