THEORY, PRACTICE, AND MORAL PHILOSOPHY

by Theodor W. Adorno

This reproach about the uselessness of theory, this impatient need to hurl oneself into action without delay spells the end of any kind of theoretical work and contains within itself, teleologically, as if it had been assumed from the outset, a relationship to a false, in other words, an oppressive, blind and violent form of practice.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I urge you therefore to exercise a certain patience with respect to the relations between theory and practice. Such a request may be justified because in a situation like the present — one about which I do not entertain the slightest illusion, and nor would I wish to encourage any illusions in you — whether it will be possible ever again to achieve a valid form of practice may well depend on not demanding that every idea should immediately produce its own legitimating document explaining its own practical use. The situation may well demand instead that we resist the call of practicality with all our might in order ruthlessly to follow through an idea and its logical implications so as to see where it may lead. I would even say that this ruthlessness, the power of resistance that is inherent in the idea itself and that prevents it from letting itself be directly manipulated for any instrumental purposes whatsoever, this theoretical ruthlessness contains — if you will allow me this paradox — a practical element within itself. Today, practice — and I do not hesitate to express this in an extreme way — has made great inroads into theory, in other words, into the realm of new thought in which right behaviour can be reformulated. This idea is not as paradoxical and irritating as it may sound, for in the final analysis thinking is itself a form of behaviour. In its origins thinking is no more than the form in which we have attempted to master our environment and come to terms with it — testing reality is the name given by analytical psychology to this function of the ego and of thought — and it is perfectly possible that in certain situations practice will be referred back to theory far more frequently than at other times and in other situations. At any rate, it does no harm to air this question. It is no accident that the celebrated unity of theory and practice implied by Marxian theory and then developed above all by Lenin should have finally degenerated in [Stalinist] dialectical materialism to a kind of blind dogma whose sole function is to eliminate theoretical thinking altogether. This provides an object lesson in the transformation of practicism into irrationalism, and hence, too, for the transformation of this practicism into a repressive and oppressive practice. That alone might well be a sufficient reason to give us pause and not to be in such haste to rely on the famous unity of theory and practice in the belief that it is guaranteed and that it holds good for every time and place.

For otherwise you will find yourself in the position of what Americans call a joiner, that is to say, a man who always has to join in, who has to have a cause for which he can fight. Such a person is driven by his sheer enthusiasm for the idea that something or other must be done and some movement has to be joined about which he is deluded enough to believe that it will bring about significant changes. And ultimately, this enthusiasm drives him into a kind of hostility towards mind that necessarily negates a genuine unity of theory and practice.

Ladies and Gentlemen, what is at stake here is that you should be aware that Fichte’s famous assertion that ‘morality is self-evident’ cannot be upheld, at least not in the way that Fichte intended at the time, even though the statement undoubtedly contains a grain of truth. To be more specific, we may say that a particular historical conjuncture plays a role here. What I mean by this is that morality may very well appear to be self-evident in a world in which people feel themselves to be the exponents of a class in the ascendant, together with all the concrete ideals it wishes to make real, as was the case with the great bourgeois thinkers around the turn of the nineteenth century. The situation is quite different when every important practice whose theory one tries to grasp has the unfortunate and even fatal tendency to compel us to think in a way that conflicts with our own real and immediate interests. So in these lectures what is at issue is that we should reflect on the problems of moral philosophy — and not that I should present you with any specific norms or values or whatever other ghastly terms may offer themselves. To put it in another way, the subject of moral philosophy today requires that we do not naively respond to such questions about how to lay down absolute rules about behaviour, about the relation between the general and the particular in reference to behaviour, and about the immediate creation of a moral good. Such questions cannot simply be accepted at face value, or as they appear to so-called feeling, which often may turn out to be a poor guide. Instead they must be raised to the level of conscious reflection, so far as that is possible. Moral philosophy in this sense means making a sustained effort — without anxieties or reservations — to achieve a true, conscious understanding of the categories of morality and of the questions that relate to the good life and practice in that higher sense, instead of continuing to imagine that this entire complex of issues must be excluded from the realm of theory on the grounds that it is practical. For when people take this latter view what it usually amounts to is that practice, which is commonly claimed to be superior to theory, and purer than it, is then taken over ready-made from some authoritarian source, whether it be the traditions of one’s own nation or another prescribed ideology. And in consequence they never reach the point that in Kant’s eyes constitutes the locus of right action, namely the moment of freedom in the absence of which the good life cannot even be properly conceived. Such a formulation of the task of reflecting on moral philosophy of the kind I have just given you, however fragmentary, would moreover be in tune with the present stage of advanced psychological knowledge — that is to say, of psychoanalysis. For the essence of the latter is that ‘where the id is’, in other words, where the unconscious, where darkness rules, there ‘ego shall be’, in other words, there shall be consciousness. Put differently, something like a true practice is only possible when you have passed through theory.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I should like to show you at this point, or rather I should like to express something that may well have occurred to you in a more or less well articulated form. This is the awareness that we cannot simply assert that all you need to arrive at correct practice is a correct theory. And those among you who have been kind enough to listen to me attentively will have observed that I did not in fact make any such claim. Instead, all I claimed was that there was a greater and more urgent need of theoretical intervention at the present time. On the other hand, it is no less true — and I believe that this must be asserted no less bluntly than the need for theory — that theory and practice do not slot into each other neatly, that they are not simply one and the same thing, but that — if you will forgive the hackneyed image — a kind of tension obtains between the two. Theory that bears no relation to any conceivable practice either degenerates into an empty, complacent and irrelevant game, or, what is even worse, it becomes a mere component of culture, in other words, a piece of dead scholarship, a matter of complete indifference to us as living minds and active, living human beings. This even holds good for art for, however mediated, however indirect or concealed it may be, such a link must nevertheless exist. Conversely — as I have already pointed out — a practice that simply frees itself from the shackles of theory and rejects thought as such on the grounds of its own supposed superiority will sink to the level of activity for its own sake. Such a practice remains stuck fast within the given reality. It leads to the production of people who like organizing things and who imagine that once you have organized something, once you have arranged for some rally or other, you have achieved something of importance, without pondering for a moment whether such activities have any chance at all of effectively impinging on reality. This brings me to a fundamental theme of moral philosophy, namely the distinction between norms that simply relate to the pure will, as Kant taught, and norms that in the course of reflecting on moral questions also include the objective possibility of being made real in practice, as Hegel maintained in opposition to Kant. This problem has been formulated as the distinction between an ethics of conviction [Gesinnungsethik] and an ethics of responsibility [Verantwortungsethikl], and we shall have something to say on this subject at a later date.

However that may be, and however inseparable these two distinct disciplines — theory and practice — may be, since after all they both have their source in life itself, there is one further factor necessary for practice that is not fully explicable by theory and that is very hard to isolate. And I should like to emphasize it because I regard it as fundamental to a definition of the moral. We may perhaps best define it with the term spontaneity, the immediate, active reaction to particular situations. Where this factor is missing, or we might also say, where theory does not wish in the last analysis to achieve anything, something like a valid practice is not possible. Moreover, one task of the theory of the moral is to set limits to the scope of theory itself, in other words, to show that the sphere of moral action includes something that cannot fully be described in intellectual terms, but also that should not be turned into an absolute. What I have in mind is something that should not be treated as if it were an absolute, but that must in fact stand in a definite relationship to theory if it is not to degenerate into mere folly. Ladies and Gentlemen, I find it extraordinarily difficult to find words to describe this factor, and this is no accident, since we are attempting to describe in theoretical terms an element of morality that is actually foreign to theory — and so to describe it in theoretical terms is not without an element of absurdity. But I believe that we found a clue to it a little while ago when I was telling you about the concept of resistance, even though what I was saying then was that resistance today should be sought in the drive towards theory. For that something should be done is a belief held by everyone nowadays; what is found to be problematic is when someone decides not to do anything for once, but to retreat from the dominant realm of practical activity in order to think about something essential. Now what I wish to emphasize is the factor of resistance, of refusing to be part of the prevailing evil, a refusal that always implies resisting something stronger and hence always contains an element of despair. I believe that this idea of resistance, then, may help you best to see what I mean when I say that the moral sphere is not coterminous with the theoretical sphere, and that this fact is itself a basic philosophical determinant of the sphere of practical action.


SOURCE: Adorno, Theodore W. Problems of Moral Philosophy, edited by Thomas Schröder, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), pp. 3-8. (Footnotes omitted.)


Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” by Theodor W. Adorno:

Lecture 7 (11 June 1959): Knowledge as Tautology

Lecture 16 (14 July 1959): Society · ‘Block’

T.W. Adorno on Kant, the Division of Labor & Restriction of Reason

The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography

Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide


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