Adorno contra Husserl

by Ralph Dumain

Adorno was a curious sort of materialist, a negative materialist.  Unlike most materialists, who have had a strong investment in science and an affirmative approach to ontological and epistemological issues based on a scientific approach to the world, Adorno had a backhanded approach, criticizing idealism rather than positively characterizing materialism, arguing for the non-identity of concept and object than attempting to make concepts adequate to the universe they describe.  Well . . . except in this one specific sense of conceptual adequation: to use concepts to reveal the alienated, reified social world we live in.  It's a fascinating approach with some inherent weaknesses as well as unique strengths.  It would then be useful to compare critiques of idealist philosophers, from a scientific materialist standpoint, and Adorno's.  Specifically for the present purpose, it might be instructive to compare Adorno's critique of Husserl with the approach of Marvin Farber (see Naturalism and Subjectivism [1959], The Search for an Alternative [1984]), who was instrumental in bringing phenomenology into the United States but later criticized Husserl's subjective idealist premises.  Farber, though professionally a scholar of phenomenology, was also an advocate of Marxism, and had some trenchant criticisms of Husserl's world view, especially of the later transcendental phenomenology, which included a political perspective.  Also, in his last book (the latter of the two cited), Farber gave kudos to Lenin for his militant materialist stance.  Adorno also has a social critique, but he emphasizes social/psychological factors such the division of labor, alienation, reification, and the administrative mentality.  It is possible that he is too hasty in ascribing such motivations to philosophical positions, though in the final analysis he is probably right.  Adorno is a difficult writer to read at times, and lack of familiarity with Husserl's texts under criticism makes the task much harder.  However, not only do some fascinating perspectives come through Adorno's book Against Epistemology: A Metacritique: Studies in Husserl and the Phenomenological Antinomies (translated by Willis Domingo; Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1984 [orig. English translation 1982, orig. German 1956]), but it might even be the case that Adorno has something to contribute—though I'm not absolutely clear in my mind about this—to the philosophy of logic and mathematics, however far they are from his own territory, and something to say about the paradoxical relationship of ideality to materiality, from a logical as well as sociological perspective.

Adorno begins with Parmenides, who represents the primary lie of method, of the traditional a priori metaphysical approach to the world.  In the denial of mediation between the realm of deduction from first principles—pure logic—and the empirical world, objective idealism—the realm of pure conceptual being, in contradistinction to the illusory empirical changeable world—is actually predicated on subjectivism: thought is being.  By maintaining the conceit that philosophy is pure being, philosophers unwittingly reveal how little they have to do with the real mastery and reproduction and life.  Their subjectivism actually subtracts the subject from truth.  They are middlemen working for the lords of society, peddling spirit as the realm of absolute security. [p. 15]  This pattern is replicated down through philosophical history and persists with a twist in Husserl's philosophy as well.  [p. 16]  Husserl's program represents the need for absolute security, and prima philosophia becomes property. [p. 17]  Change and becoming are mere appearance, anathema to first philosophy.  There is a relationship between first philosophy, Lordship, and the philosophy of origins. [p. 21]   Then we approach a key statement on the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity. [p.24] 

Though rationalism and empiricism are traditionally inimical, they are not so different. (p. 23)  Spirit and the given cannot be separated; neither is a first (original principal), and both are mediated by the other.  "Mediacy is not a positive assertion about being but rather a directive to cognition not to comfort itself with such positivity.  It is really the demand to arbitrate dialectic concretely.  Expressed as a universal principle, mediacy, just as in Hegel, always amounts to spirit.  If it turns into positivity, it becomes untrue." (p. 24)  These are not easy passages to understand, even when one reads these paragraphs in their entirely.  As we shall see in Adorno's treatment of logic, the larger argument is that there is no pure objectivity or subjectivity.  The self-enclosed deduction of first principles depends upon the isolation of objectivity and subjectivity and denies the relationality which the dialectical principle recognizes.  Implicitly and sometimes explicitly, it appears that Hegel (though not without caveats) is a guiding spirit behind Adorno's analysis.

The critique of idealism (or epistemology) is no simple-minded matter.  "That the critique of such untruth may itself remained imprisoned in the abstractions which it undoes, as a superfluous concern of the erudite, cannot be maintained after the materialistic dialectic, whose aim is to stand the philosophy of consciousness on its head, degenerates to the same dogmatics and dispatches philosophy of consciousness by sheer decree, without ever having confronted the logic of the matter.  Before that succeeds, idealism will rise easily from the dead." (p. 25-6)  "Every concept of dialectic would be null without the moment of subjective reflection.  What is not reflected in itself does not know contradiction.  And the perversion of dialectical materialism into the state religion of Russia and a positive ideology is theoretically based on the defamation of that element as idealistic." (p. 27)

Adorno also reflects on the connection between the first philosophical system-builders and the organization of schools delineating the role of teachers and listeners.  "His [the teacher/speaker's] irrational authority is mediated through ratio."  Plato's method comes in for an ideological deflation. (p. 28-9)

The downfall of the great systems provoked a paradoxical reaction.  The turn to ontology begun by Husserl betrays an unacknowledged paradox: ontologies want to be first philosophies without having to embroil themselves in obsolete system-construction.  "Resurrected ontology regresses."  The escape is characterized by subjective arbitrariness, emptied of the rationality of traditional systems. (p. 33)  Husserl started a path that could only proceed downward.  Heidegger is not named, but presumably he is in mind in this passage:

Hence phenomenology speaks the jargon of authenticity which meanwhile ruined the whole of cultivated German language and turned it into sacred gibberish.  It struck a theological note devoid of theological content, or any other content except self-idolization.  It feigns the incarnate presence of the first which is neither incarnate nor present.  Its authority resembles that of the bureaucratic world which rests on nothing except the fact of bureaucracy itself.  Socially, enthroning the completed abstract also enthrones sheer organization regardless of its social content, which is neglected for good reason. (p. 34)

Chapter 1, "Critique of Logical Absolutism" is fascinating. Adorno's preoccupation with reification in relation to the critique of logic and mathematics as philosophical models does not inspire full confidence that these are really his subjects, but paradoxically, he not only has a profound critique of a priori philosophy, but he may even have some perspective to offer on the philosophy of logic as a by-product of his real concerns.

The scientificization of thought elicits a crisis in philosophy's role in the division of labor.  Philosophy can either allow itself to be relegated to an appendage to the special sciences, demarcating a specified role for itself as one of them, thus renouncing its comprehensiveness, or it can shut itself off from the division of labor, rejecting such a configuration, in which case it lapses into archaicism. (p. 43) This is a recurring theme in Adorno's work (and in one form or another, of that of Horkheimer), as he attempts to navigate between the poles of positivism and reactionary metaphysics or irrationalism. The rebellion against positivity is not accidental, as Adorno's materialism can only function via the vehicle of the negation of idealism. For Adorno, science becomes reified when it takes itself in a straightforward manner, "unconscious of its societal mediations".  But the rebellion against reification, in separating intuition from rational knowledge, a la Bergson, also shows itself to be dominated by method. (p. 45)

Husserl's methodological absolutism, his obsession with non-contradiction as a first logical principle, necessitates a repudiation of Hegel (p. 49-50). The fetishization of the sciences, especially mathematics, and the need to establish their boundaries and hierarchies—the priority of mathematics vs. philosophy being the supreme issue—is how the spiritual division of labor shapes all questions. (p. 52)

Taking mathematics as a model, however, produces certain consequences. Manipulating mathematical objects bypasses "questions of possible actuality".  Mathematical acts could be performed unconsciously. But an exclusive occupation with technical thought activity applied to purely ideal objects drains judgment of any truth or meaning. Reification occurs when pure forms of thought becomes the sole reality. It is difficult to be certain that when Adorno addresses the "mathematician's resolute unconsciousness" he is really criticizing mathematics or mathematicians, as his real concern is taking mathematics as a model for philosophy (p. 55)

This chapter really becomes interesting when Adorno delves into the relation of logic and thought, as he analyzes the contradictions arising from Husserl's attempt to escape from psychologism, which also involves the distinction between validity and genesis. Asserting the absolute validity of logic apart from all genesis generates the problem of how logical laws become reasonable to consciousness. (p. 73)

The absolute dualism of form and content is reification, and once again there is the problem of the scientific division of labor.  Logic is right to remain within itself and not worry about the "transformation of the representation of the world", but it is wrong when it represents itself as world-representation and its transformation.  Pace Husserl, the claim of science cannot be based on the "ideal of science" but in its capacity to know its object.  "Husserl's rigid objectivism of the logical proves to be a self-deceiving subjectivism also because the idea of science—the schema of order imposed on objects by human consciousness—is handled as if the need indicated in this schema were the order of the objects themselves.  Every static ontology naively hypostatizes the subjective-categorial." (p. 75-6) This prose is very difficult to decipher; however, I don't think I'm wrong in saying that once again Adorno's target is not formal logic but rather expanding on formal logic formalistically as the foundation of ontology and epistemology, i.e. using it as the model for the entire enterprise of philosophy.

The most interesting part of this chapter is Adorno's analysis of the contradictions Husserl falls into owing to the dichotomy of Platonism and psychologism as approaches to the evaluation of the status of logical propositions.  The critique of logical psychologism means that the validity of logical propositions are completely independent of the thinking subject, i.e. not to be grounded in human psychology.  While Husserl's repudiation of the immediate identity of logic and thinking is valid, he succumbs to alienation by positing a total disjunction.  "But clearly logical laws are only 'meaningful' (sinnvoll) and can only be known, when they are inherently matched to the acts of thought which discharge them." (p. 78)  Adorno extends his critique to the question of the law of non-contradiction (p. 78-80).  Similarily he addresses the law of identity.  Then he addresses the philosopher's horror of contingency, which he attributes to social causes and links to lordship and totalitarianism. (p. 83)  But the real excitement of his argument, as I've stated, is in the critique of the complementary yet antagonistic perspectives of Platonism and psychologism.  Here is an extract as his argument climaxes, as a response to a passage from Husserl on the necessary constitution of any individual including the necessary recognition or deniability of a world:

. . . . Of course, logical principles would not be 'false' if the human race were to die out. They would, nevertheless, lose the concept of a thought for which they were valid; they would be neither true nor false. They would not come into question at all. Thought, however, requires a subject, and a factical substratum of whatever sort cannot be driven from the concept of the subject. The possibility which Husserl derides as a 'pretty game', i.e. that 'man evolves from the world and the world from man; God creates man and man God, should appear as horrendous only to a rigid, polar, and, in the Hegelian sense, abstract thought. It offers an admittedly crude and naturalistic but in no way meaningless entry into dialectical thought, which does not make out man and world as warring brothers, one of which must at any price claim the right of first born over the other. Rather, it develops them as reciprocally self-producing moments of the whole which come out of each other.

Husserl's hatred of scepticism, like his hatred of the dialectic with which he confuses it, expresses a state of consciousness in which despair over the loss of the static conception of truth does not reflect upon whether a defect in the traditional concept of truth may not appear in the loss, but rather stigmatizes all theories which bear witness to that loss. For all relativism lives off the consistency of absolutism. If every individual and restricted bit of knowledge is burdened with the necessity of being straightforwardly valid independently of every further qualification, then all knowledge is effortlessly delivered over to its own relativity. Pure subjectivity and pure objectivity are the highest of such isolated and therefore inconsistent qualifications. If knowledge should be exclusively reducible to the subject or the object, then isolability and reduction are raised to a law of truth. The entirely isolated is sheer identity which refers to nothing beyond itself. The complete reduction to subject or object embodies the ideal of such identity. The untruth of relativism is just that it abides by the negative determination which is correct in itself of all individuals, instead of going further. In its faithfulness to mere appearance (Schein), it is just as absolutistic as absolutism. If knowledge is not unconditioned, then it should forthwith be untenable.

In a gestus that is not gratuitously suggestive of the two-phased thought of many psychotics, the judgement is two-valued according to the schema of all or nothing. Husserl has come to all too good an understanding with the opponents he chooses. Both are interminably right to call the other 'standpoint philosophers', by which term Husserl like Hegel rejects his opponents.  Husserl is right in that he demonstrates to his opponents that their criteria of truth break down truth itself. The opponents are correct in that they remind him that truth which forsakes those criteria is a chimera. But this robs his critique of its power, for that facticity can be other is a sheer possibility, while in the mode of procedure of thought which is constituted in one way and not another, is deposited the necessity of approximating an object and thus a moment of objectivity itself. The concept of objectivity, to which logical absolutism sacrifices the world, cannot renounce the concept from which objectivity draws its very model. This is the concept of an object: the world. (p. 87-88)

This is a key argument in many respects.  It is not your classical materialist argument, though it affirms principles of materialism as well as the necessary co-occurrence of subjectivity and objectivity which might seem to subvert materialism.  Marvin Farber, like Lenin, insisted that there are no subjects without objects, but objects can exist without subjects, as attested by what we have learned about the evolution of the cosmos before the appearance of conscious entities such as the human race.  From this standpoint, a materialist must be troubled over the assertion that neither man nor world should be given priority of origin.  However, as a practical matter, epistemically, there is, tautologically, a co-occurrence of objectivity and subjectivity.  If both were not necessary constituents for us, we wouldn't be here cognizing.  The thrust of Adorno's argument is against self-subsistent aprioristic reasoning, whether of traditional objective idealism or modern subjectivism, both premised in effect on the absolute positing of thought—which in effect emanates from the cognizing subject—as the object.  Adorno argues for a relational, dialectical conception, as a means of untangling the confusion over the nature of abstract reasoning and revealing the source of mystification.  He does not ground this in traditional materialistic ontology—i.e. positively—but negatively, via critique of pure conceptual thinking.  Here Adorno's strength as well as his lapses are revealed.  We can expand on Adorno's argument and provide an enriched context into which to incorporate it.  The paradox of logic and thought invokes a larger paradox in the structure of philosophical thought—the relation between ideality and materiality (which, incidentally, Soviet philosophers had something to say about).  If logical truths are atemporal—i.e. it would be absurd to delimit their logical validity to space and time (the duration of the material universe)—then it is also an absurdity to eternalize them upon the space-time model—i.e. to posit them as true infinitely in all directions from our point in space-time—as does Platonism.  Here the undialectical views of both Platonism and psychologism (empiricism?) fail to grapple with the paradoxes that ensue when fundamental abstract categories and infinities are set into relation with one another, which is what I take Adorno's criticism of static thought and a static conception of truth to address.  There may also be something lurking in Adorno's argument about logic and thought that is usable in a critique of a logicist or formalist philosophy of mathematics, but, in teasing it out, we would be extending it beyond Adorno's turf.

(Written 23-24 September 2003)

I am just finishing the book.  [I have yet to write a critique of the balance of the book.] Adorno takes Husserl apart, and Hegel ends up towering over all his competition.  While there a few intimations throughout the book of the degradation this trend carries within itself, only at the end does Adorno specifically tear into Heidegger, whom he will attack specifically a couple decades later.  One must distrust anything that comes out of Heidegger, and that includes Sartre and Marcuse.  The latter two did their best to overcome their upbringing, as it were, but I think we would be better off trapped in our limitations rather than in other people's.

(Written 27 September 2003)

Compiled & edited 20 November 2003
© 2003 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.


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