The Meta-Crisis of the Meta-Crisis

Johannes Achill Niederhauser, PhD

Perhaps it is helpful to begin with the meaning and origin of the word crisis and what its concept signifies for us today – if we begin to take seriously that apparently something announces itself in the ubiquity of crisis. Perhaps it would even be fair to claim that crisis and its specific dimension is today that which addresses us most urgently and assuming this is indeed the case the question becomes: whence this utmost urgent crisis?

The word crisis is of Ancient Greek origin. The Greek κρίσις means separation, dichotomy, conflict, strife, but also selection and decision. Hippocrates speaks of κρίσις also as pertaining to disease. The word κρίσις here means the moment when the fate of the patient is decided, either for recovery or for death. In tragedy κρίσις is the singular incision when the hero’s destiny becomes apparent. According to the Brothers Grimm Dictionary Goethe writes somewhere: “all transitions are crises, and is a crisis not a disease?”[1] We could then translate or maybe cross over from the shore of the Greeks to ours, ferry across the river of the aeons, the word κρίσις as follows: the within-itself turning of self-conflicting strife thanks to which selection and decision transpire such that the path entered upon irreversibly becomes one’s own. This entering-upon a path, however, is the instance in which κρίσις disappears. A crisis appears when a transition is paving its way for itself and another grounding neeeds to be prepared. This seems to be coming from behind, barely seen, rather than looming on the horizon. It is in the paving for itself the path that indicates this and that also requires, once the crisis is brought into focus, a decision. The word “decision” pleases the modern ear, it would seem, for “making” decisions, as the English vernacular says, indicates that something can be done, control can be executed, the crisis can and hence should be managed to minimise damage (insert: suffering) and maximise utility.

And still, despite the will to make decisions and to control, there are crises over crises. The climate crisis, the corona crisis, the financial, economic, social, political, institutional, intersubjective crises. There is a housing crisis, a homelessness crisis, a public health crisis, a mental health crisis. Crises upon crises, diseases upon diseases with Goethe – yet, is anything ever truly de-cided bearing in mind that to de-cide means to cut off (from Latin caedere “to cut”). It may well be that all those crises are not at all to be solved, there is no decision to be found at all. Instead, those crises are what the all-willing subject clings to as this pan-crisis is now what gives the subject absolute self-certainty. As long as everything is in utter crisis, I can and must and will manage the pan-crisis. I can even engage in abstract “meta-games” of crisis that are entirely detached from anything and purely in the realm of constructivism – hence entirely without the suffering experience of the painful cut which comes necessarily with any disease and any transition. It is as though high from the balcony view some stand comfortably overlooking the world pressed into the proscrustes bed of models and representations, a blueprint of the “meta-crisis” which, so the assumption goes, only needs all the right conditions met a priori for the so-called “meta-crisis” to be easily and comfortably overcome. Just take the ingredients of some rationality and causality - don’t forget the spiritual though! And here is your entertaining, epidermially interesting neatly defined set of solutions abstractly applicable to the “meta-crisis.” The historicised sterility with which thinking is approached indicates that something has broken off and away, that philosophy is no longer in charge of what it has always been in charge of: the grounding and founding of world access.

Alas! What is seemingly becoming ever clearer is that modernity itself is crisis – such is the grand claim of this humble essai. The attempts to solve problems, in the cold and distanced way proposed, to solve even thinking itself, indicate a misunderstanding of the task of thinking. Thinking does not require solving or correct solutions. Thinking needs to be thought. How is one to make sense of the grandiose remark that all modernity is crisis? The epoch, which gives itself the name “modernity”, i.e., of the present moment, begins with Descartes. This is not intended to give a precise date or year, but a transition, perhaps an incision, which the name of Descartes now stands for. Hegel says on the meaning of Descartes: “It is only now with Descartes that we properly arrive at the philosophy of the new world.” After a long time erring across the sea, Hegel continues, it is with Descartes that philosophy finally begins to see land again, for it is with Descartes, says Hegel, that philosophy begins to appreciate the importance of consciousness for truth. Descartes’ doubts and Kant’s contributions are what have given birth to the modern world more than anything. The oft-cited so-called Cartesian paradigm has become the unquestioned bogyman which can be pulled out the magician’s hat any moment a conversation requires a quick and easy deus ex machina to find someone or something to blame. Nothing of what is being said here intends to blame anyone, however. In fact, the unquestioned repeated talk of the “Cartesian paradigm” is thoughtless precisely because, inter alia, it neglects the necessity of the thought of Descartes and what he responds to. Why is it that the soul becomes the res cogitans which in turn becomes the ground for philosophy? Why is it that casting doubt, methodologically, i.e., the negation of all certainty in order to arrive at absolute certainty? Why is it that mental perception begins to the take the upper hand? How is it that the human being becomes the subject, the ground of objectivity, circling around and within itself but at the same time establishing not only self-certainty, but also certainty over the objective world? Why had it become necessary to establish this certainty over the objective world, which is not just one of control, but also secures that which philosophy has always assumed: the unity of being and thought. It is only when this unity breaks away that the subject is truly trapped within itself.

Perhaps what Descartes responded to with his methodical doubt is what we can call the pandemonic crisis that is modernity, namely the split between the unity of being and thought. Perhaps this had already announced itself to him, perhaps already an utter withdrawal had here shown itself. The Apriori, which Descartes finds in the res cogitans, the thing that thinks of itself without negating itself but everything else, should itself instil disquiet and unease with us. Still, Descartes’ is an exercise of freedom, for his thinking attempts to begin anew, casts doubt on everything and takes a distinct stance in the midst of beings. There is a tremendous philosophical autonomy in Descartes thanks to its negativity, yet at once this sceptical negativity, for it neglects the negativity of the subject, sets in motion the self-positing of the subject. This freedom though should be taken seriously and also should be honoured, while bearing in mind that here also the isolation of the human being qua subject sets in insofar as everything is doubted and negated, but not the self. The self is transformed into a thinking thing, a substance of sorts. The being of this thinking thing knows no negativity. Still, the audacity to cast doubt on everything, to negate the existence of all that is, and still to say “I think, I am!” is an exercise of and testimony to tremendous human freedom and as such at the heart of what modernity is. At the same time the self-referential ego qua res cogitans becomes the grounded ground, the foundation, in which the human being finds a stance. This foundation, as we can see now, neglects the world and depicts a reification of the self, a self which is now isolated.

With Descartes there is an onset, there is also a necessity to it insofar as thinking always begins when it removes itself from the tradition and dogma. At the same time thinking must, however, also take into care and heed tradition or rather that which is being delivered over, for in that which has been, the eternal strength of the onset sways.

The distinct negativity of modernity is hence one which doubts and denies what came before and at once forgets the negativity of being. The neglected negativity of modernity transpires as critique, or with Nietzsche, as the spirit of resentment. “Not only the reason of millennia but also its madness is breaking out within us. It is dangerous to be an heir” Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says. What I have elsewhere referred to as the Apocalypse of the Subject seems to be just this: the total exhaustion of the will to eradicate negativity (which forgets its own annihilating force) pushing against its utmost limit and simultaneously the slow realisation that the withdrawal cannot be stopped. All the while dancing along liminal digital-virtual edge established by the plethora of historicised files of meaning particles to which the late-modern subject clings if only for a split-second, for the subject is trying to arrive back at the certainty of the unity between being and thought.

This unity finally collapses with Hume’s radical scepticism. Hume awakens Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, not least because of the former’s own fundamental dogmatism. The dogmatism of which Kant speaks is the presupposed unity of being and thought, a presupposition which now needs to be cashed in. The critical project of Kant is to bring to the fore this foundational presupposition which thought had dogmatically assumed for itself. Kant does so not in order to tear down the metaphysical presupposition but to place it on firm grounds so that the unity of being and thought can be saved. The “Transcendental Deduction” hence does not deduce, but wants to justify the usage of the categories. Kant is an Aufklärer, an enlightenment philosopher, precisely because he clarifies, clears up, discloses, this fundamental presupposition and at once sees the perfect ethical duty to himself and humanity to establish again a possibility for the human being to access the world. Establishing how we access and approach the world has always been the mandate of philosophy – even if contemporary Academia has forgotten that and only looks at the so-called “history of philosophy” as some alienated distant object. Even though Kant clarifies for us that thinking must necessarily make this presupposition, which is an a priori synthetic judgment for Kant, in order to get back out into the world, i.e., to establish the unity of being and thought again (where thought is understood as representation), the objectivity of objects is now predicated on the subjectivity of the subject, i.e., on its categories. With Kant what we have access to, are representations of appearances, but not things as they are in themselves. Things as they are in themselves are pushed into the nameless realm, the noumenon.

Again, Kant, still, needs to establish the unity of being and thought once more – or else the spectre of scepticism and nihilism which comes through with Hume et al. would begin to take hold and the human being would find no stance and no access to the world. At the same time, Kant in his attempt to secure this access to the world and the unity of being and thought, Kant establishes the nearly fictious phenomenal world. That is to say now with Kant all we seem to have access to is representations of appearances, i.e., to an illusion. The crisis then that the 1st Critique brings to the fore on multiple levels is the genuine “meta-crisis” of modernity: namely the sudden disappearance of the unity of being and thought, about which modernity enlightens us in the first place, and through this enlightenment, the various attempts to establish some unity again, almost to heal the dichotomy between human being and the world, the establishment of an illusory field of perception is the result.

Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and Heidegger are all attempts to struggle against subjectivism, to overcome it. To say this again: thanks to Kant (and Hume) we see the dogmatism of traditional metaphysics, yet at once what is torn open here, the terrible wound inflicted, is the bursting away of the human from an access to the genuine world, to things as they are in themselves. It is crucial to point out that it is with Kant and only with his transcendental logic that the natural sciences find justification for their constructions of objects without inherent contradictions. This is the earthquake we name Kant. The attempt, though, must not be to solve abstractly and a priori this profound crisis, but to think it through to its end in order to let its own overturning occur.

Kant’s project is not an arbitrary one. I quote from the first two paragraphs of the preface of the A edition of his 1st Critique:

“Human reason has the peculiar fate in one species of its cognitions that it is burdened with questions which it cannot dismiss, since they are given to it as problems by the nature of reason itself, but which it also cannot answer, since they transcend every capacity of human reason. Reason falls into this perplexity through no fault of its own. It begins from principles whose use is unavoidable in the course of experience and at the same time sufficiently warranted by it. With these principles it rises (as its nature also requires) ever higher, to more remote conditions. But since it becomes aware in this way that its business must always remain incomplete because the questions never cease, reason sees itself necessitated to take refuge in principles that overstep all possible use in experience, and yet seem so unsuspicious that even ordinary common sense agrees with them. But it thereby falls into obscurity and contradictions, from which it can indeed surmise that it must somewhere be proceeding on the ground of hidden errors; but it cannot discover them, for the principles on which it is proceeding, since they surpass the bounds of all experience, no longer recognize any touchstone of experience. The battlefield of these endless controversies is called metaphysics.” (A vii - viii)

We are addressed by "something" and hence we are to respond. Again, not by solving in a calculative manner the problems at hand, but by thinking through what is at stake: whether and how being and thinking can still belong together so that this utmost crisis becomes the following: The within-itself turning of self-conflicting strife thanks to which selection and decision transpire such that the path entered upon irreversibly becomes our own.

Conclusion: The “meta-crisis” of the “meta-crisis” discourse could then be summarised as follows: the sudden insight into the groundlessness of the attempts to solve abstractly and a priori all presently available concrete problems, constructing a world without contradictions. The dead formal logic of the various “problem-solving” attempts to construct the perfect world without contradictions inevitably will lead to inherent contradictions, to antinomies of Reason, as Kant himself admits.

All the while failing to understand that thinking does not require solutions but that the mandate of thinking now is to bring together again, to reconcile, the fissure between being and thinking, humans and earth, gods and mortals – from the deep shared memory of the all-unifying One.

[1] alle übergänge sind krisen, und ist eine krise nicht krankheit? This talk was originally presented at The Stoa.


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