The Theory of Ideology and the Ideology of Theory? Habermas contra Adorno Habermas’s Marxism

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7. Concluding Remarks

What I have written here does not amount to an adequate defense of Habermas’s social theory. I have been content to expound his theory, to try and show how it is supposed to work, and to undermine some objections to it. My main point has been that Habermas is right to reject Adorno’s conception of ideology and that he has sound reasons for abandoning the whole conception of social theory as ideology-criticism. I hope also to have shown that in abandoning an untenable concept of ideology and conception of ideology-criticism, he does not blunt the critical potential of his social theory. To defend Adorno’s incoherent conception of ideology, as Cook does, is, at very least, an unpromising way to attack Habermas. A more promising line of attack would be to engage critically with his rational reconstruction of communicative rationality and with his theory of modernity.

Finally it is true that Habermas’s conception critical social theory appears less ambitious and emphatic than either Marcuse’s transcendent criticism or Adorno’s more aporetic version, which still aims albeit obliquely, if forlornly, at utopia or redemption. Adorno’s theory, as Benjamin once wrote, gives us hope, ‘but only for the sake of the hopeless’.43 For Habermas the aims of social theory are less utopian, and more diagnostic than they are remedial. This does not mean that Habermas’s social theory has no practical implications. Nor does it mean that Habermas’s social theory, because it does not aim obliquely and forlornly at redemption, is merely another ‘positivistic ideology’. It means simply that, given what it is, a theory of society, its main achievement, if it is true, will be to help us better understand the social world, which is necessary anyway if either piecemeal improvement or radical transformation is to be achieved.44
J. G. Finlayson

University of Sussex

1 This may not be true in cultural studies, where the to stereotype of Adorno as a mandarin aesthete and implacable enemy of mass-culture predominates.

2 I find the general reverence with which the intellectual left now treats Adorno’s work puzzling. Why Adorno, of all people, who held the view that almost any revolutionary political practice was adventitious and misguided? Why is so little attention now paid, say, to the more praxis-oriented philosophies of Marcuse or Sartre?

3 Neither, of course, did Oscar Wilde.

4 See Habermas (1976) and (1984/7)

5 Habermas (1987), (1996) and (1998a)

6 Cook 2000: 84.

7 Cook 2000: 68-87.

8 Obviously I do not deny that Adorno wrote provocative, interesting, insightful and beautifully-crafted works, which repay detailed attention and have much to offer philosophers and social theorists. Further, I believe that theories are tools that can be put to a variety of different uses, among which are the aims of understanding society and achieving social change. Unlike Adorno, I think that the instrumental value or utility of social theory is harmless.

9 Cook 2000: 67 & 70.

10 Adorno 1969: 3, Cook 2000: 68.

11 Adorno 1969: 3. The preface, which I cite, was written shortly before publication in 1944.

12 This is a quotation from Hölderlin’s wonderful Ode Patmos, which Adorno quotes in order to capture the precarious dialectical situation of Odysseus, and by extension, of bourgeois subjectivity. “Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst das Rettende auch” [Where there is danger, the saving power increases also.] Adorno 1969: 45.

13 See below, section 4. It is a little unfair of Cook to claim that Habermas polemic is self-aggrandising, since he ‘effectively turns himself into the sole modern standard bearer of reason, culture and enlightenment. Cook 2000: 67. Of course Habermas believes – and who does not - that his own theory is correct, and that Adorno’s is wrong. He also believes that he is adopting an unfashionable position, which in championing a form of rationalism in 1985, when postmodernism was in its ascendance, he certainly was. This might explain the polemical and slightly beleaguered tone of Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.

14 Roughly he thinks that identity is the genus to the species of exchange. E.g. ND 34.

15 Lukacs 1990: 134 & 149.

16 Adorno’s notion of truth is emphatic and Platonic, in so far as he takes, if not truth to be an aspect of the good, then untruth to be an aspect of the bad. Moreover Adorno’s conception of truth is Hegelian insofar as he takes untruth to be embodied historically and culturally in bad actuality.

17 Literally translated this means: ‘There is no correct living in the False’ where ‘the False’ is a deliberate inversion of ‘the True’ in Hegel’s famous dictum from the Preface to the Phänomenologie des Geistes, ‘Das Wahre is das Ganze.’ Hegel 1986: 24..

18 Throughout his writings Adorno never blushes at using terms like ‘absolute evil’ DA 171, HTS 62, ‘radically evil’ ND 374 & 23 MCP 114-5 and ‘the bad’ [das Schlechte] ND 128. He thinks that social fabric of the post-war world, specifically of America, of Western Europe and of the whole Eastern Bloc including the Soviet Union, is essentially corrupt or diseased [Unheil] DA 5, ND 128.

19 ‘The materialist longing to conceive the thing, wants the opposite: the complete object is to be thought only in the absence of images. Such an absence converges with the theological ban on graven images. Materialism secularises it, by not permitting utopia to be pictured positively; that is the content of its negativity.’ ND 207

2022 Hauke Brunkhorst makes the mistake of not taking Adorno’s claim that the world is radically evil at face value. For example he interprets the dictum that there is no right way to live a false life to mean “only that there is no entirely true life in a false life”, in other words, that under present circumstances there is no entirely good way to live a life. That strikes me as much too tame. In the next paragraph Brunkhorst’s interpretation of Adorno shifts significantly. He attributes to Adorno the claim that “true life”, is not possible “in the case of a completely false life”, but that a human life that is at least not misspent is nonetheless imaginable. This is consistent with the stronger view I have outlined. Finally, two lines later, Brunkhorst attributes a third position to Adorno, namely the view that “the damaged life is not yet the completely false life.” This is now more like the weaker view outlined here. Brunkhorst 1999: 64.

21 MM 15 Michael Theunissen criticizes this trope of Adorno’s, which is captured in the following metaphor in Negative Dialectics: ‘consciousness could not despair over the gray, if it did not harbor the concept of a different colour whose scattered traces are not absent from the negative whole.’ ND 370 Theunissen 1983: 57

22 Ironically Adorno is guilty of exactly the same Hegelian mistake, for which Cook criticises Habermas. Not quite, because Cook thinks that Habermas is guilty of Hegel’s mistake of deeming that rational to be real. She is criticising the conservative or positivist view he supposedly holds. Theunissen is objecting to the implicit Hegelianism in Adorno’s method of reading the rational in an (albeit absent) real – a kind of negative theodicy. Cook 2000: 81.

23 See also HTS 102. ‘If philosophy can be defined at all, it is an effort to express things one cannot speak about, to help express the non-identical despite the fact that expressing it identifies it at the same time.’ For a more detailed discussion of Adorno’s concept of the ineffable (or the non-identical) see my discussion in Finlayson (2002).

24 Ideology, as socially necessary illusion, [Schein] is, in that necessity, always the disfigured image of the true.’ ÄT 345

25 See Finlayson (2002).

26 ‘The utopia of knowledge would be to open up the non-conceptual with concepts, without making it identical to them.’ ND 21 The basic thought here is similar to some Neo-Platonic picture of absolute knowledge. See T. Baldwin : 1980 for an interesting parallel with F.H. Bradley. Adorno’s thought is slightly more paradoxical than the view that conceptual judgments are to be superceded in virtue of some supraconceptual access to absolute reality, since that relation has, for Adorno, itself to be wrested from within conceptual thought.

27 Cook 2000: 78.

28 One of the harshest, albeit still implicit, criticisms Habermas makes, is to group Adorno together with Heidegger and Derrida (and Wittgenstein and Jaspers) as one of the thinkers who took, as a final way of avoiding metaphysical thinking, ‘a turn to the irrational’. PMT 37

29 Cook 2000: 85.

30 Reich 1997: 19. Mike Rosen makes this question central to his very helpful study of ideology and false consciousness in Rosen: 1996. As can be seen from these last remarks, I find his main objection to the pejorative concept of ideology convincing.

31 Habermas (1987) 303-374)

32 This, I take it, is the crucial positive implication of Habermas’s Modernity Thesis. It is because Habermas sees the advent of modernity as an opportunity for achieving social stability and legitimacy, whilst widening the scope for individual autonomy, that since his 1980 Adorno Prize lecture - Modernity - an Unfinished Project - he has resisted the trend of some postmodernist writers to say good-bye and good-riddance to the project of modernity and its opportunities.

33 Habermas (1998a) 226ff.

34 Cook 2000: 77.

35 Habermas has a long and complex story about who ‘we’ are. Suffice it to say that we are communicative agents, citizens of post-conventional forms of life - here specifically modern Western liberal democratic societies.

36 I owe this example to an extended discussion with Louise Haagh.

37 Marx (1984) 89.

38 Cook 2000: 81.

39 Cook 2000: 81.

40 Cook 2000: 81. Again, further on, Cook complains that ‘Habermas uncritically and affirmatively predicates rationality of the real.’ Cook 2000: 85.

41 As a matter of fact this criticism is based on a misunderstanding of the Doppelsatz found in the 1820 version of Hegel’s Lectures on the Elements of the Philosophy of Right: ‘What is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational’. The meaning of this notorious sentence is to complicated to go into here. Suffice it to say that it does not mean either that everything is just fine as it is, or that the present political order is rational. That said, Cook is in good company. Old and Young Hegelians alike, from Feuerbach’s teacher, Paulus, through to Marx, all the way to anti-Hegelians such as Kierkegaard and more recently Popper, have all mistakenly understood this sentence to contain Hegel’s conservative and affirmative endorsement of the status quo. Interestingly Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse are equally guilty of the same misinterpretation. See Hegel 1991: 389.

42 Marcuse 1991: xlii.

43 These words, which if I remember rightly are from Benjamin’s essay on Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften, appear at the end of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. Marcuse 1991: 257.

44 Thanks to Tom Baldwin and Louise Haagh for some illuminating discussion on several points.


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