Kelsen facing political theology

Is modern political thought dependent on Christian theology?? No, protested Hans Kelsen who defended normativist positivism against his former student Eric Voegelin, who wanted to integrate morality and religion into law. The original translation of his work is an event.

The translation of a previously unpublished book by Hans Kelsen remains an event for jurists, all the more important as the Austrian legal theorist here leaves his comfort zone by tackling political philosophy. Let us recall that Hans Kelsen developed a new approach to law based on its autonomy with regard to morality and religion. His conception, which has become established in a large part of continental European universities, is called normativist positivism.

In Scular religion, Kelsen is particularly interested in the theories of his compatriot, the philosopher Eric Voegelin. The two Austrians have been in conflict since Voegelin, in the 1920s, harshly criticized normativist positivism. Unlike Kelsen, he integrates morality and religion into law. The two men subsequently migrated to the United States to flee the Nazi regime but, while Kelsen struggled to make Americans understand the value of normativist positivism, Voegelin achieved fame in his new country, thanks to a political philosophy strongly tinged with Christian morality.

Kelsen wrote a first book against Voegelin's doctrine in 1954 (A new science of politics. A response to Eric Voegelin’s book), also unpublished during the author's lifetime. Scular religion continues in the same vein. Kelsen studies theories developed in particular by Eric Voegelin but also by Raymond Aron, Fritz Gerlich and Karl Jaspers. They support the idea that the political philosophies of authors who are known to be atheists such as Hobbes, Nietzsche or Marx are based on Christian concepts.

Kelsen manifests in his book a fierce opposition to these theological interpretations (I). Despite his resentment towards Voegelin, the Austrian jurist is above all driven by the sincere desire to make positivism prevail in philosophy (II).

The rejection of theological interpretations of political philosophies

Scular religion can be confusing, first of all by the choice of the authors studied. Kelsen thus evacuates from the first chapter Carl Schmitt and his Political theoryto which he devotes two pages out of a total of 340 even though it is considered, at least by jurists, as the reference work on the subject.

The book's second source of perplexity comes from its reductive definition of religion, linked exclusively to the divine: As long as a political-moral doctrine () does not base its values ​​on the will of a superhuman, supernatural being, there is no reason to qualify it as a religion. (p. 38). Exit dogmatic political doctrines which, through their promise of a better world, resemble a religion. Exit religious philosophies such as Buddhism, Taosm, animism. Kelsen thinks of religion within the strict conceptual framework of Judo-Christianity.

It is essential to know the classic meaning given by Kelsen to religion in order to follow his reasoning. He cannot admit the very idea of ​​a religion scular, two oxymoronic terms whose combination cancels their respective meaning since religion presupposes the presence of a God and, conversely, secularity presupposes the failure to take God into account. This means that any author who uses these two terms to analyze secular political doctrines is in error. However, philosophers who developed theories on secular religions during the XXe century are legion, among others: Raymond Aron (inventor of the expression religious religion), tienne Gilson, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt and of course Eric Voegelin.

According to Kelsen, these thinkers would make connections too quickly, they would confuse identity and appearance of an analogy due to the use of the same terms () having different meanings (p. 27). These are the most widespread causes of misinterpretation in comparative studies, hence Kelsen's useful reminder. In order to avoid such traps, he proposes applying political philosophy to a method of scientific work in which only observed facts would be retained, without consideration for religious beliefs.

Kelsen thus devotes several chapters to the theories he contests: the theory of Progress understood as an eschatology (chapter III), those of a Gnostic Hobbes (chapter V), a Christian Karl Marx (chapter X), a Christian or metaphysician Nietzsche (chapters XI And XII).

If we take up some of these hypotheses, Kelsen's approach and that of the philosophers criticized are both plausible. We can very well, as Kelsen does, study the theories and authors mentioned while ignoring religious influences. To do this, we must adopt a systemic approach, consisting of establishing the originality of the work without seeking its connections. Thus understood, Marx for example was able to emancipate himself from Hegel to develop an original doctrine; similarly, the totalitarian regimes of XXe century are distinguished from previous political systems by their atheism.

Voegelin's arguments, seeing totalitarian regimes as forms of gnosticism, are however likely to undermine convictions. Genosis is based on the principle that the world, created by an evil demiurge, would be evil in itself. However, the totalitarian regimes of XXe century promote the ability of men to tame this hostile world, thanks to progress.

In short, Kelsen challenges theories that make the idea of ​​secular religions a possible way of interpreting XXe century. this vision at the same time regressive and contemporary of his time, he opposes a positivism inherited from XIXe century, that of Comte and the Circle of Vienne. Could he be replaying a form of quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns?? But who are the ancients and the moderns here is difficult to say.

Positivism in the face of theological deviations

Scular Religion lends itself to a critical reading as Kelsen's biases, which consist of giving restrictive interpretations to concepts whose meaning has nevertheless been broadened over time, seem exaggerated. Certain observations may also offend fans of German philosophy (Hegel's idiotic idealism, p. 210) or metaphysics (a regression from science to metaphysics (meaning) the return to the spirit of the Middle Ages, p. 12). The sometimes aggressive and in all cases subjective tone is surprising coming from a positivist. At the same time, Kelsen's profound rejection of any parallelism between modern ideologies and religion is thought provoking.

It would be an exaggeration to attribute this opposition to a simple dogmatic conservatism without seeking a more substantial reason for it. Basically, Kelsen defends the originality of the philosophy born from the Enlightenment.

Against Schmitt's theorem of secularization, he affirms the religious neutrality of modern thought. We traditionally consider that there is a break at the XVIIIe century, from which philosophy and politics emancipate from religion. From David Hume Kant, through Voltaire, we are witnessing a philosophical revolution. God moves away, is no longer responsible for this world and, soon, with Nietzsche at XIXe century, he was declared dead. It is this modernity which is called into question by authors like Schmitt, Heidegger or Voegelin, producing what Kelsen calls a regression towards the Middle Ages. The legacy of the Moderns would threaten ruin.

The particularity of the philosophers cited by Kelsen is that they all speak of authority, that recognized by Christianity, that rejected by the Enlightenment. The question is therefore not whether their theological interpretation of political ideas is justified, but why they are based on one authority rather than another.

The use of religious theories could be understood, because of the parallelism that philosophers establish with modern theories, as a simple metaphorical rhetoric. To claim that Nazism or Stalinism are gnostic is to say that they judge the world to be naturally evil and that men are the sole masters of its improvement.

However, theological interpretations of totalitarianism are not only metaphorical. They also express, and this is precisely what Kelsen reproaches them for, an aspiration to metaphysics. The philosophers concerned cannot be satisfied with positivist reasoning which would lead them to take note of what is without being able to add anything. Germanic thinkers are at the forefront of this questioning, in particular those who fled Nazi Germany (Voegelin, Hans Jonas) and those who were complicit (Martin Heidegger, Schmitt). Everyone needs explanations beyond what is posited, but as soon as we go beyond the field of facts, we arrive at metaphysics.

However, Kelsen's position is defended: according to him, each idea must be analyzed intrinsically with its own references, like an auto-poetic system. In this framework of thought, it is impossible to bring together modern philosophy and religion or metaphysics. The philosopher must find its own logic in each theory and ideology. absolute of a theoretical foundation that philosophers seek, Kelsen opposes the absolute of a scientific methodology. He is faithful to his original formalism, which he had expressed in law and which he exported to philosophy, following the idea that positivist methods apply to all social and human disciplines.

To conclude, Kelsen takes us as witness to a conflict between positivism and religious morality, which it extends to political philosophy and more generally to the philosophy of history. Should we present it in a descriptive way, as a positivist would do, or can we philosophize about philosophy by giving meaning to history, as those who founded the discipline did, by Giambattista Vico Hegel? In a certain way, Kelsen also attributes a meaning to history, that of scientific progress and religious thought.

We can understand his resentment towards authors who seem to deny the contribution of the Moderns by reinterpreting atheistic philosophers in the light of religion. However, it is difficult to take sides because if, on the one hand, the thesis of the filiation of ideologies of XXe century with theology does not always convince, on the other hand its rejection of principle, on the basis of a hopelessly neutral positivism, does not satisfy. How could we dissect with cold rationality a century characterized precisely by a rationality pushed absurd to the point of having itself become irrational?? We would end up analyzing mass crimes, committed by conscientious bureaucrats, from the same point of view as their authors.

Rational brutality defines XXe century and thus marks a rupture as radical as that of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Post-war philosophers sought to understand it with the conceptual tools at their disposal, borrowed from their Christian morality. Perhaps they lacked scientific neutrality, but if they had done nothing, if they had limited themselves to describing without explaining, would they not have the reality of this rupture?? Between their position and that of Kelsen, there must be a middle ground on which Scular religion makes us think.