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Clausewitz & Hegel on the dialectics and ethics of war

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Scholars regularly refer to Hegel and Clausewitz when writing about war and peace, but none consider the two authors together as having jointly founded a ‘dialectical school’ of war theory, a rich tradition in political science, philosophy, strategy, and counter-strategic thought which has impacted the field so much, that it is often overlooked. We assume that the concepts it provided us existed all along, when in fact, these were observed, developed, written to help us understand war’s features and its relationship to the state, for example, escalation, the fog of war, friction, war as the continuation of policy by other means civil society, state rights, and the war to end all wars, to name only a few. 
Their ideas about the dialectics of war have born the brunt of various criticisms, particularly because their use of holistic arguments have led some interpreters to refute this ‘whole’ by hacking away at what they perceive as its ‘parts’. For example, is the dialectical concept of war too closely tied to an ideal concept of state? In this case, it would exclude non-state actors, as well as any motivating factor that might not be policy-driven. And since this holism leads to absolute and universal concepts, for war itself, but arguably as well for war’s justification, has this led to making war more brutal? This thesis attempts to strike a balance between the original works and their many detractors, by setting limits to the holistic elements to the dialectical war theories, while also reclaiming the right to understand war as a whole, rather than merely the sum of what we perceive as its parts. To separate the two, however, means delving deep into the underlying logical and philosophical constructs upon which these theories are built, so that we can detach the synthetic from the analytic and the conditioned elements from the unconditioned, in order to frame arguments that are meant to be categorical, rather than qualified or relative. 
In order to do this, there are three phases to the argument. The first is a genealogy of dialectical war theory in which its origins in the metaphysical debates of the Enlightenment are explored, and how this impacted the quest in war theory to uncover ‘principles of war’. Clausewitz’s refutation of such ‘principles’ will be shown to have been total and irreversible in its effect. 
Next, the thesis will consider how dialectical reasoning builds upon itself, moving from the simple to the complex. The question of tactics and strategy sets the ground for revelations about the nature of war itself, and from this perception of war’s nature ultimately follows a set of questions regarding how war, its purpose and its limits, can be, and indeed have been framed within an apparently rational system of ethics. 
It is in fact at the crux of the ethical question that this thesis takes a turn, clarifying its purpose, once it reaches the third item of discussion. When Clausewitz and Hegel are considered from the perspective of being the ‘founders of a dialectical school of war theory’, we arrive at a difficult puzzle. The greater the two authors appear to converge methodologically, the greater an inverse process appears to take shape with regard to ethics. While exploring a convergence in their understanding of the dialectic, the thesis will explore how the two arrived as mutually-exclusive ethics: Clausewitz understood war as the ‘instrument’ of a responsible agent, the state, whereas Hegel’s concept of war was imbued with self-justification, as a ‘right’ of the state. 
A likely root of the disagreement is proposed: the distinct understanding of either Hegel or Clausewitz with regard to the concepts ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’. Having drawn this tentative conclusion regarding the how and the why a convergence and divergence coexists, the text proceeds to explore how this would live out in real life, by providing what appears to be the most purified example of the material manifestation of this ethical divide on fighting doctrines. While the communists ‘connected’ with Clausewitz, the anarchists shunned him altogether and connected instead with Hegel. Despite fighting for a single cause, these two groups were split ethically and strategically on the very diagonal that cuts across Hegel and Clausewitz. This empirical study allows us to grasp in concrete terms, actual, categorical limits to ‘instrumentality’ and ‘right’ in justifying modern secular war.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date1 Mar 2014


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