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Rights remain with the author, James Gordon Finlayson as per Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence 2.0.

Normativity and Metaphysics in Adorno and Hegel 1

Even the most cursory acquaintance with Adorno’s dense and difficult work reveals that he is a deeply moral thinker. Nobody could fail to notice that Adorno’s work expresses profound moral concern in the broadest sense of that term. It is true not just of Adorno’s specific writings on morality, but of his social theory in general and of the major works of his mature philosophy, Negative Dialectics and Aesthetic Theory, in particular. Adorno criticises those elements of social life that threaten the autonomy of the individual and that encourage individuals to adopt instrumental relations to other people and things.2 Moreover, Adorno is explicit about his normative aspirations. He describes his Negative Dialectics as ‘the ontology of the false state of things’. He adds that ‘[a] right state of things would be free from dialectics: just as little a system as a contradiction.’ (ND 22) Although Negative Dialectics is a social ontology, a theory of social being, the attributes ‘false’ and ‘right’ indicate that it is intended to be critical and normative and betray his underlying moral concern.

That said, Negative Dialectics is not a work of moral philosophy, and Adorno’s moral concerns are atypical. He makes no attempt to answer the central questions of moral philosophy: What is goodness? How should one live? What ought I to do? Why be moral?. Even when writing about Kant’s practical philosophy, Adorno, as befits someone who believed that “there is no right way to live in a false world” (MM 39: PDM 9) shows little or no interest in normative ethical theory.3 Negative Dialectics for example is concerned rather with the relation between concepts and objects. It is an immanent criticism of Kantian epistemology and a qualified rehabilitation of metaphysics. The moral concerns arise supposedly because, according to Adorno, universal concepts, ‘violate’, ‘mutilate’, ‘dominate’ and even ‘liquidate’ the particulars they subsume, and because thinking stands accused of being in league with institutional and social structures of domination. But it is not quite clear what moral implications this thesis in neo-Kantian epistemology really has, or why it has them. The normative basis of his work remains obscure.

Not only does Adorno avoid normative ethical theory, he endorses Hegel’s well known criticisms of Kant’s moral theory. Adorno is faithfully Hegelian in his denial that the task of philosophy is to “issue instructions as to how the world ought to be.” 4 Adorno and Hegel agree that philosophy aims at truth and that, as Hegel puts it in the Phenomenology of Spirit, ‘what only ought to be, without in fact being, has no truth’ (3, 192). To put it another way, Adorno rejects moralising and external criticism in others and expressly forbears from such criticism himself.5

This makes Adorno’s position even less straightforward. For Hegel’s rejection of Kantian moralising criticism is grounded in, and depends upon, his own ontotheological understanding of the task of philosophy, namely to recognize the rational in the actual. Adorno emphatically rejects this aspect of Hegel’s ontotheology. Whilst Adorno agrees that it is not the task of philosophy to tell the world how it ought to be, unlike Hegel he makes strong normative criticisms of presently existing reality. This brings Adorno’s philosophical allegiance to Hegel and concomitant rejection of moralising criticism on the one hand, into potential conflict with his emphatic normative criticism of society on the other. How can Adorno embrace these tensions without simply being guilty of inconsistency? How does Adorno avoid presupposing normative criteria that are ‘external’ and ‘moralising’ and thus remain a consistent pupil of Hegel, whilst advancing a social philosophy that is both normative and critical?

1. Hegel’s Metaphysical Project

I shall begin to answer this question by contrasting the Hegel’s social philosophy, with Adorno’s. In the Preface to the Elements of the Philosophy of Right Hegel famously warns philosophy against setting up of a world beyond the present one and issuing instructions on how the world ought to be. Rather, he claims that philosophy’s task proper lies in comprehending ‘the present and the actual’ and in ‘showing how the state, as the ethical universe, should be recognized’. Philosophy’s job is not to formulate laws, but to observe them and to find their ‘inner-pulse’, their rational core.6 This line of thought needs to be understood in the context of Hegel’s distinction between actuality and existence. Actuality, [Wirklichkeit] which is sometimes translated misleadingly as ‘reality’, is a technical term for Hegel which applies to a much narrower domain than that of existence.7 Hegel often refers to the latter as ‘lazy’ [träge] existence or ‘mere being’.8 To understand what is lazy or dull about existence or ‘mere being’ we need to ask what makes actuality superior to it. In the domain of objective spirit, i.e. among all the institutions, practices, customs and beliefs that count as objectifications of the spirit, some, but not all, exist for good reasons. The difference between actuality and lazy existence is that what is actual continues to exist for good reason, and the latter does not.9 Where an institution exists for good reasons, these good reasons as it were nourish its existence. Further, the good reasons that support the actuality of one institution tend to accrete to other such institutions: actuality spreads out along the axis of its underlying rationale.10 By contrast, where an institution merely exists for no good reason, there is no internal pressure to maintain it in existence. So lazy existence has the opposite tendency to wither and lapse into non-existence. This does not mean that all lazy existence disappears. In that case there would be no need for philosophy to recognize rational actuality. It is only under favourable historical and social conditions that lazy existence dies out. Given unfavourable historical and social conditions, lazy existence stays put. Hegel certainly believed that in the time of ferment in which he lived, historical and social conditions were favourable, and that the time was ripe for the development of actuality.

It is helpful to note that there are two independently necessary and jointly sufficient conditions of Hegelian actuality.11 An institution is actual in Hegel’s sense if and only if

a. its existence satisfies the ‘right of subjective particularity’; i.e. the institution satisfies or does not thwart the basic interests of each subject who participates in the institutions and practices that make up the cultural life of a community; and

b. each subject can accept the institution because it satisfies his or her basic interests.

In other words, if an institution or practice does satisfy the basic interests of each participating subject, and if it can be accepted by each subject because it satisfies his basic interests, then that institution is actual; and if an institution or practice is actual, it manifestly satisfies the interests the practitioners. More concisely, actuality is what is good and what can be known to be good.

A couple of qualifications are needed. Firstly, this account assumes that what is good, is necessarily good for a person or persons. This becomes important when one looks at the second condition, that actuality can be known to be good. It means that actuality can be known to be good (i.e. good for them) by those people for whom it is good, not by some better knowing leader or elite, and not by some disembodied impersonal spirit. Secondly, it is very important that there are two separate conditions which are only jointly sufficient for actuality. For Hegel likens his philosophy to a ‘true theodicy’.12 (20, 455) This description is only meaningful if a false theodicy is possible. Hegel does not actually talk about false theodicy, but he implies that one is possible. By implication a false theodicy would be one which convinces us that the world is good when it is not. A false theodicy would project the illusion of actuality onto mere existence. It would convince subjects that what merely exists, or what was bad, is really good (for them). To use a more modern idiom, a false theodicy would be a kind of ideology.13

The second of these two jointly necessary conditions is indispensable, because Hegel understands actuality to be an objective correlate of subjective human freedom or what Hegel calls ‘the right of the subjective will’.14 Human beings are free to the extent that only those things that they can recognize to be rational - and this applies across the board to institutions, laws, practices, belief, emotions, feelings, - have authority over them. If something claims authority on the basis of its mere existence, then that authority is, to use an expression of Hegel’s youth, ‘positive’ or dogmatic; it is a form of domination and unfreedom. Hegel often makes this point in another way. He contends that human subjectivity (or the ‘I’) is free when it is ‘at home’ in the world and that, “‘I’ is at home in the world when it knows it, and even more so when it has comprehended it.” That is, the rational human subject is ‘at home’ or most free, where it is in its own element, the element of objectified human reason. In other words, human subjects are ‘at home’ in actuality. There is a lot to be said on Hegel’s multifaceted conception of freedom. Suffice it here to say that, practically and politically speaking, Hegel’s claim is that the subject is ‘at home’ only when it lives under laws, customs, practices and institutions the underlying rationale of which it can recognize, i.e. understand and affirm as rational. And it can recognize and affirm these laws because they have in their turn been made by rational human subjects. For Hegel this is historically the case in modern times. In modernity, claims Hegel, the actual customs, practices and institutions that shape the lives of subjects enjoy authority and deserve respect only in virtue of their underlying rationality. Laws, for instance, have to win acceptance insofar as they manifestly satisfy the interests of those subject to them.15

The principle of the modern world requires that whatever is to be recognized by everyone must be seen by everyone as entitled to such recognition.16

The situation in which we modern (post French-revolutionary, post-Kantian) subjects find ourselves is one in which many good institutions have already been established through the historical and cultural labour of spirit, but in which there is still a lot of intellectual work to do in order to recognize this fact. For the underlying rationality of actual institutions does not lie on their surface; it is buried within them. This is why Hegel insists that we modern subjects need not religion but a Science of Right, the task of which is to uncover and make public the implicit rationality of custom and law.17

For what matters is to recognize in the semblance [Scheine] of the temporal and transient the substance which is immanent and the eternal which is present.18

Thus in Hegel’s view philosophical metaphysics - the recognition of the rational in the actual and, more broadly, the discrimination between actuality and mere being - has an historical and social task to fulfil. It is the task of perfecting the development of the objective human spirit towards the ends of freedom and reconciliation - to show Hegel’s audience (in Berlin of the early 1820’s) that they can be ‘at home’ in their world. Beyond this, the modes of absolute spirit, art, religion and philosophy, have the further task of making known that what is thus at home in the world is spirit or mind, and that in recognizing the rational in the real, self-knowing spirit recognizes nothing but itself.

2. Negativity and Immanent Criticism: Adorno’s Inverted Hegelianism

Let us now try to identify the fundamental differences between Adorno’s philosophy and Hegel’s. The most noticeable and the most obviously important difference between Adorno’s social philosophy and Hegel’s is that Adorno’s conception of immanent criticism is radically negative; it aims to condemn existing unreason rather than to recognize and affirm the rational in the actual. Typically Adorno reaches this prima facie unhegelian position not through a rejection of Hegel’s ontotheology, but through a dialectical development of it. As we have just seen, according to Hegel actuality spreads out along the axis of its underlying rationality. By contrast ‘lazy’ existence, Hegel thinks, tends to lapse into non-existence. Adorno realizes that the fundamentally irrational institutions that in Hegel’s eyes are merely ‘lazy’ have their own survival mechanisms, including the ability to cloak themselves in the appearance of rationality. Take, for example, the institution of ‘free wage labor’ which, though it serves only the dominant interests of the capitalist class who exploit the free wage laborers by appropriating the surplus value they produce, nonetheless appears to serve the interests of all, including those who only have their labor power to sell. Furthermore, just as one actual institution, according to Hegel, begets another, so, according to Adorno, irrational institutions tend to beget others. The illusory reasons for the existence of one irrational institution encourage other irrational institutions into being. Thus consumer capitalism begets the leisure industry, which encourages people to waste their free time pursuing inherently worthless activities, merely in order to recreate their spent labor power, which in turn fuels the economic system. Whilst Hegel believes that ‘lazy existence’ at worst hampers the development of actual institutions and hinders the progress of spirit, Adorno shows that the influence of irrational institutions is altogether more sinister and nefarious.19 However, he is not consistent in his use of these terms which are typically used to conflate two different views. The stronger, more pessimistic view is that there is no good in the world, apart from the knowledge that there is no good in the world. The weaker, less pessimistic view, is there are fragments of the good in the world - for example the experience of pleasure granted by certain works of art, human warmth, love and spontaneity - however only enough to allow us to notice their absence from the social totality. They are the exception, not the rule of social reality, points of resistance to it, not its basis. Depending on the context, Adorno tends to slide between these two views. Common to both, though, is the firm belief that the present situation is parlous.20

Under such unpromising historical conditions the metaphysical project metamorphoses. For Hegel, the task of philosophy was still to recognize the rationality in the actual. For Adorno, by contrast, a philosophy whose task is to recognize the rational in the actual would be otiose: there is no (or virtually no) rational actuality.21 A philosophy whose task is to recognize the rational in present non-actual reality is worse than that, a false theodicy or ideological illusion that is complicit with the structures of domination it analyzes. It would be a philosophy which offered spurious justifications for the existence of a fundamentally irrational reality. In order to avoid that fate philosophy must remain content with recognizing the irrationality at the heart of an antagonistic society. Philosophy must remain true to itself by contemplating not the true and the good, but the untrue and the bad.22

Accordingly Adorno’s philosophy not only has a different object to Hegel’s it has the opposite social objective. Where Hegel seeks to reconcile modern subjects to their world, by identifying the rational in the actual, Adorno’s ontology of the false state of things seeks to alienate modern subjects from a social world which no longer merits their recognition by making them consciously unhappy with it. In respect of its objective, we can say that whilst the task Hegel’s social philosophy is ultimately affirmative, the task of Adorno’s social philosophy is ultimately negative.

We can see how Adorno’s philosophy remains within the same general metaphysical or ontotheological framework as Hegel’s social philosophy, but has the opposite evaluative polarity. Now we are in a position to ask whether this most characteristic feature of Adorno’s philosophy - its negativity - can throw any light on the normative basis of his social criticism. It is natural to think that it might. At least there is a line of thought propounded both by Adorno and by many of his critics that he is doing something called ‘immanent criticism’ which needs no moral foundations and is thus unlike the external and moralising criticism he rejects. On this view what Adorno does is to show that the general and widespread assumption that the institutions and practices that shape social life are good - that they satisfy people’s fundamental interests - to be an illusion. Furthermore he shows that this illusion is necessary to the persistence of the social system. In so doing Adorno supposedly only measures presently existing society against its own implicit normative/evaluative claims, but makes none of his own. This is why Adorno’s criticism is not empty, why the normative constraints it exerts are not external impositions on the objects of its criticism, and why it deserves to be called ‘immanent’ rather than external criticism.

We can illustrate this minimal conception of immanent criticism with an example. Adorno, like Marx, aims to show that although capitalist relations of production appear to be a free and equal exchange of labour power for wages, because of the nature of what is exchanged and the circumstances under which the exchange takes place, this appearance of equality is an illusion. Adorno uncovers a kind of discrepancy between social reality and people’s understanding of it. He shows that the appearance of capitalist exchange relations are deceptive, that both parties are deceived about their true relation to each other, that they believe “the lie of equality”.23 He adds that neither party realizes the ‘injustice’ of the exchange, and that this ongoing mutual deception maintains the practice and fuels the dynamic of capitalist society which blights both their lives.

This is a crude but useful illustration of what I called the minimal conception of immanent critique. The trouble with the minimal conception is that it is vulnerable to a version of Moore’s open question argument. It begs the question whether or not this deceptive practice is morally wrong. Moreover, because it begs that question, the minimal conception fails to square with Adorno’s critical practice. For Adorno’s writing leaves us no doubt that the deceptive practice he criticizes is morally wrong; i.e. that it ought not to be like it is. What this suggests is that contrary to widespread opinion, indeed contrary to Adorno’s self-estimation, Adorno’s immanent criticism is neither wholly negative nor wholly immanent. Certainly the negativity of Adorno’s conception of immanent criticism on its own grants him no special dispensation to draw normative conclusions from non-normative premises. What entitles Adorno to the normative conclusions he does draw is the obvious fact (a fact which is often ignored perhaps because it is so obvious) that his negative conception of immanent criticism depends on a metaphysics of radical evil.

This may seem controversial. Many contemporary commentators would like Adorno to have no truck with any kind of metaphysics, let alone a metaphysics of good and evil. This seems to stem from the desire on the part of the commentators to make Adorno relevant to contemporary philosophical concerns, by keeping his metaphysical commitments as low as possible. Unlike Nietzsche and perhaps also Heidegger, however, Adorno does not think that metaphysics is something that can or must be avoided at all costs. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment he and Horkheimer criticize Enlightenment thinking for neutering rationalist metaphysics. They are far more scathing about contemporary forms of nominalism and scientism. The latter have abandoned all belief in universals and have lost the capacity to “betray the injustice of what exists...through the incongruence of concept and reality” (DA 24).24 Presumably this is what he thinks that he (and Horkheimer) are doing - betraying present injustice by bringing to light the incongruence of concept and object. In other words he admits a certain affinity between critical theory and rationalist metaphysics. Furthermore, the ‘injustice’ of which he speaks must have a moral dimension of some kind. This moral dimension stems from the fact that the incongruence that reveals the ‘injustice of what exists’ is nothing less than the failure of the concept ‘good’ to correspond to a reality that is radically evil.

To see this we need only consider the role that evil plays in Adorno’s qualified rehabilitation of metaphysics at the end of Negative Dialectics. The ‘Meditations on Metaphysics’ consists in a contraposition of dialectical opposites: Kant’s transcendent metaphysics on the one hand and the event of Auschwitz on the other. According to Kant, the ideas of reason correspond to nothing in experience, yet they provide rational answers to questions that finite beings cannot help but ask. Along with the postulates of pure practical reason they are a set of focal points ideally projected beyond the horizon of experience, which provide practical orientation for finite beings in the world of appearances. For Adorno the significance of Kant’s ideas is threefold: they signify 1. that metaphysics is ineliminable from theory; 2. that complete despair or nihilism is ultimately unthinkable and 3. that practice is prior to theory. (ND 375-7) On the other hand, Adorno’s Meditations respond to the historical phenomenon of Auschwitz. The figure of Auschwitz in Adorno’s work should be understood as a synechdoche for the barbaric, inhuman and ultimately murderous treatment of other people that took place in the ghettos, the concentration camps and the death camps under the Third Reich. The significance of Auschwitz, thus understood, is twofold: it represents the simultaneous culmination and betrayal of enlightenment. Auschwitz is a betrayal of enlightenment because it violated the humanitarian ideals of the historical Enlightenment in a devastating manner. It is the culmination of enlightenment because in that very devastation it revealed what enlightenment always was: instrumental rationality, technological domination and social oppression masquerading as reason and freedom. Adorno’s strategy is to confront Kant’s ideas and postulates - the empty promises of enlightenment - with Auschwitz - the blind unreason of its content. This confrontation is supposed to undermine Kant’s rationalist metaphysics and simultaneously to release its truth moment. (ND 400)

It turns out then, that the minimal conception of immanent criticism is both misleading as a picture of what Adorno is doing, and inadequate as an explanation of the normative basis of Adorno’s social criticism. The sense in which Adorno’s criticism is indeed negative is inseparable from the claim that the world is radically evil. I would hesitate to call such a mode of criticism ‘immanent’. At very least I would want to say that this version of immanent critique is much richer than the minimal conception. But if this is right, the ‘negativity’ of the minimal conception of immanent criticism will not be able to explain the normative basis of Adorno’s social philosophy.

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