Kahn takes issue with Hannah Arendt's theory of the banality of evil, arguing that her view is an instance of the modern world's lost capacity to speak of evil. Psychological, social, and political accounts do not explain evil as much as explain it away. Focusing on the existential roots of evil rather than on the occasions for its appearance, Kahn argues that evil originates in man's flight from death. He urges us to see that the opposite of evil is not good, but love: while evil would master death, love would transcend it.
Offering a unique perspective that combines political and cultural theory, law, and philosophy, Kahn here continues his project of advancing a political theology of modernity.
Putting Liberalism in Its Place draws on philosophy, cultural theory, American constitutional law, religious and literary studies, and political psychology to advance political theory. It makes original contributions in all these fields. Not since Charles Taylor's The Sources of the Self has there been such an ambitious and sweeping examination of the deep structure of the modern conception of the self.
Kahn shows that only when we move beyond liberalism's categories of reason and interest to a Judeo-Christian concept of love can we comprehend the modern self. Love is the foundation of a world of objective meaning, one form of which is the political community. Arguing from these insights, Kahn offers a new reading of the liberalism/communitarian debate, a genealogy of American liberalism, an exploration of the romantic and the pornographic, a new theory of the will, and a refoundation of political theory on the possibility of sacrifice.
Approaching politics from the perspective of sacrifice allows us to understand the character of twentieth-century politics, which combined progress in the rule of law with massive slaughter for the state. Equally important, this work speaks to the most important political conflicts in the world today. It explains why American response to September 11 has taken the form of war, and why, for the most part, Europeans have been reluctant to follow the Americans in their pursuit of a violent, sacrificial politics. Kahn shows us that the United States has maintained a vibrant politics of modernity, while Europe is moving into a postmodern form of the political that has turned away from the idea of sacrifice. Together with its companion volume, Out of Eden, Putting Liberalism in Its Place finally answers Clifford Geertz's call for a political theology of modernity.
Paul W. Kahn is Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities at Yale Law School and Director of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights.
Cover Illustration: "Abu Ghraib 67, 2005" by Fernando Botero. Courtesy of the artist and the American University Museum.
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.