Crisis of Our Age

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* Book: The Crisis of Our Age: the social and cultural outlook


"Represents in a modified form my public lectures on The twilight of sensate culture given at the Lowell institute in February, 1941. It is based upon four volumes of my Social and cultural dynamics."-

Contextual Quote

"Dr. Sorokin seeks to ward off the current pessimism initiated by Spengler in The Decline of the West by an impassioned yet scholarly appeal to intelligent observers of society on behalf of his cyclical theory of social change."

- Louis A. Ryan [1]


Richard Simpson:

"The Crisis of Our Age (1941) is a short and highly readable popularization of some of the ideas first presented in the Dynamics. We are going through a profound crisis. The nature of this crisis is misunderstood by those who seek to explain it in terms of such factors as democracy, liberty, totalitarianism, communism, militarism, international rivalries, and the like. Sorokin does not deny the importance of these factors, but he sees them as manifestations of a deeper movement: the decline of an overripe Sensate supersystem.

He predicts that we will pass through several stages in our process of decline and renascence: crisis, ordeal, catharsis, charisma, and resurrection."



From a chapter by chapter analysis and review by Louis Ryan:

Chapter 1: The Diagnosis of the Crisis

"In the first chapter, entitled "The Diagnosis of the Crisis," the author considers three diagnoses of the contemporary social scene.

The first is represented by those who think that it is an ordinary crisis, similar to many through which Western society has passed several times in every century. The second diagnosis represents the crisis as the death agony of Western society and culture. The former verdict is to be rejected because it does not sufficiently comprehend the range of the maladjustment that faces society. It is not a mere question of economic or political adjustment:

- "it consists in a disintegration of a fundamental form of Western culture and society dominant for the last four centuries " (p. 17) .

The author's proof of this contention consists in the exemplification of his culture theory.

To his mind there is in every civilization some value which is the major premise and foundation for all the institutions, : mores, and thought of the age. In the medieval culture, this value was represented by a supersensory and super-rational God as the only true reality; and this value may be called ideational. Opposed to this is the sensate value, which emerged with the decline of the medieval culture at , the end of the twelfth century, a principle which proclaimed that the true reality and value is sensory. From the blending of this sensate principle with the declining ideational principle came an essentially new form of culture in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; its major premise was that the true reality is partly supersensory and partly sensory. This cultural system is called idealistic: "it embraces the supersensory and superrational aspect, plus the rational aspect, and finally the sensory aspect, all blended into one unity, that of the infinite manifold, God " (p. ~0) . With the dissolution of medieval society, the sensate principle became more firmly entrenched, : nd in the sixteenth century became dominant. It is this sensate culture which has held sway over Western civilization for the past four centuries, and the crisis that we witness today consists in the disintegration of the dominant sensate system of modern Euro-American culture. Since the sensate form has impressed itself on all the main compartments of Western culture, the disintegration will not be limited merely to the economic or political sectors, but will pervade the whole social structure.

This means that the main issue of our times is not democracy versus totalitarianism, not liberty versus despotism; neither is it capitalism versus communism, nor pacifism versus militarism, nor internationalism versus nationalism, nor any of the current popular issues. . . All these popular issues are but small side issues-mere by-products of the main issue, namely, the sensate form of culture and way of life versus another, different form (p. 22). Having duly disposed of the first diagnosis, the author proceeds to disavow the theory of the death agony of Western society. He denies the application of the biological process to cultural change, and labels the theories of Spengler and others as mere analogies, consisting of undefined terms, of non-existing uniformities, of undemonstrated claims. The complete disintegration of our culture and society, claimed by the pessimists, is impossible, also, for the reason that the total sum of social and cultural phenomena of Western society and culture has nev~r been integrated into one unified system. What has not been integrated cannot, it is evident, disintegrate (p. 26).

With this, Dr. Sorokin passes to the consideration of the third diagnosis as developed by himself.

It declares that the present trouble represents the disintegration of the sensate form of Western culture and society, which emerged at the end of the twelfth century and gradually replaced the declining ideational form of medieval cUlture ...

In the period of its ascendancy and climax it created the most magnificent cUltural values in most of the 'compartments of Western culture. . . .

However, no finite form, either ideational or sensate, is eternal. Sooner or later, it is bound to exhaust its creative abilities. . . . So it has happened several times before . . . and so it is happening now with our sensate form, which has apparently entered its decadent stage (pp. 28-29).

The unfolding and substantiation of the meaning of this diagnosis is the purpose of the remainder of the book."

Chapter 2: The Crisis of the Fine Arts

Passing to an analysis of the crises in various fields of social and cultural life, Dr. Sorokin considers in the second chapter, " The Crisis of the Fine Arts," one of the most sensitive mirrors of society and culture. He first treats of the ideational, idealistic, and sensate forms of the fine arts and then passes on to the notable shifts in these artistic forms. The topic of ideational art is the supersensory kingdom of God; its style is and must be symbolic; it is static in its character and in its adherence to the sanctified, hierarchic forms of tradition. With sensate art, on the other hand, the topic is the empirical world of the senses; its style is naturalistic, visual, even illusionistic, free from any supersensory symbolism; its character is dynamic, eternally changing, presenting a constant succession of fads and fashions. Idealistic art, as an intermediary between the ideational and sensate forms, has as its topic a world partly supersensory, and partly sensory in the sublimest and noblest aspects of sensory reality; its style is partly symbolic and allegoric, partly realistic and naturalistic; though progressive, its tone is serene, calm and imperturbable. Having adduced historical examples of each of these forms, Dr. Sorokin concludes that " the preeminence of each form of the fine arts is not a question of the presence or absence of artistic skill but of the nature of the dominant supersystem of culture " (p. 36) . His study of the shifts in the forms of art in Western civilization shows that the :fine arts passed from the ideational form in the medieval period to the idealistic form of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and then the sensate form came into its own, having dominance from the sixteenth century on, and reaching its climax and possible limit in the nineteenth century. With the aid of statistical and historical data, the author traces these changes in portraiture, architecture, sculpture, painting, drama and the theater, literature, and music. The concluding section of this chapter treats of the contemporary crisis in the Western fine arts. Dr. Sorokin lauds the achievements of our sensate art: its technical skill, its unexampled volume and size, its infinite diversity and variety, and its inner va!ue. Still, the maladies of our sensate art are numerous: its inclination to sensualism, the tendency to become more and more superficial in its reflection and re-creation of the sensory world itself, the morbid concentration of sensate art on pathological types of persons and events, a growing incoherence and disintegration resulting from its diversity, an increasing subordination of quality to quantity, of inner content and genius to means and techniques and, as a result of this, an unholy professionalism and specialization. To the author's mind, these symptoms are so unequivocal that they constitute a veritable memento mori foreshadowing the extinction of contemporary sensate art. "After the travail and chaos of the transition period, a new art-probably ideational-will perpetuate in a new guise the perennial creative elan of human culture" (p. 79).

Chapter Three," The Crisis in the System of Truth, Science, Philosophy, and Religion," examines, as its title suggests, other areas of society and culture. Dr. Sorokin first considers the three systems of truth: ideational, idealistic, and sensate. Ideational truth is the truth revealed by the grace of God; sensate truth is the truth of the senses; and idealistic truth is a synthesis of both made by our reason. Each dominates its respective culture and society. Considerable time is spent in delineating the characteristics of the sensate system of truth and knowledge. It implies a denial of, or an utterly indifferent attitude toward, any supersensory reality or value; it most strongly favors the study of the sensory world, with its physical, chemical, and biological properties and relationships; it discredits, to a certain extent, reason and logic as the sources of truth until their deductions are corroborated by the testimony of the sense organs; it is inevitably materialistic; sensory utility and pleasure become the sole criteria of what is good and bad; its mentality is temporalistic, relativistic, and nihilistic; it develops into a kind of illusionism in which it undermines itself; it gives rise to the nominalistic and singularistic mentalities; its science and philosophy, pseudo-religion and ethics are of a utilitarian, hedonistic, pragmatic, operational, and instrumental character. The ideational system of truth, the very opposite of the sensate system, is based on revelation, divine inspiration, and mystic experience: its mentality is dedicated to the etemal verities; reality is viewed as spiritual or nonmaterial; it is absolutistic, nonutilitarian, and nonpragmatic. The idealistic system of truth, blending the three distinct elements of sensory, religious, and rationalistic truth, occupies an intermediary position between the ideational and sensate systems. " The systems of Plato and Aristotle, of Albertus Magnus and Saint Thomas Aquinas, are the supreme examples, attempting to embrace in one organic whole divine as well as sensory and dialectic truth" (p. 10~) .

A study of the rhythm of domination of systems of truth in history leads to this formulation of the reason for the oscillations: "No single system comprises the whole of truth; nor is it, on the other hand, entirely false" (p. 104). Each source of knowledge-the senses, reason, and intuition-affords a genuine cognition of the manifold reality. Dr. Sorokin believes that the contemporary one-sided empirico-sensory mentality is failing, due to seeds of decay inherent in the system from the very first.

The crisis of the sensate system of truth is at once theoretical and practical. The theoretical phase is revealed first in a progressive obliteration of the boundary line between sensory truth and falsehood, reality and fiction, validity and utilitarian convention, a trend which explains the growth of skeptical philosophies during the past three centuries. The relativism of sensate truth leads to the complete annulment of the fundamental difference between truth and error. The temporalistic character of the truth of the senses produces similar results; and its materialism undermines the system both theoretically and practically. We have only to survey the current scientific conceptions of man as a sort of " electron-proton complex; ·~ a reflex mechanism," or " a psychoanalytical libido," to understand the practical effects of this materialism. Sensory science has further undermined itself through a thin and narrow empiricism divorced from other social values-religion, goodness, beauty, and the like. Its enormous and complicated assortment of facts, unwieldly to distraction, has distinctly impaired our understanding of reality, and with that, our certainty. The increasing sterility of sensory science, especially in the social and related sciences, is, in the opinion of the author, a result of this decadent sensism. So much for the failure of the sensate system in its theoretical aspects. The practical failure of the culture is demonstrated by our increasing inability to control mankind and the course of the sociocultural processes. "Western culture is at the crossroads. It must either ding to its outmoded unilateral conception of truth or else correct its onesidedness by reintroducing other systems" (p. 131)."


More of this chapter by chapter review at [2]

More information

* Review article: The Crisis of Our Age by Pitirim A. Sorokin (review). By Louis A. Ryan. The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review, Volume 4, Number 3, July 1942, pp. 523-533 (Review)