Adorno on Philosophy, Formalism, & Artificial Intelligence

It is ironic that philosophy so easily arouses the fury of common sense by being mistaken for the very abstractness it struggles against. It is certainly better—as in prephilosophical knowledge so in philosophy—not to proceed without a measure of autonomy of thought in relation to its subject matter. The logical apparatus owes its immeasurable improvement beyond primitive consciousness to this autonomy. It contains, intensified, at the level of content, the force of enlightenment that marks the historical development of philosophy. Yet as it became autonomous and developed into an apparatus, thinking also became the prey of reification and congealed into a high-handed method. Cybernetic machines are a crude example of this. They graphically demonstrate to people the nullity of formalized thinking abstracted from its contents insofar as such machines perform better than thinking subjects much of what used to be the proud achievement of the method of subjective reason. Should thinking subjects passively transform themselves into the instruments of such formalization, then they virtually cease being subjects. They approach the machine in the guise of its imperfect replica. Philosophical thinking begins as soon as it ceases to content itself with cognitions that are predictable and from which nothing more emerges than what had been placed there beforehand. The humane significance of computers would be to unburden the thinking of living beings to the extent that thought would gain the freedom to attain a knowledge that is not already implicit.

SOURCE: Theodor W. Adorno, “Notes on Philosophical Thinking,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, translated by Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), extract, pp. 127-128.

You can hear the German original on YouTube: Theodor Adorno - Philosophisches Denken, Kybernetik, Computer, Gleichschaltung (3:25). Source:

Adorno: Anmerkungen zum philosophischen Denken, Ein Vortrag von Theodor W. Adorno für den Deutschlandfunk, gesendet am 9. Oktober 1964; in “Neue Deutsche Hefte”, Heft 107, Oktober 1965, S. 5ff. Die hier vorliegende Aufzeichnung ist ein Mitschnitt des Vortrags vom 10. Oktober 1967 an der Universität Wien.

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