Sunday, November 29, 2009


We fight our "political wars" through words.

I could be objected that we fight them through the media, technological vehicle of words and images. Which is correct. And yet, no, it is of words I want to speak here.

Words are vehicles of concepts: that elusive something by which we can say, of what we hear or read, "I understand". Well, that's not necessarily the case, because we can be mistaken, and we didn't actually understand anything.

To find the way to decide which is the case, was the concern of philosophy since the beginning. And, from the beginning, they distinguished two levels of speech: that of "concept" strictly speaking, the single words we use, and that of "judgment", the sentences we make with them.

So, let's say, we can be mistaken in our judgments, and take for example a foe for a friend; or we can be confused in our concepts, and not know who is actually a foe as distinguished from a friend.

To be concrete – because it is here that the real philosophical concern lies – we can find ourselves in need to distinguish between different kind of foes: internal or external. That's because internal foes are subject to our ordinary criminal justice, external foes are subjects to the laws of war.

To be still more concrete: what is a terrorist, an internal or external foe? A criminal violating our laws, or an enemy waging war against our country?

Here you have it: war.

Our judgment on terrorism turns around this word. In discussing it we can get all heated up, and make war the occasion of a war of words. I mean, partisanship takes over, and, in taking sides, parties confront each other as external foes.

So, the whole matter depends on what we mean by the words we use: in this case on how we define "war". Of course, if we are able or interested in defining it. In fact, we could be rather more interested in keeping the ambiguity in the use of the word, better to play on the emotions it arouses. And, if we have the administrative power to do it, pass a judgment on terrorism based on the negation of the war it carries on, and hence of the label of warriors to terrorists, that would make them subject to trial by a military court for the vile way in which they waged their war.

In the confusion of our world the neat definition of war as armed conflict among states doesn't hold anymore. But I don't know whether it is insipience or bad faith, not wanting to acknowledge the persistent distinction of internal and external foes, by which I have tentatively defined war.

Think, now, of how the war of words would redouble itself if, on the top of what I said, we came to speak "religious wars".



Maria said...

Do you think we might be headed towards (or already in) what could be called a "post-war" era?

Humbly Presumptuous said...

Dear Maria, I am not quite sure of what you are asking me. With some guess, I could try an answer; but why don't you articulate more the thought behind you question, so that I can answer you better?

Maria said...

Well, just going off your last paragraph, the word "war" has become so ambiguous, esp. in the mouths of politicians - "war on terror" "war on poverty" "war on drugs" "war on crime." (Interestingly, all internal foes, if you can call them that).... implicitly re-naming American criminals and druggies as "external foes."

We don't fight "wars" like we used to. It just occurred to me as I was reading your post that we might be moving towards a "post-war" era. Iraq and Afghanistan are entrenchments, but we're not fighting against their states, as you point out.

Or maybe it's just that the definition of war is changing...
but we need a word to define such a conflict between states.

I'm intrigued by the "negation of war" idea, if you feel like writing a little more about that.