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Tragedy and History

The German Influence on Raymond Aron’s Political Thought

Scott B. Nelson

This work examines the cohesion of Raymond Aron’s political thought and argues that its unifying principles are to be found in certain intellectual problems he came upon early in life through his study of German thought. These problems consist of the relation between man and history, knowledge and action, and philosophy and politics. They are explored in three intertwined facets of Aron’s thought – History, Sociology, and Praxeology – which are elaborated by setting Aron in dialogue with three key German thinkers: Dilthey, Marx, and Weber respectively. This work argues that the roots of Aron’s political thought reach back to the 1930s and that his ongoing meditation on the philosophical problems raised at that time endure and provide the framework for his thought for the rest of his life.

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1a Pilgrimage to Germany


Raymond Aron was an immensely cultured individual.71 Later in life he emphasized the importance of his education in Germany.72 His pilgrimage to Germany in the early 1930s is acknowledged as a time of great intellectual development.73 His intellectual upbringing in France was marked by neo-Kantianism and positivism (through Léon Brunschvicg, Aron’s doctoral dissertation advisor), and pacifism (Alain), none of which stood up well to the intellectual and political developments he was witnessing in Germany.74 Aron’s political interests, fostered from a young age at home, were only heightened in Germany. His experiences in Germany, both political and intellectual, marked him for the rest of his life in ways that, despite their similar academic upbringing, made Aron depart massively from his companion Sartre.

In this section we will sketch the importance of these intellectual influences as well as his experience of Nazi Germany. We will proceed by examining the following: Aron’s intellectual upbringing in France. The tradition of French scholars in Germany. Political developments in Germany.

Aron’s Intellectual Upbringing in France

Raymond Aron was from the beginning groomed to be a part of France’s intellectual elite. In a country and a time when intellectuals prided themselves on weighing in on all political matters from atop their perch, Aron was unique in the sheer breadth and depth of his erudition and his ability to switch between international relations, economics, sociology, and philosophy, without ever forgetting the complexity of their interconnections. He was a bright...

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