Theodor W. Adorno

Concept of Intuition

Bergson sought to cut through the Gordian knot, and his intuitionism bears ready comparison to Husserl’s essential insight. For he postulated an immediate-intuitive awareness of the living against conceptual-classificatory thought. His critique of scientism was unique in denouncing the triumph of the reified conventional copy over the authentic. With his dualism of two sorts of cognition and ‘worlds’, however, he turned philosophy into a reserve and thus paradoxically re-incorporated it right back into reified life, such as contributes to the sense of the entirety of late bourgeois irrationalism, which Bergson otherwise so thoroughly transcends in depth of experience and proximity to the phenomenon, just as impressionism towers over neo-Romantic ideologies.

In the mechanism of reification of thought, ordering conceptually – which Bergson blames for all the mischief, though it is itself merely a derivative of mercantile society – just constitutes a moment. [2] On the other hand, living knowledge, whose salvation is Bergson’s concern, certainly does not dispose in itself of a ‘foreign’ faculty of knowledge. Such an assumption, rather, reflects the split between method and matter which belongs to the realm Bergson detests. Bergson shares with bourgeois thought the belief in isolable and true method. He just assigns to it precisely those attributes which since Descartes have been denied it. He never realized that, whenever a well-defined method has been made independent of its changing objects, then rigidity has already been sanctioned which the magic glance of intuition is supposed to dissolve. Experience in the emphatic sense – the net of ungarbled cognition, such as may serve as a model for philosophy – differs from science not through a higher principle or apparatus, but rather through the use which it makes of its materials, especially the conceptual (which as such match those of science), and through its position towards objectivity. What Bergson calls intuition cannot be denied in such experience, but neither can it be hypostatized. The intuitions which intertwine with concepts and ordering forms achieve more legality with the expansion and hardening of socialized and organized existence. But those acts do not constitute an absolute source of knowledge, cut off from discursive thought by an ontological abyss. They certainly seem precipitate and occasionally involuntary (though artists know that they can also be commanded). And they break open the closed structure of deductive procedures. But this does not mean that they have tumbled from heaven. Only the positivists thought of them in that way, though Bergson’s roots, like Husserl’s, are not far from positivism. Rather, they make succeed what with better knowledge escapes the conversion in which anti-intellectualism and science come to an understanding.

The suddenness of intuition competes in its resistance to social control, which wants to scare thoughts out of their hiding place. So-called inspirations are neither as irrational, nor as rhapsodical, as both Bergson and scientism claim. Unconscious knowledge not entirely subject to mechanisms of control explodes in inspiration and bursts through the wall of conventionalized judgements ‘fitting reality’. Since they do not participate in the manipulative activity of ego-regulated cognition, but rather passively and spontaneously recall what organizational thought calls sheer scandal in things, they are in fact ‘ego-alien’. But whatever is at work in rational cognition also enters into inspirations – sedimented and newly remembered – in order to turn for an instant against all the devices over whose shadow thought by itself cannot leap. Discontinuity in intuition does honour to continuity falsified by organization. Only lightning bolts of knowledge are saturated with memory and prescience. Official and ‘obligatory’ knowledge, as Bergson indeed saw, fall as such directly out of time and memory. The cognizer is overwhelmed at the moment of intuition and delivered out of subsumption alone and from the current present of past judgements, conclusions and especially relations whose unification brings to light what in the object is more than a placeholder in the systematic. In intuitions ratio recollects what it forgot. In this sense, which he certainly hardly intended, Freud was right when he attributed its own sort of rationality to the unconscious.

Intuition is not a simple antithesis to logic. Intuition belongs to logic, and reminds it of the moment of its untruth. As the blind spots in the process of cognition – from which they still cannot escape – intuitions prevent reason from reflecting upon itself as a mere form of reflection of arbitrariness, in order to prepare an end for arbitrariness. In non-arbitrary memory, arbitrary thought seeks, however hopelessly, something to cure it from what it must nevertheless perpetrate. Bergson did not realize that. By passing intuitions off as the immediate voice of that life which nevertheless continues to live only as mediated, he diluted them to an abstract principle that quickly allies itself with the abstract world against which it had been devised. The construction of pure immediacy, the negation of everything rigid, leads him in the text on laughter to say:

Every temperament is comic, as long as we understand by temperament what is finished about our personality, the set mechanism about us, which can function automatically. [3]

But he sees temperament as nothing more than ‘obduracy against social life’. [4] That is, that resistance which is the truth of intuition. The absolutization of intuitive cognizing corresponds practically to a mode of procedure of absolute adaptation.

Whoever neglects to ‘remain attentive to what surrounds him’ and elects to ‘shut himself up in his temperament as in an ivory tower’, [5] is rejected. Whoever wishes to change petrified relations stamped out by mechanistic concepts needs just that. No concept of the living can be thought unless it includes a moment of the identically persisting. The abstract negation of mediation, the cult of pure contemporaneity, which opposes this, thereby falls right into conventions and conformism. While Bergson expunges the societal callouses from spirit, he surrenders it to social reality which causes them.

2 Cf. Max Horkheimer, ‘Zu Bergsons Metaphysik der Zeit’, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 3 (1934), pp. 321 ff.

3 Henri Bergson, Le rire, essai sur la signification comique (Alcan, Paris, 1913), pp. 151-2.

4 Ibid. p. 137.

5 Ibid. p. 138.

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. Against Epistemology: A Metacritique: Studies in Husserl and the Phenomenological Antinomies, translated by Willis Domingo (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1984); Chapter 1: Critique of Logical Absolutism; section: Concept of Intuition, pp. 45-47. (Orig. English translation 1982, orig. German 1956.)

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by Ralph Dumain

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