Philosophical system, in which the sovereign mind entertains delusions of its majesty, has its earliest history in the pre-intellectual realm, that is, in the animal life of the species. Beasts of prey are hungry; pouncing on a victim is hard, often dangerous. If the animal is to risk it, it will require not just the standard impulses, but an auxiliary set, as well. These fuse together with the un-pleasure of hunger to become a kind of rage against the victim, the expression of which, in turn—and expediently enough—terrifies that victim and stuns it. Along the pathway to humanity, this gets rationalized by means of a projection. The rational animal who develops an appetite for his opponent has to, as happy owner of a super-ego, come up with a reason for attacking. The more completely his actions accord with the law of self-preservation, the less he is able to concede, to himself or others, its primacy; otherwise, the status of what the Germans now call the zoon politikon, achieved after so much effort, would come to seem implausible. Any creature marked out for eating had better be evil. This anthropological scheme has been sublimated all the way into epistemology. Idealism—and Fichte most emphatically—is governed unknowingly by an ideology which says that the not-I, l’autrui, anything, finally, that reminds one of nature, is worth almost nothing, so that the unity of the self-sustaining thought can devour it in good conscience. This vindicates the principle of thought and, equally, whets its appetite. Philosophical system is the belly turned mind, just as rage is the defining mark of idealism in all its forms; it disfigures even Kant’s humanity, confutes the nimbus of elevation and nobility with which Kant’s thinking has a way of investing itself. The view of the man in the center of the world is akin to contempt for humanity: to leave nothing uncontested or unchallenged. The sublime implacability of moral law was of the same cut as such rationalized rage against the non-identical, and even Hegel, liberally inclined, was no better, scolding, with the superiority of bad conscience, anything that rejects the speculative concept or hypostasis of the mind. What was so liberating about Nietzsche, who truly marked an about-face in the history of Western thought, a turn which later figures merely usurped, was that he spoke such mysteries out loud. The mind that breaks the spell of rationalization by dint of such stocktaking stops being the radical evil that, when rationalized, is the mind’s goad and trigger.
The process, however, by which philosophical systems began, thanks to their own insufficiency, to decay serves as counterpoint to a second, social process. Bourgeois ratio, in the form of the exchange principle, took all the things that it wanted to make commensurable, to identify, and, with increasing though potentially murderous success, managed in reality to bring them into line with the philosophical systems; it left less and less outside. The very thing that condemned itself as vain at the level of theory found ironic confirmation at the level of practice. That’s why everyone is talking about the crisis of the system, which is now an ideology in its own right, even the characters who, until recently and in allegiance to some already outdated ideal of system, couldn’t get enough of themselves and their own booming, barrel-chested resentment at the rise of the philosophical apercu. Reality is not to be construed any longer, because it could be construed all too thoroughly. Its irrationality, which intensifies under the pressure of a particular rationality—disintegration by way of integration—offers smokescreens enough. If one could see through society as a system closed and so unreconciled to its subjects, then it would become all too painful for those subjects, provided there are any left. Whatever it is the existentialists call angst is the claustrophobia of a society turned system. Its systematic character, which used to be a shibboleth of academic philosophy, is now studiously denied by that philosophy’s adepts. In the process, they have managed to free themselves with impunity as speakers, licensed now to play at primal and maybe even at unacademic thought. The critique of philosophical system has been abused, but is not thereby annulled. Any philosophy of urgency and emphasis—in contrast to skeptical philosophy, which disavowed emphasis of any kind—had in common the proposition that philosophy was possible only as a system. That idea crippled philosophy only slightly less than its empiricist tendencies did. Whatever it is that philosophy is called upon conclusively to judge—this just gets postulated before the philosophy in question even commences. System—the representational form of a totality that leaves nothing outside itself—makes thought, in the face of its every content, absolute and vaporizes content into thoughts: it becomes idealist before ever making the case for idealism.
ADORNO, NEGATIVE DIALEKTIK (1966), pp. 33-35