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The Political

Current Usage

Precisely understood, the nominalization of the adjective "political" to construct the political, an abstract noun that demarcates a unique realm of existential experience, reflects an entirely modern development along with the influence of German philosophy on the contemporary lexicon of political theory. While in the early twenty-first century it enjoys broad circulation conveying a range of meanings that traverse the spectrum of contemporary political theory, this usage can be traced to the controversial German legal scholar, Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), whose treatise on The Concept of the Political (Der Begriff des Politischen) appeared in 1932.

Schmitt contends that the concept of the political is integral to the idea—and therefore to the intelligibility as well as ultimately the viability—of the state. As he explains at the beginning of The Concept of the Political, "[t]he concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political" (p. 19), for the latter expresses the defining antithesis around which every genuine political order arises. To be precise, the political denotes a fundamental, existential category to which belongs the distinction between friend and enemy. It hence encompasses powers, actions, and institutions tied to the necessity of such a determination, distinguishing them from those that pertain to other elemental categories, such as the moral, the aesthetic, or the economic. Moreover, it necessarily exercises a certain priority over all other categories since it entails, as Schmitt puts it, "the right to demand from [members of the polity] the readiness to die and unhesitatingly to kill enemies" (p. 46). And by the same token, it conveys the essence of the idea of sovereignty, that is, the authority to make such demands from those claiming membership in the sovereign entity.

An enemy, for Schmitt, is one who threatens the way of life of another. Schmitt therefore represents the state as a collective body whose political character resides most definitively in its ability to identify those who threaten its way of life—its enemies. In Schmitt's words, "the state as an organized political entity decides for itself the friend-enemy distinction" (p. 29). Schmitt does not, however, mean to imply that every state is perpetually faced with war and conflict or that political life consists only of military action. He argued, in fact, that war is neither the aim nor the substance of politics but simply "the leading presupposition which determines in a characteristic way human action and thinking, and thereby creates a specifically political behavior" (p. 34). That behavior, accordingly, always has the preservation and perpetuation of a certain existence or mode of life as its ultimate impetus and justification. Thus the practice of politics is always tethered to a situation in which war, acknowledged by Schmitt to be the "most extreme" possibility (p. 35), remains nevertheless wholly conceivable.

If the possibility of war should be finally eliminated and the distinction between friend and enemy rendered obsolete, politics too would disappear. A world in which no social entity any longer finds reason to employ the distinction between friend and enemy would, according to Schmitt, include "neither politics nor state," even if "culture, civilization, economics, morality, law, art, entertainment, etc." persist (p. 53). Moreover, because politics can never be cordoned off from the possibility of conflict and violence, the attempt to liberate politics from the friend-enemy distinction, an endeavor that Schmitt identified with modern liberalism, leads to an illusionary politics that eventually abandons the state to the play of private interests. Schmitt believed this condition to be in fact the state of affairs that characterized Germany during the Weimar Republic.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Planck mass to PositThe Political - Origins, Current Usage, Recent Impact, Bibliography