Sunday, November 6, 2016

Intellectual Honesty by Theodor Adorno


Peter Gordon’s book is the story of Adorno’s engagement with Kierkegaard and  20th century Existentialists ( e.g. Heidegger and Sartre) beginning with his first PhD thesis and ending with his last published works. Despite the author’s efforts, it is not wholly accessible to the common reader.  Never-the-less, it is possible to highlight  certain passages that provide useful clues as to what Adorno was up to with his negative dialectics and ‘the primacy of the object.”

"Adorno’s interpretation implies that existentialism is analogous to a Freudian dreamwork – that is, an attempt within consciousness to fulfill a need whose actual fulfilment  beyond consciousness remains socially blocked. What Adorno does not clearly spell out is the correlative implication, that any such dreamwork bespeaks genuine longings that would find their true satisfaction not in fantasy but in social reality. The critique of existentialism as a fantasy of real need thus implies the non-fantastical possibility of meeting this need with a real solution. Existential ontology thus represents a failure to realize an objective that will remain the preeminent task for negative dialectics itself."

Negative dialectics begins with the recognition that consciousness cannot comprehend  the whole of what there is, that reality  is not immediately accessible and that reality and reason have no common meaning. That is, there is a constitutive gap in our conceptualization of both subject and object.  This thought might be simply expressed by saying that :

'The truth cannot be out there - it cannot exist independently of the human mind- because sentences cannot so exist- be out there. The world is out there but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own- unaided by the describing activities of human beings- cannot.'
 
 Our conceptions do not ‘capture the world’ in its entirety. And our conceptions of ourselves also consist of false identities ( stereotypes.)


The linguistic expression ‘existence’, which is necessarily conceptual, is confused with what it designates, which is non-conceptual, something which cannot be melted down into identity.


Existentialism is a symptom of the crisis in bourgeois philosophy engendered by this recognition. “Heidegger no less than Husserl seeks to masquerade themes of contingencies as essences, such that nothing  impermanent can survive unless it inheres in the very ‘structure of being’. Especially revealing is the term “facticity” itself, which magically transforms facts into facts that are subsumed under a universal concept so that ‘obstinate  facts’ should no longer resent them.” Such alchemy does not achieve an actual breakthrough from idealism ( that is, the Platonic theory of eternal forms) to reality; it merely transforms reality into an ideal category. The result is no more convincing than the episode from Baron von Munchhausen’s adventures when he gives himself a yank on his own hair to rescue himself from the swamp."


Drowning phenomenology seeks to pull itself out of a swamp of contemptible mere existence (Dasein) by its own essential ponytail [ Wesenzopf]. The result is , in Adorno’s polemic , ‘a charnel-house of rotted interiorities’.


A genuinely critical philosophy of history must undo the false naturalization of the social world and restore it to the volatile space of genuinely historical consciousness. The second task, inspired by Walter Benjamin, would demand that we resist the conception of nature that would seek to isolate it from historical time. For nature, too, bears the imprint of human consciousness as it has unfolded historically through labor and cultural expression. The Platonic dream of a higher nature uncontaminated by change is a patent falsehood, for even nature bears “the mark of transience.”

"The bravura of Adorno’s argument not withstanding," ( Gordon writes), his verdict on the subjectivism that disabled existential philosophy from Kierkegaard through Heidegger and Jaspers merits our attention chiefly because it served as an overture to Adorno’s own philosophical alternative. “The utopian potential of thought”, Adorno explains, would be “that thought, mediated through the reason incorporated in individual subjects, that would break through the narrowness of the thinker.” Adorno’s interpretative position is not unlike Benjamin’s: looking back from a potentially redeemed future, surveying the past with determined negativity, which is the only way to realize that redeemed or messianic future.


On this last point Gordon makes much of a letter Adorno wrote to Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, in which he sought to explain the idea of negative dialectic (March 14, 1967):

In the immanent epistemological debate, once one has escaped from the clutches of idealism, what I call the primacy of the object . . . seems to me an attempt to do justice to the concept of materialism. The telling arguments that I believe I have advanced against idealism present themselves as materialist. But the materialism involved here is no conclusive, fixed thing, it is not a worldview. This path to materialism is totally different from dogma, and it is thus fact that seems to me to guarantee an affinity with metaphysics, I might also have said, theology.”


So, over the years, Adorno’s differences with Kierkegaard narrowed considerably. Be that as it may, early in his exposition Gordon points to essay no.  50  (Gaps) in Minima  Moralia as exceptionally representative of Adorno’s thinking. It is worth reproducing here.

The injunction to practice intellectual honesty usually announces the sabotage of thought. The writer is urged to show explicitly all the steps that have led him to his conclusion, so enabling every reader to follow the process through and, where possible – in the academic industry - to duplicate it. This demand not only invokes the liberal fiction of the universal communicability of each and every thought and so inhibits their objectively  appropriate expression, but it is also wrong in itself as a principle of representation. For the value of a thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar. It is objectively devalued as this distance is reduced; the more it approximates to the pre-existing standard, the further its antithetical function is diminished, and only in this, in its manifest relation to its opposite, not in its isolated existence, are the claims of thought founded. Texts which anxiously undertake to record every step without omission inevitably succumb to banality, and to a monotony related not only to the tension induced in the reader, but to their own substance. Simmel’s writings, for example, are all vitiated by the incompatibility of their out-of-the-ordinary subject matter with its painfully lucid treatment. They show the recondite to be the true compliment of mediocrity, which Simmel wrongly believed Goethe’s secret. But quite apart from this, the demand for intellectual honesty is itself dishonest. Even if we were forced to comply with the questionable directive that the exposition should exactly reproduce the process of thought, this process would be no more a discursive progression from stage to stage than, conversely, knowledge falls from Heaven. Rather, knowledge comes to us through a network of prejudices, opinions, innervations, self-corrections, presuppositions and exaggerations, in short through the dense, firmly founded but by no means uniform medium of experience. Of this the Cartesian rule that we must address ourselves only to objects, ‘to gain clear and indubitable knowledge of which our mind  seems sufficient’, with all the order and disposition to which the rule refers, gives a false picture as the opposed but deeply related doctrine of the intuition of essences. If the latter denies logic its rights, which in spite of everything assert themselves in every thought, the former takes logic in its immediacy, in relation to each single intellectual act, and not as mediated by the whole flow of conscious life in the knowing subject. But in this lies also an admission of profound inadequacy. For if honest ideas unfailing boil down to mere repetition, whether of what was there beforehand or of categorical forms, then thought which, for the sake of the relation to its object, foregoes the full transparency of its logical genesis, will always incur a certain guilt. It breaks the promise presupposed by the very form of judgment. This inadequacy resembles that of life, which describes a wavering, deviating line, disappointing by comparison with its premises, and yet which only in this actual course, always less than it should be, is able, under given conditions of existence, to represent an unregimented one.

If a life fulfilled its vocation directly, it would miss it. Anyone who died old and in the consciousness of seemingly blameless success, would secretly be the model schoolboy who reels of all life’s stages without gaps or omissions, an inevitable satchel on his back. Every thought which is not idle, however, bears branded on it the impossibility of its full legitimation, as we know in dreams that their mathematics lessons, missed for the sake of a blissful morning in bed, which can never be made up. Thought waits to be woken one day by the memory of what has been missed, and to be transformed into teaching.

1 comment:

  1. Engels letter to Joseph Bloch:

    "According to materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Hence if somebody twist this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he transforms the proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase."

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