Notes on Koselleck’s Conceptual Location of ‘Criticism’ and ‘Crisis’

The following are verbatim-notes from Reinhart Koselleck’s exceptional work Critique and Crisis: The Pathogenesis of Modern Society. Here, Koselleck traces how enlightenment thought led to a clear-cut duality between the moral or private realm and that of the political or public in the second, with a philosophical preponderance of the former. It is such a predominance of the former, Koselleck contends, that led to the deeply ideological, dogmatic, evangelical and revolutionary qualities that characterise the political fabric of ‘modernity’ broadly; i.e. in the shift from the predominance of rational, civic, public political epistemology, to that of universalist, private, moralisation void of politics itself. In these verbatim-notes, Koselleck explores the very categories of ‘Critique’ and ‘Crises’ as conceptual phenomena.[1]

An interesting question concerns the manner in which Koselleck grasps criticism as ‘the art of judgement’, and, by extension of this, the extent to which this is intertwined or distinct from hermeneutics as the art of interpretation. Another interesting note concerns certain linguistic-usage overlaps. In the first case, with the distinction between politics and morality itself, my thinking was drawn to the bifurcation of modern political thought made by Michael Oakeshott across his work, towards (a) civic association, and (b) enterprise association, coordinating with their respective moral discourses. Secondly, as far as investigating judgement is concerned, there does indeed appear to be some overlap between Koselleck here and Hannah Arendt in her essay Thinking and Moral Considerations, not to mention her Lectures on Kant. In the case of the latter, this prompts one to ask the extent to which the shadow of Kant is once again present in a reflexive critique of critical judgement itself.

pp. 103-104


“Does the Absolutist State still rule? Or has the new society been victorious? That is the question that arises here. The indirect stance no longer suffices. The critical process is coming to an end. A decision is unavoidable but has not yet been arrived at. The crisis is manifest it lies hidden in the criticism. But a closer examination of this relationship calls for an analysis of the critical process itself. It is inherent in the concept of criticism that through it a separation takes place. Criticism is the art of judging; its function calls for testing a given circumstance for its validity or truth, its rightness or beauty, so as to arrive at a judgement based on the insight won, a judgement that extends to persons as well. In the course of criticism the true is separated from the false, the genuine from the spurious, the beautiful from the ugly, right from wrong. 'Criticism' [Footnote 15 – Laid out below] is the art of judging, and the discrimination connected with it on the basis of this its general meaning (which it already had in the eighteenth century) is obviously connected with the then prevalent dualistic worldview. This connection can be found in some of the critical documents. To understand the peculiar political significance of criticism in the eighteenth century it is necessary to show the evolution of the critical factor in its conflicting relationship with the State, and then to pursue the gradual development and the growing claim of the critical factor on this State. Such a procedure makes, at the same time, for a temporal classification.

Footnote 15


The word 'criticism' (French critique, German Kritik) and the word 'crisis' (French ‘crise’, German Krise), both derive from the Greek κρίνω: to differentiate, select, judge, decide; Med.: to take measure, dispute, fight. (The same root, cri-, is found in the Latin ‘cerno’ and cribrum, Fr. crible: sieve). The Greek usage of κρίνω and κρίσις generally, even if not originally, referred to jurisprudence and the judicial system. 'Crisis' meant discrimination and dispute, but also decision, in the sense of final judgement or appraisal, which today falls into the category of criticism. In Greek, a single concept encompassed today's distinctive meanings of 'subjective' criticism and 'objective' crisis. As judgement, trial and general tribunal, the word κρίσις was used forensically. Thus 'pro and con' were originally contained in the word 'crisis' and the decision was also implicit. When the judge's decision specifically is meant, the term ἀρκή κριτική carries the sense of creating order, as Aristotle used it (Pol. 1253a; 1275a, b; 1326b). The sovereign and legal order of a community depends on the just decision of the judge. Only he who participates in the office of judge (ἀρκή) is a citizen. The adjectival form κριτικός dating back to Plato refers to this ability and art of judging, of decision-making and arriving at a judgement and, more generally, of the weighing of pro and con, to the 'critical' activity of judgement.

The Septuagint also uses the word κρίσις in the sense of the administration of justice and law, which the ruler is called upon to protect and create (Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, ed. G. Kittel, 2nd edn, Stuttgart, 1950). Through the covenant with Israel God proved that He was the true Lord and Judge; in John the word κρίσις takes on the meaning of the Last Judgement. The temporal structure of this judgement, which through Christ's appearance anticipated the still outstanding decision and already is experienced in the conscience of the believers, this meaning in secularised form, would become the accepted one in the eighteenth century. 'Crisis' would not be generally used. The expression 'criticism', of judging, of arriving at a judgement, became prevalent, while 'crisis' in the Greek sense of legal order, or in the Christian sense of Judgment Day, disappeared. Based on Hippocrates and Galen's use of the term ἡ κριτικὴ ἡμέρα, Latin also largely restricted the term 'crisis' to medical usage. The Encyclopédie considers this translation an historical fact of the past: 'Galian teaches us that this word crisis is a bar term adopted by physicians and that it signifies, properly speaking, a judgment' (essay on 'Crisis '). In Latin the crisis of a disease and the medical diagnosis are related concepts, while the concept of crisis is limited to the field of medicine. ('A medicis dicitur subita morbi mutatio novumque indicium, ex quo judicari potest, quid aegro futurum sits' - “By physicians it is said that a sudden change in the disease, and a new indication, from which it may be judged, what will happen to the patient” - ; Forcinelli and Furlanetto, Lexicon totius Latinitatis, Patavii, 1940.) Cf. Augustine 6 conf. I: 'Critica accessio morbi est, ex quo de sanitate aut morte aegrotantis judicium ferri potest' - “It is the critical approach to the disease, from which a judgment can be made as to the health or death of the patient” - However, the critic is also as already in the Greek a grammatical and art critic. In the Middle Ages the term 'crisis' was limited to medical usage, designating the crucial stage of a disease in which a decision had to be made but had not yet been reached. This is the sense in which the term is still used today.

 'Criticism' however has moved away from the originally corresponding word 'crisis' and continues to refer to the art of judging and to discrimination, without implying the weightiness of a decision inherent in the theological, legal or medical sense of crisis. The adverbial and adjectival form 'critical' is of a different order, depending on whether it is used in the modifying sense of crisis or criticism. In 1702 an Englishman (Eng. Theophrast 5, quoted in Murray, A New English Dictionary) wrote: 'How strangely some words lose their primitive sense! By a ‘Critick’, was originally understood a good judge; with us nowadays it signifies no more than a Fault finder'; and Collier, in The Great Historical, Geographical, Genealogical and Political Dictionary (2nd edn, London, 1701) speaks of the presumptuous 'criticks' who made themselves suspect equally to all princes and learned men, Protestants as well as Catholics; in punishment they generally met a violent or ignominious death. 

Zedler, who stood in the humanist tradition, in his Grosses vollständiges Universal-Lexicon (Halle and Leipzig, 1733) still assigns the same meaning to 'crisis' and 'critic'. Critic means 'judgement' and 'crisis' means 'judgement, reason, thought, therefore one says man has no Crisis, that is, he cannot judge anything'. However, Zedler also gives as the most common meaning of crisis the crucial turning point in a disease, and oddly enough only in the sense of a turning point on the road to recovery. "Today one calls crisis that curative effect of nature through which the substance of the disease... is expelled from the body and the body is thereby freed from its decline and disease.' While Zedler was not yet familiar with the 'critic', his article on 'Critic' uncovers one of the roots of the hypocrisy to which eighteenth- century criticism had degenerated: 'Because criticism indirectly, though not through its direct activity, contributes greatly to true wisdom, still it has happened that the minds that apply themselves to it by taking its indirect effect as direct have fallen prey to great haughtiness, and this includes the office of judge that they have arrogated to themselves.... This encompasses the theme of the century.”

pp. 104-105

“In England and France the word group associated with the concept of criticism was incorporated into the national languages from the Latin around 1600.16 The terms critique and 'criticism' (and also 'criticks') established themselves in the seventeenth century. What was meant by them was the art of objective evaluation particularly of ancient texts, but also of literature and art, as well as of nations and individuals. The term was initially used by the Humanists; it incorporated the meaning of judgement and learned scholarship, and when the philological approach was expanded to Holy Scripture, this process too was called 'criticism'. One could be critical and Christian at the same time; the critical non-believer was set apart by the sobriquet 'criticaster'.”

p. 118

“The King as ruler by divine right appears almost modest alongside the judge of mankind who replaced him, the critic who believed that, like God on Judgement Day, he had the right to subject the universe to his verdict.”

[1] Reinhart Koselleck (1988) Critique and Crisis: The Pathogenesis of Modern Society. Oxford: Berg.