Carl von Clausewitz and the Invention of the Conservative Nation-State: Retrieving Instrumental Reflexivity in the Strategic Tradition

Author: Philippe Dufort

Abstract: The necessity to innovate and profoundly reform the State was a shared concern for statesmen and strategists during the tumultuous period associated with Napoleonic warfare. The article revisits the 1807 ‘revolution from above’ orchestrated by a few Prussian officers who sought to prepare their antiquated State to face Napoleon’s Grande Armée. A contextualist historical approach uncovers how the instrumental use of reflexivity is a core component of Clausewitz’s strategic legacy. This study suggests that a revisionist reading of Clausewitz’s legacy is characterised by a highly disruptive and dangerously subversive cognitive practice: instrumental reflexivity. This approach calls for constantly reworking one’s own ontological lens and diffusing adapted ontologies as essential dimensions of war making. These practices are critical for widening the ‘art of the possible’ in military affairs and for radical innovations in state reforms. The article concludes by outlining the difficult relation between military institutions and reflexive military thinkers as their subversive intellectual legacies tend to be systematically suppressed.

* Note: this paper is part of the Special Issue of Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, titled ‘Reflexive Military Practitioners: Design Thinking and Beyond’. The full issue can be accessed at:

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