The French warmed to Hegel very slowly, despite a number of attempts from the early nineteenth century on to import his thought. In particular, the neo-Kantianism that dominated the French university from the Franco-Prussian War until just before the Second World War had a strong antipathy to absolute Idealism. The founder of the neo-Kantian school, Jules Lachelier, is said to have told his students: ‘They'll be no Hegel here as long as I’m around.’ The neo-Kantians had persistently rejected Hegel's philosophy on the grounds that its ultimate telos in Absolute Spirit's all-encompassing self-knowledge was incompatible with the irreducible reality of finite human freedom. A genuine move towards Hegel began with the publication in 1929 of Le malheur de conscience dans la philosophie de Hegel by Jean Wahl, who taught history of philosophy at the Sorbonne from 1927 to 1967. Wahl's books on Hegel and Kierkegaard were an important influence on the development of existentialism. Later, Wahl worked closely with Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze and was a good friend of Lévinas.
Four years after Wahl's book on unhappy consciousness, Alexandre Kojève began teaching his famous seminar at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. This seminar, which ran from 1933 to 1939, was at various points attended by Bataille, Lacan and Merleau-Ponty, and, although notes on his lectures were not published until 1947, they from the beginning exerted considerable influence through informal dissemination. Whereas Wahl took Hegel's section on unhappy consciousness as the key to understanding his system, Kojève's reading was based on the chapter of the Phenomenology on the master–slave dialectic. But, like Wahl, Kojève provided ways of toning down Hegel's absolutism, reading the dialectic in terms of a purely human struggle. Wahl and Kojève also bridged the apparent distance of Hegel from Marx and Heidegger by offering humanist readings of the latter two thinkers. The result was a Hegel of extreme interest to the rising generation of existentialist thought at mid century.
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