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Putting Liberalism in Its Place [Paperback]

Paul W. Kahn

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Book Description

2 Mar 2008

In this wide-ranging interdisciplinary work, Paul W. Kahn argues that political order is founded not on contract but on sacrifice. Because liberalism is blind to sacrifice, it is unable to explain how the modern state has brought us to both the rule of law and the edge of nuclear annihilation. We can understand this modern condition only by recognizing that any political community, even a liberal one, is bound together by faith, love, and identity.

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.


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Review

"[This] is a beautifully written meditation on the sources of political meaning that cannot be justified by rational argumentation. It challenges the reader to acknowledge that politics is a fundamentally amoral enterprise that resembles romantic love more than rational debate."--Margaret Kohn, Political Theory

"Paul W. Kahn's outstanding book alluringly explains the perplexity of liberalism in its post-September 11 situation."--Samuel Moyn, Ethics and International Affairs

"Putting Liberalism in Its Place is a real success. It is learned, clear, forceful, and loaded with quotable lines. Most importantly, it takes a much needed shot across the bow of academic liberal theory."--Dan Silver, Foundations of Political Theory

"This intriguing book is filled with challenging ideas and supplies some missing ingredients of the intellectual groundwork of liberalism."--James Magee, Law and Politics Book Review

"Paul W. Kahn . . . argue[s] that liberal theory lacks the conceptual resources to understand political life. . . . Kahn sees liberalism as a philosophy for a postmodern condition, which may be emerging in Europe, where the state may be losing its grip on the moral imagination and 'politics [is] stripped of the political.' The book offers a provocative argument and is well written."--Choice

"As a critique of liberal assumptions about human nature and political theory and as a thoughtful essay on political theology and evil, Kahn's analyses initiate discussions that should be continued."--Shalom Carmy, Hebraic Political Studies

From the Inside Flap

"In this lucid, powerfully reasoned, deeply original major new contribution to contemporary political thought, Paul Kahn X-rays the liberal faith, summoning it to a new honesty regarding its own purposes, unacknowledged motivations, blind spots and limitations, and challenging it to a find a new, if perhaps more modest, place in the world."--Jonathan Schell, author of The Unconquerable World and The Fate of the Earth

"This important book represents the culmination of a career by one of the most original legal theorists working today. It is a work of both rigor and imagination. Building on but also transcending his earlier work, Paul Kahn presents a breathtakingly vast panorama of the conundrum of American liberalism in its theoretical, political, and daily practiced genres. Along the way, he tackles a wide variety of materials, from Supreme Court cases to Greek tragedies and leading political theory texts."--Annelise Riles, Cornell University, author of The Network Inside Out

"A striking book. Putting Liberalism in Its Place is a thoughtful, provocative work that demands, and will repay, serious engagement."--Patchen Markell, University of Chicago, author of Bound by Recognition

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow 16 April 2011
By Matthew Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I read Sacred Violence by this author a few months ago, and that book got me very interested in the author. That book challenged me and the ideas I held like few books I have read before. I was looking for the next one I was going to try when I came across this work. What hooked me was his introduction in which he lays out succinctly the problems I have with my own liberalism. How reason and law seem to only be able to go so far before exceeding the limits of what they can ask or require of us. This introduction assured me that I would be challenged and enlightened again, and so I was eager to tackle this book.

I will say that what I found is that the author typically expands on ideas he discussed in previous works, and this book certainly expands on the ideas in Sacred Violence. I found having already read that work contributed to my understanding of this one as well. Having read this one, I realize I am going to have to revisit this work after I have read the author's earlier books. Had I to do it over again I would have read his earlier works before tackling this one, and I believe I would have gotten even more from this book.

This is a very dense read, especially the first section. In this the author works to create a conceptual framework for which to discuss abstract ideas in concrete forms later on. He builds a framework for the discussion of ideas and a terminology for discussing these ideas. He then gives a brief history of liberalism and discusses some of the problems inherent in liberal theory. Much of this section remains abstract and as such requires a lot from the reader.

The second section puts the conceptual framework to use to explain our lives and how and where we derive meaning. He discusses the myriad of areas of our lives from which we do derive meaning. He goes into great depth discussing how these interact and overlap in our lives. What becomes evident is that a purely rational life is simply not possible. This is partly due to the fact that reason cannot demand the ultimate sacrifice from people. Family, religion and the state can all demand sacrifice and do so on continuous basis, but reason stops just short of this demand of ultimate sacrifice.

We derive meaning from a multitude of different sources and our identities are dependent on these different sources. They create who we are. These sources orbit around the idea of self, and so meaning comes from different sources depending on what area of our lives we are focused. This is a problem for liberal theory that suggests we can lead a life based on pure reason.

This is a fascinating book from a bold mind. The author tackles the problems I have had with liberalism, and makes me rethink my entire political self. The author takes these abstract problems and gives them a voice so that for the first time I see in a very real way just what those areas of difficulty are and why they exist. The reader needs to be ready for a difficult read that requires a lot from the reader. A good base in philosophy, political theory and sociology is a must. I am not an expert in any of these fields, so you don't have to have a philosophy degree to read this book, but familiarity with the classics is essential. I highly recommend this fascinating book.
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