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Crisis, Critical, and Criterion

The root of the 'crisis' cluster is an ancient Greek verb,  krinw, meaning 'to separate,' and, by extension, 'to pick out or choose.' Applied to abstractions, the verb signified the judging of qualities, the determination of good and bad. A krisiV could be a judgment or a contest, but our use of the word 'crisis,' originally in a pathological sense, has drifted far from the Greek, and we have those other words, 'judgment' and 'contest' (to name only two), to do its work. Crises and critics have little to do with each other nowadays. 

A crisis is the particular moment in the manifestation of a dangerous force of nature, such as a fever or a storm at sea, when it becomes possible to predict the likely consequence, destruction or preservation. In an archaic sense, a critic is anybody capable of interpreting the crisis properly - which is not to say that anybody who calls the right result is a critic. In civilized life, outside of hospitals and sickrooms, crises are rare; one of civilization's principal objects is the control of natural forces. When nations go to war, it is not because of this or that crisis, but rather because of this or that confrontation. Strictly speaking, it's impossible to determine crises of an economic nature - there's no telling, for example, when the market has bottomed out - and since speaking of them implies the existence of financial seers, it would be best to drop the usage. Sane people do not and cannot cause crises, nor can they prevent or check them; they can only evaluate the ones they come across. 

I can think of an exception to that little rule. In 1907, J.P. Morgan famously stanched a financial panic. Jean Strouse's biography of the banker, 'Morgan: American Financier' (Random House, 1999), includes a riveting account of some harrowing days on Wall Street. Triggered by the failure of an attempt to corner the shares of a copper company, a string of bankruptcies threatened to bring down the nation's banking system, such as it then was. The failure of public confidence in banks, lining the streets with anxious depositors hoping to recover their balances before the flow of cash dries up, certainly resembles a dangerous force of nature. To keep the river flowing, Morgan convened leading bankers at his library, the showplace in Murray Hill that is now New York's premier graphic arts museum, and  - the crisis - locked them up until they agreed to a colossal loan, not to Morgan but to a bank on the verge of collapse. A complete failure of confidence was thus averted, and our Federal Reserve System, instituted in 1913, the year of Morgan's death, is a wry memorial to the man of the hour. Morgan's intervention is the kind of exception that proves rules.

'Critical,' which entered English on the coattails of 'crisis' in the medical sense, understandably came to mean something like 'make or break,' but this usage ought to be resisted; 'essential' and 'dangerous,' depending on the context, do the job more clearly. As for that other, even more common vulgarism, 'Why can't you be nice instead of critical all the time?', it dismays me more than I can say. This  persistent reminder of American anti-intellectualism demonizes the picking apart and choosing that underlie all judgment by soaking 'critical' in the sour and bitter marinade of resentment. The only use of 'critical'  that I would preserve (aside from its initial one) is as an adjective modifying 'thinking.' Critical thinking produces criticism. 

What is critical thought? Very simply, it's thinking that applies appropriate criteria to the matter at hand. When 'criterion' made its first appearance in English (in 1647, according to the OED), it did so in Greek letters. It means for us pretty much what it meant for the Greeks: a standard or test by which judgments are made. Anxiety provokes many speakers to use the plural form, 'criteria,' for the singular, a small price to pay, perhaps, for freedom from 'criterions.'  Criteria are the critic's tools. Ideally, every voter in a democracy would be his or her own critic of political developments, but most people seem to find it more convenient to rely on the institutionalized criteria of political parties. A criterion is a softer, more agreeable thing than a law. Criteria are shaped over time by common usage, and so far as I know have never been approached systematically. No one has written a handy little book listing all the things that you ought to consider in different circumstances. Magazines are torrential, but hardly comprehensive, sources. (This entire Website could be construed as an effort to spell out criteria on every subject that interests me, but I hope it never appears so schematic as that.) In one sense, the luckiest people are the ones who absorb useful criteria from the environment in which they're raised, and who never have to stop to think about them. But the surer school is doubt. 

'Doubting' strikes some people as almost as rude as 'being critical.' But what you're really doubting when you're thinking critically is simply your own mind. How do you know what you think you know? How can you be certain that your information is correct? What are you taking for granted? In scientific research, these questions must be answered with great rigor, but a rough and ready pragmatism will suffice for everyday use. Critical thinking opens the only way out of the fool's paradise of wishful thinking. That's why talking over a problem with a disinterested friend can be so helpful: having no stake in the matter, the friend won't be tempted by easy answers. 

I will deal with 'critic' generally when I get round to 'authority'; for the moment, it's enough to warn against confusing the two. (August 2001)

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