Theodor W. Adorno
on the
Division of Philosophy and Labor

Contemporary philosophical critique is confronted with two schools of thought that, by constituting the spirit of the age, nolens volens exert an influence beyond the walls of the academic preserve. They diverge and nonetheless complement each other. Especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries logical positivism, originally inaugurated by the Vienna Circle, has gained ground to the point of becoming a virtual monopoly. Many consider it modern in the sense of being the most rigorous faculty of enlightenment, adequate to the so-called technical-scientific age. Whatever does not conform to it is relegated to the status of residual metaphysics, its own unrecognized mythology or, in the terminology of those who know nothing of art, art. Opposed to this movement are the ontological approaches, active above all in the German-speaking countries. The school of Heidegger, who, incidentally, since his publications following the so-called turn has become rather averse to the word "ontology," pursues the archaic theme farthest, whereas the French version, existentialism, modified the ontological approach with enlightenment motives and political engagement. Positivism and ontology are anathema to one another; Rudolf Carnap, one of positivism’s foremost representatives, has attacked Heidegger’s theory, indeed quite wrongly, for being meaningless. Conversely, for the ontologists of Heideggerian provenance positivist thinking is forgetful of Being, a profanation of the authentic question. The ontologists are afraid of getting their hands dirty with the merely factually existent, which lies in the positivists’ hands alone. Thus it is all the more surprising that the two directions coincide in an essential point. Both have chosen metaphysics as their common enemy. In positivism this goes without saying: because metaphysics essentially transcends that which is the case, it is not tolerated by positivism, whose very name indicates its adherence to the positive, the existent, the given.

If philosophy is still necessary, it is so only in the way it has been from time immemorial: as critique, as resistance to the expanding heteronomy, even if only as thought’s powerless attempt to remain its own master and to convict of untruth, by their own criteria, both a fabricated mythology and a conniving, resigned acquiescence on the other of untruth. It is incumbent upon philosophy, as long as it is not prohibited as it was in the christianized Athens of late antiquity, to provide a refuge for freedom. Not that there is any hope that it could break the political tendencies that are throttling freedom throughout the world both from within and without and whose violence permeates the very fabric of philosophical argumentation. Whatever takes place within the interior of the concept always reflects something of the movement of reality. But if the two heteronomies are the untruth and if this can be convincingly demonstrated, then this not only adds a new link to the dreary chain of philosophical movements but also registers a trace of the hope that unfreedom and oppression—the evil whose malevolence requires as little philosophical proof as does its existence—nonetheless may not have the last word. Such a critique would need to define the two prevailing philosophies as isolated aspects of a truth that historically was forced to diverge. As little as these two aspects can be glued together into a so-called synthesis, nonetheless they should be reflected upon individually. The error in positivism is that it takes as its standard of truth the contingently given division of labor, that between the sciences and social praxis as well as that within science itself, and allows no theory that could reveal the division of labor to be itself derivative and mediated and thus strip it of its false authority. If in the age of emancipation philosophy wanted to provide a foundation for science, and if Fichte and Hegel interpreted philosophy as the one and only science, then the most general structure derived from the sciences, its ingrained and societally rigidified procedure, would constitute the philosophy of positivism, the mechanism for its own self-legitimation, a circle that, surprisingly, seems hardly to disturb the fanatics of logical tidiness. Philosophy resigns by equating itself with what should in fact first be illuminated by philosophy. The existence of science telle quelle, just as it occurs within and amid all the insufficiencies and irrationalities of the societal fabric, becomes the criterion of its own truth. With such a reverence for reified reality, positivism is reified consciousness. Despite all its hostility toward mythology it forsakes the anti-mythological impulse of philosophy to smash through human-made constructions and return them to their human measure.

Were philosophy to beat back the fear caused by the tyranny of the prevailing philosophical movements—the ontological intimidation not to think anything that is not pure [i.e. Heidegger’s fundamental ontology] and the scientistic intimidation not to think anything that is not “connected” to the corpus of findings recognized as scientifically valid—then it would be capable of recognizing what that fear prohibits, what an unmarred consciousness in fact would be intent upon. The “to the things themselves” that philosophical phenomenology had dreamed of like a dreamer who dreams he's waking up can only come true for a philosophy that stops hoping to acquire knowledge with the magical stroke of eidetic intuition, and instead thinks through the subjective and objective mediations without, however, conforming to the latent primacy of organized method, which over and over again offers phenomenological movements only a series of fetished, homemade concepts instead of their longed-for things. Had not all positivist locutions become deeply suspect, then one could imagine that only a consciousness both free and reflected in itself would be open to what traditional philosophy has obstructed by confusing itself with what it intends to interpret. Within traditional philosophy’s exhaustion at the succession of its variations lies the potential for a philosophy that could break the magic spell.

In the last forty or fifty years philosophy has been claiming, most of the time spuriously, to oppose idealism. What was genuine in this was the opposition to decorative platitudes; to the intellectual hubris that makes spirit into an absolute; to the glorification of this world, as though it already were freedom. The anthropocentrism inherent in all idealistic conceptions cannot be saved; one need only remember the changes in cosmology during the last one hundred and fifty years. Surely not the least of the tasks incumbent upon philosophy is to help spirit appropriate the experiences of the natural sciences without recourse to amateurish analogies and syntheses. An unproductive gulf exists between the natural sciences and the so-called realm of spirit; so great a gulf that at times the spirit’s engagement with itself and the social world appears to be a gratuitous conceit. Something would already be achieved if philosophy at least sought to bring people’s consciousness of themselves to the same state of knowledge that they have of nature, instead of them living like cavemen in thrall to their own knowledge of a cosmos in which the hardly sapient species homo makes a helpless go of it. In the face of this task and the undiminished insight into society’s laws of motion, philosophy could hardly presume to affirm that it posits out of itself something like a positive meaning. To this extent it makes common cause with positivism, even more with modern art, before whose phenomena most of what passes today for philosophical thinking fails for lack of any relationship to them. But philosophy’s turn against idealism, which has been proclaimed ad nauseam, did not intend militant enlightenment but resignation. Thought has been intimidated and no longer dares raise itself, not even in fundamental ontology’s devotional submissiveness to Being. In its opposition to such resignation, there is a moment of truth in idealism. The realization of materialism would mean today the end of materialism, of the blind and degrading dependence of human beings upon material conditions. Spirit is no more the absolute than it is entirely reducible to a concrete entity. It will come to know what it is only when it stops invalidating itself. The force of such resistance is the sole criterion for philosophy today. It is as irreconcilable with reified consciousness as Platonic enthusiasm once was. Only the excess of this consciousness beyond the factual makes it possible to call the universally conditioned by its rightful name. Philosophy desires peace with that Other, being, that the affirmative philosophies degrade by praising it and adapting themselves to it. For those philosophies everything becomes functional; even the conformity to what exists is for them a pretext for subjugating it intellectually. But what exists does not want to be deformed. Anything that has a function is already spellbound within the functional world. Only a thinking that has no mental sanctuary, no illusion of an inner realm, and that acknowledges its lack of function and power can perhaps catch a glimpse of an order of the possible and the nonexistent, where human beings and things each would be in their rightful place. Because philosophy is good for nothing, it is not yet obsolete; philosophy should not even invoke this point, lest it blindly repeat its wrong: self-justification by self-positing.

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. “Why Still Philosophy?” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, translated by Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp. 5-17. These quotes come from pp. 8, 10, 13, 14-15. Footnotes are omitted.

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Uploaded 19 February 2003
Additional quote 23 March 2017

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