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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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1c German Phenomenology


If the problem that triggered not only Aron’s early thought, but which occupied his reflections until very late in life, was posited by Dilthey, the language he uses to explore this problem in his Introduction is that of the phenomenologists. We know less about his engagement with this aspect from Aron himself because – unlike in the case of German sociology and philosophy of history200 – he did not devote any full-length studies to the topic.201 Nonetheless, when reflecting on this time period, Aron constantly acknowledges his debt to German phenomenology.202 The importance of this component of his thought cannot be underestimated in light of the fact that the methodology employed in the Introduction à la philosophie de l’histoire is phenomenological.203 We shall expound on Aron’s phenomenological method by examining the arguments and conclusions contained in the first part of the second section of his dissertation, “De l’individu à l’histoire”.204 We will proceed by examining the following: Knowledge of the Self. Knowledge of the Other. Individuals embedded in Collectives in History.

Knowledge of the Self

Aron’s “phenomenology” is Husserlian in origin, although it has a somewhat different role to play in Aron’s philosophy. Husserl’s goal starting from about 1908 on had been no less than to “transform philosophy into a rigorous science.”205 To do this he would isolate pure experience, mediated by consciousness, which is ←57 | 58→the only thing we can be certain about. Thus he applied the notion of the epoche in order to...

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