Renken on Carl von Clausewitz's Subjective, Objective, and Trinity

Further exploration of Ganske’s presentation.

Ganske: I'm using the paradoxical dualism of objective/subjective to highlight the nature of war as a cause-and-effect relationship that reflects an intimately bound phenomenon (rather than two separate phenomena) ofdynamism. Using On War, pp 89, 593-594, 85-86 as the basis.

There’s a lot to unpackage there.

On Dualism, Objective/Subjective, and revealing the nature of war.

I want to make sure we are giving CvC his due regard for tackling the problem of “What is War?” by equipping himself with tools of contemporary epistemology. The terms you just used are loaded with references. Three thinkers whom I would like to briefly (and humbly) highlight are Descartes, Kant, and Hegel.

I’ve never heard of “paradoxical dualism.” I have heard of dualism. Dualism can trace its origin at least as far back as Plato and it addresses the idea that humans are composed of distinct body and mind (occasionally “soul”). Descartes would refresh the philosophical questions of dualism, setting the tone for many follow-on enlightenment intellectuals, with an attempt to answer some very important questions such as “how can we be certain of our knowledge” “how can we be sure our perceptions are accurate representations of the world” and “how can we develop an adequately ‘true’ basis for the sciences and hence further knowledge?”[1]

The problem of dualism is a dilemma of “how can the mind, that conceives of the physical world, accurately understand the world if it is, itself, not of the world?” If the mind is of the world, then I have no free will and no objectivity. Since it’s the Christmas season, I can’t resist weaving in Dickens when Scrooge says of his first phantom encounter “[y]ou may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” On the other hand, if the mind is not of the world then it cannot know what thoughts are accurate representations of the world and which are fancies of the mind? This second option is the plot line backdrop of the movie Matrix, where the minds of the captive humans are in total fantasy that has no connection to their reality.

Many philosophers would take on Descartes not necessarily to disprove him, but to improve him. One of the chief problems with Descartes was that, although he was a delightfully skeptical thinker, he did not (and possibly could not) have placed himself as just a point on a lineage of philosophical development. He was writing at the cusp of an intellectual explosion. He was a vanguard, at the same time a product of Luther’s rejection of the Catholic Church’s “fiat truth” and a wellspring of phenomenal breakthroughs. As such, Descartes occasionally lets himself indulge that he was an “Alpha,” and the lyrical draw to conclude he was also an “Omega” meant he believed he had closed the loop on dualism. Enlightenment thinkers, also equipped with quite excellent minds, disagreed.

Kant developed a version of dialectic to balance the role of reason with observation. This was important since observation can contain biases which imply an a priori knowledge, while reflection and reason offer their fruits a posteriori. He did this to locate reason within a system of reflection and to highlight a process of reasoning that can make use of apparent contradictions. Consider this condensed example from Kant (Critique of Pure Reason, 317).

Thesis. The world has a beginning in time, and is also limited in regard to space.
Proof. Let us assume, that the world has no beginning in time; up to every given moment of time, an eternity must have elapsed, and therewith passed away an infinite series of successive states of things in the world. Now the infinity of a series consists in the fact that, it never can be completed by means of a successive synthesis. It follows that an infinite series already elapsed is impossible, and that consequently a beginning of the world is a necessary condition of its existence. And that was the first thing to be proved.
Antithesis. The world has no beginning, and no limits in space, but is, in relation to both time and space, infinite.
Proof. For let us assume, that it has a beginning. A beginning is an existence which is preceded by a time in which the thing does not exist. On the above supposition, it follows that there must have been a time in which the world did not exist. But in an empty time the origination of a thing is impossible; because no part of any such time contains a distinctive condition of being, in preference to that of non-being (whether the supposed thing originates from itself, or by means of some other cause). Consequently, many series of things may have a beginning in the world, but the world itself cannot have a beginning, and is, therefore, in relation to past time, infinite.

Now a word to retain my own street cred … the first proof is wrong because, despite its absolute disconnect with real-world implications, the statement “an infinite series already elapsed is impossible” is not provable (or disprovable) within the boundaries of the question and via reason itself. The second proof is also wrong because the “non-being” of a the world before its being is not an exclusive state. We know, with hindsight and astrophysics that what would become “the world” existed as discrete, disaggregated components before it came together to make the Earth. That is to say, non-being and existed with being by way of a third state called “becoming.”

Kant, not having the benefit of insight that informs my rejection, calls both deductions correct. He thereby backs himself into a contradiction that reason cannot resolve (the world is both finite and infinite) and seeks divine arbitration by punting to faith. His appeal to faith aside (and it was a very in vogue thing to “prove” God via logic), the value of Kant was in his method of thesis, proof, anti-thesis, proof. Creating the contradiction was itself the point, which, like Occam’s razor, helped cut away any distractions from a core question of truth and identified the conceptual latitude around the contradiction as the space for either reason to succeed, or faith to prevail. This was a massive step forward, but it begged for one more step—and now we turn to Hegel.

One of Hegel’s critiques was essentially that the “matter” of Descartes’s physical world, ergo “the body,” became so stripped of physicality by the time it merged with cogito/thought that it was hardly distinguishable from an idea. Hegel believed he could better answer how we can know things with certainty—how we can reconcile the objective (what we might now call “ontology” or “the world as it is”) and subjective (what Husserl would in the late 1800’s refine into “phenomenology” or “the word as we conceive it”)—and this became a dialectic method replete with synthesis.

The following is from Hegel’s lecture on Philosophy, 1825-1826 in Berlin. These lectures were not the earliest appearance of synthesis, and Hegel (like many philosophers) acknowledged that he was merely picking up a “geist” (spirit) that led him to reveal, not discover, these truths. How much we can generate touch-points between Hegel’s “answer” and CvC’s understanding is not a stand-alone consideration because CvC and Hegel are both attempting to answer the questions left to them by Kant and Descartes and both hitting on similar dialectic solutions.

This surviving tidbit on Hegel is drawn from notes a student of his took during the 1825 lecture and provides a summation of Hegel’s dialectic engine for comparing objective actuality to subjective concept and producing a more prefect synthesis. Synthesis was the goal since Hegel believed Descartes had left a schism between thought and physicality.

We have here the antithesis between subjective cognition and actuality. At one moment we are told the two are inseparably linked, that thinking is being. The next moment they are regarded as different, so that the need to mediate them arises, and the proof of their unity rests on the mediating. Set forth here on the one side is our subjective cognition, and on the other side actuality…[2]
Truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.

Hegel would also write: "pure thinking rose above this cleavage that had to become self-conscious, and progressed to the antithesis of the subjective and the objective"[Brown, 272]. Descartes cannot fully resolve this antithesis. His place in the history of philosophy is fixed: "Self-consciousness, in the first place, thinks of itself as consciousness; therein is contained all objective reality, and the positive, intuitive reference of its reality to the other side." [3] (I defer to Dave Diehl, but I do believe there is a Godël statement in this description of Descartes since is builds a system that is self referential, consistent, yet unable to prove or disprove aspects of itself.)

Descartes did not foresee the need for cyclical creation of synthesis, only to be re-confronted by antithesis. Hegel therefore replaces Descartes’s certainty of knowledge, and Kant’s deferral to “faith,” with a method to improve upon knowledge without ever achieving final certainty. Hagel becomes to Descartes as the Tortoise is to Achilles in Zeno’s paradox. Hegel made a great contribution to philosophy by beginning to reconcile body and mind, objective and subjective, “the world in itself” and “the world of itself,” by superseding the dualism proposed by Rene Descartes. Reconciling ontology and phenomenology remains the overriding task of modern philosophy, especially as we are now better equipped by science to trace the seams between the two that appear to be ever blurring – as several folk philosophers said that they did.

While many consider Kant the wellspring of CvC’s dialectic, I think that Hegel is probably the better lens by which to understand CvC’s epistemology. Heuser notes closer concept harmony between Hegel and CvC than Kant, and the Soviet thinkers also believed CvC was far more influenced by Hegel than Kant, even though Hegel was very contemporary to CvC.[4]

This all matters because CvC does the diligence to answer “what is war” by taking his readers all the way back to “how does someone ‘know’ anything” and building from there. Descartes led us to be skeptical and to seek through reason surety of our knowledge. Kant helped us develop rational methodology to hold all concepts captive, to bring observation and thinking to bear, and elevated contradictions—the negation of an answer—to a status on par with answers themselves. Hegel takes the process home by introducing the concept of synthesis as a “result” that closes one dialectic exchange only to open another. CvC uses subjective and objective in this sense. He does this to define the philosophical underpinning of his system of reason, which should allow him to migrate ever closer towards truth. When he says that the subjective nature of war makes it a gamble he is acknowledging that a commander’s cognition and grasp of “truth” will always be imperfect, and there is always an element of chance.

Cause and Effect and Bound…everything.

All concepts are bound to each other at some level. I cannot claim that Isaac Newton would have still discovered his laws if he had not been swimming in a pool of concepts similar to that of Descartes. I can say that what he developed was distinct. Cause and effect was not just a Newtonian revelation of a relationship, but a definition of terms themselves. What was cause? What was effect? What does it mean to say that there is an incontrovertible relationship between them?

It is axiomatic to say that CvC was Newtonian. The founding fathers were Newtonian as evidenced by a constitution with “checks and balances.” Most systems designers/architects of the 16th – 19th century could be called supremely Newtonian (before the “relativity” crowd took over and expanded our conceptual palet). Our understanding of systems was opening up and Newton was the one who taught us to expect predictable relationships between the components of the system. I think CvC’s use of cause and effect was a distinct endeavor from using the dialectic.

The dialectic as a method maximizes the philosopher’s ability to determine truth, but the dialectic has a purpose (determine truth) without intentionality. Intentionality means it is “about” something; truth “about” something. Cause and effect are a scientifically adequate idiom to describe armies as masses, maneuver as vector, force as “cause” and a host of results as “effect.” CvC doesn’t use just Newtonian language to say what the truth of war is, but rather to describe conflict and engagement in such a manner that it can be included in his dialectic engine to validate whether what we conclude is true. The dialectic allows the observer of war to postulate outcomes (subjective thesis), observe result (objective anti-thesis) and to synthesize a better understanding; and that utility can be applied to war so it makes truths about war evident. Two disciplines come together to give CvC a head-start on a very adequate model, but the two models are not the same.

The Trinity

Image from B&B Presentation

The trinity is, IMHO, pure Machiavelli. If I try to re-draw what you had on the board, and include your mention of bi-directional arrows I would get something like this:

You had made a mention that perhaps the triangle was objective and the looping arrow was subjective and I got lost in that.

I think CvC was trying to define for people the spectrum of forces that have to be considered. If Newtonianism gave us the systemic relationships of war, then CvC’s inclusion of these very Machiavellian participants tell us that war takes place amongst multiple interdependent sub-systems. I’ll use a mechanical metaphor: the government could be thought of as electrical force, the people are hydraulic, and the military are kinetic masses. Newtonian laws account for each of the actions, and the dialectic allows us to derive truth from our observations about them. The better the strategist grasps truth, the tighter the space where he has to apply subjective reason leaving less room for error, but he will never have perfect truth or observation, so there will always be fog and friction and war will always be a gamble.

CvC included the components of the trinity and it made his model robust in exactly the same way that later Europeans, obsessed with the power of the military would somewhat reject Machiavelli as antique. Here is a snippet of rebuttal regarding John Morely’s lecture on Machiavelli (Sheldonian Theater, London, 1897) which shows just how much arrogant European thinkers (I’m including Moltke and Von Der Goltz) would reject Machiavelli:

We wholly agree with [Mr Morley] that "the Prince," the ideal State; must be strong, must not hesitate, for example, to punish when punishment is necessary; but "the strength of Kingdom is in the men who gather round the throne," and they do not gather round the Prince who believes in Machiavelli. Napoleon was a stronger man than William [the first] of Germany, but who of Napoleon's entourage can be compared with Bismarck or Von Moltke, or Von Roon? Machiavelli's Prince, when all is said, is nothing but a supremely shifty man, and we feel unable to recognize (sp) in the creation of a supremely shifty man a grand intellectual feat.[5]

CvC brings both structure and uncertainty to study of war, and Machiavelli did that also to politics. Machiavelli wanted to make a Prince certain of his rein, but that meant he had to accommodate many uncertain variables. In fact, the power of a Prince was not really just in his own self, or the strength of his arms, or his people, but in being able to manipulate all of them to his own advantage, and being able to out play his opponent’s use of same. No advantage or disadvantage was ever fixed, hope was never lost, but doom was always lurking.

I want to make sure you parse out the aspects of the trinity correctly and I don’t think your current construction does this. Another depiction “trinity” or CvC’s “dreifaltegkeit” that may be better suited would be Jeronimo Cosida’s unnamed illustration which says “Father is not the Son, Son is not the Spirit, Spirit is not the Father; Father is God, Son is God, Spirit is God”

Converted to suit CvC’s use of Machiavelli, you could say “the government is not the people, the people are not the military, the military is not the government, but all three are combined in war.” The purpose of the trinity is not to depict a process, but a construction. I felt like your work, with arrows, migrated towards process when that was not necessary. Machiavelli, and CvC, simply needed to remind people that all three factors were inexorably linked. The importance of the people would be “discovered” again in WWI (Coventry effect, for instance) and would become the overriding variable in Vietnam.


Clausewitz’s great contribution was to “build a snowmobile.” He took the philosophical epistemology of his era, which gave him a means of refining “truth.” He then directed that system to a study of war and availed himself of a Newtonian system to look at cause, effect and engagement. He further located war as a nexus between multiple independent but fused factions. I hope that this is a useful addition to your conception of CvC’s subjective, objective, and trinity.

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[1] XII. How it happens that every one does not come equally to know this. Those who not philosophized in order have had other opinions on this subject, because they never distinguished with sufficient care the mind from the body. For, although they had no difficulty in believing that they themselves existed, and that they had a higher assurance of this than of any other thing, nevertheless, as they did not observe that by THEMSELVES, they ought here to understand their MINDS alone [when the question related to metaphysical certainty]; and since, on the contrary, they rather meant their bodies which they saw with their eyes, touched with their hands, and to which they erroneously attributed the faculty of perception, they were prevented from distinctly apprehending the nature of the mind. Descartes, Rene (2010-01-20). The Works of Rene Descartes (Kindle Locations 1329-1336), Part I, XVII, Kindle Edition.

[2] Introduction to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, The Lectures of 1825-26, Vol. III: Medieval and Modern Philosophy, ed. Robert F. Brown, trans. R.F. Brown and J.M. Stewart, Berkeley, 1990, 144.

[3] Karl Ludwig Michelet (in Volumes 13-15 of Hegel's Werke, first edition 1833-36, second edition 1840-44),

[4] Heuser, Beatrice, Reading Clausewitz, Pimlico, 6.