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Expert Comment: The EU Referendum and the Absurdity of ‘Sovereignty’

Euro square Wednesday 22 June 2016

On the eve of the EU Referendum, Dr David Lundie reflects on the concepts of authority and sovereignty from ancient philosophers to today, and what they mean in terms of the EU debate.  

As French representative at the European Commission, the philosopher and bureaucrat Alexandre Kojève had an influence on the foundations of the European project at the end of the Second World War. His book The Notion of Authority [1], written in occupied France during the War, stands in some ways as a postscript to all previous political theory.

In it, Kojève sums up three movements to account for ‘sovereignty’, the right or proper use of political power, from Aristotle and the Ancient Greeks, through medieval theological notions of the king as ‘father’, to Hegel’s idea of the master and slave in the early 19th century.

According to Kojève, to live in the contemporary world was to live beyond the end of history, when none of these accounts made sense anymore. Having the courage of his convictions, and convinced that it was impossible to contribute anything original to philosophy after the end of history, Kojève entered the French diplomatic service, and became involved in the preparations of the Treaty of Rome, which was foundational to what would later become the European Union.

In place of these three accounts, Kojève believed that only the authority of the judge could be justified:

[the judge] neither loves nor hates [the actors], if he refers to their acts and not their persons and… if his intervention in their interaction will not and could not have been altered by the sole fact of interchanging A and B, A playing the role of B, and B that of A[2].

In a sense, these earlier accounts of political legitimacy had been brought to an absurd end by the atrocities of the Second World War[3], and although Kojève is little known in the English speaking world (though his lectures on Hegel laid the groundwork for much later French philosophical thought[4]), changes in the way we think about politics and authority bear out the truth of much of what he wrote.

In place of questions of sovereignty, most political thinkers of the past 70 years have addressed questions of economic justice - does the economy exist to promote overall growth, or a fair distribution for the poorest? - or questions of identity, community and individuality. The question of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ authority, which animated Aristotle, Hegel, Hobbes and others, has largely disappeared from view until recent weeks.

Instead, political theorists increasingly started to see authority as a kind of pathology, faulty thinking, diagnosing the ‘authoritarian personality’[5]. In a now infamous experiment, Stanley Milgram showed that a majority of people would administer what they thought were lethal electric shocks if a scientist in a lab coat told them it was required. More recently, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown the importance of emotional reactions of disgust (for example, by introducing a bad smell to the room) in pushing people towards more conservative reactions[6]. In light of the recent tone of debate around the EU referendum in the UK, many people are left feeling rather confused at talk of ‘sovereignty’, if that is understood as a natural right of some one person or group of people to have the ‘final say’ on political matters.

That this is so is no accident. Following the horrific abuses of such forms of authority in the Second World War, the economic, political and international systems which Kojève and his fellow diplomats devised quite purposely foregrounded the dispassionate authority of the judge. In place of a system of authority, based on which party or group hold favour, these structures foregrounded universal rights.

For Kojève, the work of resolving fundamental political questions has come to an end, now the philosopher and the administrator share in the work of making manifest the universal rights which are their conclusion[7], making those a lived reality for people. To lose sight of this would be a great step backwards into a less humane age.

Kojève died in 1968 following a heart attack during a meeting of the European Commission – an intellectual martyr of the bureaucracy he helped to create.



[1] Kojeve, A (2014) The Notion of Authority. London: Verso.

[2] Kojeve, A (2000) Outline of a Phenomenology of Right. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. p79

[3] Lundie, D (2016) Authority, Autonomy and Automation: The irreducibility of pedagogy to information transactions. Studies in Philosophy and Education 35(3) 279-291.

[4] Kojeve, A (1969) Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[5] Adorno, T et al. (1950) The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Norton.

[6] Haidt & Pizarro…

[7] Groys, B (2012) Introduction to Antiphilosophy. London: Verso.

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