Ralph Dumain

17 July 2006

Adorno’s ‘True Thoughts’ & the Logic of Aphorisms


Following up on my recent entry on aphorisms . . . A great master of the philosophical aphorism is Theodor W. Adorno. He may be most widely known for his famous phrase (often misquoted and almost always out-of-context) ‘no poetry after Auschwitz’. Several of his works are eminently quotable, but he wrote a brilliant book consisting almost entirely of aphorisms. The standard English translation is:

Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, translated by E.F.N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 1974 (in German, 1951).

Here are some quotes from it:

Quotes: Theodor W. Adorno

There is also a different, online translation:

Minima Moralia, translation by Dennis Redmond (2005)

Section 122 is subtitled Monograms. Someone made a slide show of sorts out of it:

Minima Moralia: No. 122 Monograms

This is one of the aphorisms. In Jephcott’s translation:

True thoughts are those alone which do not understand themselves.

Redmond renders it:

The only true thoughts are those, which do not understand themselves.’

I wrote this commentary on 18 Dec 1999:

I take Adorno's statement to mean that writers who formulate great truths or profound models of social reality objectively say more than they can possibly intend or be conscious of; later generations may see implications that the actual creator of the “true thought”could never have anticipated, hence the thoughts unintentionally say things beyond which they were consciously willed to say. The delicious irony of this aphorism is that any truth that totally understood itself would be trivial, which contravenes the full self-consciousness one ordinarily expects of truth, and the paradox of a great thought is that it seems to be inexhaustible and uncontainable; understanding can always improve and enrich the truth content of the true thought, but that the thought cannot initially fully comprehend all its implications or contain its future interpretations.



True thoughts are those alone which do not understand themselves.
(Jephcott translation)

The only true thoughts are those, which do not understand themselves.’
(Redmond translation)

Aphorisms that contain paradoxes are some of the most striking. How would one translate statements like these from ordinary language into logical expressions? Is it possible? And proceeeding in the reverse direction: could it ever be possible to generate thoughts like these from a basis in logic?

People generate meaningful though non-obvious statements all the time. Should these be viewed by logic-worshippers (like the old logical positivists) as meaningless, or non-cognitive (as they claimed poetry to be)?

The first observation to be made here is that the underlying logic of this statement (and others of this nature) is complex, and covert. Two ways of logically unpacking it and describing its meaning are: (1) hermeneutics or literary interpretation/criticism, (2) translation into formal logic. The relation between (1) and (2) is not entirely clear. Some low-level interpretation is necessary simply to get this expression into elementary logical shape.

A mathematician and I did this as an exercise two days ago, but with a difference, as I had I misremembered the aphorism as 'great thoughts' instead of 'true thoughts'—I don't know whether this made the task easier or harder or less insulting to logic. The attempt was made on as simple-minded an interpretation as possible. The most formidable semantic obstacle is: how can a thought understand itself, since people are the ones who understand as well as generate thoughts? So our universe of discourse was people and thoughts, and the predications or functions included thinking, (fully) understanding, and because I had misremembered the quote, greatness. A further assumption was that person x who thinks the thought is the same one who does/does not understand it. Another assumption was to ignore the problem of degree (though it may be more than that) represented by the word fully. So the logical formula generated came to something like this: For all x: there is a person x and there is a thought y and thought y is such-and-such and x thinks y, and if all these conditions hold, then x does not understand y. This is a godawful mess. I'm not sure what this says, but I think it asserts that if people generate great (or true) thoughts, they don't understand them. I don't know how the logical formula holds up syntactically, but semantically, it's pretty much nonsense, if one assumes that people have to understand what they think and then assert, or they couldn't generate anything that made sense, let alone that was true or outstanding. If thay did so, then the fact that they are people and that they think is rendered superfluous. (Why not a computer program functioning automatically? But then a computer, let us assume, neither thinks nor understands, though it functions according to logic.)

This problem does not seem to me essentially the same problem you get from vagueness or poetic symbolism. It is true that metaphor is involved and that expressions like these cannot be taken literally. But there is logic mixed in with metaphor and double meaning. At issue in this case is the nature of thinking, understanding, and interpretation. I'm not sure that an identity or differentiation between the generator and recipient of the thought is decisive. Perhaps this is why Adorno referred to thoughts as not understanding themselves, even though thoughts don't think. Furthermore, as I introduced interpretation into the universe of discourse, I have to relate the two concepts understanding and interpretation. Understanding is not an either/or proposition, but grows with an increasing depth of interpretation. This process, according to the aphorism, is determined by the properties of the thought, not only that, but by the truth value of the thought, wherein truth is not simply a matter of assigning a truth value (T, F, or even the spread of truth values one gets via fuzzy logic) to an expression. Depth implies layers of meaning, perhaps navigation of multiple frameworks.

I don't know how the apparatus of formal logic can handle this. I attempted to unpack the aphorism using an informal logical process as well as semantic interpretation, but note the primacy of semantics in this exercise. Though the notion of thoughts understanding themselves cannot be taken literally, it's not quite poetic symbolism either. And while the notions, thought, thinking, understanding, interpretation, and depth are not precisely defined, is the problem simply one of vagueness or polysemy? I think it is something else. Once we get to this point of unpacking the aphorism, we have an intuitive grasp of what is being said, or we have made more explicit the intuitive grasp we had in the beginning. We have thought this through with informal logic up to this point. Perhaps you can take it farther, but I doubt we can think these thoughts in formal logic. I also wonder about the extent to which logicians and mathematicians can decipher the meanings of statements made in natural language. The larger question, is: do they—and can they—apply their norms of logical rigor to the affairs of personal and social life, and with what degree of perspicacity?

Logic as a discipline arose via abstraction from actual arguments to the delineation of their formal properties, divested of content. While ontology got mixed into it—or was never separated from it—by philosophers, one could at least view logic as the science of pure inference. But at this point the relation of its formal apparatus to empirical reality is not so straightforward, for the actual meanings of terms and their conceptual structure, overt or covert, are decisive for their validity as inputs to the logic processing machine. Logic really had nothing to offer to the scientific revolution, nor did it comfortably co-exist with the new mathematics—calculus or analysis—for a couple of centuries. A number of developments in mathematics and logic came together in the late 19th century to usher in a whole new era. The philosophy of language took off as well. One should not forget the development of linguistics as a science, which underwent two major revolutions—structuralism early in the 20th century, and the Chomskyan revolution publicly inaugurated in 1957. How all this fits together today I cannot tell you, but I'm betting that the fundamental problem I outlined remains. What if there remains an unreconciled duality in our thought, and the perfection of logic is comcomitant with the perfection of alienation?

Note (30 July 2023): This text originally appeared as two blog entries:

Adorno's ‘True Thoughts’ & the Logic of Aphorisms (1)
Adorno's ‘True Thoughts’ & the Logic of Aphorisms (2)

Adorno’s own interpretation of his aphorism differs from mine, but may or may not be compatible:

Theodor W. Adorno on models & ‘true thoughts’

Adorno on Hegel: rationalism & irrationalism, logic & experience
(from An Introduction to Dialectics, Lecture 5,
with comments by R. Dumain)

Review: Adorno, dialectics, & science
(An Introduction to Dialectics: Lecture 13)

by R. Dumain

T.W. Adorno on Solidarity and Isolation

'They, the people' (and intellectuals)
by Theodor W. Adorno

"Inside and Outside" by T.W. Adorno

Depreciation: Adorno on Theory, Reification, Paranoia, Dialectics

Theodor W. Adorno on war-spectatorship, robot-bombs, & Hegel

Freedom as They Know It
by Theodor W. Adorno

Adorno on Workers vs. Intellectuals & the Meeting of Extremes

"Inside and Outside"
by T. W. Adorno

"Theses Against Occultism"
by Theodor W. Adorno

On Theodor W. Adorno's Negative Dialectics:
Outline, Quotes, Notes

Russell Jacoby for Theodor Adorno, against Fredric Jameson

Quotes from Abelard and Heloise, or the Writer and the Human
by Ludwig Feuerbach

What is the Relationship Between Logic and Reality?
by R. Dumain

Philosophy of Paraconsistency & Associated Logics (Web Guide)

Argumentation & Controversies: Selected Bibliography

The Frankfurt School: Philosophy in Relation to Social Theory, Cultural Theory,
Science, and Interdisciplinary Research.
Phase 1: Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse in the 1930s.
Study Group Syllabus

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

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