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Summer Institute at YLS Reexamines Political Theory

While summer camps took over much of Yale's campus, a group of scholars at YLS mulled fundamental questions about popular sovereignty and the rule of law.

The scholars were participating in a seminar, called "The Political: Law, Culture, Theology," which was held from July 25 to August 5, with intensive discussions, readings, and paper presentations each day. The program was part of the Some Institutes for Advanced Study Summer Institutes, made possible by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The program was organized by Paul Kahn, the Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities at YLS, and Ulrich Haltern LL.M. '95, a professor of German and European Constitutional and Administrative Law at the University of Hanover, Germany.

Of the 18 fellows who were selected to attend the seminar, ten came from Europe and eight from North America. They were all young scholars, either working on doctoral dissertations or having recently taken up faculty positions. But the participants came from a variety of disciplines, including law, philosophy, theology, anthropology, and comparative literature.

Paul Kahn explained that he hoped the seminar would be an "exploration of the culture of law--the intersections of literature, theology, philosophy, and law." This is why he brought together scholars from so many academic and national backgrounds. The seminar focused on reexamining ideas in law and politics from a cultural perspective in an effort to "develop a new form of political theory that is skeptical about the dominant political theory," according to Kahn.

Ulrich Haltern expressed the basic question behind the seminar as, "What are we talking about when we talk about the political and the law?" He added that their discussions drew on every field of knowledge, from myth to studies of terrorism to conceptions of the family. With such a broad subject, Haltern said, "In the first few days we had to find common ground... then it was very gratifying to find issues that mattered to everyone." Haltern added that having relatively young scholars in the seminar helped overcome doctrinal divisions. "These are people with new ideas and whose ideas are not yet entrenched, and as a result the discussion was very dynamic."

One aspect of conventional political theory that the seminar challenged was its dependence on secular conceptions like justice and markets. Says Haltern, "The stories that we tell [about the modern state] seemed to me like progress narratives, and the founding moment is secularization.... That seemed in need of contextualization." Haltern adds that Kahn's scholarship was pivotal to this contextualization: "That is what Paul Kahn does."

Each day in the morning session, the scholars discussed a series of readings and basic questions in political theory. They read three of Kahn's books--as well as works by Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, among others--which helped orient the discussion. In the afternoon session, one scholar presented a paper on his or her specific area of study.

Daniel Callcut, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of North Florida, said the seminar was particularly useful in furthering his thinking about challenges to the secular, liberal conception of the nation state. He said that some of the group's discussions examined how the "deep structure" of many legal and political institutions remains religious. For example, one can argue that the idea of universal human rights is predicated on a religious notion that all people are created equal. "We were pushing hard at questions of how secular is the West?" Nonetheless, Callcut added, "I wish to defend a form of secular liberalism, but my interest is in restructuring liberalism in response to the criticisms it has received."

Philipp Stoellger, a professor of theology at the University of Zurich, came to the seminar with a strong interest in how legal and political institutions can incorporate or exacerbate religious differences. He pointed out that this is a particularly pressing topic in the European Union right now. Said Stoellger, "I thought it would be helpful to talk with Americans here and, especially, to ask for perspectives on the limits of law in addressing these issues."

Benjamin L. Berger LL.M. '04 teaches law as a professor at the University of Victoria, and he said that there was "a strong sense of complementarity" between the experts in various fields who attended the seminar. And while much of the discussion was devoted to establishing a "rich theoretical framework," Berger said that "real pragmatics were at the core of it." For instance, he pointed out that multiculturalism presents a challenge to how we define a society, but it's also a concrete issue for policy makers. "The discussion floated back and forth between free theoretical inquiry and issues of the moment," he said.

Berger added that he is excited that the seminar has "brought together a community of thought around these issues." All of the fellows will meet again next summer in Berlin, Germany, for a second two-week seminar, which will build on all that they established this year. They will continue to exchange ideas and papers in the meantime, their sense of community strengthened by the fact that--like kids at summer camp--all of the fellows lived in the same dorm while they were in New Haven. Callcut said, "The discussion went throughout the day, not just in the seminar room."