Saturday, 5 May 2012

De-Kant-ing Wargames

It would seem that my view of wargaming is heading is a rather alarming direction. I have argued that we cannot know battles as themselves, battles qua battles. In fact, I would go a little further than that, and argue, pace the Duke of Wellington, that no-one can have a full view of a battle. There is no such object as a single, objective, view of a battle.

Furthermore, I have argued that we base our wargames, and in particular, our wargame rules on both empirical data, that is accounts of battles weather first hand or second, and some sort of a priori rational argument.

Now this, to me, is starting to sound a bit like Immanuel Kant’s arguments about the world. I have, I admit, been reading a bit about Kant recently, but I have not read the man himself, for the simple reason that everyone says he is very difficult. Even Roger Scruton’s Very Short Introduction to Kant suggests that the reader would do well the read that twice.

Fortunately, I do not think I have to do the whole Kant thing, but I can proceed analogously to try to see if this view works for wargames. What I do not want to get into is whether wargames are a category in Kant’s thought, and so on, so proper Kant scholars might like to look away now.

Now, I think we can argue, and possibly agree, that there is no one view of a battle. The various participants, from camp follower up to general, have various observations to make about how the battle developed, what happened and even who won. Bear in mind that even that last point could be disputed between the sides, after all. So, by analogy with Kant, we can argue that we have no access to the ‘battle in itself’.

What we do have is access to one or more accounts of a battle – in Kant’s terminology, we have some phenomena, but they do not give us access to the noumena, the battle in itself (Kant uses the term ‘ding an sach’).

So, empirically, we have some phenomenal accounts of what happened at this particular event – a battle.

Now, of course, those people writing the account will have had their own viewpoint, their own categories of interpretation of the events they witnessed, and will have told their stories in accordance with this. So, for example, Xenophon tells us that in one incident, only a few Greeks got back to their camp unscathed. This might indicate to the unwary reader that the force was nearly annihilated, until one realises that the force was ordered to recover the bodies of the fallen, and only a few did so. The rest fled, and so had their honour damaged, and so did not escape unscathed. That sort of thing was obvious to Xenophon and his readers (or listeners), but is not for us.

So, then, we have a set of accounts of a battle, and a formidable battery of interpretation of those accounts, if we care to do a bit of digging into the culture of the time they were written. What we also have is our own viewpoint, which, Kant tells us, is also driven by our senses and our own a priori intuitions.

The sort of thing Kant has in mind here are things like space and time. We cannot make sense of things that happen without some sense of these ideas. Kant argues that we impose these ideas on our senses in order to interpret them; we have no choice, because otherwise we simply land up with sense impressions running past us and no means of interpreting them. As such we would not be able to function.

It is worth noting, in passing, that some of Kant’s thought was directed against David Hume’s ideas, some of which I mentioned recently. Hume argued that all the contents of our minds were in fact sense impressions, and memories of sense impressions. According to Hume, for example, we think that things have cause and effect because the sense impressions appear one after another. In fact, Hume claims, there need be no such linkage. These sorts of idea so appalled Kant when he came across them that it stimulated him into creating his own, complex system of philosophy.

Anyway, the upshot of this for writing wargame rules is that, alongside the empirical data that we may glean from eye witness accounts, synthesised later history and the experience of re-enactors, we have our own, a priori ideas or intuitions. I may think that an English Civil War battle should go in such and such a way. I might have my empirical reasons (‘evidence’) for so believing, but they cannot be untangled from my a priori ideas as to how the battle should go.

At a slightly more prosaic level, I might believe, for example, that having the toy soldiers based on rectangular bases is a good way of simulating a block of troops. My empirical evidence for this might be the diagrams of ECW battles that you see in books and on contemporary etchings. However, the base is an a priori construct which I have imposed, to enable me to think about troop movements and deployment. It is not there in the battle, because the blocks were formed of people who could and did break that formation.

So I seem to left in a slightly dodgy situation. I cannot access the battle as it was, because no-one, not even the participants, can do that. The accounts I have are a mix of the empirical evidence and the interpretation the writers put on them. Furthermore, while I might, as a writer, regard this or that account as being evidence, that is automatically charged with my own a priori intuitions about what could, should, or might have happened, which arise though my own reading, thinking,

And that seems to me to be fairly close to the reason we will never get a good set of wargame rules. As a rule writer, I suppose I should be relieved about that, really.

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