Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: Dialectic, but which dialectic?

That Clausewitz used a dialectical approach is well known.  Less known is that there are serious questions as to which dialectic(s) Clausewitz was in fact employing.  The best known form of the dialectic is perhaps that of Plato, simple question and answer going back and forth between two sides which may not agree but who both wish to arrive at a clearer understanding of the topic under discussion.  Absolute truth may not be attainable, but a better understanding can be arrived at through two minds working through the dialectic of point and counter-point.

This is the most common form of dialectic, and one finds it often in On War, Clausewitz attempting so to speak to bring us into dialogue, invite us to consider his sometimes radical statements, get us to think about the complex subject he is discussing.

It may surprise some to hear me say that the dialectic that Clausewitz uses the most in his general theory is that of the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher . . .

Friedrich Schleiermacher is known today mostly only among students of theology.  In Berlin in the early years of the 19th Century he was one of the leading thinkers of his time and a member of Prussian patriotic societies after the defeat at Jena.  Schleiermacher was a close friend of Maria von Clausewitz’s family and had confirmed her.  His thought seems to have had an effect on Clausewitz’s approach, especially his hermeneutics and critism, since for Schleiermacher the psychology behind a written text was as important as the actual text construction itself.

In my view, and this is based on the work of Uwe Hartmann in his book, Carl von Clausewitz, Erkenntnis – Bildung – Generalstabsausbildung, Clausewitz does not use the dialectic commonly associated with Hegel (although actually propagated by Chalybäus) of thesis + anti-thesis = synthesis, in Chapter 1 regarding the general theory, but that of Schleiermacher:

Thesis – – Anti-thesis, where the two remain in tension, there being no synthesis or resolving of this tension between the two.  The result is rather a “return” or “reduction” to those areas of conflict between the two which do not allow a synthesis.  Thus in Section 28 we see that the remarkable trinity of passion, uncertainty and subordination to politics/policy is actually the area of unresolved tension between the two ideal types introduced in Book 1 Chapter 1, those being “absolute war” and “war in reailty”.  It is actually the tensions of the two unresolved ideal types which provides for part of the dynamic quality of the general theory.

11 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: Dialectic, but which dialectic?”

  1. Here is an observation, and might be worth thinking about, or not.

    It strikes me as interesting that the dialectic used by Clausewitz was the same dialectic used by a theologian. Perhaps there are other similarities between Christian doctrine and warfare:

    For example: The Trinity, where
    The Father = Political Subordination to Policy
    The Son = Passion of the People
    The Holy Spirit = Uncertainty

    There are other trinities which might be worth exploring, too (Army + Government + People) just to see how they interrelate. This might be a good exercise in lateral thinking!

    Does anybody know of any theologians (especially Lutheran ones) who might be interested in reading On War? They would be a late addition to the Round Table, but I’m sure their contributions would be weighty.

  2. “Does anybody know of any theologians (especially Lutheran ones) who might be interested in reading On War?”

    That is a tall order!

    I know a lot of people, but I don’t know any Lutheran theologians. I know some Catholic ones.

    Probably too late to enlist their participation … .

    “The Holy Spirit = Uncertainty”

    More than that: The Holy Spirit = “inspiration”, which is the will and energy and intelligence and courage of the commander, who directs the war — which overcomes the uncertainty.

  3. “It may surprise some to hear me say that the dialectic that Clausewitz uses the most in his general theory is that of the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher . . “

    Count me among the ranks of the surprised. LOL!

  4. I must say, while I did not know about Schliermacher, Clausewitz certainly does not write or think like a Hegelian. On War does not point at all to the resolution of antitheses in a higher order synthesis. The nature of war, including its unresolved antitheses, is primordial, contemporary, and perpetual. We can never reduce war to reason and hence “a kind of war by algebra”, nor can we ever “lift the fog of war” by means of better and better machines.

  5. I don’t think you can discount Clausewitz’s intended audience from this perspective. I am not entirely sure what the social and religious make up of Prussia and Russia, was at the time. CvC probably intended his work to read by those with whom he had served and was familiar. Keeping potentially complex argument simple (by the standards of the day) and not being too radical all have to be factored into the style and approach he took, especially as he intended his work as guidance and not self promotion (unlike Machiavelli).

    I have always taken his comments on military genius to be indicative, and a polite way of saying “some folks should not be allowed to command.”

  6. A couple of points I should add here. This view is the minority view among at least US and UK Clausewitzians. I suspect that the Germans and French (following Raymond Aron) are more open to it. Paret in his biography of Clausewitz mentions in an aside that “Clausewitz’s method does not insist on resolution.” At the Clausewitz Conference in 2005 I brought this question up during Hew Strachan’s talk (kinda just popped out) and he politely listened, wrote down a couple of notes and has said or written nothing about it since. Andreas Herberg Rothe on the other hand, with whom I have regular correspondence, finds Hartmann’s argument strong on Schleiermacher, but weak in his understanding of Hegel’s thought, but is uncommitted as to the use of the dialectic in question.

    My other comment is in response to Nathaniel’s post. There is another element of Clausewitz’s concept of genius which does not come up in Book 1, but does later in Books 6 & 8, especially Book 8, Chapter 2. That being the ability of the military genius to understand the changes that have occurred in politics/society and to harness those changes in exercising a new art of war, in effect something very similar to Kuhn’s paradigm shift concept. The period of confusion among those overwhelmed by the new political/military realities corresponds as well to Kuhn’s period of crisis. I also see this element of genius as being very close to Max Weber’s ideal type of the charismatic leader . . .

  7. Seydlitz89-

    Thanks! I intend to continually write about Clausewitz’s idea of the military genius as we read, so you can expect more from me on that.

    Thanks for the tip.

  8. ” I am not entirely sure what the social and religious make up of Prussia and Russia, was at the time”

    Prussia was predominantly Lutheran and Russia was overwhelmingly Orthodox with both faiths being “state” churches.

    Both Prussia and Russia contained religious minorities, including Jews who were not full citizens in either country in Clausewitz’s day and were not permitted to engage in military service, if I recall correctly. Catholicism, from the Polish population and Western Ukranian Uniates would have been the next largest religious sect in Prussia nad Russia but Catholic officers (to the extent that there were any) would have found their prospects for promotion to be slim.

    An interesting question would be the religious affiliation of Russia’s ethnic Germans who were disproportionately represented in Tsarist service, civil and military.

  9. seydlitz89:

    I have two questions regarding this sentence from section 28, “Die Aufgabe ist also, daß sich die Theorie zwischen diesen drei Tendenzen wie zwischen drei Anziehungspunkten schwebend erhalte.” and the video clip from this article which Lexington Green was good enough to bring to my attention.

    1. If an eduacated German-speaker of CvC’s time had described that demonstration, would he have used ‘erhalt’ to describe the movement of the pendulum?

    2. Why is it so common to think that the pendulum represents war when CvC specifically states that it represents theory?

  10. Seydlitz89 has not responded yet, but I will proceed with my Bold Conjecture: the random oscillating movement interpretation of section 28 is wrong. CvC is referring to the pendulum at rest, not in motion. Just as the pendulum in equilibrium will freely respond as the three attractors are moved into new positions, an adequate theory will be useful for any configuration of the three tendencies in the real world.

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