Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: Closing Comments and Section 28

At this point in what has been a fascinating round table, I think it useful to consider the comment that Sir Michael Howard made during the Clausewitz Conference of 2005, that being that “Clausewitz is a Rorschach Test”, meaning that readers tend to see in him what ever they are looking for. Translations indicate this as well, with the various English translations of On War reflecting what were the dominate strategic emphasis or concern at the time of translation.

There is nothing especially surprising about this, more the nature of human inquiry. How On War is approached will depend very much on the specific epoch, concerns and culture of the reader. Still there are three points which must be considered in reading On War imo since they do relate to the nature of the work.

First, a knowledge of Napoleonic warfare, and Prussian history and culture is very useful, including the concept of Bildung, for which there is no direct English translation. Consider it self-education and development. For instance On War is expected to contribute to the Bildung of a military commander, allow him a theory in which to develop his sense of judgment in which to make tactical, or rather strategic command decisions.

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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 . . .

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Clausewitz, On War, Book 1 – My introduction, and comments on Chapter 1

Knowing how to start one’s own contribution to this very worthwhile discussion is difficult. Beginning that discussion with Book 1 Chapter 1 of Clausewitz’s On War adds to a very difficult situation indeed. One could write a book about this first chapter and in fact people have.

Consider that I am a Clausewitzian strategic theorist, this being a simple label of identification, not intended to be any sort of indication of special expertise. I would rather let my words speak for themselves. To start I would point out that Clausewitz deals with different types of theory in On War. The specific branch of theory I refer to here is “strategic theory”, defined as that kind of social theory concerned with the exercise of power – including potentially the use of organized force – to achieve the goals of one political community in conflict with others.

In my view it is in Book 1, Chapter 1 where the general theory is most clearly explained, although elements of it are scattered throughout the work, especially in Books 6 and 8. So what is the general theory and how does it differ from the other two types of Clausewitzian strategic theory I’ve mentioned?

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