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.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.)
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)
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?