Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno is exasperating but exciting. Although as sloppy as one expects Continental thinkers to be, he is nonetheless a force to be reckoned with, a serious man who is seriously grappling with ultimates at the outer limits of intelligibility. Derrida I dismiss as a bullshitter; indeed, to cop a line from John Searle, he is someone who "gives bullshit a bad name." But I can't dismiss Adorno. I confess to being partial to the Germans. They are nothing if not serious, and I'm a serious man. Among the French there is an excess of façade and frippery. But now let's get to work — like good Germans.
Suppose we focus on just part of one of Adorno's serpentine sentences. This is from Negative Dialektik (Suhrkamp, p. 354):
Dass das Unveraenderliche Wahrheit sei und das Bewegte, Vergaengliche Schein, die Gleichgueltigkeit von Zeitlichem und ewigen Ideen gegeneinander, ist nicht laenger zu behaupten . . . .
Adorno is telling us that
It can no longer be asserted that the true is the unchangeable while the mobile and mutable is mere appearance, or that eternal Ideas and the temporal realm are indifferent to each other . . . .
So what is our man saying? He is saying that after Auschwitz — where 'Auschwitz' collects all the genocidal and totalitarian horrors of the Third Reich — one can no longer take Platonism seriously, or the people's Platonism either, Christianity. And indeed most traditional philosophy, consisting as it does, in Whitehead's phrase, of a series of footnotes to Plato. The old metaphysics is dead, the metaphysics according to which Being itself has a positive and hence affirmable character. An experience has refuted the old metaphysics, the experience of Auschwitz.
But if it can no longer be asserted that that the true is the immutable, then it once could be asserted. And indeed, by 'assert' is intended assert with truth or at least justification. Note the ambiguity of 'assertible' as between capable of being asserted and worth of being asserted. And make a meta-note of how a broadly analytic thinker like me pedantically points out something like this whereas your typical Continental head would find my procedure boorish or somehow gauche. "How low class of you to be so careful and precise!"
But I digress. My point, again, is that if a proposition can no longer be asserted and believed, then it once could be asserted and believed. But if a metaphysical proposition was once true or believed with justification, then it is now true or believable with justification. For a metaphysical assertion is necessarily true if true at all. The structure of being cannot be contingent upon our contingent experiences, even experiences as shattering as that of the Nazi horror. (It is telling of course that Adorno, good man of the Left that he is, does not mention the Stalinist horrors which were known since 1956 — but that is a separate post.)
What I am objecting to is Adorno's apparent historical relativism. By this I mean the view that truth itself is historically conditioned and thus capable of being different in different historical epochs. Metaphysical conceptions are of course historically variable, but not their objects, the structures of being. Adorno is doing the the Continental Shuffle, sliding from the epistemic/doxastic to the ontic and back again. That views of truth are historically conditioned is trivial and scarcely in need of being pointed out; but that truth itself is historically conditioned is incoherent.
More fundamentally, what I am objecting to is Adorno's lack of any argument for his view that historical experience can refute a metaphysical thesis and his lack of consideration of the sort of (obvious) objection I am now raising.
The Continental 'trope' or 'move' — such-and-such can no longer be believed --ought to be defended or dropped. Why, for example, should it no longer be possible to believe in God after the horrendous events of the 20th century when people believed in God at the time of the Lisbon earthquake and the time of the Bubonic plague? What is so special about these 20th century horrors? The fact of evil may well rule out the existence of God, or more generally, the affirmability of Being. But if it does, this is surely no recent development.
Theodor Adorno is exasperating but exciting. Although as sloppy as one expects Continental thinkers to be, he is nonetheless a force to be reckoned with, a serious man who is seriously grappling with ultimates at the outer limits of intelligibility. Derrida I dismiss as a bullshitter, indeed, to cop a line from John Searle, as someone who "gives bullshit a bad name." But I can't dismiss Adorno. I confess to being partial to the Germans. They are nothing if not serious, and I'm a serious man. Among the French there is an excess of facade and frippery. But now let's get to work — like good Germans.
Theodor W. Adorno, "Education After Auschwitz" in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords (Columbia UP, 1998, tr. Pickford, pp. 196-197):
Sport is ambiguous. On the one hand, it can have an anti-barbaric and anti-sadistic effect by means of fair play [Adorno employs the English phrase], a spirit of chivalry, and consideration for the weak. On the other hand, in many of its varieties and practices it can promote aggression, brutality, and sadism, above all in people who do not expose themselves to the exertion and discipline required by sports but instead merely watch: that is, those who regularly shout from the sidelines.
An excellent observation, first published in 1967. As valuable as participation in sports is, spectatorship often demeans, brutalizes, levels, reduces individuals to members of a mob, while elevating worthless thugs to the level of heroes. What would Adorno have to say about the situation now, over forty years later? In particular, what would he have to say about cage fighting? I don't watch this trash, but a chess partner told me about a match (if that is what they call it) he had seen on TV recently.
An Hispanic and a white guy were in the cage, and the Hispanic's trainer was egging him on with cries of por la raza, for the race. Now what would liberals and leftists say about this? Would they celebrate the 'diversity' of it? And if the white man's trainer had urged the honkie to stand up for the white race, what would they say? They would scream 'racism' of course. But it is not racism when an Hispanic does it. This is one of the standard double standards of the Left. Jesse Jackson spouted similar nonsense a while back. According to Brother Jesse, it is not racism if a black does it. Is rational debate possible with people as benighted as this? (By the way, that is what we call a rhetorical question. I am clothing a statement in the grammatical garb of a question. Rational debate is not possible with people as benighted as this.)
I am not saying that Adorno would apply such a crude double standard. He is a thinker of power and subtlety. But I could be wrong. After all, he is a leftist.
The beard is the oppositionist costume of juveniles acting like cavemen who refuse to play along with the cultural swindle, while in fact they merely don the old-fashioned emblem of the patriarchal dignity of their grandfathers.
It seems fair to observe, however, that Adorno and the men of his generation were just as oppositionist in refusing to sport the beards that graced the jowls of their fathers.
Time was when I was much interested in the philosophers of the Frankfurter Schule. Thatwas in the 'seventies and 'eighties. Less interested now, I am still intrigued by Adorno's critique of Heidegger. Is it worth anything? For that matter, are Heidegger's ideas worth anything? Let's see.
I will explain one aspect of Heidegger's notorious Seinsfrage, an aspect centering on the role of the copula in predicative sentences/judgments. True-blue Heideggerians may not recognize much of their Master here, but I'm a thinker not an exegete. I will also consider what Adorno has to say in criticism of Heidegger in the section on the copula in Negative Dialektik.
1. Consider a simple predicative sentence such as 'The sky is blue,' or simpler still, 'Al is fat.' The sense of the sentence is built up from the senses of its constituent terms: 'Al' and 'fat' clearly play a role, but what about 'is'? Does it play a semantic, as opposed to a merely syntactic, role? Is 'is' perhaps redundant? 'Al' refers to something, and perhaps 'fat' does as well; does 'is' refer to anything?
The Greek Omphalos = the GermanNabel = navel. So omphaloscopy is navel-gazing, and an omphaloscopist is one who 'scopes out' his navel. But have there ever been practioners of meditation (Versenkung) who literally gazed at their navels or who came close to doing such a thing? A little gazing at my well-stocked library reveals that something like this practice is recommended in the Method of Holy Prayer and Attention, which tradition attributes to St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), abbot of the monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople. Referring to the central passage of the Method, the anonymous author of The Jesus Prayer reports:
In order to pray, it is said, the disciple must close the door of his cell, place himself in a state of quiet, sit down, rest his chin against his chest, look towards the middle of his stomach, restrain his breathing, and make a mental effort to find the "place of the heart" while repeating all the time "the epiclesisof Jesus Christ." (p. 47)
Of course, the term 'navel-gazing' is almost always used in a deprecating manner by the worldly to refer to any sort of idle practice of 'philosophizing' whether discursively or non-discursively, and when Adorno refers to a man who gazes at his navel, ein Mensch der seinen Nabel beschaut (Philosophische Terminologie I, 142), he shares in the deprecation.
A correspondent from the Netherlands sends this passage from Theodor W. Adorno's Minima Moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben. It is from the short essay, "Herr Doktor, das ist schön von Euch."
Noch der Baum, der blüht, lügt in dem Augenblick, in welchem man sein Blühen ohne den Schatten des Entsetzens wahrnimmt; noch das unschuldige Wie schön wird zur Ausrede für die Schmach des Daseins, das anders ist, und es ist keine Schönheit und kein Trost mehr außer in dem Blick, der aufs Grauen geht, ihm standhält und im ungemilderten Bewußtsein der Negativität die Möglichkeit des Besseren festhält.
Here is the essay in toto in Dennis Redmond's translation. The italicized portion is the translation of the above German. I have interrupted the flow of the text with some comments of my own. I want to use this text to convey to you something of the mentality and sensibility of an extremely erudite and sophisticated leftist and of leftists in general. It helps to bear in mind that Minima Moralia was published in 1951.