Traditional speculation devised the synthesis of the world’s manifold, which, on strict Kantian grounds, it imagines as chaotic; when all is said and done, it aspired to pull its every content from out its own insides. Compared to this, the proper telos of philosophy—objects open and naked—is every bit as anti-systematic as philosophy’s freedom in interpreting the phenomena with which it carries on an unarmed rivalry. But philosophy must remain mindful of system to the extent that whatever is heterogeneous to it confronts it as system. System is where the administered world is heading. It is negative objectivity and not the positive subject. At a moment in history when any system that means to be substantive gets banished to the ominous realm of thought-poetry, so that all that remains of system is the pallid outline of its classificatory schemes, it becomes hard to call vividly to mind what it was that drove the philosophical spirit towards system in the first place. Anyone reflecting on the history of philosophy should not let their own virtuous partisanship prevent them from recognizing how superior the various systems were, rationalist or idealist, preferable to all their competitors for more than two hundred years; compared to system, these others seem inconsequential. Systems get it done; they interpret the world. All those others ever do is declare that you can’t do that; they give up; they refuse and then they fail. If these ended up possessing a bigger portion of truth after all, then that merely demonstrates the impermanence of philosophy. It would fall to philosophy, at any rate, to wrest this truth from its subordinate position and to duke it out against the philosophies that call themselves higher, and not just because they’re snooty, especially since, even today, some people consider it a blot against materialism that it was invented in Abdera. After Nietzsche’s critique, system retained as its sole remaining feature a small-minded pedantry that tried to compensate for its political powerlessness by constructing, through concepts, an as it were administrative right to dispose over all beings. But the requirement of any system—not to make do with the membra disjecta or scattered pieces of knowledge, but rather to attain the absolute, whose claim is always asserted, involuntarily, in the binding quality of any particular judgment—this requirement was, at times, more than an act of pseudo-morphosis, shoehorning the mind into geometry or the scientific method, so successful as to be unopposable. In the history of philosophy, systems once had a compensatory purpose, especially in the seventeenth century. The same ratio that, in unison with the interests of the bourgeois class, smashed the feudal order and the scholastic ontology that was this order’s intellectual reflection—this same ratio immediately, when faced with the rubble of its own making, developed a fear of chaos. It still quakes in the face of whatever it is that persists menacingly as the underside of its own dominion, growing stronger in proportion to reason’s own power and violence. That fear shaped, at its very origins, a mode of acting that has been constitutive of bourgeois thought as a whole: Each step towards emancipation has to be neutralized, posthaste, by a strengthening of order. In the shadow of its own incomplete emancipation, bourgeois consciousness lives in constant fear that it will be sent packing by a more advanced alternative; it senses that, because its freedom is not complete, it begets only freedom’s travesty; hence the expansion, at the level of theory, of its autonomy into a system, which ends up resembling bourgeois society’s coercive mechanisms all over again. Bourgeois reason endeavored to produce from out of its own inner workings the order that it had already negated in the outside world. But this order is, because produced, no order at all—and so insatiable. It, the offspring of reason and humbug, is what one calls system: something posited playing the part of being-in-itself. Philosophical system had to locate its origins in the wrong place, in formal thought, thought at a remove from its own contents; that’s the only way it could exercise command over its materials. From the very beginning, philosophical system yielded antinomies. The approach undertaken by system was interwoven with its own impossibility; this latter condemned modern systems to a history in which each would be annihilated by its successor. The ratio, which, in order to prevail as system, wiped out virtually all of the qualitative determinations to which it referred, ended up in a position of irreconcilable contradiction to the object-world, against which it committed violence by purporting to comprehend it. The more completely ratio subordinated the object-world to its axioms, and ultimately to the axiom of identity, the further it drifted from objects. The pedantries of all systems, right up to the architectonic intricacies of Kant’s—and not excepting Hegel’s, its program notwithstanding—are marks of a failure determined a priori, one that is recorded, with incomparable honesty, by the breaks in the Kantian system; as early as Molière, pedantry had become, catechism-like, a chapter in the ontology of the bourgeois spirit. Whatever it is in the material one is trying to comprehend that shrinks back from identity with the concept forces the concept to put on some kind of over-the-top show, just so that no doubts arise about the ironclad gaplessness, the closed unity, the painstaking exactitude of the mind’s intellectual products. Grand philosophy was always accompanied by a paranoid zeal not to tolerate anything but itself, and to persecute this other thing with all the guile and art of its reason, while that thing backed away, further and further, from its persecution. The smallest remnant of non-identity would be enough to countermand identity, which, according to its concept, is total or not at all. The excrescences of system, the Cartesian pineal gland or the axioms and definitions of Spinoza, into which all of rationalism has been pumped in advance so that it can then be deductively extracted—these excrescences proclaim, via their untruth, the untruth of systems themselves—their madness.
ADORNO, NEGATIVE DIALEKTIK (1966), pp. 31-33