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Contents:
  1. Theodor W. Adorno
  2. Adorno // Reviews // Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews // University of Notre Dame
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Such 'positivistic' forms of social science attempted to address and account for human and social phenomena in terms analogous to the natural scientist's study of material nature. Thus, legitimate knowledge of social reality was considered to be attainable through the application of objective forms of data gathering, yielding, ultimately, quantifiable data.

A strict adherence to such a positivist methodology entailed the exclusion or rejection of any phenomena not amenable to such procedures. Ironically, a strict concern for acquiring purely objective knowledge of human social action ran the very real risk of excluding from view certain aspects or features of the object under study.

Horkheimer criticized positivism on two grounds. First, that it falsely represented human social action. Second, that the representation of social reality produced by positivism was politically conservative , helping to support the status quo, rather than challenging it. The first criticism consisted of the argument that positivism systematically failed to appreciate the extent to which the so-called social facts it yielded did not exist 'out there', so to speak, but were themselves mediated by socially and historically mediated human consciousness.


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Positivism ignored the role of the 'observer' in the constitution of social reality and thereby failed to consider the historical and social conditions affecting the representation of social facts. Positivism falsely represented the object of study by reifying social reality as existing objectively and independently of those whose action and labor actually produced those conditions. Horkheimer argued, in contrast, that critical theory possessed a reflexive element lacking in the positivistic traditional theory. Critical theory attempted to penetrate the veil of reification so as to accurately determine the extent to which the social reality represented by traditional theory was partial and, in important respects, false.

False precisely because of traditional theory's failure to discern the inherently social and historical character of social reality.

Theodor W. Adorno

Both are not simply natural; they are shaped by human activity, and yet the individual perceives himself as receptive and passive in the act of perception. Horkheimer argues that traditional theory is politically conservative in two respects.

First, traditional theory falsely 'naturalizes' contingent social reality, thereby obscuring the extent to which social reality emanates not from nature, but from the relationship between human action and nature. This has the effect of circumscribing a general awareness of the possibility of change. Individuals come to see themselves as generally confronted by an immutable and intransigent social world, to which they must adapt and conform if they wish to survive.

Second, and following on from this, conceiving of reality in these terms serves to unduly pacify individuals. Individuals come to conceive of themselves as relatively passive recipients of the social reality, falsely imbued with naturalistic characteristics, that confronts them. We come to conceive of the potential exercise of our individual and collective will as decisively limited by existing conditions, as we find them, so to speak.

The status quo is falsely perceived as a reflection of some natural, inevitable order. Adorno was a leading member of the Frankfurt School. His writings are widely considered as having made a highly significant contribution to the development of critical theory. Adorno unequivocally shared the moral commitment of critical theory. He also remained deeply suspicious of positivistic social science and directed a large part of his intellectual interests to a critical analysis of the philosophical basis of this approach.

He shared the Frankfurt School's general stance in respect of orthodox Marxism and economic determinism, in particular. Adorno persistently criticized any and all philosophical perspectives which posited the existence of some ahistorical and immutable basis to social reality. He thus shared Horkheimer's criticisms of any and all attempts at 'naturalizing' social reality. However, Adorno ultimately proceeded to explicate an account of the entwinement of reason and domination that was to have a profound effect upon the future development of critical theory.

In stark contrast to the philosophical convention which counter-posed reason and domination, whereby the latter is to be confronted with and dissolved by the application of reason so as to achieve enlightenment, Adorno was to argue that reason itself had become entangled with domination.

Reason had become a tool and device for domination and suffering.


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  7. This led Adorno to reassess the prospects for overcoming domination and suffering. Put simply, Adorno was far more sanguine in respect of the prospects for realizing critical theory's aims than other members of the Frankfurt School. Adorno was perhaps the most despairing of the Frankfurt School intellectuals. The Frankfurt School provided Adorno with an intellectual 'home' in which to work. The development of Adorno's thought was to have a profound effect upon the future development of critical theory.

    Adorno's philosophy itself owed much to the works of Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. The greater part of Adorno's thought, his account of reason, his understanding of the role of consciousness in the constitution of reality, and his vision of domination and human suffering are all imbued with the thought of these earlier philosophers. Adorno's philosophy consists, in large part, of a dialogue with these philosophers and their particular, and very different, visions of the formation and deformation of social reality.

    I shall briefly consider each in turn. Hegel's philosophy is notoriously abstruse and difficult to fully understand. There are aspects of Hegel's thought which Adorno consistently criticized and rejected. However, what Adorno did take from Hegel, amongst other things, was a recognition that philosophy was located within particular socio-historical conditions. The objects of philosophical study and, indeed, the very exercise of philosophy itself, were social and historical phenomena. The object of philosophy was not the discovery of timeless, immutable truths, but rather to provide interpretations of a socially constituted reality.

    Hegel was also to insist that understanding human behavior was only possible through engaging with the distinct socio-historical conditions, of which human beings were themselves a part. In stark contrast to Immanuel Kant's conception of the self-constituting character of human consciousness, Hegel argued that human consciousness was mediated by the socio-historical conditions of specific individuals.

    Adorno // Reviews // Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews // University of Notre Dame

    Further, Hegel argued that the development of each individual's self-consciousness could only proceed through relations with other individuals: attaining a consciousness of oneself entailed the existence of others. No one single human being was capable of achieving self-consciousness and exercising reason by herself.

    Finally, Hegel also argued that the constitution of social reality proceeded through subjects' relationship with the 'objective', material realm. In stark contrast to positivism, an Hegelian inspired understanding of social reality accorded a necessary and thoroughly active role to the subject. Hegel draws our attention to our own role in producing the objective reality with which positivists confront us. Adorno was in basic agreement with all of the above aspects of Hegel's philosophy. A recognition of philosophy as a socio-historical phenomenon and an acceptance of the socio-historical conditions of human consciousness remained central to Adorno's thought.

    However, Adorno differed from Hegel most unequivocally on one particularly fundamental point. Hegel notoriously posited the existence of some ultimately constitutive ground of human reality, in the metaphysical form 'Geist', or 'Spirit'.

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    Hegel ultimately viewed reality as a manifestation of some a priori form of consciousness, analogous to a god. In conceiving of material reality as emanating from consciousness, Hegel was expounding a form of philosophical Idealism. Adorno would never accept this aspect of Hegel's thought. Adorno consistently argued that any such recourse to some a priori, ultimately ahistorical basis to reality was itself best seen as conditioned by material forces and conditions.

    For Adorno, the abstractness of such philosophical arguments actually revealed the unduly abstract character of specific social conditions. Adorno could thereby criticize Hegel for not according enough importance to the constitutive character of distinct social and historical conditions. Such criticisms reveal the influence of Karl Marx's thought upon the development of Adorno's thought.

    Marx has famously been described as standing Hegel on his head. Where Hegel ultimately viewed consciousness as determining the form and content of material conditions, Marx argued that material conditions ultimately determined, or fundamentally conditioned, human consciousness. For Marx, the ultimate grounds of social reality and the forms of human consciousness required for the maintenance of this reality were economic conditions.

    Marx argued that, within capitalist societies, human suffering and domination originated in the economic relations characteristic of capitalism. Put simply, Marx argued that those who produced economic wealth, the proletariat, were alienated from the fruits of their labor as a result of having to sell their labor to those who controlled the forces of production: those who owned the factories and the like, the bourgeoisie.

    The disproportionate wealth and power of the bourgeoisie resulted from the extraction of an economic surplus from the product of the proletariat's labor, in the form of profit. Those who owned the most, thus did the least to attain that wealth, whereas those who had the least, did the most. Capitalism was thus considered to be fundamentally based upon structural inequality and entailed one class of people treating another class as mere instruments of their own will. Under capitalism, Marx argued, human beings could never achieve their full, creative potential as a result of being bound to fundamentally alienating, dehumanizing forms of economic production.

    Capitalism ultimately reduces everyone, bourgeoisie and proletariat alike, to mere appendages of the machine. Adorno shared Marx's view of capitalism as a fundamentally dehumanizing system. Adorno's commitment to Marxism caused him, for example, to retain a lifelong suspicion of those accounts of liberalism founded upon abstract notions of formal equality and the prioritization of economic and property rights. Adorno's account of domination was thus deeply indebted to Marx's account of domination.

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    In addition, in numerous articles and larger works, Adorno was to lay great stress on Marx's specific understanding of capitalism and the predominance of exchange value as the key determinant of worth in capitalist societies. As will be shown later, the concept of exchange value was central to Adorno's analysis of culture and entertainment in capitalist societies.

    Marx's account of capitalism enabled critical theory and Adorno to go beyond a mere assertion of the social grounds of reality and the constitutive role of the subject in the production of that reality. Adorno was not simply arguing that all human phenomena were socially determined. Rather, he was arguing that an awareness of the extent of domination required both an appreciation of the social basis of human life coupled with the ability to qualitatively distinguish between various social formations in respect of the degree of human suffering prerequisite for their maintenance.

    To a significant degree, Marx's account of capitalism provided Adorno with the means for achieving this. However, as I argued above, Adorno shared the Frankfurt School's suspicions of the more economically determinist aspects of Marx's thought. Beyond even this, Adorno's account of reason and domination ultimately drew upon philosophical sources that were distinctly non-Marxian in character.

    go here Foremost amongst these were the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Of all the critical theorists, the writings of Nietzsche have exerted the most influence upon Adorno in two principal respects. First, Adorno basically shared the importance which Nietzsche attributed to the autonomous individual. However, Nietzsche's account of the autonomous individual differs in several highly important respects from that typically associated with the rationalist tradition, within which the concept of the autonomous individual occupied a central place.

    In contrast to those philosophers, such as Kant, who tended to characterize autonomy in terms of the individual gaining a systematic control over her desires and acting in accordance with formal, potentially universalizable rules and procedures, Nietzsche placed far greater importance upon spontaneous, creative human action as constituting the pinnacle of human possibility.

    Nietzsche considered the 'rule-bound' account of autonomy to be little more than a form of self-imposed heteronomy. For Nietzsche, reason exercised in this fashion amounted to a form of self-domination.