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.
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