Adorno & the Dualities

by Ralph Dumain

"Why Still Philosophy?"

A public debate on Dialectic of Enlightenment stimulated me to finally read and review the whole work.  (It was also part of my whole project this year, and specifically served as a major point of comparison with C.L.R. James’s Johnson-Forest Tendency, whose work peaked in the 1940s.)  I complained about rubbish that reduces real history to metaphysical abstractions, betraying an elementary ignorance of what logic, mathematics, and science are all about, as well as the varied motives of individual scientists, and reproducing the worst and most ignorant cliches about science, conflating it with “positivism", ignorant of its real history.   (I think I had heard about some ridiculous thing Marcuse once wrote about formal logic.)  The Frankfurters knew the German idealist tradition, but they knew nothing of natural science, and they inherited all the old elitist prejudices.  It is not true that science was or is positivistic.  Positivism is an ideology of science, one among many competing conceptions.  Yes, the social sciences adopted a scientism justified by a conception of the natural sciences (quantitative, predictive, etc.).  Just ask real mathematicians and physicists what they think of this fetishism of quantification in the social sciencesI suggested that interested parties look into my study guide for more material on the relationship between positivism and lebensphilosophie (or scientism and romanticism) that forms the philosophical dynamic of modern societies—capitalist and Stalinist.

Curiously, the essay "Why Still Philosophy?" in Critical Models shows Adorno functioning on a much higher plane than Dialectic of Enlightenment (whose metaphorical analysis displeased me).  In the face of the reactionary tendencies of the German ideological environment, Adorno takes great pains to defend the things he supposedly hates—America, science, even positivism—against the illiberal, obscurantist, irrationalist and reactionary tendencies of German lebensphilosophie. Note also that Adorno demonstrates a mature understanding of the interplay between these two poles of bourgeois philosophy. Adorno was in Germany when he delivered the lectures collected in Critical Models.  Perhaps his earlier obsession with positivism as villain has something to do with the American conditions in which he was immersed in the 1940s, which he reacted against?  I cannot claim that Adorno evolved in the 1960s beyond his former positions; I make the more modest point that some of his statements in the 1960s were more subtle than some from the 1940s.  At some point I want to do a detailed analysis of key statements in "Why Still Philosophy?", because I think they show both Adorno's subtletly and the limitations of a purely negative dialectic. 

(Written 8 April 2003, rev. 20 November 2003)


It is necessary to go beyond a scenario only recognizes the social organization in which knowledge is produced.  The content of knowledge must be addressed.  Elsewhere Adorno criticized the "sociology of knowledge" as a completely formal investigation external to any subject matter and insisted that there can be no real critique without a view of truth content.  So the question would be, how has the direction and content of scientific knowledge been skewed by distorted social relations?

(Written 13 April 2003)

Quibbles about research methodology aside, I concede to the argument that the Frankfurters did incorporate scientific method into their approach and more or less successfully fused dialectical philosophy with empirical research method.  This proves they weren't anti-scientific as well as being anti-positivist.  Their take on social science would not then be tainted with the instrumental reason attributed to positivism and the natural sciences.  This, however, is still not the complete picture, and I don't believe they ever resolved their contradictions.  Furthermore, they never came to terms with scientists who may not have been as philosophically sophisticated as they in the same way but who were nevertheless antipositivist and politically much more active and progressive than Horkheimer and Adorno ultimately came to be—Einstein, for example.  Horkheimer and Adorno are still the children of the likes of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, however they rejected their reactionary implications.

(Written 20 September 2003)

Wiggershaus on Adorno

Wiggershaus is remarkably candid about Adorno's limitations.  He pinpoints the key weaknesses of Adorno's major philosophical interventions: Adorno's critique of Husserl (530-7), of Heidegger (593-5), and Negative Dialectics (597-609).  In each case, Wiggershaus pinpoints Adorno's failure to engage with natural science (537, 594, 604).  Moreover, there is a certain complicity even with these philosophers Adorno attacks, as if he sympathized with their starting points before they took their dissatisfactions in the wrong direction.  Also, Adorno's method of immanent critique comes in for criticism.  Adorno repeatedly short-circuits examination of the real concrete world as he advocates its examination via the abstractions of his negative method, offering vague recipes which never deliver.  I also learned that Habermas began with much respect for Heidegger before he became disillusioned (592). (SOURCE: Wiggershaus, Rolf; Robertson, Michael, trans. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994. See also further commentary on Horkheimer and his circle.)

(Written 21 September 2003)

Intellectual Traditions since Hegel & the Integration of Knowledge

My consistent theme has been the problem of science and overcoming the artificial divisions and dichotomies at work in intellectual traditions. Adorno and Horkheimer (separately) approached the issue of integration in their own way, trying to find a course beyond both empiricism/positivism and traditional metaphysics or the irrationalist alternative.  At times one or the other put out feelers to the natural sciences but admitted being unequipped to go further.   As I have stated elsewhere, I see their argument about Enlightenment in Dialectic of Enlightenment as their nadir rather than their high point as everyone else seems to.

(Habermas of course has been working on his own project of integration of various intellectual traditions, but what I've seen so far perturbs me.)

(Written 17 October 2003)

An essential leap in intellectual progress, which took place in the 1840s, was the discovery of what was later understood as ideology in some of its many meanings, i.e., that the motivating factors of certain thought constructs may not be equivalent to their ostensible content.  This recognition can be handled in intelligent or maladroit ways as well, or somewhere in between (e.g. Nietzsche as a halfway station between ideology critique and irrationalism, with his reactionary biological metaphors, idealist genealogy, and aristocratic morality).

Another aspect of progress and regress since Hegel's death is how the very advances in theoretical consciousness become contaminated with bad faith themselves, with a need for self-justification in terms somewhat different from traditional metaphysics and its more or less "innocent", uncritical ties to aristocratic interests.

This is what Lukacs, the Frankfurt School, and related figures learned to see in the development of philosophy over the past 150-250 years especially, though their perspectives were not uncontaminated with the limitations of their intellectual socialization.  Adorno and Horkeimer also had their ‘third attitude to objectivity’ as they attempted to steer their way between the rocks of empiricism/positivism and reactionary lebensphilosophie (or retooled traditional metaphysics, e.g. Neo-Thomism), foundering on their lack of understanding of the natural sciences which they mistakenly ceded to positivism.  But in their era they had concepts of reification, alienation, and ideology to draw upon, meaning that the truth content of philosophies were not necessarily what they seemed to be.  However, we must keep in mind that they did not reduce the truth content of knowledge claims to social interest in the manner of sociology of knowledge and later the postmodernists.

Another important issue in the integration of knowledge: 200 years ago it was possible to master most of philosophical and other knowledge in the western world, and non-western thought was beginning to be investigated, however imperfectly.  Not only is such an enterprise impossible for any individual today, but the very nature of academic socialization breeds provincialism, with little awareness of how artificially intellectual traditions are demarcated.  Hence one might be able to footnote all the appropriate thinkers needed to convince other people in one's academic/intellectual network and be able to get away with not knowing other things of equal or greater importance.  If we would pursue further our discussion long ago about "sublation", we would have to recognize some fundamental properties of the crazy-quilt structure of the philosophical enterprise as it has evolved over the past two centuries, or any pretensions to judge how it has evolved will founder.

(Written 30 September 2003)

Compiled & edited 27 November 2003
© 2003 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

R. Dumain's Critique of Dialectic of Enlightenment

Philosophy and the Division of Labor by Max Horkheimer & Theodore W. Adorno

Jeffrey Herf on Reactionary Modernism & Dialectic of Enlightenment

Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

2003 Reading Review

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