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A Most Dangerous Science: Discipline and German Political Philosophy, 1600-1648

  • Author(s): Staley, Maxwell Reed;
  • Advisor(s): Sheehan, Jonathan;
  • et al.

This dissertation tracks the development of German political philosophy over the course of the first half of the seventeenth century, with an emphasis on the disciplinary, methodological, and pedagogical concerns of Politica writers. These figures produced large-scale technical textbooks on politics, which attempted to make sense of the chaotic civil sphere through the application of disciplinary structures. The main influences on their thought came from the sixteenth century: Aristotelianism, reason of state, natural law, and neostoicism were the competing traditions that they attempted to fit into comprehensive treatments of their subject.

Generally, these thinkers have been organized by historians into schools divided by their political and confessional commitments. I argue that, while these factors were important, their disciplinary and methodological choices also decisively shaped their vision of politics, and indeed their positions on the critical questions of their day. I do this by focusing on four specific writers, one from each of the four faculties of the early modern university: Bartholomäus Keckermann from the arts faculty, Henning Arnisaeus from Medicine, Christoph Besold from Law, and Adam Contzen from Theology. I show how each Politica author’s disciplinary background inflected their construction of politics as an academic discipline, and how this in turn shaped their opinions on the confessional and constitutional debates which were then fracturing the Holy Roman Empire.

While the dissertation does focus on the differences among these figures, it also tracks a trajectory which they all participated in. I argue that their attempts to discipline politics as a subject resulted in the centering of the state as a disciplinary and administrative institution. Their motivation was to prevent political upheaval through the application of technical expertise, which meant that they were able to find ever more aspects of human life which required treatment under the rubric of political philosophy, because almost anything could be conceived of as either a threat or a source of strength for the political order. This in turn suggested a vastly expanded conception of the regulatory and disciplinary powers of the state. I thus contend that, although the Politica writers are mostly forgotten today, they represent a critical phase in the intellectual development of the idea of the state.

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