Epistemology and War—The Rise of Rationalism and Clausewitz’ Critique of Pure War

Military philosophers through the ages have attempted to analyze, understand and explain the art of war. The doctrines they create are by necessity based on their understanding of the nature of war. This understanding often has parallels within the wider culture. It is no surprise that philosophical concepts about ontology (the nature of being and what exists) and epistemology (the nature how we acquire knowledge and understanding of the world) influence ideas about our understanding of the nature of war.

As we look at the progress of Western military philosophy over time we see a gradually increasing rationalism. It begins with Aristotle and his influence upon the Greek and Roman writers on military strategy. There is a constant undercurrent of rationalism that runs through the Middle ages and Renaissance. In the seventeenth century it becomes a dominant element in the attempt to create a science of warfare. Kant’s criticism of rationalist metaphysics in his Critique of Pure Reason had a strong influence on Clausewitz and his theoretical approach to war. It was left to Moltke to demonstrate how this critical approach could be applied in practice during the wars of German unification.

Western military philosophy began as an exercise in oratory and rhetorical persuasion. These writers were influenced by Aristotle and formed the beginning of an ever increasing rationalist tendency in the western approach to the art of war. This constant undercurrent of rationalism runs through the Middle ages, with its emphasis on Christian moral behavior in war, and into the Renaissance where we see a greater dialogue with, and questioning of the classical tradition. In the seventeenth century rationalism becomes a dominant element in the attempt to create a science of warfare. This rational science of warfare was brought into question by Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and its influence on Carl von Clausewitz and his theoretical approach to war. Helmut von Moltke was able to take this anti-rationalist theoretical framework and turn it into the concrete and pragmatic methodology more familiar to us today.

Epistemology and War—The Rise of Rationalism and Clausewitz’ Critique of Pure War

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~ by severalfourmany on September 30, 2007.

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