schelling, adorno and all that jazz
Andrew Bowie interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Andrew Bowie is the ice cool jazz-playing philosopher whose musical riffs can be heard here and gigs checked out here. But when he’s not laying down mood and mellow he’s thinking all the time about how philosophy can fit in with other interests, about the importance of Schelling for the debate about freewill, about the importance of metaphor for Schelling and metaphysics, about Schellings’ links to Heidegger, Davidson and Wittgenstein, about the German philosophical tradition and Romanticism, about what’s wrong with the way analytic philosophers do philosophy of music, about why the East-West Divan Orchestra is an important example, about whether he is a strange pragmatist, about Adorno and how he helps us see what is wrong with some of the contemporary forms of philosophy, and how it might be fixed, about the role of historicism, about Adorno and his criticisms of analytics and Hegelians, about Adorno’s aesthetics, about whether Adorno is an Hegelian, and about Adorno’s writing style. As Miles put it, this cat’s just blue…
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Andrew Bowie: I studied Modern Languages (French and German) as an undergraduate and then did a Comparative Literature Masters and PhD. I had wanted to change to Philosophy as an undergrad, but my German tutor warned me that my interest in Hegel and Nietzsche would not be catered for on the Philôsophy degree at Cambridge. He thereby initiated an early awareness of the European/analytical divide, and did me the favour of making me develop my language skills in a way that became vital for my philosophical career, by making access to untranslated German and French texts thoroughly unproblematic, which it clearly isn’t for a lot of philosophers. I kept reading philôsophy, especially while finishing my PhD in Berlin in the 70s. The PhD was on history and the novel, and used Lukacs, Adorno, and others to understand what the novel achieved as a response to major historical events like the 1848 Revolution and the World Wars that historiography couldn’t. It was examined by W.G. Sebald, who cites it in his theoretical work. That was already the beginning of a concern with art’s specific modes of making sense, which has been central to most of what I do in philosophy.
When I started teaching philosophy and literature in the 80s the debates over deconstruction in literary theory made me aware that I was not in tune with some of what was happening, though I thought it was important, so I started doing work on the philosophical issues in literary theory. This eventually led me to Manfred Frank’s ‘What is Neo-Structuralism?‘ (a great book whose title should have been ‘What is Post-Structuralism?‘, which would have made everyone read it), and his work on German Idealism and early German Romanticism. From then on I moved almost wholly into philosophy in terms of what I wrote and researched, and I also concentrated more and more on studying and playing music. I don’t think that tells you what made me become a philosopher, but I don’t really know that anyway. What I do know is that it took a long time before I felt I should commit to philosophy, partly because I was hesitant about it, and partly because I was interested in other things. In some ways this is still how things are with respect to my attitude to philosophy, and I think that is for the good. It is too easy to get seduced by philosophy and so lose sight of other ways of seeing and doing things that matter just as much.
3:AM: Schelling is a German philosopher who you argue is important in agendas for modern philosophy. You say he was ‘one of the first philosophers to try to avoid the fate of really being Hegel despite oneself.’ Many contemporaries rejected his thinking, including Kierkegaard and Marx’s friend Arnold Ruge. So why do you find him significant?
AB: The rejection of Schelling by the Young Hegelians was mainly a result of his later religious views and support for the political status quo. Even then, they clearly got ideas off him, such as not regarding nature just as a system of causal laws, and an awareness of the tension between attempts to build philosophical systems and historical contingency. His critique of Hegel is paradigmatic for subsequent concern with what Axel Honneth calls ‘pathologies of reason’, because Schelling refuses to accept that reason can ground itself: once there is reason some things become necessary, but why they become necessary is not itself rationally groundable. This creates the space for understanding how reason can be deceived about itself and become perverted, in what Horkheimer and Adorno will call a ‘dialectic of Enlightenment': the freedom the Enlightenment links to reason can also be a freedom to dominate.
Schelling does not see freedom just as self-determination according to norms, in the Hegelian rationalist manner (though he does take this conception into account). Freedom should be understood rather in terms of what one liberates oneself from, not as a metaphysical power opposed to natural causality, of the kind suggested by Kant’s paradoxical idea of a ‘causality through freedom’. Without a ground that opposes freedom, there would be no motivating force or significance in the notion of freedom at all, indeed, we would not have any way of understanding what it meant. That ground changes with history as new kinds of lack of freedom emerge. The danger Schelling sees lies in thinking we should completely overcome this ground, which is what he means by ’evil’, a self-deceptive omnipotence that tries to destroy the conditions of its own possibility.
Thinking this way takes the debate over freedom away from arid metaphysical attempts to establish whether there is ‘freedom of the will’ or not, and looks at the fact that we can always become aware that we lack freedom, for example when we are inhibited by neurosis or when we have been unwittingly prey to an ideology. It doesn’t matter in such cases whether there is freedom of the will or not: that reduces freedom to the idea that we have some kind of on-off switch over which we have complete control because it is outside the chain of causality. This tells you basically nothing about the reality of freedom, which is inseparable from political and psychological oppression, or from failures of self-realisation: in music you gain freedom by overcoming technical and other obstacles, for example. Basically, you’re not going to be responding adequately to protesters in Tahrir square if you argue that freedom is an illusion, because materialists have shown determinism is universal. The metaphysical debate can in these terms itself contribute to unfreedom by reducing the scope of what needs to be investigated. As Adorno points out, freedom of the will only becomes an issue at all at a particular historical juncture, when the idea of a natural order of things disintegrates with the rise of bourgeois individualism. In this kind of perspective it may be more important to ask why the debate so often focuses on the metaphysical question of freedom of the will, when that is not the decisive issue. Schelling does not formulate all this in the way I have presented it, but he establishes influential structures of thought which enable Heidegger, Adorno and others to develop such conceptions.
3:AM: How is metaphor a key factor in grasping the importance of Schelling and metaphysics?
AB: A.W. Moore has usefully suggested that metaphysics is about making maximal sense of things and about making sense of making sense. If sense has to be made it is not just about what is already in existence, as it tends to be for much of the Western tradition and for some contemporary metaphysics. Whereas such metaphysics wants to find ‘what fundamental kinds of things there are and what properties and relations they have’, as Timothy Williamson puts it, metaphysics can also be about new sense of the kind we get from art, which is about learning to see things differently, and not just seeing them in cognitive terms. The early, Romantic-influenced Schelling saw art as the ‘organ of philosophy’ because it gave us ways of grasping the fact that the sense we make cannot be finally grounded. Sense also depends on motivations that are never fully transparent to us, which give rise to symbolic forms of expression that constitute a world. Schelling talks at one point of language as ‘faded mythology’, neither language nor mythology is consciously invented, but both are crucial to how sense is made of things. Metaphors give us one way of seeing what he means: some metaphors will be cashed in and become literal, but others live from the way they, as Davidson puts it, make us notice new things, even though we couldn’t say what they literally mean. I can’t see the point of the kind of metaphysics advocated by Williamson, because it seems to me that finding out what fundamental kinds of things there are is the job of the natural sciences, not of armchair metaphysicians. In some respects that kind of analytical metaphysics reminds me of neo-classical economics: it deals in models and thought experiments and does not actually take on the complexity of real world cases. Analysis of specific aspects of anything is obviously vital, but as the failure of neo-classical economics demonstrated, it can, wrongly employed, make one blind to things that are only apparent if one looks at the complex interrelations of different aspects of an issue. As Rorty suggests with respect to moral philosophy, you will often learn more about morality from reading a great novel than from reading moral philosophy. The economist Richard Bronk thinks the reform of economics can be greatly helped by reading Romantic literature.
It is not for nothing that the later Heidegger thinks metaphysics in the Western tradition becomes natural science, thereby raising the more interesting question of what sense science itself makes, which he connects to issues to do with the sense made by art, as what can reveal what is otherwise hidden. Asking about this, which raises questions about how we negotiate the difference between what Wilfrid Sellars called the ‘scientific image’ of the world and the ‘manifest image’, seems to me a better way to approach doing metaphysics.
3:AM: How does Schelling’s work link up with more recent philosophers such as Heidegger, Davidson and Wittgenstein?
AB: There is a direct link to Heidegger, whose work in the Origin of the Work of Art comes pretty directly from Schelling’s ‘On the Essence of Human Freedom‘ and ‘Ages of the World‘, which Heidegger was reading in the 1930s. Heidegger’s conflict between ‘earth’ and ‘world’ – very roughly indeed between the material of an artwork and its meanings – derives from Schelling’s contrast of the ‘ground’, ‘gravity’ or the ‘real’, which he sees as what resists expansion but is also necessary for anything to exist, with ‘light’, which is expansive, and without which the world would not be intelligible. – This relates to what I suggested about freedom in Schelling above. – Schelling thinks of language in these terms: its ‘ground’ consists of a finite number of relatively fixed signifiers that must be used in rule-bound ways, without which nothing could be said at all, but these elements must be transcended if language is to make the changing world manifest.
This is a case where the metaphors Schelling uses seem able to do metaphysical work. Schelling is concerned with the question of being in ways which prefigure Heidegger. He asks, for example, ‘why is there sense/meaning (Sinn) at all? Why is there not nonsense/meaninglessness (Unsinn)?’, without assuming a theological answer to the question. He thinks a theological answer could only be valid if one established a philosophical theology, which he tries, and fails, to do. The link to Davidson was first suggested by Manfred Frank: Schelling is a kind of ‘anomalous monist‘, where there is no law-bound connection between mental events and physical brain events, because he maintains: ‘Between real and ideal, being and thinking no causal connection is possible, for thinking can never be cause of a determination in being, or on the other hand being can never be cause of a determination in thinking. For real and ideal are only different views [Davidson would say ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ are only different ‘descriptions’] of one and the same substance’.
Making the link to Wittgenstein is more complex, though there is one easy way, insofar as Wittgenstein was heavily influenced by Schopenhauer, whose philosophy of Will demonstrably derives from Schelling. All three see art as crucial to making sense of life, though you wouldn’t know that from reading many analytical accounts of Wittgenstein.
3:AM: The German philosophical tradition is one that you’ve written extensively about. One of its important strands is its contribution to literary theory. You link this with German Romanticism don’t you? Are you saying that literary theory – so radical in the sixties and maybe rather passé these days – when placed in a philosophical context become clearer and perhaps shows it as less a breach than a continuation of a tradition?
AB: Yes. A lot of literary theory was predicated on the idea of ‘decentring the subject’, as though modern philosophy had been all about establishing a foundation for knowledge, meaning, and interpretation in the subject. This seems to be largely a result of the French academic philosophical tradition being heavily concerned with foundationalism, from Descartes to Husserl’s phenomenology, and of Heidegger’s interpretation of Descartes. The early Romantics, though, do not see the subject in foundational terms, because its being is always more than can be known to it, so the subject is never ‘self-present’. That is why they are the first to arrive at notions of the unconscious. I remember going to listen to Derrida give an excellent public seminar in Cambridge, where he talked about the history of metaphysics as being based on the search for self-presence. When I suggested that this only applied to a story from Descartes to Husserl, but not to the Romantics and Schelling, all he said, though, was that ‘We would have to read Schelling together’… The early German Romantic concern with art and literature is already ‘deconstructive’, because it no longer thinks of philosophical truth as an attainable goal. ‘Poesie’ (‘literature’ in a very broad sense of creative art, which can extend to music) is vital to philosophy because it does not offer finally determinable meaning, and this is not a deficit, on the contrary. Novalis says ‘the absolute which is given to us can only be known negatively, by our acting and finding that no action can reach what we are seeking’, and this makes philosophy an ‘endless activity’ without a final ground. Schlegel even suggests that ‘In truth you would be distressed if the whole world, as you demand, were for once seriously to become completely comprehensible’.
Literature in the Romantic sense gives rise to ‘endless reflection’ because the relationships between text and reader constantly change (something like this recurs in Gadamer, though he didn’t seem to realise how close he was to the Romantics). If the reflection stops, the text ceases to be literature. As such, the essential aim of philosophy is no longer conceived of in terms of offering definitive answers to metaphysical questions, and becomes the continual genesis of new sense. It is this connection of aesthetic concerns with mainstream philosophical questions that most interests me. Literary theory raised some of these issues, but generally paid too little attention to the value of art for making sense of life, concentrating too much on finding ways of linking art to ideology or showing how textual meaning can be undecidable, as a way of deconstructing metaphysics.
3:AM: When you turn to philosophy of music you are critical of an analytic approach whereby the ‘founders of the analytic tradition increased the precision of some kinds of argument and got rid of certain confusions regarding the logical status of a number of issues in philosophy … they did so at the expense of restricting the scope of what was considered worthy of, or even amenable to, philosophical attention.’ So what’s wrong with the analytic philosophy approach to music? Is it the same problem that you found in its approach to literary theory, that the failure to work out an historical context for the discussion of art problems is fatally restrictive?
3:AM: It certainly is also that problem, but there is a deeper issue that really makes me reject many analytical approaches to music and other arts. I once gave a talk entitled ‘The Redundancy of Analytical Aesthetics‘ to a very nice audience of analytical aestheticians. Having politely harangued them for an hour I challenged them to give one example of where an analytical approach to music actually learned from music, rather than seeking to tell people what a musical work was, whether music was expressive, and so on. I got no serious answer. It seems to me that a philosophical concern with music cannot just spend its time converting music into something which is amenable to being determined by philosophy. Of course we should have as much conceptual clarity about music as we can get, but that does very little to elucidate why music is so important in people’s lives.
I start Music, Philôsophy, and Modernity with the true fact that ‘music’ once briefly replaced ‘sex’ as the most used search-term on the Internet. That has never been, and probably never will be the case for ‘philosophy’. If we finally knew what music meant in a cognitive manner we wouldn’t be interested in it, as we also wouldn’t if it made no sense at all. It’s only if you think that the only way to philosophise about music is to turn it into an object of knowledge that it becomes primarily a mystery to be explained. Musicians don’t in the main worry about the mysterious nature of music: they ‘inhabit’ music, as Merleau-Ponty would put it, because it makes a kind of sense they cannot do without. The trouble is, of course, that the analytical philosophy of music doesn’t really explain music anyway, as the interminable debates about things that don’t matter much of which it consists makes clear. At a personal level, music, both as something I play and as something I listen to, has generally made more sense in my life than academic philosophy has, and that fact seems to me philosophically decisive.
3:AM: So what are the central features that German philosophical tradition contribute to aesthetics – beyond actually starting the whole ball rolling I guess.
AB: That is a huge question, so just a very brief answer. The basic thing that matters in the German philosophical tradition’s development of aesthetics is the realisation that the sense we make of the world is not primarily cognitive. Instead it involves participation in the world whose motivations go deeper than wanting to know what things are and how they work. If that is too cryptic, some of my other remarks here should make it clearer.
3:AM: You find Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said’s East-West Divan orchestra an illustration of one of the key reasons why you think music important. Can you say something about this and how it illustrates your approach to music that it is only through our activities that the world can be disclosed to us and we can enter into it?
AB: The Barenboim-Said Orchestra offers an example of communication between people whose political views are often totally opposed. Barenboim cites two musicians from the orchestra on opposed sides of the Arab-Israeli disputes who cannot agree at all on issues of justice and politics, but who can agree on the importance of getting the phrasing in a Beethoven symphony right. Philosophers also hardly ever agree on anything, but they have to coexist, so finding modes of communication and interaction which circumvent inevitable differences should be crucial. The point of something like music, where participation is essential, is that what happens in successful participation cannot be fully cashed out in discursive terms. Our political judgements, on the other hand, should have to be publicly cashed out, and this means we often arrive at irreconcilable conflicts, where both sides’ judgements may, of course, anyway be mistaken.
The existence of a practice where a different kind of agreement is possible can help suggest how theoretical differences can be overcome by involvement in a practice. That does not mean that the world of music is devoid of antagonism and disagreement – it is actually notorious for being riven by conflict – but it does also offer examples of cooperation and communication beyond everyday antagonisms in other domains. That is one of the things I love about the jazz scene, where people from wildly different backgrounds, with very different levels of experience and skill, and very different musical conceptions, can play together successfully. People invest in music because it always already makes some kind of sense: establishing what that sense is by a philosophical theory is unlikely to intensify the investment, because the theory is at a different level of sense from the sense that makes people invest in the practice of music in the first place. The objectifying tendency of much philosophy can easily obscure essential dimensions of sense, of the kind generated in participatory cultural activities. That is not to say, as Adorno, not always wholly successfully, reminds us, that music cannot become ideological and open to misuse, but without an adequate prior awareness of the primary level of sense in music, that concern would be baseless.
3:AM: Are you a strange pragmatist by arguing what you do via the German Romanticists, Idealists and Adorno?
AB: American pragmatists like Royce and Dewey were, as you know, familiar with Hegel and other German Idealists, and drew on their ideas. The early Romantics, who share many ideas with the German Idealists, have only fairly recently been discovered as serious philosophers (Walter Benjamin discovered them in the 1920s, but he was himself only really discovered in the 1970s), so they may not play much of a direct role in pragmatism. However, there are many pragmatic elements in Novalis, Schlegel, and Schleiermacher, which derive from their anti-foundationalism and their concern to generate new perspectives on the world. As I try to suggest in Adorno and the Ends of Philôsophy, Adorno’s philosophical concern is in certain respects close to Rorty’s demand that philosophy aim primarily at the reduction of cruelty, before being concerned with what might be objectively true. They both see Nietzsche’s concern with the value of truth as an important corrective to many philosophical assumptions, and think that truth is most likely to emerge where there is real social justice.
3:AM: Adorno is a key figure for you. You argue that he thought philosophy “should build the sense of its own potentially repressive nature into the way in which it is presented.” Can you explain what is meant by this?
AB: As you can probably gather, I am no fan of philosophy in many of its contemporary forms. Even if many of the questions it asks were, per impossibile, to be answered, it would make little or no difference to most things. Obviously you can’t say ‘There are no answers to the major questions of philosophy’, without being more totalising than what one wants to question. The question is therefore how to understand philosophy’s almost constitutive failure to arrive at any theories that do the sort of things that scientific theories can do. The Romantics already foresaw the need to respond to this situation, in their notion of irony. Romantic irony is a response to the fact that we are not free not to use the assertive form. Irony consists in using assertions in a way which undermines the inherently absolute nature of any truth claim even as one makes the claim.
Adorno sometimes argues in a similar manner, especially with regard to moral philosophy: ‘To impute that one ever knows, without doubt and unproblematically, what the good is is itself, one might say, already the beginning of evil’. This means he does not present his thoughts on moral philosophy as a series of moral precepts, or a moral theory like utilitarianism, but rather seeks to show why morality in a modern interconnected world is so complex and difficult, while still not abandoning the attempt to make moral sense of real situations of the extreme kind which are characteristic of twentieth century history. What puzzles me about the way in which much analytical philosophy is presented is that, even though most analytical philosophers are avowedly aware that their claims are likely to be at best provisional, they still argue as though they are presenting definitive truths. I think this can partly derive from them thinking that what they are doing is a kind of science, though a lot of natural scientists actually think they are just building provisional models to solve problems.
The amount of venom in philosophical discussions in analytical philosophy is notorious. It would improve such philosophy if it built a sense that such modes of argument can be repressive, both into direct discussion and into the form written philosophy takes. That does not resolve the issue of exactly what the alternatives to existing forms might be, but this seems to me one of the key tasks of philosophy today. The way that the later Wittgenstein or Stanley Cavell write offers some possibilities, as does Nietzsche at his best. One does not here dispense with argument, but sees it as only one part of how the content of philosophy is to be presented.
I think that having a very strong historical awareness of such things, for example, as the fact that Schleiermacher already formulated Quine’s rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction in the early nineteenth century makes one inherently wary of whatever the local orthodoxy in a philosophical issue has become. Why did Schleiermacher’s argument not gain currency and change the course of analytical philosophy? Obviously the contingencies of textual reception play a role here, but such arguments will probably have been around elsewhere. It is therefore also a historical question as to why Quine’s argument caught on when it did, given that its validity is still open to question. Another factor here is that some analytical positions that used to be taken as read by very many people also regularly become forgotten or ignored. That must make one suspicious of the nature of an enterprise based so predominantly on the proposing of arguments. It is therefore always worth pondering what dead philosophical arguments might have been historical symptoms of, given that they don’t appear wholly at random.
3:AM: A second aim of philosophy for Adorno was making sense of the disenchanted world and he thinks analytic philosophy and norm-orientated Hegelians fail to do this. What does he mean when he argues this – and is he right in the criticisms of analytics and Hegelians?
AB: The analytical philosophy and Hegelianism he was talking about were, of course, different to what they are today. In my Adorno book I therefore try to look at the failures or limitations of each via my own take on his ideas. His criticisms of ‘positivism’ and of Hegel can miss their target, and he dismissed pragmatism too glibly (though he had time for Dewey), so it seemed to make more sense to see how his ideas can be employed more effectively than he sometimes employs them himself. With respect to analytical philosophy, it is less a question of whether Adorno is right on particular substantive questions, than of how one deals with the fact that those questions give rise to so many contradictory positions, rather than resulting in substantial consensus on theories, of the kind that does occur in the natural sciences. Adorno was interested in philosophy as a manifestation of social contradictions. In this sense, epistemology may not always be usefully seen as providing a theory of knowledge – which epistemology could be said to do that these days, given the proliferation of incompatible naturalist, reductionist, idealist, reliablist, or whatever, theories purporting to explain knowledge which is itself often very widely agreed upon? – but should be seen as a symptom of our historical situation, where conflicting perspectives on the world proliferate in ways which resist mediation.
Adorno thinks you cannot make anything but thoroughly temporalised sense of the disenchanted world, and it is important that he also confronts things that can’t be made sense of, whence his focus on Auschwitz. Most analytical philosophy simply doesn’t deal with things like that, because of its lack of a sense of the role of history in the very content of philosophy. Norm-oriented Hegelians similarly don’t in the main confront head-on the points at which things go so awry that they make no sense in normative terms. Robert Pippin, though, has himself suggested what Adorno is concerned about with respect to Hegelianism in a recent interview. This remark is worth quoting, and is quite striking coming from a convinced Hegelian: ‘So much of the modern layout of the problem, the hard-to-pin-down but pervasive sense of the ‘wrongness’ of society, seems to bypass politics by pointing to a level of engagement that is so deep behind consciousness that we cannot reach it. Art, precisely because it is a mode of non-discursive intelligibility, which does not consist in propositions, arguments, and syllogisms, nonetheless makes sense of ourselves in a way that actually resonates with what is now coming onto the scene as more important than the conscious deliberative capacities of individual subjects’. Pippin has no time for Adorno as he understands him, but here I think they are on the same page.
3:AM: How does aesthetics form part of Adorno’s approach to making sense of disenchantment?
AB: There are times when I find the complexities of Adorno’s aesthetics irritating and some of his contentions thoroughly unconvincing. This makes it hard to answer this question. In one sense he thinks that art which incorporates disenchantment into itself is the true means of responding to a world that tries to administer and control everything. By refusing to make sense in the manner of the dominant social totality, art like Kafka or the Second Viennese School is a kind of protest against that totality and so hints at alternatives to it, which resist its tendencies toward standardisation and commodification. This view can, however, turn into something like a negative theology, which I would resist. There are times when an artistic refusal to make accessible sense is an appropriate response to the way things are, but that depends on a lot of historical and empirical factors and should not be applied to the whole of modernity, as Adorno sometimes does. That modern art should be critical of the ‘wrongness’ of society seems fairly obvious, but there are many ways in which it can do this.
I find Adorno more congenial when he explains, as he does, e.g., in the book on Mahler, the notes on Beethoven, or some of the Notes on Literature, what makes specific works that he evidently likes important. While one can, as Adorno suggests, be deceived by some great art’s creation of sense if one sees it predominantly in terms of its relation to modern historical disasters, it is vital not to ignore the personal sense that great art may make that helps one get through life. If the art really helps you cope, when nothing else does, it is mistaken to think all the time about how it is actually deceiving you because it reconciles you to an unjust reality. If it helps, it really helps, even if the help is based only on an appearance of sense: I wonder, though, whether, say, great musical experiences are not as real as other kinds of experience, rather than just being aesthetic appearance. Some of the most memorable moments of my life have been performances of music: ok, these do not durably transform the whole of one’s existence in a positive direction, but what does? There is, I think, a contradiction between the historical and the existential perspectives on art: in other cases Adorno suggests that we should work through such contradictions and not hastily seek to resolve them, because the contradictions tell us a lot about how things are. With respect to art he does not always seem to see this. One just needs to think of how we experience Wagner to appreciate these contradictions: Adorno himself, of course, has a very ambivalent relationship to Wagner.
3:AM: How does Adorno’s approach to philosophy relate to Hegel – and does he turn away from Hegelian optimism and show there can’t be ideological nor philosophical closure?
AB: In his lectures in particular Adorno often says that he is basically a Hegelian, at least with respect to the dialectical way of thinking, which refuses to start with any positive presuppositions and proceeds in terms of what emerges from exploring contradictions. That was the easy bit. Reductively, Adorno’s ‘negative dialectics’ is a questioning of the idea that thought and reality can be harmonised by working through the ways they contradict each other, such that each ‘determinate negation’ – no Galileo without Ptolemy to refute, etc. – is a step towards more complete insight into how they relate. Hegel’s ‘absolute idea’ is the realisation that all thought can do is negate previous ways of thinking and so progress in illuminating the world, there being nothing outside the historical process of thought trying to legitimate itself by overcoming the inadequacies of previous thinking. The claim by Hegelians is that a rejection of this picture involves the dogmatic invocation of some unwarranted metaphysical principle, of something ‘immediate’ in Hegel’s sense of something not defined by its relation to something else.
Pippin suggests Nietzsche’s Will to Power is like this, because it is supposed to be the hidden ground of truth. If this is to be established, though, you enter the space of reasons, and claims about the Will to Power will be subject to the same demands of justificatory argument as anything else, so it will be mediated, rather than being a prior immediate ground. Adorno goes along with this in certain respects, because he is suspicious of any notion of an immediate origin or foundation that is immune to any kind of rational appraisal. However, he questions the consequences of Hegel’s using this pattern of thought at the beginning of the Logic, where ‘Being’, because it is initially indeterminate, is equated with ‘nothing’. Adorno suggests of this use of ‘nothing': ‘in this little nuance, in which he has equated the indeterminate something, because of its absolute indeterminacy, with nothing, in this little nuance precisely that prior decision in favour of absolute Idealism seems to me to lie’.
Basically, as Schelling already maintained, this means that thought is allowed to swallow being without there being any remainder. Adorno’s and Schelling’s concern with art, like Heidegger’s, has to do with the sense that such philosophy fails to see how our understanding of being needs more than conceptual means if it is not to deceive itself about the extent of its command of its object. Adorno does not put it quite like this – though what is meant relates to his notion of ‘non-identity’ – but Heidegger’s idea that the essential nature of being is to be hidden seems appropriate here: what becomes unconcealed will always lead to something else being concealed. The experience of art, where one never finally grasps the sense of a work, even though we keep articulating new sense via the work, is apt to make us understand this. A systematic philosophical attempt, like Hegel’s, to show that it is only as something conceptually mediated that being makes sense captures something important about epistemology and how to circumvent the demand for a dogmatic foundation for cognition, but it does too little to guard against thought’s tendency to an illusory dominance over its object. You won’t in this respect generate ecological ideas out of Hegel, for whom nature, as Pippin puts it, is something you ‘leave behind’ (though you can use him to evaluate such ideas), whereas Schelling, Adorno and Heidegger help initiate the warnings that modern thinking may have an inherent tendency towards domination of nature whose consequences we are now having to come to terms with.
3:AM: Is there a philosophical reason for why Adorno wrote as he did in his books – which are difficult compared to his lectures? Was he deconstructing uncritical philosophy of his day?
AB: Adorno’s less critical admirers often insist that his manner of writing is essential to the content of his philosophy, because it enacts his refusal to reduce philosophy to a series of arguments, and mirrors the dynamic nature of his thought. This is sometimes the case for the best parts of his books. The problem is that, when he deals in the lectures with issues which can be hard to make sense of in the written work, the issues become much more accessible without, as far as I can see, losing any substance. In my book I spend a lot of time on Adorno’s extensive and fascinating reflections on art and nature in the lectures, both published and unpublished. In Aesthetic Theory he does talk about this issue, but only briefly and cryptically, and frankly I used not really to get what he meant, and, so far as I did, found it implausible. I just don’t see what the compressed and cryptic presentation adds. It’s not that I think philosophical style unimportant: in the early Romantics, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, for example, style really does play a major role in the philosophical content. I don’t really see this in Adorno, apart from in Minima Moralia: I find the books pointlessly mannered and often over-written. This view might lose me friends, but I wouldn’t have written the Adorno book but for the illumination offered by the lectures of things which made little sense to me in the books. Being forced to address a live audience of critical students also tends to stop Adorno exaggerating in the way he does in the books, and the ideas often become more plausible as a consequence.
3:AM: And for those of us here at 3:AM who want to delve further, are there five books other than your own that you could recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?
AB: I assume you don’t mean the canonical historical texts like Kant’s Critiques, Hegel’s Phenomenology, Nietzsche’s Gay Science, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and Heidegger’s Being and Time. In terms of recent books I would name Lee Braver’s Groundless Grounds and Mark Wrathall’s Heidegger and Unconcealment, for showing how Heidegger can be perfectly comprehensible and philosophically crucial even to analytical philosophers who still moan about his supposed incomprehensibility; A.W. Moore’s The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics, for its refusal to acknowledge the European/analytical divide, and its combination of breadth of vision and analytical clarity; Albrecht Wellmer’s Sprachphilosophie (Philôsophy of Language), which has sadly not been translated, for presenting a masterly mediation between analytical and hermeneutic approaches to language; Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, for convincingly questioning many existing forms of philosophical ethics; and, finally, David Graeber’s Debt: the First Five Thousand Years, for probably telling us more about moral philosophy and the state of the contemporary world than anything in contemporary philosophy itself. That’s six. Sorry. There’s probably some version of mereology for which it could be five.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 13th, 2014.