Philosophy Weekend: A Bedrock Philosophy for Pacifists

I sometimes wonder if pacifism needs the kind of bedrock philosophy that more popular ideologies like conservativism and communism have.

A firm rooting in philosophy helps an ideology stand its ground firmly. I’ve noticed that American conservatives are very quick to cite John Locke or David Hume, along with (variously) Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick. I disagree with most conservative positions, but I have to admit that conservatives do a good job of constructing a consistent metaphysical, epistemological and ethical framework to support their beliefs.

Communists, likewise, are quick to cite Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Voltaire or Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel along with (variously) Plato, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Zizek. The original Communist Karl Marx talked a good metaphysical game, and the tendency to wax philosophical has continued to inform Marxist culture.

Who are the go-to philosophers for pacifists? We don’t seem to have any.

We have our patron saints (Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King) but that’s not the same thing. Conservatives and Marxists also have their patron saints (Ronald Reagan, Ho Chi Minh), but these role models do not provide a bedrock philosophy. If asked to name a few favorite academic philosophers whose work intersects to form a strong and consistent system of philosophical methodology, I think many current pacifists would come up empty.

Today, I’d like to open up a conversation with other pacifists (or anybody who wishes to participate) by nominating three philosophers for an unofficial but hopefully influential “philosophical canon for pacifists”. These are three great modern thinkers, all currently dead, who each developed separate lines of thought that address the questions that pacifists often struggle to answer. Considered together, the three separate bodies of work form a synthesis, a solid and consistent approach to philosophy that may prove valuable in future discussions and public debates.

The three names I’m about to list represent my own personal choices. I’d like to hear your opinions on this selection, and I’d like to hear your own suggestions.

Whether you are a pacifist or not, I can’t guarantee that you’ll agree with my three nominations. I do guarantee, though, that you’ll find these thinkers fresher than dusty old Hegel and Locke, who we’ve really heard enough about lately.

Enough preamble! Here are my three names:

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein

Born: April 26, 1889, Vienna, Austria

Died: April 29, 1951, Cambridge, England

Main idea: Words are not worth arguing about.

Previously discussed on Litkicks: Language Games and Presidential Debates, The Pointless Rationalism of David Foster Wallace, Derek Jarman’s Ludwig Wittgenstein

Relevance: So much political or ideological debate is about the meaning of words. Nations justify their foreign policies on the basis of “good” and “evil”, and the citizens of these nations try to parse these words and understand what they mean. John Rawls and Robert Nozick argue over the meaning of “justice”. Unfortunately, these unsolvable debates over the meanings of words are a frustrating waste of effort, doomed always to fail. This makes arguing over definitions of words a great tool for distraction and diffusion by those who are invested in the profitable culture of militarism. As long as we waste our time arguing over the meanings of words, we will never reach common agreement, because (as Wittgenstein demonstrated) language is not actually grounded in definitive meaning at all, and doesn’t need to be. Wittgenstein is a tremendously controversial but widely acclaimed modern philosopher whose sometimes obscure texts are themselves meant to demonstrate the limits of language. Reading, understanding and discussing his great works points us towards a more intuitive, natural and direct way of thinking that avoids the fatal stickiness of language and instead allows us to freely change our perspectives, change our minds, and sometimes even realize that we can agree with our “enemies”, and can allow them to agree with us.

Key quote:

Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ ” — but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! —

Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships.

Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear.

When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. — Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis.

Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! sometimes similarities of detail.

And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cries-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.

–Ludwig Wittgenstein

2. William James

Born: January 11, 1842, New York, USA

Died: August 26, 1910, New Hampshire, USA

Main idea: We live in a pluralistic universe in which truth itself is voluntary.

Previously discussed on Litkicks: The Jamesian Gospel, Henry James’s Smarter Older Brother, William James and the Theory of Emotion, My So-Called Truth, Respect for Religion

Relevance: Like Wittgenstein, William James believes that tough political and ideological questions transcend logic and language, and cannot be solved conclusively by reason alone. But where Wittgenstein focused negatively on the limitations of language and logic, William James focused positively on their constructive usefulness, their pragmatic value. When you analyze a difficult or violent debate in Jamesian terms, you place yourself in a position to appreciate and understand how both sides of the argument can be simultaneously possible. This is a badly needed tonic on a planet where vicious wars are fought by citizens who stand in deep and permanent incomprehension of each other. When, for instance, Christians and Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and atheists fight and terrorize and bomb each other, or when capitalists and communists and anarchists and socialists do the same, they do so without even a basic understanding of what motivates the other side, and therefore without an understanding of how the violence might be avoided. William James’s theory of pragmatism shows us how extensive belief systems are created voluntarily, and how differing strong belief systems are possible. To analyze a hostile standoff on pragmatic terms is to understand both sides of the conflict. A Jamesian attitude avoids fanaticism in favor of pluralism (one of the great thinker’s favorite words), is friendly towards both religion and science, and enthusiastically embraces what we now call multiculturalism. William James also believed strongly that we have free will, and that we can help ourselves by adopting an optimistic and (again) pluralistic attitude in most situations. Not surprisingly, the inventor of the wonderfully humane philosophy of pragmatism was also an outspoken opponent of war (he published many angry articles belittling President Theodore Roosevelt’s war crimes in the Philippines) and a self-declared pacifist, though he oddly referred to his instance of this philosophy as “pacificism”.

Key quote:

The great assumption of the intellectualists is that truth means essentially an inert static relation. When you’ve got your true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter. You’re in possession; you know; you have fulfilled your thinking destiny. You are where you ought to be mentally; you have obeyed your categorical imperative; and nothing more need follow on that climax of your rational destiny. Epistemologically you are in stable equilibrium.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as.

This thesis is what I have to defend. The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.

— William James

3. Carl Jung

Born: July 26, 1875, Kesswil, Thurgau, Switzerland

Died: June 6, 1961, Zurich, Switzerland

Main idea: Alongside our existence as isolated individuals, we naturally share a collective unconscious, and need to become more comfortable with the social aspects of our natural existence.

Previously discussed on Litkicks: Jung and the Electoral Map, The Cage Match Between Ayn Rand and Carl Jung, A Dangerous Method

Relevance: Wittgenstein and James studied the great question of epistemology: what is knowledge, what is truth, what does it mean to believe one thing and not another? Jung, an early psychologist who began his career by following Sigmund Freud before breaking with Freud and striking out on his own, studied an even deeper question: what are we? Most importantly, he expressed the vital idea that we are not only individuals who exist in isolation, but rather that we are naturally social, and that deep social awareness is intrinsic to our whole selves. We exist as a common mind, a common soul. We don’t often feel comfortable acknowledging the primal importance of social existence in our private lives even though we constantly behave with a herd mentality (war itself is the most horrific example of this herd mentality). In fact, we show evidence of our shared “collective unconscious” constantly as we carry on our everyday lives. But when terrible conflicts occur, we often make the mistake of treating and analyzing these conflicts in ignorance of our shared collective humanity. This is the primal mistake that must be fixed if we are to discover our natural potential to live together in a state of mutual respect, mutual understanding and peace.

Key quote:

Since it is universally believed that man is merely what his consciousness knows of itself, he regards himself as harmless and so adds stupidity to iniquity. He does not deny that terrible things have happened and still go on happening, but it is always “the others” who do them. And when such deeds belong to the recent or remote past, they quickly and conveniently sink into the sea of forgetfulness, and that state of chronic woolly-mindedness returns which we describe as “normality”. In shocking contrast to this is the fact that nothing has finally disappeared and nothing has been made good. The evil, the guilt, the profound unease of conscience, the dark foreboding, are there before our eyes, if only we would see. Man has done these things; I am a man, who has his share of human nature; therefore I am guilty with the rest and bear unaltered and indelibly within me the capacity and the inclination to do them again at any time … Harmlessness and naivete are as little helpful as it would be for a cholera patient and those in his vicinity to remain unconscious of the contagiousness of the disease. On the contrary, they lead to projection of the unrecognized evil of the “other”.

— Carl Jung

9 Responses

  1. Great stuff, Levi!
    Great stuff, Levi!

    While I connect with both James and Jung, I’m having a hard time seeing Wittgenstein’s relevance here. What is his point with these “games”? Is war another game that we play? I’m a bit confused with that excerpt.

    I’ve read The Varieties of Religious Experience and thoroughly enjoyed it, what other works should I seek?

    I especially enjoy Jung’s POV because I work in mental health. The “collective unconscious” is important to my work because we often experience clients who are unique in their delusions/paranoia/depression but often try to bring them to a point of understanding that we are all in this together. We naturally depend on others. Each one teach one. We rely on our perceived strong or weak communities.

    I would also like to add to this list: Allen Ginsberg. Though I don’t know if he is simply a patron saint or a serious philosopher. Also, e.e. cummings. Same for him. Thinking more contemporary, I also think Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle could be seriously considered as pacifists based on my occasional reading of their work.

    I really enjoyed this, so thank you, sir!

  2. Thanks Wo. The Wittgenstein
    Thanks Wo. The Wittgenstein quote is not meant to be directly related to pacifism, but rather is an illustration of Wittgenstein’s overall method.

  3. What about Bertrand Russell?
    What about Bertrand Russell? He was a British pacifist & philosopher.

  4. Hi Steve — thanks for
    Hi Steve — thanks for mentioning that, and in fact Bertrand Russell came up in a discussion about this on Facebook. Russell was a great pacifist and a great person, and he worked very closely with Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was originally Russell’s disciple but eventually concluded that Russell’s entire project of defining a logical foundation for philosophical language was doomed to fail. In fact, this break with Russell eventually become the core of Wittgenstein’s own unique philosophy. (The work he did under Russell’s influence are now known as “early Wittgenstein”, but the great Wittgenstein is “late Wittgenstein”.)

    So, by including Wittgenstein here I am paying tribute to Bertrand Russell’s important legacy, but I cannot give Russell a slot on this short list because I do believe Russell’s entire metaphysical project was effectively debunked, and I don’t think his path is currently considered a fruitful path for new philosophers to follow. He’s a dead end — Wittgenstein’s path is now the active one. And, most importantly, I am not presenting a list here of philosophers who were pacifists — I am presenting a list of philosophers whose work should be helpful to pacifists today. It’s not really important whether or not Wittgenstein was a pacifist — what’s important is that his philosophy can be helpful in support of pacifism.

  5. Excuse my ignorance, Levi,
    Excuse my ignorance, Levi, but after reading your post several different times I’ve seen nothing that jumps out and shouts “pacifism” out of any of these three choices. Am I on the wrong path here, expecting some profundities from either or all these men in a pursuit of pacifism or even some reason one would elect to become a pacifist from reading something that would want me (or anyone else) to follow that path?

    My own level of pacifism goes back to my early years when I had taken my older brother’s pellet rifle out and did some target shooting until I had spotted a small bird on the telephone wire. I aimed carefully and squeezed the trigger and within the same pop! sound the sparrow dropped off the line and fell into the backyard. I ran over to see the results of my youthful hunting exuberance but found myself instead feeling guilt poring out of my very pores. I had murdered this innocent creature without any cause other than my curiosity if I could shot this target.

    Within in moments of acknowledging my deadly prowess I knew I had to bury this poor dead bird. Isn’t that what all people did to the dead? I scratched out a hole in the sandy soil of our yard with a piece of branch on the ground and thought it best if I put a cross at the end of the grave. Surprisingly I spotted a near-perfect twig with a slit that would hold a cross piece easily which I did and placed it on the bird’s grave. It was a very Catholic thing to do as I reckoned years later but I felt good about it… a cleansing of sorts for my thoughtless action.

    I was perhaps 7… maybe 8 yrs old and that memory, as a reader would see, has stayed with me for over 60 years. I have never killed any other creature since that time other than various insects and trapped mice that found their way into our home. Then there was the youthful wrestling matches with a couple of neighborhood fellows always ended before the fisticuffs begin flying. I knew I’d lose if it had gone that far.

    Why in the heck am I bringing up memories that old? Pacifism is a personal choice one makes with each and every opportunity to do so is considered. I served in the U.S. Navy for 4 years according to my contract which I fulfilled with an Honorable Discharge after my time was up. I came out of boot camp as an E-2, Seaman Apprentice, which I maintained for 4 years, not because I was too dumb to go up for rate but I knew the Navy was not a lifetime choice that I would ever make (this was during the Viet Nam Era). So I humbled myself to the duties one might expect an E-2 would have to do. I felt a sense of peace in that decision is probably why I was able to accomplish that.

    Pacifism is not for the squeamish, I reckon, even though I never thought of it as anything but the right thing I could do during war time. Is there any code for the pacifist that lists the do’s and don’ts, the right path versus the wrong… how to respond to insults or jibing from those who would never choose to be a pacifist? Not to my knowledge. My attention to Gandhi’s pacifism I admired but never compared my simple little pacifism to that. Pacifism runs the gamut of feeling and attitudes, I assume, with everyone choosing their own path with pretty much the same results… keep the peace within and maybe… just maybe that will inspire another if not awaken one to their own pacifism as yet discovered until hearing or reading of another whose path may be predestined, if one has such a belief.

    Would I like for our world who has fought thousands of wars since our history, wars of varying degrees bringing death to unknown amounts of innocents, come to a halt tomorrow? Sure, who wouldn’t like to see that day? Wars are not against common peoples as much as it’s revenge-based between two people in charge of those commoners. It is their words that draw their countrymen/women into the heat of battle. On one side there is the aggressor and the other, the opposite who defends the commoner from that aggressive act. Yin/Yang. In that scenario which we have seen all our lives, no matter our age, ends either in a total slaughter of one side or a mutual exhaustion that postpones the inevitable until another time.

    One truth should be considered regarding “pacifism” is it cannot be fought for or against. That simple fact is both sides are fighting and that is not pacifism defined but rather defiled. Whether we acknowledge peace is found within us or disagree that there is no proof of such a statement, if we have never in our lives felt total peace within, we truly have never lived.

    Thank you, Levi, for keeping the flame of pacifism alive and hopefully others may find their own flame that keeps them at peace.

  6. Thanks for sharing this,
    Thanks for sharing this, Mtmynd. I like the story of you and the bird. And the story of you and Vietnam. Glad to have you here to provide your own point of view on these important questions.

    So, a few people have given me similar feedback about the three philosophers I’ve named: they are puzzled as to what Wittgenstein, James and Jung have to do with pacifism. Well, I did *not* just want to list three philosophers who were pacifists. I don’t want to preach pacifism to anyone — that won’t change anyone’s mind. Instead, I want to answer a more fundamental question.

    In order to hold up our own sides during debates — whether in online forums, television or radio debates, published articles, books and magazines and blogs, or just casual discussions at dinner tables and office cafeterias — we pacifists need to know *how to argue*. I often feel that pacifists are deficient when it comes to debate. Wittgenstein and James and Jung all relate to the question: what beliefs and principles move us, and why? What is the nature of perceived truth, of political conviction, of religious belief, of personal knowledge?

    To put it another way, we pacifists need to become expert in the art of rhetoric. Wittgenstein and James and Jung are extremely insightful about the rhetorical aspects of liberal/progressive belief in the modern world. Does that help explain what I’m aiming for with this list?

  7. Re: “… we pacifists need to
    Re: “… we pacifists need to become expert in the art of rhetoric. Wittgenstein and James and Jung are extremely insightful about the rhetorical aspects of liberal/progressive belief in the modern world.”

    This passage you’ve written, Levi, stopped me as it ended the reply. I immediately did a google search for “how many wars fought in the past 500 years” which didn’t satisfy my need for speed so I reduced the number to 100 years and began reading some info that also, proved to be insufficient for a reply as was going to make (which I started this with).

    “We pacifists” is what I was attempting to equate with our hu’manity’s seeming obsession to war with our opposition either through debate, discussion or the more deadly alternatives to silencing the opposing view. Seems it’s in our nature to toughen up at the first sign of any criticism or dissenting views to our way of thinking or way of of conducting ourselves on a social level.

    Like the warrior, a pacifist cannot be separated from the collective flock by appearance. It is when we speak that we begin revealing our ways of conducting ourselves… showing others where we stand, what we enjoy and conversely, what pisses us off. Communications is our sole instrument to share that which we want, what we desire, what we need and certainly what we feel.

    Our feelings about our lives and the lives of those around us become paramount when any of that is threatened by an outside source. When that does occur we quickly reveal our “teeth” to that assumed or otherwise threat. When that stranger to our life sees this, they too, arm themselves for defense. What do we have then? Two forces in opposition, each feeling some level of threat that may or may not be real, but… just in case, both sides are ready…. neither knowing what the other may do.

    What the hell is that all about? We are unable to trust our own kind! “They” might take from us something we worked hard at getting… or even more frightening, they might bring physical harm to us before we were ready to defend.

    That same example can be viewed in a debate… not having the language to fully express that which we tend to believe. It would seem perfectly logical to me that bringing our innateness for pacifism would unduly bring our ‘treasured belief system’ into a discussion that may not be conducive to supporting that very belief. We would have to defend our pacifism within a debate to what goal..? Conversion of another to our “cause”..?

    Instead of that possibility, would not our nature to be pacifistic in our daily lives suffice? We are what we portray… we portray that which we are. This simplification may not be what we’d like to see others embrace, i.e. we may not be the convincing ‘solicitors for pacifism’ that we would like to be, but as long as we confidently embrace our pacifism as our reality, isn’t that, in the final analysis, all that matters?

    Or are we confused with this entire conversation..? To be a pacifist or to become a person of Peace… is that the more relevant question to be answered?

  8. Very insightful, Mtmynd —
    Very insightful, Mtmynd — especially since I think you’re challenging me on my use of the expression “we pacifists”. By saying “we pacifists”, am I unwittingly committing myself to “us vs. them” (or “we vs. they”) thinking? Am I giving the impression that I’m taking sides in an endless debate, and therefore reducing my argument to that old standard “hooray for our side”?

    Well, it’s an important question, and I think about this often myself. Please note that I said “we” but I never said “they”. In fact, I used the expression “we pacifists” as a form of passive suggestion, since in fact most people who read this probably don’t consider themselves pacifists. Most of my friends or relatives or co-workers don’t call themselves pacifists. So by saying “we pacifists”, I’m really trying to make a brazen move and make my readers feel included. I’m trying to reinforce the idea that we are all pacifists deep inside.

    If I ever say “them” or “they” in an argument about peace and war, I will be guilty of taking sides, and reducing myself to a partisan. As long as I keep saying “we” and “us”, I think I’m doing my best to avoid this.

  9. The pacifist can never bring
    The pacifist can never bring peace to a world swollen with weapons and hungry for conflict. The pacifist can only point to an ideal future.
    The route to that future is to limit the use of armed force to the amount necessary to relieve would-be combatants of their weapons. Armies should not be controlled by politicians to wage wars; they should be controlled by the United Nations to secure the peace and ensure that all illegally held weapons are surrendered and all future arms trading banned.
    This may seem a tall order but, if it makes good sense fo you, commit to it as your top-priority goal. See:

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!