Adorno on Metaphysics, Philosophical Questions,
History, Sociology, & Culture

I shall just take this opportunity to point out that you can really see here, from a central position in philosophy, how deeply sociology and philosophy are interrelated [. . .] This is simply because, if it is realized that the moment of the origin or the temporal genesis of knowledge, with all the temporality it involves, is inherent in the character of truth, is not external to it in the manner of truths which change with time, but founds the character of truth itself, then it is no longer possible to perform the absolute separation between the question of the social origin or the social history of an idea and its truth content in the manner required by the usual scientific division of labour. Nor does this amount to a sociologization of philosophy; rather, sociological problems are immanent in philosophical ones, and immanently philosophical reflection leads necessarily to these problems. This approach, incidentally, is radically different from that of the sociology of knowledge, which confuses the origin of knowledge with its truth content in a merely external sense [. . .]

15 June 1965

The history of philosophy is not so simple. It is, on the contrary, remarkably complex, in the sense that while it moves through the medium of criticism, and while false ideas are certainly refuted by criticism, this refutation almost never has the effect of disposing of them entirely. Rather, philosophical questions are always a bit like those self‑righting toys, seeming to be knocked over but reappearing in changed historical‑philosophical constellations, demanding an answer. And I believe that anyone who wants to understand what philosophy signifies as history, as history of the mind, should be aware of this curious ambiguity: on the one hand, the critical attitude towards philosophy, and between philosophies, and on the other the fundamentally open character of philosophical questions, which cannot be definitively disposed of by such criticism. One needs to be aware of this if one is not to succumb, on the one hand, to a naive rationalism with regard to the history of philosophy, or, on the other, to an equally naive belief in an 'eternal conversation of philosophical minds' carried on down the millennia, which has nothing to do with history. Neither view is correct, and both these extremes are intermingled in the history of philosophy in a way which is very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to define in abstract terms.

24 June 1965

Perhaps I might remind you here that I said to you earlier that metaphysics in the precise sense I have set out here is both a critique and a reprise, a resumption, of theology. It is a peculiarity of metaphysical thinking—it is, I might almost say, one of the invariants of metaphysical thinking, which are repeated over and over again in its history—that the conceptual operations it performs, which aim initially at something like a critique of mythological beings, repeatedly end in reinstating these mythical beings, or the divinity; but it no longer does so in a belief in the direct experience or the sensible perceptibility or the substantial existence of the divinities or divinity, but on the basis of conceptual thought. What I said earlier about the rescuing intention which accompanies the critical aim of all metaphysics now takes on its precise meaning, which is quite simply that metaphysics attempts to rescue through concepts what it simultaneously calls into question through its critique. That is a moment which can be traced through the entire history of western metaphysics.

8 July 1965

I spoke in the last lecture about the interconnection of metaphysics and culture, and said that the spectacular failure of culture today had radically undermined the possibility of metaphysics. But I would now like to add—not only to prevent misunderstanding but because completeness of thought requires it—that, on the other hand, the failure of culture does not give thought a kind of free passage to some natural state. It cannot do so because the failure of culture stems from its own naturalness, if I might put it like that; it is the result of its own persistent character as a natural entity. This culture has failed because it has clung to mere self‑preservation and its various derivatives in a situation in which humanity has simply outgrown that principle. It is no longer confined by direct necessity to compulsive self‑preservation, and is no longer compelled to extend the principle of mastery over nature, both inner and outer nature, into the indefinite future. On the other hand, it is idle and futile for thought to attempt now to appropriate metaphysics as a collection of pure categories which are immediate to consciousness, since knowledge can never disown its own mediateness, or, in other words, its dependence on culture in every sense. Philosophy is itself a piece of culture, is enmeshed in culture; and if it behaves as if it were rendered immediate by some allegedly primal questions which elevate it above culture, it blinds itself to its own conditions and truly succumbs to its cultural conditionality; in other words, it becomes straightforward ideology.

27 July 1965

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. 45, 65, 88, 129. 

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