[I briefly had a post up asking about this notion of Schmitt’s, but I deleted it as I worked through the chapter and figured some things out for myself.]
One of the two famous sentences from Schmitt’s Political Theology turns out not to be a complete sentence at all. The familiar bit is: “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”—and weirdly, you very rarely see the rest of this long sentence quoted: “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).
It seems to me that Schmitt is actually downplaying the “historical transfer” notion, which has tended to be more of a focus in the discipline of “political theology.” Obviously there’s a historical genealogy of sorts that could be done — but I don’t think the “secularization” process he’s talking to is the same as the supposed society-wide secularization that occurred with the dawn of modernity. It’s a synchronous process: the modern theory of the state “secularizes” modernity’s own theological concepts (and so on in finer-grained historical periodizations). The examples he uses are not Aquinas or Scotus. The very first person he quotes as evidence is Leibniz (37), and he also brings forward Descartes, Rousseau, and Hobbes. I’d suggest that he could just as easily have said, “and theological concepts are ‘theologized’ juristic concepts,” but he avoided doing so for rhetorical reasons: that kind of statement lends itself to reductionism, which he’s at pains to avoid and refute, and in any case it’s just not surprising or striking (precisely because of the reductionistic assumptions he’s working against).
Another puzzling element: what is a “sociology of juristic concepts”? Here again he’s determined to avoid reductionism. For instance, he floats the possibility that juristic ideas could be determined by the social standing of legal scholars, etc., but he believes that’s a category error. He wants to say that the theological/metaphysical ideas of modernity (after the first paragraph he’ll use these two terms interchangeably) and the juristic ideas of modernity relate directly, simply as systematic conceptual apparatuses. The reason they can relate directly is that they are at the same level of totality: “It is thus not a sociology of the concept of soveriegnty when, for example, the monarchy of the seventeenth century is characterized as the real that is ‘mirrored’ in the Cartesian concept of God. But it is a sociology of the concept of sovereignty when the historical-political status of the monarchy of that epoch is shown to correspond to the general state of consciousness that was characteristic of western Europeans at that time, and when the juristic construction of the / historical-political reality can find a concept whose structure is in accord with the structure of metaphysical concepts” (45-46). “The presupposition of this kind of sociology of juristic concepts is thus a radical conceptualization, a consistent thinking that is pushed into metaphysics and theology. The metaphysical image that a definite epoch forges of the world has the same structure as what the world immeidately understands to be appropriate as a form of its political organization. The determination of such an identity is the sociology of the concept of sovereignty” (46).
Now obviously Schmitt’s (insane right-wing) agenda is to advocate a kind of forcible “return” to the classic political theology of early modernity as a way of keeping the devil (communism, anarchism, and weirdly capitalism?) at bay while spitting the lukewarm liberals out of his mouth. Hence his complaints about the incoherence of liberalism, the irreducibility of the decision, etc., etc. The historical genealogy isn’t really of interest to him because he’s trying to make a case justifying a dictatorship that will reimpose the “true” political theology. But I think his “sociology of juristic concepts” raises an interesting question: namely, is it only in early modernity that such a procedure is possible, i.e., that the theological/metaphysical ideas and juristic concepts reach the level of totality at the same time? (I’m thinking of early modern projects like that of Descartes, where a particular concept of God is articulated into the same conceptual apparatus as a theory of optics, etc. — knowledge seems to be emphatically one whole thing in a way that we can’t really imagine now.)
Obviously such a synchronization did not occur in the medieval period, where high scholasticism produced an intellectual apparatus of amazing rigor and yet the political conditions were incredibly fragmented. Similarly, global capital seems to provide us with a regime even more “total” than any absolute monarchy, and yet the intellectual field is radically fragmented.
The possibility that this synchronization is a contingent achievement of a particular epoch would leave open the possibility of a more flexible and still non-reductionistic relationship between political and theological/metaphysical concepts. His emphasis on the relative autonomy of conceptual necessity — for instance, his continual references to how Hobbes’s intellectual honesty and rigor led to his choice of personalist decisionism despite the fact that his scientistic and atomistic worldview seemed to militate against it — is also well-taken.
That is to say, if you subtract out the insane right-wing agenda that is distorting literally everything he says, there’s a lot of amazingly useful stuff in there!
Anyway, just some notes. (I’m rereading Schmitt for my devil project, which is intended to be situated within the discipline of “political theology.” Today was my day to generate some detailed reading notes over Political Theology.)