1. On the Possibility of Philosophy


 

Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that philosophy has only interpreted the world, that it is crippled, even in itself, because resigned to reality—this becomes the defeatism of reason once the changing of the world has gone awry. It affords no place from which theory as such could be concretely convicted of the anachronism it is suspected of, now as before. Perhaps the interpretation that predicted philosophy would be put into practice just couldn’t get the job done. The moment on which the critique of theory depended cannot be prolonged in theory. A practice that has been postponed indefinitely is no longer grounds for rejecting self-satisfied speculation; it is mostly a pretext used by the executive powers to stifle, as vain, the critical thought that a changing practice would require. Having broken its promise to be one with reality or on the cusp of realization, philosophy is obliged ruthlessly to criticize itself. Time was when, in the face of sensory appearance or any experience oriented to the outside world, it saw itself as the very principle of unnaïve thought; now it has become, in its own right, as naïve as the trifling dissertators described by Goethe a hundred and fifty years ago, who glutted their subjectivities on speculation. The introverted thought architect dwells on the dark side of a moon that the extroverted technicians have appropriated for their own uses. In the face of society’s massive expansion and the progress of scientific knowledge, the conceptual shells in which, according to philosophical custom, the totality is supposed to be housed begin to look like remnants of simple commodity production in the middle of late-industrial capitalism. The disparity between power and any kind of spirit—itself now degenerated into a commonplace—has become so vast that it makes futile any attempt, inspired by the concept of spirit itself, to understand the all-powerful or that which is beyond power. The will to such understanding bespeaks a claim to power refuted by the very thing it seeks to understand. The individual disciplines have forcibly back-constructed philosophy into an individual discipline; this is the most obvious expression of its historical fate. If Kant, in his own words, escaped from the school concept of philosophy into its world concept, then philosophy now has, under duress, reverted back to its school concept. When it mistakes this last for the world concept, its pretensions become ridiculous. Hegel, despite the doctrine of absolute spirit to which he ascribed philosophy, took philosophy to be nothing more than one aspect of reality, just one line of work in the overall division of labor—and with that, he compartmentalized philosophy. This compartmentalization, in the meantime, has turned into philosophy’s own dull-wittedness, the disproportion between it and reality, and all the more so the more it has ignored its compartmentalization, shrugging off, as something foreign to its purpose, any attempt to reflect on its own position in the totality that it monopolizes as its object, when the alternative would be to recognize how entirely it depends on that totality, right down to its internal composition, its immanent truth. To be worth another thought, philosophy will have to wash its hands of such naïveté. But philosophy’s critical self-reflection must not shrink from the highest points of its history. It is up to philosophy to ask whether, now that Hegel’s has fallen, philosophy is even possible any more and if so then how, just as Kant investigated the possibility of metaphysics once rationalism had been subjected to critique. If the Hegelian dialectic was the unparalleled attempt to show that philosophical concepts were up to the task of comprehending everything that was heterogeneous to such concepts, then, if his attempt has foundered, it is time to reckon what kind of relationship to the dialectic has come due.

THEODOR ADORNO, NEGATIVE DIALEKTIK (1966), pp. 15-16