Raymond Aron and the Politics of Understanding - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Raymond Aron and the Politics of Understanding

Clausewitz: Philosopher of War. Translated by Christine Booker and Norman Stone. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. (CPW)

Democracy and Totalitarianism: A Theory of Political Systems. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990. (Dem)

Les Dernières Années du Siècle. Paris: Julliard, 1983. (DA)

Eighteen Lectures on Industrial Society. Translated by M. K. Bottomore. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967. (Lec)

An Essay on Freedom. Translated by Helen Weaver. New York: World Pub. Co., 1970. (Ess)

The Great Debate: Theories of Nuclear Strategy. Translated by Ernst Pawel. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965. (GD)

Introduction to the Philosophy of History: An Essay on the Limits of Historical Objectivity. Translated by George J. Irwin. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. (I)

Main Currents in Sociological Thought. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1998. (MC)

The Opium of the Intellectuals. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2001. (O)

Peace & War: A Theory of International Relations. Translated by Richard Howard and Annette Baker Fox. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. (P&W)

The 1930s will long be remembered as one of the ugliest decades of modern French history. Diplomatic humiliation abroad combined with unrestrained partisanship at home to plunge France into an era of almost unparalleled political turmoil. During this unhappy period, H. Stuart Hughes has reported, “the customary warfare among ideological groups mounted to an unprecedented shrillness as rival intellectual clans threatened to devour each other whole.”” Struggling to moderate these quarrels, “”the honest and rigorous social thinkers began to realize that a new kind of discourse was necessary—a discourse which would give a surer grasp of reality and translate more easily into the vocabularies in use outside France.”” Although the call for a new grammar of politics reverberated through an intensely creative generation of French intellectuals, few responded to the challenge as vigorously or as brilliantly as Raymond Aron.

Recognized on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the leading social theorists produced by France in the latter half of the twentieth century, Aron poured his remarkable talents and energies into two closely related vocations. As a sociologist at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France, he wrote more than forty books and six hundred articles on a staggering variety of topics in philosophy, sociology, economics, military strategy, and international relations. As a journalist and commentator, first for Le Figaro and later for L’Express, he produced some four thousand columns devoted to French and world politics. Taken together, Aron’s scholarly and journalistic writings constitute a body of work that finds few equals in recent history. Indeed, many have declared that France has not seen the like of Raymond Aron since the days of the philosophes, those brilliant and prolific publicists of the eighteenth century.

Coming of age during the interwar years, Aron was deeply shaken by the ideological clamor retarding rational debate. Determined to improve the quality of social and political discourse, Aron tirelessly reminded his audience that the pursuit of values must respect the contingencies of existence. Transforming the ideal into the real requires more than blind, single-minded determination. It requires, above all else, “”an understanding of those conditions which are likely to set limits to what men can achieve.”” In order to articulate realistic and attainable goals, then, modern men and women needed “”faith without illusion.”” In order to discern the moments when human will is able to intervene most effectively in history, they needed a political science.

As perhaps the last great representative of classical French liberalism, Raymond Aron fashioned a science of human action in the grand style of Montesquieu and Tocqueville, thinkers who tried to take in the entire sweep of whole societies without losing contact with the solid ground of actual experience. Consequently, Aron’s political science is distinguished by two overriding features—a proclivity for normative judgment and a commitment to empirical analysis. By referring to Aron’s political science as “”normative,”” I mean to suggest that his political science is both interpretive and descriptive, as much a philosophy of history as a science of society. Unlike a great deal of modern day sociology (which the American philosopher Richard Rorty once lampooned as the expenditure of a fifty thousand dollar grant to discover the address of a whorehouse), Aron’s political sociology attempted to comprehend the whole of society, not just discrete fragments of it. Empirical research, Aron maintained, must in some way answer the larger questions of human progress and social justice if it is to retain its significance for human affairs. At the same time, however, he vigorously insisted that reflections on the whole must be disciplined by factual knowledge of its parts if these reflections are not to degenerate into speculative or metaphysical flights of fancy.

The purpose of this study is to review the conceptual foundations of Raymond Aron’s science of politics. Because Aron advocated “”a science for the politician and a politics based on science,”” I explore not only the logical coherence of his science of politics but its practical significance for statecraft as well. In doing so, I hope to penetrate to the heart and meaning of Aron’s scholarship. As Aron himself tells us, “”I found my way at about twenty-six when I chose the theme of my philosophic thought: the relations between action and history, and it is out of this query that all my books have emerged.””

Aron’s science of politics repays close examination for two reasons. First, it is at this level of conceptual abstraction that we discover the origins of Aron’s peculiar method of dialectical reasoning, a method that left its mark on almost everything he wrote. Second, once we lay bare the conceptual mechanics of Aron’s dialectic, we will also discover the origins of a troubling ambiguity that runs through his entire corpus. As we will see, in seeking to apply a formalized ethic to the problems of knowledge and statecraft, Aron’s method of dialectical reasoning often overshot its mark and threatened to dissolve the sociological or historical necessities he relied on to justify a politics of moderate, prudent reform. This had the unfortunate effect of destabilizing Aron’s thought: unwilling to grant priority to either reason or necessity, Aron found himself restlessly shuttling between the two. For this reason, we would say—paraphrasing Tocqueville—that Aron’s method of dialectical reasoning made it easier for him to imagine the existence of a middle ground than to call one into being.

In order to take the full measure of Aron’s political science, I chart the course of his dialectical logic as it emerges in his epistemology and works its way down the ladder of abstraction from epistemology to methodology and from methodology to theory. These three levels of analysis—epistemology, methodology, and theory—are part and parcel not only of Aron’s political sociology but of any well-formed comprehensive science of social action. Our authority on this matter is Talcott Parsons, whose monumental work, The Structure of Social Action, Aron so greatly admired. Theory, Parsons explained, “”is confined to the formulation and logical interrelation of propositions containing empirical facts in direct relation to the observation of the facts and thus empirical verification of the propositions.”” Methodological considerations become relevant when we “”inquire whether the procedures by which this observation and verification have been carried out…are legitimate.”” These kinds of inquiries will necessarily spill over into epistemological or philosophical ones because “”among the grounds…for believing or disbelieving in the validity of a scientific procedure, there will be some of a philosophical order, which must be philosophically considered.”” Although these three sets of considerations are closely related, Parsons added, it is nevertheless important to keep them logically distinct.

Remarkably enough, Raymond Aron’s reflections on each of these different levels of analysis correspond not only to certain distinct periods in his life, but to different topical or substantive interests as well. Thus it was that after receiving an appointment to a chair in sociology at the Sorbonne in 1955, Aron turned away from his epistemological studies and turned his attention to elaborating a method for the social sciences and to addressing the economic, political and social problems of modern societies. Next, during the mid-sixties, Aron developed a theory of international relations, one that laid the foundation for his analyses of diplomacy, foreign policy and international order. And finally, near the end of his life, Aron wrote a commentary on the strategic theory of Carl von Clausewitz, the great Prussian military strategist, which in its turn left its mark on many of Aron’s more concrete strategic reflections. These distinctions, in both logical form and substance, form the main divisions of this essay.  

Although I have chosen to present Aron’s political science by proceeding from the general to the particular, this should not be taken to mean that Aron charted his politics according to a fixed star plotted by his philosophy. Quite the contrary: Aron’s philosophy of historical knowledge was dedicated to establishing the proposition that there are limits to our knowledge of action and history, a proposition deliberately at odds with Marxian dialectics. In opposition to conventional Marxism, Aron argued that the intentional reality of human behavior sharply limits the utility of causal analysis. Given the fact that action can change the conditions of its existence—and thus its very character—human behavior demands to be “”understood”” and not simply “”explained.”” Social scientists, in other words, must try to retrieve the intentional determinants of behavior if they are to comprehend the meaning of action. But because two minds never “”completely coincide,”” as Aron put it, knowledge can never be certain. And if knowledge is inherently provisional or ambiguous, then political action must at all times be measured and moderate.

The politics of understanding thus stands in direct opposition to what Aron termed “”the politics of Reason,”” a politics that lays claim to a complete knowledge of the exigencies of human action. For Aron, the politics of Reason was the politics of totalitarianism, a politics he fought his entire life. “”In all forms of fanaticism,”” he wrote, “”even those motivated by idealism, I suspect a new transformation of the monster.”” Aron’s reflexive abhorrence of fanaticism is certainly understandable. Born in Paris on March 14, 1905, Aron was of that generation whose intellectuals “”were students in the days that followed the First World War and [who] wrote their first books in the years that preceded the Second. After 1945, they wondered how to avoid the third.”” The 1930s were particularly painful for Aron, propelling him towards what he described as an “”active pessimism,”” an outlook that marked him for the rest of his life. After graduating first in his class in 1928 at the Ecole Normale Superieure and widely considered to be the most promising philosopher of his generation, Aron began his career as a lecturer in Germany, first at the University of Cologne and then at the French academic House in Berlin. Although he enjoyed his stay in Germany immensely, it was not, as he recalled rather dryly, a very propitious time for a French Jew, “”steeped in Kantian philosophy,”” to be living in Germany. Eventually, it was the rise of National Socialism and the advent of the Great Depression that contributed most directly to Aron’s professed pessimism.

Returning to Paris to defend his dissertation (which took place on the eve of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia), Aron was stunned to discover just how oblivious most French scholars were to their impending doom. When one of his examiners asked Aron to explain the “”melancholy”” overtones of his dissertation, Aron replied that, “”imminent catastrophe hardly inspires mirth in a student of history.”” After the fall of France, Aron escaped to London to continue the struggle for French independence by serving as a journalist for La France Libre, a monthly periodical devoted to reporting the war effort for the French.

Aron never lost his passion for journalism. Upon his return to France in 1945, Aron spent the next ten years as a full-time journalist for Le Figaro, a major Parisian newspaper. When he received an appointment to a chair in sociology at the Sorbonne, Aron continued to write a biweekly column for Le Figaro, a practice he continued until 1978, when he joined the editorial staff of L’Express, another leading Parisian daily. His journalistic output has been estimated at some four thousand articles. 

Aron’s journalistic career served to sharpen his awareness of the tragic constraints that so often limit political leadership and choice. Perhaps the most formative influence on Aron’s thinking in this regard was an incident that occurred when he was a young man. Having obtained an audience with an aide to a high-ranking government minister, Aron launched into what he recalled was a rambling and rather abstract discourse on the problems that were then besetting France. After Aron had finished, the aide simply nodded his head and asked, “”Yes, but what would you do if you were the minister?”” Completely at a loss for an answer, Aron realized that he had just received his first lesson in statecraft. It was a question—and a lesson—he never forgot.

Ironically, Aron’s work is perhaps more popular and of greater significance today than it was when he was alive. It was not until the mid-1970s, a period that marks the beginning of a growing disenchantment with radical thought in France, that Aron’s influence began to extend beyond a small circle of friends and colleagues. Although Aron was well known to his countrymen—his books and columns were widely read in universities and cafes throughout France—he was never particularly well received by them because his defense of liberal democracy was at odds with the radical egalitarianism of the intelligentsia and the Gaullism of the Fifth republic. For most of his life, in fact, Aron was something of a solitary thinker, an intellectual outsider whose stolid liberalism was eclipsed by the exotic but unstable synthesis of Marxism and existentialism made fashionable by the left and the vision of national grandeur in vogue among the right. Now that the ardor for violent revolution by the French intelligentsia has apparently cooled, Aron’s moderate liberalism is being rediscovered and reexamined. As many of Aron’s former detractors now admit, it may have been better to be “”wrong with Sartre than right with Aron”” in the 1960s, but one can be wrong only so often before the glamour of romantic rebellion begins to wear a little thin. Sartre, one of his former admirers recalls, “”was wrong about Hitler, wrong about the resistance, wrong about postwar Europe, wrong about the east-West struggle, wrong about totalitarianism, wrong about the future of France. [A]nd exactly where Sartre was likely to be wrong, Aron was likely to be right.”” By the 1980s, history had come full circle: Sartre, one European commentator reported, was passé—the mantle of intellectual leadership had passed to Raymond Aron.

My goal in this essay is to flesh out not the life of a mind but its logic. To do so, I begin at the beginning, with a review of Aron’s epistemology, a level of analysis generally described as “”the deepest level of overt assumption.”” There we will discover the categorical framework that bestows unity and coherence on Aron’s life’s work. Because his epistemology is given its most complete expression in his doctoral dissertation, it is to that work we now turn.

Introduction to the Philosophy of History

Unhappy with the narrowness of his philosophical training and finding the sclerosis of French political life difficult to contend with, Aron traveled to Germany as a graduate student in 1930 in search of fresh intellectual inspiration. Scouring early twentieth-century German social theory for an epistemology that could both explain and guide human action, Aron eventually developed a dialectical logic of his own driven by the polar energies of Max Weber’s neo-Kantianism and Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology.

Aron’s theory of knowledge is presented in his doctoral dissertation, Introduction to the Philosophy of History. This book is, to the say the least, a difficult work. Although it was generally well received in French academic circles when it was published (even the great Bergson sent Aron a congratulatory note upon its appearance), virtually every reviewer commented on the difficulty the book poses for those who have no training in philosophy. In an otherwise sympathetic review, the noted French historian Henri Marrou complained that he had devoted an entire summer to a careful reading of the text but was able to wade through it only twice.

Aligning himself with the broad tradition of historical idealism, Aron stated that the end or purpose of historical knowledge is “”to understand the actors.”” And we “”understand,”” Aron wrote, when “”knowledge shows a meaning which, immanent to the reality, could have been thought by those who lived or realized it”” (I, 47). But this definition, one scholar has complained, is “”both profoundly true and profoundly unhelpful”” because it suggests “”what every historian worthy of his trade thinks he is doing when he tries to recapture the meaning of past occurrences.””

In order to comprehend the reasons for Aron’s loose, open-ended interpretation of intelligibility, we must review his account of the source of all understanding and meaning, namely, “”experience and reflection.”” There we will discover the logic that informs not only Aron’s theory of knowledge but virtually all of his later writings as well.

In order to understand the relation between experience and meaning, Aron traced the manner in which an individual mind understands its past, for “”consciousness of the past is a constituent part of the historical process itself”” (Ess., 9). Observing that we can never resurrect even a fragment of our past in all its fullness, Aron underscored the existence of an unbridgeable gap between the memory of a decision and the moment of a decision, a difference which suggested to Aron that the past can never be completely relived. “”Even if every nuance of a past episode were somehow conveyed to our present consciousness,”” Aron observed, “”this miracle of resurrection would make knowledge in the proper sense useless, for we would again be the same self we had been”” (I, 51).


Because one’s past cannot be relived, it must be reconstructed. In Aron’s opinion, there are two ways in which one may do this. The first is “”to rediscover the goal or goals which motivated the action and later seemed to justify it”” (I, 53). Aron termed the representations we fix in our minds before a decision—and which we later invoke to defend our action—””motifs.”” The second is to retrace “”states of consciousness in order to follow the formation of this motif itself…”” (ibid.). These states of consciousness—or “”mobiles”” in Aron’s terminology—are psychological antecedents or determinants that may be said to “”cause”” our choice. The contrast between these two choices is clear:

The psychologist, looking back, analyzes not actions, but states of consciousness. Involuntary signs interest him more than deliberate decision. Spontaneously, he explains from below, heroic courage by overcompensation, religious fervor by sublimation. The philosopher on the other hand rejects fatality of character; he invites individuals to look ever ahead and, in sincerity, he sees the mark of liberty. (I, 58)

Both approaches are legitimate but considered individually, each fails to account for a part of reality. The crucial point, however, is that even when taken together, both alternatives are equally parts of a whole, the totality of which exceeds the sum of its parts. Aron argues that self-knowledge

attains neither the whole nor the unity—or at least our self is a constructed unity situated in infinity, like the unity of all objects. We perceive a series of inclinations which are ours: the self would be the fictive source of them. The more we extend our inquiry, the closer we get to the totality without ever reaching it. (I, 56)

Because the essence of all things, including human beings, is located at a point situated in infinity, there is a “”gap”” or a “”break”” between the intentional and the psychological dimensions of behavior that guarantees the irreducibility of one to the other. But there is at the same time a marked degree of interaction between the two. All self-knowledge, Aron declared, implies a certain idea of oneself. “”And this idea is animated by certain assertions of value. Even those who claim to discover themselves passively, choose themselves”” (ibid.). In other words, the “”knowledge of self develops according to dialectic: between an ever-incomplete discovery and a never-triumphant decision, the individual defines himself by a double effort at lucidity and creation. Always menaced by Pharisaism or resignation, he can relax neither of the two tensions”” (ibid.).

And here we reach the heart of the matter. By describing the knowledge of self as dialectical, Aron serves notice that at the center of the scientific knowledge of human action—which, as we will see, is simply a form of self- knowledge writ large—lies the problem of the hermeneutical circle: “”[O]ne’s idea of his past is dependent on the manner in which that past determines his present…but, in our consciousness, our past depends on our present”” (I, 55). Aron’s analysis of self-knowledge thus reveals the fundamental indissociability of subject and object. All knowledge of self is “”part of its object which it inevitably transforms, for the one who knows himself is already no more what he was before he became conscious of himself”” (I, 49). The upshot of this introspective exercise is that all knowledge is in some measure “”tied in with the intention of the spectator”” (I, 55).

Is this to say that all knowledge is subjective and hence relative? Not exactly. Here Aron interjects a crucial caveat:

This plurality of images, varying with the observer, will no doubt be admitted as evident de facto but paradoxical de jure. How can it be denied that there exists a reality, and consequently a true idea of each person? And yet, we should like to uphold the paradox. We know the essential character of an individual no more than we understand the ultimate intention of an act. (I, 68)

The structure and logic of self-knowledge are now complete. Aron presents the self as a unified whole within which two contrasting elements—the intentional and the psychological—emerge from a common, unknowable source. The relation between these two modes of human experience is ambiguous and complex: the will does not create itself ex nihilo but “”emerges gradually from the process of experience which it is capable of influencing because it is the expression of it as well as the judge”” (I, 57). Intentionality is thus at one and the same time conditioned by and independent of psychological or intentional factors, a state of affairs which suggests that self-knowledge culminates in the discovery of a riddle or paradox which reason can recognize but never resolve.

Aron’s emphasis on the limits of reason, then, is altogether different than Weber’s. For Weber, choice and interpretation were frankly and unabashedly subjective; the incoherence of reality, together with the irrationality of values, makes it impossible to speak of a “”fixed”” reality or “”true”” ideas. Aron, however, attempted to affirm a subjective moment of choice without denying the existence of a priori realities. The issue, then, boils down to the nature of choice—on what grounds is it possible to affirm yet limit the freedom of interpretation? Aron’s answer is forthright and unhesitating: “”The selection we predicate is based neither on incoherence (Weber) nor on the infinity of the real (Rickert), but on the most incontestable fact: the interval which separates the historian from his object, the realization of consciousness from consciousness itself, and the observer from the party concerned”” (I, 144). There is indeed a gap between the rational and the real, Aron maintained, but we have no right to conclude as Weber did that this gap is constitutive of reality. History, in other words, is marked by continuity as well as diversity, a fact that limits, at least in principle, the freedom that Weber granted to choice and interpretation.

We can now understand why Aron was unwilling to define the historian’s task with a greater degree of precision. The inaccessibility of meaning, the fact that the unity of all objects is located at a point situated in infinity, implies that an historical object or history as a whole “”acquires a unity…only in the mind which re-thinks it, the mind of an historian or historical personality”” (O, 139). Historians can bring out “”the meanings of actions, institutions and lives,”” but they “”cannot discover the meaning of the whole. History is not absurd, but no living being can grasp its one, final meaning”” (O, 136). This statement effectively sanctions not one approach to the study of history but many. History may be investigated at different levels with different techniques for different reasons; historians are free to see not one cause at work in history but several. The elusiveness of meaning, Aron concluded, suggests that “”historical reconstruction never succeeds in unraveling all relationships or exhausting all possible meanings”” (O, 142).

What saves historical science from Weber’s mad, chaotic scramble for knowledge is Aron’s insistence that the indefinite regression of meaning should not be taken to indicate that the objects of history are “”formless,”” as Weber had believed. Because Aron’s schema of intelligibility postulates a partial relation between reason and experience, historians do not simply create meaning but, to a certain extent, discover it. We must remember, however, that this order is only partial: Aron may have punched a rather large hole in the barrier Weber erected between facts and values, but he did not tear it down altogether.

Because Aron did not judge reality to be radically incoherent, he did not confine historical truth to the realm of subjective meaning; what is true or historically real now includes those objective or ideal meanings that Weber had originally consigned to the outer darkness of metaphysics. By pulling ideal meanings back into the purview of historical analysis, Aron effectively injected a measure of life and substance into what Weber had treated as “”formless matter.”” In Aron’s view, historical objects are not constructed de novo by an act of creative imagination. Instead, different objects have different structural principles that must be respected when we account for that which we investigate. “”The relations among persons or among ideas or those among the material factors that give unity to an economic system,”” Aron explained, “”are not the same as the relationship within a political or economic unit. [An]…ideal phenomenon such as religion has an entirely different structure and different principles of permanence than a material phenomenon such as the capitalist system”” (Ess., 10).

Historians, then, must take their bearings from the inherent order of the historical world. Even though an historian may sometimes give new names or apply new concepts to the periods, objects, or events, he is studying, “”he never creates a complex that has not been adumbrated by the past itself; he is always rethinking the complex that the records themselves reveal”” (ibid.). This is the first step towards correcting Weber’s relativism: “”When we cease to interpret our knowledge of the past by the criterion of a transcendental ego that gives form to an inert mass of material, when we put the historian back into reality and take the structure of reality as the point of reference, then the whole sense of the relativist formula is transformed”” (Ess., 52).

In this context, it is important to note that Aron identified three different categories of historical objects: ideas, institutions and events. To the world of ideas belongs “”all natural objects on which the mind has left its stamp: printed books, carved stones, painted canvas.”” (I, 73) This class of objects forms the nucleus of what is conventionally regarded as “”cultural history,”” that record of human expression as registered by the arts, sciences, philosophy and religion. Here we see the influence of Dilthey. To the world of events (Weber’s world) belongs those human actions which are “”the result of a choice among several possibilities…”” (Ess., 48). An event may be defined most simply as the product of a human decision, as “”a response to a given situation””(ibid.). And to institutions—the family, the state, an economic system—belong properties of both ideas and events: “”[S]ocial facts of the institutional type retain their privileged status as psychic events they are comprehensible, they are not comparable with natural phenomena which would have to be classified according to the regularities or reconstructed, but with human actions or words which must be interpreted like a literary or philosophical text.”” Institutions, Aron added, are both “”rational and real”” (I, 73).

In order to take the full measure of Aron’s historical pluralism, we must recognize that he insisted on the reciprocal solidarity of ideas and events; both classes of objects and meanings exert a significant degree of influence upon one another. But in the final analysis, Aron established a hierarchy that tilts the balance in favor of intentional or ideal realities. This does not necessarily elevate the world of ideal meanings to the status of a first cause or an unmoved mover. “”No philosopher,”” Aron wrote, “”has ever been ‘pure spirit’ completely detached from his own time and his own country”” (O, 141). It does, however, ascribe a degree of autonomy and independence to ideal meanings. Refusing to restrict the scope of historical or sociological interpretation, Aron nevertheless maintained that the study of causal origins cannot, by its very nature, discover “”philosophical meaning.”” Social or historical conditions can explain “”the manifold characteristics of different creations”” but not “”the secret of the masterpiece”” (O, 142).

The intelligible structure of history, then, taken as a whole, mirrors the intelligible structure of the self. In the philosophy of history, Aron wrote, “”The real distinction is between ideal entities and real entities rather than between categories of behavior”” (O, 141). This distinction—which Aron elsewhere presented as a distinction between history conceived as a succession of works and as a series of events—clearly has its origins in the distinction between motifs and mobiles. Moreover, the unity of history, as in the case of the unity of the self, is located at a point situated in infinity: “”In spite of the massing of evidence, total understanding…emphasizes the role played by decision. For the unity towards which we strive, the unity of an epoch or a culture, is nothing but the fictive source of works and actions which are all that are directly accessible”” (I, 199). Historical reality, in short, contains a multiplicity of partial orders that do not combine into an overall, self-contained whole. For this reason, history is “”ambiguous and inexhaustible but not incoherent,”” a fact that justifies the plurality of historical interpretations but pulls up short of Weber’s relativism.

This ontological description of the historical world, however, constitutes but one dimension of Aron’s philosophy of history. The other is defined by its epistemological concern. “”Ever since Vico,”” Aron explained, “”all those who have reflected on history have in one way or another upheld a sort of kinship between the nature of reality and the mode in which reality is appropriated by consciousness.”” This suggests that the various levels of meaning that distinguish the different objects of analysis anticipate and correspond in some fashion to different levels of reasoning that distinguish the various moments of analysis. We will begin by analyzing understanding and explanation, heterogenous forms of cognition which are, in Aron’s opinion, the two most basic modalities of knowledge.

Understanding, as we have seen, attaches a course of action to a human intention. Relating actions to intentions as means to ends, however, “”usually turns out to be too simple”” because an historian is inevitably drawn towards “”other considerations that set the framework within which the act is reduced to a choice of means”” (Ess., 173). Historical inquiry must therefore place action within the context of a larger totality. In historical matters, then,

The problem of intelligibility is related first of all to the totalities one is seeking to understand, from an individual life to a battle, a civilization, and finally the whole of history. In moving from elementary examples to even vaster ones, intelligibility slips from a practical meaning to a properly metaphysical one, from intrinsic understanding of man’s behavior toward the ultimate meaning of the human adventure, accessible only to God or those who take themselves to be His confidants. (Ess., 47-8)

Given that comprehension is drawn by its very nature to seek larger and larger wholes or contexts, a complete knowledge of action would require the historian to view history “”from the perspective of the sun,”” as Kant put it. The possibility of scaling the walls of history in order to view it from the perspective of God or the Infinite, however, is immediately precluded by the fact that historians are historical beings. The limits of the human condition, then, present an insurmountable barrier to understanding. Therefore, as one of Aron’s commentators explained, historians are compelled “”to discover a substitute for comprehension, which requires in effect a coincidence with an ‘incomprehensible’ totality.””

One such possibility immediately suggests itself—namely, causal analysis. Causality intervenes “”when comprehension has exhausted its resources.”” The ultimately inaccessible character of historical wholes compels historians to reconstruct the objects of their analysis by locating those causal determinants responsible for historical change. Because causal analysis attempts to subsume the diversity of historical phenomena under general laws, placing an event in its context here means integrating it into the framework of a broader causal network.

Can such an attempt be successful? Is it possible to subsume the plurality of events and institutions under general laws from which historical development can be deduced or reconstructed in its entirety? This, after all, is the Marxian thesis. To such questions or claims, Aron answered with an emphatic “”no.”” In order to demonstrate the limits of causal analysis, Aron resurrected Weber’s interpretation of causal reasoning.

Like Weber, Aron distinguished between sociological and historical causality. “”Historical research,”” Aron maintained, “”devotes itself to the causal antecedents of a single fact, while sociological research devotes itself to the causes of a fact capable of reproducing itself.”” This difference in orientation does not mean that history and sociology exist in isolation from one another. Historical and sociological causality were for Aron, as they were for Weber, two sides of the same coin. Because the macroscopic regularities that preoccupy the sociologist are simply abstractions that ignore by methodological fiat the reality of individuals and accidents, the modality of judgment proper to sociological analysis must be one of probability, not necessity. “”The relations which unite the abstract and general terms of sociology are…unreal, in a sense…and can for this reason never end in necessity.””

It was precisely this indeterminacy that demanded in Weber’s eyes a free act of creative interpretation. Because history has no inherent significance or order, meaning must be created by the social scientist. This is perhaps the single most important reason why causal analysis cannot replace comprehension as a mode of explanation: “”Causal relations are dispersed, they do not fall into a pattern, they do not explain each other as do the classified laws of a theory in physics. Understanding makes up for this dual deficiency; it makes the regularities intelligible, it brings them together conceptually”” (I, 205). Explanation, in short, presupposes comprehension or interpretation. The most critical moment in causal research, Aron emphasized, revolves around the social scientist’s choice of concepts and definitions. The relations one discovers in history “”depend on the ideas used [and] on the divisions effected, which, conforming to certain regularities, do not eliminate the possibility of other relations and other interpretations”” (I, 269-70).

But Aron did not follow Weber all the way in believing that causality confirms comprehension. To Weber’s way of thinking, “”understanding puts the subjective questions, causality furnishes the objective answers”” (I, 269). Aron, however, stressed the limits of causal verification:

[U]nderstanding, if it sometimes serves to introduce the search for determinism, is nevertheless independent when it is limited to reconstructing the events or narrating the sequence of facts. Since it is singular, it in no way borrows its validity from the verification of cause. So then, either it is of itself objective, or else it depends entirely on this decision which Weber strove to reject at the start. Even more, it would infect causality with its subjectivity, rather than acquire from it a total objectivity. (ibid.)

By granting a measure of autonomy and independence to understanding, Aron transforms what initially appears to be a circular relationship between understanding and explanation—causality completes understanding when understanding has “”exhausted its resources,”” while causality at the same time presupposes understanding—into an hierarchical or architectonic one.

From this perspective, we discover that knowledge is composed not of two terms (understanding and explanation) but three: understanding, sociological causality, and historical causality. Moreover, we immediately notice that the intermediate term of this trinitarian formula, sociological explanation, shares attributes of both understanding and historical explanation. Sociological causality, Aron explained, “”is both comprehensive and explicative. It is comprehensive in that it reveals the implicit logic or rationality of individual and collective behavior, and it is explicative in that it establishes regularities, or rather places partial forms of behavior in contexts that give them meaning.”” Because the abstract relationships fabricated by the sociologist depend on terms “”which are more constructed than given,”” sociological explanation necessarily presupposes understanding (I, 229). And because these abstract relationships represent only a partial image of the process of historical change, the work of the sociologist anticipates the work of the historian.

We here approach what is perhaps the most important and interesting feature of Aron’s philosophy of history. By insisting on the primacy of ideal meanings and, concomitantly, on the autonomy of understanding, Aron has ordered his three classes of meaning according to a sliding scale of indeterminacy. Very much like Montesquieu, Aron envisioned a hierarchy of beings or historical objects that are subject in varying degrees to the laws of necessity. In the case of events, these laws are not of the same logical order as the laws of nature; a method of causal reasoning, however, can be applied to further our understanding of change and development. In the case of institutions, the laws of causality also apply, but not to the same degree as in the case of events. Finally, when we reach the apex, ideal meanings, we have virtually—but not completely—abandoned the categories of necessity and contingency in favor of categories supplied by the understanding. Conversely, if we proceed from ideal meanings to events, we see that the increasing indeterminism narrows but does not eliminate the role of choice and interpretation. A “”bare fact”” is nonsense, Aron maintained: “”[S]election and orientation have their function, even if it be small, in the narration of a single event”” (Ess., 13).

We are now in a position to describe more completely the relation between the objects of knowing and the process of knowing. Because each category of meaning contains elements of freedom and necessity, all of the objects of the historical world must be understood and explained. More specifically, Aron’s philosophy of history requires the application of all three moments of analysis—understanding, sociological explanation, and historical explanation—to each of the three levels of analysis, namely, ideas, institutions, and events. This pattern of analysis constitutes the logical framework that governs not only Aron’s epistemology but his entire life’s work as well. It makes no difference whether Aron is analyzing problems in history, sociology, economics, military strategy or international relations; these categorical distinctions still obtain. All objects display the same three-fold structure and thus require the same three-fold process of analysis.

Before leaving Aron’s epistemology, we must address one final issue—the nature and scope of objectivity. Although Aron restored a measure of coherence and rationality to history, he nevertheless maintained that interpretation is still an essential element of knowledge. The postulate of partial coherence may shorten the infinite distance Weber placed between reason and experience, but distance remains nevertheless. What, then, guarantees the objectivity of judgment? How is it possible to bridge the gap between subject and object, particularly after Aron has underscored the logical impossibility of the attempt?

“”In order for history to be objective,”” Aron wrote, “”it is necessary for us to believe in the existence of a universal system of values.”” If all historical judgments bear the mark of a personal system of values, then the possibility of conferring a greater degree of truth on one interpretation over another depends, in the final analysis, on the existence of a transhistorical system of norms against which personal values may be measured and judged.

At this point, Aron’s solution to the problem of objectivity reveals its dependence on what Suzanne Mesure recognized as a “”fundamental philosophical option,”” namely, “”the Kantian thesis, according to which it is a certain representation of the end of history as the Idea of Reason which orients, in a regulatory fashion, historical knowledge.”” “”There is in Kant,”” Aron declared during an interview late in life, “”a concept to which I still subscribe: it is the idea of reason, an image of a society that would be truly humanized.”” Despite the senseless turmoil of the twentieth century, Aron never ceased “”to think, or dream, or hope—in the light of the idea of Reason—for a humanized society.”” For Aron, as well as for Kant, a truly humanized society is one which recognizes the freedom of the individual to enhance his or her moral worth under laws hypothetically of his or her making. The universal reign of law and the establishment of perpetual peace thus constitute “”two representations of the Idea as the goal of history as the realization of a rational humanity.”” From this vantage point, an historical reconstruction can be objective to the degree that it interprets the sequence of events as so many steps leading toward the fulfillment of this Idea. Or, as Mesure put it, “”interpretation will be more objective when it is oriented by values capable of being shared by the whole of humanity.””

What saved Aron from the revolutionary optimism of the Marxists—and the non-revolutionary optimism of nineteenth-century liberals such as Comte and Spencer, for that matter—was his unshakeable conviction that the idea of the end of history was just that, an idea. As an idea, the end of history is simply an assumption or working hypothesis which is necessary for history and historical science to make any sense at all. Because this eschatological perspective functions only as a regulatory ideal, the end of history must be understood to be inachievable. A purely formal idea of the end of history, Aron wrote, “”will carry no conviction (and does not claim to do so) but at least suggests the basic antinomy between the rational mission of man and brute existence. History exists only because of this contradiction. Either pure mind or blind impulse, it would be equally lost in a continuous progress or lawless sequence”” (I, 316). History and historical knowledge, therefore, require what one student of Aron has called an “”inaccessible paradise”” in order to be possible.

By arguing that the meaning of history can never be completely known or realized, Aron effectively removed all possibility of discovering historical truth in history. Beyond science, he explained, “”philosophical reflection is possible…but this reflection is itself a function of history.”” Because we are historical beings, possession of the whole truth can be granted to no one, a fact that lies at the root of Aron’s pronounced aversion to totalitarian ideologies. Although we will reserve a more detailed discussion of the manner in which Aron related knowledge and action for the next section, we here note in passing that Aron’s preference for what he called the “”politics of understanding””—a politics governed by toleration and compromise—has its origins in his epistemological conviction that knowledge is partial, incomplete, and uncertain. Similarly, his condemnation of “”the politics of Reason””—a politics based on the conviction that one can know and redirect the whole of history—is justified by the same epistemological modesty.

For some, such philosophical self-restraint was underwhelming, even infuriating. Aron’s epistemological reserve was held in contempt not only by Marxists, who claimed to know the laws of history in their entirety, but by existentialists who claimed no such thing. Although existentialists like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty were utterly indifferent to the socio-economic theories of Marxism, they were greatly intrigued by Marx’s call to revolution. In their view, the problem with a Kantian philosophy like Aron’s was its abstractness and uncertainty: the stringent limits that a Kantian ethics placed on theoretical thought made it unforgivably difficult to deduce specific moral choices from general moral maxims. For thinkers like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, a Kantian reign of ends was “”only conceivable as the outcome not of morally informed choices but of revolution.”” Such a revolution, Tony Judt has explained, “”would not only release the intellectuals from the discomfort of a contingent existence but would itself change the rules of the existential game.””

Although Aron harbored no personal animosity towards Sartre or Merleau-Ponty (they had been close friends at one time), he was plainly angered by talk of this sort. “”Revolutionaries tend to exaggerate both the margin of freedom and the power of destiny,”” he declared. “”Uplifted by their faith beyond the humdrum lessons of wisdom, they expect perpetual peace to flower from unlimited violence. They proclaim the inevitability of their triumph, because the cause which embodies so much of their hope cannot possibly fail”” (O, 190). Tragically enough, however, “”there is no law, either human or inhuman, which can direct the chaos of events to a definite end, be it radiant or horrific”” (ibid.).

But if there is no final end in history, what hope can we have for history? In what can we place our confidence? Aron’s response is clear: “”I believe I have shown the necessity of rediscovering a faith in man and seeking to understand our historical situation.”” Aron’s faith in humanity, however, is a far cry from the robust confidence that Enlightenment philosophies are made of. “”Man is a reasonable being,”” Aron once declared, quoting his friend Eric Weil, “”but it has not been demonstrated that men are reasonable.”” If we are not to despair, we must assume, or better, hope that men and women will someday become reasonable. For the moment, however, we must recognize that our hold on reason and rationality is a precarious one: “”Human life is dialectic, that is, dramatic, since it is active in an incoherent world, is committed despite duration, and seeks a fleeting truth with no other certainty but a fragmentary science and a formal reflection”” (I, 347).


Because his theory of knowledge pulled the rug out from under the feet of those who stood on the conviction that history offers a guarantee of human progress, Aron was rebuked time and again for his “”nihilism.”” Paul Fauconnet, an eminent French sociologist and member of Aron’s dissertation committee, for example, declared that La philosophie critique de l’histoire and L’lntroduction a la philosophie de l’histoire were so epistemologically brooding that they were obviously the work of either “”a devil or a madman.”” Although Fauconnet’s rebuff is extreme, even Aron’ sympathizers admit that a “”dampening quality”” characterizes much of his work. For his part, Aron admitted freely that he was something of an historical pessimist: the rising tide of National Socialism, the misery of the Great Depression, and the horror of the Holocaust all combined to cure Aron of what he called his “”naive and youthful optimism.”” After witnessing those tragedies first hand, Aron wrote, “”…I ceased to believe that history always obeys the imperatives of reason or the wishes of men of good will. I lost faith [but], not without effort, kept hope.””

Indeed, the entire sweep of Aron’s scholarship can be interpreted as a lifelong search for evidence that the struggle to realize what he called “”the essential values”” is not in vain. More specifically, Aron searched for progress in light of what he considered to be the two dominant facts of modern life, namely, industrialization and nuclear weapons. By a sort of “”cunning of history,”” Aron observed, nuclear weapons and industrialization have converged to make war less rational than before. Are we entitled, then, to believe that we stand on the threshold of a new era? We propose to divide this question into two others. First, what are the consequences of industrialization for social order, and second, what are the consequences of nuclear weapons for the prospects of peace? Our next section takes up the former question, while the third section addresses the latter. Combining an analysis of the substantive problems of history with an analysis of the formal problems of knowledge is very much in keeping with the form and spirit of Aron’s work, because to his way of thinking, an answer to the question, What must we do? is inseparable from an answer to the question, What can I know?

As we will see, however, what we must do is not altogether certain because what we can know is not, at least in Aron’s account, altogether clear. The chief difficulty lies in Aron’s postulate of “”partial coherence.”” At first glance, the notion of partial order seems to be a sensible compromise between Weber’s irrationalism and Marx’s determinism. Some objects, we will recall, have different “”principles of permanence”” than others and thus call into being different methods of knowing. The interpretive freedom Aron granted to historians and sociologists, as well as the freedom he ascribed to human action generally, was therefore neither absolute nor non-existent but limited—it changed according to the object or situation under consideration.

What mars this apparently moderate and measured epistemology is the fact that Aron nowhere explained where these principles of permanence come from or, more to the point, how they retain their identity in light of the corrosive effects of interpretation. Understanding, after all, is never a strictly rational operation that simply “”grasps”” its intentional object in an impartial or mechanical fashion. By virtue of its inherent autonomy, understanding is always a practical or projective exercise that “”shapes”” the objects of experience in the act of knowing them. Although Aron repeatedly emphasized the independent status of historical objects, his commitment to the Kantian notion of regulatory ideas suggests that these objects do not possess an actual or ontic independence but only a believed one. In other words, the real existence of these objects seems to be reduced to the hope that they do in fact exist. Although Aron was surely correct in maintaining that Marx’s impersonal view of knowledge leads to a world without man, his own epistemology runs the risk of leaving man without a world.

This unhappy outcome is particularly regrettable in a philosophy determined to give external necessity its due. Although Aron never wavered in his conviction that reason must respect the constraints of historical necessity, he never squared that conviction with his equally firm commitment to the autonomy of reason, a shortcoming that left him propounding the logically obscure proposition that reason is simultaneously independent of and conditioned by the forces of historical necessity.

It is there, in the double impulse between autonomy and necessity, that we see the source of the restless ambivalence that we take to be the hallmark of Aron’s thinking. Declaring that these two points connect “”at a point in infinity”” only begs the question. How does this abstract proposition bear on practical matters, especially statecraft? What does it mean for concrete political choice?

“”The Sorbonne Trilogy””

Dry and highly abstract, Aron’s dissertation was nevertheless a necessary first step towards his goal of understanding history-in-the-making. “”The mere story of events teaches us nothing,”” he once remarked, “”unless it is given form and meaning by reference to concepts….”” If Aron is correct on this point, then we must have recourse not only to a method that generates the concepts we need but, at an even higher level of abstraction, to an epistemology that sanctions the methods that we use. And that was the purpose of the Introduction: “”to establish the truth of the most general propositions from which a methodology could be developed….”” Another book was necessary, however, “”to advance from principles to their application”” (I, 10).

Unfortunately, this book was never written. Consumed by his journalistic responsibilities and worried that he would spend the rest of his life writing introductions to the social sciences, Aron lost interest in exploring the more formal dimensions of knowledge. It was not until 1955, the year he received an appointment to a chair in sociology at the Sorbonne, that Aron resumed his efforts to advance from the first principles of the Introduction. However, more anxious to address the problems of modern societies than to resolve the problems of methodology, Aron confined his methodological comments to three short chapters introducing a series of volumes that has since become known as “”The Sorbonne Trilogy.”” The Sorbonne Trilogy is a comparative analysis of Soviet and Western societies which focuses on three dimensions of social order: the economic (Eighteen Lectures on Industrial Society), the social properly so called (La Lutte des Classes), and the political (Democracy and Totalitarianism).

Because Aron chose to explain his method primarily by way of illustration, that is, by applying it directly to a specific set of problems, we must cull the elements of this method from several essays on Montesquieu that Aron wrote and from his brief prefatory remarks introducing the Sorbonne Trilogy. In doing so, we will discover that the Trilogy is not a disconnected collection of sociological insights, as some have maintained, but an intelligible whole, the internal order of which not only reflects the logic of the Introduction, but anticipates the internal order of Peace and War as well.

At the outset of his opening lecture on the nature of sociological inquiry, Aron introduced a distinction between two theoretical attitudes that immediately calls to mind the language and the logic of the Introduction. Sociology, Aron maintained, is analytic as well as synthetic in character and may therefore be represented as a discipline that incorporates features peculiar to both economics and philosophy. The analytic quality of economic analysis resides in its commitment to the scientific method in order to understand one aspect of social life. Because analytical knowledge is by definition that knowledge which is gained by breaking an object into its component parts, the scope of economic analysis is confined to a comparatively narrow and isolated range of social phenomena, namely, economic behavior.

There is a synthetic dimension to sociological analysis, however, that compels the sociologist to imitate the philosopher’s attempt to understand not one aspect but the whole of existence. Although sociology initially considers limited segments of collective life, social phenomena like the family and class relations reflect to some degree the character or ethos of the particular society in which they are located. It is impossible, Aron argued, 

to study social stratification…without considering many different aspects—economic, political and religious. If these phenomena, which are essentially sociological, are examined more carefully they are seen to be characterized by their global nature. They may be regarded as universal social phenomena. (Lec., 21)

Sociology cannot limit itself, however hard it may try, simply to establishing the facts. On this point, Aron noted, Comte was right: one can understand a part of society only by inserting it into a more comprehensive whole. Sociological research on the psychology of factory workers, for example, “”means nothing”” unless broader factors are taken into account, “”such as the role the factory plays in the surrounding area, and in the branch of industry involved; the status of ownership of the means of production; the relations between industrial workers’ organization and so forth.””

Attempting to join these two doctrines together, Aron argued that sociologists must recognize the existence of “”partial”” order. Between the absolute unity of an ideal society and the infinite diversity of empirically observable customs and institutions, Aron maintained, lies the plurality of an “”intelligible”” order. Social life “”appears neither incoherent nor completely ordered; it contains innumerable semi-organized parts, but no obvious total order.”” The whole of society, then, “”constitutes an undifferentiated whole over which different conceptualizations give us partial views.””

The impossibility of locating a clear, well-defined nucleus of social reality, however, does not reduce sociological inquiry to a methodological free-for-all. By describing social wholes as partially ordered realities, Aron has immediately dispensed with two methods of analysis: the synthetic method of historical materialism, which attempts to reconstruct the whole of society on the basis of one primary factor, the economic, and the analytic methods of most modern-day sociologists, which dissolve social reality into an almost infinite number of causal relations. However, Aron assured his readers, there is an “”intermediate solution””: the interpretive method of Montesquieu. “”In language that is not really clear and is often ambiguous, [The Spirit of the Laws] gives the essentials of the method of thinking a sociologist would need if he rejected both the completely synthetic claims of Marxist sociology and the type of pure analysis I have just described.””

The essentials are these: first, the sociologist constructs different types or systems of behavior that reveal what Aron called the “”underlying”” or “”implicit”” logic of behavior; second, the sociologist enumerates the general causal determinants that play a role in shaping this underlying logic or rationality; finally, by arranging different social structures in an historical sequence, the “”interpretive”” sociologist establishes a framework for historical study and understanding. Only when sociology achieves these three objectives, Aron concluded, can sociology “”reconcile the two aims, scientific and synthetic, which characterize it”” (MC, I, viii).

 We immediately see the affinity between Montesquieu’s interpretive sociology and Aron’s critical philosophy of history: the three steps that constitute Montesquieu’s sociological method clearly prefigure the three elements or moments of Aron’s philosophy of historical knowledge. Even more striking is the similarity between their methods of reconstructing “”social wholes.”” Montesquieu, Aron explained, compressed the almost infinite variety of customs and social orders into three types of regimes, namely, the republican, the monarchical, and the despotic. The originality of this typology, Aron pointed out, was that these three types of regimes were at the same time three types of societies. And these social orders were themselves the product of an original play of causal forces, such as geography, climate, religion, and soil, among others. In fact, taken together, all of these causes contribute to forming what Montesquieu called “”the general spirit of a nation,”” an obscure and difficult concept that Aron took to be analogous to the notion of “”culture”” as understood by sociologists and anthropologists. In Montesquieu’s sociology, Aron explained, it is important to recognize that the general spirit is inextricably bound up with the notion of the “”principle”” of government: the principle is the “”sentiment”” that maintains or upholds a given regime and this sentiment is in turn related to a people’s way of life as this ethos comes to be expressed through its institutions.

It is here, in Montesquieu’s account of social wholes, that we discover one important reason for Aron’s abiding interest in the great French thinker: the relation between the form of government and the spirit of a nation is of the same dialectical order as motifs and mobiles. The behavior of collectivities for Montesquieu, like the behavior of individuals for Aron, is at root governed by the incessant and complex interaction between intentional and causal realities. In the final analysis, however, the way men and women govern themselves was “”the essential phenomenon”” for Montesquieu. He constructed his social types with politics uppermost in his mind because, like Aristotle, he believed men

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