Adorno on Progress in Philosophy

The paradox that there is some progress and yet there is none is perhaps nowhere so graphic as in philosophy, where the very idea of progress has its home. No matter how compelling might be the transitions, mediated by critique, from one authentic philosophy to another, nonetheless the assertion that there was progress between them—Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel, or even in a philosophical universal history as a whole—remains dubious. But the cause for this is not the invariance of the alleged philosophical object, that of true Being, whose concept has dissolved irrevocably in the history of philosophy; nor would a merely aesthetic view of philosophy be defensible that places an imposing architecture of thought or even the ominous great thinkers higher than the truth, which in no way coincides with the immanent closure and rigor of these philosophies. It is a completely pharisaical and false verdict to conclude that progress in philosophy leads it away from what the jargon of bad philosophy baptizes as its concern: in this way need would become the guarantor of truth content. On the contrary, the unavoidable and dubious progress of that which receives its limit from its theme—the limit—is posited by the principle of reason, without which philosophy cannot be thought, because without this principle there can be no thought. One concept after another plunges into the Orcus of the mythical. Philosophy lives in symbiosis with science and cannot break from it without turning into dogmatism and ultimately relapsing into mythology. Yet the content of philosophy should be to express what is neglected or excised by science, by the division of labor, by the forms of reflection entailed by the bustle of self-preservation. For this reason philosophy’s progress simultaneously recedes from the necessary goal of its progress; the force of experience that philosophy registers is weakened the more it is honed down by the scientistic apparatus. The movement philosophy as a whole performs is the pure self-sameness of its principle. Every time it pays the price of what it would need to conceptually grasp and can grasp only by virtue of self-reflection, through which it relinquishes the standpoint of stubborn immediacy or, in Hegelian terminology, the philosophy of reflection. Philosophical progress is deceitful because, the tighter it connects arguments, the more airtight and unassailable its propositions become, the more it becomes identity-thinking. Philosophical progress weaves a net over its objects that, by plugging up the holes of what it is not, impudently thrusts itself in place of its object of inquiry. Indeed, finally it seems, in harmony with the actual retrogressive tendencies of society, that vengeance is exacted on the progress of philosophy for having hardly been progress at all. To assume that there has been progress from Hegel to the logical positivists, who dismiss him as obscure or meaningless, is nothing but funny. Even philosophy is not immune to falling prey to that kind of regression, whether into narrow-minded scientification or into the denial of reason, which certainly is no better than the maliciously derided belief in progress.


SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. “Progress,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, translated by Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp. 143-160. Excerpt, pp. 158-159.


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