Symposium Introduction

As Donald Trump and his minions and supporters continue to assault—daily and explicitly—the notion of truth, whether in its theoretical or practical employments, Owen Hulatt’s book, Adorno’s Theory of Philosophical and Aesthetic Truth, becomes more relevant than ever. Since I have written about the book elsewhere,1 I will keep my introductory remarks here incredibly short and just allow the participants and Hulatt to speak. To begin, here’s a quick summary of the book. Through a novel reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment, Hulatt suggests that rationality develops from human self-preservation (27), but that through the course of history, human conceptuality becomes deformed, leading to a form of life that is deformed in its organization and in how it produces subjects (chapter 2). The remainder of the book offers interesting and powerful meditations on how philosophy and art might overcome such a state of affairs. The only other point I want to note is Hulatt’s ambitious attempt to offer a unified account of aesthetics and epistemology in the thought of Theodor W. Adorno. This strikes me as both true to Adorno’s intentions, and equally importantly, as offering renewed life and urgency to both art and epistemology, showing how one craves and needs the other as much as itself, and that the possibilities and fortunes of each are multiplied when presented in this way. For this reason, and for the fact that Hulatt places Adorno in conversation with a range of contemporary philosophy, both Anglophone and European, I think that his book is timely and important and will bear a rich discussion. The contributions that follow each probe some of the largest issues in Adorno scholarship, revolving around Adorno’s relationship to epistemology, his understanding of art and of mimesis, his ethical ambitions and claims, and his concept of the non-identical and its relationship to critique and thereby to politics. These are all also topics that should appeal to a range of philosophers and critical and political theorists.

  1. See my review of the book in the latest issues of the Journal of the History of Philosophy 55:4 (2017) 743–44.

Henry Pickford


Experiencing and Knowing

Owen Hulatt’s remarkable book deserves high praise and attentive study, for it aims to explicate Adorno’s notions of philosophical and aesthetic truth via what could be called rational reconstruction: at several junctures in his study Hulatt identifies lapses in clarity and missing or assumed steps in Adorno’s claims, and attempts to provide expansive support and justification for them.1 The result is a book not only of philosophical exegesis but also of philosophical practice in its own right. I applaud Hulatt’s approach, and it is in the same spirit that I here raise some questions regarding his interpretation of Adorno’s overall theory (roughly the first four chapters of his book), largely focused on passages from the early lecture “The Actuality of Philosophy” (hereafter AP), Dialectic of Enlightenment (hereafter DE), and Negative Dialectics (hereafter ND). A helpful companion to some of my thoughts will be Nietzsche, one of the thinkers inhabiting DE.

In chapter 1, “Models of Experience,” Hulatt patiently interprets a dense quote from DE, contrasting the model of “nonconceptual experience” for a “primitive consciousness” with the later development of conceptually mediated experience:

The split between animate and inanimate, the assigning of demons and deities to certain specific places, arises from [the] pre-animism [inculcated by man’s original terror]. Even the division of subject and object is prefigured in it. If the tree is addressed no longer as simply a tree but as evidence of something else, a location of mana, language expresses the contradiction that it is at the same time itself and something other than itself, identical and not identical. Through the deity speech is transformed from tautology into language. The concept, usually defined as the unity of the features of what it subsumes, was rather, from the first, a product of dialectical thinking, in which each thing is what it is only by becoming what it is not. This was the primal form of the objectifying definition, in which concept and thing became separate, the same definition which was already far advanced in the Homeric epic and trips over its own excesses in modern positive science. But this dialectic remains powerless as long as it emerges from the cry of terror, which is the doubling, the mere tautology of terror itself.2

In contrast to Kant’s transcendental arguments, Adorno asserts that nonconceptual experience is possible, but as a “threatening epistemic excess” and “menacing efflorescence of radically particular, uncontrollable objects and events” (7, 8; cf “experience of objects,” 21) such experience elicits a “cry of terror” and the emergence of conceptuality and predication as a pragmatic means to cognize and control one’s environment. Question 1: Can one speak of such experience as being of “objects and events,” which seem to presuppose those Kantian transcendental categories and forms which nonconceptual experience denies? Perhaps one can speak only of sensations, impressions, qualia; in a later passage DE speaks of “the world, as something chaotic, multiple and disparate.”3 This suggests a Nietzschean story of the “chaos of sensations,” upon which mind imposes order (what Nietzsche calls “erroneous articles of faith”) by treating what is similar as identical, flux as substance, etc., in order to assuage uncertainty and increase controllability of one’s environment.4

Note: Hulatt’s claims about concepts seem to suppose universal scope: all concepts for Hulatt’s Adorno have a theoretical element and an experiential element (this claim is necessary for Hulatt’s later understanding of how a philosophical text can “produce truth” in chapter 4). Question 2: While this claim seems plausible in the case of empirical concepts, what about abstract concepts that seem to lack any experiential dimension, for instance concepts like chiliagon, or infinity, or highest prime number? Do we want to claim that these concepts have a minimal cognitive phenomenology that distinguishes them from each other?

Returning to the large quote from DE, Hulatt provides a nuanced interpretation of the interrelatedness between language and emerging conceptuality. Before the advent of conceptuality (that is, predication and subsumption), concept and particular are “unified”: “For any available concept, its meaning would be wholly constituted by the simple specificity of a single object; and the expression of that concept would only to primitive kind of naming” (13). Language limited to such naming for Hulatt is in Adorno’s expression “tautological” because such language “has been stripped of the kind of modal and hermeneutic structure that we need in order to construct informative, defeasible, and truth-apt claims” (13). These are notoriously opaque thoughts in Benjamin and Adorno, and I invite Hulatt to consider them further. One way into the thicket is to ask, Question 3: Should we think of logically proper names / singular terms here in Russellian tradition (one-dimensional semantics, in which meaning is reference) or in the Fregean tradition (two-dimensional semantics, in which meaning is a combination of sense and reference)? Russellian names serve only to refer to individuals, whereas in addition to reference (Bedeutung), Fregean sense (Sinn) is defined as the “mode of presentation” (Art des Gegebenseins) of the individual. Hulatt speaks here of the “unity of concept and object” (12), which might be understood as the unique and singular relation of reference between each (logically proper) name and its referent: “it must in some sense merge with or reiterate the full specificity of the particular” (12), “the tautological concept is necessarily true, as it only functions to name (and perhaps evoke) the specific experienced object to which it is unified” (14). On the other hand, when Hulatt interprets “the unity of the tautological concept and thing,” he writes, “In this unity, the object’s specific particularity was experienced in full; as the mediating concept united itself to the full specificity of the object, the mediating concept thereby (one can infer) constituted the experience of that object such that no feature of the object’s specificity was occluded” (15), and this awareness of all an object’s features suggests a much richer epistemic or cognitive state than that of mere reference or reidentification (on some theories, the minimal requirement for concept possession); rather something like the various modes of presentation of an object seem to be invoked here. And this Fregean interpretation would fit well with what Hulatt says about constellations and constellative thought later: “a constellation of concepts—all responding to some limited feature of the object, none successfully grasping it entirely,” where each concept could be thought of as grasping one “mode of presentation” of the object, the aggregate ideal of which would approach the relation of naming discussed above: “The determinable flaw in every concept makes it necessary to cite others; this is the font of the only constellations which inherited some of the hope of the name” (ND, 53, quoted p. 93). In either case (Russellian or Fregean) the naming relation, singular terms as relata, and the relation of identity suffice “to construct informative, defeasible, and truth-apt claims” (13), as shown in Frege’s famous example of the evening star and the morning star, unless we stipulate that there can be no such cases of multiple names for the same referent in primitive consciousness (perhaps this is what “unity” is meant to exclude?).

Lastly, regarding the large quotation from DE, I’d like to note one feature of the passage that Hulatt does not address, but which might play a significant role in the story he tells. Like other interpreters he will describe identity thinking as an error theory because the thinker takes the predication “a is F” to exhaust the concept, thereby ignoring the other features of the object that are not-F and thereby allowing the global claim that every predication is false.5 But this seems to be a trivial mistake, perhaps as trivial as taking the “is” of predication to mean the “is” of identity. I think the passage suggests a slightly more complex story, in that even during the pre-animistic and animistic/magical phases of the genealogy of reason, before the advent of conceptuality understood as universal concepts and particular objects, Horkheimer and Adorno suggest that a basic mental operation of substitution is being performed, in sacrifice, in a tree “as evidence of something else” symbolizing a deity. This relation of standing-for-something-else (Stellvertretung) adumbrates the feature that Adorno and Horkheimer then emphasize about the emergence of language, that it “expresses the contradiction that it is at the same time itself and something other than itself, identical and not identical” (quoted p. 11). I want to suggest that it is this feature of substitution or exchangeability that is central to the account of identity thinking. Assume that both the claim “a is F” and the claim “b is F” are true: the error occurs when a and b are taken to be equivalent, intersubstitutable just because both are F. Being subsumed under the same concept is erroneously taken as rendering them equivalent, exchangeable tokens of the same type, something that might be called conceptual exchange value that, as Hulatt emphasizes, serves the drive of self-preservation by making the immediate environment more controllable.

In chapter 2, “The Interpenetration of Concepts and Society,” Hulatt moves from the claims of DE, which were about the individual, to the claims made in ND, which are universal in scope. He identifies Adorno’s core commitment: “problems and criticisms have universal validity . . . he takes it for granted that they come out as true and binding for all members of society, regardless of their position, culture, or class” (29). And so Hulatt concludes that a required task is to provide arguments that the demands of self-preservation obtain for everyone in the same way: the same concepts, and the same interrelations between concepts, within the same sociohistorical context. Because different kinds of universal validity obtain in Adorno’s theory, Hulatt introduces some conceptual scaffolding with which to discharge the task in stepwise fashion. He defines conceptual array as the “existence of a conceptual set [set of concepts] together with its specific internal problematic” (33), by which he means the relationships between concepts that can take on mutually antagonistic, contradictory character. Hulatt then argues for the following claims:

(i) All concepts are universally employed to serve self-preservation, and in modern society “the social totality manipulates the pragmatic context of all individuals such that self-preservation is an ever-present concern” (40).

(ii) Among concepts there is the basic set of concepts (roughly congruent with Kant’s transcendental categories) which is universal for all individuals due to self-preservation and the need for making continuous experience possible. Although such sets are multiply realizable, the embodiment of human animals serves as a pragmatic constraint ensuring the universality of the basic set (46).

(iii) Similarly, basic conceptual arrays (the relationships between basic concepts) are in principle multiply realizable, but the pragmatic necessity of intersubjective communication serves as a constraint ensuring the universality of the basic conceptual array (50–54).

(iv) The account for nonbasic or higher-level concepts and arrays is more complicated. Concept formation is determined jointly by the social structures enforcing self-preservation together with reification understood by Adorno as a distinctive epistemological error, “a propensity of the individual to accept concepts as exhaustively modeling their object . . . reification is for Adorno equivalent to what he calls ‘identity thinking’—the exclusion and forgetting of that which does not correspond to the concept” (62); because reification identifies an object with its concept “it is a vouchsafe of control over that object” that thereby serves self-preservation (see my comment about identity thinking above). Having argued that the way in which concepts are formed is universally uniform, Hulatt then argues that the phenomenal materials from which concepts are formed is also universally determined: “the social totality can be seen as having the ability to determine the exhibited regularities from which concepts are continually drawn and confirmed” (62) by what he calls “thin determination”: with expressions like “social substance,” “social law,” or most often “mediation,” Adorno claims that “social structures are capable of determining the phenomenal character of immediate experience” (69), hence can determine which regularities are exhibited and used to form, confirm and modify concepts. Taken together, these accounts yield the universal validity of conceptual array that Hulatt attributes to Adorno:

For basic conceptual sets and arrays, social universality is enforced in the first place by the universally obtaining pragmatic structures disclosed by the structure of the human body, and in the second place by the universal intersubjective mechanisms disclosed by object-relations theory. For nonbasic conceptual sets and arrays, the mechanism of conceptual formation is fixed by self-preservation. In addition, the phenomenal materials worked by this mechanism are also fixed to be the same for all individuals, by the thin determination that is applied by the social totality to objects. As a result, we can be confident that conceptual arrays will be formed in the same way, with the same structure, for everyone. Both the process and that which is subjected to the process are forced by society to be the same in every case. (69–70)

I’m unsure whether I fully understand the distinction between conceptual set and conceptual array. The latter appears to be comprised of interrelationships between the members of the conceptual set, presumably inferential relations, compatibility relations, and so on. Are application conditions also included? Some application conditions necessarily include noninferential recognitive capacities (“this is red”) but others might include, or be equivalent to, inferential relations (“this is an economic recession”). If so, how are the concepts in the conceptual set defined? For instance, conceptual or functional role semantics, inferentialism, etc., would hold that concepts just are their interrelationships and application conditions. Question 4: What is at stake in the distinction between conceptual set and conceptual array, and why should we adopt it tout court?

Hulatt’s impressive account is intended to answer a claim of universal validity that he finds in Adorno’s texts (29). But this claim seems implausible, on both exegetical and independent grounds. Alongside the claim of universal validity, Adorno’s texts also speak of critical individuals whose viewpoint (that is, whose concepts and conceptual array) is different such as to afford critical insight into the societal substance and mechanisms Hulatt describes. As Adorno writes, “Criticizing privilege becomes a privilege—the world’s course is as dialectical as that” (ND, 41).6 Independent of Adorno’s writings, it seems that the universal validity claim amounts to the stipulation of a single, universal set of concepts and conceptual arrays, and this seems implausible, especially in theoretical discourses including those in which Adorno is staging interventions (theoretical and practical philosophy, aesthetic theory, sociology, etc.), where Putnam’s “linguistic division of labor” would be operative, and where expertise involves essentially contested concepts. Question 5: If these reservations about the universal validity claim hold, might one not retreat to speaking of dominant discursive formations, in which central concepts (like Kant’s concept of freedom, or Hegel’s concept of progress, etc.) exhibit a high degree of uniformity across appropriately educated thinkers, and isn’t this sufficient uniformity for Adorno’s philosophical-critical practice?

Lastly, I’m curious about the role of “phenomenal character” in the account of universal formation of higher-level concepts, whereby “social structures are capable of determining the phenomenal character of immediate experience” (69), out of which regularities are recognized and corresponding concepts formed, if I understand the process correctly (step iv above). Hulatt correctly notes that for Adorno, unlike Kant, “there is no such transparently available empirical experience—the phenomena are distorted by their ‘cover concepts,’ which serve to prevent full empirical knowledge of their genuine phenomenal constitution” (39). This suggests that the social totality provides the concepts that mediate (what Hulatt calls “revelatory determination”) or distort (what he calls “delusive determination”) the phenomenal character from which regularities are recognized. These mediating concepts of phenomenal appearance cannot be basic concepts (similar to Kant’s transcendental categories), because those concepts are constrained principally (or exclusively) by human embodiment, not the social totality.7 Question 6: Does this observation constitute a problem of circularity for the account, or—for instance—can a distinction be made between the concepts mediating phenomenal experience “at the preintentional level . . . not removable by the operation of intentionally employed concepts” (85) on the one hand, and the concepts resulting from the phenomenal material being further worked upon in concept formation of higher-level concepts? A second worry here is that many higher-level concepts arguably do not seem to respond to regularities in phenomenal experience at all, e.g., abstract concepts for theoretical entities, which are formed by means of adjustments in theoretical discourses that then themselves perhaps (re)organize observed phenomenal regularities. Such an example might be Adorno’s immanent-critical exposition of Marx in the “Actuality of Philosophy,” where the upshot of analysis is the denial of the non-empirical, non-phenomenal property of exchange-value (AP, 128). Question 7: If it is the case that some higher-level, abstract concepts do not track phenomenal regularities, is an alternative account of their formation and universal validity required?

In chapter 3, “Negativism and Truth,” Hulatt considers the epistemological and alethic consequences of the first two chapters. For Adorno, “concepts always misconstrue their objects.” This claim of universal negativism follows from the fact that concepts are mediated by society, and the social totality’s internal agon (its internally self-contradictory constitution) communicates itself to concepts:

Concepts understand themselves to be autonomous—created and governed by their own internal principles. They are forced by the combination of thin determination, reification, and self-preservation into screening themselves off against genuine comprehension of the mediation that produces them. The social totality comprises mediating relations, which generate epistemological faculties, which are in turn incapable of comprehending those mediating relations. (89)

Hulatt’s discussion of the universal negativism claim is intriguing. If I understand it correctly, the argument runs something like this:

  1. Supposed simple predications like “grass is green” are in fact false, because their logical form is the “is” of identity and “greenness does not exhaust the properties grass has.” (Minor question: isn’t it a rudimentary logical error to take the “is” of predication for the “is” of identity? If one does, isn’t every predication necessarily false except for cases—if any—of objects that have exactly one property only?)
  2. Whereas the former argument is weak, it can be strengthened by considering a conjunction of such simple predications that could, on assumption, exhaust the properties of an object.8 (A Nietzschean or vitalist reader of Adorno would deny the premise that an object can be defined as a finite set of stable properties [or that the predication of a property could ever be true simpliciter], and there are passages in Adorno which emphasize the nonidentical nature of the object itself [“To comprehend a thing itself, not just to fit and register it in its system of reference, is nothing but to perceive the individual moment in its immanent connection to others”, ND, 25; “Experience shows that [objects] do not remain the same,” ND, 1549]. This would be one way of understanding Adorno’s “preponderance of the object.” And logician might note that if one allows negative properties, then no finite conjunction of predications could exhaust the epistemic content of an object.)
  3. So it is conceded that simple predications are, taken atomistically, true, but then asserted that they are falsified by their holistic context. “[Adorno’s] epistemological holism entails that claims, and the concepts involved in these claims, must be seen in the full context of the totality that made them possible . . . a mediating whole that, taken as a whole, is completely untrue” (92).

This is Hulatt’s “holistic theory of falsity”: “individually true propositions are ultimately false due to their imbrication with and maintenance of a generally delusive epistemic whole” (94). If I understand correctly, Hulatt here concedes that simple predications are atomistically true (true in local contexts of use?), but false because parts of a false whole. Hence universal negativism is vindicated, but this seems to a demand a very high price. Question 8: What constitutes the falsity of the conceptual holism? Is it that most, or a statistical preponderance, of propositions (ex hypothesi, not simple predications) are false? Or that central, fundamental propositions or principles that are least susceptible to recalcitrant experience (Quine) are false? How are we to think of the (inferentially articulated?) relationships between the locally true simple predications and holistically false whole?

In chapter 4, “Texture, Performance, and Truth,” Hulatt presents his interpretation of truth and its elicitation in Adorno’s philosophical texts. Cognitively engaging with the “texture” of a philosophical text by Adorno, whereby one “performatively” enacts the failures of concepts in judgments to comprehend their objects, “can give rise to some momentary nonidentical experience that he identifies . . . with knowledge of the true” (106). This is a fascinating and intriguing account, and elucidates Adorno’s style and method with greater clarity and cogency than heretofore, and here, in conclusion, I would like to offer some brief thoughts in support of Hulatt’s general presentation.

A further way in which the rhetorical might be, as Adorno claims, included on the side of philosophical content rather than of form or style, could be seen in Adorno’s description of the essay: “It constructs the interwovenness of concepts in such a way that they can be imagined as themselves interwoven in the object” (quoted p. 116). The interwovenness of concepts rather than their deployment in predicative judgments combined with logical connectors (recall the earlier consideration of conjunctions) allows for the co-presence of conflicting or non-compossible predicates that might better capture the nonidentity of the object. Coincidentally Wittgenstein uses a similar metaphor—of different strands in a rope—to suggest the notion of family resemblance. Here both Adorno and Wittgenstein urge us not to replace qualitative resemblance with subsumptive identification.10 Second, we might consider Adorno’s invocation here of imagination rather than cogitation. Hulatt correctly emphasizes that the thinker’s experience of the conceptual movement of the text takes her beyond the realm of concepts as deployed in deduction and induction, avoiding the dilemma of irrationality and skepticism while providing what Hulatt claims is “a new form of justification” (123). This suggests a distinctive form or employment of the imagination that extends rationality beyond rules of deductive and inductive logic,11 and that perhaps can be connected to Adorno’s metaphor of riddle-character and riddle-solving, which he uses throughout his writings, from the very early “Actuality of Philosophy” to the posthumously published Aesthetic Theory. Riddle-solving is a distinctive activity of the imagination—neither irrational nor skeptical—providing a “flash of insight” that then allows for retrospective discursive reconstruction and justification. Question 9: Might the faculty of imagination, and the use of figures like the interweaving of concepts and the solving of riddles further attest to the philosophical content Adorno’s rhetoric vouchsafes, and provide fruitful paths for further research?

Thanks to Owen Hulatt’s penetrating study of Adorno’s theory of truth we have greater and more nuanced understanding of Adorno’s thought as well as incisive indications towards where it might lead our thinking today.


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. “The Actuality of Philosophy.” Telos 31 (1977) 120–33.

———. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

———. Negative Dialectics. Translated by E. B. Ashton. New York: Continuum, 1973.

———. Minima Moralia. Translated by E. F. N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 2005.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Edited by Bernard Williams. Translated by Josefine Nauckhoff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

———. The Will to Power. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale and Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1968.

  1. “In common with a fairly widespread fault with Dialectic of Enlightenment, the occasional crudity in argumentative elaboration presses the reader into speculatively attempting to go beyond the text and restructure the assertions made. This property of Adorno’s work in general, that it demands genuine philosophical work from its reader, has often (rightly) been understood an essential feature of Adorno’s philosophical practice” (35).

  2. DE, 11, quoted on p. 11. Hulatt reads DE as at least in part referring to a “historically specific event” in the emergence of concept-using consciousness, whereas a Nietzschean might read the narrative more as a philosophical fable.

  3. DE, 31, quoted p. 8.

  4. For instance, see The Gay Science §§110, 111, 112, 114, 121, Will to Power §569, “Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense”; Maudemarie Clark, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), chs. 2 and 3.

  5. “The constitutive idea of identity thinking—that concepts can exhaust their objects without remainder” (124), echoing statements by Adorno such as, “The name of dialectics says no more, to begin with, that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder, that they come to contradict the traditional norm of adequacy” (ND, 5).

  6. Cf. also ND, 292, 265, MM §§ 2, 88; Erziehung zur Mündgikeit, 134–35, and Fabian Freyenhagen, Adorno’s Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013), ch. 6.

  7. “The revelation of the concept’s true ground amounts to undoing the effects of the conjunction of reification and self-preservation, and rediscovering the true immediacy of the object. This true immediacy—this phenomenal character—is created by the thin determination of the social totality” (75).

  8. It is important to distinguish this conjunction of predications that could in principle comprehend the object complete from the idea of constellation described later in this chapter: “the object is in fact standing at the center of a constellation of concepts, each of which is required in order to provide explanation and comprehension of some limited aspect of the object’s constitution” (95); for the relationship between concepts within the constellation is discontinuous and potentially contradictory, showing the non-subsumability of the object under any property, no matter how gerrymandered.

  9. Adorno adds: “Such ambivalence of identity and nonidentity extends even to logical problems of identity” (ND, 154), which strongly supports the Nietzschean-vitalist interpretation that straightaway licenses universal negativism: that any object remains self-identical is an idealization, hence even identity statements are sensu stricto

  10. “And we extend the concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fiber on fiber. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fiber runs through the whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibers.” Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953), §67.

  11. “Fantasy alone, today consigned to the realm of the unconscious and proscribed from knowledge as a childish, injudicious rudiment, can establish the relation between objects which is the irrevocable source of all judgment: should fantasy be driven out, judgment too, the real act of knowledge, is exorcised. But the castration of perception by a court of control that denies it any desirous anticipation [begehrende Antizipation], forces it thereby into a pattern of helplessly reiterating what is already known . . . once the last trace of emotion has been eradicated, nothing remains of thought but absolute tautology” MM §79, translation modified.

  • Owen Hulatt

    Owen Hulatt


    Response to Pickford

    I am very grateful to Professor Henry Pickford for his thorough, insightful, and searching review. I am delighted that we are in accord in many respects in our broader interpretation of Adorno’s work. But I also recognize that Pickford has identified several very important areas of concern and further enquiry in my interpretation of Adorno. It is a source of regret that I have insufficient space to fully answer all of these questions, all of which are extremely incisive. I will constrict my attention to a number of them which seem to jointly point towards a central issue in my approach. My insistence on the dual experiential and theoretical role of concepts, and the universality of conceptual structures, generates a family of issues which Pickford brings out with great clarity. I will consider the questions out of order to make clearer the interconnection between the problems Pickford raises.

    With question 5, Pickford puts pressure on my claim that conceptual problems hold universally, and asks whether we might not instead “retreat to speaking of dominant discursive formations.” One thought which might cut to the quick here is this—are concepts and conceptual problematics for Adorno autonomous or heteronomous? The answer for Adorno is assuredly “both”—they emerge from heteronomous conditions and are determined by them, but have the autonomous power to overshoot and articulate the contradictions and features of these heteronomous conditions. As such, concepts can both resist and articulate society. Accordingly, for any given specialized discursive practice, it is ultimately linked back into and reflective of these base-level heteronomous determinants. This further means that every discursive practice will reflect, and open up the possibility of critique of, the social totality which determines it.

    Where Pickford exercises pressure is to ask whether the same concepts in different theoretical practices will reflect and produce contradictions in the same exact way. Surely, by virtue of their autonomy, we could expect deep differences in the conceptual layout we find in each autonomous discourse. I would be inclined to agree. The internal contradictions, etc., of pure philosophy will likely be starkly different from—say—sociology’s, despite their both claiming to employ the same concepts. Where does this leave my claim of the universality of conceptual arrays?

    I want to leave the claim intact. Here is a provisional attempt to do so. All concepts for Adorno are drawn from the same fundamental heteronomous determining base—the nature of the capitalist totality—and are determined by it. For Adorno to be able to say that a given conceptual problem (in philosophy, say) reflects a broad social problem or pathology, implies both that this pathology obtains universally—not just in a certain class of persons, at a certain level of education, or disciplinary location—and that its specific instance is connected to the determining base. This opens a question. Suppose in philosophy we have a contradiction between two conceptual categories; in another discourse (again, for example, sociology) employing the same concepts, no such contradiction obtains. We seem to have a fragmentation in the conceptual commons, as it were; and a removal of any assurance that conceptual problematics traced in one area have purchase and relevance for another. This seems incompatible with Adorno’s own practice (not least his free blending of disciplinary norms and domains); but it also seems hard to deny. Is there any way to reconcile such cases with the claim of conceptual universalism?

    Two options occur to me, in response to such a case. We might say that one discourse is less clarified and developed than the other; perhaps philosophy, for example, clarifies certain governing problems earlier, and has disciplinary norms which track these problems with greater acuity and rapidity. Alternatively, we might claim that the concepts in play are de dicto identical, but de re different across the discourses. If conceptual array relations are constitutive, as Pickford implies in question 4, then given the array differences across the discourses, we might claim that different concepts are in play, despite their surface similarity. As concepts are formed in response to pragmatic needs, and different disciplines are pragmatically structured in different ways, this position could be accommodated within Adorno’s broader position.

    Both of these options introduce significant further complexity into Adorno’s account. Pickford has opened a serious and interesting problem, which I cannot fully answer here.

    With question 2, Pickford asks whether abstract concepts have a joint theoretical and empirical aspect. As he rightly points out, this seems difficult to justify in the case of concepts like chiliagon or highest prime number, both concepts we can easily manipulate, and which have various broader consequences on our doxastic body. As Pickford also points out, this dual-aspect theory of concepts is necessary for my reading to run. It does, I believe, follow directly from the structures of concept formation (thin determination, etc.) which I lay out. But this does little to make it seem inherently compelling. However, I do believe that Adorno’s philosophy is unworkable without this commitment, and so has exegetical purchase. But holding to this position means we are obliged to give an account of how such an empirical aspect can be substantiated in these abstract cases. I enter into this in my response to questions 6 and 7.

    Question 6 is an extremely incisive and difficult question. In the first place, I would indeed want to understand the layout of the concepts involved as two-tiered, as Pickford perceptively suggests. This separation would be justified by just the feature which Pickford identifies—namely, that some concepts appear to be open to volitional manipulation, or at least investigation and testing. They have a self-reflexivity which means that they can be applied naturally (at both the phenomenal and discursive level) and investigated and manipulated in their own right (at the discursive level). The pre-intentional concepts, by contrast, do not have this self-reflexive character.

    On this view, higher-order concepts are drawn from phenomenal regularities, and these phenomenal regularities are themselves determined by the pre-intentional concepts. The social determination of the pre-intentional concepts serves as thin determination, applied at the pre-intentional level, and bypassing the specificity of the individual. (An important question here is how such determination is produced; Adorno does not say, and I do not have a ready answer.) So, higher-level concepts are drawn from experiential regularities which have already been conceptually “worked” by pre-intentional concepts. As we will see below, in the answer to question 7, I will be forced to hold there is a level above this again, where concepts can be formed without direct connection to phenomenal regularities, but are rather indirectly informed by them by virtue of these concepts being “worked” through their connection to the higher-level concepts which are so connected to phenomenal regularities.

    With question 7, Pickford asks us to consider whether there might not be abstract concepts which are shorn of a connection to phenomenal regularities. He offers the example of Adorno’s analysis of Marx, but (partly for reasons of space, as Adorno’s analysis is complex) I would like to look at a simpler test case. Suppose that there are, at suitably high-levels, sufficiently autonomous conceptual discourses which are capable of recursively producing concepts based only on that abstract discourse, without connection to or determination by phenomenal input. It seems hard to deny that such a procedure is possible. For example, we can mechanistically generate broad swathes of abstract mathematical concepts through procedurally modifying their features to produce novel conceptual classes. In such conceptual production, we have concepts working upon themselves to produce new concepts; and a direct connection to phenomenal regularity does not seem at issue. (We might also consider axiomatic reasoning—for example in Spinoza’s Ethics—which can produce derivative concepts solely by following the implicature of the initially stated concepts.)

    If all of this is correct, we can establish fairly directly that Pickford must be right. But it is crucial for Adorno—whose analyses frequently apply to recondite features of complex philosophies—that all concepts in principle can be determined so as to reflect sociohistorical problematics. How to solve this problem?

    In keeping with the emphasis on holism elsewhere in my reading of Adorno’s epistemology, I would suggest that these recondite concepts receive indirect determination through the conceptual set which they are obliged to fit in with. The higher-order concepts (as explored in question 6) receive their structure and array relations from their connection to phenomenal regularities. These higher-order concepts in turn determine the norms of fit and correctness, and conditions of application, which serve to generate the abstract concepts Pickford points towards. In this way, indirect determination by (without direct connection to) theoretical regularities seems permissible. (This does not rule for or against their having a dual experiential and theoretical role; separate argumentation would be needed.) This revises Adorno’s position, but allows for the kind of determination which he seems to require as being at work in all conceptual application.

    There is a great deal more to be said about just these few questions, and yet more in connection with the searching and precise remarks Pickford makes in the remainder of his review. I have here focussed on a central group of them, but hope to further consider these important points in future work.

Kathy Kiloh


On the Truth Content of Art and Philosophy

Owen Hulatt pursues an ambitious project in Adorno’s Theory of Philosophical and Aesthetic Truth: to identify a common structure uniting Adorno’s theories of the truth content of aesthetics and philosophy. He claims that, for Adorno, both philosophy and art are forms of knowledge, but each provides a different approach to the object (142), and that the truth content of philosophy and the truth content of art are commensurate with one another. Referencing both Adorno’s major works and his essays exploring literary criticism, Hulatt ably demonstrates that the truth content of both philosophy and art are arrived at through the performative engagement of the reader1 with a dense weave of constellated conceptual material. I use this phrase “the performative engagement of the reader” to cover (imperfectly) the experience of reading philosophy, listening to music, viewing the visual and performing arts, and reading works of literature. Hulatt employs the term “agent” instead, but given the complicated resonances of that term, I prefer something more specific to the activity itself. Against Adorno’s own claims that his philosophy resists systematicity through its practice of open-ended dialectical mediation, Hulatt reads Adorno’s oeuvre systematically. This is a risky wager, but it does allow Hulatt to definitively support many of his claims and thereby arrive at a point of clarity (or we might even say truth) regarding the truth content of art and philosophy.

But I wonder if we can subordinate all of Adorno’s philosophy to his epistemological claims in this fashion? Hulatt himself admits that his account will be partial; he is not attempting to provide an account of Adorno’s aesthetics. He is, instead, attempting here to “explicate a central feature of that aesthetic, namely, Adorno’s reliance on the notion that art can be true” (135) in order to support the claim that a unified system exists between Adorno’s negative and dialectical philosophy and his aesthetics. Through Hulatt’s book we get a rather direct and precise account of how Adorno understands the truth content of both the work of art and philosophy to be mediated by the social totality, and also what implications this has for interpretation and for the status of truth, but does this precision come with a cost? I harbor a sneaking suspicion that the clarity of Hulatt’s argument may, in fact, distort the general view of Adorno’s oeuvre. I wonder if, in the interests of presenting a tight argument, Hulatt’s treatment misses, at times, the dialectical richness, and the ambiguities, of the work of art.

Hulatt begins his analysis with a consideration of philosophy as an object of study, then moves on to discuss Adorno’s aesthetic theory. In the first two chapters, Hulatt connects the “cry of terror” that Adorno and Horkheimer describe in Dialectic of Enlightenment and the “shudder” as a component of the aesthetic experience as it is described in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (introduced in chapter 4, discussed in chapter 5) to the imperative of self-preservation. Adorno argues that the “cry of terror” erupts when primitive consciousness is faced with infinite reality. The generation of universals (that is, conceptual, discursive language) is occasioned by the cry of terror—which is the moment in which I recognize that I cannot produce a continuity of experience (a self) within a reality mediated by the one-to-one relationship between concept and particular thing that characterizes the primitive consciousness subject to magic. Mythic consciousness is capable of universalization because it develops cover concepts that allow for the comparison and classification of similar phenomena as they appear to consciousness over time. The cover concept facilitates the accumulation of continuous experience, which makes possible the creation and maintenance of a discrete self; this makes the discursive concept of philosophy a tool of self-preservation.

But, of course, Adorno is concerned that by adopting the universalizing concept, we lose access to the particular—that which is non-identical with the concept itself. This lack of access to the particular results in a logic of domination that formalizes social relations and limits freedom: this is reason stalled at the stage of identification, or, as Adorno has it, identity thinking. A key aspect of the argument in Dialectic of Enlightenment is the theory that in the shift from magic to myth we see a split between art as a mute experience of the particular and philosophy as the discursive representation of experience. Hulatt’s argument would be improved by giving more attention to this claim. I say this because the claim itself seems to indicate that for Adorno (or at least for Adorno and Horkheimer) both philosophy and art are impoverished in this split—that they remain partial in their access to their own truth content in this unreconciled state. But this narrative of a splitting would also seem to support Hulatt’s claims about the structure shared between art and philosophy without having to subordinate art to philosophy (appearing here as epistemology), which, upon my reading, ends up to be how Hulatt’s interpretation unfolds.

Lack of access to, and domination of, the particular are the linked motivations for Adorno’s reorientation of philosophy towards the aesthetic and the preponderance of the object as it is described in the opening pages of his Negative Dialectics. According to Hulatt, Adorno’s negativist and dialectical philosophy necessitates the development of complex dialectical conceptual arrays that enable philosophy to engage in critical self-reflection. This negative critique aims at uncovering the truth content of philosophy. This reading is clear and finds adequate support within Adorno’s own work, but what I find somewhat frustrating in Hulatt’s account is his tendency to assume that this development occurs first within philosophy and is then imported into Adorno’s aesthetic theory. For example, Hulatt cites Adorno’s claim that art bears a “likeness” to language (AT, 268) as evidence for his own thesis that art mimics philosophy (176). But both art and philosophy are fueled by mimesis: art mimics philosophy (by adopting the identity thinking that facilitates the domination of the particular), but it gains autonomy from philosophy and all that is likewise heteronomous to it by mimicking art. Philosophy mimics itself, and in doing so, it moves further away from the particular in its domination of it. But in adopting the complex conceptual arrays that Adorno calls constellations, philosophy also mimics art, and I contend (contra Hulatt) that it is the performative aspect of aesthetic experience that teaches us how to philosophize in this manner.

The problem at the heart of Adorno’s oeuvre, as Hulatt notes, is the question of how we come to know (or identify) the non-identical. In the experience of art and of philosophy, we have only our socially mediated conceptual array available to us; how are we to go beyond that array in order to identify what it excludes? Hulatt posits that we are capable of doing this through a “negative critique of the falsifying mediators of experience” (140), and that both art and dialectical philosophy serve this purpose. Hulatt gives a thorough account of the dialectical mediation of heteronomy and autonomy that constitutes the work of art and its truth content that I do not have space to detail here, but I will note that his discussion of the guilt context of the work of art, in which we find that the work is only able to stand counter to the logic of domination that constitutes the social totality by mimicking that very domination in the form of artistic technique, is absolutely thorough and spot on. This insight interestingly leads him to make the claim that art itself, like philosophy, is “a species of identity thinking” (159). While philosophy conveys meaning slightly more directly by means of its use and critique of concepts, art conveys meaning through its formal organization; the difference between art and philosophy, for Adorno, comes down to the organization of the conceptual material, which dictates how truth is revealed differently in each. The truth content of art is thereby accessed through reflection upon the work’s formal qualities, which obliquely and negatively indicate those conditions. Art is a species of identity thinking that incorporates within itself a trenchant self-critique because the aesthetic processes that create the unification of the aesthetic materials into a work are an “oblique reflection (emphasis in the original) of the “epistemological totality” (160). Hulatt’s analysis, which works, in his words, “at a lower level . . . in order to make Adorno’s conceptually labile method possible” (135), provides us with a rigorous account of what Adorno means when he refers to aesthetic rationality; a structure that supplements, rather than contradicts, the conceptual logic we find in philosophy.

Hulatt cites Adorno’s claim that aesthetic form unfolds truth because the work of art is a “non-violent synthesis of the diffuse that nevertheless preserves it as what it is in its divergences and contradictions” (AT, 189), and while he observes that it is the blindness of the aesthetic materials in regards to the non-aesthetic—a blindness imposed upon these materials by the autonomy of art—that allows for this nonviolent synthesis, on my reading he doesn’t address specifically how this relates to the constellational form that Adorno takes up in Negative Dialectics. I contend that the point of inspiration for negative dialectics and the constellation of concepts it uses is, in fact, this special character of art as both an enactment of and a critique of identity thinking that accomplishes a preservation of the diffuse and the diverse. As I noted above, Hulatt begins with Adorno’s argument for the truth content of philosophy, and then moves on to consider Adorno’s account of the truth content of art. The structure of his argument prioritizes dialectical philosophy, as though it not only precedes, but also influences Adorno’s description of the truth content of the work of art. While it is true that Aesthetic Theory remained unfinished upon Adorno’s death, this doesn’t necessarily mean that his approach was first worked out in Negative Dialectics and then applied to the phenomenon of the work of art at a later point. The status of the work of art was a constant theme throughout Adorno’s philosophical output, and his development as a philosopher and social and cultural critic was proceeded by his exposure to music and was also contemporaneous with his training as a musician and composer. Hulatt seems to shy away from either supporting or directly countering the common claim that Adorno’s employment of the constellational form in his philosophy mimics the “nonviolent” organization of elements within the work of art, emphasizing instead art’s instantiation as a form of identity thinking.

It is striking that Hulatt resists either making or disputing this claim about Adorno’s “aestheticization” of philosophy even though he devotes much attention to a deep and insightful analysis of the status of reading as a performance: an enactment of philosophy central to dialectical thinking. It has always seemed to me that, even though Adorno is careful not to collapse the methods of philosophical analysis into something akin to an aesthetic practice, his particularly evocative account of the reader’s performance of philosophy is predicated upon his aesthetic experience as a composer and a performer of music. In this, I may be contradicting Hulatt’s argument about the structure of the relationships between art and philosophy and between Adorno’s epistemological and aesthetic theories, but at a deeper level, I think that this intuition of mine indicates that I am in agreement with Hulatt’s very convincing and well-supported claim that there is a deep structure linking the truth content of art and philosophy in Adorno’s thought.

  1. I use this term to cover (imperfectly) the experience of reading philosophy, listening to music, viewing the visual and performing arts, and reading works of literature. Hulatt employs the term “agent” instead, but given the complicated resonance of that term, I prefer something more specific to the activity itself.

  • Owen Hulatt

    Owen Hulatt


    Response to Kiloh

    Professor Kathy Kiloh offers a number of important questions and objections to some fundamental features of my treatment of Adorno. These concern, in particular, the role of art and its interrelation (both justificatory and explanatory) with epistemology and philosophy more generally. I think the problems and issues identified here are acute, and I am grateful to Kiloh for raising them. I cannot satisfactorily answer them all in the space I have here, but I hope to address some of the central problems concerning the broader structural relation between art and philosophy on my account.

    Kiloh opens with a note of caution, asserting that with the search for precision and argumentative support with regards to Adorno’s theory of truth as it relates to both philosophy and art, we open two possibilities—(1) that we “subordinate all of Adorno’s philosophy to his epistemological claims” and (2) that a focus on “tight argument” with regards to truth might miss the richness and ambiguity of the work of art. Point 1, put broadly, I disagree with. A monograph which focuses on Adorno’s epistemology, does merely this—possess a tight area of focus. I am aware of no other means of proceeding in writing on Adorno, unless we assert that any focus on and disentanglement of some set of Adorno’s claims is suspicious, and that all work on Adorno must written in Adorno’s style. I address this position at length in my response to Professor Bowie. However, further argument is given in support of (1) as Kiloh’s response proceeds—it is not merely my focus on the truth of art, but some further missteps I commit. I will turn to these shortly.

    Point 2 I freely concede—my treatment of art misses entirely the full richness and ambiguity of art due to its narrow focus on truth. So long as this exclusion is contingent (these matters are excluded only in the sense they are not taken up) and not principled (in which case my account would be structurally incapable of admitting these richer properties), I see no problem. However, Kiloh offers a reason to think there might be a problem of this latter sort in relation to mimesis—I broach this further below.

    Kiloh points out that it is the performative aspect of aesthetic experience that teaches us to philosophize dialectically, and to make use of the complex formal devices which Adorno employs so readily in an attempt to subvert and undo the putative ill-effects of identity thinking. I think this is likely true, and I will return to this point shortly. But as part of this line of thought, there is the implication that my view is that Adorno developed (or brought to completion) his philosophical view in Negative Dialectics, and then straightforwardly applied it to art, in Aesthetic Theory. This would indeed be a crude approach to Adorno, and I should say a little about why, in my view, my book does not follow it. I will say a little about why the book proceeds as it does, before turning to the various kinds of priority which can rightly be given to art and aesthetic experience.

    What is notable about Adorno’s interventions into aesthetics and the philosophy of art is that he makes free use of discourses and terminology which do not obviously belong to that domain. Adorno does not seek to develop a completely autonomous, freestanding aesthetic terminology, but rather runs art-specific concepts together with concepts which more comfortably belong to epistemology, metaphysics, sociology, and other cognate disciplines. Adorno does not have an “epistemology of art,” as it were, with its own private, discipline-specific puzzles. Rather, he has an epistemology which ranges over and includes art, a theory of social content which reaches into and includes artistic experience, and so on. And so the concepts which Adorno employs are employed in a heterodox way. Dahlhaus makes what is, for me, the crucial objection to this approach:

    Adorno not infrequently displays a penchant for aphoristic allusions to socio-musical parallels and analogies, allusions which are by no means intended to be taken playfully, but the logical status of which is difficult to perceive or even questionable.1

    Dahlhaus is correct. Adorno cannot connect these disparate domains without argument; without argument, his claims seem merely analogical, rhetorical, or even sophistic. To be able to construct the required arguments, we need to see how Adorno employs these concepts in their conventional domains, before we can see and justify how he extends their sense, and puts them to work in unconventional ways. And so when Adorno employs epistemological terms in his reception of art, or claims that art is true, it is perhaps easiest to begin in seeing what he means by these concepts in their apparently natural home first, before seeing why Adorno is able to claim they have no natural home at all, and in fact interact with and determine so many other recondite phenomena.

    As I say in the book’s introduction, there is no place to start in Adorno, as dialectics has no starting point. But as a means of unriddling his claims, I found it most useful to explain his use of epistemological concepts in conventional epistemological settings first, before building on this discussion to show how and why they apply to art also. And so the order of exposition in this book (starting from philosophy, then proceeding to art) is not necessarily an order of argumentative priority. One could imagine writing the book again, proceeding in the opposite direction—though the arguments would of necessity be more convoluted in presentation.

    All of which is to say that I do not hold, or mean to imply, that Adorno develops his philosophical claims within the stronghold of conventional philosophical problems, and then applies his conclusions by rote to the other domains he works with. I think that Kiloh’s assertion that in fact art has great priority—perhaps is even the primary mover—in arriving at certain features of dialectical justification is highly astute, and borne out by examination of (for example) the role which Proust frequently plays in Adorno’s work. It is a source of regret that the book could not accommodate more discussion of this fact—but in forthcoming work I have tried to tackle it more directly.

    Proceeding now to mimesis, I think there is a disagreement about the function and constitution of mimesis running through both of our work. In an important sense, I do not think that art mimics philosophy, if by this we mean that art has an imitative function which is then applied in imitating philosophy. Nor do I agree that “both art and philosophy are fuelled by mimesis,” or that “philosophy mimics itself.” Put simply, I do not think that mimesis, as expressed in art, is expressed as a straightforwardly imitative function, continuous with the “mimesis” that Adorno discusses in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Nor do I think that philosophy imitates itself, or anything else.

    Mimesis is the most contested of the concepts at work in Adorno’s philosophy. I do not know of any reading which incorporates all of the meanings which Adorno loads onto it at the various points at which it is used, and the reading I will offer here is no different. In truth, I do not believe Adorno was sufficiently disciplined in his use of this concept—which was substantially constructed through bricolage, making free use of Hubert and Mauss, Freud, and most substantially Caillois—to allow such a reading to ever be produced. This means that, inevitably, any reading which hopes to be at all cogent will have to choose to discard some of the examples of the term’s use.2

    I would like here to briefly lay out and justify my position. Most, if not all, readings of Adorno see the motor of Adorno’s account of mimesis as bipartite, revolving around a conflict between mimesis (an intrinsic ability to imitate) and instrumental reason (an extrinsically formed capacity to produce universals which obscure the non-identical which mimesis discloses). As a consequence, a number of clearly incorrect claims find common currency. For example, the claim that art for Adorno is a “refuge for mimesis” as it is a refuge free of the influence of identity thinking.3 But this is not so—art for Adorno is rationalized through and through, and itself a species of identity thinking.4 If mimesis was incompatible with reason, it could find no refuge in art at all.

    In my view the bipartite reading is wrong. Adorno’s account is tripartite—mimesis, reason, and self-preservation serve as the motor of developments in instrumental reason, art, and society more broadly. Mimesis is not incompatible with reason, but self-preservation. Mimesis is only found in art because art is a sphere which (in Adorno’s time; increasingly not at all in ours) is free from the demands of self-preservation and the pursuit of profit.

    This reading is developed at length in my paper “Reason, Mimesis, and Self-Preservation in Adorno” in the Journal for the History of Philosophy. To compress the argument given there, mimesis is incompatible with self-preservation, and not reason (demonstrated by the fact that mimesis and reason were conjoined in “magical praxis”), as mimesis is not fundamentally an ability to imitate and make oneself like objects (in the sense in which art might use mimesis alone and become more complex through imitating philosophy). It is rather, fundamentally, an attempt to merge with objects in an undifferentiated and preconceptual way. This can be seen by Adorno’s identification of mimesis with Freud’s death drive5 and his (insufficiently acknowledged) lifting of Caillois’s own account, where mimesis is opposed to self-preservation, and indeed identified as a dangerous tendency towards merging and self-abandon, which produces nothing but a threat to one’s own survival. Caillois writes,

    [My account] simply suggests that alongside the instinct of self-preservation that somehow attracts beings towards life, there proves to be a very wide-spread instinct d’abandon [i.e., mimesis] attracting them towards a kind of diminished existence.6

    My reading of mimesis, I am sure, is not free from difficulties. As already conceded, it cannot maximally harmonize Adorno’s various uses of the term. (I do not believe that anyone can, including Adorno himself.) But it perhaps sheds light on why my reading in certain respects might appear odd—I do not draw conclusions about the role of mimesis in the ways offered, as I fundamentally disagree about the place and function of mimesis in Adorno’s own work. My reading is very far from incontestable. I offer it here only to shed light on why I fail to take up some of the argumentative moves which Kiloh rightly sees as neglected in the book.

    1. Carl Dahlhaus, “The Musical Work of Art as a Subject of Sociology,” in Schoenberg and the New Music, trans. Derrick Puffett and Alfred Clayton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 243.

    2. I lay these out in my “Reason, Mimesis, and Self-Preservation in Adorno,” Journal for the History of Philosophy 54.1 (2016) n8.

    3. See, for example, Zuidervaart, Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, 133.

    4. Adorno, GS, VII.430; Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 370.

    5. Adorno, GS, III.260; Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 189.

    6. Caillois, Edge of Surrealism, 102.

    • Kathy Kiloh

      Kathy Kiloh


      Mimesis and Truth

      Owen, thank you so much for the clarifications you provide. If I may, I would like to take up your response to my response in order to ask further questions regarding mimesis. I am wondering whether or not you agree that there is room to discuss the role of mimesis further than you do in Adorno’s Theory of Philosophical and Aesthetic Truth; if you avoid it for the sake of clarity there, or because you don’t see mimesis as important to Adorno’s theory of truth? If I understand the argument you present in your book and in your response to my reflections on the book, it is your contention that the concept of mimesis, due to its unruliness, should not, or perhaps cannot, be treated seriously within a philosophical investigation of Adorno’s epistemology.

      You argue that Adorno was “insufficiently disciplined” in his use of the concept — that it was “substantially constructed through bricolage” and I agree with this assessment. I would perhaps go even further and argue that the source materials (Mauss, Freud, Caillois) that Adorno drew on were themselves problematic, founded, as they were, upon dubious Victorian anthropological scholarship that argued for a ubiquitous ambivalence within so-called “primitive” mythic and linguistic structures. My insistence on staying with mimesis in Adorno and attempting to think through the conundrum of mimesis with him does not stem from an allegiance to a particular style of thinking or writing. Instead, I am suggesting that the development of mimesis in Adorno’s work is central to his understanding of truth and that if we shift our attention elsewhere, we miss something important in his understanding of knowledge production, domination and violence.

      Perhaps another entry point here is to ask the question: what is it about mimesis that so captivated Adorno? The fantasy of this originating ambivalence was a powerful force in early 20th-century European thought (not only Freud, Mauss and Caillois, but also, of course, Benjamin, Benveniste, Bataille, and Levi-Strauss based so much of their thinking on it); what is it, in particular, about this fantasy that matters to Adorno’s philosophy? What is so important for Adorno to convey that he has to resort to something so vague and ill-defined as mimesis in order to communicate it? If we agree that Adorno (in both the early work with Horkheimer and the later work, I presume) was “insufficicently disciplined” in his use of the concept of mimesis, then can we also agree that mimesis, due to this excess of meaning, is, in fact, not a concept at all, but rather, a cluster of concepts, perhaps a constellation of concepts under a name that functions more like a cipher than a proper name? And that, perhaps, it is the very excess of the concept of mimesis that is required by his philosophy?

      I, like you, do not hold with the bipartite reading of mimesis – that it is jettisoned from reason, and takes refuge only in art. I do agree with you that this means that we must understand art as a species of identity thinking. The work of art is a product of identity thinking, but it is a product of identity thinking that harbours the illusion of a resistance to identity thinking and the existence of that illusion within the work of art makes a difference that matters to the truth of the work of art. Mimesis, as a messy, non-precise umbrella term is necessary to Adorno’s philosophy, in part, because it communicates the ethical component of his epistemology. In down-playing the role mimesis plays in Adorno’s epistemology of philosophy and art, I fear that the ethical impulse motivating this fantasy of an originating ambivalence is driven beyond our grasp.

      I think we also agree that mimesis is “not incompatible with reason.” For me, this means that while we have to recognize art as rational through and through as a species of identity thinking, we also have to recognize that even identity thinking is reliant upon and incorporates mimesis. But mimesis within identity thinking operates in a potentially dangerous clandestine way because it is repressed. This is an aspect of Adorno’s thought that I do not see reflected in Adorno’s Theory of Philosophical and Aesthetic Truth. Here, I am thinking of the point raised by Henry Pickford in his original response to your book regarding substitution in identity thinking. The conformity of identity thinking with the exchange principle is dependent upon the ambivalence that Adorno indexes with the term mimesis (this ambivalence is key to the commodity form, if not the “primitive fetish” that Marx’s commodity theory is based upon). One unlike thing can only be substituted for another unlike thing because this ambivalence is also at play in the constitution of dialectical concepts as universal categories. My sense is that your account of the formation of dialectical concepts as a self-preserving response to the “cry of terror” elicited within the proto subject, while refreshingly clarifying, doesn’t account for the concept’s conformity to the exchange principle. If we don’t permit ourselves to think about why Adorno makes the appeal to mimesis that he does, then this ethical problem of substitution (couched in terms of mimesis for Adorno) doesn’t get taken up. I understand your explanation, in your response to my response, that mimesis is “incompatible with self-preservation” but I’m not sure that I understand how this justifies the absence of mimesis from your account.

      On my reading, Adorno uses the term mimesis strategically in Negative Dialectics and Aesthetic Theory and various essays on music and literature as a kind of cipher for the fuller experience of reason that is repressed and denied by identity thinking, yet still operative within it. If we refuse to engage with mimesis as a key term in Adorno’s philosophy on the grounds that it is too ill-thought-out to warrant our attention (and again, I’m not sure if this is the reason why you don’t take really it up in Adorno’s Theory of Philosophical and Aesthetic Truth – this is mere inference on my part), then we risk repeating the problem that Adorno himself diagnosed (positivist) philosophy with: the repression of “mimesis.” Perhaps, if we want to be more specific than Adorno himself is, we might speak instead of the repression of the more awkwardly phrased (and again, this is probably a hopelessly partial list of the qualities Adorno might associate with the term) “messy and diverse, affective and empathetic relation to that which is other” that permeates reason. I think any investigation of Adorno’s epistemology would have to take seriously the possibility that philosophy is impoverished by its repression of mimesis, because this repression prevents philosophy from producing any thing other than partial knowledge of itself.

    • Owen Hulatt

      Owen Hulatt



      Many thanks for your further reply, Kathy. I would not say that mimesis should not figure in a serious investigation of Adorno’s epistemology, though you are right that I am seriously concerned about the concept. We both have deep reservations about the term as Adorno employs it. I agree entirely with your claim that mimesis is effectively a cipher for a variety of concepts. Where we differ, perhaps, is in how to respond to this feature of the concept.

      But the first place for me to turn should be to the question you suggest – why is mimesis so important to Adorno?

      I take it that on your view mimesis functions as a kind of repository for a number of drives, concerns, and repressions which are generated by instrumental reason. In other words, instrumental reason presses experience and judgment within increasingly constrictive bounds, into which experience, judgment and ethical life do not in fact fit. Mimesis serves as a constant ‘return of the repressed’ – it is through mimesis that we find the possibility of the irruption of these suppressed experiences, impulses, and so forth. And it is just due to this function, also, that mimesis can be given a particularly ethical emphasis.

      Accordingly, it is not merely that mimesis is messy or undisciplined as a concept (although it is that). The actual phenomena excluded by instrumental reason are messy, sporadic, and not particularly amenable to being captured by a ‘disciplined’ or ahistorically fixed concept. ‘Mimesis’ functions as a short-form reference to these non-instrumental phenomena. As you rightly say, we could very well drop the term and instead speak of the repression of the “messy and diverse, affective and empathetic relation to that which is other”.

      So, if by mimesis we in fact mean ‘openness to the full texture of experience and to knowledge of all of the heteronomous mediators of reason’, then I agree entirely that is of crucial importance to the discussion of any feature of Adorno’s thought, and especially his account of truth. I do not hold myself to have neglected this feature of Adorno’s thought – his argument for the need and grounds of such openness – in my book. If we construe mimesis in the broad sense offered, I took myself to have placed it at the centre of my enquiry, while neglecting to call it by that name.

      I have, however, pursued it negatively. What the phenomena you mention have in common is that they elicit and are part of a ‘fuller experience of reason’. My book seeks to outline what the obstacles to such a fuller experience are, and what some of the central remaining means for eliciting it (through philosophy and art) might be. In this respect ‘mimesis’ is not neglected in the book, but perhaps the only thing the book is about.

      Which brings me back to your opening point – the fact that the term ‘mimesis’ covers a sprawling number of concepts and positions. If I read you right, you use ‘mimesis’ as a grouping concept, while conceding that everything which the term groups does not in fact fall into a natural kind. The core strength this gives, which my book lacks, is that it creates a clear means to flag up the limitations of reason, and to outline where and how repressed content can re-enter and problematize the content of reason. Using ‘mimesis’ in this way, it becomes entirely central to any discussion of Adorno’s work, as it names and picks out those non-identical phenomena which Adorno values most highly.

      Contrastingly, my response has been to prise apart the term from much of the variety of its uses – and so to refuse to call many of these phenomena ‘mimetic’. This is partly merely a terminological disagreement, but also partly a substantive one. The substantive point comes from the fact that Adorno takes mimesis to be a historical category, like reason itself. Its historical origins are in a dangerous imitative absorption which is not stably compatible with self-preservation. This is the core mimetic propensity of human organisms which Adorno takes to have undergone consistent development in and through consciousness. Are all of the ‘mimetic’ phenomena Adorno gestures to derivable from this genealogy, or even meaningfully connected to it? We would agree that they are not. I use mimesis in the book (and elsewhere) strictly to refer only to the genealogical core of the concept, and to exclude from the term the other valuable phenomena you refer to, as they cannot be meaningfully grounded in this imitative and assimilative function. I’ll call this ‘strict mimesis’ for economy.

      Strict mimesis is incompatible with self-preservation; and so emerges only where society relaxes the need for self-preservation (and these areas are rare – art is one of the few, and even this is in the process of being revoked, in Adorno’s view). Everywhere else, strict mimesis is prevented from having much purchase as a positive motor of the content of consciousness. This is why my claim that strict mimesis is incompatible with self-preservation is intended to explain why mimesis is seldom mentioned in the book. I whittle strict mimesis down to that which can be meaningfully connected to Adorno’s genealogy – and this core concept is not a hugely significant motive force in the generation of contemporary pathologies of reason.

      We agree that ‘mimesis’ as Adorno employs it is no single concept at all, and does not match many of the phenomena to which Adorno applies it. Motivated by this, I included these important phenomena in the book – if negatively, in tracing the obstacles they overcome – but refrained from using the term ‘mimesis’ to cover them. For example, I often talk about fidelity to the ‘texture of experience’ – a catch-all I hoped to use to include such messy relations to that which is other, and to that about ourselves which instrumental reason is blind to.

      It may be, nonetheless, that you still detect a lack of sufficient emphasis on these phenomena. It is certainly the case, for example, that ethical phenomena (which the broad use of the term mimesis is well suited to pick out) are not given primacy in my account of Adorno’s theory of truth. I largely confine myself to tracing conceptual problems. While I attempt to show that these conceptual and experiential problematics can generate ethical catastrophes, and derive their urgency from these consequences, my interpretation of Adorno does not begin in, or particularly end on, Adorno’s ethics as primary. I have been comfortable with this ‘truth-first’ rather than ‘ethics-first’ approach, but perhaps further problems might derive from it.

Andrew Bowie


On the Epistemological Frame

Owen Hulatt’s book addresses some of the thorniest issues in the understanding of Adorno’s work, and does so in a detailed, thoughtful manner, offering some new and intriguing ways of responding to those issues. As is inevitable with respect to such difficult and contentious material, there is much to disagree about, but my admittedly pretty critical comments should not be taken as seeking to diminish the value of what he has attempted to do.

One way of suggesting why I have some difficulties with the approach Hulatt adopts is apparent in his book’s title. It can be argued that Adorno does not intend “a theory” of anything: the very ambiguity of his title Aesthetic Theory, which means both theory about aesthetics, and theory which involves aesthetic aspects, suggests that the book need not be seen as Adorno’s “theory of aesthetics.” Hulatt is evidently aware of this issue; indeed, his own book is to some extent about it, but his manner of dealing with it seems somewhat problematic. Bluntly, I find the approach too “philosophical” in relation to a thinker whose work can be considered as a radical challenge to many ways of doing philosophy. If we construct Adorno’s “theory of philosophical and aesthetic truth” from texts which, as Hulatt shows, fail fully to construct such a theory themselves, we may be trying to make up for a perceived deficit which is actually an expression of something other than a failure to achieve a philosophical goal.

What worries me is apparent in the following issue. The book is centrally concerned with the idea that concepts in Adornian terms “originate in a basic desire to control and limit the phenomena we experience” (8), and that their “use was necessary due to our pragmatic commitment to self-preservation and the control of our environment” (27). Concepts are “held to be working in service of heteronomous, pragmatic projects (self-preservation and its derivative projects), rather than in service of an autonomous drive toward truth” (28). The notion of an “autonomous drive” already seems somewhat alien to how Adorno sees truth (though he does, as did Nietzsche, generally accept a semantic notion of truth in everyday contexts). There is also nothing to say that because concepts arise through pragmatic projects they cannot articulate things that are true (Adorno himself seems not to appreciate this at times). In these terms an Adornian theory of philosophical and aesthetic truth, which presumably must involve an attempt to arrive at the right conceptual characterisations, would itself seem to involve a performative contradiction, in seeking to “control and limit the phenomena we experience” in Adorno. Hulatt is aware of problems in Adorno’s ideas about concepts, and offers some ways of trying to counter them, but his own project may still be caught in the problematic he explores. The important point is that the contradictions involved here may actually be more informative than the attempt to overcome them. If Hulatt succeeds in constructing the theory his title proposes, he would seem to do so at the expense of ignoring an ineliminable part of Adorno’s unraveling of attempts to come up with systematic philosophical accounts of major issues in the manner of what he terms “idealism.”

The critical aim of Adorno’s view of concepts is to reveal how they repress the “non-identical,” the individual particularity of things that is supposedly lost when they are subsumed under a general term. The issue of the non-identical must also presumably apply to conceptions of Adorno’s own thought, which in this respect could be said to resist being made into “a theory.” Hulatt uses Kant, who sees concepts as rules for the identification of objects, thus as “contracted judgements” that subsume particulars under universals, and he tends to presuppose this kind of identification as being the essential aspect of the concept. But there are other ways of construing concepts that lead in different directions. In Hegelian terms the “Begriff,” which Hulatt briefly mentions in relation to the idea of textual performance discussed below, is constituted in a dynamic pattern of inferences that arise from the engagement with an object in a historical context. A thing’s determinacy arises out of its relations and interactions with other things, and with the subjects who seek to understand the thing. While a philosophical account of the Begriff like this may itself also be prey to the issue of concepts’ repression of the non-identical, because it seeks to delineate the essential nature of “the concept” itself, the actual process Hegel is talking about need not, because things can continue to be re-characterised as new relations of the thing to other things emerge. The history of the notion of a concept itself testifies to this: there is no stable concept of “concept,” as the move from Kant to Hegel can suggest. From another angle, Rorty’s characterisation of a concept as just the “regular use of a mark or noise” does contain the useful warning that we should not, as Adorno sometimes does, inflate the notion of a concept into something inherently involving the notion of repressive identification. The simple fact is that a sign can be used in a whole variety of ways which cannot be reduced to being mere means of self-preservation or control, depending upon the kind of symbolic form in which the sign occurs, and on where and how it is used.

Hulatt, in line with a prevalent tendency in contemporary philosophy, tends to see such issues in an essentially epistemological form. His account of Adorno’s view of reification reflects this: “Adorno . . . understands reification to be an epistemological tendency of the agent. Reification, for Adorno, is the propensity of the individual to accept concepts as exhaustively modeling their object. In other words, reification is for Adorno equivalent to what he calls ‘identity thinking’—the exclusion and forgetting of that which does not correspond to the concept” (62), and it “is more generally an epistemological flaw in the concept that entails a neglect of the true nature of the object” (63). The problem with this is that it seems an implausible account of the actual nature of how people relate to the world. Hulatt sees this in terms of agents who “model” objects in certain ways that exclude what does not “correspond to the concept,” but he gives no extended analysis of examples of this (the book as a whole suffers from a quite frequent lack of empirical back-up for its theoretical claims). This means it is sometimes even hard to see why non-identity need be a problem, given that any relationship to an object will be inherently partial, depending on what an agent seeks to do with it. Adorno himself says as much when he refers to a sense of non-identity, in which “every single object that is subsumed under a class also has determinations which are not contained in the definition of that class” (T. W. Adorno (1963–64), “Fragen der Dialektik,” unpublished lectures, Adorno Archiv, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 9053–54). He also suggests the case (he gives the example of freedom) where “it is . . . not only a question of the particular . . . being more than its concept . . . but also . . . the opposite, namely that the concept, the emphatic concept, is always more than the particular thing that is included under it” (ibid., 9054). How, then, is the notion of non-identity to be cashed out?

An obvious example where what is at issue with respect to non-identity would seem to have real substance is apparent in Marx’s theory of commodity. Here blindness to the exploitation-based provenance of the object one unthinkingly consumes seems precisely the kind of thing Adorno is referring to, and is an example anybody can concretely engage with to bring Adorno’s ideas into their responses to modern social life. Another example would be the subordination of nature to technological imperatives, leading to ecological crisis. Hulatt’s alternative (he rejects the Marx connection as not valid for Adorno) seems to me to derive in part from Adorno’s questionable attachment to Benjamin’s ideas about the “language of names,” the pre-lapsarian language which has an essential relation to what it designates. If one thinks, in contrast, in terms of the “as-structure of understanding” (Heidegger), in which there only ever is the object “as x,” rather than there being the object “x,” the whole notion of identifying “objects with their concepts” (63) becomes an untenable model of what happens in language, because there is no one way in which an object is identified by a concept. Seen this way, the Adorno presented by Hulatt seems to be basing claims about pathologies of the modern world on a questionable philosophical basis, which he too seldom relates to the kind of concrete historical phenomena that lead Adorno to his reflections.

One of the book’s main ideas is summarised as follows: “Art and philosophy share an identical, and demanding, task, namely, to undo the effects of delusive determination—to break through the self-preserving and reifying concept in order to make a form of experience possible in which the phenomenal object and its true mediation are made manifest” (76). Seeing art as having the potential to reveal things in ways that classifying conceptual determinations fail to, is evidently a vital consideration in considering modern pathologies of reason. However, excluding issues of reification and its relationship to commodification in favour of framing the issue epistemologically seems to repeat what I think is a basic misapprehension of the book, which frames too many issues in terms derived from the kind of contemporary epistemologically focused philosophy that Adorno’s work can put in question.

Adorno’s questioning of philosophy mean that, at his best, he draws on material from sociology, history, art, etc., in order to avoid prejudging issues by the adoption of a prior philosophical frame. Hulatt himself explicates a useful way of seeing how Adorno seeks to do this. He cites Adorno: “The crux is what happens in [thought], not a thesis or position—the texture [das Gewebe], not the deductive or inductive course of one-track minds” (87). I may be missing something here, but this idea seems hard to reconcile with the idea of constructing Adorno’s theory of philosophical and aesthetic truth from work which fails to provide such a theory. Hulatt explicates what he terms “performance” in Adorno’s thought: “The truth of the nonidentical is no longer identified with its textual expression. Rather, discursive expression (be it positive or negative) is necessary but not sufficient—it is only the material grounds for the agent’s performance” (103). The result is a sense that such truth has, as Adorno insists, a “temporal core,” illuminating a pressing social or other issue for a subject, even though, qua theoretical claim, it will turn out to be inadequate. In this sense, as Hulatt argues, theory therefore shares much with what happens in art, when it changes how we relate to an aspect of the world without this resulting in a final conceptual determination.

The challenge is to resist the objection that such an approach entails some kind of relativism, because it sees everything in terms of specific contexts, rather than seeking a decisive theoretical answer. The approach can be seen, though, as taking on board something bizarrely absent from so much analytical philosophy in particular, namely a meta-reflection on why that philosophy almost constitutively fails to achieve its notional goals. Theories are produced in great quantities in each domain of philosophy, which are frequently at odds with each other, and which may form the focus of philosophical attention before often quite abruptly disappearing off the radar, or being regarded as decisively refuted. Either this involves a nihilistic sense of the futility of philosophical inquiries, or one seeks to make what happens fit some kind of Hegelian story of the path to philosophical truth through refutation, or one seeks, as Adorno often does, to see how such theories and their failings are also sources of historical and social insight.

John Dewey put it like this: “The distinctive office, problems and subject-matter of philosophy grow out of stresses and strains in the community life in which a given form of philosophy arises, and . . . accordingly, its specific problems vary with the changes in human life that are always going on and that at times constitute a crisis and a turning point in human history.”1 In this sense Hulatt’s attention to “performance” in relation to texts does offer a way of making sense of what he terms Adorno’s “destructive phenomenology” (117), the practice of working through texts where the “performativity of the text derives from its performing, in its rhetorical ‘texture,’ the conceptual insufficiencies (antinomies, contradictions, and the like) that it refers to” (118). If these contradictions are construed in the manner Dewey suggests, conceptual insufficiencies can turn out to be a source of historical and philosophical insight, as Adorno’s readings of Kant show. There is, as Hulatt acknowledges, always a danger of reducing philosophy to sociology and history in such an approach (which Adorno’s approaches to Kant do not always avoid), but its validity resides in the degree to which it generates new illumination of issues that are obscured by dominant ways of thinking. There is no way that philosophy can set out criteria for this in advance, and, as Hulatt insists via Adorno, such illumination depends on “unreduced experience.”

Hulatt wants to take the formal and rhetorical construction of Adorno’s own published texts as enacting this kind of performativity, and parallels this with what happens in engagement with works of art. There is no space here to detail how he seeks to support this claim, but I think too much of what he says depends on the notion of agents as being possessors of concepts which necessarily falsify their object. This keeps the account still within an epistemological frame, and fails to deal with agents as expressive beings who make sense through a whole variety of symbolic forms and practices which cannot all be construed in conceptual terms, and so require a different critical apparatus if they are to be adequately evaluated. He also fails to consider the fact that essentially the same issues that are given a notionally “literary” form in Adorno’s published work appear in a more expository discursive, but also avowedly provisional form in Adorno’s lectures, and, frankly, often make a lot more sense as a consequence.2 Hulatt says that “Adorno quite rightly denies that dialectical philosophy, for example, has a method” (ND, 144–145/146) (218). His response is that “this might lead one to suspect that Adorno’s philosophy cannot be articulated in a settled fashion, and therefore any conspectus of the sort I offered is culpably programmatic” (ibid.). I’m not sure, however, how his defence of his conspectus squares with the following claim: “The philosophical critique of identity thinking hence can at no point be considered a settled matter, but must ever and again be reapplied to each emergent philosophical account or fresh domain of inquiry” (130). The tension between traditional aims of philosophy and the really radical critical aspects of Adorno’s work seems to me one of the reasons Adorno has come back into contemporary debate, but Hulatt’s stance sometimes fails to bring out what that tension reveals about how philosophy should be done.

With respect to art in Adorno’s thinking Hulatt claims: “The blind artistic processes of formation inadvertently constitute social critiques, just because the formal constitution of an aesthetic contradiction will, at the same time, bear socially germane meaning in the completed artwork for the recipient of the artwork” (178). A lot of Adorno’s claims about art tend to be predicated on something like this view, but the view is actually quite questionable. Adorno himself realised at the end of his life that without empirical support such views are problematic: “It is an open question, which can indeed only be answered empirically, whether, to what extent, in what dimensions the social implications revealed in musical content analysis are also grasped by the listeners.”3 I’m afraid I find Hulatt’s overall account of aesthetic truth overly abstract, and reliant on dense theoretical reflection on the basis of a limited number of basic concepts which—and this seems pretty problematic for something which is widely agreed to depend on its very particularity—rarely deals with actual works of art.

Towards the end of the book Hulatt does deal, at times very interestingly, with two major artists, Beethoven and Proust, but here there are also problems that result from the issues I have outlined above. Hulatt cites Adorno in a passage which backs up what he claims about how performance plays a dual role in philosophy and art: “Understanding specific artworks . . . requires an objective experiential reenactment from within in the same sense in which the interpretation of a musical work means its faithful performance” (cit. 186). When he deals with Adorno’s response to a specific artwork, Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 59 Number 1 in F, in the notes to the never completed Beethoven book, however, there is a paradigmatic illustration of why I find Hulatt’s approach to Adorno questionable. Adorno discusses an interpolated passage in D-flat in the slow movement that, in terms of the conventional construction of the sonata form in which it occurs, has no essential reason for being there. Hulatt considers this passage via Adorno’s reflection on how the convention of sonata form is “violated” because the transition from development to recapitulation is interrupted by the extraneous D-flat passage. Hulatt sees this as “simultaneously a refusal of the epistemic premise of a seamless unity of concept and object” (193).

Even apart from the fact that sonata form even before Beethoven, in Mozart and others, is rarely as straightforwardly unified as seems to be suggested here—in fact quite rigid use of sonata form is more characteristic of Romantic music, like some of Schubert—what is striking is that Hulatt’s analysis is solely concerned with the formal construction of the piece and how the passage disrupts that form, based on the idea of an “epistemic premise.” But Hulatt says nothing about the real reason Adorno talks about this passage, namely that it is one of the most magical and moving passages in all of classical music (or any music, for that matter). Hulatt seems to me to reify the music in order to make a philosophical point, so missing the way in which the sudden glimpse of another world that the passage offers makes a kind of sense that hardly anything else in modern culture does. At his best, in the Mahler book and passages in the Beethoven notes, for example, Adorno is able to present a philosophical vision which does not privilege itself over the art that he is responding to, and so approaches an enacting of philosophical and aesthetic truth that challenges many received approaches to philosophy. Despite his laudable and at times successful aim of connecting Adorno’s view of philosophy and art, Hulatt too often wants to bring Adorno back into a philosophical fold where, in my view, he does not really belong.

  1. Quoted in R. Bernstein, The Pragmatic Turn (Cambridge: Polity,
 2010), 220–21.

  2. See my Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy (Cambridge: Polity, 2013).

  3. Quoted in H.-J. Dahms, Positivismusstreit: die Auseinandersetzung der Frankfurter Schule mit dem logischen Positivismus, dem amerikanischen Pragmatismus, und dem kritischen Rationalismus (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1994), 252–53.

  • Owen Hulatt

    Owen Hulatt


    Response to Bowie

    Professor Andrew Bowie offers a large number of criticisms. They range from the fine-grained (the interesting corrective to my claims about sonata form, for example), the internal (concerns about certain interpretive moves I have made), and the external (concerns about whether Adorno’s claims, or my readings of them, are themselves true, or sufficiently grounded in empirical fact). I cannot in the space I have here available work through them all. What I would be keen to foreground is the dominant theme of Bowie’s response, which thematizes fundamental differences in our understanding of Adorno, or perhaps in the value we place on certain features of Adorno’s work. I think Bowie expresses very well a fairly widely subscribed view of Adorno’s work, and a concern about my treatment of it which I was aware that would arise. Bowie has written with care and charity about what he sees as the central problem with my way of working with Adorno’s thought, and pointed out many issues of finer detail which I agree with. But I would like to start by offering a robust rejection of the fundamental view that any attempt to seek a cogent position as underwriting Adorno’s work violates, and breaks with the spirit of, the core of Adorno’s philosophy. To a degree, I will here speak beyond Bowie’s own remarks to argue against a broader school of thought to which I believe they belong.

    Bowie takes the view that to attempt to collate, harmonize, or weave together Adorno’s various remarks on certain topics is to make them “too philosophical”; to render leaden and closed what is intended to be labile and mutable. If Adorno holds the nature of various objects and problems to be sociohistorically determined—or indeed, to be ultimately underwritten by the deeper problem of suffering in its concrete and particular expressions in time—then trying to settle what “Adorno’s view” is, is simply to miss the point. His dialectical method is that there is no method; only abandonment to the irreducibly particular demands of the objects with which that dialectic deals. And these objects will present a number of demands in being properly responded to, not all of which can be satisfied from within an orthodox philosophical mode of enquiry and argument.

    And all of this is right; once we accept Adorno’s position. From within Adorno’s position, we should not try to ahistorically determine the meaning of a given concept, or give a closed analysis of a social phenomenon. And from within Adorno’s position, the precise interrelation and interpenetration of epistemology, sociology, aesthetics, and so on, cannot be determined in advance of encountering and critiquing our object of enquiry.

    But my book is founded on the premise that I do not accept Adorno’s position; I question it. Bowie is right that Adorno is more than a philosopher; which means that he bears more than a philosopher’s burden. If Adorno is to be taken to be revealing deep falsities in our way of life, and his analyses show us “the wrong life” from which we must escape, it is absolutely crucial that Adorno can provide justification for these claims. They are not merely philosophical amusements, but condemnations of the very essence of our form of life. One level of justification is, again, from within the model; here Adorno can point to the “Gewebe” which carries its own justification, the rhetorically rich display which in some sense vouchsafes the truth of the analyses offered. And employing this kind of rhetorically rich self-certification would require a very different approach than that which I have employed in this book. But such a justification, by virtue of being internal to Adorno’s model, presupposes it.

    If Adorno is to do more than preach to the converted, he needs to provide a higher kind of justification; there need to be answers when someone throws the model into question. If dialectical thought always needs to be mutable, to seek out the non-identical, to find the connection between apparently unconnected domains, there had better be a reason why. And if parataxis is the best means of presenting the truth, there had better be a reason for that, also. And if we are not presupposing those reasons—and so cannot help ourselves to the rhetorical form or the incongruous juxtapositions of kinds of evidence which Adorno employs, and which those reasons would justify—we had better provide an argument in their favour, or at least a reconstruction which points towards one. It is in this sense that the book seeks Adorno’s “theory”; at the background or meta-level, in an attempt to riddle out the fundamental position which can provide reasons for seeing Adorno’s approach—which, as Bowie rightly emphasizes, breaks with traditional philosophical norms of evidence, argumentation, and so on—as not simply aberrant and incorrect, but driven by unorthodox and rationally justifiable choices. It is only this background picture which can serve to ground Adorno’s model; and this grounding has nothing to do with ahistorically fixing concepts, and everything to do with motivating and justifying the claim that concepts are historical itself, and showing that this claim can be satisfactorily argued and made cogent.

    Whenever Adorno’s model is discussed without a deep belief in that model already written in for free, there is no choice but to make it “too philosophical” from the perspective of someone already comfortably working from within it. This is because we here are engaged in the search for explanations and reasons which can legitimate features of Adorno’s philosophy which are all too vulnerable to the criticism that they are simply faulty. When Adorno claims that logical bivalence is derived from self-preservation,1 I could not fault anyone for reacting with incredulity. Shorn of its background position, the claim is less than weak, and fails to respect the internal logics and norms of evidence which govern the two domains which it connects. But an explication of Adorno’s model reduces, or at least clarifies, our incredulity; we see that Adorno has a principled position on the very wide conditions of possibility which underwrite abstract thought, and their sociohistorical sensitivity. Without the background model, the claim is specious; with it, it at least has the chance of passing muster. All of which is to say that Adorno’s claims are frequently incapable of having justificatory force in isolation; they require their background theoretic commitments. All of which makes noncircular justification of these background theoretic commitments (if possible—I have since come to doubt that it is fully possible in Adorno’s case)2 absolutely crucial.

    So I reject the broad complaint around which much of which Bowie’s objections are organized. Precisely because Adorno is an unorthodox philosopher, with more than a scholar’s obligations and commitments, he requires philosophically reconstructible, and (if possible) noncircular arguments in support of his fundamental claims about truth, about the nature of concepts, and about what counts as evidence and causal connections across domains. To seek these explanations of Adorno’s meta-theoretic framework is not to undermine Adorno’s unorthodox, sociohistorically sensitive approach to philosophy but to seek to make clear that it is an unorthodox, justifiable position, rather than a position which is merely confused, incorrect, and insufficiently clear on the meanings and boundaries of the conceptual, social, and historical problematics with which it deals. Adorno has no choice but to enter the “philosophical fold” if he desires to give arguments and not mere agitations; and there is little indication he hoped to leave it.

    This is the response I would offer against the broad complaint; but all the same, even this response requires us to be constantly vigilant in holding apart the background position, as I have termed it, and the concrete analyses which exemplify it. If too much of the latter is taken up by and worked into the justification of the former, this would amount to a liquidation of the features of Adorno’s philosophy which attract us to it when it is at its best—its lability, its refusal as far as possible to rely on dogmatic premises, and its consistently surprising and valuable capacity to find plausible connections between phenomena we would conventionally hold apart. Bowie is entirely right to be firm in seeking out and rejecting any part of my account which commits this error. I have no doubt that I may have lapsed in this task at points; but I see no error in taking up the task itself.

    Another main current of objection is the constriction of attention to epistemic matters. I am puzzled by the claim that viewing concepts as the products of “expressive beings who make sense through a whole variety of symbolic forms and practices which cannot all be construed in conceptual terms” could serve as a corrective. Perhaps what is meant is that the epistemological frame I employ overly privileges conceptuality, and “a different critical apparatus” is required. This could be so. One has reasons to doubt that Adorno might be well-placed to deliver such an apparatus, wedded as he is to the characteristic commitments and conceptualist quirks of post-Kantianism, broadly construed. In any event, it is difficult to see how such a reversion to “expressivity” and symbolic practice could eliminate the core problems of justification, which carry us once more into recognizably epistemological debates and concerns. Unless these meaning-bearing practices hold open meanings which admit of no interpretive disagreement, we enter again the epistemological business of justification—justification of why they should be interpreted in this way rather than that, and understood as hanging together, and determining each other, in a specific way. So while it is certainly possible that Adorno, or my reading of him, can be supplanted by alternative modes of interpretation, and conceptions of what stands to be interpreted, I see an epistemological framework as essential. This is, again, due to the high stakes in the business of our interpretation. If we seek to assert the existence of pathologies in our form of life, or find contradictions and harms hidden in phenomena which need to be riddled out by interpretation, this interpretive apparatus must be justified; otherwise, the very critical project itself proves incapable of providing motivating reasons to those it addresses.

    1. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 23.

    2. “Interpretation & Circularity—Justificatory Issues in Adorno’s Epistemology,” Constellations 22.3 (2015).

Surti Singh


March 22, 2018, 1:00 am