The time of crises (1/3)
Posted On 03/08/2021
The remarkable inflation of the term “crisis” means that there is probably no area in the world or even outside it that is not prone to crises.
From political and social crises to economic and health crises, from civilizational, cultural and scientific crises to medical and value crises, from masculinity crises and nervous crises to midlife crises: everything seems to have its own crisis. The 21st century, if we look back only about 20 years, has already entered or gone through economic and financial crises, ecological crises, a climate crisis, the crisis of globalized terrorism, geopolitical crises, migration crises, cultural and religious crises, a generational crisis and, for more than a year and a half, a global health crisis.
In short, we should think that crises, their disturbances, imbalances, and disorders have become more “normal” and permanent than normality itself, equilibrium or order. To paraphrase a well-known French proverb, one could almost think that only the crises last.
Despite recent warnings about the perennialisation of crisis, it does not seem particularly novel to think of crisis as a permanent condition.1 There is no lack of thinkers and scholars who conceive of conflict, struggle, strife, or competition as the foundations of society, politics, economics, knowledge and science, and even the psyche.
Semantically, however, crisis as a caesura goes hand in hand with a supposed “normality” that is lost or saved by an abrupt and temporary break in which the future is to be decided. In this temporal logic, we would have to assume a “normality” before the crisis and a recovery — the new normality — after the crisis.
Conceived as a radical break in the linear development of history, the crisis thus necessarily becomes unpredictable, incomprehensible and almost inconceivable: if everything was normal, orderly and balanced before the crisis, how can we conceive of the crisis if not as a random, unexpected and incomprehensible event?
Such a crisis would correspond to what some philosophers have tried to think of under the concept of “event”. Such an event would occur as an unexpected, singular phenomenon that breaks with all historical, political, economic or social causal connections. The crisis event, like the miracle of Christian theology, would emerge from the rupture and suspension of the natural order, as the inexplicable occurrence of an unexpected phenomenon.
The historical and social sciences, as well as political and social philosophy, approach the crisis from the opposite perspective. Thinking about the crisis, in the strongest sense of the word, requires its integration into a “normality”, into the causal chain of a historical, political, social or economic development. In this context, it is worth recalling Th. W. Adorno’s famous answer to an interviewer of the Spiegel of 5 May 1968:
Professor, a fortnight ago the world seemed to be in order …
Not for me.2
The fact remains that “crisis” is both an indeterminate and an overdetermined concept. As Hellenist Vivien Longhi (Longhi 2019) rightly points out, the concept of crisis, with its alleged Greek medical origins, has eventually been integrated into the language of politics and management, where it is presented as a consequence of free will and managerial decision-making. In the face of the crisis, the political or economic leader is the one who acts as the bearer of “all his determination, decisiveness and unwavering will to reform” (Longhi. op. cit.). Following this recent semantic transformation, the crisis has become a simple object of management, the field of control and organizational techniques aimed at anticipating, limiting and resolving unstable situations.
Let us briefly trace the historical origins of the concept of “crisis”.
A short history of the concept crisis
The best known and most frequently cited historical origin of the concept of crisis — indeed the only etymology retained by the major dictionaries — is that of Hippocratic medicine (of the Corpus Hippocraticum, written between the 5th and 1st centuries BC).
It is in this context that the concept of “crisis” takes on its most common meaning today: that of a “situation of disorder due to a breakdown of equilibrium, the outcome of which is decisive for the individual or society”.
In Hippocratic medicine, crisis characterizes that decisive moment when the patient may survive or succumb to his illness. The crisis represents the point or moment of decision when the situation develops for the best or for the worse. In a broader sense, crisis would therefore represent “the climax and turning point of a dangerous development”. This would be the most common meaning attributed to political, economic and social crises, but also psychological, moral and even spiritual crises.
Yet, despite the marks of “distinction and philosophical erudition” that such admonitions confer on the “ancient Greeks”, the concept of crisis (κρίσις) in Greek texts carries a different meaning with the historian Thucydides than with Hippocrates, and proves to be endowed with an even different significance in the political thought of Plato or Aristotle.
In the historiography of Thucydides krisis (κρίσις) denotes the moment of the end of military hostilities. Crisis does not stand for disorder or interruption, but for the return to “normality”. The Peloponnesian War (the conflict between Sparta and Athens from 431 BC to 404 BC), whose history Thucydides attempts to trace, is characterized precisely by the fact that it does not reach the crisis, that is, the moment of decision. Longhi points out that here there is a real inversion of meaning between the crisis of the Greek historians and the crisis of modernity (the historical period that begins with the Renaissance).
In Plato’s Republic (Politeia, “The State”, c. 408 B.C.) one does find the metaphor of the illness of the city, and judges are even compared to doctors. But despite the analogy of pathology in the reflection on degeneration, he does not use the concept of crisis. The reason for this is that the Hippocratic crisis is conceived as the “natural order” of the body, which requires the physician to abstain and not intervene. In the Platonic republic, however, there is no natural mechanism that would restore a decadent order; it is the nature of public order to be corruptible. Once the “disease” of the city is reached, there is no going back. Good politics, then, consists in delaying the corruption of democracy as long as possible. In this sense, the whole of Plato’s political thought can be interpreted as a response to the crisis of Athenian democracy following the death of Pericles.
Aristotle, in his Politics (Politiká, “the political things”, between 335 323 BC), uses the concept of crisis mainly in the sense of decisions: Electoral decisions and governmental decisions, decisions about war and peace, decisions about death sentences. A crisis generally refers to political decisions made by the government (see Koselleck, 1995).
The legal dimension of decision also characterizes the crisis in the New Testament. Especially in the context of the Apocalypse, crisis takes on an eschatological (relating to the last judgement and redemption) meaning. The crisis here is that of the Last Judgement (Judicium), the day when God judges the thoughts, intentions, and deeds of human beings in a universal judgement and decides between those who will be damned and those who will be entitled to eternal salvation. The crisis becomes a cosmic event in which believers may hope for salvation and unbelievers are condemned to hell.
It is thus primarily the Hippocratic, medical conception of crisis that introduces the concept into reflection on history and politics. Consequently, the notion of political, social or economic crisis as “disease” always presupposes a “normality” from which it breaks away and that involves a process of judgement or decision. The crisis thus becomes an indication of “decisive alternatives for life that must answer the question of what is just or unjust, saving or harmful, salutary or fatal.” (Koselleck, 1995)
The concepts of political, social or economic crisis are thus generally modern inventions.3 The concept of crisis as we use it today emerges in the political writings of the 17th and especially the 18th century, especially from Rousseau onwards (see the opening quote) and from the French Revolution onwards (hence the conceptual link between crisis and revolution). With Rousseau, the metaphor or analogy of the Hippocratic crisis enters the realm of politics. And it is only from the French Revolution onwards that the concept of crisis establishes itself as an important interpretative tool of history and its ruptures. (Koselleck, 2016)
To be continued …
- Koselleck, R. (2016). Begriffsgeschichten: Studien zur Semantik und Pragmatik der politischen und sozialen Sprache (3. Aufl. 2016). Suhrkamp.
- Koselleck, R. (1995). Krise. In O. Brunner, W. Conze, & R. Koselleck (Éds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Vol. Bd.3 H-Me (Unveränd. Nachdr., 1. Aufl, p. 617‑650). Klett Cotta.
- Longhi, V. (2019). La crise, une notion politique héritée des Grecs ? Anabases. Traditions et réceptions de l’Antiquité, 29, 21‑35.