Raymond Aron

Raymond Aron (14 March 1905–17 October 1983)

Today is the 117th anniversary of the birth of Raymond Aron (14 March 1905 — 17 October 1983), who was born on this date in 1905.

I earlier wrote of Leszek Kołakowski, Sidney Hook, and Karl Jaspers as being more philosophers of contemporary history than philosophers of history in the narrow sense, by which I mean being exclusively concerned with the past, and the same could be said of Raymond Aron. Aron was a prolific author who wrote in several genres, though primarily political science and sociology, but frequently touching upon philosophical matters.

His 1957 book De la Guerre (On War, 1958) was a period piece on contemporary history, specifically, the then-new Cold War, and it is worthwhile to note that Aron in the last few pages of this book was far more prescient than many philosophers who wrote on the same topic at the same time. As I noted in my profile of Jaspers, Jaspers wrote The Future of Mankind mostly in response to the “New Fact” of nuclear weapons. Bertrand Russell also wrote a couple of books about nuclear weapons, taking a position not unlike Jaspers.

I wrote a blog post about this several years ago (Bertrand Russell as Futurist), in which I noted that Russell argued that the Cold War must end by human extinction, reversion to barbarism, or world government. None of the three alternatives of Russell’s trichotomy came to pass. Aron, to his credit, understood that these neat dichotomies of Jaspers and Russell would not be born out in actual human experience, and in fact they were not. Aron’s description of the Cold War was very close to what was actually happening in 1957, and remained true to the mode of warfare during the Cold War that continued to occur. On the tiresome idea of world government, Aron had this to say:

“…the best answer to this unprecedented challenge would be the creation of a single supreme authority over mankind, or at least the creation of a world authority over scientific weapons. But this truth — or truism — is for the time being irrelevant: for reasons which should be obvious to anyone, the differences between the great powers, though they need not lead to a war to the death, preclude a merging of sovereignties or a planetary condominium.” (p. 140)

Aron also wrote a book about Carl von Clausewtiz, Clauswitz: Philosopher of War, which has much that is relevant to the philosophy of history, for example:

“…civilization increases the role played by intelligence in the conduct of war without eliminating or even reducing the role of primordial wrath. Not that civilized people always hate each other at the start of wars: it is the fight itself which generates, feeds and exasperates hostile passions. History has not refuted this gloomy diagnosis. The bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima by the British and American air forces outdo the atrocities of the Athenians and Spartans. The charnel-houses of Katyn, the gas-chambers, Einsatz commandos whose task it was to exterminate the Jews, will always stupefy all who refuse to despair of humanity — no matter how much time has passed.” (p. 196)

We can think of philosophies of war as a subset of philosophies of history, a subset that focuses only on war, which latter is a subset of the whole of history. There is something to be said for the focused study of some aspect of history, and what such a focused study might contribute to the wider study of history.

Aron also wrote a specifically philosophical book about philosophy of history — a book that some consider to be among the more important contributions to the genre during the twentieth century — Introduction to the Philosophy of History: An Essay on the Limits of Historical Objectivity (1961, originally published in French in 1938). Aron helpfully tells us in the introduction that, “…the book is dominated by by the two paragraphs which open Section II and by those which close section IV.” Following Aron’s own assessment of the importance of these passages, here is an extract from the first two paragraphs of Section II:

“The science of the human past enjoys a unique privilege: it has to do with beings who have thought and whose life and conduct it wishes to rethink. Now there is good reason to distinguish between understanding, which attempts to show a relation immanent in reality, and the explanation of the inorganic or organic world. Man understands himself and he understands what he has created. Such, in short, is the basic distinction that we would propose between the two types of knowledge. However, we shall not have to use it; only the difference between understanding (grasp of an intelligibility objectively given) and causality (establishment of causal rules according to the regularity of series) will be important.” (p. 45)

Section IV is titled “History and Truth” while the final subsection is titled, “Historical Time and Freedom.” Here is an extract from that final section:

“Liberty, possible in theory, effective in and through practice, is never complete. The past of the individual limits the margin in which personal initiative is effective, the historical situation fixes the possibilities of political action. Choice and decision do not rise from obscurity; perhaps they are subject to the most elementary drives, in any case partially determined if they are referred to their antedents.” (p. 347)

What is the relationship between the distinction between understanding and causality with which Aron begins Section II and the reflections in human freedom with which Aron ends the book? Aron goes on to say, after the above, that, “Only thought would rightfully escape the causal explanation,” which implies the freedom of thought in contradistinction to the determinism of the material world. But then Aron goes on to make a remarkable claim:

“…for man to be in entire harmony with himself, he would have to live according to the truth, he would have to recognize himself as autonomous both in his creation and in his consciousness of it.”

I am not sure what to make of this claim. Obviously, no human being is autonomous in their creation, and this is true whether or not one maintains a supernaturalistic or a naturalistic understanding of humanity in general or some individual in particular: to be autonomous in one’s creation would be to be oneself creatio ex nihilo. In response to the impossible conditions he imposes on human autonomy, Aron ends the book thus:

“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.”

In a further footnote Aron acknowledges the inconclusive character of this final claim, asserting that a philosophical inquiry allows no conclusion, but he suggests it also might be possible to understand this paradoxical nature of the human condition, which would be the work of yet another philosophical inquiry.

Further Resources








Review of Aron:

Semmel, B. (1961). RAYMOND ARON. Introduction to the Philosophy of History: An Essay on the Limits of Historical Objectivity. Trans lated by George J. Irwin. Pp. 351. First English Edition. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. $7.50. RAYMOND ARON. Dimensions de la con science historique. (Recherches en Sci ences Humaines, 16.) Pp. 339. Paris: Librairie Plon, 1961. No price. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 338(1), 184–185. doi:10.1177/000271626133800164



“Resurrecting a Neglected Theorist: The Philosophical Foundations of Raymond Aron’s Theory of International Relations” by Bryan-Paul Frost


“Forward to the Past: History and Theory in Raymond Aron’s Peace and War” by Bryan-Paul Frost


“Raymond Aron” by Edwards Shils




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