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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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4b An Introduction to Action in History


We observed earlier Aron’s three Dilthey-modified-Kantian questions: “What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?” They are Dilthey-modified because he adds “in history” to each of them, thereby indicating that he attempts to work at least within the Diltheyan framework.916 Much of our work has been consumed by an effort to address the first question, although we have also periodically pointed to preliminary answers to the other questions. However, Aron does seem to leave some indications as to how he would answer the latter two questions on a more philosophical level (i.e. beyond his running political commentary). Prudence should characterize the approach of the man of action.

Aron’s prudence has been well documented. Manent sees it between the temptations of revolutionary undertakings and reactionary fights. It is the principal virtue of political order and is associated with moderation: “it alone guarantees the salutary influence of reason and guards against the temptation of petrifying social life by using violence to impose ‘rational society’, which is in fact the enemy of all reason and all humanity.”917 Anderson refers to Aron’s prudence as “antinomic prudence”, situating it between vulgar Machiavellianism (realism) and naïve Kantianism (idealism). In so doing he places Aron in the venerable “prudence tradition” of foreign policy, where the French intellectual finds himself in the agreeable company of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and Edmund Burke.918 Mahoney locates Aron’s prudence between doctrinairism and historical relativism.919 Although the roots for this distinction are...

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