Day 174 of A Year of War and Peace
It made me deeply blue to listen to Gary Kasparov, a hero of mine, criticize War and Peace as being outdated due to its heavy inclusion of philosophy. That critique, however, cannot be ignored. The novel does boast its fair share of philosophy, particularly in chapters such as today’s. In keeping, then, with the philosophical currents of today’s chapter let’s grapple with one of the twentieth century’s most influential philosophers, Friedrich August von Hayek and his essay “The Facts of the Social Sciences.”
In that philosophical essay Hayek argues against three schools of thought: Logical Positivism, Collectivist Positivism, and the German Historical School. He found fault with the emphasis on objectivity these schools applied to the social sciences. Instead, Hayek believed that there are no objective historical facts distinct from the individual human mind. That is, there can be no true objectivity in the social sciences because the subject of the social sciences, human beings, are unfathomably subjective. Therefore social science facts are not objective but, rather, wholly subjective and cannot be referenced without relating to how individual human minds interpret reality and interact with each other.
In today’s chapter Prince Andrei Bolkonsky seems to beat Hayek to this insight as he contemplates the science of war during a war council called by Tsar Alexander. Pfuel and the other members of the council are the thinkers Hayek argued against: they have their theories of war based on indisputable, objective fact. Pfuel himself says that his plan of war is full proof because every single contingency has been accounted for.
Andrei listens in total disbelief. He understands that these plans for war will only work if it is known what character the war will take. But that’s impossible:
Prince Andrei, listening to this polyglot talk and to these surmises, plans, refutations, and shouts, felt nothing but amazement at what they were saying. A thought that had long since and often occurred to him during his military activities — the idea that there is not and cannot be any science of war, and that therefore there can be no such thing as a military genius — now appeared to him an obvious truth. “What theory and science is possible about a matter the conditions and circumstances of which are unknown and cannot be defined, especially when the strength of the acting forces cannot be ascertained? No one was or is able to foresee in what condition our or the enemy’s armies will be in a day’s time, and no one can gauge the force of this or that detachment. Sometimes — when there is not a coward at the front to shout, ‘We are cut off!’ and start running, but a brave and jolly lad who shouts, ‘Hurrah!’ — a detachment of five thousand is worth thirty thousand, as at Schön Grabern, while at times fifty thousand run from eight thousand, as at Austerlitz. What science can there be in a matter in which, as in all practical matters, nothing can be defined and everything depends on innumerable conditions, the significance of which is determined at a particular moment which arrives no one knows when?
It seems as if Hayek is in agreement with Prince Andrei here: the social science facts of the science of war are not born of objectivity but the unknowable subjective experience of those individuals participating in the war itself.
Part of Gary Kasparov’s critique of War and Peace is that, contrary to the work of Dostoevsky which focuses more on human nature, Tolstoy’s novel delves too much into abstract philosophy. The project of A Year of War and Peace is to bring that abstraction down a bit and empower individual readers of the novel to learn from the experiences of the fictitious characters therein. Prince Andrei, I believe, offers readers a superlative example of virtuous living in today’s chapter.
Prince Andrei seems to be the only one today who is willing to live according to his personal code. The others gathered at the council offer their views but none put their skin in the game. In fact, their goals sometimes seem to be winning favor with the Tsar rather than winning the war. Prince Andrei, on the other hand, no doubt thinking about the importance of the subjective, individual soldier in the war, sacrifices his standing in court circles to join up with the army instead of remaining in the Tsar’s inner circle.
Verily I say unto thee: Of all men the most negligent is he that disputeth idly and seeketh to advance himself over his brother. Say, O brethren! Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.
Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words