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Reinhart Koselleck “Crisis”

Koselleck, Reinhart 2006. Crisis. Journal of the History of Ideas 67(2): 357-400.

[…] “crisis” also meant “decision” in the sense of reaching a verdict or judgment, what today is meant by criticism (Kritik). Thus in classical Greek the subsequent separation into two domains of meaning – that of a “subjective critique” and an “objective critique” – were still covered by the same term. (359)

Above all, it was in the sense of “judgment”, “trial”, “legal decision”, and ultimately “court” that crisis achieved a high constitutional status, through which the individual citizen and the community were bound together. (359)

From this specific legal meaning, the term begins to acquire political significance. It is extended to electoral decisions, government resolutions, decisions of war and peace, death sentences and exile, the acceptance of official reports, and, above all, to government decisions as such. Consequently, krisis is most necessary for the community, representing what is at once just and salutary. For this reason, only one who participated as judge could be a citizen. For the Greeks, therefore, “crisis” was a central concept by which justice and the political order could be harmonized through appropriate legal decisions. (359)

[…] medical theory of crisis, which originated in the Corpus Hippocraticum and which Galen (129-99) firmly entrenched for about fifteen hundred years. In the case of illness, crisis refers both to the observable condition and to the judgment (judicium) about the course of illness. At such a time, it will be determined whether the patient will live or die. This required properly identifying the beginning of an illness in order to predict how regular its development will be. Depending on whether or not the crisis led to a fill restoration of health, the distinction was made between a perfect crisis and an imperfect crisis. The latter left open the possibility of a relapse. A further distinction, between acute and chronic crises, has led – since Galen – to a temporal differentiation in the progression of illnesses. (360)

With its adoption into Latin, the concept subsequently underwent a metaphorical expansion into the domain of social and political language. There it is used as a transitional or temporal concept (Verlaufsbegriff), which, as in a legal trial, leads towards a decision. It indicates that point in time which a decision is due but has not yet been rendered. (361)

At all times [whether legal, theological or medical use] the concept is applied to life-deciding alternatives meant to answer questions about what is just or unjust, what contributes to salvation or damnation, what furthers health or brings death. (361)

Although the metaphor of the body or organism has been applied to the community since antiquity, it was not until the seventeenth century that the medical concept of crisis was applied to the “body politic” or to its constituent parts. Thus in 1627, Rudyerd used this term during the battle between parliament and the absolutist crown: “This is the Chrysis of Parliaments; we shall know by this if Parliaments life or die.” A little later, at the time of the civil war, the word became anglicized, lost its exclusively medical meaning, and perhaps began to refer more to its theological roots. In 1643, for example, Baillie wrote: “this seems to be a new period and crise of the most great affairs.” This expression became generally established, while increasingly acquiring religious connotations. (362)

Although we can presuppose that many scholars were familiar with those [juridical and theological] meanings, it appears that the primary point of departure for the expansion of the term into political and economic sphere was the medical usage. (365)

[…] the metaphorical extension of crisis into the German vernacular entered first through political rather than economic language. Thus Pierer in 1845 points to the political but not yet economic application of the term. At the same time, however, French lexicography already provides a comprehensive article on “crise commerciale” and gives it parity with “crise (médicine)” and “crise politique“. (366)

In Germany, however, such an economic application was not made until 1850 with Roscher’s article in the Brockhaus’s Gegenwart (The Present), in which he writes of “production crises considered with special reference to the most recent decades.” (367)

“Crisis” was used appropriately to describe concrete civil war situations that divided the loyalty of citizens. Pleading along this line, Count Reinhart, in a petition to the King of Westphalia, used the term to prevent him from carrying out summary executions. On the other hand, he could apply the same term in 1819 – “political crisis” – to a mere change of cabinet in Paris. (369)

The spectrum of political applications thus ranged broadly. “Crisis” marked external or military situations that were reaching a decisive point; it pointed to fundamental changes in constitutions in which the alternatives were the survival or demise of a political entity and its constitutional order; but it could also describe a simple change of government. The common use of the word had neither been validated nor sufficiently enriched to be elevated into a basic concept. (369)

From the second half of the eighteenth century on, a religious connotation enters into the way the term is used. It does so, however, in a post-theological mode, namely as a philosophy of history. At the same time, the metaphor of illness as well as the associational power of the “Last Judgment” and the “Apocalypse” remain pervasive in the way the term is used, leaving no doubt as to the theological origins of the new way in which the concept is constructed. (370)

[…] the concept of crisis can generalize the modern experience to such an extent that “crisis” becomes a permanent concept of “history”. This appears for the first time with Schiller’s dictum: “Die Weltgeschicte ist das Weltgericht” (“World History is the Last Judgment”), the impact of which cannot be overestimated. Without actually taking over the term “Last Judgment”, Schiller nonetheless interprets all of human history as a single crisis that is constantly and permanently taking place. The final judgment will not be pronounced from without, either by God or by historians in ex post facto pronouncements about history. Rather, it will be executed through all the actions and omissions of mankind. What was left undone in one minute, eternity will not retrieve. The concept of crisis has become the fundamental mode of interpreting historical time. (371)

Another variant lies in the repeated application of a crisis concept that represents at the same time – like the ascending line of progress – a historically unique transition phase. It then coagulates into an epochal concept in that it indicates a critical transition period after which – if not everything, then much – will be different. (371)

As it pertains to historical time, then, the semantics of the crisis concept contains four interpretative possibilities. 1) Following the medical-political-military use, “crisis” can mean that chain of events leading to a culminating, decisive point at which action is required. 2) In line with the theological promise of a future Last Day, “crisis” may be defined as a unique and final point, after which the quality of history will be changed forever. 3) Somewhat more removed from the earlier medical or theological semantic spheres, are two new historical (or temporal) coinages. The first uses “crisis” as a permanent or conditional category pointing to a critical situation which may constantly recur or else to situations in which decisions have momentous consequences. 4)The second new coinage uses “crisis” to indicate a historically immanent transitional phase. When this transition will occur and whether it leads to a worse or better condition depends on the specific diagnosis offered. (371-372)

All of these possibilities reveal attempts to develop a single concept limited to the present with which to capture a new era that may have various temporal beginnings and whose unknown future seems to give free scope to all sorts of wishes and anxieties, fears and hope. “Crisis” becomes a structural signature of modernity. (372)

Chateaubriand similarly uses the term as a key concept essential to all political parties: “In this moment of crisis no one can say “I will do something tomorrow” without having foreseen what tomorrow will bring.” Everyone is equally in the dark. All therefore must seek to discover the origins of this crisis, one’s own situation in it and the path to the future. This was to be his task. He compared all earlier revolutions with the ongoing French Revolution. For him, “crisis” is the point at which the present situation intersects with universal historical conditions that must first be understood before a prognosis could be offered. (376)

[…] Herder employs the decisive concept of crisis: “since for a variety of reasons we are living in the midst of such a strange crisis of the human spirit (indeed why not also of the human heart?), it is up to us to discover and assess all the inner forces of history rather than continue paying homage to a naive idea of progress.” (377)

“Crisis” plays only a peripheral role in the German Idealist philosophy of history in which the spirit (Geist) that drives reality naturally triumphs over any acute crisis. But the concept of crisis assumed a central place among its heirs, the Young Hegelians (Junghegelianer). This praxis- and action-oriented philosophy seeks to achieve that freedom, the absence of which is the object of its critique. At odds with reality, that critique is pushing for a decision, which, historically understood as “crisis”, is already pre-programmed and prepared. (384)

Because it is able to see the direction of history, this critique is propelling the crisis. In Bruno Bauer’s words: “History … will elevate to power the freedom which theory has given us and thereby create the world in a new form. … History will take of the crisis and its outcome.” Judging history correctly will determine whether the problems of state, church, and society demanding a decision can be solved in practice. The concept of crisis thus remains within a philosophy of history calling for the execution of tendencies revealed through critique. (385)

[Lorenz von Stein, Geschichte der sozialen Bewegung in Frankreich von 1789 bis auf unsere Tage, 1850]: “Throughout Europe there is a sense that the present condition cannot last much longer. Powerful and terrible movements are coming to the fore; no one dares to predict where they will lead. Hence no one has the right to offer a magic formula for the future.” […] The 1848 Revolution, which announces “the sovereignty of industrial society”, is merely one “act of that mighty crisis.” As with Saint-Simon, von Stein’s concept of crisis is drawn from an all-encompassing view of history which sees the revolutions of the nineteenth century as steps in the transition toward industrial society. At the same time, Stein prognosticates only two alternatives: a just social order or collapse. Thus his theory of the three epochs contains a decidedly eschatological component. (385-386)

[of Burckhardt]: The wars of the nineteenth century were only a part of this larger crisis, into which the forces of democracy and material ambitions, lust for power, and intellectual utopias all merged. But the “principal crisis” will come only with the convergence of technology, wars, and social revolutions. “At that point, the main decision must come from the nature of humanity itself” (thus transforming once and for all the metaphor of the Last Judgment into and anthropological and historical category). (388)

Surely our concept would never have become a central concept had it not acquired an additional interpretive content that reflected and experience increasingly common in daily life: economic crises. In Germany these were initially due to the costs of the wars against the French, to agrarian surpluses, as in 1825, or to failed harvests, as in 1847. But from 1857 on, economic crises were increasingly viewed as global occurrences caused by the capitalist system itself. (389)

From the 1840s on, the economically-based concept of crisis permeates the growing literature of social criticisms – coming from all political and social camps – that had begun to flood the market. “Crisis” was well suited to conceptualize both the emergencies resulting from contemporary constitutional or class specific upheavals, as well as the distress caused by industry, technology, and the capitalist market economy. These could be treated as symptoms of a serious disease or as a disturbance of the economy’s equilibrium. This undoubtedly prompted Roscher, in 1854, to coin the general formula: these are crises “the changing substance of which may take changing forms. Such crises are called ‘reforms’ if they are resolved peacefully under the auspices of the established legal system, but ‘revolutions’ if they produce changes violating the law.” Thus, in the economic sphere as well, “crisis” had been elevated into a historical “super concept” (Oberbegriff) with which to analyze the challenges of the century. (391-392)

“Crisis” remains a catchword, used rigorously in only a few scholarly or scientific contexts. Schumpeter denies its utility even for political economy, which is why, in his analysis of business cycles, he gives “no technical meaning to the term crisis, but only to the concepts of prosperity and depression.” (397)

The concept of crisis, which once had the power to pose unavoidable, harsh and non-negotiable alternatives, has been transformed to fit the uncertainties of whatever might be favored at a given moment. (399)

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