Adorno on Descartes, Wittgenstein, Hegel

But once it is acknowledged that clarity and distinctness are not mere characteristics of what is given, and are not themselves given, one can no longer evaluate the worth of knowledge in terms of how clearly and unequivocally individual items of knowledge present themselves. When consciousness does not conceive them as pinned down and identified like things—photographable, as it were—it finds itself of necessity in conflict with the Cartesian ambition. Reified consciousness freezes objects into things in themselves so that they can be available to science and praxis as things for others. Of course one cannot grossly neglect the demand for clarity; philosophy should not succumb to confusion and destroy the very possibility of its existence. What we should take from this is the urgent demand that the expression fit the matter expressed precisely, even where the matter at hand for its part does not conform to the customary notion of what can be indicated clearly. Here too philosophy is faced with a paradox: to say clearly something that is unclear, that has no firm outline, that does not accommodate to reification; to say it in such a way, that is, that the moments that elude the eye’s fixating gaze, or that are not accessible at all, are indicated with the utmost distinctness. This, however, is not a merely formal demand but rather a part of the very substance philosophy is after. This demand is paradoxical because language and the process of reification are interlocked. The very form of the copula, the “is,” pursues the aim of pinpointing its object, an aim to which philosophy ought to provide a corrective; in this sense all philosophical language is a language in opposition to language, marked with the stigma of its own impossibility. The position that would postpone the fulfillment of this demand—the idea that the requirement of clarity does not hold immediately or for the isolated individual part but is achieved through the whole—does not go far enough. As a systematic philosopher Hegel may have hoped to do this, but he did not fully redeem the promise. In actuality, philosophy eludes that demand, but it does so in the form of determinate negation. It has to take up that cause even with regard to presentation; to say concretely what it cannot say, to try to explain the limits of clarity itself. Philosophy does better to state that it will disappoint the expectation that it will fulfill its intention completely in every moment, every concept, and every sentence, than, intimidated by the success of the individual disciplines, to borrow a norm from them in terms of which it must declare bankruptcy. Philosophy is concerned with something that has no place within a pregiven order of ideas and objects such as the naiveté of rationalism envisions, something that cannot simply use that order as its system of coordinates and be mapped onto it. In the norm of clarity, the old copy theory of realism has entrenched itself within the critique of knowledge, unconcerned with the latter’s actual results. Only that realism allows one to believe that every object can be reflected without question or dispute. But philosophy has to reflect on material concreteness, definition, and fulfillment just as it has to reflect on language and its relationship to the matter at hand. To the extent to which philosophy makes an ongoing effort to break out of the reification of consciousness and its objects, it cannot comply with the rules of the game of reified consciousness without negating itself, even though in other respects it is not permitted simply to disregard those rules if it does not want to degenerate into empty words. Wittgenstein’s maxim, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” in which the extreme of positivism spills over into the gesture of reverent authoritarian authenticity, and which for that reason exerts a kind of intellectual mass suggestion, is utterly antiphilosophical. If philosophy can be defined at all, it is an effort to express things one cannot speak about, to help express the nonidentical despite the fact that expressing it identifies it at the same time. Hegel attempts to do this. Because it can never be said directly, because everything direct and unmediated is false—and therefore necessarily unclear in its expression—he tirelessly says it in mediated form. This is one reason why Hegel invokes totality, however problematic that concept may be. A philosophy that relinquishes this effort in the name of a temptingly mathematicized formal logic denies its own concept a priori—its intention—and a constitutive part of that intention is the impossibility that Wittgenstein and his followers have turned into a taboo of reason on philosophy, a taboo that virtually abolishes reason itself.

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. “Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel” in Hegel: Three Studies, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen, introduction by Shierry Weber Nicholsen and Jeremy J. Shapiro (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), pp. 100-102.

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