David R. Henderson  

Stephen Hicks on War and Philosophy

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My friend and fellow immigrant from Canada, philosopher Stephen Hicks, has posted a 9-minute video in which he considers the major wars of the 20th century. His point is that philosophy is practical and that one can see that by considering the philosophical ideas that animated the major protagonists in those wars.

I think it's a good try but it fails. And it fails because he leaves out the biggest protagonist of the biggest war of the 20th century. Go to about the 3-minute point and you'll see what I mean.

My guess is that Stephen knew this would undercut his point. Otherwise, why leave it out? But a defender of him on Facebook claimed that it doesn't, that it's "the exception that proves the rule." Maybe, but the exception is so huge.

So here are two questions:

1. (Easy one). What major country does Stephen leave out of which war?

2. If Stephen were to tell the whole story with this country in the picture, would his story make sense?

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Stephen Hicks writes:

I added this update to the post, David:
Update: A good comment from David R. Henderson about the Soviet Union in World War II prompts this update. In my first hand-sketched version of the chart, I had the Soviet Union on the list of belligerents, but in parentheses with the idea of adding a footnote. I rejected that as cumbersome, and I cut that for this reason: For 74 years the Soviet Union was the enemy of the market-oriented democracies, especially the United States. For four years in the middle of that era, the Americans and Soviets allied militarily in order to defeat a more immediately dangerous enemy, the Nazis. It was a marriage of desperate convenience, despite their deep antagonism for each other. When the Nazi threat was neutralized, the Soviets and Americans immediately resumed their longer-term hostilities. So I agree that the omission is worth asking about, but as a footnote to the historical-philosophical thesis of the video.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Stephen Hicks,
Thanks. I think it's more than a footnote.
Also, I think the philosophy that comes to dominate both sides in all-out wars is collectivism. Look, for example, at Jimmy Doolittle bombing "the Japs" in Tokyo, a civilian target, because "they" bombed Pearl Harbor.

Remke writes:

It's a little worse than that. Mr Hick's leaves out Russia from the First World War (where it had been explicitly allied with Republican France since 1892). Russia here was an absolute monarchy that makes Imperial Germany look positively democratic in comparison.

John Brennan writes:

It should also be pointed out that leaving Russia out of the WWI ledger (in which its actions were instrumental in starting the war(mobilizing on behalf of Serbia) and extending the war (exiting due to the Russian Revolution) is a problematic omission. His omission of the influence of the German Historical School (outside of Hegel and Neitzche) and American Pragmatism (especially through Lippmann, Croly, Dewey and the NEW REPUBLIC magazine) also proceeds to leave his argument without much credence. Finally, prior to WWI, the two rising nations reliant on the framework of international capitalism were the United States and Germany.

Stephen Hicks writes:

Thanks for your comments, Remke and John Brennan. Lots and lots of countries got left out of the lists in the video: For World War I, I omitted India, New Zealand, Italy, Japan, and several others (including even Serbia). For World War II, I omitted China, Austria, Hungary, and several others. The question is not whether the lists are exhaustive but whether the countries mentioned are the key countries to include in explaining (a) why the wars took place and (b) why the main belligerents were arrayed on the sides they were. If you'd think an omitted country should be upgraded, I'm certainly open to argument.

Tim Worstall writes:

"that it's "the exception that proves the rule.""

Worth recalling that this meaning of "prove" is not "and therefore is true" but that this is the case which "tests" the rule.

And if a rule fails such proof then it does indeed fail.

David R. Henderson writes:

@John Brennan,
I agree with you that WWI is problematic also because there were so many American Progressives who were important in pushing for that war. In 1966, Ayn Rand wrote an article, "The Roots of War," in which she discussed this. One highlight is her quote from Herbert Croly, editor of The New Republic: "The American nation needs the tonic of a serious moral advenĀ­ture."
@Tim Worstall,
Thanks. I learn something new every day. The quote always struck me as strange. Wikipedia has a good entry on it here.

Hazel Meade writes:

The answer is the USSR from WWII, which was allied with the Western Liberal, capitalist democracies, despite being an authoritarian communist state. That totally ruins his dichotomy between the states on the left hand and the right hand side.

Stephen Hicks writes:

The USSR in World War II was first allied with Germany. In 1939 they agreed to divide Poland between them: the Nazis invaded Poland in early September and the Soviets invaded in mid-September. Two years later, the Germans turned on the Russians, and the Russians allied with the Western powers for the rest of the war.
So if you want to add the Soviets to the chart, they would have to be on the right side from 1939-1941 and the left side from 1941-1945.
But, again, I think the Soviets are a side issue to explaining why the war occurred and why the alliances were formed the way they were.

Chris H writes:

Stephen Hicks writes:

The question is not whether the lists are exhaustive but whether the countries mentioned are the key countries to include in explaining (a) why the wars took place and (b) why the main belligerents were arrayed on the sides they were. If you'd think an omitted country should be upgraded, I'm certainly open to argument.

I think it's very hard to not include Russia in WW1 in your list. Russia and France were actually formally allied, something that neither the United States or United Kingdom actually were. Indeed there was a lot of doubt that even the UK would join the war on France's side until Germany invaded Belgium, while no one doubted that France and Russia would go to war together (the United States obviously wasn't nearly as likely to side with the other liberal democratic states). Perhaps even more than this, it was Russia's commitment to Serbia (another not exactly democratic or free market government) which actually turned a fairly standard European diplomatic scuffle into open war. Meanwhile, direct provocations by Germany against France or the UK, such as the the Moroccan Crises or the Anglo-German naval arms race proved insufficient to spark war.

A case can be made with these wars that broadly democratic and free market countries do tend to prefer other liberal democratic states in international affairs, but the history of the 20th century actually makes that case very difficult for the more collectivist sides. Though Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union sided together to conquer Poland, they despised each other's governing philosophies. Even governments theoretically under the exact same totalitarian philosophy, such as Communist China and the USSR have found themselves to be enemies as often as they have been friends. Perhaps it's not all philosophies which manage to bind together international coalitions, but solely those arising originally from the classical liberal tradition? The only problem I'd have with that thesis is the history of the 19th century seems to argue against that (the history of American-British, French-British, and American-French tensions at various points in that century being the examples that come to mind, and all while these countries were pursuing liberal philosophies).

Carl writes:


Wrong, wrong, wrong.

John Brennan writes:


I would tend to agree with you, if only for WWI. Perhaps the only significant work written on the philosophical origins of this war, by Ralph Barton Perry--a philosophical pragmatist--minimized the influence of Nietzsche on the Germans (not entirely convincing though), and placed the Americans and the French firmly in the pragmatist, not the capitalist, camp. The title of the work is "The present conflict of ideals; a study of the philosophical background of the world war" available free from Google Books for the Internet Archive. It hearkens back to a time when philosophy was used more prominently in public debate, something I admire Dr. Hicks for doing.

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