Terminological Consistency vs Context in Carl Schmitt (erkennen/Erkenntnis)

The technical term erkennen was introduced in the 18th-century German philosophy as equivalent to the Latin cognitio, which is why the standard English equivalents of Erkenntnis and erkennen today are cognition and to cognize, respectively. This decision has not always been observed. One prominent example would be the famous translation of The Critique of Pure Reason by Norman Kemp-Smith, which was otherwise very fruitful in terms of terminological innovation. Kemp-Smith does not at all discriminate between Kant’s concepts of Erkenntnis and Wissen, using the generic knowledge for both. Although the semantic scope of the English knowledge can adequately replace both German terms, the distinction is often crucial in the context of German post-Kantian philosophy due to Kant’s own immense contribution to the later discussions of cognition. What does this all have to do with Schmitt?

The English translator of Political Theology seems to be aware of the above distinction, as he never uses knowledge for the German Erkenntnis, opting for several other terms, namely: conclusion, cognition, recognition, and perception. Of course, moderation is key when it comes to terminological consistency, as excessive diligence combined with context blindness can render the text unintelligible. Let’s see, therefore, if the exercise of judgment on the part of the translator managed to strike the perfect balance between consistency and context awareness.

His standard English equivalents are recognition/to recognize (which is also obvious from Schwab’s translation of The Concept of the Political). This seems to be a wise decision if we consider the various contexts in which erkennen or Erkenntnis appear as purely technical terms. It both preserves the original etymology and prevents the somewhat artificial academic term cognition from interrupting the flow of Schmitt’s argument. Indeed, Schmitt’s erkennen in Political Theology never bears any weight to it and literally means to recognize. The same goes for the somewhat frivolous yet innocent rendering of «haben mir diese Erkenntnis verschafft» as «I have come to this conclusion» (p. 2/S. 8).

However, not all uses of Erkenntnis in the text are philosophically innocent, for Schmitt’s book is explicitly polemical. It attacks what he believes to be the formal notion of juridical normativity in the literature of his day. And this time, his opponents belong to a very particular philosophical tradition, primarily represented by Hans Kelsen, a well-known neo-Kantian law theorist, whom Schmitt identifies as such on more than one occasion. We should keep in mind that Kant’s pregnant, multifaceted notion of Erkenntnis was at the core of the intellectual discussions in Germany (especially among neo-Kantians) at the turn of the century, predominantly with respect to the possibility of Erkenntnis in the so-called Geisteswissenschaften (Humanities). The most general definition of cognition as a conscious representation that possesses objective validity gives an idea of what it was all about. The task back in the day was to achieve such a notion of objective validity that will provide the newly-sprung disciplines the scientific status and the institutional recognition enjoyed by the natural sciences. An investigation of juridical cognition, for example, implied examining the objective validity of juridical thinking (and its peculiar claims to normativity) and, therefore, the very possibility of jurisprudence as a science.

The more surprising it is to see that the translator almost completely neglected this crucial heritage. The English equivalent cognition appears once in a direct quotation from Kelsen, where Erkenntnisstandpunkt is correctly translated as viewpoint of cognition (p. 19/S.28). The other pivotal term, introduced by Kelsen, namely *«freie Tat der juridischen Erkenntnis*» is miraculously transformed into an «independent act of juristic perception» both in the direct quotation (p. 20/S. 28) and when employed by Schmitt himself (p. 29, 38/S. 44, 47). Only once does the translator employ the phrase juristic cognition (p. 28/S. 34) for the sole reason that the surrounding talk of «transcendental conditions» makes its origins all too explicit. This terminological decision is misleading in several respects. First of all, while the term perception (English for Wahrnehmung) stands for a conscious representation of an object, it does not presuppose the notion of objective validity, which would amount to a scientific claim. Secondly, the English perception bears too intimate a connection to passive sense perception (which even Wahrnehmung doesn’t), which might imply to the reader that the proper object of juridical cognition is somehow present or given to the senses. The latter would be absurd not only with respect to the peculiar normative claims of jurisprudence but to the objective validity of natural sciences themselves, which lies in their methodology rather than in the objects, which back in the day were already undetectable to the naked eye.

Schmitt, C. (2008). Political theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. (G. Schwab, Trans.). Universty of Chicago Press. Schmitt, C. (2015). Politische Theologie: Vier Kaptel zur Lehre von der Souveräntät. Duncker & Humblot.

Victor Chorny