In the context of a MOOC I am taking on the First World War and Modern Philosophy, I read the pro-war views of two German philosophers, Eucken and Husserl. In this short essay I will discuss Eucken’s two major arguments for just war, drawing from Eucken’s “The Moral Power of the War” (1) and supplement his views with Husserl’s as expressed in “Fichte’s Ideal of Humanity.” (2)
The two philosophers
Rudolf Eucken (1846 – 1926) was a German philosopher, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1908.
Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938) was a German philosopher of Jewish descent.
I had not heard of Eucken until I took the MOOC, but knew of Husserl as a rigorously trained philosopher, who was disallowed for university duty by the Nazis and later resigned from the German Academy. I was not aware of his pro-war writings.
Both of Husserl’s sons were enlisted in 1914. Wolfgang Husserl died in the battlefield of Verdun in 1916. Gerhard Husserl was injured in 1917, but survived.
The first major argument put forward by Eucken is that this war is a just war because it “is waged by a whole nation for the purpose of self-preservation, the maintenance of its sacred goods, and a defense against violent attacks, it will strengthen solidarity among the people, unveil hitherto dormant powers, and increase the standard of life.”
Eucken’s first argument can be summarised as follows:
The nation has purposes, war is the only way of achieving them, and therefore war is just.
Eucken identifies the “purposes” of the nation, but does not prove that the only way of achieving them is by waging war. I would have expected Eucken to identify at least one other way of achieving these purposes and then proceed to critically examine why war is the only way. Please note that by default, should there be another way of a nation achieving its purposes, this “non-war” way would be preferred over war.
Therefore the first argument is flawed, as its second premise is unfounded.
In the second argument, Eucken introduces the higher forces that comprise an invisible network that unites the German people and leads them to a noble path. The people believe in these higher forces and allows them to be certain that their war deeds are not in vain, because they are done for the shake of these forces.
Husserl builds on this second argument. He elevates the German national Ideal to the Ideal of a genuine and true people. He asserts that “we exist in order to realize the pure Ideals… (we) wish to conquer in the war so that there be continued the revelation of divine Ideas in our glorious German people.”
The second argument can be rephrased as follows:
The German people are on a noble path by virtue of an invisible network of higher forces. The German people are genuine and glorious and they exist in order to realize the pure and divine ideals, which are necessary for the world to exist as a moral world. When the German people go to war, this war is fought to protect the pure and divine ideals from which morality springs, therefore it is a just war. They have to be victorious so that they continue being the carriers of divine ideals.
The flaw in this argument is the presumed exclusivity that the German people have in their union with the higher forces, their destiny to be the bearers of pure and genuine ideals, their morality. Why are the Germans unique in all of these? Why aren’t there other people who are in union with the higher forces? This is where the second argument collapses.
Summarising, Eucken’s arguments for just war are shaky and dangerous. They promote the concept of the “privileged” people and present war as a one way street.
- The Moral Power of the War (Die sittliche Kräfte des Krieges) by Rudolf Eucken, 1914. Translated by Anton Leodolter
- Fichte’s Ideal of Humanity (Three Lectures) by Edmund Husserl. From Edmund HusserlAufsiitze und Vortri~ge (1911-1921), Husserliana XXV, ed. Thomas Nenon and Hans Reiner Sepp (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987), pp. 267-293. Numbers in text placed in square brackets refer to these pages.]. Translation by James G. Hart