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ON CRISIS

Miguel de Beistegui (University of Warwick)

In the opening lines of his Critique and Crisis (1959), Reinhart Koselleck links what we now call globalisation – if by that we mean Europe’s planetary fate, or the fact that European history has become world history – and crisis: as an essentially bourgeois and techno-capitalist project, Europe has allowed the whole world “to drift into a state of permanent crisis,”(1) one that manifested itself in the late 1950s in the tension between the two superpowers, the USA and the USSR, and in the potential annihilation of the planet as a whole. But Koselleck’s words resonate even more strongly today. The crisis is permanent because it leaves no dimension of life untouched. Globalisation benefits some (and sometimes hugely), but excludes and marginalises many, and generates crises of formidable magnitudes, as we saw in 2008. But the permanent crisis is not simply economical: crises are also, and often at the same time, environmental, humanitarian, social and political.

 

Koselleck makes a further, apparently unrelated claim: “crisis and the philosophy of history are mutually dependent, and entwined.” In fact, they are “identical.”(2) By that, he means that when philosophy turns to history and its own present, it can only envisage it in terms of crisis. For only crisis renders the tensions and contradictions of the time visible, and only it forces us to imagine a different future. How else could we understand the fact that, limiting ourselves to the twentieth century, European thinkers as different as Valéry, Husserl, Heidegger or Arendt have repeatedly referred to the notion of crisis when trying to describe their own time, and spoken of a crisis of European spirit, science, humanity, education, or culture?

 

In “The Crisis in Education” (1954), Arendt anticipates Koselleck’s argument by claiming that a “general crisis has overtaken the modern world everywhere and in almost every sphere of life.”(3) The general crisis, of which the crisis in education is only a symptom, is the crisis of authority, or the loss of authority in the political and public sphere. Crises are not only multiple and ubiquitous, they are also intertwined. In the last three decades, Habermas has been adding his voice to this choir, and advocating the relevance of the concept of crisis as a tool for social analysis(4) : he speaks of crisis in an economic sense, but also of a rationality crisis, a legitimation crisis, a motivational crisis, and (more recently) of a crisis of the European Union itself.(5) More recently still, and despite their differences in approach, R. Esposito and F. Worms anchor their arguments on Europe and democracy in the concept of crisis.(6) Philosophy and history are, it seems, bound by crisis.

 

It is therefore apt to begin our reflection on philosophy’s relation to its own time by scrutinizing this seemingly inescapable connection with crisis. If philosophy can speak of the present only to the extent that indicates a crisis, then ‘Philosophy in a Time of Crisis’ is a tautology: to the extent that philosophy turns away from so-called eternal problems, and towards historically embedded ones, it seems to bind itself to the vocabulary of crisis. But if crises are so ubiquitous and fundamental, if philosophy’s only access to history is through crisis, doesn’t the very notion of crisis become too general, if not empty? Does it not run the risk of being normalised? In addition, should we not be suspicious of the ways in which this notion is taken up, used and sometimes abused by politicians, political activists, religious leaders, journalists and even artists? How can we distinguish between a genuine concept of crisis and a trite, even demagogic use of the term? Should we follow the example of sociologists such as Niklas Luhman, and abandon “the great bourgeois tradition of crisis and criticism?”(7) Or should we claim that so long as crisis is not bound to thought (or critique), and an effort to reveal the problem of which it is the expression, it is a mere slogan, and in danger of being instrumentalized?

Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society, (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1988), p. 5.

Koselleck, Critique and Crisis, p. 12.

Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (London: Penguin, 1977), p. 173.

Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Cambridge: Polity, 1988).

Jürgen Habermas, The Crisis of the European Union, translated by Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge: Polity, 2012).

Roberto Esposito, Da fuori. Una filosofia per l’Europa (Torino: Einaudi, 2016); Frédéric Worms, Les maladies chroniques de la démocratie (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 2017).

Niklas Luhman, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998), p. 1116.

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