Syntax as Terminology in Schmitt

Carl Schmitt is notorious for his meticulous use of both genetic jurisprudential and philosophical terminology and his own original concepts, which often lack immediate counterparts in other languages (Ausnahmezustand being the best-known example). However, most of Schmitt’s work is written in transparent bureaucratic German which does not present the translator with extraordinary syntactic challenges. And yet, this deliberate avoidance of both figurative and syntactic excesses results in a particularly dense philosophical text, and the slightest misreading can do grave damage to the central line of argument. A good example of such a subtle, yet hazardous misinterpretation comes from the English translation of Schmitt’s Political Theology (Politische Theologie) by George Schwab.

The original passage in the first chapter goes:

“Keiner scheint sich die Mühe gegeben zu haben, die endlos wiederholte, völlig leere Redensart von der höchsten Macht bei den berühmten Autoren des Souveränitätsbegriffes genauer zu untersuchen”.

Here Schmitt is examining various traditional theories and definitions of sovereignty, predominantly derived from or at least related to Jean Boden’s famous definition of sovereignty as the absolute and perpetual power. According to Schmitt, however, all such characterizations are formal, empty and futile, because they fail to distinguish any such power in the natural order of things (where everything is caused and nothing can be absolute in the sense of not having a ground or reason). The crucial question of the subject of sovereignty cannot be addressed just because the definition of sovereignty as “the highest power” cannot be productively and non-arbitrarily applied to a concrete historical situation. It is precisely because the true nature of sovereignty is disguised with such empty formal phraseology that the concept can be indiscriminately employed by any political party whatsoever to substantiate their own agenda. Schmitt, therefore, deliberately contrasts it with his own proper definition of the subject of sovereignty (which also has its roots in Boden’s work), given in the chapter’s opening, namely, that the sovereign is whoever decides upon the state of exception.

Now let’s have a look at the English translation of the passage:

“Nobody seems to have taken the trouble to scrutinize the often-repeated but completely empty phraseology used to denote the highest power by the famous authors of the concept of sovereignty”.

From the English translation it follows that sovereignty literally is the highest power (as the two terms are used interchangeably in the text), while the classical theorists employ some other (unmentioned) empty phraseology to falsely denote it. As we have seen, however, this could not possibly be further from the case. The German expression leere Redensart von der höchsten Macht literally means empty talk of the highest power, meaning the highest power is the futile definition in question and would never be casually employed by Schmitt as a direct synonym for sovereignty. The English text, therefore, conceals Schmitt’s key insight as to the theoretical poverty of such manner of talk and trivializes the radical nature of his particular approach.

Victor Chorny