Adorno, dialectics, & science

Commentary by

Ralph Dumain

Adorno, Theodor W. An Introduction to Dialectics (1958), edited by Christoph Ziermann, translated by Nicholas Walker. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. First published in German, 2010.

I am revisiting this lecture series, having read the volume sporadically in August-October-December 2018, and finishing it at the end of July 2019. I made very few notes at the time, but on 25 December 2018 I wrote an extensive commentary on lecture 13. As has been noted by others, in addressing his students Adorno tended to be much more transparent and accessible than in corresponding published writings.

In the first two lectures Adorno begins by resupposing that his students come with baggage of misguided notions of dialectics, Adorno takes his students step by step through the pitfalls and preconceptions about what dialectics is, as a mode of cognition and its relation to the objective world. He explains the implications of the subject-object dialectic as Hegel conceives it (taking off from Hegel’s rethinking of the Kantian perspective) and the nature of its idealism (later to be criticized): recognizing the difference and unity of identity and non-identity with the reabsorption of non-identity into identity, via the incorporation of contradiction. Adorno urges his students to learn to think through all this for themselves, rather than parrot these ideas. I think that with certain of Adorno’s ideas we are still in the parroting stage.

In Adorno’s engagement with the history of philosophy, with the philosophical ideas and tendencies he criticizes or opposes, Adorno was much subtler than Marcuse and presents a more serious challenge to Hegel apologists. (Marcuse was not as narrow-minded in cultural matters, but that is another discussion.)

One dimension of the difference between Adorno and Marcuse is what they say about the natural sciences. There is a dimension of Adorno (and one might say of Horkheimer) that is virtually ignored or misrepresented: it is assumed that Adorno has an anti-science perspective. There is one tendency among all three to conflate science with positivism, but it is not the only tendency. Buried in Adorno’s oeuvre a different perspective can be found, which is undoubtedly why I wrote what follows (with editing), a preliminary to further development. (RD — 6 & 10 June 2023)

One must beware the tendency to snatch isolated statements from a body of work which cannot possibly be totally homogeneous. Certain assumptions are made about Adorno and concomitantly about Horkheimer which do not really fit their positions, in relation to science. (Marcuse is a different case, probably because of the influence of phenomenology—temporarily Heidegger and permanently Husserl—and the notion of a ‘new science’.) I have seen a claim that Adorno was hostile to science. I have even seen one absurd claim from an Adorno groupie that the notion of natural laws is a product of reification, an assertion Adorno never made. One can find isolated passages in Adorno which could support some claim and others its opposite. Adorno elsewhere mentioned that the contemporary role of science in society reflects reification. There is also a tendency to leave science in the hands of positivism and collapse the distinction. (The same with Horkheimer.) But this tendency was not total, and one can find countervailing statements. Such some statements statements can be found in Adorno's lecture series An Introduction to Dialectics, recently published in English translation.

Adorno did not express himself in the language of philosophy of science. He uses the language of philosophy, particularly of the dialectical tradition, to discuss closely related issues, suggesting that, when interested in seriously delving into that area, Adorno could demonstrate some respect for the complexity of the questions involved and was not anti-science at all. He does have a tendency to jump back and forth between epistemology, social theory, and the sciences in ways that are perhaps more analogical than literally sustainable, but there is material here to chew on.

In lecture 13, Adorno begins with Descartes’ method, depicting it as a model for how science is conceived. But science has not evolved according to such a simplistic model, and furthermore, the totality of society becomes ever more obscure pursuing such an approach. My notes with quotes follow, but here are some points to attend to:

1. Descartes’ principle of clarity and distinction mistakenly assumes the transparency of the objective world to which it is applied.

2. Descartes’ method is atemporal, ignoring the historicity of cognition. Philosophical concepts themselves cannot be understood ahistorically.

3. Descartes addresses what Wilfrid Sellars calls the myth of the given. Sense data cannot be taken to be foundational, as sensation itself is highly mediated.

4. Dialectics questions foundationalism and pursues epistemology more concretely and profoundly.

5. Theoretical cognition strives towards unity, but the objective world does not yield simple unities; one finds discontinuity in it, and thus its interconnections must be pursued empirically, not via the shortcut of metaphysical holism.

6. Adorno abjures a formalist philosophy of science (such as one would find in Popper or logical positivism, not mentioned in the text). Dialectical cognition drives forward by delving into content.

7. Adorno then deals with the second aspect of Descartes' method: divvying up a whole into discrete parts. Fragmentation, extreme specialization, and the social basis of enforcing same, ends up in severing the possibility of comprehending the interconnections that obtain in (social) reality.

8. The ideology/philosophy attached to science lacks far behind science itself. There is no reason now to claim that an understanding of physical reality can be attained by reduction to its simplest elements.

9. Adorno says something unclear about scientific models. Perhaps he is gesturing towards the notion of idealization.

10. Philosophy is totally sterile if it separates itself from and ignores or repudiates scientific knowledge. And philosophy cannot simply march into any department of knowledge and pontificate.

11. There is also a nebulous suggestion that dialectical philosophy can intervene in the self-reflection of the sciences.

Lecture 13
8 July 1958

Adorno finds Bacon and Descartes overlap considerably in their commonality, especially as they exhibit the spirit of science. Adorno highlights Descartes’ criterion of proceeding from first principles via clear and distinct ideas. Descartes does not trouble to distinguish between rational and sensory knowledge. He emphasizes the active, ordering principle of cognition rather than receptivity. Descartes’ prescription to set aside prejudices, unquestioned assumptions, etc. is laudable, but can the timeless core of truth be ascertained in this way?

One should not simply read passages such as that quoted as if their meaning is transparent in itself. This applied also to reading Spinoza, whose propositions cannot really be fathomed without taking into account his struggle against Cartesian dualism. But back to Descartes: what emerges as clear and distinct must be self-evidently so. The dialectical perspective demands taking Descartes’ principles seriously and pursuing them to the point of opening up the problem of their viability.

So, if one looks at sense experience as primary, and then looks at the way that sense organs operate, they are not the ultimate and given, but are embodied in a more complex process; they are not immediate, but rather mediate interaction with the rest of the material world.

During the last session, in attempting to contrast dialectic and positivism, I said to you that dialectic also contains a positivist element within itself, namely the micrological element, that is to say, the moment through which it immerses itself in the smallest details . And here perhaps, in relation to this model which I have just mentioned, you may be able to see a little more precisely what I am trying to get at. For if we abandon ourselves to what is individually given, if we obstinately stay with the given until it gives itself up entirely to our gaze, then it ceases to be such a static and ultimate given and reveals itself as a dynamic process of becoming, as I have just tried to show with the example of the reciprocal production of moments in the case of sensuous givenness and the corresponding sense organ." [p. 134]

The dogmatic element of Descartes assumes that the objects of knowledge are unambiguously given and distinct, regardless of the rules we seek to apply to them.

So is there an alternative method, an anti-method? Adorno proposes no such thing. Instead, he discusses the goals of theory. There is no unique, universally applicable, formal method.

For we also recognize a demand for unity with regard to theoretical experience. And the path which leads to knowledge is neither that of capricious insights nor that of some abstract coherence in the organization of individual moments. Rather, we are talking about the unity involved in the development of theory. We can perhaps elucidate this best by indicating how even thinking itself is not actually a tabula rasa — i.e., that thinking is not something that we bring to the matter in some ultimate or merely general way, that it is not indeed, as people like to say, 'pure' in character. For, in such purity, thinking is first perverted precisely by the demands of a method which is supposed to be entirely independent of its subject matter and which first undertakes to remove all substantive moments from the instrument methodically employed. But thinking itself, the manner in which in fact we concretely think as living human beings, is actually by no means separated off in this way but is, rather, something entwined with the whole process of our experience. [pp. 135-6]

The following coincidentally presents how I have thought before I knew anything about Adorno:

It is a thinking which acknowledges the moment of conceptual order which it must naturally retain—for I cannot indeed think without concepts— but continually confronts that moment of conceptual ordering with the living experience that I actually have. And out of the tension between both these moments—between conceptual order and that preconceptual experience from which concepts themselves have also nonetheless always sprung— such thinking, in a process of constant reflection upon both the matter and thought itself, eventually leads us out beyond a thinking which simply subsumes things beneath its grasp in a merely external fashion. [p. 136]

The second Cartesian rule involves divvying up a problem into discrete parts. Adorno sees unsavory contemporary consequences of such a mode of thinking:

The more the world becomes rational, the less I am really allowed in a sense to think about in the process. That is to say, everything must now ultimately be reduced to wholly simple, wholly thoughtless, wholly incomprehensible elements, although such a demand completely forgets that, if all that remains is really just what is most simple and most elementary, the object itself, whose complexity is what I wish to understand in the first place, has already slipped through my fingers, so that I have then actually failed the object, that I am now left with nothing but the trivialities into which I have broken down the object. On the other hand, that which actually attracts my attention, as a potential object of knowledge, that to which such knowledge is actually addressed, that which constitutes the salt of the object, has already been removed in this way and is actually no longer to be found. [p. 136]

And now we come to science:

Here you can see particularly clearly that it is problematic to transfer the ideals of natural science to the realm of philosophy because, in this respect, the latter —and I would like to put this somewhat cautiously— seems to lag far behind the natural sciences themselves. And I should also like at least to venture the thought here that the difficulties of mutual comprehension that beset philosophy and the thought developed by the natural sciences —a difficulty which appears to have become insurmountable precisely since Hegel— is connected with the fact that the philosophical reflection which the natural sciences have devoted to themselves does not actually do full justice to what the natural sciences do. That is to say, the natural sciences, since the time of Hegel, have not attained the requisite level of reflection, for natural philosophy —or what we now describe as such— generally amounts to little more than an abstract presentation of the rules and procedures involved in the thinking of the natural sciences, whereas the real task would precisely be to comprehend and explore these modes of procedure themselves. A rule like this Cartesian one which requires us to analyse everything into its elements derives of course from the realm of the mathematical natural sciences —that is to say, it is a rule which is essentially connected with the analytical treatment of conic sections, which seeks to express them in terms of equations and thus ultimately to reduce them to their constituent elements. But if I have rightly estimated the character of the natural sciences here, then they are by no means so ontologically convinced that everything complex and complicated must be capable, in itself, of being reduced to simple elements. Rather, natural science regards that very process of analysis into constituent elements, and on which of course it relies, only as a model —that is to say, only as an attempt to secure the object in question within the ordering categories of consciousness, without thereby claiming that this simple and elementary dimension is itself simply identical with the essence of the matter. The philosophers, on the other hand, who are always concerned as we know with the essence of things, proceed as if the ordering concepts which the natural sciences have to employ were already, in themselves, an intrinsic order of things. That is to say, they proceed as if the whole were simply composed of parts, whereas in truth the whole and the parts reciprocally produce one another in the manner which I have tried to present to you in some detail. [pp. 137-8]

I shall return to the above paragraph, which is not written in the customary language of the philosophy of science. Now this:

And this gives me an opportunity to remind you here of a dialectical moment which we may have somewhat neglected until now, but which will afford you a rather better idea of the particular relevance which dialectical thought should possess, not as some sort of abstract philosophical system but rather in the context of living knowledge itself. For it is characteristic of dialectic, I would like to say, that it does not ultimately recognize the separation of philosophy from the particular sciences. It belongs to the defensive posture which philosophy has felt driven to adopt through the development of science over the last couple of centuries that philosophy has come to believe that it must assert itself as a realm which is beyond and independent of the sciences. Philosophy has found itself remarkably impoverished as a consequence, as we can so emphatically see today from that metaphysics of being which ultimately ends up in mere tautology. But this also really reveals a kind of impotence of philosophy with regard to knowledge, something which must certainly be overcome if philosophy is to present itself actually and seriously as more than a mere ‘Sunday’ metaphysics or a mere taxonomic system of some sort. If a philosophy really is one, this must mean that the philosophical motivations themselves enter into the material dimension of substantive cognition, instead of simply surrendering the material knowledge of things to the individual sciences, or even to the treatment of the formal sciences . And if I am critical about the role of ‘definition’ in philosophy, that cannot mean that speaking as a philosopher in my lecture from four till five I assure myself that definition is indeed a problematic matter, but then go into the law seminar, for example, and simply define the concepts which are employed there, whatever they may be. For what is required, on the contrary, is that knowledge regarding the relationship between thought and thing, or regarding the problem of definition itself, that all of these matters must really also be introduced into the cognitive procedures of the individual sciences. And this is to say that philosophy, to say that dialectic, if it is to have any genuine sense at all, is by no means innocuous, is not a matter of 'mere' philosophy which is simply occupied with itself. On the contrary, the reflection to which philosophy exposes our so-called natural consciousness —that is to say, our unnatural and conventional consciousness— also intrinsically requires that we rethink in a fundamental sense its own attitude and response to the knowledge proffered by the individual sciences and that, as ones who reflect upon our own work, we now also bring the knowledge derived from philosophical reflection to bear upon such particular forms of knowledge. [pp. 138-9]

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(from An Introduction to Dialectics, Lecture 5,
with comments by R. Dumain)

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Uploaded 10 June 2023

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