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Raymond Aron - Biography

Raymond Aron, Ph.D., was an important French philosopher, sociologist, political scientist and journalist whose oeuvre would serve as a model to generations of analysts and politicians worldwide. He was born on March 14, 1905 and died on October 17, 1983. His critical thought would be turned towards the study of totalitarianism, liberalism and international relations. Raymond Aron’s political positions against Marxism and in favor of atlanticism would position him against many of the ideas, typically pacifist ones, of other philosophers of his time. A quote from Raymond Aron that helps defining his way of thinking is the following call for a more unifying thinking: “Whether one is from the right or from the left, we are always hemiplegic.” Indeed, Raymond Aron would always want to be as accurate as possible in his analysis at the same time as dealing with as many concepts and ideas as possible whether they are from the left or from the right. Free of any doctrine, Raymond Aron as a researcher who would work in the tradition of Max Weber (1864 - 1920), would develop an important new concept, that of “secular religions”. By this term he would intend to highlight the deeply dogmatic nature of Socialist, Communist and Nazi ideologies.

Raymond Aron would live through the rise of Nazism but also of totalitarian ideologies in Russia. He would become a columnist for major French newspapers and also a professor at prestigious institutions such as the Collège de France and the Sorbonne University. Before any of this, however, Raymond Aron as a student would enter the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, which is one of the most sought after French school for humanities studies, and where he would have Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 - 1980), Paul Nizan (1905 - 1940) and Georges Canguilhem (1904 - 1995) as classmates and with whom he would initially be friends. In 1928 Raymond Aron would more than successfully pass his agrégation in philosophy (French University high-level competitive examination for the recruitment of professors and often the gateway to PhD studies), getting first place, while the same year Sartre would fail, only to be getting first place in his turn the following year.

During a stay at the German city of Cologne in 1930 and 1931, Raymond Aron would discover the sociology of Max Weber. After having written a thesis in 1938 entitled Introduction à la philosophie de l’histoire (“Introduction to the Philosophy of History”), he would teach in the southwestern France city of Bordeaux. Because of the war Raymond Aron would eventually leave for London where he would become director of the newspaper “La France Libre” (Free France), which had been created under the leadership of the Générale de Gaulle (1890 - 1970).

Back in Paris after the liberation Raymond Aron would teach and work for newspapers. In 1948 he would join the rightist Rassemblement du peuple français (“Rally of French People”) which would earn him an argument with Jean-Paul Sartre about the Soviet regime and the image of the left that such rally would give. Aron would respond by publishing in 1955 l’Opium des intellectuels (“The Opium of the Intellectuals”), which would become his most famous work. There he denounces the blindness of intellectuals, Jean-Paul Sartre’s included, in relation to Communist regimes.

Raymond Aron’s thought would combine two fields, philosophy and sociology, the latter being strongly influenced by the thought of Max Weber, whom Raymond Aron would actually contribute in making known in France. While in his philosophy Raymond Aron sets out to analyze man’s historical condition, he would seek in his sociological work to understand historical events in the light of understanding both the actors in such events as well as the narrative they have for making sense of them. This would give birth to his 1960 book Dimensions de la conscience historique (“Dimensions of Historical Consciousness”). At the same time, Raymond Aron would also explore the relationships that tend to develop between social structures and political regimes in industrial societies, as in his 1962 book entitled Dix-huit leçons sur la société industrielle (“18 Lectures on Industrial Society”). The 1965 Démocratie et totalitarisme (“Democracy and Totalitarianism”) would show us Aron is opposed to the so-called democratic conceptions as seen by regimes in the East, which would eventually lead him to reflect on the bipolarity of the modern world, between East and West, as in his 1976 book Penser la guerre: Clausewitz (“Clausewitz: Philosopher of War”).

Raymond Aron would always position himself as the advocate for liberalism in the broad sense of that term. His sense of liberalism would lead him to get rid of any pre-established doctrines. As a result, he would often be categorized outside of the various sociological trends and in this way, he would never be either the creator or the disciple of any sociological currents. Raymond Aron would be influenced by figures such as Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 - 1859), Karl Marx (1818 - 1883), and of course Weber, all sources that he will make extensive use of in his 1965 Démocratie et totalitarisme(“Democracy and Totalitarianism). The fact that he would be criticized both by the left and by the right for his liberal positions, together with the fact that he did not really belong to a school of thought would make him an atypical figure of French sociology.

Raymond Aron’s political though would deeply be rooted in the historical context of the Cold War. In a very real sense, the main goal of his publications would consist in trying to rally neutral intellectuals, that is, figures not belonging to the Communist Party but who nevertheless would have sympathy for Marxist ideology. In addition, it should be noted that Aron would also become a renowned international relations theorist. For him the growing goal for a global civil society is synonymous with utopia and international life usually is synonymous with destruction. In his view, international relations must be specific and also distinct from the states’ domestic politics.

Raymond Aron believed there could not be a general theory on international relations. In this way, he would refuse a causal, explanatory conception of it. Instead he would support a comprehensive conception through sociological analysis of the goals that states can have. His analysis would indeed be a praxéologie or a decision theory of international relations, which Aron would try to develop in his 1962 Paix et guerre entre les nations (“Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations”). He would thus be categorized as being part of the classic realism tradition in the field of international relations. Such orientation for Raymond Aron would however be challenged with the advent of systematic theories like the neo-realism of Kenneth Waltz (1924 - ) with his Theory of International Politics in 1979.

All in all, Raymond Aron’s contribution to the theory of international relations is original. Even if a conventional interpretation of his Peace and War place him in the category of realist thinkers such as Edward Hallett Carr (1892 - 1982), Hans Morgenthau (1904 - 1980), or even Henry Kissinger (1923 - ) who would in fact acknowledge the influence of Raymond Aron’s thinking on his, it should be noted that Raymond Aron’s conception of international relations is quite different from that of these authors. Raymond Aron actually falls more in the liberal tradition than in realpolitik. For Raymond Aron insists on the importance of moral considerations in international relations. Additionally, he does not adhere to the materialism of the realist school of thought but instead highlights the critical role of values and norms. However Raymond Aron is not, strictly speaking, an idealist liberal either. It is difficult to classify Aron in a particular school of thought because his very thinking is hostile to such categorization. It is important to note that there are important similarities between his thought and that of the English school mainly represented by Hedley Bull (1932 - 1985). Indeed in both, common institutions, values and norms are acknowledged for the existence of a global society.

Having worked at the Figaro newspaper, the oldest daily newspaper in France, from 1947 to 1977, he would leave the position in order to work at the weekly newspaper l’Express where he would be president of the board of directors. This would be a position he would hold all the way until the time of his death. Having been a major influence on many, Raymond Aron would die on October 17h 1983 at the age of 78 years old in his native city of Paris.

Raymond Aron, was a French philosopher. (March 14, 1905 - October 17, 1983)