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University of Basel

Crisis and capacity.

Text: Gunnar Hindrichs

In times of crisis, the incompleteness of the world becomes manifest. When reality is in flux, we need to get involved.

Prof. Dr. Gunnar Hindrichs. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)
Professor Gunnar Hindrichs. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

For more than a year, we have been living under pandemic restrictions. The university campus can be accessed only under certain conditions. Learning and teaching have gone online. In the city, shops and bars are closed. Travel is becoming more difficult. Many of our everyday activities are no longer possible. Uncertainties are also having an impact. Our interaction is becoming less fluid. Intimacy is being undermined. Expectations are being disappointed. Fears, both rational and irrational, are taking hold. And the political regulations governing the whole business are becoming harder to understand. They require a continuous flow of information, take their cue from experts rather than public opinion, and are handed down as decrees from on high. In short, our actions, now and going forward, seem disordered.

Are we living in a crisis? This is not a new question. The litany of crises, real and perceived, goes back long before the pandemic. We have had the property crisis, the banking crisis, the crisis of democracy, the crisis of the international order, the climate crisis … These crises are still unresolved today. That is why some people talk about a ’multiple crisis’, by which they mean that all these crises, and others, form part of a single, multiform crisis that is shaping our present. Our lives therefore seem to be governed more and more by crisis management.

But what is a crisis really? Crises are moments of decision. We know that from medicine. A medical crisis decides whether a sick person will recover or die. Similarly, the banking crisis decided which firms would survive and which would collapse, while the climate crisis is about deciding what kind of life we will and will not be able to live in the future in the context of the natural environment. It seems, therefore, as if the concept of crisis can be explained with reference to the concept of decision. But this is only the first step toward understanding what is meant by a crisis, as decisions are to be understood with reference to the possibilities being decided.

The concept of possibility is therefore lurking in the background during a crisis. This raises a new question: in what way are crisis and possibility linked?

To answer this question, we need to go back to first principles for a moment. (That is the job of philosophy, after all.) In principle, possibilities can be understood in two ways. One of them is expressed in the proposition, “… is possible for a person or a thing”; the other is expressed in the proposition, “It is possible that … ”. In the first instance, the possibility refers to an ability, while in the second it refers to the modal status of a state of affairs. In philosophy, we use the terms ‘potentiality’ and ‘possibility’ to articulate this distinction. Potentiality is possibility in the sense of an ability or capacity. Possibility is the modal status of a set of circumstances.

Here is an example: The sentence, “Caesar can cross the Rubicon,” speaks of Caesar’s potential; it is about his ability to do something. The sentence, “It is possible that Caesar will cross the Rubicon,” means something different. It tells us that a particular fact—namely, Caesar crossing the Rubicon—is possible. Both statements deal with a possibility, and they are also linked. If Caesar is able to cross the Rubicon, then the fact that he crosses the Rubicon is certainly possible.

Yet in each case the emphasis is different. When we say that Caesar has the ability to cross the Rubicon, we are not seeking to record the modal status of a particular state of affairs. Rather, we are suggesting that the possibility of crossing the Rubicon is somehow present in Caesar as his potential, even though it has not yet been realised, and that the ultimate aim of this possibility is to be realized by him, even if it never actually is.

Aristotle would put it like this. Caesar still lacks the actuality of having crossed the Rubicon, but he has the potential to do it. To overcome this lack, Caesar changes with a view to achieving the goal of crossing the Rubicon. He then realizes his potential. Here Caesar’s capacity is part of his determinability, which becomes determinate once the crossing of the Rubicon has been realized. Viewed in relation to this new determinacy, Caesar’s determinability is characterized by the “not yet” of something lacking. For although Caesar is able to cross the Rubicon, he has not yet done it. Consequently, potentiality constitutes a moment of becoming, viewed in relation to something that has “not yet” been achieved. With possibility, however, there is no need to take this perspective into account.

Let us go back to our experience during the crisis. Crises are all about what people can and cannot do. They are therefore concerned primarily with potentiality, rather than possibility. Based on our discussion of first principles, this means that crises are about becoming, about moving in the direction of something that has “not yet” been realized. If we take seriously the proposition that the concept of possibility is lurking in the background during a crisis, we are confronted with an idea with far-reaching implications: namely, that we and our world are steeped in potentiality, and are therefore in the process of becoming. These potentials are not mere fantasies. Rather, they are characterized by a concrete lack, a “not yet”, which the process of becoming in which we and our world are engaged aims to remove, and whose very existence brings them into focus.

Perhaps this is the kind of thing that Karl Marx meant when he wrote, “It will then become clear that the world has long possessed the dream of a thing it only needs to be conscious of in order to possess it in reality.” In this statement, Marx interprets what is lacking in our world as its unrealized dream, its “not yet”. Making the world conscious of its dream of a thing would therefore mean making the world conscious of the potential that it is striving to realize. And that would mean that we and our world could move forward in the process of becoming.

In crises, on the other hand, I would argue that this process is stalled, reinforcing what is lacking in our world, even though it craves its own removal. Our action is blocked, which means that our potentials, viewed in light of a “not yet” still to be achieved, are not being realized. That sounds discouraging.

But at the same time, crises are moments when something that has long been smoldering finally becomes visible and demands resolution. For the very fact that this thing that is lacking, this “not yet”, is reinforced at times of crisis exposes it to view. We just need to open our eyes to see it. And that is not discouraging; rather, it encourages us to recognize what is missing and to recognize that, because of this missing thing, our world is still a work in progress. Of course, this work cannot be completed without our intervention. What matters, therefore, is that we focus on the defects in our still unfinished world and seek to turn our potential into reality.

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