On Historical Crisis

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Reply Sun 23 Nov, 2008 08:44 am

An historical crisis is a world change which differs from the normal change as follows: the normal change is that the profile of the world which is valid for one generation is succeeded by another and slightly different profile. Yesterday's system of convictions gives way to today's, smoothly, without a break; this assumes that the skeleton framework of the world remains in force throughout that change, or is only slightly modified. (85)

That is the normal. Well, then, an historical crisis occurs when the world change which is produced consists in this: the world, the system of convictions belonging to a previous generation, gives way to a vital state in which man remains without these convictions, and therefore without a world. Man returns to a state of not knowing what to do, for the reason that he returns to a state of actually not knowing what to think about the world. Therefore the change swells to a crisis and takes on the character of a catastrophe. The world change consists of the fact that the world in which man was living has collapsed, and, for the moment, of that alone. It is a change which begins by being negative and critical. One does not know what new thing to think - one only knows, or thinks he knows, that the traditional norms and ideas are false and inadmissible. One feels a profound disdain for everything, which believed yesterday; but the truth is that there are no new positive beliefs with which to replace the traditional ones. Since that system of convictions, that world, was the map which permitted man to move within his environment with a certain security, and since he now lacks such a map, he again feels himself lost, at loose ends, without orientation. He moves from here to there without order or arrangement; he tries this side and then the other, but without complete convictions; he pretends to himself that he is convinced of this or that. (86)

During periods of crisis, position which are false or feigned are very common. Entire generations falsify themselves to themselves; that is to say, they wrap themselves up in artistic styles, in doctrines, in political movements which are insincere and which fill the lack of genuine convictions. When they get to be about forty years old, those generations become null and void, because at that age one can no longer live on fictions. One must set oneself up within the truth. (87)

Whether you like it or not, to live is always to have convictions, to believe something about the world and about one's self. Now those convictions, those beliefs, can be negative. One of the most convinced men who ever trod the earth was Socrates, and Socrates was convinced only that he knew nothing. Well then, life as crisis is a condition in which man holds only negative convictions. This is a terrible situation. The negative conviction, the lack of feeling certain about anything important, prevents man from deciding with any precision, energy, confidence, or sincere enthusiasm what he is going to do. He cannot fit his life into anything, he cannot lodge it within a specific destiny. Everything he does, feels, thinks, and says will be decided and achieved without positive conviction - that is to say, without effectiveness; it will be only the ghost of any real doing, feeling, thinking, or saying; it will be a vita minima - a life emptied of itself, incompetent, unstable. (87)

Since at heart he is not convinced of anything positive and therefore is not truly decided about anything, man and indeed the masses of men will move from white to black with the greatest of ease. During periods of crisis one does not really know what each man is because in point of fact he is not anything with any decisiveness; he is one thing today and another tomorrow. Imagine a person who, when in the county, completely loses his sense of direction. He will take a few steps in one direction, then a few more in another, perhaps the exact opposite. The world and our convictions about the world make up our sense of direction, orient us, give us the compass points which direct our actions. Crisis man has been left without a world, handed over to the chaos of pure circumstance, in a lamentable state of disorientation. Such a structure of life opens a wide margin for very diverse emotional tonalities as a mask for life; very diverse, but all belonging to the same negative type. On feeling himself lost, man may respond with skeptical frigidity, with anguish, or with desperation; and he will do many things, which though apparently heroic, do not in fact proceed from any real heroism but are deeds done in desperation. Or he will have a sense of fury, of madness, an appetite for vengeance, because of the emptiness of his life; these will drive him to enjoy brutally, cynically, whatever comes his way - flesh, luxury, power. (87-88)

But human existence abhors a vacuum. All about this state of negation, this absence of convictions, there begin to ferment certain obscure germs of a new set of positive tendencies. More than this, in order that man may stop believing in some things, there must be germinating in him a confused faith in others. This new faith, I repeat, although misty and imprecise as the first light of dawn, bursts intermittently from the negative surface of man's life in a time of crisis, and provides him with sudden joys and unstable enthusiasms which, by contrast with his usual humor, take on the appearance of orgiastic seizures. These new enthusiasms soon begin to stabilize themselves in some dimension of life, while the rest of life continues in the shadow of bitterness and resignation. It is curious to note that almost always the dimension of life in which the new faith begins to establish itself is art. (Man and Crisis 88)

Considering that the world is currently amidst an economic crisis not seen since the Great Depression and a moral crisis since World War II, I though this explanation is fitting on how great crises manifest in the world. The old way of doing things is no longer valid, and the world of the Industrial Age is dead. It will be interesting to see how humanity overcomes the current crisis and manifests the new age.
Reply Sun 23 Nov, 2008 09:28 am
It was interesting to read this in light of a discussion about whether Existentialism is "dead" elsewhere on the forum. Thanks for posting.
Reply Sun 14 Dec, 2008 07:45 am
Man and Crisis which provide an introduction to his concept of "historical crisis". I am currently working on a content analysis of this book and the passages you have chosen are very concise summaries of this concept. However, your comments after the quoted passages indicate that your understanding of the concept of "historical crisis" does not correspond to that of Ortega. An "economic crisis", no matter how severe, and a vaguely identified "moral crisis" do not constitute "historical crises" as described in the quoted passages.

Ortega's book, Man and Crisis is a translation of his En torno a Galileo, which was based on a series of lectures he gave at the University of Madrid in 1933 in commemoration of the four hundredth anniversary of the renunciation of the Copernican theory by Galileo in June of 1633. The purpose of the lectures was to provide an understanding of the significance of this act and the role that Galileo played in the history of Western civilization in the context of Ortega's newly developed theory of history which he called "historical reason".

According to this theory, historical events can be understood as occurring during two types of periods of history: periods of stability and periods of crisis. During periods of stability the system of convictions or "world" does not change or changes very slowly. During periods of crisis, the system of convictions breaks down and, as you quoted above, "[m]an returns to a state of not knowing what to do, for the reason that he returns to a state of actually not knowing what to think about the world."

Elsewhere in the book Ortega mentions three periods of stability: the Ancient or Classical World, the Medieval World or Middle Ages, and the Modern World. Each of these periods of stability has been followed by a breakdown in the system of convictions that constitute each "world", resulting in a period of crisis which he calls an "historical crisis". The first historical crisis occurred in the third century A.D. resulting from the breakdown of the Ancient World. The second one occurred during the period from 1350 to 1650 resulting from the breakdown of the Medieval World. This period is also known as the Renaissance. Ortega postulates that we are now in another period of crisis that began in 1900, resulting from the breakdown of the system of convictions known as the Modern World. A symptom of this breakdown is the current fashionable use of the term "Post-Modern" to refer to our current period of crisis. Hopefully, this period will lead to the development of a new system of convictions or "world" that will result in a new period of stability, or as you put it a "new age".

A thorough analysis of the concept of "historical crisis" can be found in the book by Professor John T. Graham, Theory of History in Ortega y Gasset: the Dawn of Historical Reason (University of Missouri Press, 1997), the second volume of a three-volume study of Ortega's thought. Professor Graham is currently working on a comprehensive study of the concept of "crisis" which will be published sometime next year.

I am also currently working on a List of Types of Crises which I hope to submit to Wikipedia in the near future with links to other entries in that database. So far I have identified over 100 different types from "abdication crisis" to "wharf crisis". Thanks for supplying me with one more: "moral crisis".
Reply Sun 14 Dec, 2008 11:18 am
I see the current economic crisis as a small piece of of much larger crisis--globalization. Part of the larger crisis formed from the ideas of relativism, and the reaction to this idea.

I thank you for adding on to this topic and broadening my understanding of Ortega's actual thinking. I am more concerned with applied philosophy and parallels in history than the actual history of the thought so at times I may read to far into a work, or miss the internal clock work of the logic.

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