22. Content and Method

Bergson’s generation, including Simmel, Husserl, and Scheler, hankered in vain for a philosophy that, receptive to objects, would fill itself with content. The tradition came to desire the thing that it terminates. This does not, however, exempt one from a certain methodological consideration: What is the relationship between the individual analysis of some particular content and the theory of the dialectic? Unavailing is the idealistic, identitarian assertion that the latter is absorbed into the former. And yet the totality expressed by dialectical theory is contained in the individuum to be analyzed—objectively contained, and not only by dint of the knowing subject. The mediation of the two is itself a matter of content—mediation via the social totality. But this mediation is also formal, by virtue of the abstract lawfulness of the totality itself, the abstract lawfulness of exchange. Idealism, whose Absolute Spirit was distilled from this abstraction, at the same time encodes the truth that this mediation befalls the phenomena as a mechanism of coercion; this is what’s concealed behind [Husserl’s] so-called problem of constitution. Philosophical experience does not partake of the universal directly, without mediation, as a phenomenon, but only abstractly—to the same degree that the universal is objectively abstract. Philosophical experience is compelled to start from the particular, without forgetting what it knows but does not have. Its way is doubled, much like Heraclitus’: the way upwards and the way downwards. While it is assured of the real determination of phenomena via its concept, it cannot present the latter to itself ontologically, as something true in itself. The concept is fused with the untrue, with the repressive principle, and this diminishes even its epistemological dignity. The concept provides no positive telos in which knowledge could assuage itself. For its part, the negativity of the universal fastens knowledge upon the particular as that which needs rescuing. “True are only those thoughts that do not understand themselves.” [Adorno quoting himself.] In its indispensably universal elements, all philosophy, even philosophy that aims for freedom, lugs around unfreedom, an extension of societal constraint. Philosophy harbors compulsion and coercion; but these alone protect it from regressing into willfulness and caprice. Thinking is able to gain critical knowledge of the character of compulsion immanent to itself; its own compulsion is the medium of its liberation. The freedom to the object which in Hegel amounted to the disempowering of the subject, still has to be established. Until that happens, the dialectic as method will diverge from a dialectic of the thing. Concept and reality are of the same, contradictory essence. That which tears society into antagonistic parts—the principle of domination—is the same thing that in spiritualized form brings forth the difference between the concept and what the concept subordinates. But this difference acquires the logical form of contradiction, because each and every thing that does not fall into line with the unity of the dominating principle appears, by measure of that principle, not as something indifferently different to it, but as a violation of logic itself. On the other hand, the remainder—the leftover divergence between the philosophical conception and its execution—testifies somewhat to non-identity, which permits the method to neither absorb altogether the contents in which alone it shall exist nor allows the method to spiritualize those contents. The primacy of content expresses itself as the necessary insufficiency of method. What has to be spoken as method, in the form of universal reflection, in order not to stand defenseless before the philosophers’ philosophy, finds its legitimacy in its execution alone; method is once again negated thereby. Any surplus [of method] is, in view of content, abstract, false; Hegel already had to take in stride the inadequacy of the “Preface” to the Phenomenology it introduced. The philosophical ideal would be that by doing a thing one renders superfluous the account of what one is doing.


-Adorno’s title for this section is Inhaltlichkeit und Methode, where the word we’ve translated as “content” is actually a higher abstraction, something like “contentuality,” if that were a word. You might think of the title as “Method and the Matter of Content.”

-The “freedom to the object” is a concept that Adorno attributes to Hegel, even though Hegel apparently never uses the phrase. Adorno, at any rate, thinks of it as “the freedom of thought to lose and transform itself in its encounter” with the object.