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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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1d The Pathos of the Introduction à la philosophie de l’histoire


The movement from knowledge of self to knowledge of the other and historicity does not necessarily end up justifying the abandonment of reason. But the later chapters of Aron’s Introduction reach their bleakest and most Heideggerian point with the man who determines himself and his mission by measuring himself against nothingness.235 This is surprisingly taken to be a salvo against pathetic nihilism in that it empowers man to create himself by judging his milieu and choosing himself. “Thus only the individual overcomes the relativity of history by the absoluteness of decision, and he integrates into his essential me the history that he carries within himself, and which becomes his own.” Some interpret this as a departure from Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit;236 while others disagree on this point and suggest that Aron’s work “ends just like Sein und Zeit”.237 Aron’s final words are indeed sombre: “Human existence is dialectical, i.e. dramatic, because it acts in an incoherent world, is engaged despite duration, and searches for a fleeting truth, without any other assurance than a fragmentary science and formal reflection.”238

He would later amend this statement by reiterating his faith in scientific truth and human universalism, remaining a man of the Enlightenment.239 These words did not spring fully-loaded from nothing though; their pathos betrays a brooding sense of what history was about to reveal to Aron’s academic superiors in their cloistered optimism.240

The purpose of the final section of Aron’s Introduction, with its...

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