Manual Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy

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In this way, our criteria governing the identification and pursuit of valid knowledge are grounded within a hierarchical relationship between human beings and nature: reason is instrumentalized. Men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves towards things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them. The man of science knows things in so far as he can make them. In this way, their potentiality is turned to his own ends. Ultimately, the drive to dominate nature results in the establishment of a form of reasoning and a general world-view which appears to exist independently of human beings and, more to the point, is principally characterized by a systematic indifference to human beings and their sufferings: we ultimately become mere objects of the form of reason that we have created.

Adorno and Horkheimer insist that individual self-preservation in 'enlightened' societies requires that each of us conform to the dictates of instrumental reason. How do Adorno and Horkheimer attempt to defend such a fundamentally controversial claim? Throughout his philosophical lifetime Adorno argued that authoritative forms of knowledge have become largely conceived of as synonymous with instrumental reasoning; that the world has come to be conceived of as identical with its representation within instrumental reasoning.

Reality is thus deemed discernible only in the form of objectively verifiable facts and alternative modes of representing reality are thereby fundamentally undermined.


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A successful appeal to the 'facts' of a cause has become the principal means for resolving disputes and settling disputes in societies such as ours. However, Adorno argued that human beings are increasingly incapable of legitimately excluding themselves from those determinative processes thought to prevail within the disenchanted material realm: human beings become objects of the form of reasoning through which their status as subjects is first formulated.

Thus, Adorno discerns a particular irony in the totalizing representation of reality which enlightenment prioritizes. Human sovereignty over nature is pursued by the accumulation of hard, objective data which purport to accurately describe and catalogue this reality. The designation of 'legitimate knowledge' is thereby restricted to that thought of as 'factual': legitimate knowledge of the world is that which purports to accurately reflect how the world is.

As it stands, of course, the mere act of describing any particular aspect of the material realm does not, by itself, promote the cause of human freedom. It may directly facilitate the exercise of freedom by providing sufficient knowledge upon which an agent may exercise discretionary judgment concerning, say, the viability of any particular desire, but, by itself, accurate descriptions of the world are not a sufficient condition for freedom. Adorno, however, argues that the very constituents of this way of thinking are inextricably entwined with heteronomy.

The question as to whether these facts might change is ruled out by enlightened thought as a pseudo-problem. Everything which is, is thus represented as a kind of fate, no less unalterable and uninterogable than mythical fate itself. Conceived of in this way, material reality appears as an immutable and fixed order of things which necessarily pre-structures and pre-determines our consciousness of it.

The more the machinery of thought subjects existence to itself, the more blind its resignation in reproducing existence. Hence enlightenment reverts to mythology, which it never really knew how to elude. For in its figures mythology had the essence of the status quo: cycle, fate, and domination of the world reflected as the truth and deprived of hope.

The ostensible difference between them is that the realm of facts appears to be utterly objective and devoid of any subjective, or anthropomorphic forces. Indeed, the identification of a truly objective order was explicitly pursued through the exclusion of any such subjective prejudices and fallacies.

Subjective reasoning is fallacious reasoning, on this view. Adorno's attempt to account for this objective order as constituted through identity thinking poses a fundamental challenge to the epistemological conceit of such views. Adorno and Horkheimer argued that the instrumentalization of reason and the epistemological supremacy of 'facts' served to establish a single order, a single mode of representing and relating to reality. The pursuit of human sovereignty over nature is predicated upon a mode of reasoning whose functioning necessitates subsuming all of nature within a single, representational framework.

We possess knowledge of the world as a result of the accumulation of facts, 'facts' that are themselves necessarily abstractions from that to which they refer. Assembled within a classificatory scheme these facts are not, cannot ever be, a direct expression of that to which they refer; no aspect of its thought, by its very nature, can ever legitimately be said to possess that quality. However, while facts constitute the principal constituents of this classificatory scheme, the scheme itself, this mode of configuring reality, is founded upon a common, single cognitive currency, which necessarily holds that the essence of all that can be known is reducible to a single, inherently quantifiable property: matter.

They insist that this mode of configuring reality originates within a desire to dominate nature and that this domination is effected by reducing the manifold diversity of nature to, ultimately, a single, manipulable form.

Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy

For them the realization of the single totality that proceeds from the domination of nature necessitates that reason itself be shorn of any ostensibly partial or particularistic elements. They conceive of enlightenment as aspiring towards the institution of a form of reasoning which is fundamentally universal and abstract in character: a form of reasoning which posits the existence of a unified order, a priori. Its rationalist and empiricist versions do not part company on this point.

The Theodor W Adorno, Walter Benjamin Debate

Reality is henceforth to be known in so far as it is quantifiable. Material reality is presented as having become an object of calculation. The form of reasoning which is adequate to the task of representing reality in this way must be necessarily abstract and formal in character. Its evaluative procedures must, similarly, avoid the inclusion of any unduly restrictive and partial affiliations to any specific component property of the system as a whole if they are to be considered capable of being applicable to the system as a whole.

Adorno and Horkheimer present the aspiration towards achieving human sovereignty over nature as culminating in the institution of a mode of reasoning which is bound to the identification and accumulation of facts; which restricts the perceived value of the exercise of reason to one which is instrumental for the domination of nature; and which, finally, aims at the assimilation of all of nature under a single, universalizing representational order.

Adorno and Horkheimer present enlightenment as fundamentally driven by the desire to master nature, of bringing all of material reality under a single representational system, within which reason is transformed into a tool for achieving this end. For Adorno and Horkheimer then, nature has been fully mastered within the 'fully enlightened earth' and human affairs are regulated and evaluated in accordance with the demands of instrumental reasoning: the means by which nature has been mastered have rebounded upon us.

The attempt to fully dominate nature culminates in the institution of a social and political order over which we have lost control. If one wishes to survive, either as an individual or even as a nation, one must conform to, and learn to utilize, instrumental reason. Thought and philosophy aids and abets this order where it seeks merely to mirror or 'objectively' reflect that reality.

Adorno aims to avoid providing any such support by, at root, providing a prototypical means of deconstructing that 'reality'.

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The radical character of his concept of 'identity thinking' consists in its insistence that such 'objective' forms of representing reality are not 'objective' enough, so to speak. The facts upon which instrumental reasoning goes to work are themselves conceptual abstractions and not direct manifestations of phenomena, as they claim to be.

Adorno's philosophical writings fundamentally aim to demonstrate the two-fold falsity of 'identity thinking': first, in respect of debunking the claims of identity thinking to representing reality objectively; second, in respect of the effects of instrumental reasoning as a form of identity thinking upon the potential for the exercise of human freedom.

Adorno posits identity thinking as fundamentally concerned not to understand phenomena but to control and manipulate it. A genuinely critical form of philosophy aims to both undercut the dominance of identity thinking and to create an awareness of the potential of apprehending and relating to phenomena in a non-coercive manner. Both how he aims to do this, and how Adorno's philosophical project can itself be criticized will be considered in the final section.

However, having summarized the substance of Adorno's understanding of philosophy and reason, what must now be considered is the next most important theme addressed in Adorno's philosophical writings: his vision of the status of morality and moral theory within this fully enlightened earth. Adorno's moral philosophy is similarly concerned with the effects of 'enlightenment' upon both the prospects of individuals leading a 'morally good life' and philosophers' ability to identify what such a life may consist of.

Adorno argues that the instrumentalization of reason has fundamentally undermined both. He argues that social life in modern societies no longer coheres around a set of widely espoused moral truths and that modern societies lack a moral basis. What has replaced morality as the integrating 'cement' of social life are instrumental reasoning and the exposure of everyone to the capitalist market. According to Adorno, modern, capitalist societies are fundamentally nihilistic, in character; opportunities for leading a morally good life and even philosophically identifying and defending the requisite conditions of a morally good life have been abandoned to instrumental reasoning and capitalism.

Within a nihilistic world, moral beliefs and moral reasoning are held to have no ultimately rational authority: moral claims are conceived of as, at best, inherently subjective statements, expressing not an objective property of the world, but the individual's own prejudices. Morality is presented as thereby lacking any objective, public basis. The espousal of specific moral beliefs is thus understood as an instrument for the assertion of one's own, partial interests: morality has been subsumed by instrumental reasoning.

Adorno attempts to critically analyse this condition. He is not a nihilist, but a critic of nihilism. Adorno's account of nihilism rests, in large part, on his understanding of reason and of how modern societies have come to conceive of legitimate knowledge. He argues that morality has fallen victim to the distinction drawn between objective and subjective knowledge. Objective knowledge consists of empirically verifiable 'facts' about material phenomena, whereas subjective knowledge consists of all that remains, including such things as evaluative and normative statements about the world.

On this view, a statement such as 'I am sitting at a desk as I write this essay' is of a different category to the statement 'abortion is morally wrong'. The first statement is amenable to empirical verification, whereas the latter is an expression of a personal, subjective belief. Adorno argues that moral beliefs and moral reasoning have been confined to the sphere of subjective knowledge. He argues that, under the force of the instrumentalization of reason and positivism, we have come to conceive of the only meaningfully existing entities as empirically verifiable facts: statements on the structure and content of reality.

Moral values and beliefs, in contrast, are denied such a status. Morality is thereby conceived of as inherently prejudicial in character so that, for example, there appears to be no way in which one can objectively and rationally resolve disputes between conflicting substantive moral beliefs and values. Under the condition of nihilism one cannot distinguish between more or less valid moral beliefs and values since the criteria allowing for such evaluative distinctions have been excluded from the domain of subjective knowledge.

Adorno argues that, under nihilistic conditions, morality has become a function or tool of power. The measure of the influence of any particular moral vision is an expression of the material interests that underlie it. Interestingly, Adorno identifies the effects of nihilism as extending to philosophical attempts to rationally defend morality and moral reasoning. Thus, in support of his argument he does not rely upon merely pointing to the extent of moral diversity and conflict in modern societies. Nor does he rest his case upon those who, in the name of some radical account of individual freedom, positively espouse nihilism.

Indeed, he identifies the effects of nihilism within moral philosophy itself, paying particular attention to the moral theory of Immanuel Kant. Adorno argues that Kant's account of the moral law demonstrates the extent to which morality has been reduced to the status of subjective knowledge. Kant certainly attempts to establish a basis for morality by the exclusion of all substantive moral claims, claims concerning the moral goodness of this or that practice or way of life. Kant ultimately seeks to establish valid moral reasoning upon a series of utterly formal, procedural rules, or maxims which exclude even the pursuit of human happiness as a legitimate component of moral reasoning.

Adorno criticizes Kant for emptying the moral law of any and all reference to substantive conceptions of human well-being, or the 'good life'. Ultimately, Kant is condemned for espousing an account of moral reasoning that is every bit as formal and devoid of any substantively moral constituents as instrumental reasoning. The thrust of Adorno's criticism of Kant is not so much that Kant developed such an account of morality, since this was, according to Adorno, to a large extent prefigured by the material conditions of Kant's time and place, but that he both precisely failed to identify the effects of these conditions and, in so doing, thereby failed to discern the extent to which his moral philosophy provides an affirmation, rather than a criticism, of such conditions.

Kant, of all people, is condemned for not being sufficiently reflexive. Unlike some other thinkers and philosophers of the time, Adorno does not think that nihilism can be overcome by a mere act of will or by simply affirming some substantive moral vision of the good life.


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  7. He does not seek to philosophically circumnavigate the extent to which moral questions concerning the possible nature of the 'good life' have become so profoundly problematic for us. Nor does he attempt to provide a philosophical validation of this condition. Recall that Adorno argues that reason has become entwined with domination and has developed as a manifestation of the attempt to control nature.

    Adorno thus considers nihilism to be a consequence of domination and a testament, albeit in a negative sense, to the extent to which human societies are no longer enthralled by, for example, moral visions grounded in some naturalistic conception of human well-being. For Adorno, this process has been so thorough and complete that we can no longer authoritatively identify the necessary constituents of the good life since the philosophical means for doing so have been vitiated by the domination of nature and the instrumentalization of reason.

    The role of the critical theorist is, therefore, not to positively promote some alternative, purportedly more just, vision of a morally grounded social and political order. This would too far exceed the current bounds of the potential of reason. Rather, the critical theorist must fundamentally aim to retain and promote an awareness of the contingency of such conditions and the extent to which such conditions are capable of being changed.

    Adorno's, somewhat dystopian, account of morality in modern societies follows from his argument that such societies are enthralled by instrumental reasoning and the prioritization of 'objective facts'. Nihilism serves to fundamentally frustrate the ability of morality to impose authoritative limits upon the application of instrumental reason.

    I stated at the beginning of this piece that Adorno was a highly unconventional philosopher. While he wrote volumes on such stock philosophical themes as reason and morality, he also extended his writings and critical focus to include mass entertainment. Adorno analyzed social phenomena as manifestations of domination. For him both the most abstract philosophical text and the most easily consumable film, record, or television show shared this basic similarity.

    Adorno was a philosopher who took mass entertainment seriously. He was among the first philosophers and intellectuals to recognize the potential social, political, and economic power of the entertainment industry. Adorno saw what he referred to as 'the culture industry' as constituting a principal source of domination within complex, capitalist societies. He aims to show that the very areas of life within which many people believe they are genuinely free — free from the demands of work for example — actually perpetuates domination by denying freedom and obstructing the development of a critical consciousness.

    Adorno's discussion of the culture industry is unequivocal in its depiction of mass consumer societies as being based upon the systematic denial of genuine freedom. What is the culture industry, and how does Adorno defend his vision of it? Adorno described the culture industry as a key integrative mechanism for binding individuals, as both consumers and producers, to modern, capitalist societies. Where many sociologists have argued that complex, capitalist societies are fragmented and heterogeneous in character, Adorno insists that the culture industry, despite the manifest diversity of cultural commodities, functions to maintain a uniform system, to which all must conform.

    For people are now being treated as objects, machines, outside as well as inside the workshop. The consumer, as the producer, has no sovereignty. The culture industry, integrated into capitalism, in turn integrates consumers from above. Its goal is the production of goods that are profitable and consumable.

    It operates to ensure its own reproduction. The culture industry is a global, multibillion dollar enterprise, driven, primarily, by the pursuit of profit. What the culture industry produces is a means to the generation of profit, like any commercial enterprise. To this point, few could dispute Adorno's description of the mass entertainment industry.

    However, Adorno's specific notion of the 'culture industry' goes much further. Adorno argues that individuals' integration within the culture industry has the fundamental effect of restricting the development of a critical awareness of the social conditions that confront us all. The culture industry promotes domination by subverting the psychological development of the mass of people in complex, capitalist societies. This is the truly controversial aspect of Adorno's view of the culture industry.

    How does he defend it? Adorno argues that cultural commodities are subject to the same instrumentally rationalized mechanical forces which serve to dominate individuals' working lives. Through our domination of nature and the development of technologically sophisticated forms of productive machinery, we have becomes objects of a system of our own making.

    Any one who has worked on a production line or in a telephone call centre should have some appreciation of the claim being made. Through the veritably exponential increase in volume and scope of the commodities produced under the auspices of the culture industry, individuals are increasingly subjected to the same underlying conditions through which the complex capitalist is maintained and reproduced. The qualitative distinction between work and leisure, production and consumption is thereby obliterated.


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    It is sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again. But at the same time mechanization has such a power over man's leisure and happiness, and so profoundly determines the manufacture of amusement goods, that his experiences are inevitably after-images of the work process itself. According to Adorno, systematic exposure to the culture industry and who can escape from it for long in this media age? Consumers are presented as being denied any genuine opportunities to actively contribute to the production of the goods to which they are exposed.

    Similarly, Adorno insists that the form and content of the specific commodities themselves, be it a record, film, or TV show, require no active interpretative role on the part of the consumer: all that is being asked of consumers is that they buy the goods. Adorno locates the origins of the pacifying effects of cultural commodities in what he views as the underlying uniformity of such goods, a uniformity that belies their ostensible differences. Adorno conceives of the culture industry as a manifestation of identity-thinking and as being effected through the implementation of instrumentally rationalized productive techniques.

    He presents the culture industry as comprising an endless repetition of the same commodified form. He argues that the ostensibly diverse range of commodities produced and consumed under the auspices of the culture industry actually derive from a limited, fundamentally standardized 'menu' of interchangeable features and constructs. Thus, he presents the structural properties of the commodities produced and exchanged within the culture industry as being increasingly standardized, formulaic, and repetitive in character.

    He argues that the standardized character of cultural commodities results from the increasingly mechanized nature of the production, distribution, and consumption of these goods. It is, for example, more economically rational to produce as many products as possible from the same identical 'mould'. Similarly, the increasing control of distribution centers by large, multinational entertainment conglomerates tends towards a high degree of uniformity.

    Adorno's analyses of specific sectors of the culture industry is extensive in scope. However, his principal area of expertise and interest was music. Adorno analyzed the production and consumption of music as a medium within which one could discern the principal features and effects of the culture industry and the commodification of culture. The central claim underlying Adorno's analysis of music is that the extension of industrialized production techniques has changed both the structure of musical commodities and the manner in which they are received.

    Adorno argued that the production of industrialized music is characterized by a highly standardized and uniform menu of musical styles and themes, in accordance with which the commodities are produced. Consistently confronted by familiar and compositionally simplistic musical phenomena requires that the audience need make little interpretative effort in its reception of the product. Adorno presents such musical commodities as consisting of set pieces which elicit set, largely unreflected upon, responses. He states, 'the counterpart to the fetishism of music is a regression of listening.

    It is contemporary listening which has regressed, arrested at the infantile stage. Not only do the listening subjects lose, along with freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for conscious perception of music, but they stubbornly reject the possibility of such perception. They are not childlike, as might be expected on the basis of an interpretation of the new type of listener in terms of the introduction to musical life of groups previously unacquainted with music.

    But they are childish; their primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded. Here Adorno drew upon a distinction previously made by Kant in his formulation of personal autonomy. Distinguishing between maturity and immaturity, Adorno repeats the Kantian claim that to be autonomous is to be mature, capable of exercising one's own discretionary judgment, of making up one's own mind for oneself. Adorno argued that the principal effect of the standardization of music is the promotion of a general condition of immaturity, frustrating and prohibiting the exercise of any critical or reflexive faculties in one's interpretation of the phenomena in question.

    Adorno viewed the production and consumption of musical commodities as exemplary of the culture industry in general. However, he also extended his analysis to include other areas of the culture industry, such as television and, even, astrology columns.

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    A brief discussion of this latter will suffice to complete the general contours of Adorno's account of the culture industry. Adorno conducted a critical textual analysis of the astrology column of the Los Angeles Times. His aim was to identify the 'rational' function of the cultural institution itself.

    He thus took astrology seriously. He considered astrology to be a symptom of complex, capitalist societies and discerned in the widespread appeal of astrology an albeit uncritical and unreflexive awareness of the extent to which individuals' lives remain fundamentally conditioned by impersonal, external forces, over which individuals have little control. Society is projected, unwittingly, on to the stars. According to Adorno, astrology contributes to, and simultaneously reflects, a pervasive fetishistic attitude towards the conditions that actually confront individuals' lives through the promotion of a vision of human life as being determined by forces beyond our ultimate control.

    Rather than describing astrology as being irrational in character, Adorno argued that the instrumentally rational character of complex, capitalist societies actually served to lend astrology a degree of rationality in respect of providing individuals with a means for learning to live with conditions beyond their apparent control. For Adorno no single domain of the culture industry is sufficient to ensure the effects he identified as generally exerting upon individuals' consciousness and lives.

    Jay, Martin. London: Routledge, Rose, Gillian. London: Macmillan, Theodor W. Adorno: An Introduction. DOI: A thematic introduction to central Adornian concepts by a leading German Adorno scholar, with an emphasis on Minima Moralia, Dialectic of Enlightenment , and Negative Dialectics. Zuidervaart, Lambert. Edited by Edward N. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

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    For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here. Not a member? Sign up for My OBO. His main influence as a philosopher when he was alive was, though, often based on his very lucid public lectures. Reviews "Bowie combines a massive range of reading with an extraordinary power of lucid exposition, and it is hard to see how the task of turning Adorno into an intellectual peacemaker could have been better achieved. Adorno and on its critical potential with respect to much of contemporary philosophy.

    In particular Bowie shows with Adorno why art is not just one of many possible topics of possible philosophical reflection, but has a philosophical significance of its own which is neglected in most of contemporary aesthetics. Bowie clarifies Adorno's relation to the post-Kantian tradition and engages sympathetically yet critically with Adorno's remarkable project.