Adorno on Metaphysical Experience, Mysticism & Tradition

I spoke at different points about the concept of metaphysical experience, and perhaps it would not be a bad thing to say a few more words about it in this last lecture. What I mean by metaphysical experience certainly cannot be reduced to what are called primal religious experiences. The reason is simply that if one spends a little time studying the stratum of theology which claims to have access to such primal experiences—that is, in crude terms, the mystical stratum, which places such primary experience higher than any codified theology—one becomes aware of something very peculiar and, I must say, very surprising. It is that mystical texts, and descriptions of fundamental mystical experiences, by no means have the primary, immediate quality one might expect, but are very strongly mediated by education. For example, the intricate interrelationships between gnosticism, Neo‑Platonism, the Cabbala and later Christian mysticism give rise to an area of historicity which is equal to anything in the history of dogma. And it is certainly no accident that the corpus in which the documents of Jewish mysticism are brought together more or less disconnectedly, the Cabbala, bears the title of tradition. Far less emphasis is put on a primary, immediate vision than one imagines; far more attention is paid to the τόπoι of so‑called religious experience than to pure subjectivity than might be supposed. What the reasons might be I do not want to discuss; that is really a matter for the philosophy of religion. I shall content myself with one observation, that almost all the mystical speculations which exist find their support in so‑called sacred texts, which in the eyes of mystical‑metaphysical thinkers become symbolic in the sense that they mean something quite different from what is said in them. For example, in the famous interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis, as set out in the book 'Sohar', the history of the creation of the world is interpreted as a history of the inner process of creation which took place within the divinity itself. This is, incidentally, the model for the speculations of Schelling which, in a later phase, became famous under the name of positive philosophy. I do not wish to say anything about the truth of these matters; but I should like at least to make you aware of a problem.

Through our philosophical and, above all, our academic education—as long as it is based on the model, however latent, of the natural sciences—we have become tacitly accustomed to an irreconcilable antithesis between tradition and cognition. It is no accident that the most vehement invective against tradition is to be found in the two philosophers who mark the beginning of what is called modern philosophy, Descartes and Bacon, who emancipated themselves from tradition. It is, however, questionable (and I shall only raise the question here) whether the idea underlying this position—that tradition, what is not known at first hand, should be spurned in face of the immediacy of lived experience—whether this motif, which we take almost for granted, is really so valid, in view of the fact that many such traditional elements are unknowingly contained in knowledge we regard as not traditional, but as pure, autonomous cognition. One might be inclined to think that the subject supposedly capable of cognition as a kind of actus purus, as a piece of pure actuality—and this, implicitly, is the epistemological ideal of the whole of modern philosophy—is an abstraction which does not correspond to any actual subject of cognition; and that the traditional, that is, the historical moment, not only permeates supposedly authenticated knowledge far more deeply than is generally admitted, but actually makes that knowledge possible. One might even suppose that the moment which I have repeatedly brought to your notice under the heading of the mediatedness of thought, is contained in this traditional moment, in the implicit history which is present within any cognition. And it is probable (at any rate, I should like to think so today) that the crucial threshold between this and positivist thinking lies in the question whether thought is aware of this inalienable traditional moment contained within it, whether knowledge reflects it within itself or whether it simply denies it—which is not to assert, of course, that knowledge should simply abandon itself to this traditional moment. The criticism which has been levelled at tradition has its reasons and its legitimacy, heaven knows. But it is also naive in believing that it can divest itself entirely of this moment. The truth probably lies in a kind of self-reflection which both recognizes the inalienable presence of the traditional moment within knowledge, and critically identifies the dogmatic element in it—instead of creating a tabula rasa on both sides, as now, and thus succumbing either to dogmatism or to a timeless and therefore inherently fictitious positivism. You will perhaps understand that, for this reason, I am unwilling to attach metaphysical experience to religious experience as firmly as is generally asserted; I am unwilling to do so, above all, because this kind of experience, as handed down by very great figures of Catholicism, such as St John of the Cross, hardly seems to be accessible any longer, given the assumptions regarding the philosophy of history under which we live today. On its actual truth content I will hold my peace.

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. Metaphysics: Concept and Problems [lecture series, 1965], edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 138-139.  Footnotes omitted. Excerpt from Lecture 18, 29 July 1965.

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