Book review: Critique and Crisis - Reinhart Koselleck's thesis of the genesis of modernity
It has been said that critique is a genuinely modern disposition, just as crisis is a genuinely modern societal and mental state. The urban sociologist Robert Ezra Park wrote that the city – the ultimate manifestation of modernity, both with regards to social order and mentality – was in, or even constituted, "a permanent state of crisis". Critique and crisis are central categories in any understanding of the modern culture. The concepts have a common etymological origin. They describe a state where nothing is yet determined but is soon to be; a state all about decisions, distinctions and discernment.
The Greek word krínein meant both "subjective critique" and "objective crisis". The concepts achieve their real significance and are filled with opportunities and potential during the modern age, from the Renaissance and Reformation up to the present. They become significant because they reflect, explain and portray relationships that during the modern age and modernity became fundamental and essential: social and political relations, material and immaterial institutions, values, norms, meaning. The development also reflects the self-awareness of modernity – which is always at least latently critical and results in a situation where mankind and society and the relationship between them is characterised by ambivalence and ambiguity, or simply crisis.
The critical (meaning the modern) disposition observes and embodies everything it takes on – and it takes on everything; practical, theoretical, ideological, technical – as crisis-like, as critical. The crisis-like or critical character of everything admits and evokes critical judgement. Modernity takes hold of and absorbs its surroundings and has embraced the Greeks' krínein as its trademark. The genesis of modernity in terms of critique and crisis is the subject in Reinhart Koselleck's half-century old investigation Critique and Crisis. The study originates in the blood stained and confused religious wars and the solution that was the absolutist state, and ends in the French Revolution, in the utopias and terror. The early modern age starts and ends in existential, social and political crisis, and this crisis opens up the possibility for critique, develops it and eventually contributes to the success of critique. In other words: the historical origin of critique can be found in the crisis, and both the historical answer to this crisis and crisis itself are the outcomes of critique. Critique and crisis are essentially historical categories.
Koselleck portrays the genesis of modernity, its incubation period, during the centuries prior to 1789. However, he also interprets and depicts important elements of the society and the mentality that remain valid. Critique, as a concept, experience, disposition and practice, is a historical force that originated in, has been shaped by and even contributed to the historical development that still determines our lives, regardless whether we consider ourselves to be post- or late- modern.
Koselleck became an influential historian during the second half of the twentieth century. In many ways, his work is characterised by plurality. Jacob Taubes, a sociologist of religion, labelled him "partisan". He did not follow any certain school before him, and did not leave one behind. The theory of history and iconography are reoccurring areas of interest. Koselleck's most prominent ideas were those of the history of concepts and mentality. In the encyclopaedia Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, which Koselleck published with Werner Conze and Otto Brunner, many of the concepts that characterise modernity – revolution, state, capitalism, society, progress, crisis, critique – are thoroughly examined in articles of great length. The historian of ideas sees concepts as indicators as well as factors, as testimonies of typical and significant facts and ideas. The fundamental historical concepts of modernity together constitute a kind of mental blueprint.
Plurality is also characteristic of Koselleck's understanding of human nature. Historical events escape the pretentions of the philosopher of history...