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Two New Books on Raymond Aron

Tragedy and History: The German Influence on Raymond Aron’s Political Thought. Scott B. Nelson. Berlin: Peter Lang, 2019.

Raymond Aron and Liberal Thought in the Twentieth Century. Iain Stewart. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.


These two recent books on Raymond Aron are continuing evidence of the relevance of his life, legacy, and thought. Both books demonstrate a deep and even profound knowledge of Aron’s kaleidoscopic oeuvre as well as the most important contemporary scholarship available (and this in many different languages). But their scope, approach, and conclusions vary quite considerably. Stewart wishes to reevaluate and to reassess Aron’s place in the French liberal tradition, in general, and in Cold War liberalism, in particular. He approaches Aron through the lense of “intellectual history” and seems to distance himself from that of the “political scientist,” the latter of which he rightly claims to be the dominant perspective in respect to commentary and scholarship on Aron (24–25). Stewart therefore questions the reigning scholarly consensus or perspective in many places and thus Aron’s own self-understanding of his life and work. By contrast, although Nelson states that he will understand the “processes underlying [Aron’s] intellectual influence” and that his book “will be a work of intellectual biography” (14, 22), his presentation is thoroughly more political in its interpretive framework, and this leads him to be more sympathetic with leading scholars, although he certainly broadens and deepens their insights in several instances. Now it should come as no surprise for a thinker as capacious as Aron—who always maintained that there was no such thing as an “Aronian” school of thought—that there should be divergent interpretations of his corpus as a whole. Aron described himself as a sociologist; but as Allan Bloom summarized in his eloquent tribute to Aron (“Raymond Aron: The Last of the Liberals”), Aron was a political sociologist (or even political scientist), if he was anything at all. Therefore, while there is much to glean from both books, Nelson is fundamentally much more sound and comprehensive in his approach and conclusions: in short, he wishes to understand Aron as Aron understood himself. To demonstrate this difference, let us turn to Stewart’s book first.

The first chapter offers a clear example of Stewart’s interpretive method as well as the conclusions that he will draw. Stewart focuses on Aron’s “very earliest political commitments” and “engagements,” even though Aron himself more or less dismissed them when it came to describing his true intellectual, and therefore formative, development as a thinker (17–25). He called himself “vaguely socialist” during this time, but admitted that his early education at the École normale supérieure (ENS) did not adequately prepare him for what he was going to experience later in life (cf. 122). Now Stewart is fully aware that Aron admitted that his genuine education occurred during his sojourn to Germany from 1930–1933 (but cf. 49). Here Aron encountered not only the new sociological, historical, and philosophical schools of thought coming out of Germany, but perhaps most importantly the rise of National Socialism and all that it would entail. Aron was discovering “the political” as an independent and autonomous force in all social wholes (cf. 155–56, 173, 209–17). Stewart’s focus, therefore, on the “earliest” part of Aron’s career seems to offer an almost Freudian account of Aron, namely that there were subterranean undercurrents that permeated and/or influenced him for many years to come. Despite Aron’s protestations that this period in his life was not so influential (and so much of contemporary scholarship concurs in this assessment), Stewart smells smoke and therefore fire. In several places, Stewart argues that we need to question whether to take these assertions at “face value” and whether scholarship on Aron has acknowledged this as such (17–25; see also 29–30, 235–36). This leads Stewart to make the rather suspicious conclusion (some scholars might even say dubious or preposterous) that some of Aron’s truest and deepest influences were anti-liberal and anti-democratic at heart, even if “he never succumbed to the fascist temptation” (46–48; cf. 79, 87, 119).

Another example of the Stewart’s approach is revealed in chapter 5, where he looks at Aron through the lense of “traditionary action” (167–71). For those not familiar with this concept, it is often a bewildering trek, although Stewart copiously documents the sources which he is using (one doubts Aron would use this idea to evaluate himself, nor the apparently related concept of “deconstruction”). The final chapter of the book looks at many of Aron’s colleagues, contemporaries, and students to evaluate his place in the revival of French liberalism and to arrive at a “more nuanced understanding” of Aron’s role therein (208). But what is most striking in these closing pages is that some of the individuals mentioned (Pierre Manent comes immediately to mind, as do several others as well) would contradict Stewart’s thesis and argue that Aron was absolutely instrumental and pivotal in reviving, resurrecting, and restoring that tradition of French liberalism, and this even when liberalism was often a dirty little word in France during the Cold War (cf. 207–11, 217–34).

Stewart is much more successful and persuasive in his analysis when he begins to explicate Aron as Aron understood himself—or shall we say, when Stewart takes off the cap of intellectual historian and dons that of the political scientist. For example, in chapter 2, where Stewart discusses Aron’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History: Essay on the Limits of Historical Objectivity (which was his doctoral thesis), he takes seriously Aron’s admission that this was the basis or source for almost all of his later writings. That this book is notoriously difficult is familiar to all who have read it, and Aron himself admitted the same—but here Aron was liberating himself from almost everything he had inherited as a student at the ENS as well as making a clear break from his teachers and charting a new intellectual and philosophical trajectory. Stewart does a very fine job of unpacking this difficult but foundational work and laying out its basic parameters and argument (in addition to Aron’s two other books on German sociology and history written during this same time). Stewart also makes some very suggestive comments throughout the book about how the Introduction influenced Aron’s later writings, and in particular in his lectures on Montesquieu and Tocqueville in Main Currents in Sociological Thought (190–206). Aron’s own historical, political, and/or sociological understandings and approach had much in common according to Stewart with his illustrious liberal predecessors.

There is no doubt that Stewart is very, very familiar with Aron’s enormous oeuvre as well as the scholarship surrounding his thought. But for those who are not initiated into Aron as a whole or Cold War French intellectual history, and who want to gain access to one of France’s greatest twentieth-century liberal thinkers, this is probably not the best place to begin. For those wishing to understand first how Aron understood himself, undoubtedly the best place to begin is Aron’s Memoirs, where Aron gives a frank, candid, and accurate account of his life, writings, and concerns over the course of some fifty years. As for those seeking an alternative understanding of Aron, one in which (for lack of better words) attempts to “problematize” or “contextualize” him and contemporary scholarship, then this book offers a fruitful starting point.

As suggested above, although Nelson’s book looks at Aron through the lenses of “intellectual influence” and “intellectual biography” (14), it is really political influence and political biography. This is an enormously impressive—even monumental—contribution to scholarship on Raymond Aron. Anyone even remotely familiar with Aron will acknowledge that his academic sojourn to Germany from 1930–1933 was instrumental and even determinative in forming his future intellectual trajectory—and too a significant degree, it also influenced France’s future philosophical and political alignments and orientation. His first book in 1935, German Sociology, introduced French intellectuals to the new social sciences unfolding and developing in Germany. He then followed this up in 1938 with his secondary dissertation, La philosophie critique de l’histoire: essai sur une théorie allemande de l’histoire, and then his primary dissertation, Introduction to the Philosophy of History. But more importantly, it was here that Aron firmly and finally broke with the positivism, pacifism, and neo-Kantianism of his illustrious and influential teachers, including French academics such as Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier), Léon Brunschvicg, and Henri Bergson, among others. Aron was becoming Aron—an independent and influential intellectual of the first rank (cf. 37–41). Nelson is absolutely correct to begin a study of Aron with these influences and to make them the focal point of the book.

Nelson structures the book in a most imaginative and refreshing way: History (Part 1), Sociology (Part 2), and Praxeology (Part 3). Each Part focuses on a particular thinker influential in the development of Aron’s thought: Wilhelm Dilthey (History), Karl Marx (Sociology), and Max Weber (Praxeology). But to say that each Part focuses exclusively on the aforementioned thinkers would be a gross understatement: instead these thinkers are used as a major reference point rather than a singular concentration or focus to illuminate many of Aron’s concerns in respect to these three overarching themes. In other words, the three thinkers give each part a guiding (but not exclusive) theme and structure. Nelson’s division of his book thus mirrors Aron’s own magisterial opus Peace and War, which also contains these three divisions. The only thing that is missing from Nelson’s book is Aron’s opening section on Theory (in this case an attempt to articulate to the extent possible a theoretical conceptualization of the nature of international relations). May we be so bold as to suggest that Nelson himself is providing us with that missing part in the book as a whole when it comes to German influence.

The opening part on History and Dilthey is admittedly the most difficult section of the book as whole. This is in no way to disparage Nelson, who does as masterful a job as anyone could to unpack the difficult and weighty philosophical issues with which Aron was wrestling at this early stage in his career: as stated above, even Aron himself admitted he could have been more clear and that he probably overstated his conclusions in places (most notably on historical relativism). The challenge Dilthey posed “for all who followed him, including Aron” was that “all intellectual endeavors—law, religion, science, morality, etc.—are conducted in history, and this applies to reason itself” (44, emphasis in original). If this is true, then the question remains whether there can be any absolute philosophy or reason or truth at all: “Dilthey is faced with the problem of being unable to justify any philosophy in history, since history is constantly in flux, and yet philosophy seeks universal truths” (56). Aron attempted to solve this conundrum in his early works, and especially in the Introduction; but as Nelson rightly observes, the more Aron was “able to mobilize arguments against dogmatism” (i.e., the claim that history had a unilinear direction, cause, or purpose), the more he waded “deeper into relativism” (74). Aron was ultimately seeking a middle ground of sorts, one that accepted a plurality of historical perspectives (some better, some worse) as well as the possibility of prudent and reasonable political action based on these various perspectives (77). One can wonder whether Aron ever fully succeed in this effort, but one hardly fault him trying and for making this the core of his reflections and writings throughout life.

If Dilthey was one of Aron’s earliest philosophical inspirations, then Marx was a life-long companion (although Aron was, of course, anything but a Marxist). Nelson reveals why someone so critical of communism would return over and over again to Marx, namely that he offered a vital lens, starting point, and/or ideal type for studying industrial society in postwar Europe and elsewhere. One sees this most emphatically in what came to be known as the Sorbonne Trilogy. Here are Aron’s most extended and detailed reflections on the nature of modern industrial society and the similarities and differences between communism and liberalism, command economies and capitalism, and totalitarianism and democracy (to mention only some of the most prominent themes of the three books and lecture courses). Of particular interest is Aron’s penchant for divisions and classifications: he dissects in an almost clinical fashion all of the major concepts in order to arrive at a true understanding of them (see 127ff.). Unlike others who had been or were blinded by ideology or partisanship, Aron’s was the truly rigorous scientific method for impartial understanding and objective analysis. But it must be emphasized that through it all, Aron never lost sight of “the political” as a—or even the—key or primary determinative factor in studying and understanding social wholes. Aron never ignored “the economic” or “the social” in his analysis of industrial society, but he more than many of his predecessors (especially Marx) refused to think that politics was epiphenomenal. This kept Aron squarely in line with the French liberal tradition, from Montesquieu to Tocqueville (cf. 107–12, 170–73).

Given Aron’s life-long interest in the dichotomy between reflection and choice, thought and action, the final part turns to how Aron himself thought about and practiced this dynamical relationship. Nelson argues persuasively that if “Aron wished to be taken seriously he would have to learn to think politically”—”to think like a statesman” (177). Nelson then chronicles some of Aron’s most significant books and political editorials on contemporary events, from the postwar order to Algeria to May 1968. At the end of the day, Aron was remarkably prescient and accurate in his judgements and actions—he may not always have been right, but he certainly was more often than not, as history has only tended to confirm. Nelson then discusses Aron’s encounter with Weber, who is clearly best suited to illuminate the character of Praxeology. Now Aron never fully embraced the fact-value distinction, and as Aron progressed his criticisms became more pronounced (although always respectful—Aron never demonized his opponents, past or present, as someone like Jean-Paul Sartre did). As for Weber’s two ethical principles—the ethic of conviction and the ethic of responsibility—Aron was not satisfied with either, although he clearly preferred the latter rather than the former (204–15). As with so many of his other intellectual encounters, Aron wanted to find a middle ground between the stark dichotomies of relativism and determinism, politics and science, and action and knowledge, in order to make those moderate and sober deliberations that genuinely ethical and prudent decisions require.

This book is ably suited for scholars as well as for students who wish to be introduced to this towering figure of twentieth-century of French liberal political thought (cf. 15). Scholars will be impressed both with Nelson’s command of the secondary literature (there is hardly any seminal article or book in French, English, or German that is not cited and discussed) coupled with his felicitous explication and exploration of Aron’s thinking on a wide range of issues. As for students less familiar with Aron, Nelson takes us on Aron’s intellectual and political journey and development, and introduces us to his primary sources, ideas, and conclusions. While there is no substitute for reading Aron on his own, this is a worthy companion for anyone seeking to immerse (or re-immerse) themselves in his thought. Given this incredible combination of erudition and entry, the book is thus not as narrow as the title might suggest. It is a fundamental introduction to Aron as a whole and to the most important contemporary scholarship available. It is, quite frankly, one of the very best English language books to come out in recent years—as comprehensive as possible as a single volume could be about his most important philosophical concerns and his life-long interests. It is little wonder that Nelson was the co-recipient of the Le Prix Raymond Aron in 2017 (along with Frédéric Cohen).

There are two oddities of the book that, while not detracting from its content, do detract from its presentation. First, the notes are sequentially numbered throughout and do not start again at the beginning of each part. This will make the book a bit strange to cite when referencing it (e.g., p. 231n829[!]), but at least we do know there are a total of 957 footnotes. Second, there is no index (although there is a bibliography). Whether this is the fault of the author or publisher or both is unknown, but it makes it nearly impossible to cross-reference sources and themes unless you know what you want to cross-reference beforehand. (One wonders whether the book was simply formatted and printed as a dissertation without any serious editing or revisions [cf. 14].)  If a second or revised edition is ever published, it is hoped that these oddities will be corrected: it will certainly make the book more “user-friendly.”

Bryan Paul-Frost

Bryan-Paul Frost is the Elias "Bo" Ackal, Jr./BORSF Endowed Professor in Political Science at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is co-editor of Essays in Honor of Raymond Aron: Political Reason in the Age of Ideology (Transaction 2007) as well as other articles and book chapters on Aron.

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