Clausewitz, On War, Book 2: Clausewitz’s Science

After the apparent clarity of Book 1, we find something of a muddle in Book 2. Clausewitz warned us of this. In his unfinished note, probably of 1830, he says that the first chapter of Book 1 is the only part of the book he regards as finished. The first six books, he says in an earlier note, are a “rather formless mass.”

He says quite a bit, but not enough, about how he planned to revise the book and how he wrote it. I recognize in these comments and in the shape of On War many undesirable characteristics of my early drafts. I sit at a keyboard, however, able to highlight and delete, rewrite and move sentences and paragraphs with a few keystrokes. I see a printed version in which my eyes can easily take in the contradictions within a paragraph. Clausewitz used a quill pen, or, if he was really up to date, a metal-nibbed dip pen. In any case, simply getting the words on paper required much more physical effort than I am expending, with more distractions. More friction towards getting ideas properly expressed within the written words, he might have said.

On War would have been very different if Clausewitz had revised it. We can’t know the specifics, but his own comments and the shape of the manuscript make it clear that much revision was needed.

Did Clausewitz intend a grand unified theory of war? I think not, and will expand in this and future posts. His comments on the unfinished nature of the manuscript seem to indicate that he did not believe that was the case. Further, his notes on the manuscript written between 1816 and 1818 say clearly

There is no need today to labor the point that a scientific approach does not consist solely, or even mainly,in a complete system and a comprehensive doctrine. In the formal sense the present work contains no such system; instead of a complete theory it offers only material for one.

emphasis mine

He wanted to approach the subject in a scientific way, although within the book itself he refers to war as an art.

What would Clausewitz have had in mind when he spoke of a scientific approach? Let’s look at the state of science in Clausewitz’s time to help us understand his context. It was similar and dissimilar to today’s science.

Science consisted of ordering observations of natural phenomena and experimentation, then drawing conclusions. Vacuum pumps had been in use for some time, and the effects of vacuum on living things were studied. Vacuum pumps also made it possible to study gases, which led to the beginnings of modern chemistry and thermodynamics.

Many of the foundations of today’s science were laid during Clausewitz’s time. Many of the generalizations we now take for granted had not yet been developed, nor were the disciplines of chemistry, physics and biology separated as they are today. The word biology came into use in Clausewitz’s time.

The two big scientific questions were What is matter? and What is electricity?

The study of gases included combustion, which was wrongly conceptualized at first. Joseph Priestly isolated oxygen, but he called it dephlogisticated air. The phlogiston theory posited a substance by that name that was responsible for the shine and hardness of metals; it was added to earths by fire as metals were refined. Antoine Lavoisier turned the theory on its head and showed that earths (oxides in today’s parlance) were in fact metals with oxygen added.

I find it hard to conceptualize phlogiston. I try to think of it as negative oxygen (in a chemical, not mathematical, sense), but that misses part of the theory. My mind simply cannot wrap itself around phlogiston. I can feel it slipping away when I concentrate on making sense of it. But the phlogiston theory prospered for a while, and presumably its adherents found oxides just as hard to conceptualize. Concepts we take for granted were still fluid then.

The eighteenth century had seen much experimentation on gases, which led to the formulation of the law of definite proportion, which would lead to the periodic table, and the laws of gas behavior with temperature and pressure, which would lead to thermodynamics. But not in Clausewitz’s time. Sadi Carnot published the beginnings of thermodynamics before Clausewitz died.

Enormous strides were being made in electricity. Alessandro Volta devised the first chemical battery, which led to the isolation of solid elements. Michael Faraday, Aloisio Galvani, Sir Charles Wheatstone, Charles Augustin de Coulomb and André Ampère contributed discoveries and later their names to electrical units and phenomena.

In mathematics, the Marquis Pierre Simon de Laplace, Nicolai Lobachevsky, Adrien Legendre, William R. Hamilton, Karl F. Gauss, Joseph Lagrange, Niels Henrik Abel all did the mathematical work that their names are now applied to. William Herschel studied the sun and other stars. Friederich Wöhler began the study of organic (carbon-based) compounds.

In biology, Karl Linné’s system for naming plants and animals was well-accepted. Edward Jenner introduced inoculation against smallpox. Lamarck published his ideas about evolution. John James Audubon published Birds of America. Darwin would come later.

The new new technology included the telegraph, muskets with interchangeable parts, the submarine, steam power for boats, the steam locomotive, the miner’s lamp, the stethoscope and portland cement. Charles Babbage constructed a calculating machine.

Technology was not linked as strongly to science as it is today. Like other aspects of modern science, that link was just emerging, with steam-powered transportation and the miner’s lamp resulting from Robert Fulton’s thinking about discoveries in gas properties and Humphrey Davy’s chemical experiments.

Science was a way to order observations and derive new generalizations. That’s not a bad description of what Clausewitz seems to have been trying to do in the case of war. A somewhat chaotic collection of observations was the raw material for a more general theory, which, by the way, would not have been the overarching Grand Unified Theory that today’s physicists are looking for, but something more like Coulomb’s Law, or the Law of Definite Proportions.

Did Clausewitz recognize the differences in scientific approaches to war and to electricity? I suspect that he didn’t fully when he started, but he had a much better idea of those differences by the time he finished his manuscript. He recognized early that war arises out of human behavior, the biggest difference with electricity, but he might well have decided that a scientific approach was worth trying. The lines between chemistry and physics were fuzzy, and it wasn’t at all clear how far one might go with the approach.

And that partly-organized collection of observations and attempts at generalizations is just the sort of data that we can still use as a basis for understanding today’s wars.

Some useful references on science in Clausewitz’s time:
Wikipedia’s Timeline of Chemistry

Sketching the History of Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics

Wikipedia’s History of Physics

A History of Evolutionary Thought

8 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book 2: Clausewitz’s Science”

  1. Alan Kay, the inventor of the computer mouse, liked to say that if you don’t believe the technology with which you write affects the quality of the output, you should try taping a pencil to a brick and try writing a few pages with it.

  2. “He wanted to approach the subject in a scientific way, although within the book itself he refers to war as an art.”

    I’m actually not convinced of this by any means. To me it seems that Clausewitz didn’t intend to use exhaustive scientific study to uncover a grand unified theory. Clausewitz seemed to favor the study of applicable portions of military history, especially recent military history.

    Clausewitz seems to only favor scientific, deductive methods only when trying to prove or disprove specific facts, not for the creation of theories of warfare.

    I think he preferred inductive methods, which probably cannot be described as scientific in method.

  3. Excellent observations. I’m not sure that Clausewtiz applied much of any science to the Study of War. Schwere Punkt – Heavy point – centre of gravity, etc is used as an analogy.
    Again I think CvC’s references to science were a product of shaping his message to his intended audience, most of whom would be reasonably well read in these areas. Science was the basis for his analogies. I am not sure that this is applying science, in a way that we would call “scientific”.

    The same was done by Simpkin, in “Race to the Swift,” though much less well and in a very confusing way, if you have much of an understanding of physics.

  4. Nate, you are imposing today’s “scientific approach” on Clausewitz. What I tried to do in the post is to show, and maybe even give a feeling for, what science was like back then.

    As I said, “theory” would have meant something more like Coulomb’s Law and the law of definite proportions than today’s grand unified theories. Back then, the idea of a grand unified theory would not have been any more comprehensible than the phlogiston theory is today.

  5. Cheryl-

    I forgot to express my thanks that your brought up this topic. Whether war is a science is a crucial question, even today. It is very much appreciated.

    I cannot really prove whether Clausewitz thought of science as primarily inductive or deductive in nature, although CvC does spend an entire chapter speaking of the virtues and vices of deductive reasoning methods (the chapter on Critical Analysis).

    I reading Book II, it was apparent to me that CvC didn’t have much use for deductive methods except to merely prove/disprove a specific fact. I don’t think he would ever use deductive methods to prove a theory in general, and claims that even if one could do that, it would actually be intellectually harmful to the general who tries to understand war on such terms.

    If, as you say, that sciences consisted of, “ordering observations of natural phenomena and experimentation, then drawing conclusions,” I can only claim that CvC viewed the exhaustive ordering of observations as “pedantic,” (p.146) and that he would claim that wartime phenomena are not reproducible in experimentation.

    In recognition of that, Clausewitz managed to avoid the traps that befell so many more scientific understandings of warfare, like Jomini, Bulow, and even today’s Net-Centric Warfare mafia.

    CvC, I think, only attempted to be descriptive by way of induction and reflection, not prescriptive by way of deduction.

  6. Nate –

    I think you and I are agreeing, except in our use of words.

    Science proceeds by both induction and deduction; they can’t be separated.

    The science of Clausewitz’s time consisted of the very successful classification of animal life by Linnaeus about a century before, so that was well-accepted. Lamarck and others were trying to figure out the basis of the connections and the obvious similarities among groups of plants and animals. That subject was very much in play.

    Also in play was an understanding of electricity. Natural phenomena involving electricity had been known for a very long time, but many things were coming together just before and during Clausewitz’s time. Think about Benjamin Franklin and his kite, which was a rather uncontrolled forerunner of the work done by that long list of names grown familiar through the phenomena they studied.

    Likewise the nature of matter. Again, long-held information about smelting metals, for example, was being systematized and mathematical laws underlying those transformations were being developed.

    All that is much more inductive than deductive, just as Clausewitz’s work was. The big difference, as you note, is that you can’t do experiments with war. Otherwise, his approaches to systematizing the information and trying to develop correlations, generalities, was very similar to the way things were done in the science of his time.

    Clausewitz gives us many generalizations about war, which are about on a par with the many generalizations, frequently called laws, that were being formulated about electricity and chemistry. Without those generalizations, we wouldn’t be as interested in Clausewitz as we are today.

    I think that Clausewitz thought about war in many ways. When he cites a scientific approach, as I quoted him, we should consider what that would have constituted in his day.

  7. Cheryl I really liked your essay and the whole thrust of it. Different conceptions of “science” reigned:

    “Many of the foundations of today’s science were laid during Clausewitz’s time. Many of the generalizations we now take for granted had not yet been developed, nor were the disciplines of chemistry, physics and biology separated as they are today. The word biology came into use in Clausewitz’s time”

    Paul Johnson pointed out in his _Birth of the Modern_ that this period of the early 19th century was the last time we saw, for example artists talking to scientists about the nature of light on an equal plane. It was a consilient era – scientists like Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, Antoine Lavoisier were politicians, Faraday was a public intellectual and men of letters like Jefferson were inventors. The culture of discovery and curiosity was celebrated. A good time.

  8. And Michael Faraday discovered benzene while he was working with electricity. Benzene is the basis for much of what we now call organic chemistry and a good deal of chemical bonding theory because of its peculiarities.

    And yes, science was one of many intellectual pursuits that anyone could learn and contribute to. I still believe that is the case, at least for its general directions and basic concepts, but it has been to the advantage of too many, scientists and non-scientists, that there be a degree of mystification around science.

Comments are closed.