- Atheism by Alexandre Kojève
A few years before beginning his famous course on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Alexandre Kojève wrote, in Russian, a manuscript entitled Atheism. Found among his papers at the Bibliothèque nationale, the manuscript was translated into French by Nina Ivanoff, edited by Laurent Bibard, and published by Gallimard in 1998. Jeff Love has now presented us with an English translation from the original Russian text, along with a thoughtful introduction that situates Kojève's essay in relation to theological themes prominent in Russian thought, to such powerful thinkers of the day as Husserl and above all Heidegger, and to earlier and later expressions of Kojève's own philosophical development.
Kojève begins his inquiry from the notion of Buddhism as an atheistic religion, and near the end of the essay he endorses that formulation. One tends to think of religion as necessarily conjoined with theism, and secularism with atheism, but in Kojève's view this is inadequate: Buddhism is an atheistic religion, and Aristotle's philosophy is a theistic secularism. Kojève's inquiry seeks to clarify and to give a deeper sense of what is it to be an atheist and what it is to be a theist.
He sets forth from the evident assertion that for the atheist, there is nothing outside the world that is given to us, whereas for the theist living in the world, outside of the world there exists something other: some divine being or beings, God. But as Kojève mulls over the matter further, it becomes more complicated. From the point of view of pure or unqualified theism (that is, an acceptance of God combined with the conviction that one cannot reasonably ascribe any qualities to God), God is viewed as altogether other than things of this world; God is not a thing. Could it be that God is therefore nothing, in which case the difference between the theist and the atheist would seem to disappear? Further reflection on this problem leads to thinking about how anything outside the world could be given to one living in the world, how one can grasp the difference between being and nonbeing, and how one may speak coherently about finitude and infinity. In the course of this thinking, the central importance of death emerges. Foreseeing one's own death may be the chief way in which being outside the world is given to one living in the world. The atheist believes that his existence ends with his death in the world, outside of which there is nothing and he is nothing; his soul is mortal. The theist tends to believe that his soul survives death, moves outside the world, and is in interaction with God.
Given Kojève's well-known adoption of an atheistic Hegelianism soon after writing this essay, the genuine seriousness with which he takes both the theist and the atheist positions—or rather their fundamentally different intuitions—is noteworthy. We are filled with uncertainties about death, as the border between this world and another or between being and nothingness. Both theistic and atheistic intuitions of human being in the world are genuine and powerful, and we may well move between one and another. "Who has not wavered?" Kojève asks at least twice. He refers too to the well-known phenomenon of death-bed conversion. He suggests that [End Page 142] one may know definitively what one is, atheist or theist, only at the moment of one's death.
In a footnote near the end of this book, Kojève states, "What I am writing here, strictly speaking, is only a sketch of my philosophy and thus it is also not final nor can it be published." The clearest evidence of the unfinished character of Kojève's essay is to be found in the footnotes, where he often exhorts himself to think further about a question, or even to ask Koyré about it; he indicates toward the end that this essay would be the...