Adorno on Hegel:
rationalism & irrationalism, logic & experience

So that our reflections may not remain too formal, something which could hardly be avoided at the very beginning, this might be a good place to say something about the debate over rationalism. This debate—ever since the controversies which arose in connection with the philosophy of Jacobi [2] and later in the wake of Hegel’s polemic against Schelling [3] —has continued to play a significant role in philosophical thought. [4] Thus on the one side we have rational thought in the usual sense, which was rather derogatively described by Hegel as the ‘philosophy of reflection’, a mode of thought which appeals exclusively to the usual logical forms —definition, classification, inference, specific conceptual articulations and distinctions, and all such features— and accepts nothing as genuine knowledge which is not couched and developed in these forms. [5] And on the other side we have all those philosophies which are commonly and rather crudely characterized as irrationalist in character, the last major and significant representative of which was surely the philosophy of Henri Bergson. [6] These philosophies basically defend a standpoint which Schelling was the first to formulate, claiming that the merely finite knowledge produced by ‘the understanding’, to express this in the language of German Idealism, does indeed remain merely external to its objects and reveals little of the actual life of reality. True knowledge, by contrast, is therefore one which sees the matter in question from within, as it were, instead of merely struggling to grasp and order it from without. But, in return, such knowledge appears to sacrifice those criteria of controllability, necessity, and universality which Western scientific thought had come since its Cartesian origins to regard as its highest criteria. I believe that this Hegelian talk, and this dialectical talk in general, about rising above certain fundamental oppositions —and this is indeed one of the most essential motifs of all dialectical thought itself —can be exemplified particularly well in relation to this so-called controversy over rationalism, a controversy which also finds its own place in Hegel's thought and is seriously addressed there. For on the one hand Hegel furnishes a most emphatic critique of all merely mechanical or classificatory thought —and I believe I have already pointed out how the kind of tabulating mentality which has effectively come to prevail in scientific thinking today was already expressly attacked in a passage from the Phenomenology of Spirit. [7] But on the other hand he also fiercely attacks the kind of thought which is ‘shot from a pistol’, [8] which aspires to grasp the Absolute immediately or at a stroke, something which his erstwhile friend and subsequent opponent Schelling appeared above all to embody at the time. And one could specifically interpret the Phenomenology of Spirit, this first outstanding major work of Hegel’s, as an elaborate attempt to play each of these mutually contradictory moments off against the other, ultimately allowing them to criticize one another and be reunited on a higher level after all.

What are we to say to all this, if we permit ourselves to consider this alternative between very different philosophical approaches from a rather greater distance? On the one hand, we must acknowledge that thought does not actually possess any non-conceptual forms it can appeal to, that since we have acquired the sort of classificatory and definitional techniques that are developed in formal logic we cannot simply leap out of these forms. And the claim of reason itself, and thus the very meaning of 'reason' —in other words, the question regarding a truly rational order for the world—cannot be separated from this conception of reason as a conceptually perspicuous order of knowledge itself. And thus in Hegelian philosophy as well we discover that traditional logic —which Hegel of course criticized at its most central point, namely the principle of contradiction itself—is not simply displaced by dialectical logic. I believe it is extremely important, if you wish to understand the dialectic properly in this regard, for you to be quite clear that to think dialectically is not somehow to think in a nonlogical way, or somehow to neglect the laws of logic. Rather, to think dialectically is to allow particular determinations to point beyond themselves whenever they come into contradiction with themselves, is thus to render them ‘fluid’ through the application of logical categories. From this point of view you can regard Hegel’s entire Logic as a kind of self-critique on the part of logical reason, the kind of critique which logic applies to itself. All of the traditional logical forms are retained within Hegel’s Logic. You will find them comprehensively discussed in the third major division of Hegel's so-called Greater Logic, in the ‘Logic of the Concept’. But at the same time Hegel shows with remarkable perceptiveness that, while these structures of traditional logic, in their usual form, are indeed indispensable, they cannot constitute the whole of knowledge as long as they are taken in isolation or treated simply as so many particular determinations.

On the other hand, what is generally described as ‘irrationalism’ also has a truth moment of its own. For it is a repeated attempt to bring home to thought precisely what has been excised by thought itself, what has been lost to actual experience through a form of reason which dominates nature and itself alike. It is an attempt to do justice within philosophy to all that has been sacrificed to the process of enlightenment. Irrationalism as a whole, we might say, shows a tendency to acknowledge precisely what has been obscured in the ongoing process of European enlightenment and effectively vanquished by the dominance of reason, everything that appears weaker or disempowered, everything merely existent that cannot be preserved in essential eternal forms and has therefore been dismissed as simply ephemeral, a constant tendency to vindicate a place for this even in the thought which has abjured it. And it is probably no accident, and not merely a correlation prompted by the sociology of knowledge, but surely something profoundly connected with the essence of these irrationalist philosophies if they have tended to be reactionary or restorationist in character—if for the moment I may use these words in a non-derogatory sense. In the sense, that is, that they somehow wished to lend a voice to all that has been sacrificed to history, though without thereby grasping the necessity of this sacrifice, or this defeat, within themselves. [Irrationalism thus reminds us] [9]. that, while human beings have been able to escape the blind compulsion of nature only by means of rationality, by means of the thought which dominates nature, and would sink back into barbarism if they were to renounce this rationality, it is equally true that the process of the progressive rationalization of the world has also represented a process of progressive reification—just as the reification of the world, the petrifaction of the world as an objectivity which is alien to human beings, on the one hand, and the growth of subjectivity, on the other, are not simply opposed to one another, are not simply contradictory, but are mutually correlated so that the more subjectivity there is in the world, the more reification there is as well, and it is precisely to this that irrationalism responds.

Once thought has grasped this fatal structure, which is nothing but the dialectic of the process of enlightenment itself, it cannot simply abandon itself to one pole or the other, and it certainly cannot seek the kind of wretched middle way that claims that we must somehow also find a place for the unconscious or the irrational alongside ratio itself. For an irrationality which is circumscribed in this way, merely tolerated by ratio in a kind of protected natural reserve, has indeed thereby already been consigned to destruction, no longer possesses any real power, is indeed impotent. And the desire of dialectic is precisely to refuse such impotence in thought, to insist that thought must also harbour the possibility of its own realization within itself. The conclusion which Hegel draws from the alternative here is not to pit the alleged powers of the irrational against the powers of the rational, as people tend to do today within the dismal administrative intellectual regimes of the present, which strive to bring everything, even the supposedly irrational, under conceptual bureaucratic categories, and thus neatly separate the class of rationality from that of irrationality. This wretched response is precisely what Hegel disdained, and he attempted instead to pursue what strikes me as the only possible path to take: by means of consciousness itself, by means of developed logical insight, or, if you wish, by means of enlightenment, to call enlightenment itself by its proper name, to expose in enlightenment itself those moments of reification, alienation, and objectification by rational means, moments which can otherwise be exposed only in an external and therefore powerless fashion. The task, in other words, is to take up the moment of irrationality into thought or ratio itself, as its own immanently contradictory element, rather than just playing this off against thought in an external way as an alternative 'world view'. Or you could also put it this way: to comprehend for its own part the irrationality which eludes reason itself, and also, precisely through reason, to extend the critique of reason far beyond that attempted by Kant; to show that reason, insofar as it necessarily entangles itself in contradictions, repeatedly fails to do justice to what is not identical with itself, with what is not itself reason, and thus repeatedly miscarries. This is the very situation in which dialectical thought finds itself in relation to the controversy over rationalism, [10] and it strikes me as symptomatic of the appalling vulgarization of dialectics today that someone like Lukács, [11] who really ought to know better, has written a book entitled The Destruction of Reason, [12] which should never have seen the light of day. Here he simply brands absolutely everything that looks like irrationalist philosophy, including Nietzsche, and also an utterly misunderstood Freud, with the cliched label of ‘fascism’, without realizing that a dialectic that does not also effectively incorporate the moment which is opposed to cognitive ratio essentially forfeits its own character and reverts precisely to the kind of mechanistic thought which the great pioneers of dialectical philosophy had so emphatically repudiated in the first place.

With reference to one particular passage from Hegel, I would now like to show you how inappropriate the usual charge of intellectualism raised against dialectical thought actually is. But before I do so, I should also warn you once more against one misunderstanding which is so widespread that I cannot avoid drawing your attention to it, in spite of its primitive character. This is the misunderstanding which complains that philosophy intellectualizes the entire world when it employs the means of reason, as if for God’s sake it could appeal to any other means. For naturally thought in general, once it begins, must indeed be thought, cannot consist in mere protestations, in mere enthusiastic effusions, about that which is not itself thought; on the other hand, however, thought possesses the remarkable and deeply rooted capacity within itself to call this too by its real name—that is, to articulate that which is not itself thought. And here is the relevant passage, drawn once again from the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit: ‘Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be spoken of as a disporting of Love with itself [as theologians have indeed done]; but this idea sinks into mere edification, and even insipidity, if it lacks the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative.’ [13] Once again, in these remarks you can feel the distinctive atmosphere, the very savour of dialectic, in a very striking way. For in a formulation such as this you see how the standard separation between the sphere of logic, which is marked by the concept of ‘negation’ or ‘negativity’, and the sphere of real human experience, which is expressed by words such as ‘seriousness’, ‘suffering’, ‘patience’, ‘labour’, has been revoked. These categories are not strictly held apart from one another in Hegel, as they are in classificatory thought, and, whenever Hegel comes to speak of contradiction, there too we encounter that 'human' moment of experience, of suffering, of negativity, in the sense in which we can suffer from a 'negative' condition or situation. This is because, in Hegel, that ‘labour of the concept’ in which we are said to suffer is also always a labour of the subject —in other words, is an activity and achievement of human beings engaged in knowing. And this human activity and achievement involves not only the intellectual sphere which has been divorced from the concrete content, but also the whole of experience, one could almost say, the whole history of humanity. So that every process of thought is also always a question of suffering or of happiness, and this whole separation of thought from happiness, or of thought from suffering —for the dimension of happiness and of suffering is indeed a single dimension— must be revoked by a thinking which is fully aware of its own historical conditions, conditions which are comprised in the totality. In my little book on Hegel I once declared that Hegelian philosophy is indeed life repeated, as it were, that in this philosophy we actually do have our life again in the many-coloured show of things. [14] What I wanted to say was that the thought process presented in Hegel’s philosophy as a whole is indeed an entirely logical process, but at the same time a process which, by virtue of its own logical character, also points beyond abstract thought and is nourished on forms of experience with which we are all familiar. And thus, if one could say that Kant’s philosophy represents an impressive attempt to salvage ontology precisely on the basis of nominalism, we should have to recognize that all of the distress and dissatisfaction occasioned by the loss of metaphysical meaning also found its way into the logical exertions which Kant was obliged to undertake, that this distress and dissatisfaction would indeed be a condition of those logical exertions. And perhaps I can clarify my own attempts at dialectical thinking in the following way. For the essential task here, as I see it, is not to logicize language, as the positivists want to do, but rather to bring logic to speak —and this precisely captures Hegel’s intention, namely that happiness and suffering may be revealed as an immanent condition, as an immanent content of thought itself, that thought and life alike may be redefined and reinterpreted, that this task be undertaken with all possible rigour and seriousness. And it is of course precisely this aspect which is completely misunderstood as mere intellectualism in the standard hostility to dialectical thought. But, in terms of traditional, and now exhausted, thought, the dialectic naturally finds itself caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Thus, on the one hand, it is reproached for being unduly intellectualist, for logicizing the supposedly irrational aspects of experience; on the other hand, every common or garden logician will naturally respond to remarks like Hegel's by saying, ‘Well, this is just emotional talk. What has thought got to do with all this seriousness, pain, labour, or suffering in general? These are completely different categories.’ But the essence of dialectic lies precisely in this: that it tries by means of thought itself to undo that separation of spheres which is pre-eminently reflected in the common or garden cliche of the three faculties of thinking, feeling and willing. And the celebrated notion of the unity of theory and praxis itself is only the highest expression of this attempted revocation, if you like, which cannot of course imply a mere restitution or restoration of what was once single and undivided. It points, rather, to an immanent process of reunification, in and through separation, of what has been divided.

SOURCE: 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. From Lecture 5, 3 June 1958, pp. 39-44. [Numbers in brackets refer to endnotes: consult the volume itself.]

NOTE: For me, this is one of the most important arguments out of many such in this lecture series.

First, Adorno proposes that Hegel seeks to surmount the philosophical dichotomy between rationalism and irrationalism (for which there are several pairs of terms), a central concern of mine. In fact, key representatives of the Frankfurt School—notably Adorno and Horkheimer separately—have addressed the dichotomy of positivism and irrationalism, as have a number of other tendencies, even orthodox Soviet-style ones and unorthodox versions in that camp—Lukács.

It is also worth noting that there are several taxonomies by which one can classify philosophies. But note in this regard that the positivism/irrationalism dichotomy does not map neatly onto the materialism/idealism dichotomy. (Also, when not writing hackwork, Oizerman argued that the materialism/idealism obsession is an oversimplification of the issues.) However, neither is the last word without factoring in the other. Also, it should be noted that ideological obfuscation aside, ‘materialism’ in Marxist traditions is conceptualized differently from its common philosophical meaning elsewhere, as basing oneself on the purportedly physical can conceal a categorial distortion of reality, which for Marxism is an incarnation of idealism.

As for the condemnation of Lukács’ The Destruction of Reason, Adorno is only partially correct, in that Lukács oversimplifies and overpolemicizes the political genesis and direct empirical linkages of some irrationalist philosophies, not to mention his treatment of an avowed rationalist like Freud, but there remains a refinement to be performed rather than a rejection. The right has always poached on the fault lines of liberalism, and that applies to Nietzsche, who had an excessive but not uncritically received influence on Adorno. Lukács cannot be so easily dismissed, though Adorno’s argument must be thoroughly digested.

Secondly, Adorno argues that the realm of thinking and experience is united in Hegel in a way that confuses people. If this is true of Hegel, this is even more true of Adorno. His various commentaries referencing ‘metaphysical experience’, ‘reduced experience’, etc. testify to this, and are often murky. This also marks one way in which the contending camps in the Positivist Dispute (Positivismusstreit) argued on entirely different grounds and missed one another (Popper being a second-rate pedant in the final analysis). But the downside is that this way of thinking is a device by which Adorno could make absolute dogmatic judgments on cultural matters. Either way, it is another central pattern by which to trace the inner structure of Adorno’s thinking. (RD — 16 June 2023)

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