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Robert Pippin reviews Adorno and Existence

Peter E. Gordon. Adorno and Existence. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016. 272 pp.

Review by Robert Pippin

18 October 2017

The Harvard historian Peter Gordon here follows through admirably on a perceptive intuition: that one can learn a lot about Theodor Adorno’s thought by examining what this polemical and contentious thinker was against. The opposed body of thought at issue in this book is existentialism, especially in Søren Kierkegaard, Edmund Husserl and phenomenology, and Martin Heidegger. Gordon, in a detailed, sensitive, fair-minded way, leads the reader through Adorno’s various, usually quite vigorous, rhetorically pointed attacks on both transcendental and existential phenomenology from 1930 on. He rightly notes that Adorno returned to this critique throughout his life, as if he were bound in some way to what he opposed, unable or unwilling to be done with a philosophy he clearly considered both inadequate and dangerously naïve. Sometimes, Gordon suggests, this binding seems motivated by a defensive fear that Adorno’s own philosophy is burdened by the very defects he finds in existentialism (most prominently a “pseudo-concreteness”), and sometimes he wants to affirm what he seems to consider existentialism’s deepest wish, the wish for a way of living out and understanding the unconceptualizable factum of human existence. Existentialism can thus function as a Freudian dreamwork, “an attempt within consciousness to fulfill a need whose actual fulfillment beyond consciousness remains socially blocked” (p. 150). And sometimes over the years Adorno simply wants to show how deeply, in how many different ways, existentialism is profoundly complicit in the alienated world of capitalism.

The book has an introduction, five chapters, and a brief conclusion. It is framed by attention to Adorno’s early interest in Kierkegaard (Adorno’s Habilitationsschrift was written in 1929–30 on Kierkegaard, under the supervision of Paul Tillich) and his surprising return to serious attention to Kierkegaard, especially in his 1963 essay, “Kierkegaard Again,” an essay that displays a remarkable friendliness for what Adorno called “inverse theology.” (I found these two chapters the finest in the book.) In between there are chapters on “Ontology and Phenomenology,” “The Jargon of Authenticity,” and “Negative Dialectics.”

Gordon is well aware, though, that Adorno’s critique of existentialism cannot be taken in isolation. It is wrapped up in his sweeping critique of modern, that is, bourgeois philosophy; of the central notion in that philosophy, the self-determining, self-constituting subject; of such a subject as essentially a subject dominated by, and so an agent of, “rage” against nature; and so of the tendency of all such philosophy, but paradigmatically the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel, towards “identity thinking.” Such thinking constitutes a reconciliation of the subject with the object, accomplished by a thorough and violent appropriation or crushing of the object, all in favor of the philosophy of “bourgeois interiority.” This all prompts a way of understanding by contrast “the non-identical” in our attempts to understand the world and other people that will forever defeat such an appropriation. It is also fascinating that, while Adorno’s rescue attempt for the nonconceptualizable and the concrete might easily be mistaken for skepticism and empiricism—surely equally important in any narrative of modernity—Gordon shows very well how committed Adorno was to seeing his project as essentially a metaphysical one. That surprising thought alone in this valuable book is worth a good deal of further reflection.

At one point, when discussing Adorno’s somewhat tendentious interpretations of classical positions in modern philosophy, Gordon asks whether Adorno’s critique “rests on a mistake” in interpretation, or whether he is forever attacking straw men. He also notes that one might accuse Adorno of trading in truisms. (Of course the “conceptual” is not “identical” with the nonconceptual. The proposition, “Socrates is sitting” is not identical, in the sense of the same, to a human being’s position in space. Socrates is not a proposition.) In both cases, Gordon ably defends Adorno as far as one can. But why not be as charitable with Hegel’s many, many denials that his idealism obliterates the distinction between subject and object (and so with his “identity of identity and difference”) and with his insistence that the pure thinking of his master work The Science of Logic has nothing to do with the mind, or a subject, or consciousness, but with what any thinking that can be a truth bearer, a judgment, must look like in order to be so? If Adorno is leaning towards metaphysics, then we must think of his claim about the right “logical” relation between identity and nonidentity as true—that is, as identical with, as saying, what is in fact the case. And we are then in Hegel’s space. For that matter, what kind of a claim is “materialism”? Not to mention, what epistemology is appropriate for a “priority of the object” position? And what considerations might lead one to think “materialism” is true? And is it true that Heidegger, by making Dasein the “site” of the “event,” the meaning of Being, seals himself back in the subjective world of idealism (itself something of a straw man in characterizations of nineteenth-century thought) (pp. 168–69)? This would rest on a confusion. The fact that Dasein is the being open to the meaning of Being (to use Heidegger’s terms), that it is the only being to whom Being can mean what it does, is in no way equivalent to claiming that the meaning of Being is only Dasein’s limited or distorted view of such a meaning, as if Dasein were a kind of species being whose mode of understanding limits any result. Hegel disposed of that confusion in Kant. The best thing one could say of such a characterization of Heidegger is that it begs a question. Whether Dasein can function as a site or a “clearing” is precisely what is at issue; hence the tortuous terminology of Da-sein.

These questions are only the beginning of the issues to which we have access thanks to this singularly illuminating study.