7. “Infinity”

The demystification of the concept is philosophy’s antidote. It prevents philosophy from running wild, from anointing itself the Absolute. The task is to refunctionalize one of the ideas that idealism has bequeathed to us, the idea that, more than any other, it ruined: the idea of the infinite. It is not up to philosophy, in the usual manner of science, to exhaust the phenomena, to reduce them to a bare minimum of propositions. On the contrary, philosophy wants literally to lose itself in everything that is heterogeneous to it, without bringing it back to ready-made categories. It would like to nestle in close to what it isn’t, the way that phenomenology’s program and Simmel’s wanted, in vain, to do. Its aim is undiminished kenosis, self-emptying. The content of philosophy can only be grasped when the latter does not impose itself. One will have to surrender the illusion that philosophy can capture the essence of something in the finitude of philosophical determinations. Perhaps the reason that the idealist philosophers bandied about the word “infinite” with such fatal ease was that they wanted to allay their nagging doubts about the stinting finitude of their conceptual apparatus, even, despite his best intentions, of Hegel’s. Traditional philosophy believes it can possess its object in infinite form, and that very belief renders philosophy finite, final. A transformed philosophy would have to do away with that claim, would have to stop trying to convince itself and others that infinity was at its command. Instead, philosophy would, unstrictly speaking, itself become infinite once it refrained from fixing itself in a corpus of countable theorems. It would find its content in the multiplicity of objects: a multiplicity not yet manhandled by some formula or model; objects that force themselves upon philosophy or that philosophy goes looking for. It would really and truly surrender itself to them, would not use them as a mirror in which to discern only its own features, mistaking its reflection for concretion. It would be nothing other than full and unreduced experience in the medium of conceptual reflection; even the “science of the experience of consciousness” reduced the contents of such experience to mere examples of its categories. What prompts philosophy to chance this straining towards its own infinity is the unconfirmed expectation that every individuum and particular that it deciphers will, like Leibniz’s monads, represent in itself the totality that is, as totality, always giving philosophy the slip; under a pre-established disharmony, of course, and not a harmony. The meta-critical turn against prima philosophia is a turn, as well, against the finitude of a philosophy that blusters on about infinity but never heeds it. Knowledge does not fully possess any of its objects. It should stop cooking up phantom totalities. In this sense, the philosophical interpretation of an artwork cannot set out to manufacture the identity of artwork and concept, using the concept to sap the artwork dry; it is via interpretation, however, that the work will unfold in its truth. The foreseeable opposite of this procedure—call it the orderly progression of abstraction; call it the application of concepts to the objects aggregated under and defined by them—might be useful as technology in the broadest sense of the term. But philosophy that doesn’t tow the line couldn’t care less about any of that. It can always go astray, which is the only reason it stands to gain anything. Skepticism and pragmatism, right down to Dewey’s utterly humane version of the latter, have admitted as much; the task, however, would be to serve as catalyst for something that is emphatically and urgently philosophy, and not to swear off philosophy in advance in favor of practical tests on thought. Against the tyranny of method, philosophy harbors, as a corrective, the moment of play, which a long history of philosophy-made-scientific has tried to purge. This was a sensitive point even for Hegel, who decries “types and distinctions that are determined by external accident and by play and not by reason.” The un-naïve thought knows that it is nowhere near the objects of thought, and yet must always talk as though it had full possession of them. This makes thought seem like tomfoolery. It is all the more important that thought not deny having foolish features, since foolery is its only hope of ever reaching those denied objects. Philosophy is the most serious of all endeavors, but it isn’t really all that serious. Anything that is geared towards something that a priori it is not and over which it has no documented authority belongs, by its very concept, to a wild and exuberant realm of just the kind that conceptuality outlaws. This is the only way that the concept can champion the cause of the very thing it has dislodged, which is mimesis—by giving itself over, in part, to mimesis, without losing itself in it. The aesthetic moment is to that extent not accidental to philosophy, though for reasons completely unlike the one that Schelling gives. And yet philosophy’s task is, all the same, to sublate that moment into wholly binding insights about what is real. That and play are its two poles. Philosophy’s affinity for art does not license the one to borrow from the other, least of all in the form of intuitions, which are what barbarians take to be the prerogative of art. Intuitions almost never come in isolation, like bolts from the blue, not even to the working artist. They are always intertwined with a given creation’s formal laws; if you tried to extract them as though with a knife, they would melt away. Nowhere in thought is there a spring whose freshness would spare thought from having to think. There is no form of knowledge just waiting to be used that is completely distinct from its user; it is this latter that intuitionism is trying to escape, in panic and to no avail. A philosophy that tried to mimic art, that wished it could mutate spontaneously into art, would cancel itself out. It would postulate the identity claim, convinced that it can entirely absorb its object, thereby granting a primacy to its own procedures, to which a priori everything heterogeneous would, as material, have to conform, when in fact that relationship to the heterogeneous is philosophy’s very theme or topic. Art and philosophy find their common term not in a shared form or figurative process, but in a mode of conduct that forbids pseudomorphosis. They each stay true to their contents by means of an opposition or antithesis: art, by remaining aloof from its own meanings; philosophy, by not clinging to immediacy. The philosophical concept never abandons the longing that, in its conceptless form, animates art; this desire can only be fulfilled if it flees the latter’s sham immediacy. The concept, which is at once the organon of thought and the wall that separates thought from what it has to think, negates this longing. Philosophy can neither avoid this negation nor yield to it. It must make the constant effort to get past the concept by means of the concept.

ADORNO, NEGATIVE DIALEKTIK (1966), pp. 24-27