Philosophy and the Great War. An interview with professor Pierandrea Amato

The below interview with Pierandrea Amato is dedicated to the Italian book La filosofia e la grande guerra ("Philosophy and the Great War", Mimesis, 2016) he recently edited with contributions of Luigi Alfieri, Alain Brossat, Giulio Maria Chiodi, Sandro Gorgone, Giuliana Gregorio, Gianluca Miglino, Giuseppe Raciti, Caterina Resta, Francesca Rizzo, Luca Salza and Pierandrea Amato himself. After many posts on literature, sociological and historical interpretation of the First World War we wanted today to give evidence to philosophy and its meeting with the global war of 1914-1918.

Q: Can we consider three different "philosophies": before, during and after the Great War? In other words and in order to keep the question simple, is there a philosophy that prepares to war, a philosophy that changes during the war years and a philosophy born in the battlefields?
A:It is certainly possible to establish a relationship between philosophy and the First World War, paying attention at the risk of a too simple determinism. Anyway it is true, as Gianluca Miglino (who teaches German Literature at the University of Messina) clearly demonstrates in his essay, that in Germany the philosophy of Erlebnis contributed – through a particular interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought – to create the cultural conditions for the beginning of the war. In this climate, for example, a philosopher like Troeltsch signed manifests pro-war. On the other hand, it is true (in the volume we remember Heidegger’s name) that the First World War creates a revolution of the philosophical grammar, giving to philosophy the task to elaborate the conjunction between thought and existence.

Q: Which is the main goal of this "composite" book about the philosophy and the Great War that you have curated?
A: First of all, the aim of the book is trying to demonstrate that the cultural problems, raised by the First World War, in occasion of its centenary, are extremely actual. In this sense, we would like to demonstrate that paradoxically nowadays the First World War is not the main object of historical knowledge. In particular, it was our intention to point out that the Great War opens one of cultural fundamental problems of the Twentieth century: how to think the unthinkable, namely the catastrophe.

Q: Could you mention the main philosophers and writers studied in the book and could you summarize their positions in front of the war?
A: It is notpossible for me now to summarize the different positions of philosophers and writers contained into the volume. But I can add that a lot of the authors( Benjamin, Breton, Freud, Thomas Mann, Tzara, Zweig, Heidegger, Croce e Gentile) are discussed starting from a precise point of view: how to tell, represent, think the horror of the end of an era?

Q: Which is according to you and all the contributors of this book the most relevant help that philosophy gives in the understanding of the reasons of the First World War and also in the understanding of what comes after?
A: The First World War is the apex of the triumph of modern industrialization and of State political hegemony. In this perspective, I will say that philosophy let us see that the Great War is, at the same time, the completion and the sunset of modern humanism. This means that it is not a kind of pathology, but the extreme and destructive expression of modern humanism.

Q: Any reading suggestion to go further with this topic of philosophy and the Great War? Thanks.
A: After the publication of the book, our research has expanded to the study of other disciplines (cinema, literature, photography, linguistic, archeology, geography). In purely philosophical field, compared to the authors discussed in the book, I would add only two other names: the 1918 first edition of Ernst Bloch’s Geistder Utopie and Paul Valery's considerations about the First World War (La crise d’esprit, 1919).

"Prophets" of the Great War: the modern warfare according to Jan Gotlib Bloch

The titles says “prophets” but as everybody can easily figure out it doesn't make much sense to use the category of "prophet" to write about the historians, philosophers or writers somehow able to predict what happened in Europe between 1914 and 1918. It’s not a matter of being like the Cumaean Sibyl or Nostradamus but it’s rather the result of a deep analysis made possible by the use of all the tools and the knowledge (and also the creativity of thoughts) that one has. Beside Friedrich Engels, whose predictions about a new annihilating global war are well known, there is also a Polish banker, particularly active in the construction and development of the modern Russian railways, who can be ascribed to the list of “prophets”. His name is Jan Gotlib Bloch (1836 – 1902). Strongly impressed by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 he is the author of La guerre future (Paris, 1898). His contributions to the study of the modern warfare and military thought is relevant in the analysis of what the Great War turned out. We would like to suggest this online resource, namely the book of his renown English book Is War Now Impossible? (London, 1899).