4. The Interest of Philosophy

At this historical moment, philosophy’s true interest lies with those things in which Hegel professed to be least interested: with the concept-less, the individual, and the particular; with everything that has, since Plato, been written off as ephemeral and insignificant and which Hegel festooned with the label of “lazy existence.” Its theme would be the very qualities it deems contingent and thus downgrades to the status of quantité négligeable. The concept takes as it most pressing business everything it cannot reach, everything that its mechanism of abstraction must banish, everything that is not itself already an instance of the concept. Bergson and Husserl, the standard-bearers of philosophical modernity, gave this endeavor its initial stimulus, but then withdrew into traditional metaphysics. Bergson created, by sheer force, a new kind of cognition on behalf of the non-conceptual. The salt of dialectics gets washed away in the undifferentiated flow of life. Everything thinglike and fixed is written off as logically subaltern instead of being comprehended, logical subalternity and all. Hatred for the rigidly general concept licenses a cult of irrational immediacy, of sovereign freedom smack in the middle of the unfree. Bergson took up cudgels against Descartes and Kant, but he pitches his two modes of cognition against one another as dualistically as their doctrines ever did; causal-mechanical cognition remains, as practical knowledge, undisturbed by intuitive cognition, just as the bourgeois establishment has nothing to fear from the lowered inhibitions and frank speech of those who owe their privilege to the establishment itself. The celebrated intuitions in Bergson’s philosophy are themselves utterly abstract; they hardly extend beyond the phenomenal consciousness of time, which even in Kant is at the root of chronological-physical time, in Bergson of spatial time. No doubt the mind’s intuitive behavior continues to exist in fact, although in a manner hard to develop—the vestige of mimetic ways of reacting to the world. Its earlier forms promise something beyond the hardened present day. But intuitions hit their mark at best haphazardly. All cognition, even Bergson’s own, requires the rationality he so scorns, precisely if it is meant to make itself concrete. Durée elevated to an absolute, sheer becoming, the actus purus—these would all boomerang into the very timelessness with which Bergson taxes all metaphysics since Plato and Aristotle. It did not trouble him that the very thing for which he was groping, if it is not to remain a mirage, only comes into one’s sights via the instruments of cognition, via cognition’s reflection on its own means, and is reduced to something arbitrary in any procedure that is not mediated from the start by the procedures of cognition.

The logician Husserl, by contrast, offered a way of getting to know essences and wielded it like a sharp point against generalizing abstraction. He had in mind a specific intellectual experience supposedly able to isolate the essence from out of a mass of particulars. And yet the only essence this experience was good for turned out to be no different from the ordinary run of generalized concepts. There is a gross discrepancy between the public demonstrations of the Wesenschau and its endpoint. Neither of these attempted escapes managed to break free from idealism: Bergson was oriented, no less that his archenemies, the positivists, to the donées immédiates de la conscience, as Husserl was to phenomena in the stream of consciousness. They each hunker down in the circle of subjective immanence. It is a matter of insisting, against them, on what they try to think and cannot; and of saying, against Wittgenstein, what cannot be said. The simple contradiction contained in this demand is the contradiction of philosophy itself; this is what qualifies philosophy as dialectics, well before it gets entangled in any of its particular contradictions. The task of philosophical self-reflection is to tease apart this paradox. Everything else is signification, back construction, pre-philosophical, now no less than in Hegel’s day. That philosophy will pull it off after all; that the concept will transcend the concept, that it will get beyond all the preparations and blocked passages, and thereby succeed in reaching the concept-less—philosophy cannot do without this ever questionable confidence, which is thus part of the naïveté from which it suffers. Otherwise, all that’s left for it, and all mind alongside it, is to capitulate. Not even the simplest operation could be thought, no truth would exist, everything would emphatically be nothing. But whatever one encounters by way of truth, via concepts but outside the circumference of their abstraction, can only appear on the scene of everything that concepts suppress, ignore, and discard. The utopia of cognition would be to use concepts to unlock the conceptless, without reducing the one to the other.

THEODOR ADORNO, NEGATIVE DIALEKTIK (1966), pp. 20-21