Saturday, July 28, 2007


The fact that Hegel aligns his philosophy with "the course of the world" pushes Adorno toward reflection, which represents history with a mental reservation about the depth of its givenness. That reservation is isomorphic with the possibility that things could have been and still could be different. Even Adorno’s turn to possibility, however, is based in his respect for actuality: what “allows reason, and indeed compels and obliges reason, to oppose the superior strength of the course of the world is always the fact that in every situation there is a concrete possibility of doing things differently” (History and Freedom 68; cf. "The Course of the World," below, June 07). For Adorno, possibility is so factive that, once it enters awareness, it “compels and obliges reason” to reckon with it. This is not necessarily to say that the fact that things could be otherwise is as powerful as the fact that they are what they are; only that since possibility is also a piece of reality, you can't dismiss it without a proportional “denial” that diminishes your apprehension of the world “as is.” The fact of possibility should get the same respect as other ontologically similar pieces of reality.

In more sympathetic readings of Hegel, awareness of the fact of possibility is exactly what Hegel himself is said to have contributed to philosophy. It's Hegel who historicizes the given and shows it to be created by counterforces, especially internal counterforces, as Adorno is the first to state. Nonetheless Adorno rejects a reading of Hegel that credits him with weakening the authority of the given. His rejection is as methodological and formal as it is ideational. Adorno’s problem with Hegel isn't that he conflates fact and value, since Adorno himself does as well, but that he does so selectively and hyperbolically, and makes this inaccurate presentation of the relationship between fact and value into a principle of his philosophy, from where it spreads to others:

Without . . . the reality of a class society that stands as the very principle of bourgeois society, there would have been neither the huge population increase that we have seen, nor the growth in transport, nor would there ever have been anything like enough by way of food supplies for the population. It will not have escaped your attention that the starting-point of a critique of this entire way of seeing is the idea (one that Hegel pursued with especial rigor right on into the heart of his Logic) that from the outset reality is given precedence over possibility. And of course it is here that we see that unquestioned parti pris for the prevailing universal of which I have already spoken at some length [in Lecture 5 of History and Freedom—RT]. To recapitulate, then, the fact is that mankind has survived not just in spite of but because of conflict, and this fact has such weighty consequences for the theory of history because Hegel has inferred from it with a very great semblance [Schein] of justice, a semblance of justice that cannot be dismissed out of hand, that categorically, in terms of the idea, when looked at from above, life can be reproduced only by virtue of conflict. And this has resulted in what might be termed the theodicy of conflict. (HF 51)

Here Adorno challenges Hegel over “degrees of reality.” Hegel elevates a series of facts into an inevitability and hence a concept of justice—to Adorno, a “semblance of justice”—by crossing the dialectical technique of inference with the fact/value conflation. He infers the law (that “life can be reproduced only by virtue of conflict”) from the fact (that the world “as is” has been reproduced by virtue of conflict), then lends to his inference the weight of the fact that it reflects on. The implication is that things that keep happening or even being thought are as good as inevitable in their respective realms, that we don’t have to concern ourselves with the difference between the inevitable and the unsurprising. And the reason we don’t have to concern ourselves is that that concern has already been taken care of, since a phase of history, in Hegel’s theory, never ignores its counterforces, but must already have mastered them enough to come into being in the first place. For Adorno, this is what it means that Hegel’s philosophy “believes that non-identity . . . should somehow be incorporated into the concept of identity in the course of its elaboration” (HF 65). Thus, he argues, Hegel strengthens the force of the given fact, not in spite of historicizing it, but because historicization à la Hegel, by not erasing the fragility of a possibility that survives the historical process, magnifies the respect that's due to anything at all that has managed to happen.

Adorno elaborates this point on brilliant pages of History and Freedom, course lectures he gave while writing Negative Dialectics. He zeroes in on the word “justifiably” in Hegel’s remark that the universality that constitutes the law “is justifiably regarded as the main enemy by that feeling which reserves the right to do as it pleases, by that conscience which identifies right with subjective conviction” (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 17). Adorno portrays hilariously the false magnanimity of the moment:

this "justifiably" has to be taken much more seriously than even Hegel believes. It is characteristic of Hegel’s thinking that he really wants to have it all ways; that he really wants to include everything, even things that simply cannot be reconciled. By this I mean that he adopts the standpoint of the universal; he tends always to claim, ideologically and in a conformist spirit, that the universal is in the right. But equally, almost as an afterthought, he would also like to be credited with wanting fair play for the individual. And he does this with a throwaway remark, in this case the single adverb "justifiably," merely in order that the individual should get his just deserts, simply so that it does not look as if anyone is being left out. (HF 64-65; my italics)

(Adorno liked the point enough to revisit it in Negative Dialectics, but comparing the two texts shows why I like History and Freedom more: “this word of Hegel’s looks like a philosophical slip of the pen. He is blurting out what he denies in the same breath. If the individual conscience actually regarded ‘the real world of what is right and moral’ as hostile because it does not recognize itself in it, no avowal would serve to gloss this over; for it is the point of Hegelian dialectics that conscience cannot act differently, that it cannot recognize itself in that real moral world. Hegel is thus conceding that the reconciliation in whose demonstration his philosophy consists did not take place” (Negative Dialectics [1966], trans. E.B. Ashton [New York: Continuum, 1992], 310; trans. modified). History and Freedom is less defensive and winds up going further. . . .)

Image: David Schnell, Spielplatz, 2005

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