Philosophers at War

Written by Sgt. Spencer Case, 304th PAD Tuesday, 25 May 2010 00:00


What do Socrates, RenĂ© Descartes, Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Rawls all have in common, besides being philosophers? If you guessed perennial unemployment, you’re wrong. They were all, at one point or another, soldiers.

Socrates, if the Platonic dialogues are true to the historical man, participated in three military campaigns. His exploits as a soldier are recalled favorably by Alcibiades, an accomplished general in the Peloponnesian War, in “The Symposium,” and by Laches, another Athenian general, in a dialogue of the same name. (Be warned the latter is an aporetic dialogue, which is Greek for “if you’re hoping to arrive at a solution at the end, you’re going to be disappointed.”)

Descartes served in the Dutch army during the grisly affair known as the Thirty Years’ War. The Web page for the European Graduate School says the following about Descartes’ military service:

“Descartes dates his first new philosophical ideas and his analytical geometry from three dreams that he had while campaigning on the Danube. He saw November 19, 1619, the date of these dreams, as a landmark moment in his life. It was around 1619 that he may have started ‘Rules for the Direction of Mind,’ his first major philosophical treatise, which would remain unfinished. This work discusses the proper method for engaging with science and rational theology.”

Skipping ahead to the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who many in the business regard as the greatest philosopher of that century, also had considerable military experience. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy—an excellent online resource—reports:

“…[I]n 1914, at the start of World War I (1914-1918), [Wittgenstein] joined the Austrian army. He was taken captive in 1917 and spent the remaining months of the war at a prison camp. It was during the war that he wrote the notes and drafts of his first important work, ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.’”

And, I might add, the only work published in Wittgenstein’s lifetime. Jeff McMahan, a contemporary ethicist at Rutgers University, begins his excellent book, “Killing in War,” with an overview of Wittgenstein’s military service on what he regards as the most culpable side of a war that is the “paradigm of an utterly pointless war.”  McMahan writes, “If this is the best a transcendently brilliant, paradigm-shattering thinker can do when his native country initiates an unjust war, what hope is there for the rest of us?” A sobering thought, indeed.

John Rawls, whose work, “A Theory of Justice,” helped to make neo-Kantianism a force to be reckoned with in normative ethics, and whose name is recognized by anyone who has studied contemporary political philosophy or political science, served in the Pacific theater of World War II. Georgetown philosopher Nancy Sherman shares this fascinating anecdote from Rawls’ 2002 funeral in her book, “Stoic Warriors”:

“One of his sons said his father never spoke much of his experience in World War II, but he did share one story with his family. He said he harbored no anger against the Japanese foot soldier, and in one instance, when face to face with his counterpart, both he and his opposite chose to retreat rather than fire. But he did have contempt for the Japanese authorities responsible for the war. At the close of the war, he volunteered to be part of a search contingent walking for several days in the treacherous and still enemy-held jungles of the island of Luzon to capture General Yamashita and bring him back for a formal surrender.”

It strikes me as very interesting that Rawls’ concern with political fairness, as expressed in “A Theory of Justice,” and his later restatement, “Justice as Fairness,” seems to have influenced his conduct as a soldier.

Cleary, war experiences have had a major impact on our intellectual history. However, I don’t know of any scholar who has done the work of figuring out the details. Over the last year or so I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a book that catalogues and compares the experiences of various philosophers. One trend I see emerging is that the philosophers who have had the greatest impact on how we think about war tend to be without military experience.

Neither St. Augustine nor St. Thomas Aquinas served in the military. And yet they are the two biggest architects of the Just War tradition, enshrined in the Geneva Convention. Every time you hear someone talking about “collateral damage,” and most times about “terrorism,” Aquinas’s doctrine of double effect is covertly invoked.

The same seems true in contemporary times. As far as I’m aware, neither Michael Walzer nor Jeff McMahan—arguably the two greatest voices in the war ethics debate right now—have had any military experience. Exceptions tend to be of people peripheral to debate. Rawls had some things to say about war, but his interest in distributive justice clearly took priority. The recently deceased MIT historian, Howard Zinn, served with the Army Air Corps in the European theater of World War II. He did write on the subject of war ethics (he may think this an oxymoron if there ever was one) though again, it wasn’t central to his academic career. He is most famous for an alternate reality sci-fi novel, “A People’s History of the United States.”

I’m not saying any of this discredits the Just War tradition—which I have great respect for—but it certainly is interesting. I wonder what light an exhaustive study would shed on the subject.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 June 2010 12:28