Putting Liberalism in Its Place

Putting Liberalism in Its Place

Putting Liberalism in Its Place

Putting Liberalism in Its Place


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.


Every age has its own point of access to ethical and political deliberation. For us, that point is the problem of cultural pluralism. Lacking a conviction in the absolute truth of our own beliefs and practices, we are uncertain how to respond to those who live by different norms. We are all too aware that such differences exist, as we interact with cultures that put different values on life and death, family and society, religion and the state, men and women. We constantly confront the question of whether some of the practices supported by these values are beyond the limits of our own commitment to a liberal moral philosophy and a political practice of tolerance. We worry about moral cowardice when we fail to respond critically, and about cultural imperialism when we do respond. The problem is both theoretical and practical: theoretical, when we struggle to find a form of reasoning that can occupy a position between a discredited claim to universal moral truth and an incapacitating moral relativism; practical, when we must decide how to respond to groups and individuals that offend our own values.


The problem of cultural pluralism has both an internal and an external face. Internally, we confront cultural differences within our own society. These differences arise only in part from the historical legacy of waves of immigrants who brought diverse traditions to the nationbuilding project. More importantly, differences arise because of contemporary critiques of traditional practice and beliefs. These critiques purport to expose the manner in which the traditions carry forward . . .

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