Recognizing Authority, Acknowledging Power

Concepts of control in Kojeve and Arendt, Part I

Below is the first segment of a three-part series adapted from a final paper for Sociology of Power and Authority at UVA.

The specific characteristics of political authority, political power, and political violence have only grown more complex in the modern era, and the lessons offered by philosophers of the past century provide insights into the ways in which power is protected and projected in our present. The issue of authority, its structure, legitimacy, and genesis came under particular academic scrutiny in the 20th century, which witnessed the rise of modern totalitarian states, under vastly different governing ideologies, alongside the spread of democratic-republican norms and the attendant increase, at an almost exponential rate, of powerful and anonymous bureaucratic apparatuses. The philosophical problematic of authority was perhaps best elucidated by Alexandre Kojève and Hannah Arendt, who approached the issue of authority and power from similar scholarly backgrounds but with, in many cases, vastly different conclusions and methods of analysis. While Kojève investigates authority through a quasi-Hegelian lens within a profoundly abstract framework, articulating distinct types of “pure” authority and their myriad manifestations, Arendt attacks the subject rather differently. Her focus remains on providing workable definitions and hermeneutically sealed categorizations, seeking to extract the specific manifestations of dominance and coercion from their temporally and normatively derived positions and connotations. Both, however, acknowledge a fundamental element of all authoritarian structures: the necessary prerequisite of legitimacy, grounded upon a conscious recognition of its validity by those subjected to it. Their examination, more than simply an academic exercise, offers valuable theoretical frameworks in which to place concrete expressions of authority and violence as they emerge within the lived reality of institutions and individuals. In this sense, Didier Fassin’s ethnographical enterprise Enforcing Order, published in 2013, provides an exceptional opportunity to employ the theories of power, domination, and force played out within the actuality of the banlieu and urban “jungles” of modern French cities. An analysis of the theoretical frameworks provided by Kojève and Arendt, and the application of those theories to Fassin’s work, which delivers a detailed examination of the practices, mentalities, and individualities of the French police, have been broken up into three parts; the first two contain a detailed description and exploration of the theoretical models of Kojève and Arendt, respectively, while the final section places the two thinkers in dialogue with each other and applies their thought to Fassin’s ethnography of French policing. A note to the reader:  I use the term authoritarian as an adjective for concepts related to authority (such as “authoritarian legitimacy” or “authoritarian acts”). What I do not imply is the conventional meaning of authoritarian, which connotes despotism, illiberalism, and concentrated political control.

Alexandre Kojève’s The Notion of Authority, written in 1940 in the zone libre of Nazi-occupied France, begins his analysis with a broad definition of the phenomenological expressions of authority, one that rests squarely upon a Hegelian theoretical foundation. [i] Locating the essential characteristic of authority in action, both imposed and experienced, Kojève argues that authority only truly exists when it is levied on those with the capacity to “resist,” to reject the validity of the authority inflicted on them as subjects and therefore to destroy the authoritarian act. [ii] The ability to defy and invalidate is a crucial component of Kojève’s overarching notion of authority in all of its forms; the authoritarian act is a singular performance of power, necessitating the free and conscious renunciation of oppositional intent by the subjects upon whom it is enforced. [iii] This fact lodges within Kojève’s framework the potentiality of immediate and overwhelming resistance, requiring his conception of authority to incorporate, and explain, the creation of authoritative legitimacy that in turn induces individuals to accept and obey authoritarian directives without any application of force.[iv] An authoritarian act has always already been recognized by the subjected party; in the absence of this recognition, the presence of authority is exploded, indeed cannot claim the nomenclatural status of authority in any sense whatsoever. [v] Authority is, by its very nature, dependent on the acquiescence of others to its demands, regardless of the directive’s normative content. [vi] This distinguishes Kojève’s theory of authority from the simple concerted application of force, which does not inherently entail, and often does not involve, any authoritative (and hence legitimized) basis; rather, the deployment of coercive violence is mutually exclusive and actively harmful to the exercise of authority properly construed, shifting Kojève’s philosophical inquiry away from the scenario of its negation and towards an expostulation of the means by which it constructs its own form(s) of legitimacy. [vii]

Exploring the varying dimensions upon which different iterations of authority ground themselves in Kojève’s thought opens the gateway to his larger theoretical project. He first identifies four discreet pure theories, or legitimizers, of authority, which often combine and coalesce yet nevertheless remain distinct vectors of actualization for the broad precepts of authoritarian acts described above. Bringing together an eclectic and diverse range of authoritarian justifiers, pulled from the Classical age, medieval and early modern scholasticism, and modern continental thought, Kojève introduces four philosophical categories: the theologic theory of the divine authority of the creator; Plato’s theory of legitimate authority based on principles of equity; Aristotle’s theory of justified authority through the leadership attributes of wisdom, prescience, and knowledge; and lastly, Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic, which introduces the importance of recognition and the pursuit of it into the o equation.[viii] Each of these exists in an absolute relation to the other, existing as distinct, internally coherent validators of authoritarian power while characterizing the other types as gross expressions of force founded on false precepts. [ix] Of course, not only cannot this not be the case, but one of Kojève’s most interesting achievements is his emphasis on the complementary nature of the theories, combined in a complex logos of authority that draws from multiple legitimating principles at once. [x]

The theories themselves correspond to concrete manifestations of their legitimating characters, and it is in attaching authoritative types to their respective authoritarian validators that the breadth of Kojève’s conceptual schematic becomes clear. The patriarchal expression of authority, entangled in a theological discourse of divine creation, introduces the Father as a main locus of authoritative power; the Father, as creator of those under his authoritarian jurisdiction, retains the supremacy of “cause” over “effect,” exercising his legitimacy not in character, or equity, or pure domination but in a complicated notion of authorship.[xi] He is the formal cause of his issue, endowing them with life and serving as an early initiator into the sociopolitical reality of his children’s existence. [xii] As such, he is imbued with an almost divine essence, but this essence itself can be negated; unlike God, the authority of the Father is precarious, lost by outright use of force or by being obliged to preform the perlocutionary act of persuasion.[xiii] The authority of the Father is, in a sense, uniquely distinct from that of the others, incorporating the problematic of heredity into an authoritative typology and ensconcing within it a direct line of authoritative transmission through birthright and lineage, buttressing monarchical institutions but failing to explain the general legitimating process in modern forms of administrative states. [xiv]

Into this theoretical breach left open by the authority of the Father enters the Aristotelian form of the authority of the Leader, a similarly individualistic type but involving an altogether different form of authoritative modality. While at first glance the most relevant form of authority to the practice of political power, Kojève notes that the pure authority of the Leader is particular to the leader of a band or tribe; the leader of a state, by contrast, incorporates multiple modes of authoritative power in the course and context of his administration, never (or almost never) relying on a single foundation of legitimized authority when embodying the role of the sovereign. [xv] One of the singular characteristics of this mode of authority is the hierarchical diffusion of power inherent within it: while the authority of the Master and Judge both imply strict divisions of force, which will be explicated further below, and the authority of the Father necessarily entails a differentiation between creator and created, the authority of the Leader best explains the relationship between superior and subordinates within modern institutional structures.[xvi] The dynamic of the barracks, the bureaucracy, and the schoolhouse cannot be reduced to the binary nature of the Master-Slave, nor the authorship of the Father or the juridical authority of the Judge, but rely on the authority of the Leader for a legitimizing foundation.

It is in describing the character of the Master that Kojève relies upon an explicitly Hegelian philosophical basis, with implications for his conception of authority in general in terms of the primacy of genuine recognition in authority’s application and expression. The authority of the Master rests upon a fundamental process of existential struggle, predicated on the assumption of risk by the Master and the concomitant retreat by the eventual slave. In risking his life, the Master overcomes his primal state and subordinates it to that which is truly human within him, while the slave surrenders to his animalistic fears and subjugates himself to the Master, recognizing his own inferiority. [xvii] Crucial here is the fundamental element of recognition, for the slave recognizes the superiority of the Master while also consciously and voluntarily renouncing the opportunity to contest his own enslavement, avoiding the very risk which enabled the Master to exert dominance over him. [xviii] In reading Kojève’s explication, the Hegelian lineage of his conception of general authority in the abstract becomes clear, privileging the process of conscious recognition and renunciation of opposition.

Lastly, Kojève’s authority of the Judge is perhaps the most nebulous of the four, receiving the force of his authority from the political foundations of the state (broadly construed) yet nonetheless retaining residual authoritative clout in his individual guise as arbitrator. [xix] The recognition of the authority of the Judge revolves around a collective understanding of his impartiality, of his capacity for objectivity and judiciousness; when those precepts are rejected, the authority of the Judge (and, by extension, the institution of the judiciary) collapses in on itself. [xx] It is the potential for honesty and disinterestedness that characterizes an individual as holding the authority of the Judge, regardless of his official position or status as arbiter; as such, Kojève argues that it is the principles of neutrality and fairness that allows this specific form of authority to emerge, categorizing it as a unique, and hence “pure,” authoritative method.[xxi]

Kojève’s investigation of authoritarian typologies and their attendant legitimizing theories prompts him to levy a broadside against a fundamental concept of 18th and 19th century democratic theory, revolving around the notion of majority rule and general will. While the four pure types of authority are sui generis and emerge spontaneously, the authoritative power of the general will is attenuated, conditioned, and manufactured. [xxii] Rule of the majority, far from being representative of a distinct authoritative stratagem, is instead not an expression of authority at all; rather, it exerts its will solely through the application or threat of force, failing to achieve the necessary prerequisite of voluntary renunciation of opposition entailed in Kojève’s conceptual framework. [xxiii] As such, the notion of the social contract too succumbs to Kojève’s analytical decimation, exposed as insufficient theoretical grounding for the authoritative type of majority rule; while it certainly exists, it is rather the manifestation of particular forms of the pure typologies described above, namely the authority of the Master and that of the Father. [xxiv] What Kojève exposes, then, is the fallacy of relying on appeals to the collective authority of a discreet constituency, which by their very nature cannot induce the spontaneous construction of an authoritarian form.

Kojève’s theoretical project, however, is about more than a simple classification and description of different authoritarian typologies; it provides a complete and fundamentally cohesive theoretical architecture of authority proper. Most significantly, his treatment of the conflicting manifestations of power, force, and authority, turns the largely traditional Marxist conception of authority on its head. Gone are the almost obligatory references to base and superstructure, and disappeared is the claim that political authority is merely the articulation of a historically contingent form of class control, defined by contexts but not in core content. Likewise, his treatment of law as a distinct form of authoritative expression has been relegated to a subsidiary role, deprived of its normal primacy of place as the formal expression of political authority (and hence class domination and oppression). [xxv] Instead, one sees in Kojève’s work a distinct return to a pre-Marxist orientation, rescuing Hegel’s philosophy from the exclusive provenance of Marxist intellectuals, ideologues, and agitators and imbuing the philosopher of Jena with a new theoretical heft and import. [xxvi] Violence, or force to adopt Kojève’s vocabulary, lies in a non-dialectical opposition to genuine authority, and herein lies the liberating potential of Kojève’s thought; by not embedding exploitation within the very definition of political authority, Kojève allows for the possibility of an almost Habermasian conception of legitimized will-formation and the constitution of a public communicative arena. [xxvii] The fundamental importance of mutual, genuine, and voluntary recognition lies at the heart of this transformational ideal, with authority neutered without the acknowledgement of its purported justification, and revolt and revolution the consequent and unavoidable outcome. Kojève makes revolution predicated not just on the emergence of class-consciousness or the heightening of contradictions, but on the considered rejection of a given authoritative mode. All forms of authority can be reduced to one of his four essential types, grounded on four essential legitimizing theories, but that does not necessarily preclude the possibility of a more just, more equitable, more responsible administrative schema; rather, it actualizes the very potentiality for rebellion in favor of sociopolitical justice.

We see then Kojève’s overarching project: categorizing and analyzing pure modes of authority, both in terms of type and their respective theoretical bases. His four forms of authority, the Father, the Leader, the Master, and the Judge, correspond respectively to the theoretical foundations of religious scholasticism concerning the divinity of the creator; Aristotelian attributes of wisdom, prescience, and judgment; the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic, in which recognition and subjugation are paramount; and Platonic notions of equity and proper adjudication. After laying out this typological framework, Kojève attacks the democratic principle of general will as a discrete legitimation of authority, finding it instead to be the ancillary outgrowth of the authoritarian forms described above. Finally, Kojève’s conceptualization of authority as always already premised on acquiescence and recognition of its legitimacy provides a path forward towards political redemption. By annulling the conceptual marriage of authority and exploitation, Kojève allows for the possibility of justified revolt against the powers that be and a mutually constructed authoritarian structure erected in its place, acknowledged and freely adopted by those under its jurisdiction. His theoretical achievement is not limited to his classification; rather, its full significance lies in his reading into authoritarian types the inherent potential for rejection and eventual reconfiguration into more equitable authoritarian systems.

Eli Weiner is a Fourth-Year in the University of Virginia’s History honors program. His research focuses on the intellectual history of late-Victorian Britain, emphasizing the relationship between historical thought and efforts to reconfigure the structure of the British Empire. 


[i] Alexandre Kojève, The Notion of Authority, ed. François Terré, trans. Hager Weslati, (London: Verso, 2014), x.

[ii] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 7-8.

[iii] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 8.

[iv] Kojève, The Notion of Authority,10.

[v] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 11.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 13.

[viii] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 1-2.

[ix] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 3.

[x] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 29.

[xi] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 26-27.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 27.

[xv] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 20.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 17.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 23.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 24.

[xxii] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 38.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 39-40.

[xxv] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 63.

[xxvi] Kojève, The Notion of Authority, 66.

[xxvii] Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Lifeworld and System, a Critique of Functionalist Reason vol.II, trans. Thomas McCarthy, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), 395.

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