The Privilege of Experience

by Theodor W. Adorno

In sharp contrast to the usual ideal of science, the objectivity of dialectical cognition needs not less subjectivity, but more. Philosophical experience withers otherwise. But our positivistic zeitgeist is allergic to this need. It holds that not all men are capable of such experience; that it is the prerogative of individuals destined for it by their disposition and life story; that calling for it as a premise of cognition is elitist and undemocratic.

Granted, philosophical experiences are indeed not equally accessible to everyone, not the way all men of comparable I.Q. should be able to repeat experiments in the natural sciences, for instance, or to grasp the cogency of mathematical deductions, although current opinion regards these faculties as requiring even more of a specific talent. In any case, compared with the virtually subjectless rationality of a scientific ideal that regards all men as interchangeable, the subjective share in philosophy retains an irrational adjunct. It is not a quality of nature. While the argument pretends to be democratic, it ignores what the administered world makes of its compulsory members. Only a mind which it has not entirely molded can withstand it. Criticizing privilege becomes a privilege—the world's course is as dialectical as that. Under social conditions—educational ones, in particular—which prune and often cripple the forces of mental productivity, and considering the prevailing dearth of images and the pathogenic processes in early childhood which psychoanalysis diagnoses but cannot really change, it would be fictitious to assume that all men might understand, or even perceive, all things. To expect this would be to make cognition accord with the pathic features of a mankind stripped of its capacity for experience—if it ever had this capacity—and by a law of perpetual sameness. The construction of truth in analogy to a volonté de tous, which is the final consequence of the concept of subjective reason, would in all men's name defraud all men of what they need.

If a stroke of undeserved luck has kept the mental composition of some individuals not quite adjusted to the prevailing norms—a stroke of luck they have often enough to pay for in their relations with their environment—it is up to these individuals to make the moral and, as it were, representative effort to say what most of those for whom they say it cannot see or, to do justice to reality, will not allow themselves to see. Direct communicability to everyone is not a criterion of truth. We must resist the all but universal compulsion to confuse the communication of knowledge with knowledge itself, and to rate it higher, if possible—whereas at present each communicative step is falsifying truth and selling it out. Meanwhile, whatever has to do with language suffers of this paradoxicality.

Truth is objective, not plausible. It falls into no man's lap; it does take objective conveyance; but just as applicable to its web is what Spinoza over‑enthusiastically claimed for each single truth: that it is its own index. As for the privileged character which rancor holds against it, truth will lose that character when men stop pleading the experiences they owe it to—when they let it enter instead into configurations and causal contexts that help to make it evident or to convict it of its failings. Elitist pride would be the last thing to befit the philosophical experience. He who has it must admit to himself how much, according to his possibilities in existence, his experience has been contaminated by existence, and ultimately by the class relationship. In philosophical experience, chances which the universal desultorily affords to individuals turn against the universal that sabotages the universality of such experience. If this universality were established, the experience of all individuals would change accordingly, losing much of the accidental character which until then incurably disfigures it even where it keeps stirring. Hegel's doctrine of the self‑reflecting object survives its idealistic version because in a changed dialectics the subject's divestment of sovereignty turns it even more into a reflexive form of its object.

The less definitive and all‑encompassing a theory is claimed to be, the less of an object will it become to the thinker. As the compulsion of the system evaporates, he will be free to rely more frankly on his own consciousness and experience than was permitted by the pathos‑filled conception of a subjectivity whose abstract triumph would exact the price of renouncing its specific substance. This price was in line with the emancipation of individuality that occurred between the great age of idealism and the present, and whose achievements—despite, and because of, the present pressure of collective regression—are theoretically as irrevocable as the impulses of the dialectics of 1800. Nineteenth century individualism has indeed weakened the objectifying power of the mind, its capacity for insight into objectivity and for its construction; but it has also equipped the mind with a discriminating sense that strengthened its experience of the object.


SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics, translated by E.B. Ashton (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), pp. 40-42.


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