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Notes on Theodor Adorno

Theodor Adorno

[Old notes.] Reading Adorno: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Alex Thomson. I’m not very impressed with Adorno. Continental thinkers literally thought it a virtue for their work to be obscurantist and imprecise: it meant they were mirroring the “dialectical” nature of reality. That word “dialectic” has in the last hundred years been used to justify the most egregious philosophical sins—sheer intellectual laziness. When these thinkers have actual thoughts, moreover, the thoughts frequently aren't very interesting or original.

“The philosopher,” says Thomson, in the voice of Adorno, “should not pretend to be able to provide a clear and rational explanation of the world, since the attempt to impose such patterns on the world is bound up with man’s violent domination of nature.” What! That’s sheer nihilism! “Adorno’s interest in dialectics means that he sees identity as relational. Concepts are not clearly distinct logical entities, but mobile and slippery forms for apprehending reality, whose interactions are always evolving. Rather than seek to freeze this moment, the form of the essay should try to imitate it.” That’s a false dichotomy: either “freeze” reality in a simplistic and ahistorical way or write in a philosophical stream of consciousness. Neither option is good, or necessary. The best way is to define your terms carefully, argue carefully, and, if it’s indeed true that concepts are always “evolving”, explain carefully how they evolve. In any case, the clearer your concepts are, the more philosophical content there is in your arguments. Even Hegel understood that, what with his “determinatio est negatio”.

As for the concept of the dialectic, with which Adorno, like so many European thinkers in the 20th century, seems to have been obsessed, it’s fairly empty and commonsensical. What is Marxism’s “dialectical theory of history”? Thomson gives an adequate definition: “the idea that history progresses through conflicts between different social forces, the resolution of which generates new antagonisms”. Yup. That’s the dialectical theory in a nutshell. Magnificent, isn’t it? Dialectics means—development through conflict. It's a near-truism.


From what I’ve read of this book (also other scholarly accounts, as well as the original writings), it seems that Adorno and Horkheimer confused capitalism with “enlightenment”. They criticized the whole mindset of “enlightened” thinking, the rational and scientific mindset—the instrumentally rational mindset in particular, which they saw as the paradigm—for having furthered man’s drive to master and control his environment, both nature and his fellow men. Rational thinking, then, through its applications in technology and industry, has engendered irrational forms of domination, ultimately manifested in Nazism. “As industrialization and capitalism took hold in the 19th century, human beings were subjected to ever more pervasive networks of administrative discipline and control, and to an increasingly powerful and untamable economic system. Instead of liberating man from nature, the process of enlightenment imprisons man, who is himself a part of nature. Instead of economic plenty, there is misery and poverty. Instead of moral progress, there is regression to barbarism, violence, and intolerance. This is the ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ that informed Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s understanding of their social world…” “Enlightenment is both necessary and impossible: necessary because otherwise humanity would continue hurtling towards self-destruction and unfreedom, and impossible because enlightenment can only be attained through rational human activity, and yet rationality is itself the origin of the problem.” No, no, no! This whole analysis is pre-Marxist, idealistic, one-sided.[1] Jacob Bronowski was right: it isn’t science and technology in themselves that are the problem, as most people think; it’s something more fundamental. He said it was arrogance, ignorance and the desire for absolute certainty that had led to Nazism, and he was partly right. But equally, or more, important is the commodified, bureaucratized, coercified system of social relations. The scientific ideas and practices in themselves are not the problem! They’re (potentially) a problem only in the context of capitalism. How could A. and H. not have understood this?

Even admirers of Marxism fall victim to idealism!

“Domination and mastery are very close cousins of rationality. Not only science and technology, but rationality itself is implicated in domination.” What is “rationality”? In itself it’s an empty idea; it has no content outside a specific set of social relations, i.e., its practical manifestation. Do A. and H. equate it with instrumental rationality, or means/end reasoning? Okay then, sure, there is an element of “domination” and “mastery” in all means/end reasoning. But these concepts are not bad in themselves, as if they inherently tend to be realized in harmful, or even potentially harmful, ways. Whether an idea or an abstract method has harmful consequences depends on the dynamics of the society in which it is realized; and no social structure can be blamed on a set of ideas or an abstract scientific method. If scientific thinking has indirectly had horrible consequences in capitalism, it is not because of an intrinsic “dialectic of enlightenment”; it is because of the dialectic that enlightenment has manifested in capitalism.

Even if A. and H. would have, in the end, agreed with me, their framing the problem in terms of enlightenment rather than capitalism was gigantically misleading. (Nihilistic, too.) Enlightenment means a very broad set of ideas and thought-patterns, which can be realized, in more or less adequate ways, in any number of possible societies; capitalism means the actual material practices, the real basis, of a civilization that has committed by far the worst crimes in history. The real villain is the latter, not the former.

[1] It also anticipates the anti-Enlightenment, anti-rationality, anti-science, anti-Marxism thrust of postmodernism.

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