This post is part of my ongoing blogging project called “Critical Theory Down to Earth.” In these posts I provide summaries of and brief reflections on writings throughout the wider critical theory landscape.
Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories
4. Noncontradictoriness Not To Be Hypostatized
What makes us so sure that objects conform to concepts? Even in the Kantian scheme, there is an assumption that our experience of objects will be of them as conforming to our conceptual capacities. One of the great challenges many have undertaken in Western philosophy has been to figure out how to close the divide between mind and matter; how to overcome Cartesian dualism. Well, maybe we have been going about this all the wrong way. Maybe concepts and objects don’t need to be re/unified.
Adorno says objects do not have to follow the rules of our thinking. Despite the fact that we cannot think past our own thoughts, we can think thoughts that recognize that our thoughts are limited by the rules of thinking, and that objects are not necessarily bound by the same parameters. Concepts must be concepts. Objects do not have to be concepts. Duh!
Consider the [Kantian] object: mutual dependence of thought and sense perception in the constitution of human experience. Neither thought nor sense perception comes first, because both require the other as prerequisite. However, both have to come first, since both require the other as prerequisite. This makes no sense when you look into it deeper like this. Yet, this is only an unsolvable riddle if we insist on assuming that logical rules of causation have to apply to this our object. If we abandon this idea that the object has to make sense within our ideas of logic and cause-effect, then we can live and let live. Two things can serve as mutual prerequisites, why not? There does not have to be a problem here. Or on another level, so what if this is paradoxical? It may be that objects are paradoxical, despite the conceptual angst this might inspire in us.
Is it really so wrong to be an irreconcilable contradiction? Hegel’s dialectic cannot rest at the level of paradox. Resolution is necessary and inevitable. So far so good, but things can easily turn sour when you are trying to fit a square object into a round concept. They do not fit, but somehow for Hegel they have to. And despite the narrative of reconciliation, Hegel’s need for resolution introduces the element of antagonism into the contradiction. You get a battle of forces that is in need of a ceasefire, but the ceasefire can only come on condition that the two armies compromise and merge together.
Adorno suggests this imperative for reconciliation be abandoned. In the Hegelian set-up, the demand for peace is the cause of war. Adorno says we should let differences be, and not assume they have to be mashed into a unity. Reconciliation is predicated on antagonism and the defeat of difference. If we drop the alleged need for unity, we can avoid the whole sordid drama.
Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.
Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford University Press.
Kant, I. (1998 ). Critique of pure reason. Cambridge University Press.