Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, Max Pensky (Eds.): A Companion to Adorno

A Companion to Adorno Couverture du livre A Companion to Adorno
Blackwell Companions to Philosophy
Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, Max Pensky (Eds.)
Hardback $190.00

Reviewed by: Conrad Mattli (University of Basel)

The WileyBlackwell Companions to Philosophy series is an encyclopedic project committed to delivering “a comprehensive and authoritative survey of philosophy as a whole” (ii). The 71st addition to the series is, however, an attempt at the impossible. It is determined to summarize a philosophy which rose up precisely against all ‘summary approaches’ to philosophy. “Essentially”, Adorno wrote in Negative Dialectics, “philosophy is not expoundable [referierbar]. If it were, it would be superfluous; the fact that most of it can be expounded speaks against it” (Adorno 2006, 33–34).[1] Luckily for us all, however, the editors of this volume—perfectly aware that “the very idea of a comprehensive summary would have aroused Adorno’s ire” (xv)—chose to disobey the master’s interdiction. And they are right in doing so. The desire to ‘expound’ Adorno’s philosophy is, after all, justifiable on Adornian grounds. For one, because the ability to ‘formalize’ complex matters without unduly reducing their complexity should count among a dialectician’s cardinal virtues. But even more so, because 55 years and counting after Negative Dialectics was published, philosophical academia still seems blissfully unaffected by the profound irritation of negative dialectics. The mere existence of volumes like A Companion to Adorno could help address such unaffectedness, together with the general eschewal of dialectical thought that seems to have become a matter of course, as a self-incurred immaturity.

It is thus all the more welcome that Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, and Max Pensky did not shy away from the difficult task of expounding Adorno’s dialectical body of knowledge by compiling A Companion to Adorno. The volume is a grand endeavor at overcoming common inhibiting factors for ‘scholasticizing’ Adorno. The volume puts Adorno’s original insights in touch with state-of-the-art research. It aspires to cover nearly every aspect of Adorno’s multifaceted legacy and consists of an impressive 39 contributions by contributors from all over the world; thus, it mirrors the international recognition Adorno’s thought continues to receive, by both admirers and critics, since his death in 1969. Since the 2003 centennial, a gradual resurgence of Adornian thought—out from under the communicative paradigm established in the wake of the Habermasian line of critique—can be witnessed. Wiley-Blackwell now plays its part in this slow but steady rise of Adorno scholarship. Flanked by OUP’s forthcoming Oxford Handbook to Adorno, as well as precedent publications from the past[2], not to mention a general, unbroken interest in Adorno across the globe, A Companion to Adorno gives further rise to the hopes of Adorno scholarship that the ‘dialectical path’ will, at long last, engender broader discourse.

The book begins with the “Editors’ Introduction”, and is then divided into seven major subsections, each section covering a significant dimension of Adorno’s intellectual legacy. In addition to short notes on the contributing authors, it is furnished with a handy index at the end. In the following, I will provide brief sketches of each section, while taking up cues from selected contributions. Due to reasons of limited space, I am skipping over some chapters. This skipping-over does by no means imply a claim to their inferiority. I will conclude my discussion by addressing apparent difficulties for Adorno scholarship in general, and by considering the possible impact of the Companion on the field, today and tomorrow.

Intellectual Foundations

Part I of the volume is dedicated to Adorno’s “Intellectual Foundations”. Building on Peter E. Gordon’s lucid biographical sketch, the first part of the Companion already introduces a wide array of themes that are central to Adornian thought. However, Part I is not really a viable introduction for the beginner (aside from Gordon’s bio-essay, maybe), since the individual contributions already involve some previous knowledge of the core issues of Adorno’s philosophy. This, however, does not diminish their worth for the Companion. Tracing the foundations for all later developments of Adorno’s thinking, these chapters provide the contextual framework for the rest of the book. Gordon’s first of two chapters (not including his co-authorship in the editors’ introduction) “Adorno: A biographical sketch” traces the intellectual development of Adorno in his earliest influences (Kracauer, Cornelius, Benjamin, Horkheimer), to the years as an emigré, from rather fruitless interactions with English philosophers in Oxford to the re-establishing of the Institute in America during the War, up to the definite return to Germany which covers the prime years of his activities as a renowned philosopher in post–War Germany. Gordon’s sketch is of remarkable historical far-sightedness, but gets by without losing sight of informative details. Gordon eventually touches on the delicate subject of the APO student protest movement during the Kiesinger era, and sets the events of 1967–69 in correlation to Adorno’s personal downfall, leading to his untimely death in 1969. After reading Gordon’s sketch, one is left with the wish that some of these intellectual foundations received more attention in the book. I am primarily thinking of Adorno’s relationship to his teacher Hans Cornelius—that is, the intellectual upbringing in neo-Kantianism which is still a widely neglected aspect of Adorno’s allegedly purely Hegelian philosophy—as well as the young Adorno’s intense preoccupation with Husserlian phenomenology. Speaking of the constitutive role of neo-Kantianism for Adorno’s development, Roger Foster approaches Adorno’s vision of “philosophy as a form of interpretation” (22), developed early in his Frankfurt inaugural lecture in 1931, by way of placing it within both the broader neo-Kantian context and its subversions, respectively. Adorno’s early vision of philosophy is set in determinate contrast both to the alleged narrowing of the bourgeois concept of rationality in the Weimar Republic, as well as to the vitalist irrationalism that was on the rise at the time (eventually coinciding with the fascist uprising). Foster provides an interesting outlook on the development of Adorno between these extremes, displaying his thought as an attempt at rescuing the ‘actuality’ of philosophy on its way to a “critical social theory of instrumental reason” (33). That Walter Benjamin did of course play a decisive role in the intellectual formation of Adorno is vividly displayed in Alexander Stern’s contribution. Stern’s representation of the intellectual relationship between Adorno and Benjamin is a swift attempt at summing up their complicated intellectual history. This is a most welcome contribution, since it is still widely disputed where the differences and parallels between the two exactly lie, who inspired who—or stole from whom. Stern chooses to focus on their differing, but in certain respects coextensive, takes on language, and comes to the clear-cut but perhaps surprising conclusion that “Adorno’s project is ultimately irreconcilable with the one sketched in Benjamin’s Arcades Project” (62). This is a welcome clarification, for it delivers the young Adorno from the prejudice of having merely acted out Benjamin’s plans. Marcia Morgan’s contribution revolves around Adorno’s interpretation of Kierkegaard’s existentialism. Morgan thereby takes up problems recently discussed by Peter E. Gordon in his monograph on Adorno and Existence, with a firm foot in Kierkegaard scholarship (Morgan has authored the monograph Kierkegaard and Critical Theory, 2012). She successfully shows how Adorno’s early preoccupation with Kierkegaard in his (understudied) Habilitationsschrift plays a decisive role for Adorno’s intellectual formation. Finally, Part I is completed by Sherry D. Lee’s outlook on Adorno’s musical education. Theory and compositional practice generally go hand in hand for the young Adorno, who quickly found himself under the influence of the Second Viennese School and its towering figures Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Lee’s contribution covers an indispensable aspect of Adornian thought by providing a genealogical reconstruction of Adorno’s “path toward a complex philosophy of the New Music and its socio-historical position” (67). Adorno’s partial break with the Second Viennese School in “developing a sociological approach to the elucidation of modern music” (81) is to be seen in relation to his life-long fascination with the dialectic between musical form and musical material, leading him to embrace compositional practices that reflect his outlook on philosophy, and vice versa. Lee’s outlook is interesting, leaving the impression that Adorno’s philosophy of New Music is not really the apology of high-brow Avant-Garde culture it came to represent for many. Instead, Adorno’s life-long efforts for securing the possibility of New Music are scrutinized with great scholarly rigor and, more importantly, rendered more plausible than their reputation suggests.

Cultural Analysis

Part II immediately builds on these foundations and examines Adorno’s contributions to cultural analysis. There seems to be a ‘methodological’ problem pervading these contributions that I would like to address first. It consists in the fact that common objections raised against Adorno and Horkheimer’s conception of a ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ still treat it as a descriptive theory of ‘the way things were’. When read as a grand narrative, the thesis of a dialectic of enlightenment indeed presents substantial shortcomings. What Adorno and Horkheimer are actually doing, however, is not describing how things were, but precisely reflecting on the very drive to say ‘how things actually were’ in light of an analytic of a catastrophic present. Why else would they use a myth (The Odyssey) to display mankind’s emancipatory transition from the mythical totality to the confines of instrumental reason? Correspondingly, defending the theory of a dialectic of enlightenment must mean, in each case, specifying the modality of ‘critical theory’ as such. This implies showing how critical theorizing never merely consists of recognizing that which is, but in recognizing the rational possibilities obstructed by that which is. In short: the dialectic of enlightenment is not a scientific account of history and society, but the result of the critical self-reflection of ‘science’ regarding its role in history and society. Hence, a critical theory of history and society—in the sense of first-generation critical theory—can never be ‘plain’ historiography, nor exclusively ‘empirical’ sociology, but always entails a philosophy of history, reflecting on the very role of enlightenment in contexts of domination.

Walking through Part II, we can discern several instances where this methodological dilemma becomes pressing with regards to adequately interpreting Adornian cultural analysis: Fred Rush takes up the critical concept of a Kulturindustrie (culture industry) from the section of the same title in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and sets the stage for measuring its systematic role for Adorno’s philosophy in general. Rush’s fairly dense yet rewarding overview hits the nail on the head with the observation that Horkheimer and Adorno—despite their seeming advocacy for ‘high’ culture—are not supporting a decadence theory of allegedly ‘low’ mass culture (95). The values of ‘high’ and ‘low’ themselves become somewhat inadequate measurements, once they are recognized as interrelated moments in reflecting on the disrupted ‘unity’ of culture. Correspondingly, the culture of commodification requires of the dialectician to recognize the “truly horrible” dimension of “mass deception”, namely “that it is a product of structures that seem benign and ordinary” (95). Therefore, Adorno is not out to equip the elitist mind with a schematism of high and low culture. He is rather interested in learning about the very nature of such schematizations themselves—and, with it, the causes for the diremption of culture both sides partake in. Adorno thus uses the antagonistic pair of ‘high’ and ‘low’ primarily as a critical (i.e. not ‘merely’ descriptive) function, in order to dialectically overcome their complementary shortcomings. The merits of this critical function are now also exactly what appears to most as questionable with regards to Adorno’s disdain for jazz music. Andrew Bowie, who is not only a renowned philosopher, but a proficient jazz saxophonist himself, discusses the controversial subject in his lucid essay “Adorno and Jazz”. Adorno’s interpretation of jazz—overtly lacking complexity, often being “very wide of the mark” (135), mostly seeing jazz “through the prism of white European music” (126)—has unsurprisingly not benefited Adorno’s status as a philosopher of music. Bowie considers Adorno’s criticism of jazz, with its obvious shortcomings, within the broader scheme of Adorno’s philosophy. Considered as ‘its own time comprehended in thought’, Adorno’s failure to see jazz for what it is corresponds to “his era’s failure in relation to the understanding of the history of black oppression” (135), according to Bowie. The true Hegelian, it seems, is not exempt from also partaking in the blunders of his time. Charles Clavey’s chapter seeks explanations for similar contradictions in Adorno’s methods of empirical social research. Here, things are somewhat looking up again for Adornian cultural analysis; namely that it can namely be said to provide a standard for scientific reflection on empirical methods. The empirical methods Adorno developed and applied as an émigré in the US are, after all, not only the ones suited to an ‘inhumane world’, but, as Clavey convincingly shows, also the ones working towards the aim of Adorno’s philosophy “to use the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity” (Adorno 2006, xx; referred to on 166). Clavey ends with an interesting note on the proximity of Adorno’s theory of anti-Semitism to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew. It is such proximity which only serves, however, to show the difference between Adorno and the existentialists; namely that Adorno strictly refrained from integrating ‘empirical findings’ into his philosophical framework—apart from treating them as another ground for critique, of course. Fabian Freyenhagen wants to re-examine and re-evaluate (cf. 103) another major impulse from the Dialectic of Enlightenment: Horkheimer and Adorno’s (and Löwenthal’s) ‘theory’ of anti-Semitism. Freyenhagen tries to show how common objections raised against Horkheimer and Adorno (basically that their theory is lacking complexity) can be met. Of course, the rhetoric of Dialectic of Enlightenment can be considered ‘hyperbolic’, oftentimes deliberately lacking complexity, all in all promoting a totalizing critique, perhaps at the cost of providing fine-grained descriptions of the “multifaceted nature of anti-Semitism” (120). The crucial point is, however, to understand the specific level of complexity necessary to display the thesis that “civilization and its hatred are dialectically intertwined” (108) in anti-Semitism, thereby ‘crystallizing’ the dialectic of enlightenment. Freyenhagen’s detailed account of Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory of the multi-faceted nature of Anti-Semitism being united in hatred of civilization opens up ways to mitigate their polemic distortions, by virtue of a more complex account (primarily to be traced in the Institute’s typological research on anti-Semitism), without sacrificing overall coherence. Shannon Mariotti addresses the needs of contemporary political theory by bringing Adorno into the picture. Mariotti’s refreshing take on Adorno’s political thought gets by without the usual indignation surrounding Adorno’s alleged apoliticality. Mariotti convincingly shows that a broader picture of Adorno’s cultural analysis could even allow us to re-read Adorno “not just as a political theorist, but as a democratic theorist” (139, cf. also 150). Part II all in all opens up surprisingly new perspectives on Adorno’s critical analyses of culture, both with regards to their logical place in the Adornian framework and to their broader applicability today. Rush’s contribution stands out, inducing a wish for the concept of ‘Kulturindustrie’ to become adjusted to the needs of culture criticism today. Adorno could, after all, still provide the adequate means to face the methodological dilemmas that any ‘cultural analysis’ is confronted with in an incessantly ‘dialectical’ modernity.

History and Domination

Dedicating an entire section to the topic of “History and Domination” seems like a peculiar choice at first. Upon reading its chapters, however, it becomes clear why this actually makes a lot of sense. Part III turns out to harbor some of the volume’s most interesting contributions. Two chapters really stand out. Martin Jay for one, whose description in the list of contributors has unfortunately gone missing (luckily, he a known figure in the field, long before the recently published, brilliant collection of essays Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations), examines the fascinating parallel between Adorno and Blumenberg with regards to “Nonconceptuality and the Bilderverbot”. Jay discusses Adorno’s and Blumenberg’s differing, and yet in many ways overlapping subversion efforts against the tyranny of analyticity and ahistorical definitions. They both “appreciated the performative contradiction entailed by conceptualizing the nonconceptual” (178). But while Adorno’s use of the concept of nonconceptuality amounts to the employment of a radically defamiliarizing strategy by way of “an apophatic term in negative theology, which can only indirectly gesture toward what it cannot positively express” (177), Blumenberg, as Jay shows, differs from Adorno by affirming the familiarizing function of myth and metaphor. Jay’s contribution is a perfect example for a fruitful approach to Adorno by means of confronting his key thoughts with those of others. The real gemstone in Jay’s essay is the discussion of the Bilderverbot. It is not only that which makes the difference between Adorno and Blumenberg; the Bilderverbot is moreover immensely important for understanding Adorno’s dialectic in general. Martin Jay is one of very few scholars who acknowledge Adorno’s Kantian critique of the Hegelian concept of the concept. (We’ll get to that later). This critique places trust in the concept’s ability to critically (not affirmatively) transcend itself, thereby—negatively—making room for nonconceptuality beyond absolute identity. It is thus that negative theology coincides with Adorno’s ‘imageless’ materialism. The other rather remarkable chapter is Iain Macdonald’s on Adorno’s “Philosophy of History”. It is important to see that Adorno’s philosophy as whole, if there is indeed a discrete theoretical body to be demarcated as such, relies heavily on the philosophy of history. Macdonald guides the reader in a few well-chosen steps (Kant-Hegel-Marx) to the Adornian core insight. Macdonald thereby manages to let aspects of systematicity and historicity converge into one comprehensive complex, that could well serve as an introductory framework to Adorno’s philosophy. The only point to criticize in Macdonald’s account is that he makes it look as if Kant’s philosophy of history, that is, the ‘constitutive’ role antagonism plays for progress, is a kind of naturalistic anthropological Heracliteanism. This neither does justice to Kant, nor to Adorno’s interpretation of Kant, considering that Kant’s concept of a ‘cosmopolitan purpose’ (‘weltbürgerliche Absicht’)[3] is precisely not a ‘dogmatic’ presupposition; it is moreover unfounded, considering that Adorno’s philosophy of history delivers a ‘Kantian’ criticism of the Hegelian concept of Weltgeist. Adorno seeks to retain the cosmopolitan purpose—perpetual peace—by way of seeking to overcome natural antagonism. This entails precisely rendering antagonism merely ‘natural’, instead of rendering it absolutely necessary. Adorno’s critical method is to remind Hegelian spirit of what is lost in the unity of the absolute idea—the violent contingency of its origins. Such potential shortcomings regarding the relation between Kant and Hegel, which are controversial in themselves, however do not diminish the importance of the problems addressed by Iain Macdonald; the upshot of the discussion being, that Adorno’s philosophy of history stands between Kant’s teleological idealism of freedom on the one hand, and the Marxist subversion of Hegelian spirit on the other. All in all, Part III rewards the reader by elucidating a most fascinating aspect of Adorno’s legacy, his philosophy of history and utopia—that is, the well-founded, ‘metaphysical’ disappointment regarding the repeatedly failed windows of opportunity to leave our seemingly never-ending ‘prehistory’ behind.

Social Theory and Empirical Enquiry

The chapters in section IV are covering Adorno’s sociological project, the legacy of The Authoritarian Personality, his relation to Marx, and his “deep encounter with Freud’s work” (333), respectively—aspects which, especially the latter, permeated Adorno’s social theory from the very beginning of his ‘career’, until and including his intellectual activities in postwar Germany. The latter is examined in Jakob Norberg’s chapter. Although all chapters are worth considering, I would like to make a few remarks regarding Eli Zaretsky’s discussion of Adorno’s relation to Freud here. In fact, one could say that the early introduction of a sociologically disenchanted Freudianism into Adorno’s discussion of the transcendental doctrine of the soul marks the first time that the ‘social realm’ (as a transcendental substrate of our individual thought) openly interferes with the privacy of bourgeois subjectivity in Adorno (cf. Adorno 2020a, 320–322). The New School historian Zaretsky examines Adorno’s never fully ceasing, but eventually compromised Freudianism. The overall tone of Zaretsky’s essay is refreshing in the context of Adorno scholarship. It refrains from blindly accepting established lines of argument. The upshot of Zaretsky’s chapter, linking mass psychology and critical theory together, being that Adorno’s “three contributions” to social theory matter beyond their original scope, meaning today. The three contributions revolve around a sharpening of the speculative tools for mass and group psychology, especially in light of reiterating uprisings of fascism, eventually pushing towards the socio-historicization of ‘individualistic’ psychoanalysis. According to Zaretsky’s pointed analysis, “[a]s the fervor of the 1960s gave way to the constrains of the 1970s, the Dionysian crowds turned into Thermidorean scolds.” And he goes on to notice:

That trajectory holds lessons for the present. Building a progressive movement today entails turning the repressive egalitarianism of the crowd into a self‐reflective movement for structural change. The movements of the 1960s absorbed and generalized many Frankfurt School ideas including the critique of the Enlightenment as a source of domination; the idea that the forces of domination precede, even if they also include, capitalism; and the rejection of spurious totalities or universals in favor of alterity, otherness, and difference. Yet they rejected the Freudian heritage, including mass psychology, which is one reason we have not yet been able to truly move beyond the 1960s. (333)

This observation is striking. It alone should lead critical theorists to reconsider the (dialectical) insights of mass psychology—including the ones that not even critical theorists are safe from.


It is an often-overlooked aspect of Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ (cf. Adorno 2006, xx) that the form in which he sought to publicize it more or less blends into the tripartite structure of Kant’s critical project. This becomes fully evident only towards the end of Adorno’s life, however. While his magnum opus Negative Dialectics could be said to be dedicated to ‘pure’ theoretical philosophy (in so far as ‘mediating’ metaphysics with the ‘impurity’ of historical experience by way of a ‘logic of decay’ still stands within that context), he appears to have made plans for a full book on the problems of moral philosophy (not to be mistaken with the homonymous lecture series); but most importantly, the book he was working on before he died was Aesthetic Theory. While the Adornian ‘critical project’ has thus sadly never been consummated, the ‘fragment’ called Aesthetic Theory nonetheless embarked on a steep career as a modern classic in the field. The idea of an ‘aesthetic theory’ is particularly worthwhile to study closely, because it connects and renders his accounts on aesthetic matters both relevant to the overall framework of his philosophy, and to his compositional practice. Both sides coalesce in Adorno’s reflections on the artwork. The concept of the artwork is the centerpiece of Adorno’s aesthetic, equally because of its function as an enigma, and as a product of ‘social labor’. But what is aesthetic theory exactly? The answer is far less simple than it seems—a difficulty mirrored by Eva Geulen’s contribution “Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory”. As Geulen notices, the proclivity to ‘fashion one’s own Adorno’ has often stood greatly in the way of seeing Aesthetic Theory for what it is. As a result, “much scholarship on Adornos Aesthetic Theory tends to be even more unreadable than the book itself, especially and precisely when critics try to live up to the high demands of their subject matter” (399)—a harrowing observation. Her attempt to do better justice to this situation is convincing at first: she places Adorno’s aesthetic theory ‘between Kant and Hegel’ (400). Thereby, Geulen is able to bring up problems that were all too often neglected in the discussion of Adorno’s aesthetic theory, first and foremost, the Kantian import of natural beauty. A possible shortcoming of Geulen’s reading is that she stops at a dualistic interpretation of Kant and Hegel as formalist-subjectivist vs. content-oriented-objectivist aesthetics. It is a seemingly imperishable prejudice that Kant founded aesthetics on the pole of the subject and, consequently, did not bother too much about objects and artworks. The third Critique tells a thoroughly different story. There simply is no subjective realm of judgment (be it aesthetic or teleological), apart from our reflecting on the subject’s relation to concrete objects; just as—yes, already in Kant—there is nothing under the sun that isn’t ‘mediated’ through judgment. Similarly, in Adorno’s reflections on art (and in his philosophy in general) subject and object are highly equivocal concepts (cf. Adorno 2020, 741). Adorno’s ‘dialecticizing’ of Kant and Hegel thus suggests an alternative to Geulen’s dualistic interpretation: Adorno reads Kant’s formalism precisely as object-oriented, while exposing Hegel’s idealist objectivism as absolute subjectivism, thereby limiting it. Adorno needs Kant to criticize Hegel, Hegel to criticize Kant—there is no synthesis between the two. Only in light of such a critical inversion of the usual dualist reading between “formalistic Kant and object-oriented Hegel” (400) can Aesthetic Theory come into its own, as a dialectical theory of artistic form and content—as Geulen then adequately shows—a theory determined to secure the possibility of the artwork in modernity. Another chapter that stands out is Henry Pickford’s “Adorno and Literary Criticism”. After a concise characterization of Adorno’s aesthetic theory, and lucid discussions of Adorno’s interpretations of Heine and Hölderlin, Pickford comes to the interesting conclusion, that “for Adorno ‘literary criticism’ means not only the criticism of literature in the objective sense, but also in the subjective sense of the genitive: literature, the experience of literature, can be a privileged activity of critique and resistance to the way of the world under late capitalism” (378). Pickford’s account is a great example of arranging a fruitful interplay between interpreting Adorno’s references to art and literature with regards to their content, while keeping in mind the determinant ethos of Adorno’s critical social theory. Eventually, Adorno’s literary criticism is displayed both as a ‘realist’ alternative to Lukács, and an ‘ethical’ alternative to the neo-Aristotelian ‘ethical criticism’ of Martha Nussbaum and others. Pickford thereby successfully sets Adorno’s literary criticism ‘into stark relief’ to these strands.

Negative Dialectics

Part VI is arguably the centerpiece of the book. Revolving around Adorno’s contribution to philosophy as such, the chapters minutely weigh key aspects of it against one another. Terry Pinkard sets the stage by looking at Adorno’s philosophy in light of its obvious relation to Hegel. Pinkard takes up the difficult task of determining the specific difference between Adornian negative dialectics with and against Hegel’s ‘affirmative’ dialectic. As Pinkard rightly notes, this double-headed outlook on Hegel is conferrable to the form of Adorno’s philosophy itself: “So it seems, for Adorno, we must be systematic and anti‐systematic, holist and anti‐holist, at the same time” (459). Accordingly, determining the nature of the dialectic in Adorno amounts to coming to grips with “a massive struggle or even potential contradiction at its heart” (459). It is interesting that Pinkard brings up the ‘anti-system’ in this context. The telos of Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ never was to dismiss systematicity altogether, but rather, quite like Hegel promises, to fully actualize the potential of systematic thinking. Like Hegelian logic, Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ relies on the self-transcending powers of the system itself: “It attempts by means of logical consistency to substitute for the unity principle, and for the paramountcy of the supraordinated concept, the idea of what would be outside the sway of such unity” (Adorno 2006, xx). For most Hegelian readers of Adorno, statements like these are evidence enough to consider negative dialectics a mere variation on Hegel’s absolute idealism. First, because for Hegelians, most of what Adorno says may be “what Hegel meant by the dialectic all along” (467)—the logicity of the absolute system is a synthetic unity of spirit and its externalizations to begin with. Secondly, because right in the moment Adorno subscribes to a dialectical notion of ‘logical consistency’, the anti-system retains the power of Hegelian thinking. Robert Pippin, for example, seems to promote such a reading, when saying: “If Adorno is leaning towards metaphysics, then we must think of his claim about the right ‘logical’ relation between identity and nonidentity as true – that is, as identical with, as saying, what is in fact the case. And we are then in Hegel’s space” (Pippin 2017). Such readings seem to provide the background to Pinkard’s gripping discussion. Pinkard namely seems to have noticed that they are misleading when it comes to grasping the true nature of negative dialectics. The central question of Pinkard’s chapter is what sets Adorno’s negative dialectic apart from ‘Hegel’s space’. Because without accounting for “[t]he negative in negative dialectics” (466) as the difference to Hegel, Adorno’s philosophical outlook collapses into absolute idealism. Pinkard, therefore, looks for ways to do justice to Adorno’s emancipation from Hegel. As Pinkard shows, Adorno, in a sense, follows Hegel in aspiring to the systematic unity of thought and being, but breaks with him by reviewing the role of negativity in the ‘unity’ of thought and being. Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ is the self-undermining consequence of the Hegelianism of the Phenomenology of Spirit. But in Adorno’s ‘anti-system’, diachronic history disturbs logic’s synchronicity. History does not merely enrich the system with the ‘outside’ that the logic had to neglect first for its abstract purity. That history is the medium in which spirit actualizes itself is more than a giant euphemism for Hegel; it is the very locus of dialectical truth. But for Adorno, even if returning to that locus for the truth of his dialectic, spirit will remain a giant euphemism, nevertheless—therefore, the absoluteness of spirit is wrong, until it undergoes a dialectical critique of reason. It is surprising, but perhaps very telling that Pinkard mobilizes an allegedly Heideggerian argument for radical finitude in order to deduce the negative in negative dialectics. (466) Even if we set aside that Pinkard is building his argument on what seems like a Wittgensteinian strawman-Heidegger, this is a wrong turn and missing the point. If Adorno was in any sense “crucially indebted to Heidegger” (466), it is rather because of the fact that his dialectic partly took shape as a critique of ontology. And I am not sure how far Pinkard’s paralleling Adorno to Schelling carries in this respect, either. (cf. 463f.) Pinkard is therefore right in looking to Kant for Adorno’s specific difference to Hegel. Adorno’s “siding with Kant” (464) remains a much-neglected aspect of Adorno’s philosophy. Adorno’s deep connection to Kant becomes somewhat obvious when considering a central systematic feature of Adorno’s Hegelianism: Adorno’s anti-system ‘thinks’ the negative but harbors no category of ‘negativity’.[4] If indeed the anti-system is thereby invoking an ‘experience’ of radical otherness against Hegel, it does so not by affirmatively picking ‘one side’ in the absolute conceptual unity of concept and otherness—namely otherness, like Pippin and others seem to think it does. Instead, the anti-system could be said to ‘be’ the difference of this absolute conceptual unity and radical otherness. This difference is precisely what makes theory critical, that is, of itself. Who else could reason criticize but itself? More than a brainy contradiction, the “massive struggle” (459) of Adornian thinking serves to rescue the nonidentical from the affirmative embrace of identity thinking. “Hegelians are not completely unconvinced” (467), Pinkard loosely concludes. But as long as their partial affirmation of Adorno entails denying negative dialectics its specific difference, they surely will never be convinced either. Espen Hammer’s contribution picks up another thread that permeates Adorno’s work – “Adorno’s Critique of Heidegger”. Adorno’s relation to Heidegger stands under the bad sign of a ‘refusal of communication’ (Kommunikationsverweigerung) first called out by the Heidegger scholar Hermann Mörchen. A synopsis of their communicative catastrophe goes something like this: Adorno developed key aspects of his dialectic in the form of a harrowing critique of Heideggerian existential ontology and its jargon, while Heidegger famously reacted by not reacting at all. Apparently perpetuating Heidegger’s silent treatment, it is a disturbing fact that the nature and scope of Adorno’s critique of Heidegger is still not being fathomed accordingly with regards to its content. After the controversy surrounding the publication of the Black Notebooks, working through Heidegger’s anti-Semitism must be of general interest. Its ramifications might extend well into Heidegger’s philosophy and the history of being (‘Seinsgeschichte’). Despite acknowledging that “Adorno pioneered the now widespread approach to Heidegger’s writings as politically motivated and ideologically compromised” (473), Hammer eventually fails to see Adorno’s polemic for what it is. Instead, he expresses doubts regarding the soundness of Adorno’s arguments, primarily concerning the ontological difference between being and beings. Hammer dismisses Adorno’s reading of Heidegger as “simply not correct”, claiming it does “not withstand scrutiny” (476). In Hammer’s eyes,

the fact that Adorno displays no real awareness of Heidegger’s actual ambition is striking. Adorno does not hold Heidegger to his own standards. He simply misunderstands the nature of his project. Given Adorno’s unquestionable abilities as a philosopher, this is both surprising and puzzling. It could be that Adorno does not reveal the true nature of his interpretation. (477)

This interpretation is in itself rather puzzling. Is it even conceivable that Adorno was simply not ‘aware’ of Heidegger’s true ambitions? And what does it even mean that Adorno could not have revealed ‘the true nature of his interpretation’? What if the opposite is the case? In line even with Hermann Mörchen (!) (1981, 292), it should be stressed that it is very hard to imagine that Adorno would have exposed himself to the public with blunt misreadings, even harder to think he would not get corrected by his colleagues—some of whom knew Heidegger’s philosophy considerably well—and moreover to sustain an overtly false argument throughout his whole intellectual career, and, on top of it, in his major outputs. Furthermore, attributing alleged misreadings to Adorno’s “competitive instinct”, or “hostility and aversion” (477) is an ad hominem argument that, even if it were true, made no difference to the success or failure of Adorno’s vindication of dialectics against the pretenses of existential ontology. The really pressing question is being avoided by Hammer, namely why Adorno consciously chose to raise these provocative accusations against Heidegger—that Heidegger is reverting back into subjectivism and idealism—despite the obvious fact that Heidegger understood his thought precisely as overcoming idealism. This would entail further scrutinizing of the nature of Adorno’s dialectical critique, perhaps even touching on a Socratic element in Adornian dialectics. In any case, showing that Adorno was ‘wrong’, in the sense attributed to him by Hammer, just doesn’t do justice to the rhetorical dimension of dialectical content. We should not forget, however, that, in line with a remark in Negative Dialectics, “contrary to popular opinion, the rhetorical element is on the side of content” (56), and not the other way around. Be that as it may, these shortcomings in Hammer’s otherwise highly informed account of the Adorno-Heidegger debate can only contribute to re-vitalizing the discussion. Jay Bernstein, too, addresses “deeply puzzling” (488) traits of Adorno’s dialectic and traces them in Adorno’s fruitful reception of Kant. Bernstein, who is known for having made seminal contributions to the field in the past, successfully lays new ground for discussions on the topic, showing that key aspects of Adornian thought (the concept of the concept; the critique of transcendental subjectivity; the alleged non-conceptuality of the nonidentical etc., in short: the relation between “Concept and Object”, as the chapter’s title indicates) can be traced in Adorno’s continuing preoccupation with Kant. Bernstein thereby makes a far-reaching observation:

Although Negative Dialectics is premised on a conversation with Hegel over dialectics, both its critical object, constitutive subjectivity, and its metaphysical promise, aesthetic semblance, derive fundamentally from a dialog with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Getting this in plain view is the first task for a reading of Adorno’s philosophy (499).

Perhaps an equally far-reaching claim to this might be added: specifically, that the conversation with Hegel over dialectics should itself be seen within a Kantian framework, and not merely the other way around—the conversation with Kant within a Hegelian framework. Adorno took it “as a general guide for the understanding of the problem of dialectic that dialectic must, in an eminent sense, be regarded as Kantian philosophy which has come to self-consciousness and self-understanding” (Adorno 2017, 14). Following Adorno down that road entails reading Hegel himself as a Kantian (cf. Hindrichs 2020, 47), which of course exceeds the Companion’s purview. Nevertheless, seeing Adorno’s Hegelianism in a Kantian horizon could possibly affect the discussion of Adorno’s neglected ‘Kantianism’ in relation to modern idealists such as Robert Pippin, Robert Brandom, John McDowell, and those in their wake.[5] Adorno’s primacy of the object—disenchanting the myth of the myth of the given and promoting again the idea of otherness—can only be defended on Kantian and not on Hegelian grounds. Here, I cannot help but express puzzlement over one of Bernstein’s concluding remarks. Can Adorno really be said to have “always defended the now widely dismissed two-worlds version of Kant’s idealism” (499)? Isn’t Adorno’s own (widely ignored) contribution to the field that he reads Kant ‘dialectically’, whereby worlds and aspects necessarily coalesce in one sense, in order to then be set apart ‘negatively’ and thereby retain the idea of otherness? Apart from the discussion-worthy conclusion, Bernstein’s essay is easily one of the highlights of this volume, and everyone in the field is advised to read it. Kantian self-criticism of reason is, however, only one side of the coin. In keeping with Pinkard’s observation, the other side of Adorno’s ‘anti-system’ is that it must equally promote the seeming opposite of Kantian self-limitation. In accordance with Hegel’s program of a phenomenology of spirit, it both “demands that phenomena be allowed to speak as such—in a ‘pure looking-on’—and yet that their relation to consciousness as the subject, reflection, be at every moment maintained” (Adorno 2005, 74). Brian O’Connor and Peter E. Gordon accordingly examine the active contribution of Adorno to philosophy, that is, his account of the nature of philosophical truth. According to O’Connor, “Adorno offers us two notions of philosophical truth: the singular one and the critical one” (528). And of course, the two are interconnected, the singular truth being the ‘non-reportable’ correlate of a singular rhetorical engagement of a philosopher. These different notions of truth articulate a dialectic between the universal and the particular that is essential for the overall outlook of a ‘changed philosophy’. O’Connor thus provides a convincing ‘solution’ both to the problem mentioned in the beginning, that philosophy is ‘inexpoundable’ in essence, as well as to the double-headed nature of the anti-system that Pinkard hints at. ‘Metaphysical experience’ consequently is, according to Peter Gordon, “caught in an apparent self-contradiction” (549). It’s that same contradiction again, whose elucidation amounted to understanding Adornian thought for what it really is—genuinely philosophical dialectic. Gordon’s second independent contribution to the volume provides reflections on the place of Adorno’s philosophy in tradition. Departing from the relation to Classical Metaphysics (Ch. 2), Gordon delivers an intricate discussion of Adorno’s concept of metaphysical experience. Adorno’s philosophy can be said to draw from the insight that philosophy in general “rests on the texts it criticizes”—an insight, which, according to Adorno, “justifies the move from philosophy to exegesis, which exalts neither the interpretation nor the symbol into an absolute but seeks the truth where thinking secularizes the irretrievable archetype of sacred texts” (Adorno 2006, 55). How this coalition between philosophy and theology, between the most radical materialism and the ontological argument, comes about, can be read in Asaf Angermann’s chapter. Albeit mostly focusing on Anglophone discussions of the topic, the chapter nonetheless manages to show how a “Heretical Redemption of Metaphysics” is to be conceived—the upshot being that the union of theology and philosophy in Adorno is not a unio mystica but a unio in haeresia (between Adorno and Gershom Scholem), by virtue of which the dialectic of enlightenment stays in touch with its utmost extremes.


The framework by which Adorno’s Ethics is introduced and discussed is its specific historical situation. The historical outlook of Adornian ethics is essentially articulated through “the new categorical imperative” imposed on humanity by Hitler: “to arrange their thinking and conduct, so that Auschwitz never repeats itself, so that nothing similar ever happens again” (Adorno 2006, 365). According to Christian Skirke,

Adorno’s reflections on life after Auschwitz strike a chord with these urgent concerns of our times. The least his reflections can do for us is to train us to see the dehumanizing logic of those practices. His reflections can forewarn those who are on the safe side of these practices that not to resist this logic amounts to passing over in silence the worst transgressions against others. (580)

Skirke then draws the memorable conclusion that “It is not unlikely that Adorno’s diagnosis would be exactly the same today”. The concluding chapters of the volume all revolve around Adorno’s negatively normative imperative. A shared problem of these chapters seems to be if we should, and if yes, how to extract positive normative purports from Adorno’s negativism. The section on ethics is thus an interesting end note that provides a rich discussion of Adorno’s negativism—a discussion likely to develop further in the near future.

Interpretive Uncertainty: The Fate of Adorno Scholarship?

Upon reviewing these sections covering Adorno’s lifework in its entirety, one thing especially stands out: Contrary to the apparent wording in the passage quoted at the outset, Adorno is a ‘systematic’ thinker in his own right. As a consequence, the apparent contradiction between affirming and criticizing systematic thinking engenders what I would call an interpretive uncertainty that every Adorno scholar has to come to grips with, at some point. The uncertainty arises from the double-headed nature of the dialectic between critique and theory. Needless to say, this interpretive uncertainty has not exactly matched ‘scholasticizing’ tendencies in academia. Beyond a growing circle of Adorno scholars, Adorno’s dialectic is still mostly met with shoulder shrugs, superficial criticism, or allergic reactions. Its negativistic character, the result of these aporetic ‘placements’, seems to present an unspeakable irritation to academia. And it still appears to be the prime inhibiting factor for a successful scholastic cultivation of negative dialectics.

In spite of such inhibiting factors, A Companion to Adorno manages to brave the challenge of ordering a heterogeneous field of scholarly activities into one integral approach, albeit mostly (and thankfully) by means of fleshing out problems, rather than by throwing clear-cut solutions at the reader. As a bottom-line from this integral approach of the Companion, the following methodological problems for Adorno scholarship can be identified:

1) There is, without a doubt, such a thing as ‘Adorno’s thought’—it can be called ‘critical theory’ or ‘negative dialectics’ (for Adorno, these two titles essentially mean the same thing).

2) Critical theory qua negative dialectics cannot be expounded or summarized. The best of it is lost when taking the form of a positive system of fixed concepts and ideas.

3) Key tenets of Adorno’s philosophy can, therefore, only be ‘traced’ and expounded indirectly, that is, when taking into consideration Adorno’s critical interactions with society, capitalism, art, artists, writers, and importantly with other philosophers. Examples of the latter include refined criticisms of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, most importantly Kant and Hegel, but also Schelling and Fichte, Marx, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Freud, Nietzsche, Lukács, and Walter Benjamin, of course. (The most notable ‘interlocution’ with a contemporary being the one with Heidegger, who in turn remained as silent as the dead.)

4) Since Adorno’s dialectical path is—in contrast with Hegel’s—terminally negative, the universal functionality of dialectical thought must saturate itself with ‘material’ themata (hence its proclivity towards Cultural Analysis, History, Sociology, Aesthetics, etc.) in order to fulfill the promise of philosophical truth. This need for ‘materiality’ is, however, not merely an epistemic virtue of Adornian dialectics and surely not an end in itself, like Hegelian readings of Adorno tend to suggest. To the contrary, being a mere “ontology of the wrong state of things” (Adorno 2006, 11) dialectics both expresses and stands in the way of philosophical truth, in other words, in the way of actualizing the “cognitive utopia” (Adorno 2006, 10). Until utopia becomes actual (never?) the isomorphy between the dialectic of the philosophical system and the all-too ‘real’ antagonisms must be interpreted as the ultimate ground for a critique of absolute reason, i.e. precisely not as an index that the rational always already is, or is about to become, real. The dialectic of form and matter is a vice, a profound irritation to logical thought, and an index to the finitude of universal forms—ultimately an articulation of the all-too real experiences of catastrophes during the age of extremes. In short, dialectics is the absolute limit of philosophy, drawn from within, with no possibility for transgression but through relentless self-criticism. To deem dialectics a virtue of the philosopher is to be blind to the fact of mediation continually jeopardizing the absolute status of philosophical truth.

5) Therefore, the fundamental question for ‘Adorno scholarship’ is how to examine Adorno’s philosophy as a self-standing theoretical body of knowledge while, at the same time (!) taking into account that, qua critique, Adorno’s philosophy can only ever be thematized indirectly, by taking into account its critical, and oftentimes polemic, interactions with tradition.

It is this interplay between theoretical autonomy and dialogical ‘indirectness’ which is constitutive of Adorno’s dialectics, and which, coming full circle, promotes interpretive uncertainty. All in all, the uncertainty revolves around the one fundamental difficulty of how to account for the systematicity of Adorno’s anti-system. Much like Plato’s, Adorno’s dialectical body of work inevitably gives rise to the wearisome question of an ‘unwritten doctrine’, while equally making it impossible to pinpoint it as a static system. ‘Adorno scholarship’ is an aporia. Its only ‘way out’ is to show that it articulates the very aporia of philosophy itself.


Aspiring to a comprehensive survey of a philosophy, there is always a fine line between unduly reducing its complexity and doing it justice in recognizing its overall coherence. Correspondingly, Blackwell’s comprehensive summary of Adorno seeks to avoid undue simplifications and reductive schematizations and maintain a high level of differentiation at all times. This greatly inspires further scholarly investigation and the concentrated reader is rewarded with a challenging yet fascinating read. On the downside, however, its high level of differentiation makes the Companion not any easier to ‘expound’ than the philosophy it is supposed to help comprehend in the first place. One is sometimes tempted to ask, if a more ‘systematic’ approach to Adorno really amounted to a cardinal sin.

A Companion to Adorno will hopefully be received as a call to reactivate the critical dialogue between Adorno and academic philosophy—past, present, and future. But will it convince the majority of philosophers who still find negative dialectics either too brainy and complex, a mere variation on the grand Hegelian theme, or—even worse—no dialectic proper? It probably won’t. Stuart Walton, in a recent review of this very Companion, commented on the book’s material richness by mobilizing Brecht “who scarcely took the first generation of Frankfurt thinkers seriously” and his remark “that nobody who lacked a sense of humour would stand a chance of understanding dialectics” (Walton 2020, 175).[6] Meanwhile, the challenge of ‘taking in the entirety of Adorno’s thought’ may have become a rather serious one, however. For it resonates a little too perfectly with ‘academic’ philosophy today, by which I mean with the challenge to remain relevant and in touch with its time, on the one hand, and not to defect to the powers that are trying to instrumentalize it, on the other. In light of such challenges, philosophy may be well advised to take dialectics more ‘seriously’, if only to account for the dilemma it finds itself in. This, however, entailed taking Adorno’s philosophical wit seriously, at long last.

To conclude, although the volume cannot (and does not) aspire to become a surrogate for the richness of Adorno’s anti-system itself, it succeeds in showing us where and how to look for its treasures. Luckily, however, these contributions mostly refrain from cherry-picking, sorting out what’s still ‘useful’ and what’s not, and from patronizingly assigning Adorno his place on the basis of the dubious privilege of being born later. The Companion’s integral approach thus helps Adorno’s dialectic come into its own, as a mode of thinking aimed at securing the sheer possibility of philosophical truth. “There is solidarity between such thinking and metaphysics at the time of its fall” (Adorno 2006, 408) reads the last sentence of Negative Dialectics. Congruously, A Companion to Adorno is an impressive testimonial for Adorno’s unrelenting solidarity with philosophy, aesthetics, and critical social theory in a catastrophic time. Thereby, the lines of what Brian O’Connor calls “a changed philosophy” (cf. 520–522) have become more visible than ever before. This philosophy should be both determinately critical and ‘modern’ (in the emphatic sense of lat. modo = just now), all the while keeping in mind its aporetic starting point from after “the moment to realize it was missed” (Adorno 2006, 3). The Companion can moreover help students first become familiar with Adorno’s philosophy, by promoting awareness of the unique fashion Adorno had addressed philosophical problems with. And quite possibly, it will thus even help engender broader discourse in the long run. If the book is not received as a compilation of last words on these matters, of course.


Adorno, Theodor W., and Edmund F. N. Jephcott. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. London: Verso.

Adorno, Theodor W. (1966) 2006. Negative Dialectics. Transferred to digital printing. London: Routledge.

Adorno, Theodor W. 32020a. Philosophische Frühschriften. Gesammelte Schriften Band 1. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Adorno, Theodor W. 82020b. Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft II: Eingriffe–Stichworte. Gesammelte Schriften Band 10.2. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Gordon, Peter Eli, Espen Hammer, and Max Pensky (eds.). 2020. A Companion to Adorno. First edition. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell.

Jay, Martin. 2020. Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations. London: Verso Books.

Hindrichs, Gunnar. 2020. Der Weltbegriff der Philosophie. In: Merkur. Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches Denken. Nr. 854. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Kant, Immanuel, Paul Guyer, and Allen W. Wood. (1781=A/1787=B) 182016. Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Meillassoux, Quentin. 2008. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Ray Brassier. New York: Continuum.

Mörchen, Hermann. 1981. Adorno und Heidegger. Untersuchung einer philosophischen Kommunikationsverweigerung. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Morgan, Marcia. 2012. Kierkegaard and Critical Theory. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Pippin, Robert. 2017. Review of Peter E. Gordon. Adorno and Existence. In: Critical Inquiry. [] Accessed 15 Feb. 2021.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1948. Anti-Semite and Jew. Translated by George J. Becker. New York: Schocken Books.

Walton, Stuart. 2020. Review of ‘A Companion to Adorno.’. In: Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, vol. 43, no. 3, 2020, p. 175–178. (Online: Gale Literature Resource Center. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.)

[1] Brian O’Connor translates ‘referierbar’ as ‘reportable’ (526), which seems a more elegant solution.

[2] To be mentioned are (in no specific order): Huhn, Tom (ed.). 2004. The Cambridge Companion to Adorno. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Cook, Deborah (ed.). Theodor Adorno: Key Concepts. Stocksfield: Acumen, 2008; Klein, Richard (ed.). 2011. Adorno-Handbuch: Leben–Werk–Wirkung. Stuttgart: Metzler; Honneth, Axel, and Christoph Menke (eds.). 2010. Theodor W. Adorno: Negative Dialektik. Berlin: Akademie Verlag; Hindrichs, Gunnar (ed.). 2013. Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno: Dialektik der Aufklärung. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

[3] Tellingly, and in accordance with the dialectic of teleological judgment in the third Critique, ‘Absicht’ is sometimes translated as ‘purpose’ or ‘aim’, sometimes as ‘point of view’ or ‘perspective’.

[4] “[…] for the category is a mere function of thinking, through which no object is given to me, but rather only that through which what may be given in intuition is thought” Kant 2016, 349 [A 253/B 308].

[5] Whoever subscribes to Adorno’s neglected ‘Kantianism’ might, on another note, also have a word to say regarding the widespread allergy of modern ‘realists’ to so called ‘correlationism’ (see Meillassoux 2008, 5). The upshot of an Adornian rejoinder would be that the negativistic nature of the dialectic manages to break with ‘strong correlationists’ such as Heidegger without claiming to have gained epistemic access to the thing-in-itself (and thereby falling behind Kant and Hegel) but by vindicating the only absolute correlation: the one between dialectics and the critique of reason. It may not be impossible, after all, that there are things we—being ‘finite’ beings—cannot know.

[6] The upshot of Walton’s (2020, 175) analogy being: “By much the same token, nobody who lacks a gigantic range of cultural and philosophical reference, and one that is ever vigilant for the first trace of oxidation into ideology in any of its component parts, will find themselves equipped to take on the entirety of Adorno’s thought.”

Martin Jay: Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations

Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations Couverture du livre Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations
Martin Jay
Paperback £13.99

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Martin Jay is a distinguished cultural historian, a pioneer of the study of the Critical Theory of the « Frankfurt School » with his book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1973), and a scholar who wrote on different aspects of Critical Theory, on the concept of totality, and on the problematization of vision in modern French thought. Splinters in Your Eye, his most recent book, is made out of eleven essays, most if not all already published in some form.  They explore aspects of the work of the Frankfurt School’s main theorists, paying attention to the inner tensions and the wirkungsgeschichte of the theses formulated by Horkheimer and his band of merry theorists.

In an essay published in a previous book, Jay defended the honor of the kind of intellectual history that he displays in the book. Two aspects of his defense are relevant in this context. Jay calls himself a « synoptic intellectual historian, » namely, one that believes that « it seemed a sufficiently challenging task merely to reconstruct the demandingly difficult arguments of the Frankfurt School and relate them to some issues about the life histories of its members. » Synoptic cultural history came in recent years under attack because it abridges and reduces a complicated, heterogeneous mass to an abstract, homogenous form. (Jay, Two Cheers for Paraphrase, 52). This synopsis excludes normatively and hierarchically everything outside of a homogenized and consistent paraphrastic account. The observation that this kind of account may be a disservice for some texts is particularly acute when the subject matter is itself suspicious of premature totalization, as it is the case in Adorno’s thought.  To face this challenge, Jay assures us that « by turning it on Adorno’s intellectual production and isolating what I saw as the five main forces in his own field or starts in his constellation—Western Marxism, aesthetic modernism, mandarin cultural despair, Jewish theology and … proto-deconstructionism—I attempted … a methodological or formal paraphrase of his work in order to illuminate its substantive tension (op. cit., 61-2).  So, paraphrase and synoptic approach can be gentle enough to respect the nature of its subject-matter without incurring in mimetic repetition.  In the introduction to Splinters in Your Eye, Jay returns to this problem, using Adorno’s aphorism « the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass » (Adorno, Minima Moralia, 50). The splinter or the mote in question is an imaginative interpretation of the verse « why beholdest thou of the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? ». This injunction is usually interpreted as a caution not to be judgmental. The « mote » is here converted, through the vicissitudes of translation, into a splinter. And the eye’s irritation, into a glimpse of truth (Jay, Splinters, xi).  It is through suffering, vicarious, or our own, that knowledge of society is possible, Adorno claims. In the same section, Adorno also refers positively to exaggeration. Jay will use this idea for the title of an essay on the Frankfurt School’s position regarding psychoanalysis.   Jay also refers to the provocative sentence that closes the section: « The whole is the false » (Minima Moralia, 50).  But if the whole is the false, what about critical theory? Adorno’s claim questions any attempt to bring the ideas of the different personalities involved in the Frankfurt School into a harmonic whole. Jay expounds further on the nature of the painful eye that it will avoid the illusion of a « panoptic vision. » This concept that Foucault borrowed from Jeremy Bentham’s speculations on a system of inescapable omniscient social control is the clearest counter-ideal to Critical Theory.  It is in recognition of the appropriateness of the fragmentary that Jay writes: « the exercises that follow are left in their unintegrated form, with no pretense to be a coherent narrative » (xvi).

What is a reviewer to do? To compound the fragmentations (from the subject-matter, the fragmentation of the intellectual historical account)? Or to try to suggest a synthesis that was already twice refused? Sometimes problems are best perceived by turning them around. In this case, by turning our gaze to a different approach, one which as hostile to Critical Theory as Jay’s is caring.

The last essay, « Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment, » places us on a different plane. In this chapter, Jay deals with a fringe movement whose members have made of the Frankfurt School, a scapegoat for the illnesses and rottenness of contemporary society. With a twist. Because what they perceive as negative is what many will call the positive signs of reparation of long due injustices: the fight against racism, against discrimination on the base of gender and sexual orientation, the inequality of opportunities for minorities of all kinds (see a complete list in p. 157).  This is more than ironic. As Jay comments in another essay, the Frankfurt School has been ofttimes criticized for its ineffectualness, for its failure to become practically engaged with mass social movements, for the lofty tone of its pronouncements, etc. These critics make the opposite claim.

Against the claim that castigates the Frankfurt School for its presumed role in the development of a counterculture which rejected and supposedly replaced the traditional American culture of the 40s and 50s, first in academia, then in the media and cultural industries,  and finally in society as a whole, the historian can proceed in two ways. The first will be to show that, maybe except Marcuse, the influence of the Frankfurt School in American academia and popular culture was, to say the least, limited.  The different « critical studies » and what is called in the humanities and social sciences « theory » borrows much more from French post-structuralist thinkers, and indirectly from Husserl, Heidegger, and Nietzsche than from Adorno and Horkheimer (Cusset, 2003).

Instead of following this road, Jay takes advantage of the opportunity to turn his regard into this distorted account in the hope that « something [be] revealed about the legacy of the Critical Theory—and, more importantly, about the current society that can turn it into a simplistic meme— » (161), a meme that under certain circumstances can turn deadly.  Jay refers here to the manifest written by the Norwegian neofascist Anders Behring Breivik before engaging in a terrorist attack that left 77 dead. Breivik, among other arguments to justify his acts, ranted against the influence of Cultural Marxism, referring even to Jay’s Dialectics of Enlightenment as proof for his claims.  Jay goes further to write that the situation calls for the kind of dialectical account that Adorno and Horkheimer devoted to the Enlightenment itself (166). If Jay does not offer us such an account, he lists references to different claims that distort and twist the legacy of the Frankfurt School. But he recognizes that to develop a critical theory of counter-enlightenment is beyond the scope of a single essay (167). Jay mentions a few attempts to apply the methodology devised by the Frankfurt School for their study of Authoritarian Personality (1950) to the current situation in the USA (168-9) but seems to have doubts on the merits of that methodology. Quoting a remark from Harvard’s historian Peter E. Gordon, he wonders about the appropriateness to assign individuals to personality types, as this mimics the reification of contemporary society (169). Maybe what this shows is that the Frankfurt School has many historians, but few disciples willing to follow in their path.  Only Habermas stands out as a continuation of sorts of the heritage of the Institute.

Was this fate foreshadowed in the early beginnings of the School?  Jay explores this question in the first two essays in the book. « Ungrounded » deals with the foundation of the Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research (ISR), which through the particular circumstances of its origins and independence from party or government, gives rise to the accusation of being suspended in an abyss (Abgrund). Jay refers here to Georg Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist literature scholar and philosopher whose 1922 History and Class Consciousness influenced the group of young scholars that ultimately created the ISR, that gave origin to the Frankfurt School.  Lukács, as an orthodox Marxist, rejected the idea of a critical stance that is not anchored in a political party, which is itself the conscious will and vanguard of the working class. Instead of a privileged vantage point, Horkheimer and his comrades preferred a sort of « immanent critique, » which Jay describes quoting from one of Adorno’s translators: « immanent criticism turns the principle of identity…into the power for the presentation of the way in which  an object resists its subjective determination and finds itself lacking » (4).  Jay raises two potential objections to this approach. The first recasts Adorno’s objection that immanent critique cannot be fully grounded on itself as « the totality is never fully self-contained. » The second objection has to do with what Marcuse called « one-dimensionality » and Adorno « totally administered » society.  In such a society, apparent dissatisfaction becomes functionalized in the service of the status quo. Despite such doubts on the actual possibility of a critical regard into the society that is not immediately instrumentalized, the members of the School continued to elaborate their positions. What are, Jay wonders, the motivations for such an undertaking? Maybe, he wonders, that motivation reflects the particular circumstances of the establishment of the ISR?

Jay embarks in the already well-known stories of Felix Weil’s role as founder and financial benefactor of the Institute, and Horkheimer’s appointment as Director of the Institute. Toward the end of the essay, Jay turns to explore the possible debts of Critical Theory to the philosophy of Schelling (11). In particular, to Schelling’s early thinking. Horkheimer wrote on Schelling and Idealism in the 1920s, and also Adorno has a substantive debt to his thought (15). Jay observes that « Schelling’s critique of rationalist metaphysics was attractive to thinkers trying to extricate themselves from…[a] philosophy in which all contingency was absorbed into a relational system » (13).  Others have observed that Schelling’s philosophy seems to anticipate the Dialectic of Enlightenment (15).  And Adorno in Negative Dialectics quotes approvingly Schelling as an antidote to a rationalistic consciousness philosophy.  These considerations led Jay to affirm that the uncertainty of « Abgrund » (groundlessness) may be less damaging to critical theory and to emancipatory practice than one may initially suspect.

In « The hope that earthly horror does not possess the last word, » Jay reminisces on his early contacts with the leading members of the ISR during the research that led to his writing Dialectical Imagination.  Three points can be highlighted in this essay.  First, the degree to which the members of the Frankfurt School wanted to shape Jay’s narrative. Second, the different perspectives of the individual members. Finally, Jay’s interpretation of the feelings of the founders of the ISR about their Jewish origins, and about the influence of their background in the outlook and the public perception of the Institute.  One of many, the anecdote regarding the title of Jay’s book, is telling. Jay suggested the title « Permanent Exiles » (28-9).  Horkheimer and Weil criticized the title as not only unprecise but also dangerous because it lends justification to their many foes from the right.

The next chapter, « Max Horkheimer and the Family of Man, » explores the balancing act of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s return to Germany. Horkheimer understood their public role as « reeducator of Germans, especially Youth, in the democratic values he had learned in exile » (35).  This understanding, and the realities of the Cold War, led to de-emphasize the earlier, more radical approach to contemporary society.  Jay exemplifies this with a close reading of Horkheimer’s talk at the opening in 1958 of the photography exhibits « The Family of Man » in the US-funded Amerika-Haus in Frankfurt. Jay emphasizes Horkheimer’s references to Kant, Emerson, and Dewey and their firm belief that man should count as an end and never as a means (36).

Further, Horkheimer characterizes the exhibit as « representative of all the forces that are now counteracting the…regressive movements that have occurred in Europe in recent years » (36). Jay notes the distance between the endorsement of the humanistic agenda of the exhibits and Horkheimer’s previous pronouncements in his writings of the late ’40s.  Also, Jay finds puzzling Horkheimer’s valorization of the power of images to give unmediated access to abstract philosophical concepts. After his return to Germany, Horkheimer increasingly endorsed the Bilderverbot, the biblical prohibition of images, which constitutes a central component of the Jewish faith (also to be analyzed in an essay comparing Adorno’s and Blumenberg’s position).

« Family of Man » approached the family at two levels. On the one hand, it showed pictures of couples and happy families from different cultures. On the other, it implied that humanity should be seen as one big family.  Jay deals with both levels and compares the underlying presuppositions of the exhibit with Horkheimer’s and Frankfurt Schools’ analysis of the family.  Jay also confronts Horkheimer’s remarks with Roland Barthes’ criticism of the exhibit. Jay sees the differences in approach mainly as a reflection of a difference in context.  Barthes was reacting against the danger of abstract universalism, whereas Horkheimer was dealing cautiously with the heavy heritage of Nazism and the war (45).

The « marriage » between Freud and Marx is the subject of the fourth essay.  The relationship of the Frankfurt School to Freud and psychoanalysis was complicated and not limited to the realm of theory. Horkheimer helped create a psychoanalytic institute in the University of Frankfurt and even invited it to share space in the ISR’s newly built building on the university campus. Horkheimer also lobbied the city of Frankfurt to give Freud the Goethe Prize in 1930. Even a few members of the ISR, including Horkheimer, underwent analysis.

Jay states four overlapping motivations that presided this matrimony. First, the hope that psychoanalysis may answer why orthodox Marxism, despite the widespread discontent with the status quo, failed in the 1920s’ Germany to generate a revolutionary practice. Second, to explain the emergence of Fascism, a social movement that traditional Marxism did not foresee. Third, in the case of Marcuse in particular, Freudism was expected to be a way to envisage a different civilization, beyond the one-dimensional one.  Lastly, in the case of Adorno and of Horkheimer, to build a plausible materialism. But, except for Fromm, their interest in Freud stayed mostly limited to his philosophical anthropology, and the members of the ISR remained indifferent to psychoanalysis as a therapy (53).

Jay surveys the different receptions of Freud in the Institute, from Fromm’s attempts to a build a social psychology which could be empirically verified and a tool to explore socio-political events, Adorno’s integration of Freudian insights into his analysis of the « culture industry » via de concept of fetishism, and Marcuse’s most explicit use of Freud for utopian purposes in Eros and Civilization (1955) (60).  In his work, and in the magazine Dissent, Marcuse attacked Fromm’s humanistic version of Marxism and his dismissal of Freud’s Metapsychology and instincts theory. Jay quotes Marcuse’s re-interpretation of Oedipal longings as archetypical of freedom from want, and his rejection of its surplus repression in the name of the reality principle.  Jay’s assessment that Fromm « never recuperated » from Marcuse’s onslaught in Dissent seems a bit extreme. Not only Fromm had a successful and long carrier, not only Marcuse’s name only become widely known after the 1968 student’s revolt, but Marcuse contributed a chapter to Fromm’s 1965 edited collection Socialist Humanism, indicating some level of agreement between the two.

Jay’s use of the metaphor of marriage to describe the attempts to bring to a synthesis Freud’s theory with Marxism or parts thereof also allows us to think a less blissful relationship, at least in Adorno’s late work (63).  Adorno was skeptical of a full reconciliation between the social and the psychological, and between the cultural and the natural.  He writes in his characteristic fashion: « The separation of Sociology and Psychology is both correct and false…correct insofar as it registers more intransigently the split that has actually taken place in reality than does the premature unification at the level of theory » (Sociology and Psychology, quoted by Jay, 64). The rejection of the premature unification of the social and the individual is supposed to prefigure a potential emancipatory outcome. He concludes this essay referring to Horkheimer’s work in post-WWII Germany to reintroduce the teaching of psychoanalysis and to renew the association of the ISR.

The fifth essay tells an enthralling story about the young Leo Löwenthal and his participation in the « Jewish renewal movement » in the 1920s. Löwenthal was very close to Rabbi Nobel, the charismatic rabbi that played a central role in developing the Freie Jüdische Lehrhaus. Jay discusses Nobel’s contradictions and how these allowed Nobel to be a magnet for highly educated and conflicted youth living through the turmoil of the first years of the Weimar Republic. Nobel had a refined German education, was an orthodox rabbi, a friend of the leading Jewish intellectuals of his time, and a gifted speaker.  Additionally, he helped Löwenthal financially during a bout of conflict between Löwenthal and his family.  Jay examines Lowenthal’s « Jewish writings, » which consists of an essay published in Nobel’s Festschrift (« The Demonic: Draft of a Negative Philosophy of Religion ») and a series of short articles on leading Jewish thinkers of modern times (Mendelsohn, Maimon, Heine, Marx, Lassalle, Herman Cohen, and Freud).  But, as Jay notes, Lowenthal’s energies were soon directed elsewhere (74). While there may be several reasons for this change of heart, the fact remains that Löwenthal’s interest in Jewish subjects faded, although maybe not entirely, as he republished his early essay on Heine in a 1947 issue of the magazine Commentary.

The sixth essay sets up a dialogue between Adorno and Blumenberg around the notion of « non-conceptuality. »  There are similarities between Adorno’s position in Negative Dialectics and Blumenberg’s criticism of the privileged role of concepts in philosophy. According to Jay, Blumenberg seems to have acknowledged his debt to Adorno. So, for example, Blumenberg gave a seminar on Negative Dialectics a year after its publication. While no transcripts from the workshop survived, the fact itself is meaningful.  Blumenberg used the notion of « non-conceptuality » in his writings of 1970, in what Jay considers a salute to Adorno.  Jay speaks of an « overlap » between the intentions of both thinkers to present an alternative to philosophy’s traditional preference for conceptualization (84).  Adorno and Blumenberg were both critical of Heidegger in general and of Heidegger’s attempt to offer a solution to the tension between conceptualization and content in particular. The title of the essay refers to the biblical Bildersverbot (prohibition of images), a common trope for a residual Jewish sensibility. Both Adorno and Blumenberg were of Jewish descent. Adorno’s father was Jewish, and so was Blumenberg’s mother. In the context of the Frankfurt School, the « ban on images » metaphor was used in two primary contexts. One, a refusal to engage in utopian speculation about an emancipated future society. The second, an affirmation of the irrepresentability of the Holocaust, as in Adorno’s ban on poetry after the Holocaust (90). Non-withstanding those similarities between the two thinkers, Adorno’s position is very different from Blumenberg’s.  As Jay shows it nicely, for Adorno, the non-conceptuality was historically bound, and a claim to redemption to be fulfilled in a different society. He quotes Adorno on Identity:

« To define identity as the correspondence of the thing-in-itself to its concept is hubris; but the ideal of identity must not be simply discarded … hidden in [the supposition of identity] is also the truth moment of ideology, the pledge that there should be no contradiction, no antagonism » (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 149, quoted by Jay, 93).

Visual arts played no significant role in the work of the members of the Frankfurt School. Benjamin was the exception, and he was interested, among other things, in the « emancipation of color » in modern art. « Chromophilia: Der Blue Ritter, Walter Benjamin and the Emancipation of Color » brings together Jay’s interest in the history of visual arts in the early 20th century and his study of the Frankfurt School.

Using unpublished fragments from 1914-15, Jay presents Benjamin’s long-life interest in the color revolution. One opposes a child’s to an adult’s view of color. For the child, color is contour, but the adult sees objects only, abstracted from color fragment. Benjamin was, according to Jay, fascinated by the Blaue Ritter color experiments. In another fragment, Benjamin writes about the rainbow in contrast with graphic images, which with line and figure, separate the endless configuration of color.  Jay brings closer Benjamin’s reflection on color and his ideas about an Adamic language. WW I, which saw the death of two of the central figures of Der Blaue Reiter group, seem to have affected Benjamin’s hopes that the emancipation of color would foreshadow human freedom (111-12). In a following article devoted to Benjamin’s comments on stamps, Jay explores his own experiences in philately and its utopian dimensions.

The ninth essay expounds on the German American film theorist Miriam Hansen, the author of Cinema and Experience (2012). This one is the only essay in the book that deals with a thinker belonging to the younger generation of critical theorists.

As Jay puts it, Hansen’s problem is to develop a critical account of the film that goes beyond the blunt dismissal of the cultural industry characteristic of the first generation of critical theorists (including Krakauer). Hansen incorporated to her analysis the notion of a « counter-public sphere » in which technologically mediated distanced forms of interaction prevail. This notion elaborates on the ideas of Alexander Kluge and Oscar Negt (both associated with the Frankfurt School and with Habermas in particular) (125-6).  Hansen also rescues from the early Frankfurt theorist the idea of mimetic comportment and the ideal of the « renewal of experience » (126).  Hansen claims, according to Jay, for the existence of an alternative public sphere that can only realize itself through the destruction of the dominant, bourgeois public sphere. Jay is somewhat skeptical about the possibilities of such an alternative. Hansen showed an alternative public sphere realized through cinema only for a limited period, which corresponds to the early silent cinema.  Furthermore, Jay defends the rights of the public sphere in its Habermasian sense, as a place of rational discussion, even as an ideal for democracy (134). Paradoxically, the criticism of purposive rationality cannot make room for the straightforward enjoyment provided by imaginative identification.

Based on a paper presented at a Brandeis conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Marcuse’s One-dimensional Man, Jay explores the different ways in which this famous book can be said to be « ironic. »  First, there is the irony that this pessimist analysis of contemporary society, which forecloses all possibility of a challenge to the encroachments of instrumental rationality, is published at the very same moment when new avenues of resistance are opened.  That consideration leads to a review of the analysis of irony in Adorno, and eventually to the question in what sense the argument in One-dimensional Man is itself ironic.  In Minima Moralia, Adorno seems to deny that irony is still possible.  Irony for  Adorno « convicts its object by presenting it at what it purports to be » (quoted by Jay, 138). But, in our advanced industrial societies, « Irony’s medium, the difference between ideology and reality, has disappeared » (quoted by Jay, 139).  But, is this also Marcuse’s position? Jay probes different types of irony, with the object, ultimately, of examining if there is, in One-dimensional Man, a « more promising notion of irony » that avoids the flaws of the ones Jay already reviewed. Jay will look for an alternative in a notion of irony described by Christoph Menke, a member of the third generation of the School.  Discussing Oedipus Rex, Menke makes a difference between the « irony of the action » and the « the poets’ irony. » The first refers to the character Oedipus’ blind responsibility for his fate. The second, which we share as spectators, is our knowledge of the situation and our capability to foresee the outcome. Both irony positions are unified in Oedipus at the end of the play.

How are these insights important to evaluating Marcuse’s reflections on advanced capitalist society in a context which is quite different from the one we live today?  Taking stock of Marcuse’s work would require identifying what is living and what is dead. Marcuse himself, at the end of his book, offered a gloomy picture of, on the one hand, a critical theory unable to provide a bridge between the present and its future, and the other, the wretched of the earth, free of the encumbrance of theory but driven forward by their despair. Critical Theory need to remain solidary of those without hope, advises Marcuse, even though the system may be strong enough to defuse any confrontation: « The economic and technical capabilities of the established societies are sufficiently vast to allow for adjustments and concessions to the underdog. »  On his side, Jay concludes, « we can still find in…[Marcuse’s]  insistence on the superiority of a two-dimensional understanding of the human condition over its one-dimensional alternative something akin to … [a] committed pursuit of personal excellence … an ironic attitude that is neither cynical nor disengaged, … [that] resists accommodation to social pretense … It may not provide the reassurance of Socratic or dramatic irony at its most knowing, but in a world that will not grant us such knowledge, it keeps alive the negative power of two-dimensionality that Marcuse so eloquently defended. » (150)

Jay’s book carries the subtitle « Frankfurt School provocations, » asserting the longevity of the program of the early critical theory.  The attacks of the ultra-conservative factions add some credence to the luster of the ISR, and the blossoming of a third and fourth generation of thinkers who declare some degree of fidelity to the original vision of Weil, Horkheimer, Pollock, and others should at least provide a modicum of hope.




Cusset, François. 2003. French Theory. Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et es mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux État Unis. Éditions La Découverte, Paris.

Jay, Martin. 1988. « Two Cheers for Paraphrase: The Confessions of a Synoptic Intellectual Historian. » In: Martin Jay, Fin-De-Siècle Socialism. Routledge, New York and London, pp. 52-63.

Elad Lapidot: Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism, SUNY Press, 2020

Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism Couverture du livre Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism
SUNY series, Philosophy and Race
Elad Lapidot
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Julian Young: German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: From Weber to Heidegger

German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger Couverture du livre German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger
Julian Young
Paperback £29.99

Reviewed by: Francesco Pisano (University of Florence)

Modern philosophical historiography has to constantly face some well-known problems. Julian Young’s book on the history of twentieth-century German philosophy is not only a precise, instructive and critical exposition of the work of Adorno, Husserl and Heidegger (among others). It is also a prime example of applied historiographical methodology with respect to some of these problems. Young’s original approach to philosophical historiography resonates throughout the text. His remarkable sensitivity for political and theoretical issues expresses itself through a brilliant and clear prose. This review will try to present a concise but complete exposition of the contents of the book. However, coherently with the author’s intent, it will attempt to do so while highlighting the critical choices that defined his work.

Roughly speaking, over the last two centuries the academization of philosophy resulted in two broad challenges for the historian of philosophy. The first issue concerns the technicalization of philosophy. The specialization of philosophers, along with the growth of productive interaction between philosophy and other sciences or disciplines, is responsible for the progressive blurring of the borders of philosophy as a specific praxis and as a distinct form of knowledge. With respect to philosophical historiography, this process culminated either in an inflation of the metaphilosophical question, or in various debates about the “end” of philosophy. The second general issue concerns the need for a canon of philosophy. It is true that this demand dates back at least to Aristotle’s Metaphysics. But the modern search for a canon had to deal specifically with an extensive increase of the material available to the historian. Today, a plurality of cultures is involved in the history of thought – a plurality so vast and articulated that the very possibility of a rigorous and neutral canon of philosophy is called into question.

In this broad context, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century stands out immediately by virtue of the author’s attentive and radical approach to the apparent opposition between “objective-historiographical” and “theoretical-philosophical” history of philosophy. Even without an explicit thematization of his own historiographical method, Young manages to deal with this antinomy both in its relation to the metaphilosophical problem and in its link to the idea of a philosophical canon. He does not attempt at neutralizing the ambiguity between historiographical exposition and theoretical framework. Rather, he elaborates it by presenting an accurate historical exposition, while at the same time defining this exposition by means of an original critical premise. This premise could sound, in the words of the author, like this:

“Crisis […] lies at the heart of modern German philosophy. And in spite of the personal, philosophical, and above all political animosities that marred relations between Frankfurt and Freiburg, that the modern world is in crisis is a point on which they agree. The thinker who […] provided the most significant articulation of the nature of the crisis was the sociologist Max Weber” (2).

The reference to Weber gives a unitary frame to Young’s analysis, both internally and within the context of German philosophy as a whole. The proposed canon is defined by the concept of crisis: namely, German philosophy is a philosophy of crisis. But “in German thought, the conception of Western modernity as a ‘crisis of humanity’ reaches back”, in fact, “to the end of the eighteenth century, to the critique of the Industrial Revolution initiated by Goethe and the German Romantics” (2). Thus, “Weber’s primary significance for philosophy is that he transmits this critique to the twentieth century” (2). According to Young, the twentieth century sees a separation of this heredity along two branches: the “Frankfurt” one (Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas, Marcuse) and the “Freiburg” one (Husserl, Heidegger, Arendt, Gadamer). These two branches delineate the two parts of the book, while each chapter concerns an author. Interestingly, Young devotes two chapters to Heidegger: the early Heidegger (between Husserl and Gadamer) is markedly distinguished from the later Heidegger, protagonist of the book’s last chapter.

Even if the book is a complete and exhaustive reading in itself, it constitutes only the first part of a broader project about the history of German philosophy. A future instalment should deal with other relevant German thinkers such as Benjamin, Bloch, Lukács, Scheler and Schmitt. It is left unclear if these philosophers will, in the end, all fit within the “Frankfurt-Freiburg” frame. If that will be the case, it seems that two main obstacles should be overcome. First, philosophers like Benjamin or Schmitt can hardly be defined as belonging to any school of thought. Second, the explanation of Bloch’s and Scheler’s work would require an extensive mention of German traditions that do not seem to be part of Young’s canon: psychologism (e. g., Külpe) and Lebensphilosophie (e. g., Simmel). On the other hand, it should be noted that, within Young’s narration, “Frankfurt” and “Freiburg” are not properly names of cities, schools or traditions. They are names for two different critical approaches to Weber’s idea of a link between crisis and rationalization. Or rather, they are names for different theoretical positions within the long-lasting German debate about rationalization and loss of freedom.

“While the Frankfurt thinkers recognize loss of meaning as indeed a pathology, in practice, their attention is directed almost exclusively towards loss of freedom. […] The Freiburg thinkers, by contrast, while recognizing loss of freedom as an issue, attend far more closely to loss of meaning” (253).

“Frankfurt” and “Freiburg” are indeed names of constellations within the same cosmos, rather than rigid titles. Thus, it should be possible to define intermediate and “heretical” positions, thanks to the fluid nature of these distinctions.

The main theoretical and political point that Young wants to prove is that “with respect to the task of understanding the communitarian need, liberal thinkers have […] a great deal to learn from the German phenomenological tradition” (254). This theoretical thesis is motivated by a political reason.

“What, since 2016, had become unmistakeable is the existence of a widespread revolt against the liberal hegemony, the appearance throughout the West of political movements that in every case represent, at least in part, the demand for fraternity: for the community that comes from sharing with one’s neighbours what, borrowing the term from the Roman Stoics, Gadamer calls a sensus communis […], an intuitive understanding of the good life. Often, the manifestations of this demand are cynically manipulated, distorted and ugly—white nationalism, Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny, illiberal democracy—but sometimes they evoke a greater or lesser degree of sympathy – the independence movements of Catalonia, the Basque region, Flanders, Corsica and Quebec, for example” (254).

Nowadays, this urge for a new Gemeinschaft is resurfacing despite a fifty-year-long association with conservative and right-wing values.

“The notions of ‘tradition’, ‘homeland’, ‘people’, and ‘community’ were hijacked by the Nazis. It is unsurprising, therefore, that in mainstream post-war political thought, in Germany and elsewhere, such notions have been anathematized. Liberal, cosmopolitan, Habermasian, anti-traditional, modernity-embracing thought has been in the ascendant” (253).

The theorist that blindly follows this anathema ends up neglecting the urge for a new Gemeinschaft. However, this urge exists, and the current forms of its expression are often violent and populistic. In fact, the danger for a liberal critical theory is to ignore these pulsations that run across society, rather than attempt at comprehending and redirecting them.

The political motivation sets the tone and the main intention of the book. It is the tone of a liberal historian of philosophy speaking to liberal philosophers and liberal humanities students. Coherently, the demonstration of the aforementioned thesis aims to help the liberal thinker in “the challenge […] of understanding the character of this need [for community] and of assimilating it into liberal thought” (254). This aim is perhaps the key to understand some of Young’s methodological choices, such as the stark distinction between a “early Heidegger” and a “later Heidegger”. The author means to remark an implicit influence of Weber’s work on Heidegger’s conception of “technology” (Technik).  Thus, he needs to draw a dividing line between a more generic Weber – “early Heidegger” relation (mainly through Sein und Zeit and its position within the Zeitgeist) and the specific role that Weber allegedly has in relation to the “later Heidegger”.

In short, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century presents, more or less explicitly, each thinker’s work in its relation to Weber’s announcement of a crisis in modern European thought. Thus, Young’s exposition of Weber’s work is of pivotal importance for the internal economy of the book. Even so, it mainly concentrates on one short (and famous) lecture delivered by the old Weber to the students of Munich University in 1917: Wissenschaft als Beruf.

“The lecture is far from a celebration of science as a ‘vocation’. One reason for this, one can hypothesize, is the fact that the First World War, still in progress, had deployed the fruits of modern science to kill people on a hitherto unimaginable scale (38 million in total). […] Whatever the original intention that led to the delivery of the lecture, in the event, its central force is to place a serious question mark against the value of science, against, indeed the entire post-Enlightenment development of the West” (7).

The central equivalence of Weber’s lecture identifies modernity and rationalization. Modern science is, first and foremost, a vehicle of rationalization – i. e., of “control trough calculation”. Namely, control on nature and man is obtained trough the calculated manipulation of causes, in order to obtain certain consequences. The transformation of non-human nature in a series of causal relations generates a pathological “loss of meaning” (14). The transformation of human relationships in a series of causal relations, for its part, implies a “loss of freedom” (10). Disenchanted nature and organized work are, according to Weber, the main products of modern science. “We face, Weber tells us, a future denuded of both freedom and meaning. We stand in a moment of world-historical crisis, a crisis that can only be resolved by […] a ‘turning’ to a new, genuinely post-modern age” (15).

Young underlines how Weber’s solution to this crisis has already embraced a certain irrationalism. The only possibility for this revolutionary turning lies in the appearance of charismatics prophets: leaders that are capable form a new meaningful Gemeinschaft, defined by shared values. The nature of these values remains unspecified. But “Weber explicitly warns against ‘chiliastic prophets’ who believe that a noble end justifies any means […]. Weber’s call is a call for charismatic leadership within the limits of liberal democracy—the charisma of a Churchill or a Martin Luther King Jr.—rather than for charismatic leadership instead of democracy” (16). Thus, Wissenschaft als Beruf can also be read as the mature self-critique of a social scientist. Weber recognizes that the European man lost more than it gained from modern science. “Weber’s belief that rationalization has been a disaster places him in the tradition not only of Wagner and the youthful Nietzsche’s neo-Romantic critique of the Enlightenment, but also of the critique of the Enlightenment conducted, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, by the German Romantics themselves. […] It is through the early Nietzsche’s neo-Romanticism that the Romantic critique of Enlightenment rationalization passes to Weber, and primarily through Weber that it passes into twentieth-century German philosophy” (17).

The idea of a nearly irrecoverable loss pervades most of the following philosophical debate, in Germany. Young presents Horkheimer and Adorno’s common work as the first attempt at dealing with this loss. They both “reject the ‘bourgeois’ conception of the task of thought in general, and social thought in particular, as that of providing a neutral analysis of the way things are. To be worth anything, thought must be an attempt to alleviate suffering, an act of ‘solidarity’ with a suffering humanity” (21). This therapeutic, political and praxis-oriented character is what makes critical theory stand out from traditional theory. It is the Marxist trait that, along with a dialectical conception of history, makes Horkeimer and Adorno’s theory “critical” of the status quo. “Critical theory, writes Horkheimer, thinks in the ‘service’ of an ‘oppressed humanity’ and seeks to eliminate ‘social injustice’. […] Whereas […] traditional theory thinks of itself as simply trying to understand the world, the critical theorist wants to change it, change it so as to bring about ‘a future society (Gesellschaft) as a community (Gemeinschaft) of free men’. The aim, then, is liberty, liberation, but also – a point often overlooked – that other battle cry of the French Revolution, fraternity, community” (25). The struggle of critical thinking addresses, at least in principle, both the loss of freedom and the loss of meaning. However, Young argues, while contributing to a better articulation of our loss of freedom, Horkheimer and Adorno fail to provide a positive indication for action – a pars construens that is especially important with regards to the problem of meaning. Sure enough, the liberation that could amend our loss of freedom would consist in the negation of a condition we already know, inasmuch as we already are in it. On the other hand, the loss of meaning could be resolved only through the affirmation of new shared values: that is, by placing and constructing something that, at the moment, remains unknown. Horkheimer and Adorno “rouse us out of false consciousness to an explicit awareness of the suffering it causes, but that, it seems, is all they do. Yet is ‘negation’ enough, given that the aim is, with Marx, not merely to understand the world, but to change it; to engage in the ‘intellectual, and eventually practical, effort’ to change the order of things for the better?” (40). Young implicitly argues that this inadequacy is a flaw of “Frankfurt” philosophy as a whole, and that, consequently, an actual and up-to-date critical theory would need the constructive help of “Freiburg” phenomenology.

An emblematic instance of the weakness of the “Frankfurt” approach with regards to the loss meaning can be found in Habermas’ idea that social solidarity can be supplied by communicative rationality. In this case, the appeal to feeling that characterizes charisma – both in religion and in politics – would be replaced by the binding force of rationally valid claims. These claims would be defined by rational deliberation and criticised within public debate. This would be the frame of a “deliberative” liberal democracy. But such a liberal democracy would be the very antithesis of an actual Gemeinschaft.

“For while a community is defined by a sense of ‘belonging together’, a liberal democracy is defined – ever increasingly, in multicultural modernity – by a sense of belonging apart. […] Political liberalism is the solution to a problem: the problem of how we can live together without harming each other, given that we no longer have a shared conception of the good life, a shared ethical substance. While community is based on both respect for and ‘fraternity’ with the other, liberal democratic society is based on respect alone” (56).

This discrepancy within classical liberalism and a radical, genuine idea of Gemeinschaft excludes the simple solution, so to speak: a true Gemeinschaft cannot, as such, be re-imposed by the same Enlightenment culture that dissolved it in the first place. In order to appropriate the very idea of Gemeinschaft, the contemporary liberal philosopher must rethink Enlightenment in its defining terms, rather than extrinsically “apply” it on the current social situation.

While still being an important contribution to the German “philosophy of crisis”, critical theory remains wanting in its constructive aspect. An important exception, within the “Frankfurt” context, is represented by the work of Marcuse. His research constitutes not only a diagnosis of present-day social pathologies, but also of an audacious indication of possible remedies. It could be argued that it is actually Marcuse’s phenomenological education that mostly contributed in shaping the rich and lively idea of man that animates the future society he wishes for. Marcuse’s deep acquaintance with American society contributed to this vision too. One could say that Marcuse’s main distinctive trait, among “Frankfurt” theorists, consists in the importance he assigns to a positive description of man’s free desires: namely, the desires one harbours beyond the extrinsic conditioning imposed by advanced industrial society. “A true desire is a desire one would retain even after having become fully aware (through exposure to critical theory) of the degree to which advanced industrial society attempts to manipulate one in its own interests” (63). The very admission of the possibility of free desires opens a utopian space within Marcuse’s philosophy. And this space is positively characterized by means of a psychoanalytical (and partly phenomenological) anthropology.

“As a Marxist, Marcuse believes the point of all worthwhile theoretical activity is to change the world for the better, and so one might imagine that his engagement with Freud is generated by the need to refute his pessimism. […] The reason for the engagement is Marcuse’s belief that Freud got almost everything right. He believes, in particular, that Freud got the nature of happiness right. Freud’s belief that happiness within civilization is impossible is, however, a mistake. Perhaps it was once true, concedes Marcuse, but it is no longer so. Therefore, purged of this error, Freud’s theory can be developed in a way that provides the key to a happy civilization” (67).

Marcuse accepts Freud’s hedonism: he deems all human action motivated by the search for immediate libidinal pleasure. Thus, the inner pathology of civilization consists in the fact that it demands the sacrifice of this erotic impulse. But not all instances of rational civilizations are equal in their repressive aspect. There is a possible social organization within which repression would be reduced to its basic, “natural” contrast against the pleasure principle: socialism.

“If some repression is surplus, man-made rather than imposed by nature, then it is ‘artificial’, which means, contra Freud, that there is a […] [possibility of its] elimination by revolutionary action aimed at installing socialism as society’s reality principle. Given the current state of technology, a degree of repression will continue to be essential to any society’s survival. But, with the installation of the socialist reality principle, it will weigh on the individual in a greatly reduced, ‘basic’ form” (70).

Marcuse sees science as an historical process, rather than as a static aspect of civilization. This allows him to believe that modern science can, in fact, define a different distribution of work without altering its productivity; and his optimism regarding human nature prompts him to find the contents of a future, utopic Gemeinschaft in the creativity of human fantasy and in the free exercise of a polymorphous and sublimated sexuality.

Young makes a conscious effort in explicating the elements of phenomenological thought that could resonate with Marcuse’s attempt at a therapy for the crisis of meaning. Vice versa, he presents Husserl’s work under a specific perspective: the perspective that deems phenomenology essentially as a philosophy of crisis. After a concise summary of transcendental phenomenology’s main ideas, the author focuses on the late Husserl, and especially on Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. The early Heidegger is presented under the same light. Young’s discussion of Sein und Zeit is markedly characterized by a specific interest in the link between meaning and culture. However, this apparent one-sidedness is, in fact, an attempt at rethinking the relevance of classical phenomenology as a “political” philosophy – that is, as a philosophy that, even if not directly concerned with political issues, produces the idea of a possible human community.

The author finds this relevance in the common space sketched by Husserl’s idea of lifeworld and Heidegger’s idea of being-in-the-world.

“As Husserl puts it, the question that modern humanity finds ‘most pressing’ is that of ‘the meaning or meaninglessness of the whole of human existence’ […]. What, however, is missing, according to both Nietzsche and Husserl, are ‘norms of absolute validation’, that is […] moral norms that are universally valid” (104).

The result of modern science is “the epistemological view that our only access to knowledge is through the natural-scientific method, together with its ontological consequence that nothing can be said to exist save the entities recognized as existing by natural science. An important fact about the natural sciences – and the social sciences, too, which ape the natural sciences in this regard – is that they are ‘value free’: among the entities recognized as existing by science, values (as distinct from valuings) are not to be found. Husserl’s claim […] is that it is the exclusion of values from the realm of the objectively real that results in the onset of nihilism, of ethical polytheism” (104). There is little doubt that both the late Husserl and the early Heidegger acknowledge the relation between modern rationalization and the pervasive sense of meaninglessness that characterizes present-day human life. To put it briefly, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century sees the phenomenological movement as the part of the rationalist enterprise that is capable of a rigorous self-critique – that is, of a critique of Enlightenment that is neither (critical) refusal nor (critical) acceptation, but radical reformulation instead.

The idea of lifeworld gives Husserl the critical margin that such a self-critique presupposes. Lifeworld claims are, roughly said, the claims of everyday knowledge. They are the basis for the construction of every scientific knowledge. Sure enough, insofar as they define every self-evidence, they constitute the last ground of each complex scientific experience.

“What naturalism forgets is that the lifeworld is the ‘meaning-fundament’ of science, that what science is really talking about – ‘the only real world’ that is available to be talked about – is the lifeworld. […] Husserl uses ‘lifeworld’ sometimes to refer to culturally and historically specific lifeworlds and sometimes to refer to a structure that is common to them all, a structure that is partially definitive of what it is to be a human being. In Husserl’s language, ‘the’ lifeworld belongs to the ‘essence’ of human being. […] Transcending all culturally specific lifeworlds is the lifeworld together with the norms embedded in it, norms which are common to all cultures” (111-112).

Young presents Sein und Zeit’s project of a fundamental ontology as a deeper investigation in the ontological structure of this proper, more comprehensive lifeworld.

Heidegger’s approach to the question of being definitely refutes the idea of a phenomenology that deals exclusively with abstractions. His ontological analysis is, at the same time, a phenomenological description of the most primordial features of human existence.

“What explains the excitement surrounding Being and Time is not the fact that it chooses to interrogate Dasein but rather the manner of interrogation. […] We can only answer the question of the meaning of being by providing a ‘primordial’ account of Dasein, of us ourselves. […] Being and Time’s account of who we are portrays us as particularly fascinating, not to say troubling, beings. […] Suddenly, the seemingly dry investigation of what we mean when we say that something is has transmogrified itself into ultimate Nietzschean and Kierkegaardian questions about the meaning of life. Ontology has become existentialism, phenomenology has become existential phenomenology” (119).

Young’s presentation of the young Heidegger remains within this frame. Heidegger’s existential determination are critically discussed as aspects of his (provisional) solution to the problem of the meaning of human life. The key to this problem would be, according to Young’s interpretation of Heidegger, in the concept of praxis. Praxis should be defined as the original source of meaning. But, if praxis is in fact the structural source of every meaning, present-day meaninglessness must be a result of some change within the context of human praxis. Thus, an ethical problem arises: what is the proper, most authentic praxis? How can we act in a way that makes our lives meaningful?

The author describes Gadamer’s and Arendt’s philosophical projects as attempts at answering these questions. They both write against the dehumanizing effects of rationalization. Gadamer adopts an approach that is both ontological and epistemological. His task consists in rehabilitating artistic expression as a form of knowledge in its own right and as a moment of a complete human Bildung, in opposition to the privilege that positivism accords to an education based on natural science. On the other hand, Arendt deals with the problem of the loss of meaning from a political point of view. She emphasizes the role of educators in transmitting and enriching a shared ethical tradition.

In Young’s eyes, Gadamer and Arendt partake in the history of German philosophy inasmuch as they take part in a debate started by Goethe, transmitted by Weber and concluded by the last great philosophy of the crisis: the philosophy of the later Heidegger. Considering that this moment of Heidegger’s thought paved the way for the so-called postmodern philosophy in Germany (Sloterdijk), France (Derrida), Italy (Vattimo) and America (Rorty), one could probably say that the course of the German “river” described by Young flows again into the European “sea” from which it gushed out in the first place, with the French revolution and the end of the age of Enlightenment.

Young summarizes later Heidegger’s thought as a new appeal to the charismatic and unifying power of common “gods”. But this is not a repetition of Weber’s Wissenschaft als Beruf. The long phenomenological detour has shown that these “gods” are not specifically conservative forces. They represent the idea that every past meaning preserves a possibility for the future, but only inasmuch as the realization of any future simultaneously creates a new past – i. e., a new concealed possibility for yet another possible future.

“When we take into account the possibility that future generations will experience the world in ways that are unimaginable by us, not to mention the possibility of non-human knowers, we realize that there is no limit to the number of potential horizons of disclosure that are concealed by the horizon – the ‘being of beings’, as Being and Time calls it – that constitutes our life-world. This ‘unexperienced domain of being’ is the ‘non-essence of truth’ and is as inseparable from the essence of truth as is […] the dark side of the moon from its illuminated side. Heidegger calls this unexperienced domain simply ‘the mystery’. And since it is unlimited in extent it is, as with all things we cannot fathom, profoundly awesome” (233).

In this awesomeness appears the possibility of a rational, immanent salvation from the crisis. The search for this possibility – the search for a new rationalism – is, in the end, the story that German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century passionately narrates.

Julian Young: German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger, Routledge, 2018

German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger Couverture du livre German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger
Julian Young
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