THE EUROPEAN WORLD IN CRISIS?
Broadly speaking, philosophical engagement with the theme of Europe’s modern condition as it moves into our time has two contrasting (although sometimes overlapping) strands: a Europe-crisis strand and an exhausted-Europe strand. The first current begins with, and accepts, the basic premise of the classic discourse of Europe’s modernity: the claim that Europe has attained or is in the process of attaining a “higher stage” for humanity, one with universal and not merely regional significance.
Europe, on this understanding, is at the head of a teleological development that belongs to the universal history of Man on his way to radical freedom and self-responsibility – the telos of rational life.
Since the course of actual history, even if it is understood as having a teleological sense, never runs smooth, Europe’s progress and promise remains vulnerable to all sorts of set-backs, shocks and mis-steps. Or, more precisely, in conditions where Man is striving for radical freedom and self-responsibility, it is only to be expected that there will be periods of “crisis” where, as it were, we lead ourselves astray, and a decisive confrontation with our situation is required to pull us back onto the emancipatory and progressive road towards peace, freedom and well-being.
Through the course of the twentieth century most reflection on Europe’s modern condition was situated within the conceptuality of this classic interest in emancipation and progress. For example, facing the rise of fascism in Germany, Edmund Husserl saw the political events overwhelming Europe as fundamentally inseparable from a deeper philosophical event: what is taking place, he said, belongs to the “inner dissolution” of “the philosophical modern age” (CES, p. 12), a condition expressed most profoundly in the falling away of “faith in the meaning of history” (CES, p. 13), a falling away of faith in the very idea that the modern condition is indeed a “higher stage” for Man in history. For Husserl, this is a spiritual crisis which runs to the very core of the European world, bringing about “a more and more prominent crisis of European humanity itself in respect to the total meaningfulness of its cultural life”, a crisis for what he calls its “Existenz” (CES, p. 12).
Husserl wants to be able to take on board the possibility that actual history will not always take the course that the great metanarrative of philosophical history will present as its innermost truth. That philosophical metanarrative concerns the history of rational animality, and a distinctive “teleology of European history”, the development of a European “‘world’… born out of… the spirit of philosophy” (CES, p. 299), which leads world history or the history of Man. Husserl cleaves to the promise that philosophical history articulates the necessary background for understanding the general trajectory of what actually happens, and hence he also resists the idea that actual history might threaten to compromise the very idea of philosophical history (of world history as the telic history of rational animality).
“Crises” for Husserl are thus events within the history of Man thus understood, and never a crisis for that history. That is to say, the “present world crisis” is conceived as an errant moment within the history of the unfolding of Man’s rational being in time: “the ‘crisis’ could then become distinguishable as the [only] apparent failure of rationalism”, as Husserl puts it (CES, p. 299). Husserl is, for that reason, equally committed to the idea that reason can get back on track, and with the right kind of “reorientation” to its own “task” that he wants his own work to produce, can help it in the endless challenge of staying on track:
There are only two escapes from the crisis of European existence: either in the downfall of a Europe alienated from its own rational sense of life, fallen into a barbarian hatred of spirit; or in the rebirth of Europe from the spirit of philosophy, through a heroism of reason that will definitively overcome [the “apparent failure of rationalism” that is] naturalism. Europe’s greatest danger is weariness. Let us as “good Europeans” do battle with this danger of dangers with the sort of courage that does not shirk even the endless battle. If we do, then from the annihilating conflagration of disbelief, from the fiery torrent of despair regarding the West’s mission for humanity, from the ashes of the great weariness, the phoenix of a new inner life of the spirit will arise as the pledge of a great and distant future for man, for the spirit alone is immortal. (CES, p. 299, trans. mod)
The concept of “crisis” which governs this discourse of spirit, a concept that was originally linked in Greek antiquity to the trauma of
a living body, is essentially binary. There are only “two escapes”: either a return to spiritual health – or spiritual death. Of course, were Europe’s downfall to prove terminal, if it were to die as a culture of the higher stage of humanity, Husserl can leave it open that something else, perhaps (why not?) somewhere else, might, one day, take up the task again. In that case the “rebirth of Europe” (in a spiritual sense) might not call itself European.
Nevertheless, for Husserl, even in that case the human community of spirit that would take up that universal task would still belong to
a universal history of Man whose explicit teleological sense makes its first entrance on to the stage of history in what called itself (to be) Europe’s history; the history of the Europe of the nations and its golden thread from ancient Greece to the present. Husserl speaks of all of this in terms of the task of “the spirit’s truly universal and truly radical coming to terms with itself…where all…questions of being and…questions of what is called ‘existence’ [Existenz] find their place” (CES p. 298). We will not get away from the sense of a task to come to terms with ourselves and our condition. But there is, as I have indicated, a second strand in the reading of the condition of modern Europe’s contemporary condition, and it is one that Husserl not only wants to have in view, but also, in his reference to we “good Europeans”, and in his reference to “Existenz”, wants to get into his own narrative’s control.
Without naming names, Husserl in this passage especially wants to master or put in their place two (by his lights) especially wayward voices in the European wilderness: first, Nietzsche, who also wrote of “the danger of dangers” and wants explicitly to write about
our own historical situation in the name of “we ‘good Europeans’” (BGE, p. 152); and, second, Husserl’s own pupil Heidegger,
who explicitly defines “the kind of being” towards which we comport ourselves “in one way or another” when we have our own being
in view, as “Existenz” (BT, p. 32).
In a moment we will come across another author from the first strand, Robert Pippin, wanting safely to coral these two names without naming them into a Europe-crisis narrative, where a third name, Derrida’s, will also appear without appearing by name either. But as we shall see, these thinkers are not the thinkers of “crisis” within the history of Man as a rational animal, but the major thinkers of the second strand: those alive to the exhaustion of that old “modern” conception of Man, of his history and spiritual or cultural crises.
The second strand may well have sympathy with the general theme of coming to terms with our own being – but are beginning to call
into question the metaphysical conception of Man which governs the crisis picture of the first strand. What is this conception? "The name of man has always been inscribed in metaphysics between two ends. [The name of Man] has meaning only in this eschato-teleological situation. Since always." (MP, pp. 122-3.)
“Eschatology and teleology – that is Man”, as Derrida summarily puts it in The Other Heading (OH, p. 14). “Since always”, he says, meaning that the name of Man and a particular understanding of the meaning of our own being have always belonged together for us, that is to say, for those who inhabit the culture of the epoch of Christian creationism in its appropriation of Greek conceptual resources. This epoch is marked by an understanding of its own world-historical epochality, marked equally by the idea of there being an innermost history of the world that gives rise to the history of what has called itself (to be) Europe. “Man” (as such) appears in a “world” that is fundamentally Greco-Biblical. In the second strand in the Europe-problem discussion – a strand that we can track above all in the wayward work signed by the names Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida – this Greek/Christian or onto-theological conception of ourselves is itself
So where Husserl will have seen his task as reviving faith in “the philosophical-historical idea (or the teleological sense) of European humanity” (CES, p. 269) in the face of its “alienation” and “inner dissolution”, for the other strand the bewildering opacity and perplexity of our time is symptomatic of the fact that the old European self-understanding is falling apart, is becoming for us unbelievable, incredible, exhausted, uninhabitable. No longer simply “ours”.
For the second strand, the exhausted-Europe strand, our time is the time of the end of the classic discourses of the end of Man –
the end of the classic onto-theology of the archeo-teleo-eschatological discourse of philosophical history, and hence also the end of
the old discourse of Europe’s own modernity which conceives Europe as the vanguard of this history of theomorphic rational Man.
On that old modern understanding, history is (for example) the emancipation or de-alienation of Absolute spirit, or the emancipation of the rational subject or of the working subject as universal subject, with events that have taken place in Europe at the head of this development: its modernity providing an example for all to follow.
This conception of history, this history of Europe’s promise of peace, freedom and well-being for all humanity – that history, as Levinas stresses, is simply not recognizable in its actual history (AT, p.132). Or perhaps better: Europe’s history is no longer recognizable as belonging to a history of the progress of Man as Man has been understood hitherto by the one that calls himself (to be) Man.
The idea of Europe’s centrality to world history is not only challenged by Europe’s crimes but perhaps first of all by its greatest scientific achievements – Copernicus, Darwin and Freud (as Freud suggests) – and perhaps in a different but final way by the historical appearance of Marxism in the twentieth century (as Derrida suggests). In the wake of all these decentring blows, faith in the meaning of history as
the history of Man, faith in Europe’s promise in that history, lies in tatters. And then indeed: from then on Europe will be defined increasingly only by its crimes.
Following the second strand, one would not undertake the task of coming to terms with the contemporary European world by relating it
to the movement and crises of Man in history, but by thinking a Europe that is living increasingly beyond the old modern understanding of Man and his history: to understand Europe beyond modernity as the movement of a Greco-Christian understanding of our being in decentring deconstruction.
In order to make our way into this, I want briefly to introduce the reading of the current phase of Europe’s modern condition to be found
in Robert Pippin’s discussion in Modernism as a Philosophical Problem, and his corralling of the three unnamed names. In a manner whose helpfulness should be discussed more directly, Pippin explores the Europe-problem theme in terms of the current phase of academic debates about modernity. As a continuing believer in modernity and its promise, his own position in the field of these debates – in which he champions the modern understanding as it is inherited through Hegel –, comes across as fearful and beleaguered. While it does an obvious injustice to the particular points he is making, the following utterly shredded citation gives a reasonable summary sense of what is to the fore in his reading of what he sees as a culture of dissatisfaction with modernity:
The emphasis now on new methodologies and research programs (“new historicism”, “cultural studies”, “post-colonialism”) has not altered the nature or the depth of the tone [of]…a great, persistent dissatisfaction…all [expressed] in a still suspicious, wary tone…inspired by political suspicions…;[a] consensus about failure [concerning] the…limitations…of the modernist project…, a very great limitation in [the] received picture. [Given the intensity of the] sceptical attacks [on] modern institutions…it would not be too much of an exaggeration to designate [it as]… a kind of widespread “bourgeois self-hatred”, [expressing] dissatisfactions [that] are so powerful and deep…[that] they can be extremely dangerous… Doubts about the legitimacy and authority of many modern presuppositions, [and about] the possibility of genuine, rational enlightenment…[have] assumed an intensely political, even geo-political form [in] European philosophy’s growing dissatisfaction with… the promises of Enlightenment claims about reason and subjectivity…,[and] the possibility that human beings can regulate and evaluate their beliefs by rational self-reflection. [Even if] the assumption that the cosmos [is] an ordered and purposive whole…[now] looks like an indefensible anachronism, [on the] question…whether…self-legislation can be said to be rational…the account I present [argues that] Hegel best realizes such a project…[And this] most ambitious and challenging philosophical case [for the modern aspiration for a free existence] ought at least to be on the table…[or] at least be placed back on the agenda. (MPP, pp. xii-76)
Pippin tends to represent the scene as one in which it is those who belong to the widespread “culture of dissatisfaction” who are the ones that divide it into “a drama of heroes and villains”. After all, they are the ones who seek a “great ‘confrontation’” with the modern
self-understanding (MPP, pp. xv-xv). They have a “crisis mentality” (MPP, p. 29), and “promise” a “decisive confrontation with the original aspirations of modern European culture” (MPP, p. xii, italics in original).
But Pippin’s own anxieties about the extreme danger posed to modern societies by this culture of persistent dissatisfaction suggests
that his own effort to defend a distinctively Hegelian position has a “crisis mentality” too. And a very classical one. Pippin does not think
we have reached the “extremely dangerous” situation that he nevertheless fears it might lead to were that largely academic dissatisfaction to become “a mass phenomenon” (MPP, p. xix). However, he certainly wants to do what he can to limit the extreme threat he sees
in the agenda-setting leftist academic radicals, and to help get us back onto a track of “an internally rational view of historical change” (MPP, p. 74), and a “version of teleology” (MPP, p. 75).
In the contemporary phase of leftist theory, as Pippin sees it, the new methodologies and research programs he identifies aim to develop a “radical critique” that could, if it could only mobilise a sufficiently widespread social movement, change the world. Pippin does not see hope in this, but danger.
By name, Marx is not a significant presence in Pippin’s book. In fact, he is mentioned only twice. But if you take the “intensely political, even geo-political” call for a “radical” and “decisive” “escape” or “break” with “bourgeois modernity” as the basic character
of the “culture of dissatisfaction” that Pippin finds in “European philosophy” today, then it is, I think, hard not to read it as the expression of a persisting Marxist spirit in academia in our time – even if we are not orthodox Marxists.
So today’s neo-Hegelian defender of “a version of teleology” makes one more try, in what he perceives as a time of crisis, to save the discourse of Europe’s modernity as the developing movement of an ever deeper “self-consciousness of reason by itself” (MPP, p. 163);
and the academic leftists make one more try, in what they too perceive as a time of crisis, to form and forge a new epoch, what Pippin
calls “the promise of a postmodern epoch” (MPP, p. xii).
The “philosophical problem of modernity” is thus represented by Pippin as “an internal European debate” (MPP, p. xi), where the main players are distributed between two rival camps: there is, on the one hand, a cultural self-understanding which is, as he puts it, “founded on the scientific world-view and the political ideals of individual rights protection, a modern civil society, and democratic institutions” (MPP, p. xiii); and then, on the other hand, there are those for whom this self-understanding is “a problem” (ibid.).
We should note how he summarises this “other hand”, for it includes quite a variety of hands, a variety of positions for which that modern self-understanding might represent “a problem”: it might be, he says, “a false promise, an ideological distortion, an expression of ontological forgetfulness, the will to power, or ethnocentrism, or a class or gender or race or culture bound strategy, all much more
than the expression of a universally compelling, philosophically defensible, human aspiration” (MPP, p. xi). This line-up in the “diverse spectrum” (MPP, p. xiv) of those who are “fiercely” antagonistic to the modern condition is fantastically precise, but also somewhat puzzling:
“A false promise”: modernity did not deliver on its promise; this is the response to the promise of modernity that Pippin will call modernist.
“An ideological distortion”: this is Marx. The last great discourse of modernity. Modernity is yet to deliver.
“A class or gender or race or culture bound strategy”: these are the various “new complex methodologies”, critical theory, feminism, postcolonial criticism, etc., whose newness “has not altered” the tone of “great, persistent dissatisfaction” and the call for “a decisive confrontation” with bourgeois modernity that belonged to orthodox Marxism.
But there are three other key variations, three odd hands, squeezed into Pippin’s list:
“Ontological forgetfulness”: this is from Heidegger.
“The will to power”: this is from Nietzsche.
“Ethnocentrism”: this is likely (given his place in Pippin’s book) from Derrida.
Here, as I anticipated earlier, the hands of Heidegger and Nietzsche, and the probable addition of a third unnamed hand, Derrida, are tied into the problem field that Pippin represents as the main sources of the “crisis mentality” that he takes to be so characteristic of our time. All three of these figures regard their work as contributing, in some way, to a movement that might prepare or forge a passage beyond the Greco-Christian (onto-theological) self-understanding that has called itself (to be) European. However, I do not mean only to be quibbling with a name (which they don’t in any case use) when I say that, with respect to their thought, if there is anything that might deserve the name, and indeed has been conferred the name, of a postmodern epoch (or condition), then we are already in it.
And they are readers of Europe’s condition (a Europe no doubt riven by heterogeneous in-the-world crises, economic, political, environmental) that finds it marked above all by the exhaustion of the great eschato-teleological discourses of Europe’s modernity. Hence, they are all better thought as representing not a “crisis mentality” but, as Derrida puts it, as among those who “‘think’ this beyond-of-crisis”, of “crisis” as a concept “no longer able to measure what is happening” (N, p. 63). In the second strand – the strand I take Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida to belong to – what is happening is principally the exhaustion of the great eschato-teleological discourse of Europe’s modernity. The end of the Greek/Christian onto-theological conception of Man, the wearing-out of the metaphysical meaning of Man that founds Europe’s old modern self-understanding. Hence the end of a time in which our time and the European “world” will be thought as best understood in terms of “crisis”.
Derrida, Jacques, Negotiations (N), Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.
--- The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe (OH), Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.
--- Margins of Philosophy (MP), Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982.
Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time (BT), Oxford Blackwell, 1962.
Husserl, Edmund, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (CES), Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970.
Levinas, Emmanuel, Alterity and Transcendence (AT), New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil (BGE), Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 1973.
Pippin, Robert, Modernism as a Philosophical Problem (MPP), Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
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