Crises We Live By: a Metaphorical Approach to the Crisis

March 30, 2023 - March 31, 2023
Historical Department , Universität Potsdam



  • Universität Potsdam
  • Humboldt Stiftung


Universität Potsdam

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The word ‘crisis’ often appears trite and hackneyed in its daily use. Media and politicians, but also “people on the street”, commonly speak about one or multiple “crises”: the 2007 economic crisis, the pandemic crisis, the crisis of our values, the crisis of Western society, identity crises and cultural crises, etc. From a financial, economic, political, psychological or even moral perspective, and many more, the word ‘crisis’ continues to leave traces on our public and private discourse, often accepted as an unavoidable and uncontested category to qualify the present.

This noun (stemming from the ancient Greek κρίσις, with its range of meanings, “decision”, “discrimination”, “crisis”) has a more general figurative sense, i.e. “a vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point; also, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent”. However, it “is now applied especially to times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce” (both quotations from OED online).

In order to approach the fundamental nature of this concept, we acknowledge the need to investigate the cognitive aspect of experiences generally defined as ‘crises’. Accepting one of the major findings from Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT), i.e. that abstract concepts are largely metaphorical, this conference will attempt a study of what we commonly tag and simplify as ‘crisis’ through the metaphors with which these experiences have been defined, uttered, and thus lived. Through a series of case studies, we aim to understand the general idea of crisis as well as the specific character of different crises reflected in each metaphor (e.g. the common metaphors of ‘collapse’ and ‘decline’, ‘darkness’, ‘ill body politic’ and ‘pestilence’, ‘destruction’, etc.).   

We encourage a transdisciplinary methodology, believing that the discussion and the ensuing collective volume will, by transcending subject boundaries, broaden the perspective on crises to include different approaches in dialogue with and, sometimes, in opposition to one another. Although the conference clearly does not pretend to carry out a comprehensive and complete study of the subject, the challenge is to detect a continuity of cognitive meanings despite the ubiquity of ‘crises’ and the variety of their metaphorical representations, even to question the very existence of a single notion of crisis applicable to all contexts (social, cultural, political, etc.) and thus highlight the extent to which this concept is overused or misapplied.

As the category of crisis is now embedded in Western tradition and especially political discourse (and therefore it is not surprising that for its definition one Greek term has been adopted), we would like to also challenge this category by paying special attention to other ways – and thus other metaphors – to think about the ‘crisis’, metaphors extraneous to and absent from Western discourse. Promoting a decolonialising standpoint, we would like to encourage papers dealing with other discourses about turning points from both a collective and personal perspective.

We will thus welcome speakers from different locations, cultural experiences and study backgrounds who attempt to investigate crisis on a metaphorical level.

Suggested areas of focus may include, but are not limited to, the following:

- the political use of crisis metaphors and their different scenarios

- identity crises from a psychological or literary viewpoint and their specific metaphors

- embodied metaphors of a crisis in a given linguistic corpus or in compared corpora

- economical crises and their metaphors

- recursiveness and rare appearances of crisis metaphors in a given corpus

- cultures in crisis and the perception of this sentiment as conveyed by metaphors and language

- case studies or comparison studies of historical moments generally tagged as a “crisis of a civilisation” and conceived in metaphorical terms

- philosophical use of metaphors to define crises in a collective or personal sense.

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