14. Argument and Experience


The thought that is not allowed, outside of its dialectical implementation, to hypostatize anything into a positivity shoots past its object, with which it no longer pretends to be one; it becomes more independent than thought conceived of as absolute, in which sovereignty and submission are jumbled together, each internally dependent on the other. Perhaps this is what Kant was after when he exempted the intelligible sphere from immanence of any kind. Immersion into the individual thing—dialectical immanence pushed to its extreme—requires as one of its elements the freedom to step outside of the object, a freedom that the identity claim cuts short. Hegel would not have approved; he was banking on complete mediation in the objects. In the practice of knowledge, which is the teasing apart of the insoluble, the element of thought’s transcendence is visible in a certain discrepancy: that knowledge, as micrology, has only macrological devices at its disposal. To demand commitment without system is to demand thought models. These are of a more than monadological kind. The model fixes upon specificities—and upon more than specificities—without vaporizing them into some higher genus or master concept. To think philosophically is to think in models; negative dialectics is an ensemble of model analyses. Philosophy would debase itself all over again—lower itself to the status of some comforting affirmation—were it to deceive others and itself on one important point: Whatever it is that philosophy uses to set its objects in motion from within, it has no choice but to administer that thing in part from without, like a drug. Something lies waiting in the objects themselves, but it requires an intervention if it is to speak, on the understanding that the force mobilized from without, indeed any theory that is brought to bear upon phenomena, will winddown in them and go quiet. In this sense, too, philosophical theory pursues its own termination: by being realized. History is full of such intentions. Formally considered, the French Enlightenment derives from its master concept, that of reason, a certain systematic character; but this idea of reason is constitutively entangled with the idea of society’s objectively rational arrangement, depriving the system of the pathos that it regains only once reason, as an idea, has called off its realization and instead rendered itself absolute in the form of mind or spirit. Thought as encyclopedia—a rationally organized but nonetheless discontinuous thing, unsystematic and informal—gives expression to the self-critical spirit of reason. And that spirit of self-criticism represents something that will later drain away from it, as philosophy moves further and further away from practice and as it gets absorbed into the academic enterprise: namely, experience of the world, an eye for reality, which also has thought as one of its elements. The mind’s freedom is nothing else. Of course, one cannot do without thinking—whatever it is that scientistic philosophy regularly abuses: the concentrating of one’s person in meditation; or argument itself, which has attracted so much skepticism—any more than one can do without the element of the homme de lettres, which the ethos of petty bourgeois science now eagerly defames. Philosophy only ever had substance when these two elements joined together. From a moderate distance, one could characterize the dialectic as the effort, raised to self-consciousness, to make philosophy penetrate itself. Without it, specialized argument will degenerate into a technology, the province of experts stranded conceptless in the middle of the concept, much as it is propagated today by so-called analytic philosophy, which even robots could learn and copy. Immanent argumentation is legitimate when, in order to mobilize argument’s power against a reality that has been organized into a system, it plays host to that reality. Whatever is free in a thought, on the other hand, represents the agency that already knows all about the emphatic untruth of this context. Without this knowledge there could be no escape; but if it did not appropriate the violence of the system, the escape would fail. If the two aspects nonetheless fall short of fusing seamlessly together, then this is because of the real power of the system, which already incorporates anything that might surpass it. The untruth of the context disclosed by immanence, however, is also revealed to one’s overwhelming experience of a world that has organized itself so systematically that it might as well be rationality made real, Hegel’s very glory, even as that world, in its irrationality, perpetuates the powerlessness of the omnipotent-seeming mind. The immanent critique of idealism sets out to defend idealism to the extent that it shows how badly the latter is cheated out of itself; and shows, too, the complicity between what it takes to be foremost—always the mind or the spirit—and the blind supremacy of what merely exists. The doctrine of absolute spirit directly advances this complicity.

 

The consensus among scholars will tend to admit that even experience implies theory. But experience, so one hears, is a “standpoint,” at best a hypothesis. Scientism’s more conciliatory representatives demand that what they know as reputable science—science on the up and up—give an account of all such presuppositions. It is this very demand that is incompatible with the mind’s experience. If you demand of experience a standpoint, it would be that of an eater with regards to the roast. The one lives off the other by consuming it: only once the latter is submerged into the former do you have philosophy. Up to this point, theory in the realm of intellectual experience embodies the discipline that Goethe found so painful when considering Kant. If experience abandoned itself to its own dynamic and fortune, there would be no stopping it. Ideology lurks in the mind that, rejoicing in itself in the manner of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, irresistibly takes itself almost as absolute. Theory can prevent this. It rectifies the naïveté of the mind’s self-confidence, without however forcing it to relinquish its spontaneity, which theory in turn seeks to emulate. For on no account does the distinction between the object and the so-called subjectivity of the mind’s experience simply disappear; the necessary and painful exertions of the epistemological subject testify to the difference. In an unreconciled state, non-identity is experienced as something negative. The subject slinks away from it, back towards the comfort of itself and the plenitude of its own patterned reactions. Only critical self-reflection will safeguard it from the parochial narrowness of its plenitude and stop it from erecting a wall between itself and the object, taking its being-for-itself for the in-and-for-itself. The less one can assume the identity of subject and object, the more contradictory the boundless strength and broad-minded self-reflection that one expects from the subject as knower. Theory and the mind’s experience must mutually condition one another. Experience doesn’t hold all the answers; it reacts to a world that is false to its innermost core. Theory has no jurisdiction over anything that is to be removed out from under the false world’s spell. Mobility is one of consciousness’s essential features, not in the least incidental. The behavior it refers to is twofold: motion from the inside out, an immanent process, which is the authentically dialectical one; and also a free motion, unbound, as of one leaving dialectics behind. The two, however, aren’t only dissimilar. An unregulated thought enjoys an elective affinity with the dialectic, which, as critique of system, calls to mind everything that would lie outside of system; and the power that dialectical movement discharges in cognition is the power that revolts against the system. Consciousness’s two dispositions are intertwined via critique and not compromise.

THEODOR ADORNO, NEGATIVE DIALEKTIK (1966), pp. 39-42