Theodor W. Adorno on models & ‘true thoughts’

If you consider for a moment this concept of model which I have tried to suggest to you here — the attempt to let the illumination of particular moments cast its light upon other things in turn —and if you try to think this concept further, you will immediately recognize an essential feature of these models which philosophy undertakes to develop (and I must confess here that everything that I do in the way of philosophy, every word that I publish, is not some attempt to deal exhaustively with a certain field but solely an attempt to develop models which could indeed cast a distinctive light upon an entire field, a light that also alters and determines that entire field in a particular way. And in all of my own contributions, whether they are good for anything or not, I always orient myself very strictly by this concept of models). You will recognize that this concept of models only possesses any meaning if it successfully forfeits its mere isolation, if it really also points beyond itself, if in some way it redeems the claim that the particular that has been illuminated here is itself something universal. And the question of how we redeem the claim of particular and specific cognition to a certain universality, that — I would say — is the specific problem of knowledge which dialectical thought must confront today. But if we do not wish our individual models simply to stand side by side in an isolated and unconnected manner like so many little pictures [7] — which was once a critical objection to phenomenology, and one could also say the same for Weber's idea types — this cannot be accomplished by bringing these models under some overall concept, such as a ‘worldview’ or a general ‘position’, or again by gathering them into some supposedly systematic form, by fitting them into a system. I would say that the requisite communication between them is best accomplished not by bringing them all under a common denominator, but by sinking subterranean passages, as it were, or by somehow opening doors into these subterranean passages from each individual instance of knowledge. In this way these models can connect with one another, indeed connect subterraneously, as I would like to put it, without this interconnection being imposed upon them by the arbitrary demands of organizational thought. The interconnection here must emerge out of the complexion of the matter itself, and is something over which the thinker has no actual power; and I would almost say that it is a further criterion of truth, an indication of the wealth and binding character of knowledge, whether this communication of the individual models is produced in and through itself, as it were, or can only be produced in an external superficial manner. If I once wrote that it is a genuine indication of trustworthy work that draws forth its requisite quotations spontaneously, as it were, that it tempts them to come forward of themselves, this is precisely what I was trying to capture. [8] Thus I would say that the interconnection of thought, the interconnection of knowledge achieved through such models, which actually accomplishes what earlier ages had once expected from the idea of system, that such interconnection displays the character of a labyrinth rather than that of a system. And I once formulated a claim which those of you who have read these things must surely have found rather shocking or at least highly thought-provoking, and it is this: ‘True thoughts are those alone which do not understand themselves. [9] And it is very easy just to say, ‘Well then, it’s also obvious from such philosophy that it cannot actually understand itself.’ Now I would not deny anyone their delight in such an aperçu, but I wanted to express very clearly precisely what I have just been trying to bring out for you here, and I would ask you to take what I am saying as an interpretation of that earlier claim. And perhaps you will also see here that such claims are not actually aperçus, although they may initially strike you like that — and not merely pointed remarks either, for they occupy a very precise place within a continuous line of thought. For I wanted to say that actually only those thoughts are true which communicate with other thoughts by virtue of their own intrinsic gravity, while those thoughts are not true which are captured in a superficial general concept, which are merely classified and subsumed under an abstract universal, and thus can already only be determined as a ‘particular case’' or mere example of a universal, whereby they naturally lose the very salt which makes knowledge into genuine knowledge in the first place.

7 Adorno presents his own critique along these lines in the section entitled ‘Naturalienkabinett’ (‘Natural History Museum’) in his Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie (GS 5, pp. 219-21; Against Epistemology, pp. 217- 19).

8 In Minima Moralia Adorno writes: ‘Properly written texts are like spiders’ webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air. Metaphors flitting hastily through them become their nourishing prey. Subject matter comes winging towards them. The soundness of a conception can be judged by whether it causes one quotation to summon another’ (GS 4, p. 97; Minima Moralia, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott, New York 1974, p. 87).

9 In Minima Moralia, in the section entitled ‘Monograms’, Adorno says : ‘True thoughts are those alone which do not understand themselves’ (GS 4, p. 218; Minima Moralia, p. 192).

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. Excerpt from Lecture 16 (17 July 1958), pp. 169-170, 300. Boldface added.

See also my commentary:

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

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

Depreciation: Adorno on Theory, Reification, Paranoia, Dialectics
by Theodor W. Adorno

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

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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