Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt exemplify two different and, indeed, in certain respects, opposed visions of politics. Where antagonism is for the one definitive of politics, it is for the other an obstacle to being political. Where the one operates with the bi-polar scheme of friend and enemy, the other employs a one-directional scheme of more or less friendly cooperation. Both views may, of course, strike a responsive cord in us. Why not assume that politics is sometimes the one and sometimes the other, sometimes antagonistic in Schmitt’s sense and sometimes cooperative in the sense of Arendt? But this requires, in essence, a new understanding of the nature of politics – one that diverges from both the Schmittian and the Arendtian model. And, in consequence, it also calls also for a different concept of the political. Such a concept is developed in Michel Foucault’s writings of the 1970’s.
If we had to choose right now a single, concise term to characterize our time, we might well call it an age of uncertainty – in contrast to the ages of faith, of reason, of revolution, etc. that have come before it. But given the current, ambiguous state of things that denomination will itself seem uncertain and its all-inclusiveness of limited value. Every historical period is, after all, steeped in uncertainty – it is there in the midst of faith, reason, and revolution – and if ours is more deeply uncertain or is so in a distinctive manner, that needs to be specified.
Carl Schmitt is known to us as an acute though controversial political thinker but his biographer tells us an unnerving story that might seem to undermine his claim to our attention. The case raises broader questions, I want to suggest, about the relation of political thought to experience. This proves, however, an elusive topic and something needs to be said about it before I can turn directly to Schmitt and the story about him I have in mind.