Political Theology

Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty

Paul W. Kahn

Columbia University Press

Political Theology

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Pub Date: May 2012

ISBN: 9780231153416

224 Pages

Format: Paperback

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Pub Date: February 2011

ISBN: 9780231153409

224 Pages

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Pub Date: February 2011

ISBN: 9780231527002

224 Pages

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Political Theology

Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty

Paul W. Kahn

Columbia University Press

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.

Paul W. Kahn has written a profoundly disturbing book for profoundly disturbing times about the violence of politics and the logic of exception. This new political theology grapples with the subjects that preoccupied Carl Schmitt in his original Political Theology of 1922. Neither simply a commentary nor primarily an interpretation, Kahn's Political Theology is instead a riff, a structured improvisation on the themes of Schmitt. Kahn recasts Schmitt's enduring ideas about faith, sacrifice, and the sacred as part of the current political debate over national security and as a reminder of the way that theology threads through secular legality. He probes Schmitt's enduring appeal as well as the enduring dangers of his ideas at a time when our politics are again defined by existential threats. The new political theology shows us a way to understand both the call and the limits of law in our moment. As regular readers of Kahn's earlier books will know, no one is better situated to probe these urgent topics.

Kim Lane Scheppele, Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University

Paul W. Kahn is a distinguished political and legal theorist who has written many important books on the American political imagination before. Yet in this case, he directly engages a thinker with whom he has slowly discovered a philosophical kinship, the great German legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt. The encounter is providential. Quite apart from providing another version of Kahn's thinking about the nature of American political life, Kahn's new book offers an extremely original and insightful proposal about what to take away from Schmitt's project of 'political theology.' This is a very attractive and imaginative project, and it is executed with brilliance and provocation.

Samuel Moyn, Columbia University, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History and coeditor of Democracy Past and Future


Michael Ignatieff, New Republic

Kahn's work is engaging and prompts further considerations on the sacred nature of politics.


Kahn's book is fascinating, insightful, and a delight to read

Peter E. Gordon, Immanent Frame

In his masterful redefinition of Carl Schmitt's work within a democratic context, Kahn's book establishes the study of political theology as the key to understanding one of the most difficult yet urgent problems of American political life—the relationship between law and popular will. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the roles of sovereignty and the sacred in the development of our national identity.

David Pan, University of California, Irvine

Paul Kahn, one of America's most gifted philosophers of jurisprudence, confronts the ideas of Carl Schmitt, the 20th century's most controversial legal theorist. The book that results from this encounter illuminates everything it touches: law, sovereignty and power.

Michael Ignatieff, University of Toronto

This is an important book, one that ought to be read by anyone interested in the relevance of Carl Schmitt's thought for contemporary democratic theory (and even more so those who believe it has none).

Adam Thurschwell, Law, Culture, and Humanities

Political Theology overflows with insights and productive provocations about politics, jurisprudence, and philosophy.

Mark S. Weiner, Telos

Kahn...has produced a biblically inspired reading of [Carl] Schmitt.

Muslim World Book Review
Foreword, by Dick Howard
Introduction: Why Political Theology Again
1. Definition of Sovereignty
2. The Problem of Sovereignty as the Problem of the Legal Form and of the Decision
3. Political Theology
4. On the Counterrevolutionary Philosophy of the State
Conclusion: Political Theology and the End of Discourse
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About the Author

Paul W. Kahn is Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities and director of the Orville H. Schell Jr. Center for Human Rights at Yale Law School. He is the author of many books, including Putting Liberalism in Its Place; Out of Eden: Adam and Eve and the Problem of Evil and Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty.