Tuesday, February 08, 2011

German and English Philosophers in 1914: "World War Is a Wonderful Idea!"

I was struck by the following passage, reading Decline of the German Mandarins (Fritz Ringer, 1969):

Early in August of 1914, the war finally came. One imagines that at least a few educated Germans had private moments of horror at the slaughter which was about to commence. In public, however, German academics of all political persuasions spoke almost exclusively of their optimism and enthusiasm. Indeed, they greeted the war with a sense of relief. Party differences and class antagonisms seemed to evaporate at the call of national duty.... intellectuals rejoiced at the apparent rebirth of "idealism" in Germany. They celebrated the death of politics, the triumph of ultimate, apolitical objectives over short-range interests, and the resurgence of those moral and irrational sources of social cohesion that had been threatened by the "materialistic" calculation of Wilhelmian modernity.

On August 2, the day after the German mobilization order, the modernist Ernst Troeltsch spoke at a public rally. Early in his address, he hinted that "criminal elements" might try to attack property and order, now that the army had been moved from the German cities to the front. This is the only overt reference to fear of social disturbance that I have been able to discover in the academic literature of the years 1914-1916.... the German university professors sang hymns of praise to the "voluntary submission of all individuals and social groups to this army." They were almost grateful that the outbreak of war had given them the chance to experience the national enthusiasm of those heady weeks in August. (p. 180-181)
With the notable exception of Bertrand Russell (who lost his academic position and was imprisoned for his pacifism), philosophers in England appear to have been similarly enthusiastic. Wittgenstein never did anything so cheerily, it seems, as head off to fight for Austria. Alfred North Whitehead rebuked his friend and co-author Russell for his pacifism and eagerly sent off to war his sons North and Eric. (Eric Whitehead died.)

If there is anything that seems, in retrospect, not to have been a wonderful idea it was World War I, which destroyed millions of lives to no purpose. (At best, it should have been viewed as a regrettable necessity in the face of foreign aggression; but that was rarely the attitude in 1914, from what I have read.) Philosophers at the time, evidently, were no more capable of seeing the (seemingly immensely obvious) downsides of world war than was anyone else.

You might ask: Why should philosophers have been more capable of seeing what was wrong with World War I? Isn't it entirely unsurprising that they should be just as enthusiastic as the rest of their compatriots?

Here's a model of philosophical reflection on which philosophers' enthusiasm for World War I is unsurprising: Philosophers -- and everyone -- possess their views on the big questions of life for emotional and sociological reasons that have nothing to do with their philosophical theories and philosophical readings. They recruit Kant, Mill, Locke, Rousseau, Aristotle, etc., only after the fact to justify what they would have believed anyway. Moral and political philosophy is nothing but post-hoc rationalization.

Here's a model of philosophical reflection on which philosophers' enthusiasm for World War I is, in contrast, surprising: Reading Kant, Mill, Locke, Rousseau, Aristotle, etc., helps give one a broadly humanitarian view, helps one see that people everywhere deserve respect, pushes one toward a more encompassing and cosmopolitan worldview, helps one gain a little critical perspective on the political currents of one's own time, helps one better see through the rhetoric of demagogues and narrow politicians.

Which vision of philosophy do you prefer?

16 comments:

Michael said...

Have you read "Rites of Spring" by Modris Eksteins? It's more of a literary or cultural history, than philosophical text, but it does (what I think to be) an admirable job at describing the cultural world that surrounded the first world war. It does deal with philosophy, particularly in Germany where they seem to have had more cultural sway, but not in much depth or detail. Still, a very good book about the times.

Kurt M Boughan said...

The downside was not "immensely obvious." The last big European war before the Great War was the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1. Prussia made fairly short work of France through superior military technology; Bismarck achieved unification of nearly all the German speaking world except Austria and Switzerland.

Military planners and generals at the dawn of the 20th utterly failed to anticipate what a fully mechanized, industrial, total war would be like. It's not that they misunderstood the power of their weapons; it's that they were fully confident that they could use them with perfect scientific precision. The infamous Schlieffen plan had worked out troop movements down to the hour and train car.

They were the experts. Why shoudn't others, including philosophers, have trusted them?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michael: thanks for the tip, that sounds interesting!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Kurt: thanks for that historical perspective. Yes, positive memories of recent wars must be part of the explanation, if we're not just to posit mass insanity. On the experts, well, if their experience was anything like recent American experience with expert prognostications about war, it seems some critical skepticism might have been warranted. (Perhaps especially if they noticed the similar military confidence of the other parties.)

Kapitano said...

It's probably not surprising that someone who's area of expertise and deep thought lies outside politics should be just as uninformed, incoherant and prejudiced as someone who has no deep thought at all.

An astonomer probably can't be an astrologer, but there's no reason why they can't be a creationist, because creationism wouldn't get in the way of their astronomical work. Likewise there's nothing to stop a great innovator and rebel in economics holding exactly the conventional views on families of their time.

Kurt M Boughan said...

If we're judging military planners in a presentist fashion, the European ones of c. 1910 have a much better excuse than the Americans of 2002. Remember: A mass conflagration of all the world's great powers possessing machine guns and exploding artillery shells, and requiring the total dedication of nations' heavy industrial bases, had not ever happened before. There was no precedent for the Great War. And there had been no effective anti-imperialist insurgencies, either. (Germany first attempted genocide, complete with concentration camps, in SW Africa [now Namibia] in 1904-6).

I find it strange that you're disappointed to find few European intelligentsia of the decades around 1900 espousing your very post-WW2 rational-secularist moral positions.

These thinkers lived, after all, during the high-water mark of militant nationalism, scientific racism, and aggressive imperialism justified by appeals to the best Enlightenment principles (the "White Man's Burden" of Britain and America, the "civilizing mission" of the French). We won't even get started on prevailing 19th-c. notions of masculine honor as projected onto diplomatic relations, and fears of the enervating effects of the comforts of bourgeois life on boys. Don't forget too the attraction to the privileged classes -- which would include of course academic philosophers -- of war's capacity to turn angry workers away from revolutionary socialism and toward unquestioning support of the regime. The Great War did just that, until 1916 when the strains began to become unbearable.

Kurt M Boughan said...

Man, I had a really great statement about how I think the philosopher is as bound to his socio-political context as other mere mortals -- that some of us maybe have longer chains on us, won by long education, but we're stuck in Plato's shadow-play cave with everyone else -- but Blogger ate it! The short story: I think your expectation (unless I'm really reading you wrong) that philosophy should raise its practitioner above his political/social/cultural moment is kind of silly.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Kurt: I think we are not as far apart as you seem to think we are. After all, what I am finding and arguing for is basically the view that you are espousing: that philosophers' views are shaped by their cultural context rather than rising above it. However I am contextualizing it differently and I resist adopting it in entirely unnuanced fashion.

The reason I contextualize it differently is the same reason I don't want to advance it in an entirely unnuanced fashion. I think that a purely context-determination view of philosophy threatens to collapse into the view of all philosophical moral and political thinking as nothing but post-hoc rationalization of views one would have had anyway. My guess is that such a rationalization model of moral philosophy is to a substantial extent true, but I also hope that reflection can also move one -- maybe only slightly and maybe only on average -- toward the moral truth. (Yes, I think there are moral truths. Is that naive?) I would hope, for example, that thinking about moral and political issues might have helped a U.S. Southerner in 1830 see something of what is wrong in slavery (or see it more keenly), or have helped a German in 1943 see (or see more keenly) what is wrong in eliminationist anti-Semitism. Now maybe not. So far, I have found no empirical evidence that anything like this is the case. But I do not think such a hope is silly or that the empirical question is so obvious that research into it is pointless!

G. Randolph Mayes said...

The confirmation bias(myside bias, selective exposure)seems to be universal. I've never had any experiences that suggest that philosophers are less prone to it. On the surface it seems as if the habits of mind we like to attribute to philosophers should result in greater self awareness, and hence a greater willingness to seek out evidence against the views to which we find ourselves instinctively attracted. But I think that trait is not really all that common in professional philosophers. It's very hard to get a dissertation finished with that kind of attitude. Maybe one way to identify a constructive role for reasoning in this context is to represent it as a social argumentative process (c.f., Sperber and Mercier, BBS, "Why do humans reason?") At least that way we might be able to see catastrophic failures of rationality in terms of the absence of the social conditions needed for the truth to get a hearing. Even if philosophers are no better than anyone else at avoiding confirmation bias when they are reasoning solo, maybe they are a wee bit better at noticing when a peer has made an interesting point.

Anibal said...

What your recent experimental work in the psychology of philosophy teachs me is that one thing is what you preach and other thing is what you do.

And even philosophers do not scape from this moral hypocresy.

In the old good days philosophy was both a way of life and attitude which leads you to live a better life.

Ideally i would prefer the latter vision of philosophy but who knows what i´ll do if a third great war breaks out...

Cactiki said...

Which model do I "prefer"? The second one, of course. Which do I see as more realistic? The first. When we think of ourselves as "philosophers", we tend to imagine ourselves looking down from great height at the "masses", analyzing groups of people in the same way one would look at a group of chimps or a species of plant. We tend to ignore or deny that we are chimps too.
Probably the most accurate choice is the one not given.... Somewhere in between the other two .
Also keep in mind that in that time, we had not become "One World", it was more " us versus them". My own world view has changed so much in the last twenty years, I don't believe it is even possible for us to fathom how people of a hundred years ago (!!!) saw the world. That was before anyone had seen movies, television, WW I and WWII, Vietnam, and all the other changes of the Twentieth century. Before Modernism, let alone the ironic cynical postmodernism of the Twentyfirst century

Tara Maya said...

Alas, you have left out the third possibility, that deep engagment with a philosophy might actually make philosophers more prone to rationalizing things from which "ignorant" people would naturally recoil.

I'm not saying it's the case, but it should be considered as a possibility.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree with you, Taya. That position is on my radar. For example, it is one natural explanation of my finding that ethics books are more likely to go missing from academic libraries (Schwitzgebel 2009).

marcellus said...

I'd like to think that philosophers see the bigger picture of option 2, as I like to think that I saw through Bush and Blair's WMD rhetoric before the latest invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, even a million people marching on Downing Street didn't stop them going to war.

Neil said...

I seem to recall reading somewhere (perhaps in Habermas?) that the German neo-Kantian establishment joined the Nazi party more enthusiastically than the rest of academia, and that neo-Kantian justifications invoking the categorical imperative were written to justify anti-semitism and the rest. I don't find the enthusiasm for war surprising in Germany, given the dominance of views of Geist and Volk from the nineteenth century right up to the end of the second war. It is more surprising in England. But you don't say that you have any data on English philosophers.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yep and yep! Thanks for the comments, Marcellus and Neil. I don't have systematic data on English philosophers and WWI, but that is the impression conveyed by several historians -- and by Russell himself (though he was hardly an unbiased observer).