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Dialectics & Clausewitz "on War"

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I’m not sure where to put this because this topic has many implications, on the war on terrorism, foreign policy and just plain ol’ philosophy.

One of the most influential books ever written (actually the most influential after Sun Tzu), on military theory is by a Prussian General called Karl von Clausewitz and his book is called "On War". And since I have a big interest in military theory, strategy and foreign policy, I wanted to read this VERY difficult and VERY important book.

Now I cant emphasize enough how influential his ideas are, you’ve heard Leonard Peikoff say that all of philosophy is basically a dual between Plato and Aristotle, well in military theory it seems to be that all of military theory is basically a dual between Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. It’s impossible NOT to run into his ideas. From the idea of TOTAL WAR, to friction, he is everywhere.

Clausewitz was influenced by a host of philosophers including, Montesquieu, Kant and Hegel. Clausewitz used a dialectical method to construct his argument. Which mean that not only was he influenced by Kant, he is also as IMPOSSIBLE to read as Kant.

For example, read this short explanation of Clausewitz approach:

One of the main sources of confusion about Clausewitz's approach lies in his dialectical method of presentation. For example, Clausewitz's famous line that "War is merely a continuation of politics," while accurate as far as it goes, was not intended as a statement of fact. It is the antithesis in a dialectical argument whose thesis is the point—made earlier in the analysis—that "war is nothing but a duel [or wrestling match, a better translation of the German Zweikampf] on a larger scale." His synthesis, which resolves the deficiencies of these two bold statements, says that war is neither "nothing but" an act of brute force nor "merely" a rational act of politics or policy. This synthesis lies in his "fascinating trinity" [wunderliche dreifaltigkeit]: a dynamic, inherently unstable interaction of the forces of violent emotion, chance, and rational calculation.

Now,I dont know anything about dialectics or where to even go to even beguin understanding dialectics. But I do know that I want to understand this book and see if the ideas here are valid and what implications they have on foreign policy.

For example, the idea of waging total war which seems to be what many Objectivists advocate in the war on terror. Here is Clausewits dialectical "argument" against total war

"It is also important to note that Clausewitz's concept of absolute war is quite distinct from the later concept of "total war." Total war was a prescription for the actual waging of war typified by the ideas of General Erich von Ludendorff, who actually assumed control of the German war effort during World War One. Total war in this sense involved the total subordination of politics to the war effort—an idea Clausewitz emphatically rejected—and the assumption that total victory or total defeat were the only options. Total war involved no suspension of the effects of time and space, as did Clausewitz's concept of the absolute.*19

Having rejected his initial thesis that war is nothing but an act of untrammelled force, Clausewitz turned to the apparently more reasonable notion that war is a purely rational act of state policy. Writing in German, Clausewitz used the word Politik, and his most famous phrase has been variously translated as "War is a continuation of `policy'—or of `politics'—by other means." For the purpose of argument, he assumed that state policy would be rational, that is, aimed at improving the situation of the society it represented. He was quite aware, however, that in reality policy may be driven by very different motives. He also believed along with most Westerners of his era that war was a legitimate means for a state's advancement of its interests. Because his discussion of war as an instrument of policy is usually read in isolation (if at all), Clausewitz is frequently convicted of advocating the resort to war as a routine extension of unilateral state policy. In fact, of course, Clausewitz's famous line is not meant to be an argument in itself. Rather, it is the antithesis to his earlier argument. Like any such dialectical discussion, it exposes contradictions or inadequacies in the given concepts, and tensions between them, which can only be resolved in some synthesis of the two. Clausewitz normally seeks to maintain the tensions—as they are maintained in the world in which we actually operate—rather than to resolve them philosophically.

It is nevertheless possible to derive much of Clausewitz's message from the discussion of war as an act of policy (or politics). In fact, the choice of translation for Politik—"policy" or "politics"—indicates differing emphases on the part of the translator, for the two concepts are quite different in English. "Policy" may be defined as rational action, undertaken by a group which already has power, in order to maintain and extend that power. Politics, in contrast, is simply the process (comprising an inchoate mix of rational, irrational, and non-rational elements) by which power is distributed within a given society.*48 (These are my definitions—Clausewitz never defines Politik.) And war is an expression of—not a substitute for—politics. Thus, in calling war a "continuation" of politics, Clausewitz was advocating nothing. In accordance with his belief that theory must be descriptive rather than prescriptive, he was merely recognizing an existing reality. War is an expression of both policy and politics (see relevant cartoon), but "politics" is the interplay of conflicting forces, not the execution of one-sided policy initiatives.*49

The actual word Clausewitz used in his famous formulation is Fortsetzung—literally a "setting forth." Translating this word as "continuation," while technically correct, evidently implies to many that politics changes its essential nature when it metamorphoses into war.*50 This impression is contrary to Clausewitz's argument. War remains politics in all its complexity, with the added element of violence. The irrational and non-rational forces that affect and often drive politics have the same impact on war.

On the side of rationality, it is true that Clausewitz argued that a party resorting to war should do so with a clear idea as to what it means to accomplish and how it intends to proceed toward that goal. The connection of war to rational political goals meant that wars could not be made to follow some fixed pattern. Rather, the conduct of wars would have to vary in accordance with their political purposes. His definition of "strategy"—that it was "the use of combats for the purpose of the war"—has been criticized for overemphasizing the need for bloody battle, but its key point is "the [political] purpose of the war."

If war was to be an extension of policy, that is, a tool of policy, then military leaders must be subordinate to political leaders and strategy must be subordinate to policy. As the Moltke-Bismarck clash demonstrated, this poses practical organizational problems. Like many of Clausewitz's teachings, his solution was not a simple prescription but a dualism: The military instrument must be subordinated to the political leadership, but political leaders must understand its nature and limitations. Politicians must not attempt to use the instrument of war to achieve purposes for which it is unsuited. It is the responsibility of military leaders to ensure that the political leadership understands the character and limitations of the military instrument. "

I know this is quite complicated, and I know most of you don't know or care to know who Clausewitz is, so if I can get any help in any area can it be in understanding what dialectics is.

If you want more information on Clausewitz, here is a good link to start with.



Edited by Al Kufr
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Al Kufr, you indicate near the end of your extremely long post that your main interest is in "dialectics." Here are some suggestions.

First, the term "dialectics," as I understand it, does not name only one idea, but rather a range of ideas. For example, my favorite, single-volume philosophical dictionary (W. L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion) lists 14 meanings or special applications, ranging from Plato (the founder of dialectics as the pursuit of wisdom through a special type of conversation) to Sartre.

I recommend that you go to a university library and examine the "Dialectics" article in the 10-volume Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. There should be subsections on the "dialectics" of Kant and Hegel that will give you clues about their effects on Clausewitz. Pay particular attention to the bibliography that accompanies the REP article. It will give you leads to specialized reading.

In my very limited understanding, "dialectics" generally refers to the back-and-forth conversation that goes on between two philosophizers (or one philosopher talking to himself). One says he wants justice in the state. The other asks him what he means by "justice." Ideally, in the end, they come to some resolution. That general approach supposedly underlies philosophical "dialectics" in Plato (as his early dialogues often show). The same general approach appears to emerge in the thesis, antithesis (the opposition), and synthesis (a resolution) of later philosophers.

Our word "dialectics" apparently has grown from the Greek dialektos (discourse, debate). It contains the essential idea of back and forth (conflict) with resolution. I suspect that some who use the term are reifying abstractions and turning thesis, antithesis, and synthesis into "forces" that seemingly operate on their own. I have read only a tiny bit of Hegel, but from what I can remember that is what he seems to be doing.

Edited by BurgessLau
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I think by dialectics, Clausewitz is referring specifically to Hegel, not Kant. Though it is true that Hegel was influenced by Kant, Hegel is the one who was obsessed with the "dialectic," by which he essentially meant that everything was a synthesis of itself with its contradiction. Thus, the truth lies in determining this synthesis.

An example (from Russel's History of Western Philosophy):

The absolute is pure being -- it just is, without assigning qualities to it. But pure being without any qualities is nothing; therefore, the absolute is nothing. From this thesis and antithesis, ans also the claim that the union of being and not being is becoming, we can now state a more true fact of reality: absolute is becoming.

From here you can keep whittling away the problems with your claim by melding it with its antithesis. He is most famous for using dialectical logic to explain history as a constant battle between nations, working toward perfection. Marx picked up on this concept and replaced nations with classes.

Total war involved no suspension of the effects of time and space, as did Clausewitz's concept of the absolute.

Hegel was obsessed with the absolute, and therefore it makes sense that you see one of his followers using the term in his field.

You can also see Kant's influence on Hegel in this idea of "suspending the effects of time and space." Only a dualist who believed that time and space were merely relationships existing in our mind only could think that the effects of time and space could be suspended, especially by the government!

Of course, Hegel's philosophy is just mystical garbage, and so one has to examine the claims of anyone who was heavily influenced by him with an eagle's eye. His dialectical argument goes against the law of identity, and his beliefs in time and space place consciousness above existence.

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Actually, I had thought that the "thesis/antithesis/synthesis" construct was the product of Marx. I believe he referred to it as "dialectic materialism". Whether he took or adapted the concept from Hegel I don't know.

According to Bertrand Russel, Marx, as well as anyone else who ever talks about dialectic struggle, got the idea from Hegel. The form of materialism you speak of is from Marx, but the concept of applying dialectical logic to something comes from Hegel.

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Dump Clauswitz and think of applying Objectivist principles to war. Its fairly simple and straitforward.

Well of course, but I still want to understand his ideas.

As to military tactics/strategy, that is covered by more modern writers than Clauswitz and is far more relevant.
I think you are underestamating his influence, even great war historians such as Victor Davis Hanson sees some value in him


Plus I dont think all of his ideas are bad, his idea about "friction" seems true, even though I dont know how he came to it.

By Inspector

Al Kufr,

Who are you quoting in italics?

Oops, I thought I put his name,but i guess i didn't, its CLAUSEWITZ AND HIS WORKS by Christopher Bassford .

Anyways, BurgessLau and mightyTeuton, thanks for the help.

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