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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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