In Adorno, Politics, and the Aesthetic Animal, Caleb J. Basnett defends two major claims: first, that Adorno’s political thought cannot be separated from his concerns with art and animality; second, that Adorno’s unification of these themes delivers us the “surest guidance” for transforming ours into an emancipatory society (4). In my view, Basnett renders the first claim compelling but not the second. Nevertheless, Basnett’s book makes an important contribution to Adorno scholarship and post-humanist debates in political theory. It is recommended for specialists in these fields. It will also be of interest to students looking for an introduction to Adorno’s political thought.
Basnett structures his book argumentatively and thematically, not chronologically or textually. He unfolds his argument across a roughly four-step arc, although one that does not exactly map onto the book’s four chapters:
- the establishment of a hegemonic and domination-perpetuating theory of human capacities found in Aristotle, grounded in the biological differentiation of the human from the non-human, that Basnett calls the “Aristotelian problematic”;
- the development of Adorno’s conceptual framework of negative dialectic as responding to the metaphysics of identity found in Aristotle and Hegel;
- an investigation of the consequences of Adorno’s alternative conceptual framework of non-identity for his views on human reconciliation as a new kind of animality;
- the resolution of the Aristotelian problematic in Adorno’s revitalization of aesthetic education as a promise for radical subjective transformation, a utopian subjectivity that Basnett calls the “aesthetic animal.”
In what follows, I summarize each of these four interpretive claims advanced by Basnett vis-a-vis Adorno. After that, I return to my doubt regarding the persuasiveness of Basnett’s claim that Adorno’s theory of the aesthetic animal provides the most promising guide to transformative or revolutionary politics available to us today.
1. The Aristotelian Problematic (Introduction)
Basnett begins by discussing Aristotle’s famous claim from the Politics: the human being is by nature a political animal (13–22). The naturalness of human society asserted by Aristotle, Basnett argues, cannot be understood independently from his biological writings. This is because, for Aristotle, there exist non-human animals who are political in ways that differ from the political activity of human beings. So to specify the sense in which the human animal is political, Aristotle must distinguish between the political activity of human beings and that of other non-human animals. This differentiation requires Aristotle to introduce a politicized human-animal distinction based on a hierarchical ranking of organisms.
According to Basnett, Aristotle must articulate this human-animal distinction in terms of capacities. For Aristotle, an animal is essentially a soul constituted by a bundle of capacities (14). Animals can therefore only be distinguished from one another by their capacities. According to Aristotle’s comparative zoology, human beings uniquely possess nous, the divine capacity for intellection which underwrites our related capacities for speech and reason. The political life of human being, then, is that which best actualizes those capacities most closely associated with nous. Basnett concludes that Aristotle’s distinctly biological conception of the human capacity for nous amounts to nothing less than an “ur-politics” (17), since such a theory of human capacities necessarily institutes a normative hierarchy of living beings.
For Basnett, this identification of the political with the biological, one which determines genuinely human capacities by contrasting humans with animals, lies at the heart of the Western tradition of political theory. And this tradition is not dead. It forms what Basnett calls the Aristotelian problematic. This problematic has two diverging consequences for contemporary political thought. The first is regressive with respect to human emancipation. Since in this problematic what is valued is what is most distinctly human, a hierarchical ranking of individual organisms according to the barometer of humanity is unavoidable, both within human societies and between humans and non-humans. This hierarchy inheres in any animal-contrastive definition of the human and leads unavoidably, on Basnett’s view, to political practices of violence and domination. This is the same basic violence and domination that characterizes our societies today (3–5).
But Aristotle’s politicized separation of the human from the animal also contains two transformative dimensions, capable of being unleashed by later theorists like Adorno. First, Aristotle recognizes that humanity does not hold exclusive rights to politics. Since there exist non-human political animals, the realm of the political extends beyond the human. Second, against himself, Aristotle demonstrates in the Poetics the constitutive role of aesthetic education in the process of becoming human (21–22). For Aristotle, aesthetic education functions as a means of subjective transformation. In art, we not only learn what counts as human through mimesis but are also taught to recognize which possible capacities we ought to realize to become free individuals. Poetry, in other words, develops and transforms our subjective potentials. This transformative function of art thus shows us not only that human beings undertake cultural processes to learn how to be human and so to identify as “something other than simply animal” (22); it also teaches us that we can be otherwise (126). So although Aristotle “[fails] to recognize the role art plays in shaping the identity of the human being,” he nonetheless provides the theoretical resources for thinking about the politics of non-human animals and the transformative dimension of aesthetic experience (3).
Enter Adorno. Adorno’s political thought, Basnett argues, can be read in its entirety as responding to the Aristotelian problematic (23). This problematic also identifies Adorno’s argumentative strategy: radicalize art, ditch humanity. In the remainder of the book, Basnett portrays Adorno as developing across his writings an immanent critique of the human-animal distinction and its complicity in practices of human domination in the West.
Some readers may object to Basnett’s presumption that Adorno’s work forms “more or less a coherent whole” insofar as it responds to, or is “constellated around,” the intertwining of politics and animality in the Aristotelian problematic (22–23). However, this assumption is likely unavoidable for productive engagement with Adorno’s work on this topic. Moreover, the course of the book justifies, in my view, this assumed continuity in Adorno’s relation to Aristotle’s politics. Basnett’s careful attention to the understated but essential role of Aristotle in Adorno’s political thinking, often downplayed by his commentators (29–32), is a welcome contribution to the scholarly literature on Adorno.
2. Hegel’s Idealism and Negative Dialectics (Chapter 1)
In chapter one, Basnett draws on this Aristotelian framing of Adorno’s political thought to explicate the conceptual landmarks well-known to readers of Adorno, what we might call Adorno’s metaphysics. The most important of these landmarks for Basnett’s argument is Adorno’s negative dialectic or theory of conceptual non-identity. Basnett aims to elucidate the political import of negative dialectics, so his highly original account remains justifiably non-exhaustive.
As with Adorno’s encounter with humanism, Basnett reconstructs Adorno’s negative dialectic genetically. In particular, Basnett presents it as a developmental resolution of unresolved problems in Aristotle (29–40) and Hegel (43–50). These problems, Basnett argues, turn on the issue of conceptual mediation.
In the case of Aristotle, Basnett sees Adorno’s negative dialectic as addressing two obstacles in Aristotelian metaphysics: the possibility of change and the relation between universal and particular. Aristotle, lacking an appreciation of the dialectical interaction between particular things and universal concepts, cannot account for the way in which particular things necessarily supersede their original meaning and constitution and therefore always “pass beyond the limit that defines them” (40). A properly dialectical theory of mediation, one which tarries with the non-identity of objects to themselves and so with their perpetual escape from conceptual identification, is therefore necessary in order to give a satisfactory account of the possibility of objective change and, therefore, the futurity of objects and their potential transformations of subjects.
Hegel provides Adorno with just this sort of theory of dialectical mediation, according to Basnett. But in order to foreclose Hegel’s drive towards conceptual totalization, Adorno must separate Hegel’s idealism from his dialectic. This separation amounts to saving the dialectic’s ceaseless negativity from the “closure” of Hegel’s idealism (48). Such a separation has the further consequence of opening up the dialectic to the future and the historical horizon of redemption (ibid.). Dialectic without idealism is Adorno’s negative dialectic. It seeks the “non-identical in the identical,” the negative dynamics of the naturally selfsame, rather than purporting, as Hegel’s did, to discover “identity in non-identity” (43) and so “crush[ing]” and “devour[ing]” the non-conceptual into the concept (44). In this way, Adorno preserves Hegel’s insights into the conflictual dynamics of modern experience without taking on board the totalizing consequences endemic to Hegel’s idealistic system. Moreover, this separation entails that, pace Jay Bernstein, Adorno breaks completely with Hegel’s idealism (but not, of course, with Hegel’s thinking tout court); Adorno does not, according to Basnett, “[accept] the rudiments of Hegelian idealism” as Bernstein claims (quoted on 46). Only in breaking totally with Hegel’s idealism can the dialectic open itself up to the future possibility of a radical transformation of the sociopolitical world.
I have moved quickly through Basnett’s arguments in this chapter. Nevertheless, it is clear that some of the interpretive claims required by Basnett’s account of Adorno’s “determinate negation” of Aristotelian and Hegelian metaphysics will remain controversial (39), especially as regards Adorno’s “appropriation” of Hegel (43n8). For example, the meaning and significance of Hegel’s idealism remain quite obscure. Basnett suggests that Hegel’s idealism has something to do with spirit’s, or the absolute subject’s, projections onto objects. This sounds much like Charles Taylor’s “cosmic spirit” reading of Hegel, or, if not that, then the old ontological reading of “idealist monism.” However, this interpretation of Hegel’s idealism has been met by influential criticisms from Robert Pippin and many others. However, Basnett does not acknowledge this literature on Hegel’s idealism in the book. Does Basnett intend his reading of Hegel, attributed to Adorno, to be compelling for us today? Moreover, if Hegel’s dialectic cannot be separated from his idealism as argued by at least some of his readers, then Bernstein’s contention that Adorno must accept some aspects of Hegelian idealism, if he is to retain the dialectic, begins to appear more plausible than Basnett’s suggestion of a complete break. But given the mode of exposition adopted by Basnett, it is difficult to say where Adorno ends and Basnett begins. I will return to this issue in §5.
3. Reconciled Humanity and Animality (Chapters 2 and 3)
Over the next two chapters, Basnett argues that Adorno’s theories of reconciled humanity and utopian animality form the relevant dialectic immanent to the Aristotelian problematic.
In chapter two, Basnett presents Adorno as using the image of reconciled humanity as a way of dialectically rethinking social progress. A reconciled humanity would be a humanity that no longer struggles: against nature, against other animals, and against itself (65). Basnett reasonably concludes that Adorno’s vision of reconciled humanity amounts to a set of “utopian speculations” that hold open the possibility of radical change to humanity in the future, changes which would put into question the very idea of humanity as inherited from Aristotle (66). This utopian vision of humanity is negative and non-identical. Negative because it carries no positive program for what this escape from struggle might look like. Non-identical because, in radically transforming the meaning of humanity, this transformation can only be conceived if we also recognize that the human being is not reducible to its natural determinations and so must be capable of being otherwise—in other words, that the human being is non-identical to itself. It is this possibility of an anti-naturalizing reconstitution of the subject to which Adorno refers when, in the Problems of Moral Philosophy, he announces, “if humanity [Humanität] has any meaning at all, it must consist in the discovery that human beings [Menschen] are not identical with their immediate existence as the creatures of nature” (quoted on 66).
In being non-identical to itself, humanity also resists domination. Non-identical humanity refers “not to a transcendental subject whose basic potentials are already given in advance of their actualization, but rather a subject constituted in resistance to the forms of domination that organize the objective world.” Human subjects, conceived non-identically, are thus “always pushing against the forces of compulsion” (61). We therefore have, on the one hand, a concept of the human being that is identical to struggle, domination, and violence. But, on the other, one which, like all concepts, is never exhausted by its identifications; it always maintains a non-identical side, a “preponderance of the object” (50–51, 61). In the case of the human being, the relevant non-identity lies precisely in the possibility of reconciliation. Realizing this redemptive possibility, one which inheres in the very idea of humanity itself, would, therefore, be the “end of humanity” as we know it in its self-identity (58). Naturally, we would like to know something about this reconstituted subject, even if our knowledge of it necessarily remains negative. This is the task of the book’s next chapter.
In chapter three, Basnett relates the notion of reconciled humanity to Adorno’s thinking about animals. In particular, Basnett advances a surprising interpretive thesis: the kind of thing that participates in Adorno’s reconciled humanity cannot be said to be a human being at all, but must instead count as a new kind of non-human animal (73, 77). The primary inspiration for this animalist interpretation of reconciled humanity comes from Adorno’s memorable imperative in Negative Dialectics, wherein we are told to live “so that one may believe himself to have been a good animal” (quoted on 106). But why must reconciled humanity be an in- or non-humanity? While Basnett does not present his argument in the following way (see his summary 77–78), his line of thought can, I think, be condensed into a sequence of three claims: first, that the idea of humanity is fundamentally tied up with compulsion, domination, and violence; second, that, since reconciled humanity demands the overcoming of such forms of struggle and since struggle is inherent in the idea of humanity, reconciliation must involve the determinate negation of humanity; third, that the appropriate determinate negation of humanity, one capable of producing a community free of constitutive struggle, is animality. Reconciled humanity therefore requires for its realization that the human subject become a utopian animal, that is, an animal which is no longer caught up in relations of violence and domination towards others, world, and self. In short, reconciled humanity is no longer identifiably human.
It strikes me that this part of the book will incur the most skepticism. There are two likely sticking points. One has to do with Adorno’s stipulation that the human being cannot be thought without necessarily invoking violence to self, world, and others. For Basnett, Adorno bakes violence into the very idea of humanity; violence is “deeply embedded in the human constitution” (166). There can be no instance of humanity, in thought or in the world, that does not contribute to domination: “the concept of humanism, and even the word ‘human,’ are deeply misleading and encourage the perpetuation of a cycle of violence” (58). The second sticking point concerns emancipation. Why must a successful redressing of the violence historically associated with humanity take us outside the realm of the human? Must we not invoke values, and thus enter the realm of the human, to justify our attempts to overcome violence (and, indeed, to justify any course of action)? This, at any rate, would be the humanist response to the challenges so far identified. But for Basnett, reconciled humanity cannot be an emancipation of humanity as we currently understand it—it cannot be an “emancipated humanity.” It must instead be “humanity emancipated from humanity” (58n8), and therefore a humanity “for whom the word ‘human’ would be an anachronism” (23).
These sticking points, closely related and perhaps even identical from a logical point of view, will elicit at least three responses. First of all, if it true that the very word ‘human’ misleads and anarchonizes, then it becomes difficult to understand why Adorno maintains his use of the concept across his writings, such as in reconciled humanity. By Basnett’s admission, such use of the human amounts at best to a ruse played by Adorno on his readers, since humanity turns out to be constitutively irreconcilable. This consideration suggests to me that Adorno does not conceive of emancipated humanity as strictly non-human.
Second, while it remains a historical truism that the human correlates with violence and domination, there remains an obvious humanist response to this fact: namely, that this correlation is just that, a coincidence, not a necessary connection; moreover, the humanist will also claim that the means of overcoming this historical connection between violence and humanity, so far more or less co-terminus, is to become more human, i.e., to further realize our human values (such as non-violence and non-domination), and not to abandon them. In short, we eliminate violence through humanity, not by overcoming it. Basnett addresses this humanist rejoinder on more than one occasion and is clear enough that he intends the book to provide an extended defense of the necessity of welding humanity with violence, both in humanity’s identity to violence and its surplus resistance. In effect, however, it is the Aristotelian problematic which provides this linkage for Basnett, since it is in it that we see how a differentiation of biological species based on their capacities necessarily entails a normative hierarchy, one that can later be recapitulated in a political community. But to generalize this claim to all forms of humanism clearly supposes that all humanism must be Aristotelian in the specific sense laid out in the Politics. And this further claim is by no means obviously true, either for Adorno or for us. If we instead permit the possibility of separating humanity from violence, things become quite different. In that world, Adorno could be suspicious of the legacy of humanism without affirming animality as its proper remedy.
Finally, there remains the general abstractness of these claims. Despite Basnett’s reasonable assurance that Adorno remains a deeply historical thinker, the violence, domination, and self-preservation that confront the reader throughout the book are nowhere historically differentiated. This makes it appear as if the violence in question bears no traces of its historical specificity in Adorno’s account. It is today the same violence to which Aristotle attested in antiquity. I will return to the issue of abstractness in §5.
4. Aesthetic Education (Chapter 4)
Finally, Basnett must show us how reconciled humanity, now understood as a new kind of animal, can be actualized in history. How are we to bridge the gap between our present humanity, tied up with domination, and the future utopia of a world populated by non-human political animals who no longer struggle? Accounting for the possibility of realizing this post-human world is the task of the book’s final chapter, wherein Basnett argues that such a transformation occurs only with the aid of a new kind of aesthetic education. It is through art that we “learn to live as good animals” (116).
What does this aesthetic education towards animality look like? Basnett’s most pertinent answer is that aesthetic education cultivates animal impulses through passive and active relations to art. As he puts it, aesthetic education
would attempt to cultivate animal impulses so as to enable them to resist human capture and thereby facilitate the kind of displacement of the subjective coordinates that constitute the human by turning toward non-identity through the addendum. In this way, Adorno’s aesthetics can be seen to address the question of producing an aesthetic animal, in the sense of an animal being constituted not simply through the senses, through its bodily comportment towards objects, but through the arts. (148–49)
Art reactivates our animal drives, mobilizing them against what we identify as our humanity and so “liberat[ing] the animal from the human through aesthetic experience” (26). In the remainder of the chapter, Basnett goes on to explain the distinct contributions made in aesthetic experience by the passive moment of reception and the active one of production in an illuminating reading of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory.
Two things stand out to me as noteworthy in Basnett’s presentation of Adorno’s politics of the aesthetic animal. First, Basnett recognizes that the subjective transformation of the human into the animal, as theorized by Adorno, is not sufficient to realize sociopolitical transformation. Consciousness-raising about humanity’s inherent domination cannot on its own produce sociopolitical change. Adorno’s contribution is, after all, only a “theory of the subject” (1); it tells us how our agency and relation-to-self are constituted and how they could be constituted otherwise. It is in the very nature of this kind of theory of subjectivity that it describes only possibilities of subjective reconstitution. Thus Basnett rightly tells us that Adorno’s theory of subjective transformation only “might make possible” radical social change (26). Aesthetic experience, then, also offers merely “the possibility of sociopolitical transformation” (151). This important qualification makes it clear that Basnett sees aesthetic education into animality as necessary but insufficient for social change (173). Realizing a world of utopian animals would require other transformations of sociopolitical reality, too. We might imagine that this transformation would also require, for example, the development of labor-saving technologies.
Second, Basnett presents Adorno’s views on aesthetic education as responding primarily to Aristotle. This is a local instantiation of the book’s global claim, viz. that Adorno’s politics is, as a whole, best understood in its relation to the Aristotelian problematic. However this version of the global claim presents novel issues not found in the metaphysical questions discussed in chapter one, i.e., the relation between universals and particulars and the nature of the dialectic. Part of the problem is that the theme of aesthetic education is itself never explicitly thematized by Aristotle in the Poetics, a point, of course, acknowledged by Basnett. This omission is, after all, the reason why Aristotle fails to appreciate the full scope of art in constituting the human despite his own unconscious insights into the matter. The implicitness of Aristotle’s theory of aesthetic education makes Basnett’s task of presenting Adorno as primarily in dialogue with Aristotle more demanding than it was in the prior cases, where we found Aristotle addressing the issues explicitly and in some of his most famous works. Moreover, in the case of aesthetic education there exists other, more immediate figures standing in the way. Given the affinities between Adorno’s views on aesthetic education with those of Hegel and especially Schiller, why not see these figures as at least equally important as Aristotle in the development of Adorno’s views (148–49)? Finally, given Adorno’s insistence on treating specifically modern art, it is difficult to see how his views on aesthetic education can be understood as responding to what is naturally only a theory of ancient art in Aristotle. As a result of these concerns, some readers will remain understandably skeptical that Adorno develops his theory of aesthetic education primarily as a response to Aristotle’s Poetics. Unfortunately, Basnett provides no direct textual evidence in support of this claim, either. He instead provides a sophisticated account showing how one can read Adorno’s theory of aesthetic education as responding to problems which arise for Adorno in Aristotle’s Poetics and shows that, in responding to these problems, Adorno in turn address other aspects of Aristotle’s practical philosophy (thaumazein, praxis, theoria, etc.), forming a constellation (154–59). But this kind of argument, while philosophically compelling in many ways, cannot rule out the possibility that, pace Basnett, figures like Hegel and Schiller play equal or even more important roles than Aristotle in Adorno’s aesthetic theory.
5. Adorno Today
Finally, I would like to address what I take to be the second major contention of Basnett’s book, viz. that Adorno’s theory of the aesthetic animal provides the best available way of thinking about our present social and political moment. Here is how Basnett puts the point in the book’s final paragraph:
I have argued that Adorno is the most apt guide to our current political juncture and the theorizing of its transformation, for he allows us to see our own animality as it has emerged through the history of humanism and to take the possibilities for transformation as beginning from this situation. Moreover, unlike those who might through their focus on ontology or even their focus on particular struggles inadvertently reify the current place of struggle in political life, Adorno shows us that we cannot get rid of the utopian dimension of political struggle. Rather, we must hold dear to this utopian promise, even if, as Adorno himself admits, the moment of its realization may never arrive. (184)
As I have already noted, I find this first-order claim unconvincing despite finding much of value in Basnett’s project of reading Adorno’s political thought holistically and in dialogue with Aristotle’s. My recalcitrance lies in the general abstractness of Basnett’s argument and his conflation between Adorno’s standpoint and our own. Let me give a sense of what I mean.
First, Basnett’s exposition of Adorno’s politics occurs at a high level of abstraction. Perhaps such an altitude is unavoidable in a work of political theory that connects moderns with ancients, or is a product of the unrelenting negativity of Adorno’s thinking. Or maybe it simply reflects an arbitrary choice made by Adorno. In any case, the high level of abstraction in Basnett’s presentation of Adorno’s political theory lessens, in my opinion, its attractiveness for us today.
In §§3 and 4, I mentioned the abstract nature of the violence, domination, and struggle (characteristic of the human) and sociopolitical transformation in Basnett’s Adorno. Regarding the former, Basnett seems to claim that the distinctly human activities of struggle and violence have remained constant across history, at least insofar as they are capable of defining the human. All human history has been uniform insofar as it has been a history of domination, and it will continue to be so long as history remains human. If this were not so, we would no longer be in the grip of the Aristotelian problematic. Regarding the latter, we not only do not receive a set of conditions sufficient for achieving utopia (only necessary ones), but we also receive little assurance regarding the direction of sociopolitical transformation. Things can be otherwise, which means they can also get worse. To be sure, Basnett does provide some reasons for believing that the direction of this transformation will be positive, reasons grounded in the human necessity of resisting suffering and art’s solidarity with this suffering. But, again, this suffering and its resistance in art and life become historical constants, universals whose progressive credentials and even continued existence are open to reasonable doubt.
I found myself surprised to be worried about the abstractness of Basnett’s Adorno. Basnett makes it clear that he takes the concreteness of Adorno’s thought, his attentiveness to the historical and the material, as one of the primary reasons why Adorno remains more relevant for us today than other twentieth-century Continental philosophers. Indeed, Basnett criticizes Deleuze and Derrida for locating in animality something “inherently liberating” and therefore perniciously independent of “particular sociopolitical outcomes” (178); such approaches are “too abstractly theorized” (179). Honneth’s theory of rational capacities and their pathologies suffers the same verdict (48–49). Merely “abstract negations” should be avoided (98, cf. 49n77). But I struggle to see why, or in what sense, this criticism of abstraction does not equally apply to Adorno as interpreted by Basnett, given the ahistoricality of the Aristotelian problematic and the rudiments of its resolution in Adorno (against this see 182).
Second, Basnett nowhere distinguishes his own standpoint from Adorno’s. This conflation, unavoidable to some degree, to be sure, in any philosophical reconstruction, nevertheless introduces some challenges for accepting Basnett’s claim that Adorno offers us the surest guide to contemporary political theory. I have already mentioned in §2 that Adorno’s reading of Hegel, at least as presented by Basnett, does not appear to me very plausible in light of contemporary Hegel scholarship. Distinguishing between Adorno’s standpoint and our own would allow us to reengage with this sort of interpretive disagreement more productively. Such a distinction would also be the condition of a genuinely critical reading of Adorno, one in which we would need to evaluate the degree to which Adorno accomplishes the tasks that he sets for himself. True to Adorno’s principles, such a reading would also require us to theoretically acknowledge changes in our objective circumstances. In my view, a critical reading of this sort would be a precondition for defending the Basnett’s first-order claims about the usefulness of Adorno’s political thought. To put the point differently, one has the sense that, lacking a distinction between these two standpoints, Basnett’s book will do little to convince readers who have not already been converted to Adorno’s side.
That said, it is easy to recommend Adorno, Politics, and the Aesthetic Animal to several audiences. Since Basnett deftly synthesizes across Adorno’s major works, the book functions well as a politically-minded introduction to Adorno. Basnett’s mastery of the literature on his subject also makes the book a helpful guide through the burgeoning field of Adorno studies. Moreover, Basnett redresses the state of this field, convincingly re-centering Aristotle in our understanding of Adorno. The book will therefore be essential for anyone concerned with Adorno’s relationship to ancient philosophy. Finally, Basnett’s leveraging of the Adornoian wedge in posthumanism will be of interest to interdisciplinary scholars wondering what Frankfurt School critical theory might contribute to these debates. In sum, Adorno, Politics, and the Aesthetic Animal is a philosophically astute reconstruction of Adorno’s political thought that anyone with an interest in this topic will want to discuss.
 Basnett writes: “For Hegel, it is only through the activities of consciousness culminating in an absolute subject that all particulars find unity and so are assigned fixed identities in a totality. The absolute subject, or spirit, is at once found to be the origin of the process and its goal—the constitutive conception of the subject needed for dialectic noted by Adorno above becomes in Hegel the ultimate guarantor of objects in their particularity, for the subject does not simply project concepts onto objects; rather, the truth of the objects themselves is for Hegel to be found in these projections, in their ideality. Thus there is a preponderance of the subject and the concept over the object in Hegel that, like Aristotle’s metaphysics, falls back into a static conception of the totality of the world and of the positive identities of the objects therein” (44–45). Hegel’s “theodicy” is discussed on 45–46.
Leo Strauss and Contemporary Thought: Reading Strauss Outside the Lines edited by Jeffrey A. Bernstein and Jade Larissa Schiff is a timely volume that contains nuanced, scholarly, and illuminating reflections on Leo Strauss and various figures in the history of contemporary thought. In this review, my goal is to offer summaries of the fourteen essays. I hope that this will be a clear guide for the reader interested in a deeper study of the Schiff and Bernstein volume.
1. “Liberalism and the Question: Strauss and Derrida on Politics and Philosophy” by Jade Larissa Schiff
Schiff’s essay opens the first section entitled the “Arts of Reading and Seeing.” Schiff observes that Strauss and Derrida diverge not only in terms of their political affinities, but also as far as their “conceptual vocabularies” (12) are concerned. Schiff writes that their differences notwithstanding, “the lack of conversation [between the two] is surprising” (12) not only because “Derrida was clearly aware of Strauss” (12), but also because both were developing hermeneutic methodologies, which are respectively, deconstruction for Derrida, and esotericism for Strauss. The critical difference, which Schiff articulates between these two methods is that for Strauss, the thinker’s genuine thoughts are “concealed,” but nonetheless, they can be gleaned from the esoteric reading of the text. For Derrida, the deconstructive movement of the text makes even the thinker subject to an unwilful repression. Thus, for Derrida, the text only beckons with an illusion of holistic comprehensibility, but in fact, the truth remains an ever-receding horizon (14-15). On the basis of the differences in their philosophical methodology, Schiff establishes a more philosophically grounded understanding of Strauss’s and Derrida’s attitude toward political philosophy, which she summarizes at the outset of “Convergences: The Activity of Philosophy and the Trace of the Author” section (18-19). Schiff concludes with an invocation of Socratic self-knowledge, which she connects, on the one hand, to the Derridean insight that the world is also a text, and on the other, to Straussian view about the significance of the historical, cultural, and social context of the text. Thus, to read thoughtfully, means to seek out the knowledge not only of the author’s, but also of our own historical situatedness and “political commitments” (22). Thereby, we allow the text to call “into question what we think we know” (22).
2. “Purloined Letters—Lacan avec Strauss” by Matthew J. Sharpe.
Sharpe finds it perplexing that given both Lacan’s and Strauss’s interest in surreptitious writing, there are no sustained attempts to put these thinkers into a dialogue. Sharpe establishes an indirect affinity between Lacan’s psychoanalytic method and Strauss’s esotericism by drawing on Freud’s model of the unconscious. For Freud, the general work of the “unconscious consists of wishes and beliefs that have been repressed as by a political ‘censor,’ since they oppose the ego’s conscious self-image” (31). Likewise, for Strauss, “esoteric techniques” allow “great writers … to avoid [political] … censorship, and to indicate their true beliefs to careful readers able to read between the lines” (31). Thus, as in mental life we experience repression, so also the esoteric writer suppresses and hides the messages between the lines in order not to fall prey to political persecution. Another affinity that Sharpe finds between Freud, Lacan, and Strauss is their interest in espying causal and intentional order even in those things that appear to be governed by chance (32). Yet another point of confluence between Lacan and Strauss is their “concern for the law, and its relationship with human desire” (33). In terms of discontinuities, Strauss, as Sharpe sees it, prefers classical political thought and “contemplative or philosophical bios” (38) to the modern, post-Machiavellian politics and post-Nitzschean “metaphysical nihilism, ethical or political relativism, epistemological historicism, and proclamations of ‘the end of philosophy’” (38). On this presentation, human beings lack not only purpose but also autonomy, and the latter point is at least partially supported by Freudian insight into the commanding power of the unconscious. And yet, Sharpe’s final pronouncement on the differences between Lacan and Strauss ameliorates this claim. Quoting Lacan, Sharpe observes that the goal of psychoanalysis has to do with the “recreation of human meaning in an arid era of scientism” (43). This aim follows closely Strauss’s interest in a return to classical humanistic values.
3. “Seeing through Law: Phenomenological Thought in Soloveitchik and Strauss” by Jeffrey A. Bernstein
Bernstein is interested in seeing how both Soloveitchik, who “became one of the foremost philosopher-theologians of American Modern Orthodox Judaism” (52), and Leo Strauss rejuvenate the readers’ attitude to law. Soloveitchik was engaged with “‘halakhah’—the body of Jewish law as expressed in the Talmud” (53). Strauss’s “investigation, in Philosophy and Law, involves bracketing the prejudices of modern thought in order to recover a specifically premodern understanding of philosophy in its relation to religion and political life” (58-59). As Bernstein sees it, “both Soloveitchik and Strauss understand law as an optic through which certain fundamental phenomena come to light. In Soloveitchik’s case, these phenomena are the figures of homo religious and (eventually) Halakhic man; in Strauss’s case, these phenomena are religion and politics (as they come to constitute the theological political problem), and the relation between the philosopher and the city” (53). Halakhah, as the body of Jewish law, gives focus to Soloveitchik’s interest in finding an “objectifying structure for accessing subjective religious experience” (62). Strauss’s path indicates a possibility of an “actualized natural situation in which philosophers find themselves.” The latter is connected to religious concerns because it makes up the “perceptual horizon of revelation” (62). Soloveitchik’s and Strauss’s positions on the place and scope of religion constitute a difference between them. Whereas, for Soloveitchik the religious world encompasses the world of law; “for Strauss,” religion “would be (at best) a partial rendition of lived experience” (65). In other words, “[w]hereas Soloveitchik construes law ultimately as religious, Strauss articulates a conception in which the political and religious constitute the primal scene in which philosophy uneasily finds itself” (68). In the final analysis, Bernstein concludes that both Soloveitchik and Strauss see the power of law to structure and guide the lives of “nonphilosophers,” and to serve as a guide in the search for truth – for the understanding of “the world and their place in it” – for the philosophically-minded.
4. “Claude Lefort and Leo Strauss: On a Philosophical Discourse” by Isabel Rollandi
Rollandi constructs the conversation between Lefort and Strauss “around the figure and the work of Machiavelli” (75). Rollandi explains that Lefort thinks that for Strauss, “the proper perspective is achieved by the reader only when we discover the permanence of the problems confronted by human thought as well as Machiavelli’s concern for addressing them” (76). Rollandi shows that Lefort’s hermeneutic approach to Strauss applies to Strauss’s writings the kinds of tools that Strauss himself applies to Machiavelli (78). In a highly illuminating interpretive turn, Rollandi shows that for Lefort, Strauss discovers the fact that Machiavelli falls prey to the same denaturalizing influence of Chrisitan religion that he sought to subvert by his philosophizing (80). The reason why Strauss arrives at this view, according to Lefort, is because Strauss, who sees himself as a perspicacious philosophical reader to whom Machiavelli’s hidden teachings become revealed, erases the “the difference between reading and writing” (84). In other words, Rollandi continues, “Strauss conceives of the author as a sovereign ruler of his discourse. And in the same vein, he conceives of the interpreter as one who can master that discourse. By doing so, according to Lefort, Strauss cannot conceive of the reach of Machiavelli’s interrogation of the political.” (84) The reason why this is the case, as Rollandi shows, is because there is genuine novelty in Machiavelli’s political thought and in the political itself. The illusion of complete mastery on the part of the reader and the author prohibits Strauss from an encounter with the truly new.
5. “A Civil Encounter: Leo Strauss and Charles Taylor on Religious Pluralism” by Jessica L. Radin
At the beginning of her essay entitled, “A Civil Encounter: Leo Strauss and Charles Taylor on Religious Pluralism,” Radin focuses on Strauss’s and Taylor’s views of religion. Taylor, according to Radin, questions the possibility of the construction of the common moral core in the world where all belief in the transcendent is absent (112). Strauss sees in religious belief a salve from “social and communal homogeneity (descent into mass culture),” but Strauss is also apprehensive of the fact that religious communities “end up rendering all other groups outliers or outsiders” (112). Moreover, on Strauss’s view, there is an inherent tension between a political and a religious community. This view, as Radin presents it, leads Strauss to posit that “genuine political equality among religions might be impossible” (114). Taylor, on the other hand, is interested in “figuring out how actual political and social institutions can balance a commitment to freedom of religion with the need for adherents of all religions to interact nonviolently and on equal footing before the state” (114). Strauss and Taylor agree about the importance of cultivating virtue (118). However, for Strauss, it is highly questionable whether there is such a thing as a genuine education en masse. For Taylor one irreplaceable virtue is “tolerance … without which it is impossible to live peacefully in a pluralistic society” (124). Likewise, “Strauss is a defender of pluralism and of difference not only because of the positive effect such a culture has for both Jews and philosophers, but because he held that homogeneity and conformity lead to the creation of a ‘mass culture,’ which is then particularly vulnerable to the linked illnesses of mass culture, political indifference, and messianic expectations” (122). The danger of mass culture, as Radin explains, is not only in its susceptibility to gruesome political injustice and violence (122), but also in the vulnerability of a homogenized population to being swindled manipulated (122-23).
6. “Care of the Self and the Invention of Legitimate Government: Foucault and Strauss on Platonic Political Philosophy” by Miguel Vatter
The focal point of Vater’s examination is the “opposition between Platonic political philosophy and democratic political life” (135). As Vatter claims, the way in which both Strauss and Foucault understand the position of the philosopher in the polis is paradoxical; because for both the philosophical person is – at once – antipolitical, but also is engaged in politics by virtue of leading a philosophical life. For Vatter, “philosophical politics is “anti-political” in two senses: … for … the many who are subject to it, philosophical politics is experienced as “government” and not as a political life that engages the best part of their lives” (136). Furthermore, Vatter posits that “[f]or those … few … who subject others to their government, philosophical politics is ‘anti-political’ either because it gives rise to a doctrine of being that is no longer ‘relative’ to humanity (Strauss) or because it gives rise to a doctrine of self or psychology that is radically unencumbered by the social relation to others (Foucault)” (136). Both for Strauss and Foucault, there is a certain understanding of the self that allow a thoughtful individual to extricate herself from a thoroughgoing immersion in the communal life with the many. Vatter’s “general thesis is that both Strauss and Foucault see in Platonic political philosophy the birth of a governmental (as opposed to political) discourse” (136). “Governmentality,” Vatter goes on to explain, “refers to the “technology of self” that produces a certain ethos or self-conduct, such that this self is then enabled to conduct or govern others, in the sense of leading them. But whereas for Foucault the Platonic conception of governmentality is centered on ethical autonomy, for Strauss it is centered on ontology” (137). In conclusion, Vatter sees a slight, but important divergence between Strauss and Foucault on the meaning of philosophical anti-political politics. For Strauss, “philosophers could not desire to rule in first [sic.] person because their main activity was that of questioning, or illuminating the (unanswerable) basic problems” (149). However, for Foucault, the self-searches of the philosopher grant her a privileged position of becoming a leader of others by first being genuinely a seeker of self-knowledge (149). This moment of philosophical self-articulation is also something that Vatter identifies with self-rule, which he sees as a prerequisite for an informed and good rule of others (148).
7. “A Fruitful Disagreement: The Philosophical Encounter between George P. Grant and Leo Strauss” by Waller R. Newell
Newell largely uses Straussian influences on Grant to interpret Grant’s philosophical program. Newell opens his piece by indicating that Grant’s study of Strauss tempered his faith in historical progress and informed his return to the ancient roots of political thinking. However, whereas “Strauss always maintained a sharp divergence between classical philosophy and revelation, Grant was a Christian Platonist who believed the two were not irreconcilable” (161). Newell develops this difference by juxtaposing Kojève’s engagement with Hegel to Grant’s engagement with Strauss. Importantly, “Kojève interprets Hegel as an ‘atheistic’ thinker” (163) because the latter further develops the project of secularized social equality; the project that was spearheaded by Hobbes and Spinoza. Thus, Kojève is calling for a “Universal Homogeneous State [UHS]” (161). However, and “paradoxically,” as Newell points out, “the satisfaction we achieve at the end of history” in UHS “is tantamount to the withering away of our most admirable or at least our most distinctive human traits” (165). “For Strauss,” as Newell continues, “and Grant appears to agree with him [i.e., with Strauss]—according to the classics, universal happiness is not possible” (165). Newell underscores that “[i]n Grant’s view, however, any argument for the superiority of classical political philosophy must come to terms with the challenge of revelation, a deeper source of the claim that compassion is more important than thought’” (167). Although universal happiness may not be possible for all, the goal is to ameliorate suffering of the greatest number. However, according to Newell, Grant holds that the equalizing power of the Christian faith that was promulgated as “secular liberalism” (181) is a double-edged sword. This is so because “the will to autonomy breaks loose from [its] … old content [and] … wants to entirely remake nature and the world in pursuit of the abstract, empty, endless pursuit of freedom” (181). Thus, for Grant, unlike for Strauss, it is necessary, but insufficient to look back to ancient origins of justice and divinity, because the modern project along with its secularizing and technologizing influence has reshaped human nature (184). In order to capture the meaning of this reshaping, for Grant, we must carry out a deep reflection not only on modernity and the classical world, but also on the meaning of religion (185).
8. “Strauss and Blumenberg: On the Caves of the Moderns” by Danilo Manca
Manca weaves together Strauss’s and Blumenberg’s accounts of the image of the cave from Plato’s Republic. Manco admits that “there is no proof of a direct influence of Strauss on Blumenberg” (187). There is also an apparent divergence between Strauss and Blumenberg on the question of the cave image. As Manca writes, Strauss identifies the Cave with a certain state of nature (187). Unlike Strauss, Blumenberg does not think that we can discern an “original horizon out of which history would have dangerously brought mankind” (187). Strauss sees modernity as being a cave within a cave. Our perspective is displaced, and we first have to find a way out of this historically, politically, and socially constructed displacement. Strauss’s ultimate position, according to Manca, is that we must find the truth by ascending from the cave. However, this is not Blumenberg’s view. The latter “is more interested in exploring the way in which the caves contribute to the acquisition of knowledge. Alluding to the prehistoric cave paintings, Blumenberg states that it was by passing through the cave that the human being became a ‘dreaming animal’” (190). In this connection, Manca introduces Blumenberg’s work on metaphor and the power of myth, which already in Plato, was constitutive of philosophical thought (190). This power continues to inform our thinking and our lives with newfound and often re-figured meanings. In conclusion, Manca states that “Strauss’s main goal is the return to the investigation of the essence of things. Therefore, historiographical investigation can be taken to be only an auxiliary, albeit integral, part of philosophical inquiry. On the contrary, for Blumenberg, historiographical research embraces the entire field of philosophical investigation insofar as it is focused on the study of absolute metaphors” (198-99). For Strauss, historical situatedness of philosophical ideas is one of the tools of investigation into the truth of the matter; for Blumenberg it lays out the entirety of the field of truth.
9. “Writing the Querelle des Anciens et Modernes: Leo Strauss and Ferdinand Tönnies on Hobbes and the Sociology of Philosophy” by Peter Gostmann
Gostmann notes that Tönnies influenced Strauss’s development and that, specifically, Strauss sought support from Tönnies when trying to publish “his essay on Hobbes’s Criticism of religion.” Gostmann concludes that “[u]nlike Strauss, Tönnies is convinced that there has never been a quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. There was, much earlier, a conflict between Old Rome and the new peoples of Europe: established groups versus wanderers, not aristocrats versus plebeians. The measure of the best possible regime Tönnies is concerned with, that is, the aim of his sociology of philosophy, is therefore a ‘natural’ synthesis between institutions suitable for continuity and the mobile elements of society” (230). Whereas, Strauss seeks to recover the ancient mode of philosophizing, on Tönnies’s reading, Hobbes – the quintessential modern thinker (217) – seeks to depart from the “contemplative” model of philosophy (213). Reflecting on this departure, Gostmann writes, “Hobbes’ pioneering act is the translation of Galilean mathematico-mechanical philosophy into a ‘moral and political’ science, based on the theory of a ‘dynamic’ mechanism of optic perception” (213). In his reading of Hobbes, Strauss concludes that despite Hobbes’ ostensible atheism, it is impossible to have a serious grasp of Hobbes’ thinking, unless one espies a certain theological bent in Hobbes. Gostmann discusses a highly interesting set of conclusions that Strauss draws from his study of Hobbes in Natural Right and History (223). For Strauss, Hobbesian thought eventuates in several substitutions of classical for modern priorities. 1) The value and virtue of contemplative life is substituted with industrious life and the rewards it allegedly brings. 2) Based on the first substitution, the governmental authority has little interest in wisdom or contemplation, and instead seeks efficiency in government. This results in doctrinal and partisan politics. Strauss concludes that these changes in social and political values necessitate a particular class of individuals responsible for “shaping public opinion” (223). The latter process, for it to be effective, must find support in the government of state. Thus, the said opinion-shapers, in turn, must see to it that in their work they uphold the interests of their government (223). As Gostmann sees it, for Strauss, Hobbes “has no profound idea of political philosophy,” which is why Hobbes produces a “doctrine that does not defend the freedom of philosophizing, but enables either anti-liberal doctrinism or liberalism without liberality” (229).
10. “Leo Strauss and Jürgen Habermas: The Question for Reason in Twentieth-Century Lifeworlds,” by Rodrigo Chacón
Chacón observes that despite the various divergences in Strauss’s and Habermas’s work there is still one definitive point of contact, i.e., the thinkers’ focus on reason (230). As far as the critique of reason is concerned, “critical thought is meant to be anti-dogmatic, yet it seems to discredit, once and for all, the traditionally philosophic use of reason” (240). This is where Strauss’s interest in “[s]ubverting the law of critique” comes in (241). Chacón writes that “Strauss argues against the view that freedom of speech and thought presupposes the public use of reason” (241). In fact, public opinion is not freely shaped by the individuals who make up that public, but rather, by a few convincing individuals who offer several pre-formulated views on any given matter (242). Nevertheless, because Strauss does not tie the critique of modes of thought to modes of production or social relations, he does not think that there is a “need to revolutionize the way we interact in order to change the way we think” (244). The one, perhaps unresolvable, “problem Strauss discovered … is the ‘theological-political problem.’ … Strauss provides no final answer to the question of whether we can acquire knowledge of the good or must rely on divine revelation to guide our lives. The result is a kind of impasse, or a productive tension, where each side in the conflict between reason and revelation challenges its opponent to articulate its position with ever greater clarity” (246). However, for Strauss, the task of philosophy is, emphatically, the quest for liberation from “religious authority” (246). In comparison to Strauss, “Habermas’s late work critique becomes post-secular. It is now aware that modernity cannot, after all, generate normativity solely on its own” (247). Thus, Strauss’s and Habermas’s thinking finds affinity in articulating this tension between religious or revealed law and discoveries about values and norms that non-religious thought may yield.
11. “Heidegger’s Challenge to the Renaissance of Socratic Political Rationalism” by Alexander S. Duff
Duff examines Strauss’s thought as “[o]ne inviting approach to the difference between Heidegger
and the Socratism,” which Strauss carries out “by looking at the following question: How does human openness relate to the fact of the articulation of the world or the whole” (261)? The reason why it is fruitful to pursue the encounter between Socrates and Heidegger from this point of view is because “Heidegger rejects or, more properly speaking, attempts to overcome the Socratic way of being. In this sense, his thought—from its earliest mature expressions to its fullest adumbration—is counter-Socratic” (260). Not only does Heidegger, according to Duff’s reading of Strauss, misconstrues the meaning of Socratic questioning, but also Heidegger misses the comic dimension of Socratic thought; thus cauterizing access to holistic Socratic philosophizing. On Duff’s presentation, Heidegger offers the following objection: “[w]e cannot understand ourselves when we take our bearings from the what is it question because, while the beings about which we are asking come into existence and pass out of existence as we do, we are aware of and concerned with our own perishing from, as it were, a ‘first-person’ perspective” (262). The orientation that attempts to align the things out there with the individuality of the inquirer has to be refigured such that the horizon of beings in their Being becomes accessible to the questioner. In turn, this questioner is placed within or along the horizon of Being. The latter, i.e., the existential horizon, is atelic, but only emerges “from deeper currents of temporality and care” (268). Duff then engages with Heidegger’s interest in the withdrawal or concealment of Being and the fruitfulness of thinking about nihilism in the context of reckoning with this withdrawal. In the face of nihilism, Duff says that “Strauss praises comedy for its attention to and preservation of the surface, opinion and convention. … Comedy punctures convention by lampooning it, but also shows the need for its preservation. Comedy forswears tragic depths not out of ignorance, but for the sake of presenting a more complete picture of the whole. Comedy is thus superior to tragedy; it transcends and presupposes tragedy” (272-73). Thus, by omitting Socratic humor, ridicule, irony, and comedy – both in Socrates’ utterances and in his deeds – Heidegger misses a critically important dimension of Socratic questioning and philosophizing.
12. “The Wheel of History: Nihilism as Moral Protest and Deconstruction of the Present in Leo Strauss and Albert Camus” by Ingrid L. Anderson
Anderson writes that Strauss’s “1941 lecture on German nihilism” shows a set of concerns that are similar to Camus’s. Both appeared to be discontented with the spread of liberal democracy, and both called for a “rediscovery of and renewed adherence to some semblance of absolute universal values, that are not created by the forces of history but identified in history as enduring and therefore fundamental” (282). Whereas Camus was a staunch critic of communism (284), “Strauss’s work on German nihilism indicates that his greatest worry was the advent of National Socialism. But he also wanted to expose what he felt were the ‘shaky foundations’ of the goals of liberalism, including its steadfast belief in the inevitability of linear progress” (286). Strauss saw German nihilism as particularly “dangerous because it is unable to succinctly identify what it wants to build in place of the present world that it aims to destroy” (288). However, on the point of Nietzschean nihilism, Strauss agrees with Camus who does not take nihilism to be a sign of a will to nothingness, but rather a will to destroy the sham values of the day (289). Anderson concludes that “[b]oth Strauss and Camus reject teleological understandings of history that posit a final cause or destination for human societies” (291). This position, if it is not nihilistic, is at least atelic, and it supports a Nietzschean revaluation of values.
13. “Who’s Laughing? Leo Strauss on Comedy and Mockery” by Menachem Feuer
Feuer gives himself a task to re-examine the place of comedy in Strauss’s work, and its significance for Strauss’s philosophical ideas. To that end, Feuer identifies “three important moments in Strauss’s reflections on comedy and humor: (1) his discussion of Aristophanes and Socrates; (2) his investigation of Enlightenment mockery and the arguments of the ancients; (3) his analysis of Nietzsche’s notion of greatness (and its relationship to mockery) and the Jewish tradition of extreme humility (and its relationship to comedy)” (297). On Feuer’s assessment, Strauss’s view of comedy allows him to think about it as both that which constitutes a relational bonding within a community and that which allows to disrupt the social and cultural horizons (296). The novelty of the worldview that comedy reveals when contrasted with tragedy has to do with the position of the comedian toward the law (political, religious, etc.). More specifically, as Feuer claims, Strauss’s key insight into the power of comedic boasting and ridicule has to do with the fact that, whereas in tragedy a hubristic transgression is punished (thus preserving divine justice), in comedy hubristic boasting is subject to comedic ridicule and to audience’s laughter. More importantly, and “here is Strauss’s esoteric twist: The real ‘boaster par excellence’ … is the comic poet himself, who after all is responsible especially for those successful transgressions of sacred laws that he celebrates in his plays” (305). On the subject of Enlightenment philosophy and the Athens/Jerusalem question, Feuer concludes that, as far as Strauss is concerned, the spirit of self-mockery, self-undermining, and of life-affirming humility is waning, but must be restored to Jewish thought. Feuer concludes his analysis by stating that, for Strauss, the “key question for Athens and Jerusalem is that of the right way of life.” (318) The answer to the question: “What kind of life is [this]?” is “that comedy and philosophy go hand in hand and that humility can, in fact, pass over from the religious sphere into the philosophical sphere. Taking this to heart, one can read Socrates as a humble comic figure who—between Aristophanes and Plato—can figure the tension between the city (community)/ poet and the philosopher. This tension,” Feuer argues, “can also be generalized and applied to the Jewish community, but in terms of prophecy and comedy” (318).
14. “Leo Strauss and Walter Benjamin: Thinking ‘in a Moment of Danger’” by Philipp von Wussow
Wussow puts Strauss and Benjamin in conversation by examining their common interest in Carl Schmitt. Looking at the three authors together allows Wussow to clarify the way in which modern religion and culture relate to the “concept of the political” (324). Wussow delineates “a number of theoretical similarities and differences. We may distinguish a few common themes: (1) the stance toward tradition and modernity and the critique of history as progress; (2) the reading of Carl Schmitt; the relationship between aesthetics and politics, and the notion of the political; (3) the stance toward theological and political concepts; namely, the concepts of messianism and redemption (to which Strauss was, unlike virtually all other German-Jewish thinkers, wholly indifferent), law (which was important for both), and revelation (which is central for Strauss, while it gradually vanishes in Benjamin’s writings); (4) a rare methodological emphasis on reading, and a strong sense for esoteric meanings hidden beneath the surface of a text that was fueled by a deep suspicion of the grand schemes of “theory”; and (5) their relationships to the two major schools of German academic philosophy. Both had a complicated relationship to neo-Kantianism and phenomenology: whereas Benjamin’s thought is closer to neo-Kantianism, Strauss is closer to phenomenology” (327-28). In so far as the relationship between politics and aesthetics is concerned, for Benjamin, an unmistakable “anesthetization of politics under fascism” takes place, on the one hand; and on the other, under communism, art becomes politicized (329). However, both ideologies are “murderous and indefensible” in the final analysis (329). Strauss’s solution to this merging of art and politics is based on his reading of Schmitt, and it proposes a return to the pre-cultural domain of law. Furthermore, both Strauss and Benjamin see great value in engaging with classical thought for the sake of gaining a deeper understanding of our times. However, this study of the tradition itself had to be repositioned. On this point, Wussow writes that “[t]radition could no longer be understood in a traditional way; in this respect Strauss and Benjamin were in perfect agreement” (335). Wussow concludes his investigation by saying that “[t]he two figures of interwar German-Jewish thought represent two different ways of conceptualizing the dialectics of modernity and premodernity; two models of viewing society and culture from outside; and two different foundations for the understanding of the political in its relation to culture” (338).
The Wiley–Blackwell 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). 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, 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.
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.
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’) 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.
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’. 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. 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). 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. [https://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/robert_pippin_reviews_adorno_and_existence/] 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.)
 Brian O’Connor translates ‘referierbar’ as ‘reportable’ (526), which seems a more elegant solution.
 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.
 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’.
 “[…] 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].
 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.
 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.”
In Levinas’s Politics, Annabel Herzog attempts to articulate whether there might be something like a positive and coherent political philosophy in Levinas’s thought. As Herzog is the first to admit, for many critics of Levinas this effort will seem doomed from the outset. For if it cannot be denied that Levinas’s works frequently mention politics and political reasoning, these considerations seem merely peripheral to what is generally considered Levinas’s ‘real’ philosophical interest, that is, the ethical (or moral) relation between the subject and the absolute alterity of the other person. What is more, Levinas regularly opposes this ethical relation to politics, seemingly emphasising only the essential violence and irrelevance of politics for morality. Indeed, one need only turn to the very first page of Totality and Infinity to find a clear expression of this sentiment: “The art of foreseeing war and of winning it by every means—politics—(….) is opposed to morality, as philosophy to naïveté” (Levinas, 1979: 21).
From this standpoint, it might indeed seem that Herzog will be hard pressed to find a positive and nuanced conception of politics in Levinas’s work. As Herzog opens her book by countering, however, even in those texts where Levinas speaks of an opposition between politics and morality, there is more than a simple relation of mutual exclusivity between the two domains. In Totality and Infinity, for instance, this involvement between politics and morality is conceptually signalled by the “entrance of the third party”, who is said by Levinas to introduce the considerations of politics into the ‘dual’ ethical relation between the subject and the other. Crucially, far from conceiving this third party as wholly external and somehow posterior to morality, Levinas explicitly holds that its presence is always already felt in the ethical relation with the other: “The third party looks at me in the eyes of the other” (Levinas, 1979: 213). That being the case, the relation between politics and morality is certainly much more complex than Levinas’s own assertions on the opposition between those two domains might at first lead us to believe—and indeed, than some of Levinas’s critics give him credit for.
The majority of Levinas’s Politics directs itself to this intricate relation that is posited between the fields of politics and morality in Levinas’s thought. Now, Herzog is of course not the first scholar to recognise that Levinasian politics and morality are in a certain sense “inseparable and contained within one another” (Fagan, 2009: 7, cited in LP 2-3). Instead, the major contribution of Levinas’s Politics consists of its attempt to explore this inseparability “in light of a close reading of [Levinas’s] Talmudic readings—that is, Levinas’s ‘Jewish’ works” (3). As Herzog notes, the traditional approach to Levinas’s philosophy has tended to consider these Talmudic commentaries as distinct and separable from the more central ‘philosophical-phenomenological’ works. Following Levinas’s own insistence on the distinction between the two bodies of work, traditional scholarship has also tended to regard these ‘religious’ or ‘confessional’ writings as being of merely illustrative interest for the philosophical substance of Levinas’s thought. By contrast, Levinas’s Politics studies Levinas primarily from the perspective of his Talmudic writings, and it turns to the phenomenological works only in order to “document [its] interpretations of the readings, thereby inverting the traditional approach to Levinas’s work” (6).
In her Introduction, Herzog begins to defend this decision by insisting that both of Levinas’s corpuses should be considered philosophical. The distinction between the two sets of texts is not therefore that is one ‘philosophical’ and the other merely ‘confessional’. Rather, according to Herzog, this distinction is best understood in terms of differences in approach. “The ethical philosophy published in the phenomenological books expresses an unconditional and immemorial call [to responsibility] that can be considered ‘prophetic’. One hears the call and accepts it as it is” (7). The Talmudic readings, by contrast, are said to confront this apodictic and unconditional call to ethical responsibility with concrete situations. “The readings ask the question: What does ethics mean in situations that involve more than the ego and the other?” (9). In other words, though both sets of texts are similarly concerned with philosophical questions of ethical responsibility towards otherness, they each respond to these questions from a differing perspective: “the phenomenological books present a utopian and impracticable ethics, while the Talmudic readings reflect a political, and at times pragmatic, mode of thought” (5).
Herzog’s wager is that this difference in approach makes the Talmudic readings a particularly fruitful place to unearth Levinas’s positive conception of politics. Indeed, because those readings focus specifically on the meaning of ethics in concrete situations, they “constitute a genre subject to different constraints and impositions compared with Levinas’s phenomenological style” (10). That is, the situational focus of the readings gives Levinas the scope to think politics otherwise than through some of the guiding presuppositions of his phenomenological works. Significantly, they allow Levinas to “moderate” (10) what the phenomenological texts call the absolute precedence of ethics: the idea that ethics is first philosophy, or that the ethical relation constitutes the primary reference point for any philosophical investigation. And in moderating this presupposition, Herzog argues, the Talmudic readings not only “manifest a political thinking that challenges the ethical analyses offered in Levinas’s phenomenological works” (5, emphasis added), but they also offer a radically different conception of Levinasian politics. In Herzog’s own words: “In the readings (…), Levinas tried to do two things that he could not do in the phenomenological works: first, prevent politics from bringing about the failure of ethics; and second, construct politics positively, and not as the interruption and collapse of ethics” (10).
The first chapter of Levinas’s Politics begins to advance this political portrayal of Levinas by further reflecting on what distinguishes his Talmudic from his phenomenological writings. According to Herzog, the unique character of the Talmudic readings can be approached from the perspective of Levinas’s famous distinction between the “saying” and the “said”—that is, in terms of the distinction between “the manifestation of presence through discourse” (the said), and “a form of language that does not reduce (…) otherness into sameness” (the saying) (20-21). Following Ricoeur’s reading of this distinction, which emphasises a complex mutual interplay between said and saying, Herzog’s argument is that the form of Levinas’s Talmudic writings “must be understood as part of a larger expression of the relationship between ‘saying’ and ‘said’, in which ‘saying’ and ‘said’ cannot exist without each other—indeed must confront each other” (28). For whilst, as Herzog demonstrates, Levinas certainly considers the Talmud to be the expression of an ethical saying that is irreducible to the said, his Talmudic commentaries—because they seek the unity of the many disparate texts that make up the Talmud—can be regarded as attempting to “integrate these ‘sayings’ into a thematised philosophical ‘said'” (26).
Though somewhat technical, this discussion on the form of the Talmudic readings allows Herzog to successfully articulate some of the guiding threads of her political reading of Levinas. In particular, Herzog uses this discussion to posit an essential inseparability between the domains of ethics and ontology in Levinas: “The inseparability of ‘saying’ and ‘said’ comes from the concreteness of life itself, in which ethics and ontology develop together” (28). Now, for Herzog, this inseparability is crucial from the point of view of Levinas’s politics not only because politics and ontology are regularly equated in his philosophy. More broadly, the interplay between saying and said that is formally expressed by Levinas’s Talmudic writings also tells us something about their positive political content. Specifically, it points to a substantive conception of Levinasian politics—“a livable politics” (15)—where political activity is that which simultaneously confronts and materialises the irreducible ‘saying’ of ethics.
Herzog further expounds this Levinasian conception of politics in Chapter 2. Here, Levinasian politics is introduced as an institutional enterprise that concerns itself with how responsibility and goods should be shared across humanity. On this reading, Levinas defines politics neither as a monopoly of power, nor as the guardianship of individuals’ natural rights. Rather more starkly, the Talmudic readings define politics “as concern and care for people’s hunger” (40). “To think of men’s hunger is the first function of politics” (Levinas, 1994: 18). This means that in distinction to ethics, politics also does not consist of the absolute obligation to give oneself wholly to the other. Politics is not exactly “the duty to give to the other even the bread out of one’s own mouth”, as Otherwise than Being defines ethics (Levinas, 1998a: 55). Indeed, as Herzog states, though the other’s hunger is in a certain sense the problem that unites both politics and ethics in Levinas, each of those domains develops a radically different solution to that problem. “Ethics is the name of the principle by which the other has priority over the ego. (….) That is, ethics calls for giving the other everything, now” (LP 41). Politics, on the other hand, concerns itself with calculating how some hunger can be institutionally appeased “through the practice of sharing and distributing responsibility and goods” (41).
As well as elucidating this conception of politics, Herzog’s second chapter also offers the intriguing claim that Levinasian politics is that which in a certain sense realises ethics. Taking her cue from Levinas’s text on “Judaism and Revolution”, Herzog’s argument is that “ethics alone has no materiality. It becomes material and receives meaning only in the form of something that is very different from—and indeed, opposed to—it: politics” (41). Now, insofar as it finds clear textual evidence in Levinas’s Talmudic readings, this argument is largely successful in dispelling the “common misconception” that Levinas is wholly ‘against’ politics (42). Importantly, in pursuing this argument, Herzog also innovatively identifies a conception of Levinasian justice that finds no clear expression in the phenomenological writings: merciful or non-indifferent justice. Under this conception, justice “is synonymous with neither ethics nor politics but consists in the relation between the two” (11). Put differently, justice is that differential which expresses the extent to which the infinite responsibility of ethics has become fulfilled, or materialised, through the institutional calculation and distribution of politics.
Chapter 3 deals with another unique contribution of Levinas’s Talmudic work, namely, its conception of the social. According to Herzog, in works like “Messianic Texts” and “Cities of Refuge”, Levinas thematises a distinctive social domain that can be called neither ethical nor political. This social domain, which Levinas equates with both contemporary urban life and Western liberal democracies, is one that is characterised by individualism, conflict, and a lack of concern for others. In Herzog’s words: “the social [is] a domain of indifferent care for the self, unaffected by ethical responsibility” (54). As such, the social clearly distinguishes itself from both ethics and the political: “[it] consists of neither infinite responsibility nor the implementation of those laws of justice that that would transform the ethical demand into viable practices” (46). Nevertheless, far from being simply irrelevant to Levinas’s overall conception of politics, for Herzog, this conception of the social in fact further highlights the positive role that Levinasian politics can play in realising ethics. Indeed, Herzog’s conclusion in this chapter is that if there is never any responsibility or concern for others in the social, then “politics—understood as institutions and leadership [of shared responsibility]—is the sole way to concretely implement the ethical principle (….) the sole way, for Levinas, to give some materiality to ethics” (53).
Having in the first three chapters presented a mostly positive vision of Levinasian politics, in Chapter 4 Herzog begins to focus on the necessary connection between this politics and the problem of violence. Herzog opens this chapter by noting that the critique of politics that famously appears in Totality and Infinity—where politics is defined as the violent art of war—is not entirely absent from Levinas’s Talmudic readings (55). In essays like “The State of Cesar and the State of David”, Levinas continues to attribute an essential violence to politics: “‘By serving the State one serves repression’ (….) by which Levinas means that all State servants, like police officers, use or condone violence or repression” (60). But unlike Levinas’s phenomenological writings, Herzog adds, the Talmudic readings do not entirely reject the value of politics and the state. Indeed, despite continuing to describe politics as violent, Levinas’s Talmudic writings also insist that political violence is necessary for the task of fighting evil (60). In this particular sense, and as Herzog persuasively demonstrates, Levinas not only judges politics to be violent, but he also “accepts that the aim of political violence, namely, the fight against evil, is important and legitimates its means” (66).
In Chapter 5, Herzog further develops this account of political violence by reflecting on what Levinas understands by evil. Drawing on the notion of merciful justice introduced in Chapter 2, Herzog’s central contention in this chapter is that “evil in the Talmudic readings is the impossibility of justice” (64). Put differently, evil is a kind of disjunction between politics and ethics: it is the antithesis of that productive relation where ethics is realised or materialised by politics. “Evil is the situation of an unattainable relationship between ethics and politics, a situation in which politics and ethics cannot coexist” (64). Now, Herzog’s claim is that Levinas considers the phenomenon of evil to be possible in three different contexts. First, evil can occur when an individual—or its political community—chooses to build a private domain (or home) that is detached from otherness and collective action. Evil “is the attempt to build a fortified self—be it an individual or national home—erected against the world” (71). Second, evil for Levinas is what happens when the state, instead of fighting injustice and oppression, becomes dominated by “ideology” and “idolatry”—that is, by two deceptive forms of language that disguise themselves as moral reason, but which are in fact mystifications intended to oppress and dominate (74). Third, “evil is linked to animality, namely to a certain understanding of being” (65). More accurately, evil is what happens when we choose to give our biological and psychological inclinations—our ontological or animal desires—a preponderance over political responsibility (77).
As well as bringing Levinas into a productive dialogue with a number of significant political thinkers (including Arendt, Weil and Nussbaum), Herzog’s account of evil also begins to illustrate one of the key claims of Levinas’s Politics, namely, the idea that the Talmudic readings moderate some of the positions of Levinas’s phenomenological writings. In short, Herzog’s contention is that because the Talmudic readings conceive evil as “the choice of an order of things” (79), they are also able to develop more nuanced accounts of phenomena like dwelling and ontology than the phenomenological writings. Thus, for instance, because in the Talmudic readings “evil is not anchored in biological or psychological inclinations but in choosing to give these dispositions precedence over responsibility, (….) the extreme claim of Levinas’s 1948 book Time and the Other, that ‘Being is evil’, is, in the readings, moderated into a more complex view: Being is evil, but only when it is not subordinated to ethics” (78-79).
This line of thinking is extended in Chapter 6, which focuses on Levinas’s conception of nature in the Talmudic readings. Herzog opens this chapter by stating that due to their largely anti-Spinozist slant, it is not always easy to find an appreciation of the ethical value of nature in Levinas’s phenomenological writings, where “transcendence, or God, is not nature, and is other than nature” (81). Contrastingly, the Talmudic readings do sometimes connect the uncanny infinity of transcendence to the natural world. Indeed, as Herzog reveals, despite maintaining a distinction between the human and the natural, Levinas’s Talmudic writings do intriguingly consider non-human animals, like dogs, to in certain cases “sense or express ‘transcendence'” (88). Furthermore, this expression of transcendence in nature is not limited to the case of humanity’s ‘best friend’. Indeed, in what is this chapter’s main contribution, Herzog also attempts to demonstrate that “Levinas uncovers the complicated relationship between the ontological and the ethical in all parts of nature” (91). Specifically, Herzog sees the Talmudic readings as providing a unique notion of “elevation”, within nature as a whole, which makes nature more than a simple perseverance in being or conatus (93). In other words, for Levinas, there is “an otherwise than nature in nature” (94). And for Herzog, this idea is politically charged because it shows that Levinas’s philosophy can open onto a sort of “prudent environmentalism” (94). That is, with Levinas, we can reassess our political relation with nature, and come to regard it as a domain that mixes both conative, an-ethical struggles and moments of genuine ethical rupture.
In Chapter 7, Herzog turns to what is potentially the thorniest aspect of Levinas’s Talmudic readings: their defence of Zionism and the modern State of Israel. Herzog is of course eminently aware that such defences have led many critics to classify Levinas’s philosophy as anti-Palestinian and even racist. And in this chapter, Herzog by no means denies that there are certain problems with Levinas’s reflections on Zionism. However, and in response to such critiques, Herzog holds “that Levinas’s take on Zionism is a specific instance of his broader conception of the relation between ethics and politics” (96). In other words, Herzog’s claim is that Levinas’s thought on Zionism receives its broad outlines from the more general political philosophy of the Talmudic readings—and not vice versa. Thus, Herzog’s first argument in this chapter is that Levinas defends the State of Israel because he sees it as the only way to politically ensure the survival of the Jewish people, and thus, as the only way to concretely implement or realise the “particular version of justice” that is expressed in the Torah (99). However, Herzog also tries to demonstrate that, in line with the notion that politics is necessarily violent, Levinas repeatedly criticises and holds the State of Israel to account for its violent tendencies. As she puts it: “despite the fact that the State of Israel serves an ethical purpose and is, indeed, necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, it nonetheless puts Jewish existence in physical and spiritual danger because it entails an embrace of ontology—idolatry of the land, rootedness, conquest, and destruction” (102). For Herzog, therefore, the ‘problem’ with Levinas’s thought on Zionism is not its silence or failure to denounce the violence and oppression of the modern State of Israel. Instead, “the main weakness of Levinas’s Zionism” is that it still lends itself too readily to the dialectical Hegelianism that Levinas elsewhere so strongly criticises (96).
The final chapter of Levinas’s Politics continues to clarify Levinas’s relation to Hegel, but this time from the perspective of the general issue of political messianism. Herzog’s effort in this chapter is two-fold: first, to clarify the relation between Levinasian eschatology and concrete political laws; and second, to elucidate the relation between messianism and history. In both cases, Herzog’s key argument is that Levinasian messianism, despite signifying an anarchic divine Law that is entirely irreducible to—and even ‘ends’ the temporality of—political laws and historical realities, nonetheless relies on those same entities to find its expression in the world. As Herzog, quoting Levinas, writes: “the ethical law needs the support of political laws: ‘The Messiah is king. The divine invests history and the State rather than doing away with them. The end of History retains a political form” (116). In upholding this idea, Herzog argues further, the Talmudic readings also significantly nuance the conception of history that emerges in Levinas’s phenomenological works. Indeed, where in the latter Levinas frequently opposes ethical eschatology to history (cf. Levinas, 1979: 21), in the Talmudic readings “there is no contradiction between recognising the importance of political history and holding to an ethical messianism, because political history is the instrument that allows redemption to enter the phenomenal world” (120). Thus, for Herzog, even in their most ‘utopian’ of dimensions, that is, even where they speak of a Law that is in a certain sense irreducible to political realities, Levinas’s Talmudic readings remain political through and through.
Overall, Levinas’s Politics is a hugely successful text. Pace Levinas’s critics, Herzog’s text develops a compelling portrayal of Levinas as a thinker who does not exclusively consider politics and the state as hindrances to ethics and justice. Indeed, although from a certain perspective the aims of Levinasian politics and morality are indeed opposed, from another angle, as Herzog convincingly shows, those two domains in fact support and mutually complement one another. In this respect, there is indeed a political philosophy to be found in Levinas’s work. Furthermore, Levinas’s Politics persuasively demonstrates that this political philosophy attains a certain coherence throughout Levinas’s Talmudic writings, consistently manifesting itself in discussions of topics as varied as evil, violence, nature, and messianicity. In treating these and a breadth of other subjects with admirable clarity and succinctness, Herzog also demonstrates a commanding grasp of what is undoubtedly an underappreciated part of Levinas’s corpus. Readers of Levinas that are unfamiliar with the ‘religious’ aspects of his work will undoubtedly find a wealth of valuable new material in Levinas’s Politics, and they will likewise benefit from Herzog’s concise but supremely informative explanations of Levinas’s unique approach to religious material.
For all its scholarly richness and breadth, there are nonetheless some notable absences in Levinas’s Politics. Crucially, the text makes no reference to Bergson, a philosopher who Levinas famously described as one of the most important for his thought (second only to Heidegger and Husserl), and whose metaphysical conception of time as duration is well known to have influenced Levinas throughout his career. Yet, it is not exactly this metaphysical Bergson that might have been of interest to Herzog’s project, but rather the Bergson of The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. In that text, as Levinas himself explains in a 1988 interview, what Bergson had previously understood as the metaphysical intuition of duration becomes “interpreted as a relationship with the other and with God” (1998b: 244). Furthermore, in a move that bears a striking similarity with what Herzog calls one of the key ideas of Levinas’s political thinking, The Two Sources continually maintains that for this ethical relationship with the other and God to be upheld, it must find its “point of support” in, and even “pass through”, a set of concrete political organisations and instruments, which, in their isolation, can be seen as opposed to the aims of ethics (Bergson, 1977: 309-310). As Bergson writes, though politics has historically tended to promote violence and war, it is only “with the advent of [Western] political and social organisations which proved experimentally that the mass of people was not doomed [to hunger and poverty] (…) [that] the soul could open wide its gates to a universal love [of humanity or God]” (226-227).
Now, in fairness to Herzog, the avowed aims of Levinas’s Politics are interpretative more than they are historical (LP 9). In that respect, Herzog can be forgiven for not tracing every single one of Levinas’s influences in the political writings. That said, the conception of the interaction between ethics and politics that emerges in Bergson’s The Two Sources is clearly not without relevance to what Herzog considers to be one of the central theses of Levinas’s political thinking, namely, the idea that ethics “becomes material and receives meaning only in the form of something that is very different from—and indeed, opposed to—it: politics” (41). At the very least, it seems that Levinas might have found inspiration for this political idea in Bergson. More strongly, we might say that just as the preface of Totality and Infinity famously considers Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption as being “too often present in [the] book to be cited” (Levinas, 1979: 28), so too, perhaps Bergson’s The Two Sources plays the same role for Levinas in the Talmudic readings—particularly if, as Herzog strongly argues, those readings establish a relation where morality, far from dispensing with politics, in fact depends upon it for its concretisation. In this context, a closer examination of Bergson’s influence on Levinas’s political thinking would not only have further enriched, but even seems to be demanded by, Herzog’s own chosen focus in Levinas’s Politics.
Another potential weakness of Levinas’s Politics concerns its treatment of Levinas’s phenomenological works. Unfortunately, and perhaps because Herzog is avowedly more interested in the “‘central unity'” of Levinas’s thinking (9), the text often speaks of works like Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being in a monolithic way, as if these were one and the same phenomenological text. For example, Herzog at times freely switches between the two texts as a way of explaining Levinas’s presumed ‘opposition’ to ontology (cf. 24). Now, it is true that in some respects, both Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being oppose ontology—particularly if by ontology we mean thematisation and the politics of identification this involves. But it is equally the case that in other respects Totality and Infinity ascribes a much more positive role to ontology than Otherwise than Being. This is especially true of the sections in the last part of Totality and Infinity where Levinas speaks positively of fecundity as “an ontological category” (Levinas, 1979: 277). Far from being opposed, ontological fecundity is there thought as that which “establishes [the subject’s] relationship with the absolute future, or infinite time” (268).
Now, it is true that these kinds of exegetical considerations are not where Levinas’s Politics claims to make its contribution to the scholarship. But these considerations are nonetheless important to Levinas’s Politics, and that is because, as Herzog herself concedes (LP 5-6), the text continually refers to the phenomenological works as a way of elucidating the ‘unique’ and ‘interruptive’ character of Levinas’s political philosophy in the Talmudic readings. For example, in the chapter on “Evil as Injustice”, Herzog asserts that Levinas’s Talmudic writings insist on the importance of the home for the project of justice (68). In Levinas’s own words: “There is no salvation except in the reentry into oneself” (Levinas, 1996: 190). Crucially, Herzog adds further that these remarks on the need for a home moderate and “contradict Levinas’s general critique of interiority formulated at length in Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being” (LP 68). To be sure, in the very next line, Herzog shows some awareness that this thesis is perhaps more strongly upheld in the later text. But still left out of this analysis is the recognition that Totality and Infinity by no means contradicts the general affirmation that “a home is necessary to see the other” (68). Indeed, if, as Herzog claims, this idea appears in the Talmudic readings, likewise, in Totality and Infinity, not only is it dwelling which “accomplishes” the separation between the I and the Other (Levinas, 1979: 151), but even more strongly, “the whole dimension of interiority—the articulations of separation—are necessary for the idea of Infinity, the relation with the Other” (148).
These similarities are relevant for Levinas’s Politics because in a certain sense they blunt one of Herzog’s central claims in the text, specifically, the notion that “the readings manifest a political thinking that challenges the ethical analyses offered in Levinas’s phenomenological works” (LP 5). As we have already seen Herzog claim, this challenge boils down to a difference in approach between the two bodies of work: “the phenomenological books present a utopian and impractical ethics, while the Talmudic readings reflect a political, and at times pragmatic, mode of thought” (5). But if what grants the Talmudic readings a ‘political’ and ‘pragmatic’ character are ideas like the necessity of a home for justice, then surely, if the phenomenological works can be shown to offer similar affirmations, they cannot be easily be characterised as wholly ‘utopian’ and ‘impractical’. Perhaps, there is also a latent ‘politics’ and a latent ‘pragmatism’ in the phenomenological works themselves, particularly in those places—like the affirmations on interiority and the home cited above—where they come closest to the Talmudic readings. What this also suggests is that on some levels, at least, there is a greater reconciliation between the Talmudic texts and the phenomenological writings than Herzog’s reading of the essential ‘challenge’ or ‘moderation’ of one by the other is capable of accommodating. And perhaps Levinas’s Politics might have achieved an even more nuanced and unified account of Levinas as a political thinker had it further excavated these latent possibilities for reconciliation between the two bodies of work.
All that said, these criticisms will perhaps be of interest only to the expert, and they nowise undermine the immense of value of Herzog’s more general contribution to the field. More than any other scholar to date, Herzog has succeeded in dispelling the false idea that Levinas’s thought has nothing to contribute to the field of political philosophy. Indeed, Herzog has not only clearly shown that Levinas’s Talmudic texts do present a coherent political philosophy, but even one that is potentially valuable in highlighting the many tensions and opportunities of contemporary, Western liberal democracies. For these reasons, but also for its clarity, depth, and scholarly richness, Levinas’s Politics deserves to find a wide and attentive readership among Levinas scholars and political philosophers alike.
Bergson, H. 1977. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Translated by Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Bereton. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Levinas, E. 1979. Totality and Infinity: An Essay of Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. London: Martinus Nijhoff.
Levinas, E. 1994b. Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures. Translated by Gary Mole. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Levinas, E. 1996. New Talmudic Readings. Translated by Richard Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Levinas, E. 1998a. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Levinas, E. 1998b. Entre Nous. Translated by Michael Smith and Barbara Harshav. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ventura, D. 2020. “The Intensive Other: Deleuze and Levinas on the ethical status of the Other”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 58:2, 327-350.
 Herzog clarifies that by “Talmudic readings” she means “the body of texts related to the Talmud and other Jewish sources, which look different from Levinas’s phenomenological work” (5-6).
 Though for reasons of space I have here referred only to Levinas’s thought on the home, there are other points where the phenomenological works bear more similarity to the Talmudic readings than Herzog perhaps acknowledges. To cite another example, in the chapter “On Nature”, Herzog argues that where the phenomenological writings refuse to characterise nature as ethical, the Talmudic readings posit a “complicated relationship between the ontological and the ethical in all parts of nature” (91). But once again, this argument ignores that Otherwise than Being, for instance, also posits a complex relation of co-contamination between the realms of ethics and nature, particularly in those passages on enjoyment where Levinas insists that the immediacy of the sensibility to the elements is also the immediacy or the proximity of the other (1998a: 74). For a more extended account of this relation, see my: Ventura, 2020: esp. 341-348.