Political Theology

Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty

Paul W. Kahn
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 224
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/kahn15340
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  • Book Info
    Political Theology
    Book Description:

    In this strikingly original work, Paul W. Kahn rethinks the meaning of political theology. In a text innovative in both form and substance, he describes an American political theology as a secular inquiry into ultimate meanings sustaining our faith in the popular sovereign.

    Kahn works out his view through an engagement with Carl Schmitt's 1922 classic, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. He forces an engagement with Schmitt's four chapters, offering a new version of each that is responsive to the American political imaginary. The result is a contemporary political theology. As in Schmitt's work, sovereignty remains central, yet Kahn shows how popular sovereignty creates an ethos of sacrifice in the modern state. Turning to law, Kahn demonstrates how the line between exception and judicial decision is not as sharp as Schmitt led us to believe. He reminds readers that American political life begins with the revolutionary willingness to sacrifice and that both sacrifice and law continue to ground the American political imagination. Kahn offers a political theology that has at its center the practice of freedom realized in political decisions, legal judgments, and finally in philosophical inquiry itself.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52700-2
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. FOREWORD
    (pp. vii-viii)
    DICK HOWARD

    IT IS A PLEASURE TO ADD PAUL W. KAHN’S book to the Political Thought/Political History series. This book broadens the reach of the series, whose premise, expressed in the editor’s introduction to Claude Lefort’s Complications, can be summed up in the phrase “no political thought without history, no historical thought without politics.” Kahn’s book suggests another set of complementary imperatives, “no politics without philosophy, no philosophy without politics.” The Anglo-American discovery of the work of Carl Schmitt has unfortunately been more political than it has been philosophical. Kahn, a professor of law at Yale University, takes the opposite approach; concentrating...

  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Why Political Theology Again
    (pp. 1-30)

    Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty is one of the most famous, as well as one of the most obscure, books in twentieth-century political theory. It is much cited by contemporary political and legal theorists, but those citations often seem to refer to just two canonical sentences: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” and “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”¹ These are indeed critical claims, but standing alone they are as puzzling as they are shocking.

    The claim of a theological origin for political concepts...

  6. 1 DEFINITION OF SOVEREIGNTY
    (pp. 31-61)

    THE OPENING WORDS OF CHAPTER ONE are some of the most famous in the history of political theory: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” This sentence sets up the structure of the entire inquiry and is thus the point of entry into a political-theological approach. That approach is a kind of mirror image of the political theory of liberalism: not law, but exception; not judge, but sovereign; not reason, but decision. The inversion is so extreme that we might think of political theology as the dialectical negation of liberal political theory.¹

    Reading the sentence nearly one hundred years...

  7. 2 THE PROBLEM OF SOVEREIGNTY AS THE PROBLEM OF THE LEGAL FORM AND OF THE DECISION
    (pp. 62-90)

    POLITICAL THEOLOGY BEGINS WITH THE sovereign decision for existence. It places will before reason, the act before the norm. It understands the state from the point of view of the exception, not because it rejects the normal, but because the normal must be brought into existence and then sustained. At stake is not just a conflict of theoretical perspectives on the state but the character and locus of freedom. Only as a product of the will can we understand the state as an expression of freedom.

    Having elaborated a theory of the sovereign decision in chapter 1, Schmitt moves on,...

  8. 3 POLITICAL THEOLOGY
    (pp. 91-122)

    LIKE THAT OF THE FIRST CHAPTER, the opening line of this chapter has entered the canon of political theory: “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts” (36). Here, we are at the very heart of the matter: What exactly is political theology? How...

  9. 4 ON THE COUNTERREVOLUTIONARY PHILOSOPHY OF THE STATE
    (pp. 123-152)

    THIS IS THE MOST OBSCURE CHAPTER of an already obscure book.¹ It is hard to see how a discussion of the political implications of the views on original sin of a Spanish Catholic counterrevolutionary theorist from the first half of the nineteenth century has much to say to us. One easy reading simply assumes that Schmitt is turning to Donoso Cortes to offer a reactionary, political model as an alternative to Weimar constitutionalism. Whatever he may have thought personally of this idea, there is no such argument actually presented in this chapter. Indeed, the chapter seems to float off into...

  10. CONCLUSION: Political Theology and the End of Discourse
    (pp. 153-158)

    SCHMITT’S BOOK ENDS WITHOUT A CONCLUSION. I believe he simply does not know what to say: his instincts tell him that liberalism is an inauthentic theory of the political, but an explicit appeal to the counterrevolutionary philosophy of Donoso Cortes would look less than serious. Schmitt appears as a thinker overwhelmed by circumstances. Kelsen, he admits, is more in tune with the times than he is. The future direction of sociology belongs to Weber, not to him. The deep issue his work raises for us, however, is not about the direction of political formation but about the very possibility of...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 159-190)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 191-212)