In his "The French Revolution, a History", 3.3.II, Thomas Carlyle writes the following:

"for all battle is well said to be misunderstanding"

He is speaking in reference to the terrible conflict between the Girondins and the Jacobins, after the execution of Louis the XVI in 1793. Both sides envisioned a grand Republic of France, but according to Carlyle, they fought to the death because they misunderstood each other's visions of how that republic should be implemented.

I am troubled by this passage: I understand that many 'battles' are indeed the result of misunderstanding - often our words or actions do not accurately reflect our thoughts and emotions, or are misconstrued by others. The result is often conflict. Perhaps that was indeed the case with the Girondins and the Jacobins.

My gut reaction to Carlyle's assertion is that he's unquestionably wrong: There are many battles, perhaps the greatest battles that have been fought, that are not due to misunderstanding, but arise from deep seated conflicts of interest or world views that are in direct opposition: "Good vs Evil"; "Haves vs Have Nots"; "Conservative vs Progressive", etc.

I found that Kant in "Metaphysical Elements of Justice", states:

"in the right of nations to go to war and to carry on hostilities is the legitimate way by which they prosecute their rights by their own power when they regard themselves as injured; and this is done because in that state the method of a juridical process, although the only one proper to settle such disputes, cannot be adopted"

This point of view seems clearly at odds with that expressed by Carlyle: Can we say that "the legitimate way by which they prosecute their rights by their own power when they regard themselves as injured" can be interpreted as simply a misunderstanding? A state regards itself as injured because it misunderstood the intentions of its enemies? If State A cuts off the water supply of State B and State A goes to war with State B because of such, what misunderstanding is there?

Nietzsche: Ecce Homo -

"It is nothing but fanaticism and beautiful soulism to expect very much (or even, much only) from humanity when it has forgotten how to wage war."

Can Nietzsche's assertion here (and in many other places) that the waging of war is a fundamental and essential component of the human spirit be resolved with Carlyle's contention? Carlyle's opinion seems quite clear: if people would simply take the time to sit down and talk to one another and clear up their 'misunderstandings', the conflicting points of view that lead to conflict could be resolved - 'understood' - and there would be no need for 'battle'. It seems that Carlyle longs for state of affairs that Nietzsche would deem "nothing but fanaticism and beautiful soulism".

One quite graphic historical example that seems to fly in face of Carlyle's statement is WW II: Hitler's belief in Aryan supremacy spawned in him endless ambition and a sense of entitlement, and so he set out to conquer Europe and eventually the USA, in the belief that such was the destiny of the Aryan Nation. There was no misunderstanding about it: Hitler's idealogy (his madness....) spurred him to attempt to conquer the Western World (eventually the entire world...) and if other nations did not go to war against him, he would have proceeded to do exactly that. I could cite numerous other examples from History.

Thought Experiment: Two adjacent states, one in the north, and the other south of the first. There is a river that runs north/south and supplies water to both states. Over time, the population of the northerly state increases such that they deem it necessary to dam the river to supply water to their growing population, thereby cutting off the water supply of the southerly state. As a result, the southerly state wages a war against its northern neighbor, to prevent it from damming the river.

How would Carlyle explain such a conflict? Where is the misunderstanding that caused this conflict? The actions of the northerly state are in direct conflict with the interests of its neighbor to the south, simply due to its own need to supply its grown population with water. There was no misunderstanding that seeded this conflict. (And I believe that my thought experiment is far more than just that: Throughout History, wars have been waged due to exactly such circumstances)

From what I know of Carlyle, his roots and outlook were decidedly Christian. Is his assertion a reflection of a Christian or Utopian point of view? The longing for a day when there will no longer be 'misunderstandings'?

Do the lessons of History refute Carlyle's assertion? Who expresses a philosophical position in direct opposition to Carlyle's? What is the basis for their position?

  • 1
    What exactly are you looking for someone to explain to you here? What have you been reading or studying that's made this interesting or important? What have you found so far, what hypotheses have you formed? --Polling for "philosophical views" is perhaps a bit too broad to be entirely constructive.
    – Joseph Weissman
    May 28, 2013 at 14:42
  • So, when I'm indicating this is a "poll" I'm trying to underscore the point that asking "how might various philosophers respond" to something -- this isn't answerable in the sense that there is something specific you're looking for an explanation about. Directed, focused questions work much better with the SE network format (practical, answerable concerns.)
    – Joseph Weissman
    May 28, 2013 at 16:47
  • @JosephWeissman: you seem to enjoy closing my questions. :-) But I am NOT polling - I want to use the resources that this site provides, to better understand Carlyle's position and assess my own reaction to it. And there are certainly very specific answers: What would Kant say about Carlyle's statement, what would Nietzsche say, what would Hobbes say, etc. Do you only allow questions with ONE answer?! I don't think that's how philosophy is supposed to work. I clarified my question:'Where does Carlyle's statement fit into the spectrum of philosophy at large', and added some references.
    – Vector
    May 28, 2013 at 17:04
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    @ReallyRational: Why not ask each of those questions separately? Kant, Nietszche & Hobbes on Carlyle? May 28, 2013 at 17:06
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    The format of SE (as an entire network) favors practical, specific questions -- not polls. I don't particularly feel like repeating myself here. Please feel free to bring this up on meta or chat if you feel like you need some additional clarification or support towards a more constructive reformulation.
    – Joseph Weissman
    May 28, 2013 at 17:39

2 Answers 2


Avita Ronell, an American philosopher in the continental tradition argues in support for unintelligible, the flaw and breakdown. She has said:

If we could communicate, we wouldn't need to communicate

Communication happens both by speech and force; as the military theorist Clausewitz put it:

War is a continuation of politics by other means

This supports Carlyles stance.

Kant in his Kingdom of Ends (which is is essentially the Kingdom of God in rational terms) where each man is an end and views the other as never wholly as means but also an end in himself, supports this view. To go to war with some people is to view them as less than as human as yourself, to treat them as a means rather than as an end as yourself and your own countrymen (or tribe or clan).

In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is at the head of a war-party. On confronting the opposing side he sees his own brothers and countrymen. He throws down his bow and weeps and asks advice from the Sage Krishna. Are his own brothers, his own countrymen who he is best aquainted with? With whom he treats as equals? With whom all misunderstandings is resolved successfully? Krishna after a digression on the nature of Brahman advises him to do his duty. The aftermath is devastation. This has been taken as an injunction against war - Ghandhi's nonviolent politics was inspired by it. He successfully used it to ensure against the British Raj to view Indias people as People.

Finally Hegel, uses his dialectic to theorise about his World-Mind where 'communication' is perfect. It is the still point and the point towards where the world spirit is evolving to. In this final state no war and no politics can be envisaged for that is an example of a dialectic.

It's a utopian view. Nietszche was looking for practical morality. In which case conflict is a neccessary thing, as the ideal utopian point is somewhere beyond our limited horizons. Utopian can have pejorative connotations, I am not using it in that sense here. Its an ideal point to aim towards or we are aimed towards.

In the specific example that you have chosen, Maynard Keynes, the economist argued for a much more generous peace in his book The economic consequences of the peace in 1919 after the end of the First World War. That is a more understanding and more honorable peace.

Keynes points to the material violation of the terms regarding reparations, territorial adjustments, and an equitable economic settlement as a blot on the honor of the western allies, and a primary cause of a future war.

He ends his book saying:

"But who can say how much is endurable, or in what direction men will seek at last to escape from their misfortunes?"

Essentially he was saying that the punishing reparations imposed on Germany allowed for the conditions within which Hitler could rise. Had Germanys situation and position not been misunderstood after the end of the First World War this may never have happened.

  • so essentially you are agree that Carlyle's assertion represents a utopian point of view. See edit "How would Carlyle explain this case...." - Indeed, if humanity achieved Hegel's 'World-Mind' even such conflicts would never arise. But I doubt that Nietszche would find much satisfaction in any of that... [ please join my campaign to reopen this question. :-) ]
    – Vector
    May 28, 2013 at 22:06
  • Yes, it's a utopian view. Nietszche was looking for practical morality. In which case conflict is a neccessary thing. Done. May 28, 2013 at 22:18
  • if you will add this last comment to your answer, I will accept it. (if the question is reopened...)
    – Vector
    May 29, 2013 at 3:51
  • "If we could communicate, we wouldn't need to communicate". I disagree vehemently with this assertion: as long as humans remain individuals with unique experiences, there will be a need to communicate - such is our nature: 'Man is a social animal'. Does she mean when we have evolved into the Borg?
    – Vector
    May 29, 2013 at 4:45
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    She's using paradox to illustrate a thesis; as the Cretans liar paradox illustrates a certain thesis about truth. She is also talking about perfect communication in a similar way that Hegels world mind is fully conscious of itself. I doubt she watches Star Trek. The Borg I think is a projection of americas fear of communism - have they not noticed yet that the cold war is over yet? May 29, 2013 at 4:52

I'd suggest the monarchical wars in Europe in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries as producing literal battles when the situation was reasonably well understood. Arguably, there would have been less fighting if the monarchs had understood who was likely to win, but there were sometimes political reasons to fight even at a loss.

Carlyle seems to think that both sides wanted essentially the same thing, but disagreed greatly on how to achieve it. As long as everybody is committed to one ideal, that works, but once people are dealing with their own good it doesn't work.

  • This appears to be a comment - another example - not an answer.
    – Vector
    May 28, 2013 at 16:13
  • Carlyle's statement was put as a universal claim. A good counterexample is enough to disprove it. May 29, 2013 at 1:01
  • see Mozibur Ullah's answer; "but once people are dealing with their own good it doesn't work." That is what I also believe, as per my examples (see edit for a simple thought experiment), however Carlyle makes a blanket statement and as Mozibur Ullah' answer illustrates, one can extend the idea of 'misunderstanding' a great deal, such that it might encompass situations such as the ones you have described.
    – Vector
    May 29, 2013 at 3:55

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